Thursday, January 28, 2016


People-watching is a habit I picked up from my mom. There are so many fascinating people to observe when you're out and about. Oxford, with it's strong international draw and many public areas where people converse, is a perfect place to sit back and enjoy the glimpses of individual lives available to anyone who pays attention. Here are snippets of the things I have observed since being here.

~ ~ ~ 

In a restaurant today, I was seated next to two women visiting over lunch. One was probably in her early 50s, the other in her late 20s. The bits and pieces I caught of their conversation intrigued me. Unfortunately I couldn’t catch enough to get the gist of what they were talking about. This was not due to the usual downfall of experienced eavesdroppers (background noise), but rather to the fact that these women slipped seamlessly between British English and another language in their discussion, starting sentences in one language that finished in another. It was fascinating. I was disappointed not to be able to place the language. It was definitely a Romance language, but just as definitely not French, and I don’t think it was Spanish. Italian, maybe? But even that doesn’t seem to quite fit. I suppose it shall always be a mystery.

~ ~ ~ 

Now I’m sitting in CafĂ© Nero on the first floor of Blackwell’s bookstore. Blackwell's is the iconic Oxford bookstore, and at Cafe Nero you can buy a pot of tea for two pounds and eek three cups out of it (granted, the third cup is pretty milky). I’m supposed to be studying but am instead distracting myself by people watching. At a table for two conveniently within my range of vision is a bald, portly, short gentleman in a suit who reminds me strongly of Hercule Poirot. He even has a moustache, though it is grey and well trimmed, in contrast to the handlebar moustache which is the pride of Poirot’s existence. And the wedding-ring belies my pleasing fiction that I am sitting three paces from a modern-day bachelor who has dedicated his life to solving mysteries. Modern Poirot is sipping his coffee and studying his computer intently, with a briefcase at his feet.

~ ~ ~

A piece of conversation overheard between two female students:

"I'm twenty-two now. That gives me a year to get married, and two before I'm have a baby and an apartment . . . Sorry, too much sharing."

~ ~ ~

And, my favorite, a snippet of a phone call overheard on the bus. The speaker was a man in his early 30s with a grocery bag full of raw chicken at his feet. His nametag indicated that he is one of the many tour guides who make their living in Oxford. Though this has nothing to do with tour groups:

"Would you . . . would you think less of me if I covered the kitchen with sacks and bought a bunch of live crabs?"

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Libraries

Ah, the libraries.

Since 1607, Oxford's famed Bodleian Library has had a legal right to one copy of every book published in the UK. When Jamestown was founded, Oxford University had been around for several hundred years and it was establishing the library that would become the 2nd largest in the UK. (The British Library in London is bigger.) It just recently logged its 12 millionth volume.

And get this: the Bodleian Library is not just one building. It's a library system with buildings throughout the city. Each faculty in the University (faculty is British for department) has a library, each college has a library, and there is even a huge, brand-spanking-new storage facility in a town forty miles away to store excess books.

The round building in this photo is the Radcliffe Camera, a building in the center of the city that houses many of the Bodleian's books. It is linked by an underground tunnel (a two-story tunnel storing many rolling shelves full of books, mind you) to the Old Bodleian Library, a huge square building with a courtyard in the middle. The Old Bodleian still has one room filled with books from the monastic era - books that are still chained to the walls. 

Each library building has at least one reading room. The English Department, regrettably, is an unattractive modern building whose reading room is perfectly nice, but nothing to rave about. The Radcliffe Camera and Old Bodleian, on the other hand, have august reading rooms that seem almost sacred. The first time I walked into those buildings I felt like an intruder who had no right to be there. Though now that I've been working in them and actually have books to find and read for my tutorials I feel quite legitimate. 

Navigating the library system takes some getting used to. Books owned by the Bodleian proper (those stored in the Rad Cam, the Bodley, and the Gladstone Link) cannot be checked out, which means every student spends an inordinate amount of time in the reading rooms. Faculty books can be checked out, which is convenient, but most sources are still found in the main Bodleian. Some of these are on the open shelves, so you find your call number through the search engine SOLO, go pull the book off the shelves, take it to your desk, and start reading. Many, however, are in the "closed stacks" -stored in the aforementioned storage facility forty miles away. To access these, you have to order them online and specify which reading room you want them delivered to. Generally about two hours later, an email will arrive in your inbox stating that your order has arrived. 

It's a book-lover's paradise. Though in some ways, it's maddening to know that I have access to all the books I ever wanted to read on subjects from the art of perfumery to miles of classics to even books of German poetry. And, of course, I barely even have time to read the books I need to read for my tutorials, much less extracurricular sampling. But still. It's amazing. 

{the upper reading room in the Radcliffe Camera}

Sunday, January 17, 2016

London. . .and musings on home

My first trip to London was nine years ago. I was captivated by the art galleries, the museums, the history, literary references, musicals. We went to a magical production of Mary Poppins and bought the recording. Every time I listen to it I am reminded of traveling with my family, and especially of London.

It's been just over four years since I was there, yet when I went with a group on Saturday I felt as if I had been there yesterday. I stayed with the tour group for the first half of the day, wandering around aristocratic London, through several parks, and past Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and 10 Downing Street on our way to Trafalgar Square. That's where I split from the group - only 45 minutes were allotted for the National Gallery of Art. There was no way I could see what I wanted to in that time. So I ate my packed lunch of oatcakes and cheese on the steps of the National Gallery overlooking the business of Trafalgar Square, and then walked into the Gallery.

{by Ucello}


{Hendrick Averkamp}

~ ~ ~

I have this weird complex when it comes to what "home" means. Home is where my family is, where the fellowship of believers are, wherever I lay my head down at night for more than two nights. "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in" (shoutout to Robert Frost). Ultimately, my home is in heaven with Jesus, and as long as I am with Jesus anywhere in this world can be home. But while it is amazing that home can be anywhere, it is also really confusing when I try to associate myself with a particular place or group of people. (My answer always varies when people ask me where I'm from.)

As confusing as it is, there are certain things that always make me feel deeply at home, in a way that's hard to describe. One of them is the stars, especially Orion and the Pleiades. I'm not sure why, but I've always loved those constellations, and when I see them I always feel home, somewhat like Lucy when she sees her beloved Narnian stars again in Prince Caspian.

Another is returning to places which I strongly associate with my family. Even though it makes me homesick to be there without my family, I generally feel very comfortable in those places. These are widely cast across Europe and the States, since we've traveled so much.

The other one that is most prominent in my mind right now (and which got me on this tangent in the first place) is art, specifically paintings. When I walked into the National Gallery and wandered its rooms, I found paintings that I had forgotten were there but which I love dearly. They remind me of my childhood, of traipsing through big cities with Rick Steves' backpacks trying to see everything we could, eating packed lunches of hardboiled eggs and cheese or popping into cafes for tea and scones in London or croissants in Paris. Like the stars, these paintings have been constant in my life. Maybe that's what brings a sense of home - a feeling of constancy and continuity in the midst of change.

~ ~ ~

I rejoined the group later in the day for choral Evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral. This was one new thing in the day for me - I'd never been inside the cathedral. It's stunningly beautiful, rightly considered Christopher Wren's magnum opus. The Evensong was breathtaking, a service of worship sung by a boys' choir. It was a fitting ending for a marvelous day.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

"Welcome to Oxford: This is a chance to trust."

On Monday we had our first introduction to Oxford as an academic institution. It was overwhelming, but also exhilarating. I am so amazed that I get to be here, and, more than that, immensely grateful that I am here with at Christian program.

{this is me being elated to be here}
The staff ("faculty" here means "department") of the program - it's through SCIO, Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford - are absolutely marvelous.

Dr. Stan Rosenberg is the leader of SCIO. He's American, but has lived in Oxford for seventeen years. What he told us could have been demoralizing, but was actually very encouraging.

Several years ago, one of the students at SCIO started a Facebook page called "Oxford: where your best isn't good enough since 1200 AD." That's an accurate statement. Your best isn't good enough here, but that doesn't have to be a negative thing.

Your best isn't good enough because there is always more to learn.

This is a challenging lesson to learn, since nobody likes to hear that they will never measure up, least of all students who made it to Oxford. But it's true. And, if received with the right attitude, this can be freeing. It frees me to be humble and learn to enjoy it, instead of building up my pride to try for unattainable perfection. It also means that there is no necessary plateau to hit in learning: there are always more fascinating things to explore. 

According to Dr. Rosenberg, Oxford is a place to test our limits, to stretch ourselves by asking new questions and be ok if we can't immediately find answers. He says: "Doubt isn't an enemy. It's an opportunity, a place to ask questions, to grow, and to trust God. Doubt is the moment where trust happens. So welcome to Oxford: this is a chance to trust. Be humble and confident." 

Dr. Elizabeth Baigent is the academic leader of the program. She's a delightful British woman who came here as an undergrad in 1979 and hasn't left since. She's erudite and crisp and witty and clearly is in her element in the world of Oxford. Amidst much useful information sprinkled with choice wit, here are two quotes I just had to write down. 

"90% of what the Brits say is ironic." {said very ironically, of course}

"Obviously tea is essential to make any decisions in Oxford."

{Incidentally, the British love of tea is not a generalization or exaggeration. It's a very integral part of life here, which makes me quite happy.}

Simon Lancaster is an Australian who basically runs the student life part of the program. He's very winsome and fun. An expression I've heard him use several times is "Crikey!" He's a cellist, accredited counselor, and student here at the grad school. His wife, incidentally, is also a cellist and recorded the Avengers 2 soundtrack. 

Simon quotes:

"We are the salt of the earth. Salt preserves meat - the culture - but must be ground into the meat to do so."

"Without spiritual nourishment, you lose spiritual weight."

"I fall off quite a lot." {referring to his bicycle}

{Yay selfies. But sometimes there aren't other options. These are two of my roommates, Paige and Katherine.}

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Vines

This is The Vines, a house built in 1889 by  Howard Vines, a professor of botany. The program I'm with in Oxford bought and renovated it to use as a dorm. Forty students live here, from colleges all over the US. Besides bedrooms, there are laundry facilities, an IT room, and a kitchen and breakfast room. 

There's also a large common room with one wall of built-in bookshelves filled with books (several complete sets of Narnia, several complete works of Shakespeare, travel books, philosophy, poetry, six copies of Jane Eyre, and other miscellaneous well-chosen volumes). The common room also has an electric piano, which I am elated about. I even threw a few books of music into my luggage, since I found out about the piano just before I left home. 

This is one of the first photos I took of my room when I got here on Friday morning. It's quite spacious, and even with three roommates I have plenty of room to myself. I especially appreciate that I ended up on a top bunk, so I can work on my bed, which I really appreciate. 

My roommates are all English majors - two lit and one writing. It looks like we will get along well, and I'm already anticipating spending a lot of time with Katherine (whom I keep wanting to call Elizabeth, for some reason) and Paige. Katherine and I have a mutual friend at Wheaton, and Paige shares my love of the Inklings (as do many students here). The program encourages the students to form food groups to share meal-cooking duties, and Katherine and Paige and I joined one with a few of other girls.

I'm really looking forward to becoming part of the community here. Already I've had a few good discussions. It seems that the students in the SCIO program come from much more diverse religious backgrounds (though all profess Christ) than those at Wheaton. I'm glad of that, because it means I will be exposed to other branches of Christianity and be able to engage with ideas in new ways. 

{The three windows on the top right are my bedroom windows.}

Because the Vines is about a forty minutes' walk from the city center, all the students received bikes yesterday, which cuts the commute to ten minutes. I ventured to church on my bike, which I am already quite enjoying, and managed to stay on the left side of the road, not get hit by a car, and not get {too} lost. I considered that a very successful first outing.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Sneak Peeks

I have been in England for just over 24 hours and have so much to describe and talk about that I don't even really know where to start. So since my jet lagged brain does not want to organize itself, here are just a few of the photos I've taken while here. I'm hoping to have a few more cohesive posts up in the next week as things get up and rolling. 

I took the bus from the airport to Oxford. This is the bus in front of us. You probably can't read it, because photos taken from a moving bus of a moving bus are blurry, but the ad says "Cheltenham to Chicago," which just made me happy.

On the plane I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and on the bus I listened to The Fellowship of the Ring audiobook. I felt very nerdy and tickled pink. I'm so happy to be reading Narnia again (for "homework").

{Storefronts in Oxford.}

There are blossoms on the trees in Oxford. Evidently the weather in England is confused. But apparently the winters here are pretty mild and flowers will start coming soon. It's also ridiculously lush and green, which is a benefit of all the rain. 

There's a farmers' market in Headington (the village right outside of Oxford where I live) every Saturday. I will definitely be buying produce here.

I went exploring this morning and popped into several grocery stores. Not only is there lots of tea (no surprise), but I absolutely love the packaging. I didn't buy tea, but I did buy several other things and successfully navigated the self-check-out without needing help, even though the change is still confusing. I was very proud of myself. 

This is the Headington shark. According to one of the returning students, it made quite a to-do when the homeowner put it up awhile ago. The city tried to make him take it down, but they couldn't. The shark is here to stay. 

This is a house just down the lane from where I live. 

I have a post about the Vines, where I live, in the works. Now I'm off to complete some odds and ends before our bike safety orientation. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

an update

I am about to hop across the pond and spend a semester in Oxford.

I plan to study hard, soak up being in England (though hopefully not literally thanks to the heavy-duty raincoat I bought myself), explore bookshops and libraries and nooks and crannies around town, attend choral Vespers services, pop into London, and generally enjoy myself while being challenged with the hardest academic environment I've faced yet.

Naturally, I'm thrilled. My bags are (mostly) packed, my passport ready, and my personal-sized study Bible arrived in the mail so I don't have to lug my gigantic hardback ESV tome with me.

I hope to blog more regularly during my semester abroad, so that all my wonderful people in the New World can keep up with my doings. Consequently, the tenor of the blog will shift somewhat to be more adventures and photos focused. Do leave comments if you particularly like something you see.

City of dreaming spires, here I come.