Lock, stock and barrel

A long absence makes the heart grow fonder? Maybe? No, probably not. But here’s the thing, this term has been properly crazy. Having two jobs to do at the OxStu, an amateur choir to sing in, a social life to try to keep up with. a major depressive episode to stave off, an immune system to support while everyone around my was getting ill, friends on two other continents to stay in touch with (more or less successfully), and, on top of all that, the usual two tutorials’ workload to juggle… Well, having all that on my plate made for some very rude eating habits that led to some remarks about biting off more than I can chew. But hey, I’ve licked my plate clean, and despite the fact that my use of all these food metaphors points to an unhealthy frame of mind, I’m still relatively stable. Three cheers for Oxford wonders and miracles!

Speaking of wonders, what’s the deal with Oxford and Alice in Wonderland? A very dear friend of mine is visiting from Israel, and she pointed out that there is lots of merchandise sold around here that is AiW-themed. Walking from Waterstones to Wadham today, I also realised for the first time that yes, duh, that sign advertising the ‘Mad Hatter’ tours has always been there. I know that Lewis Carol was a linguist, but was he an Oxford linguist? I could, of course, google this, but to be honest, I don’t care all that much. I love the Alice books, but they are wondrous on their own and I don’t need them to be connected to a real place in order to enjoy them.

Anywho, the weight of the work hasn’t yet left my shoulders. It doesn’t seem to have registered, quite yet, that I’m done with work. I still have some articles to upload, an application for a scholarship to send off, some obligations to fulfil. To be honest, though, I think it’s more than that – I think that the mindset of constant-work-mixed-with-intense-play is one that is very difficult to get rid of, especially once term becomes such a routine of muchness.

Because it’a rainy and gloomy, it seems fitting to end on some kind of moral or lesson. My kind, of course. So, if there are three things that I will take away with me from this term, Hilary Term 2013, they are these:
1. Gray weather makes me grumpy.
2. The Wadham Men’s Room has a lock. Use it.
3. Park End isn’t as bad as people told me it was going to be. Clubbing is awesome, kind of no matter what, because dancing is awesome.

Social

Two long tables in the room upstairs at The Mitre in Oxford were full to the brimming with interesting people tonight. A variety of characters moved from one to the other, playing a game of musical chairs (without the music) or participating in the Mat Hatter’s tea party (with beer replacing the tea). The Mitre’s function room was a tad too big, spilling over as it did into two large rooms as big as the restaurant and pub downstairs, so to keep it simple everyone did the natural thing and crowded around as small a space as possible. Cozy. Cosy?

History, English Literature, Classics, PPE, Law – these and others were present. There was mingling, commingling and intermingling that was frankly hard to keep track, including several cross-college, cross-year, cross-subject friendships preexisting the event or else created on the spot. Enthusiasm was in high demand and was willingly supplied as a remarkable amount of gossip, nostalgia and new information passed between talking heads and gesturing hands over (sometimes precariously) clutched glasses.

The high ups were spotted going downstairs twice for pints. Two of the middling-lows went out for a smoking break with a has-been-also-current. Everyone has their vices.

Presses roll, people reel, pubs rule, please read.

Mid-Week 1

 

My new favorite place is the Oxford Union Bar. It’s also a cafe. Their coffee is cheap, the chairs and couches are squishy and comfortable, and the strangest types of people walk in and out. The bartender is a blonde woman with a tattoo of something on the back of her arm. I’ve yet to tell what it is, because it’s always just peaking out of her blouse. She and the other bartender seem to have a comfortable working relationship. They chat behind the bar a lot, although the echoes caused by the strange acoustics of the high ceilings prevent me from properly hearing what it is that they’re saying. I have a feeling they’re not students, that they’re Oxford locals. It must be extremely odd, to live in a university town and to work in its offices and facilities and yet to have either no interest in attending it or else no financial or educational opportunities leading you to attend it. I suppose most Oxford locals who want to attend university tend to try to get as far away from the city where they grew up as possible anyway.

I’ve also found out that some of the stereotypical old English men, who talk in posh accents and have eccentric and bizarre conversations, still exist. When I was at the Union bar with a friend last week, I saw a man in red pants, suspenders and flyaway white hair tufting off the sides of his head. He was with another old man who was taller and rounder. They were joined eventually by yet another old man with a long Dumbledore beard and a brown coat. The last addition to their group was a surprisingly youngish man who was neatly and very typically dressed. They ordered the fancy food on the menu and sat at a table together for their lunch. I had to go before I could eavesdrop on their conversation for long, but I could tell that the older men all had ridiculously posh accents, reminiscent of the royal family.

The cold weather is wonderful. I’m incredibly happy to be back in zero degree weather. New York has acclimatized me to it, and I don’t think I can bear to live anymore in a place that doesn’t have seasons, or at least a significant change of degree between summer, autumn, winter and spring.

It’s mid-January already. 2013. Happy new year and all that.

Airport Awkward

Today I am flying back to Oxford. Israel’s airport is up to par these days, in comparison to what it used to be. There are, ostensibly, three terminals, though you’ll only ever see one of them, but since it’s called Terminal 3, it gives the illusion of the place being bigger than it is.

Once inside, there is a cavernous space, meant to remind you how powerful, important and very international Israel is. The ceiling of the departures hall disappears above in a glassy peak that reminds me of Heathrow’s Terminal 5, except that there aren’t any beautiful supports. It’s a big shout of “Look, Ma, no hands!” Which pretty much sums up how a lot of things go down here. There’s a big culture of what we call “partach” – I can only describe it as an old television set being repaired with lots of brown tape by a smiling man who charges you for fixing it and tells you it’ll be okay, it’ll be okay.

ANYWAY – that is where I will be later. At the airport. Clutching my copy of Catch-22 everywhere I go so that I don’t have to look around too much. Because there’s going to be someone there, someone who is a friend of a friend and who will be on the same flight as me. Someone who I have met only a handful of times and whom I don’t feel like needing to make small talk with.

Is there anything worse than making awkward small talk when you’re traveling and feel like just zoning out into your book? I am not sure there is.

A New Year, Friends, Social Media – Woo

In five days time, I will be returning to Oxford, having stocked up on sunshine, medications, motherly hugs and friendship-time. It’s a shame that the only one of those that I can carry with me back to England is the meds.

If I could put some sea and sun in a jar in order to peak into it on particularly blurry, damp, dreary days, I would. I would scamper around the Tel Aviv beach, no matter how silly I looked, and catch sunbeams and whiffs of sea until I had a tidy little row of glass jars to pack in my suitcase.

With modern technology, it’s arguable that I can stock up on friendship-time and the voiced equivalent of motherly-hugs over Skype or email or whatever, but the truth is there isn’t anything quite like putting your arms around someone, just as emails can never convey the exact sentiment r gush of love that you wish they would.

Ironic, is it, that I’m writing this on a social media platform of a kind that I could never take advantage of in days of yore? Not at all. I am extremely grateful for the advent of social media. Moreover, I am not one of those to moan and groan that the old days were better and that the future holds horrors beyond measure. While the future terrifies me sometimes, it is only because of irrational ideas like the loss of books, which, thankfully, I don’t think will actually happen in my lifetime (so I can selfishly try to not care about that particular fear),

The fact is that with my (only partially freely chosen) lifestyle, involving several countries as it now does, I simply wouldn’t have been able to keep in touch with the friends I have if the internet didn’t exist. But it does, and so I am able to keep my flesh and blood friends through the 0s and 1s of networks I only partially understand the concepts of.

The important thing, though, is balance. As long as I can hug someone for every Tweet I get and have a conversation for every blog post I read or write, I’ll continue to be happy. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is a choice that is in my power to make.

Joy Harjo – Winter Hols – Day 4

One of the things that I sometimes forget is how much culture I miss out on by apathetically forgetting to seek it out. Sarah Lawrence makes this easy because no one goes to the special events that the college hosts, and so it’s easy to feel like one of the many who are too busy/lazy to attend things. Oxford is the opposite, with debates at the Oxford Union filling up to beyond capacity and talks with editors of famous journals happening around cozy tables in rooms lined with books, so that whenever and wherever something is happening, it feels as if the event is full-up with interested and eager participants.

Luckily, here in Israel, my mother and my friends are helpful in preventing my easily distracted-by-indoor-activities self, and they alert me when there are interesting things going on. Which is how I found myself attending a poetry reading at Tel Aviv University’s Gilman Building today, at 4pm.

Joy Harjo is an American Indian with a long list of awards and prizes to her name. She has a low voice and true-black hair, the kind of black that you try to squint at in order to see something in, the kind of black that gives no reflection. Her right hand was covered in intricate tattoos. She opened with a prayer in the Muskogee tribe’s language, a prayer that asked Eagle to give her strength, and she played a flute that hooted mesmerizing notes.

Her poems mix spiritual, animal images with modern, everyday language. She herself is clearly a mix of old tradition, true belief, and practicality – for you don’t travel halfway around the world and you don’t tell stories of getting good grades in university without a certain degree of ability to get along in the “real” blandness of everyday life.

She sang and played the saxophone too, and read some bits from her memoir. What I found most moving about her were those poems that she clearly knew by heart, because when she spoke them, they weren’t emerging from her mouth so much as from her gut. Her eyes screwed shut and one hand clawed the air while the other was clenched at her side or at her belly. She felt the words and saw them, and spoke them with clarity and skill. She isn’t a spoken-word poet, but she is a poet with the capacity to speak her words well.

Winter Hols – Days 2 and 3 – Drivers Everywhere

It’s a strange but true fact that having not lived in one, single place for more than four months at a stretch (that is, without leaving to fly off somewhere else) for the past few years, I get acclimated to my new/old environments extremely quickly.

What I find most startling about being in Israel, so far, are the honks. People lean on their car horns at the slightest provocation, whether they’re waiting for someone to come downstairs and want to alert them of their presence, or whether the light has turned green and the car in front of them isn’t moving fast enough. Sometimes, the first person in a line of cars at a green light will honk, just out of habit, you know, but then will realize that it’s their responsibility to start driving first. They won’t look embarrassed, though – Israelis don’t.

This isn’t to say that New York drivers are that much better. They lean on their horns too, all the time, but somehow the sounds of honks, shouts, and rushing traffic is melodious in New York City. It’s expected. Complaining about honking cars in the Big Apple is equivalent to grumbling about buying a CD of dolphin ambient noise and finding out that all you get is the sound of waves and screeches.

Oxford drivers, to be fair, aren’t much better. Alright, they don’t honk – this is why I keep jumping half a mile every time someone does here – but they should maybe start. Honking would be better than that passive aggressive rumble of acceleration. Whenever I cross the street in Oxford, I can hear the cars zooming towards me, just aching to get all that repression out by killing one – just one! Oh, please, they have it coming! – obnoxious, jaywalking student. When I cross the street on my way from ho-hum Summertown towards hooray City Centre, I encounter car after car that almost runs me over, even though I’m crossing at what is clearly an intersection and the only place where I can reasonably cross.

Maybe it’s the small cars and low building in Oxford that are heightening the sound of the cars’ engines, but I don’t think so. I think that there’s a lot of anger in those drivers. It must, after all, be a horrible place to drive in – students walking wherever they want, dashing across the streets whenever the whim takes them, darting off the curbs without so much as a moment’s notice, cyclists streaking around corners with the bravado of Joseph Gordon Levitt in every film ever (he always rides a bike, have you noticed?) and either obeying or ignoring the traffic laws as the mood strikes them. Who would want to drive in Oxford anyway?

Winter Hols – Day 1

Flying from Heathrow to Israel is no laughing matter. First, you need to get from Oxford to Heathrow. True, there’s a bus that takes you there, right from Gloucester Green, but what about poor suckers like me who live all the way out in Summertown? We need to take a bus to the bus. First world problems, right? Right. Okay, but I did need to pull two suitcases – one of them is technically a carry-on, but let’s not kid ourselves, the thing has wheels, it’s a suitcase – over the frosty and uneven sidewalks; I needed to pull both of them onto the first bus; I needed to pull them off the bus without running over any small dogs or children; and I needed to then pull them all the way to the central bus station without running over any unsuspecting feet. I’m glad there aren’t any people wandering around under Invisibility Cloaks here, because my suitcases would be going over all their poor little footsies on the way.

Once at the station, I said goodbye to a new-found dear friend (a rare title, not to be extended lightly) for what was probably the third or fourth time. We had said goodbye at least twice the night before but then somehow managed to talk again and see each other for another hug and chat before I left. I think that might be a measure of friendship – not really wanting to say goodbye to someone because you enjoy their company. At least, I suspect that’s one of my internal measures.

The bus itself was nice. There was a toilet, which, for some reason, always makes me feel very excited. I believe that this is purely because of the complete and utter lack of such facilities on any buses in Israel. They simply don’t exist here, even on buses taking you very long ways. Even on new buses. I’m always surprised and slightly shocked at the absolute genius of providing such a thing on a bus – so smart, so simply, so apparently intuitive a solution to many of the bus-rider’s common discomforts (how many times have YOU heard “Mommy, I have to GO!” or “Hrp… Mmmp…Blaaaaawwwrrrggghhh” on a bus before and wished that there had been a toilet available for the child or the nauseated sod, if only to shut them up?).

Am I in a strange, rather different, slightly cynical and nasty mood tonight? Perhaps. But you must forgive me, reader-and-a-half, for I am tired, I haven’t made all the phone calls that I owe my friends, and I have slept very little and traveled quite a lot in the past twenty-four hours.

I confess, however, that I am very spoiled, having lived in Israel most of my life. I’m used to the airport being twenty minutes, not an hour-and-a-half-plus-many-more-minutes-of-slow-and-jolting-traffic-stop-and-start away.

At Heathrow, El Al put all us Jews and other loonies flying to Israel inside a small space where we were kept safe from everyone who might want to attack us (or maybe kept us consolidated to make easy work for a potential attacker? Who knows?). Our gate was closed off, in other words, but extra security that consisted of bored Israeli El Al workers checking our passports again. I bought a bottle of water and watched as a group of Haredi men got up to pray. I wouldn’t have minded as much if they didn’t do it so loudly. I was very tempted to join them, as I was reading a book that had a white cover. I could have stood among them, starkly in contrast, a woman among the men, hair uncovered, cleavage on display, white-rather-than-black book in my hands, reading fairy-tales that are pronounced as such rather than a prayer-book basing itself on a bible that proclaims itself as ultimate truth that cannot and should not be interfered with.

But I didn’t. I wish I’d had the courage to do so. But honestly? I wanted to get home. I really didn’t need the hassle of being arrested and taken away to await the next flight in a secure room at Heathrow Airport.

Oxford Minus the Crazy

On Thursday afternoon, I finished writing the seventeenth essay of term. Seventeen essays in eight weeks, plus at least as many pages of notes. Yesterday, someone asked me how it was possible to write fifty thousand words in a month – we were discussing NaNoWriMo – and I pointed out to her that both she and I write easily as much here every month without even making an effort. It just happens. Accidentally.

Saturday was eerie. It is the busiest day for tourists, and as I walked down Cornmarket, I could feel their presence, their palpable excitement, but there was something missing. It was the students’ derision, the offsetting ingredient, the eternal cool of the pretend local element. After all, the students aren’t real locals. They’re as temporary as the tourists in their own way. They – that is to say, we – take advantage of Oxford for a certain amount of time. We enjoy its charms, we revel in its beauties, and we use every single drop of the rivers of knowledge it has to offer us. We drain it of its cliches, getting drunk and drugged and heartbroken along the way. We study hard and party harder. We pretend to be more confident and grown up than we are and we give off a worldliness that we need to exude in order to feel.

But Saturday of Eighth Week turns everyone into small critters, blinking rapidly as the cage door is opened. One moment, a frozen shock, and with a shake of the tail there’s a mad dash to get out, get out, get out. I went to Christ Church Picture Gallery to see the artwork there, and as I left via the tourist exit, I could see the line of visitors waiting to enter the Hall, where some of the Harry Potter films were shot, even while students were streaming out with suitcases and backpacks, loading things into their parents’ waiting cars.

By Sunday, I succumbed as well. I slept until three pm. My brain refused to wake up even when my body was aching to stretch and get out of bed. There is a fatigue that comes from such long-term, stressful, continuous work that happens over such a relatively short period of time.

Monday’s Oxford was eerily quiet. The tourists weren’t there, and nor were many students. As the countdown to Christmas echoes the pink lettering across the screen in “Love Actually”, I suspect the town will get emptier and emptier. The locals don’t live in the center, or else will be visiting family somewhere less depressingly empty, and the local students will be going home for the most part, and those who remain here will discover that there isn’t much to do in a university town during Christmas time. There’s a reason why this place has it’s own holiday time, OxMas.

As I sit in Turl Street Kitchen, it’s easy to pretend that it’s term time and everything is normal. After all, it’s still Ninth Week. A young tutor and her student sat beside me and completed their oh-so-cool tutorial, surely their last of the term. They both left smiling. The cafe itself is as full as ever with the usual alternative, interesting crowd. Two dads and their baby, sitting across from one another in the armchairs in the lower room. The cute, pink-shirted barman in front of me, baring his tummy and his red boxers as he reaches up to put glasses away. The dimpled girl smiling at and having coffee with the older woman who may be an aunt, a friend, a mum, a tutor, a woman she’s just met. The blonde and her brunette friend who don’t appear to be listening to one another. The quiet, red-skirted woman with amazing hair hanging over her face, alternately texting and reading her book. “Two hot chocolates!” announces another barista.

The tutor has come back, bringing with her another student. He’s about to look at his essay, which she has returned without too many comments.

But even so, even with a tutorial happening here, there is a sense of relaxation. More than usual. There aren’t as many of us hiding behind laptops, earphones buttoning us away from the world, glancing up impatiently when someone makes too much noise. There aren’t as many people here alone, eyes glazed over as their thoughts pass between their rumbling stomach to their heightened thoughts.

The madness has lifted. For a few brief weeks, the cloud of dank, difficult, crazy concentration is less dense over this city.

Early Night Ghosts

I think there might be rats in the walls. Or mice. Possibly cockroaches, although that seems far less likely, as the climate here isn’t very conducive to such insects. Then again, it might be the ghost, the Merry Field ghost that wanders about our halls and sometimes opens windows and doors that we haven’t touched. When I knock on certain doors in our flat, the doorknobs will rattle and there will be a little rustle from inside. When I call out, I’ll find out that the room’s occupant is out or in the shower, but definitely not in the room. So I back away slowly, respectful, giving the ghost its due. It doesn’t hurt me to be careful and I don’t lose anything by being occasionally superstitious.

Eight week begins tomorrow. The last week of Michaelmas Term, 2012. There is something alarming, terrifying, about seeing how fast these weeks have gone by. Each day has been long, sometimes tortuously so. Today, for instance, has been spent with a back-ache, fury and resentment and resignation moving through my gut, and a constant need to sleep rather than study; all of which have been, of course, pushed back so that I could read Henry Miller’s book, “Tropic of Cancer.” Which, by the way, is the first book I’ve read in a very long time that I actively dislike.

Listening to Duke Ellington, I try to soothe my back and chest aches with deep breaths and reminders that soon enough I’ll be going to bed. I have vowed to have an early night. One a week is allowed, is it not? I think so.