Saturday, 31 December 2011

Looking Back at 2011, Forward to 2012

No matter how you slice it 2011 has been a big year for me (and Tim).  I began the year working full-time, sending off applications to PhD. programs in Canada and the UK.

By February, I had heard back from one of those universities with a rejection, which was slightly heart-breaking.  But later in the month, I had a "yes" and knew that I would definitely be going back to school for doctoral study, which, geek that I am, was an absolutely euphoric moment.  From then on, it was a matter of where we would be moving and I would be studying, not an "if".  And then, out of the blue, in late March, I opened up my e-mail at work one morning and saw the acceptance from Oxford.  It was very exciting but also a bit of a blow because I had not ever really expected to be accepted and figured that I couldn't go without some serious funding coming my way.

But, after much thinking and talking over the next couple months, we decided to go for it and began the biggest change of our lives, probably.  I entered into reams of paperwork - university contract, acceptance of college offer, visa paperwork.  We moved out of our beloved basment suite of two years and hopped across the Atlantic to set up house from scratch all over again.

We've been here for three and a half months now and somehow, it feels like home.  This all feels incredibly and surprisingly normal.  It would have been nice to go home for Christmas, but we were okay over here too.

Next year, we can look forward to my folks visiting for a couple weeks in April, and, as of yesterday, I booked our flights home for late June, after Trinity Term ends and I have (hopefully, fingers crossed very hard) passed my transfer to DPhil status.  It will be so wonderful to see family and friends again, to wander around Saskatoon and see the river and experience hotter summer weather than I expect we will get here.

Other highlights of the year.  On the writing front, I finally buckled down and did two more drafts of my work-in-progress (I'm typing up that third draft now).  The book really feels stronger and better now and I think I will try submitting to agents next year.  I think it is ready.

On the DPhil front, I think I've gotten the hang of using the libraries and I've been able to attend some really interesting lectures.  (The highlight of course was the evening in early November when I heard both A.S. Byatt and Steven Pinker speak).  I'm still working on being motivated to work, which is a bit of a challenge since this program is quite unstructured.  On the other hand, I have gotten a great deal of reading and thinking about my topic done already and I feel reasonably confident heading in to 2012, when I will actually have to start writing chapters.

Travel.  We've done a pretty good job at travelling around the UK.  So far we've been to London, Portsmouth, Salisbury, Bath, York, and Edinburgh.  In 2012, we'd like to do some travelling on the Continent and I really want to get over to Ireland as well.

Happy New Year to any and all who happen to be reading!  May 2012 bring good things your way.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Oxford Soundtrack: Fall 2011

I listen to a fair bit of music while I work, both on my thesis and my novel (and while doing the dishes).  I tend to listen to one thing pretty obsessively at a time, with other artists and songs thrown in for flavouring.  For this reason, my first term at Oxford and the lead up to Christmas has had a pretty identifiable soundtrack, which I will share with you, if you are interested.

If you, like Tim, have absolutely no interest in European symphonic metal, you will probably want to skip this entry.

Moving over here will probably always be associated with the first single off Evanescence's self-titled album, which came out at the beginning of October.  I remember very clearly blasting "What You Want" in the car on our terrible speakers while driving around Saskatoon during our last weeks there.

The album itself came out right as term began (and, ahem, leaked shortly before that), so I listened to it repeatedly during my orientations and my first few weeks of research.  For the record, I think it's a great album, an improvement over their last effort and, frankly, better than We Are the Fallen's debut record (though I'd be very happy to listen to their follow-up).

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Christmastime in London

Yesterday, Tim and I popped up to London yet again for another day of sight-seeing and friend-visiting.

I began the day with some concern that we would not make our quite early train, because the parking lot was covered in black ice and so was part of the major road that run by our place.  However, the icy road almost immediately became simply wet road, so we were all right.

Upon arriving at Paddington Station (which is fast becoming my favourite, if only because this is now my way into London), we headed south and walked across a misty Hyde Park, as small flakes of snow fell (and eventually turned into rain).  We’ve had a wee bit of snow in Oxford this week too.  It never stays, but it makes things feel a bit more like Christmas over here.

The Serpentine, with the ferris wheel from Hyde Park's rather cheesy Winter Wonderland
 We met up with our London friend and her sister in Knightsbridge and set off to explore the vast consumerist innards of Harrod’s.  Harrod’s is fun to visit and sickening.  There is so much decoration, so much on sale, the prices are so high.  It is horrifying to realize that there are people in those pre-Christmas crowds who are actually there to buy £25 000 earrings and incredibly ugly futuristic sofas and purebred pets and designer clothes for children.  We were just there to gawk and snicker.  Tim, who dislikes shopping at the best of times, describes it as “hell” but was glad nonetheless to have seen the spectacle.

We then set off in search of coffee, seeing Royal Albert Hall along the way and across from it, the memorial to Price Albert, which is huge and neo-Gothic and gaudy, featuring a golden statue of Prince Albert.  Oh, Queen Victoria, what were you thinking?  (The Scott monument in Edinburgh is also very tell and neo-Gothic and slightly over the top but is much more aesthetically pleasing than this Albert memorial). 

 We had some Starbucks and the parties split up: our friends in search of Christmas markets and we searching for the Leighton House Museum.

 The Leighton House has been a museum since 1900 and was the home and studio of the Victorian artist Lord Leighton.  This is a great place to visit, especially since entrance is only £5 (or £3).  The best part of the whole house is the Arab Hall on the ground floor, which has a crazy dome, a brass chandelier modelled off those in mosques, a fountain, and walls of 16th and 17th-century blue Syrian ceramic tile.  There are also couches set into the Egyptian-style windows on either side of the hall.  Just beautiful.  Can you imagine having such a thing in your very own house?

Next, we hopped on the Tube (miraculously, most of the lines were running well – which hardly ever happens on a Saturday) and went to Embankment station to our old London “neighbourhood” by Trafalgar Square.  This is where Tim and I stayed when we came here on vacation in 2009.  Incidentally, it’s also where I stayed when I visited with my parents in 2008.  It’s one of the only parts of London I can sort of propel myself around without the aid of a map.

We noticed that the fabulous Sherlock Holmes restaurant and pub was open again (it had been closed when we arrived in September).  I goggled at the lovely and huge Norwegian Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.  We discovered, unsurprised, that the day’s allocation of tickets to the big Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery had sold out.  Oh well.  I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to this exhibition, but that’s fine.

 Then, we headed over to Piccadilly Circus, which Tim had never seen.  That was where we encountered our first great sea of humanity for the day.  Christmas shoppers were out in full force, which makes sense, since yesterday was the last Saturday before Christmas Eve.  (Yikes!  When did Christmas get so close?  What will I get Tim for Christmas?  Well, probably books.  But which ones?)

We headed down Piccadilly, checking out the giant Waterstone’s (which I believe is the largest bookstore in Europe), Hatchards (the oldest surviving bookstore in London, once frequented by Queen Charlotte and the romantics – very cool and creaky), and Fortnum and Mason (into which we popped our heads, verified that it was a cool old department store, and then skedaddled out of again to get away from the Christmas crowds).

We wandered around St. James’s Square (the garden is sadly not open to the public on the weekends).  We saw Chatham House, which has been the home of three British Prime Ministers, and a house where Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter and Charles Babbage’s partner, once lived.

And then, the pinnacle of the day.  We went on a tour of the London Library, which was originally founded by Thomas Carlyle because he was dissatisfied with the non-circulating nature of the British Library's collection.  I only discovered the joys of the London Library a few days ago via Stephen Fry’s blog post on the subject.  But I did dimly remember that the opening scene of A.S. Byatt’s Possession also took place there.  I decided we really ought to have a look around while we were in London.  Even though they don’t usually give tours to prospective members on Saturday, we got one.  (Note: The London Library is totally independent and does not receive public funds.  It is therefore supported by annual membership fees, which are, unfortunately, too expensive for little old us.  Also, I don’t live in London and I do have access to the Bodleian at the moment…)

We got to see the 1890 stacks with their interesting cataloguing (arranged alphabetically by subject, so that books on Coastal Erosion and Demonology are not all that far from each other, both found under “Science and Miscellany”).  The stacks are several floors high and the floor itself is slatted metal.  I had to be careful or the heel of my boot would fall between slats. 

We also got to tour the original reading room, where Carlyle and Dickens and George Eliot read and researched and where Stephen Fry and Tom Stoppard read nowadays.  It’s a beautiful room.  Tim and I were in book lover’s heaven.  We saw the other reading rooms and the art book stacks and got to peer into the neighbouring building recently acquired by the library to allow for further expansion. All told, it was the most wonderful tour of a lovely library and we were led around by one of the friendliest library ladies imaginable.

To end the day in London, we wandered down to St. James’s Park and sat and watched the swans and ducks and pigeons and squirrels as the sun began to set (at 3:30 or so in the afternoon…)

 And then we came home.  Google Maps tells me we walked about 11 km yesterday, which explains why we both slept so well last night.  Also, my legs are sore today!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Life in Britain: The Weather

I've been wanting to write something about the weather here almost since we arrived, because I knew we were going to have a very different experience of winter here than we've had at home for the last quarter century.

This was brought home to me last night, when Mansfield's MCR (graduate students) had their Christmas Party and Oxford had its annual Christmas Light Night celebrations.  Erm...  It doesn't really look or feel like Christmas to me.  At all, really.  The grass outside my window is still green, and freshly mown, though on two mornings this week, it was was covered in frost (for the first time since we've been here).  There are also still some leaves on some trees.  Some trees have many, many leaves.  And last night, at about 11:00 pm, as Tim and I walked our bikes past the Christmas Light Night carnival rides that were being taken apart and the abandoned food stands, we were commenting that it was quite pleasant outside.  This is very strange for early December.

Autuumn has felt so different this year.  The temperatures have ever so slowly declined from about the high teens (when we got here in mid-September, with a brief blip in early October when we had temperatres up around 25 and higher) to daily highs of 6ish.  And I know that, apart from cold snaps, that's about the coldest it will be all winter.

In Saskatchewan when it starts to cool off, one experiences a sense of impending doom.  Because once it gets cold and once you get a good layer of snow, the snow and cold just aren't going away anytime soon.  We always joke that the snow is always gone by my Dad's birthday - April 20th.  It's generally a good date to judge by.  Melting takes place in March.  But December, January, and February are generally just cold (and by cold, I mean, say, average daily highs around maybe -15, with quite regular dips below -30 and, at least once a year, -40.  And that isn't even bringing in the windchill...)  Winter is awful in Saskatchewan.  We're used to it, however, and have learned to survive.  Mostly this involves not going outside for extended periods of time.

And while I think being able to walk around at night without my head covered (though I have made the transition to my wool coat now) is weird, I suppose I have to admit that Saskatchwan is where the weird and wild weather is.  Somehow we've been gifted with some of the coldest winters in the world.  I'm really quite glad I get to skip a few by being over here.

On the other hand, as we have yet to see even the barest hint of snow, it doesn't really feel all the Christmassy, though the lights and the Christmas trees in Broad St. and the Bodleian courtyard help a bit.