Saturday, May 20, 2006

First Blogging from Oxford

Well, it has been an amazing few days. I arrived on Wednesday morning very early where Dr. Sheppy picked me up from Heathrow. I was immediately plunged into a culture that on the surface seemed familiar, but in many ways is as foreign as anyplace else in the world I could go. Driving on the opposite side of the road, road signs that I don't understand; electrical outlets and an approach to electronics in general that is quite different are all things I have had to adapt to very quickly.

Dr. Sheppy graciously brought me to his home in Reading where I could freshen up and change clothes after my overnight flight. After a brief tour of Reading (saw the prison where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for "buggery" in the 19th c.) We made for Oxford. Arrived at Regent's Park College after driving through Oxford. A quick trip through the office to collect keys and access cards to get into and out of the College and my room and I had arrived. The doors all have access codes to get in and out of…security has been a problem here at Regent's Park occasionally.

So many things and subtle customs to learn. Mealtimes are quite precise and in college at least, not to be lingered over. The food is not very good, but hot and there is lots of it. I have been admitted to the Middle Common Room, really both a place and an idea…the place is a nice lounge in the basement where graduate students gather for socializing, coffee and computer access. Also, being a member of the MCR conveys status in the community. The Junior Common Room (JCR) is the gathering room for the undergraduates; it is their social organization as well. The Senior Common Room is to be entered only on invitation of a fellow of the College (a member of the faculty or senior administrative staff). Members of the MCR are invited to coffee following Formal Hall on Fridays.

Formal Hall (think dinner at Hogwarts!) The Fellows and guests sit at High Table (I was invited to do so this week). Students wear academic robes that distinguish their status. Undergraduates can be commoners or scholars (the scholars robe is longer). Graduate student robes are different again, and the Fellows robes are different again depending on rank and degree; absolutely fascinating for someone who follows this stuff (like me!). Noone sits to eat until the Principal (think Dean) of the College says grace, noone eats until he has been served and picks up his silverwear, and noone leaves until dismissed by the Principal unless it is dire, and then there is a protocol for departure.

I've walked around Oxford a bit since arriving, but I can’t quite access anything except the tourist venues because I haven't got my University ID card yet Once that arrives, hopefully on Monday, I'll be able to bypass the tourist lines outside of the big famous Colleges (Christ Church, Merton, New, Balliol) and be able to visit chapels and libraries. The Bodleian is amazing. The upper library (the one above ground) is ancient and impressive, but more impressive is the seven stories of subterranean stacks that only the "Bod Trolls" access; librarians who rarely see the sun. Apparently there is a very low turn-over rate because the pay is so good because the conditions are so challenging.

Everything is so ancient. There is a church in the center of town (St. Giles) that has a tower built in 1040; yes, that is 26 years before the Battle of Hastings and the signing of the Magna Carta that established England as a nation. Oxford scholars think there were university students here as early as the 14th c.; refugees from the University of Paris who could not return because of some war or another. Everything has a historical marker on it and I have to really resist the temptation to read every single sign marker as I walk down the street; I'd never get anywhere!

People have been so friendly. I'm sitting just now at the Lamb & Flag, a pub owned by St. John's College and a very lovely young woman named Mel introduced herself. Apparently it is unusual to be sitting at the bar working on your laptop. Jim, the head Steward at the dining hall at Regent's Park has been very friendly. Two men I met at the Eagle & Child the other night could tell that I was travel weary and new to Oxford. They apparently run the Oxford Brewer's Festival and were very happy to introduce me to local Oxford beer and tell me about some of the other pubs I must visit while I am here. Interesting to note; the Eagle & Child is the pub that a group called "The Inklings" met at from the 1920s into the 1960s on Tuesday mornings, to discuss their latest writing projects. Its been a pub since the late 17th c. so has some history to it. Anyway, Two members of the Inklings group were JRR Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. I've sat at their table.

More later. I've met some excellent students, some Americans, and already had some great times that I will not soon forget. I'll have some pictures in a few days too. I've only just found a converter that will work with the charger for the battery for my camera so I haven't taken any pictures yet.


Tim Kelly said...

Jim it sounds like you're having a great time. I've never been over to Europe, much less to visit Oxford so I'm ver jealous. Take care and enjoy!

Jim Olson said...

Thanks Tim! Hope you get to come to Europe some time during your college days. BU has a London program and an Oxford program too you should check doesn't cost you any more tuition or room & board to do a semster abroad, just some travel and it can be a little more expensive for food and tourist things.