Gateways

Friday. It rained on and off, mercifully mostly off, but the skies were gray (or is it grey?) for much of the morning. Wadham’s very own 24/7 library is a dream, full of natural light streaming in from every available corner, catching the rare English sunlight whenever it can. The librarians are sweethearts; frizzy-haired rail-thin woman and shy, little-eye-contact man. Very helpful in finding the two required books for essay, due Wednesday, Tuesday night for better feedback and fuller discussion.
Errands at Boswells, a department store full of all things, as well as student discount acquired. Successful journey. Bank account, however, still unopened. Monday, perhaps? Here’s hoping.
A screening of The Full Monty. Poignant film. Forgot about the implication of male love affair.
Hurried walk back to flat, catching up on pleasure reading for the first time in ages. Felt wonderful. Leg muscles breathed sigh of relief as well.
Studied, or attempted to, and talked to friends who joined at table. Conversation derailed into discussions of the ball that Wadham will be hosting in spring.

Saturday. Woke up early to true-blue sky. The cold air was brisk and pure, providing excellent refreshment for walk, taken before nourishment. Discovered long route, for pedestrians and bikes both, past playing fields that turn into real fields that become, eventually, the outskirts of another town that borders Oxford.
Breakfasted with Mother, eggs and toast and good conversation and just-us-solitude. Took bus down to city center to meet long-beloved friend for coffee and muffin before dashing back to library for another bout of studying.
Afternoon, took tour of Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, the home of the Duke of Marlborough and the birthplace of Winston’s Churchill. House and grounds were amazing. Library is wasted, as never used by anyone except tourists passing through. Books are beautifully sealed inside depressing cages.

Studying, writing, socializing, bed.

Full-of-everything

Today started hours and hours ago. We walked into college and saw Wadham for the first time this morning. we met our librarians and our College Chaplain, and took a tour of Oxford with the exchange students who came to our US school last year. It feels like a hundred years ago already, but it was only a few hours ago.

Christ Church Meadow has cows in it. Real cows, with their horns mercifully left intact. Then again, later in the day, when I passed by the Zoology Department on my way to meet my very first tutor, I saw a protest going on across the street, with signs reading things like “Oxford Tortures Animals!” and “Stop Oxford University’s Cruel Acts!” and similar messages.

The evening was spent at a formal get-together with drinks served – gowns were worn by the faculty and tutors who attended, creating a bizarre air, as if they were graduating high school and we, the well-dressed students, were officiating – followed by a formal dinner at Wadham’s hall, which looked very similar to every image of Harry Potter’s Great Hall that most people have ever had. It was surreal, especially as there was a man whose job it is to bang a gavel three times, very loudly, to get everyone’s attention and steer them to the door out or in. He seemed to enjoy his job.

We proceeded to a pub after dinner, of course, as is done. I learned that English humor is cruel and that I’ll get used to it, had fascinating conversations with drunk and sober people alike, and witnessed first-hand the truth of tutors going out to drinks with a bunch of students.

I should be going to bed. But the sound of voices is, inevitably, drawing me away from my room and my inviting duvet.

Fairytaleland

Room: Comfortable, cozy, wonderful. Pictures will be posted in the coming days.

Kitchen: Huge. As is common room.

Bathrooms: Notice the plural. Yes. There are two of them, for five people.

Today has been wonderful, if overwhelming. It has involved some bit of alcohol (less for me, more for others), some jet-legged hilarity from friends who have come off long flights from far-flung places, and much bonding over the exchange of secretive information. I find this often happens when first living with people. It is a way to ensure a comforting and comfortable intimacy with others. Effective, if occasionally dangerous. However, I don’t feel threatened in this instance. Instead, I feel surprisingly comfortable. As if things will actually work out. Perhaps the presence of castles nearby helps.

Little Red Riding Hood needn’t meet a Big Bad Wolf. The story can be different. She can meet a tame German Shepherd and reach Grandma’s House safe and sound. Here’s hopin’!

The Day Before / Accomplishments

Morning. The sun is up. It is also out. This is a surprise. Horrible weather was predicted. Jubilation ensued. Took walk, in gym shoes, with magazine, as is habitual. Looked up rather a lot. Showered. Breakfasted. Walked into Oxford’s city center.

Noon. Arrived in Oxford city center. Weather nippy, but bright. Mother cried at sappy music. Errands ensue. Sim card acquired. Required anger at banking and bureaucracy. System cleansed by lunching on shared mozzarella panini and fries. Attempted resistance to bookstore. Failed. Purchased books. NW by Zadie Smith. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. New collection of Grimm’s fairy-tale adaptations and comments by Philip Pullman. Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie deemed too big to bring back in suitcase; will be ordered. Toiletry purchases cleanse book guilt with two-for-one offers on hosiery.

Afternoon. Arrive, by bus, back in Summertown. Clouds gather, but retain moisture. Nap taken. Taxi ordered. Synagogue is attended. Religion is not observed, but tradition is, at times, for nostalgic reasons. Mother is moved by service, though melodies are all wrong. Congregation is friendly. Synagogue’s president just got back from New York. He saw Bruce Springsteen. “Queued for fourteen hours.” He swallows F-word down, just keeping dignity, while emphasizing Bruce’s brilliance.

Night. Taxi back. Apartment is a mess. Leftover cake gone bad. Thrown away. Shame. Packing to be done. Skype date to be had. Sleep to be slept.

Tomorrow. New beginnings.

Three Cheers for London

Instead of getting up with my alarm, set for the severe hour of seven o’clock, I decided to stay immersed in a dream about reconciliation and start my morning off with the kind of positive omen that I cannot, even now, take seriously.

The later start meant setting out towards London after the end of rush hour, though, which was to the good. And although the pouring rain was no fun, it was, at least, an initiation of sorts. I spend my winters in New York loving the snow and despising the rain with the kind of fervor I usually reserve for texting drivers and stone-throwing settlers; here, however, I’m going to have to learn to alter my ways. Hating the rain and the gray will be the death of me in this country.

Arriving in London after a long bus ride, during which both my mom and I fell asleep for a little while, we discovered that the weather was no better there. Still, we braved it, and went to meet two old friends of ours at the Riverfront Cafe, at the British Film Institute on the South Bank of the Thames. I sound so knowing, don’t I? But see, the thing is, I actually am familiar with London. While Oxford still feels and looks like a toy-town to me, London feels like home. Oxford is low to the ground, making the gray sky bigger and grayer, whereas London distracts you from the lousy weather by telling you, politely but firmly, that it is a grand old city, beautiful in a scattered but dignified way, like a lady of leisure lying in her bathtub with her pearls still draped around her throat.

The rain ceased by the time we left the cafe, richer in knowledge about Mongolia and more depressed than ever on the subject of publishing. My mom and I walked along the South Bank, watching the gorgeous skyline, until we reached the Tate Modern, which was – really – the reason we’d taken such pains to reach London in the first place.

We saw the Tino Seghal exhibition – some seventy people, dressed in regular street clothes, parade around Turbine Hall, alternately walking extremely slowly, running, chanting in unison, and singing. In addition, and this is the more exciting part, they engage in conversation with the audience, the viewers. They meet people’s eyes, choose them, walk up to them, and begin to tell them a story, a confession. My mother and I had two such encounters. The first was with a gorgeous, gray-haired man who was almost forty, rail-thin and clearly a dancer of long training, who began by trying to tell us a tale about how he didn’t fit in as a child in the suburbs he moved to with his family. The conversation with him derailed from there into a discussion of what we do to form into groups – whether we create imaginary categories for ourselves and others in order to fit in. From there, we got onto the subject of love, which gave him the parting line he used before ducking, abruptly, away from us: “That’s the amazing thing about love, really.” The second encounter we had was with a young woman with crooked teeth but a great smile. She had short, curly hair that was shaved at the back and stood up in a fluff on top. Her skin was milky white, and she looked down at both of us, since she was quite tall, and told us about how she was procrastinating writing her thesis proposal for her master’s degree. We discussed deadlines, how they made us feel and how we live, really, from one deadline to another. I wished I could take her phone number so that we could be friends.
These two encounters were enough for us. We’d ingested enough intimate human contact from complete strangers, and wanted to retain the magic without wearing out it (or our) welcome. So we went upstairs and spent a good ten minutes contemplating a room full of Rothko paintings, feeling the vibrating emotion come off his colors, into our bodies, calming us down.

Ending the day in London, we walked to the original Patisserie Valerie – now a chain of restaurants, it used to be a singular, small place, with bad waiters, awful coffee, delicious hot chocolate and better pastries. The original place is on Old Compton Street, just off Charing Cross Road, and although our eggs were cold, we ended up having a lovely experience there, on the whole. We got a fantastic cake, our meal for free, and a promise to get a recipe from the chef for a cake that they don’t sell anymore, but that my parents – when they lived in London years and years ago – would eat after work every day with their hot chocolates.

Landing Party

My mother and I sat in uncomfortable seats, screwed down into the floor of a long hallway that was inside a metallic sphere. Another two or three hundred people were crammed in there with us. Not for the first time, I had the overwhelming sensation that this was a very bad idea. I’ve been in the same exact situation, so bizarre to think of abstractly, dozens of times in my life, and yet – even though I’ve gotten over my need to obsessively watch the security video, as if not watching it will jinx me somehow – I  still clench up as the reality of the contraption around me thunks into my brain. We shiver, we shake, we shudder – uncontrollably, impossibly vulnerable, we sit there in our seats, utterly inferior to the mechanics of the technology we are enclosed in.

 

But enough of this awe-stricken claptrap.

 

We landed, and I had one of the most remarkably welcoming experiences I’ve ever had on entry into England. The man who took my passport and joked with my mother about pubs looked a little bit like Alan Rickman. He’d also been a bodyguard to Salman Rushdie, back in 1989, when the fatwa was first declared against that famed writer. Apparently, Mr. Rushdie wasn’t very nice to his bodyguards at that time, but then again, he was also probably scared out of his mind. I’m going to read his new memoir (the excerpt of which I’m greatly enjoying in The New Yorker) and I will probably end up liking him for his writing, if nothing else. So many writers are not really what they seem through their writing – it’s a shame, but it doesn’t much matter, since I probably won’t meet many of these authors whose work I revere.

 

I also found out that because I am of a Middle Eastern nationality (I’m also half-American, but this clearly doesn’t minimize whatever risk the English government has in mind), I’m going to have to go and sign in with the police here at Oxford. Creepy? Yes. I keep wondering whether it’s for my protection or for the protection of others. I suppose that it’s for both.

 

“Daddy nasty.” Those are the only words I noticed Will Shortz saying right now. A funny couple of words to stumble upon, but then again, they’re rather typical for how this evening has been going. When my mom and I went out tonight with a friend of my mom’s (the lovely woman who picked us up from the airport earlier today), we were privy to a first date of a man and a woman in their fifties. We assume it was a first date, anyway, because they spoke to each other with great excitement but with many first-date questions and inquiries. We think they found each other online and spoke on the phone a few times before meeting. The woman drank a glass of white wine and then ordered a Rose, and the man stuck to coffee. The woman began slurring her words a little and the man’s voice became kinder, softer, more intimate, and he rushed to get the waiter the moment the woman asked him to order her some food. The conversation then turned, quite quickly, to the man’s recent depression, to his opinion that it was an “organic depression,” and from there, he moved on to saying that he thought sex would help. He added, almost at once, that it was intimacy, really, that he thought would help -“touch, you know, skin to skin,” he said, demonstrating by rubbing his two, very large hands together. The woman, so giggly and smiling before, turned more serious, but at this point we needed to pay our bill and we lost track of their conversation. Right before we left, though, we heard them agree – “I think we’re on the same page about this,” the woman said.

 

Oxford is beautiful, though rainy and gray so far. I think that it will prove to be extremely interesting.