Monday, November 26, 2012

An Upstart Crow Goes Forth!

I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books and hideous pictures on the walls ... Oxford is very pretty, but I don't like to be dead.”
-T.S. Eliot, 1914

Well, this has been pretty late coming. My apologies. These past two weekends, the internet at our flat in London has been out, meaning that at the precise moment that I’ve actually had things to blog about, I have not had the means to post them for you. Oh well. That just means that instead of just hearing about my day trips to England’s two most famous university towns, you also get to hear about this weekend’s trip to Cardiff.

So Many Books

Last Saturday, I got up extremely early in the morning (This is a running theme of these past two weekends) to catch the train to Cambridge. Now, most people, when hearing the name Cambridge think only of the University, but no, in fact, there’s a fairly large city that people live in and everything. In fact, walking from the train station to the city center, it reminded me an awful lot of the part of the Twin Cities that my family used to live in when I was very young.
Except, you know, beautiful and amazing.

Anyway, the main reason I went to Cambridge, besides it being a major cultural center, was to visit a friend of mine from Middle and High School who’s doing a year abroad there. We had brunch in a church café and then she showed me around a bit. This is a trend I’ve noticed is quite prominent in the less massive UK cities: church cafés. I ate in one way back towards the beginning of term when we were in Stratford, I ate at this one in Cambridge, and again when I was in Cardiff. They very greatly in size, with this one in Cambridge being a full two floors of seating that was larger than most of the commercial restaurants in that part of town while the one in Cardiff being a tiny attic room with barely any room to sit, but they all seem dedicated to spreading the word of God via cheap food and tea. In either case, this particular one had an incredibly good spinach, goat cheese, and summer squash quiche, which we both ordered.

Anyway, from there she showed me a few of the colleges. The college system in Cambridge and Oxford is wildly different from what we have in the states in that the University as a whole is more of a confederation of these smaller individual colleges. The thing is that these colleges aren’t generally devoted to a single field as they are in the states. So rather than having, as Millikin does, a College of Arts and Sciences, which is where a history major would take the majority of his classes, and a School of Business, where a business major would take the majority of his classes, Cambridge has, for example, King’s College, where they would both study, even though Trinity College, while still part of the same University, also offers courses in the same subjects. This leads to sort of intra-university rivalries, which I’ll talk more about when we get to Oxford.

Sophie is currently studying at Girton College, which is quite far away from the city proper, so I didn’t actually get to see it, but we did go into a few of the courtyards of the colleges clustered around the central square. There were a lot “c”s in that last phrase. Anyway, the funny thing I found about both Cambridge and Oxford is that pretty much every single courtyard is some variation on this:
I know, how tedious. A million buildings that all look like this.

It’s basically all imposing, sandstone walls around either a frighteningly green patch of grass that you are absolutely, one hundred percent not allowed to walk on, or else stone tiling or cobblestone that combined with the walls make you feel kind of like you’re in a really classy, academic prison.

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time at the colleges, though. Oxford was a whole lot more a facts-and-history visit, while Cambridge was more about catching up with an old friend. So she took me along the river to this bookshop off-campus. I’ve had pretty massive problems containing my propensity for buying books since I don’t exactly have the space in my budget or my suitcase and before meeting Sophie had had to cut my visit to the Cambridge University Press’ shop short for precisely that reason, but this place was absolutely the highlight of my trip. It being a shop, I didn’t feel it was entirely kosher to take pictures, so I’ll try to evoke the feel of the place.

It’s the sort of place you can tell used to be a small flat way, way back in the day. There are a couple of independent bookshops like that I’ve come across, but most of them were content to put a book on each wall with a few best-sellers and local interest volumes and call it a day. Not this place. You could scarcely turn around in here without almost knocking something over. Right when we walked in I nearly knocked over an entire shelf of P.G. Wodehouse. The big reason she brought me, though, was the back room.

There’s a room in the British Museum called “The Enlightenment Room” which is set up like a posh study with loads of old-looking leather-bound books on the walls, which are really just there to compliment all of the stuffed birds and far eastern art that form the actual exhibition. This back room was the same idea, except the books were the exhibition. Had I been in a position to actually make purchases, I would have walked out either still debating my choices, or else completely broke and trying to figure out how to possibly transport everything.

There were volumes in almost perfect condition from as far back as the early 19th century. A biography of a well-known Victorian stage actor seemed like it had never been read; the spine still gave resistance is you tried to open it to the middle. Along the back wall were hundreds of old travelogues, most of which probably never got a second printing, talking about rafting down the Yang-Tze River and hacking virgin paths through the Amazon rainforests. I can only picture all of these guys as pith helmet wearing, khaki-clad, RP-spouting gents with the most amazing handlebar mustaches ever to exist. The Shakespeare section contained the cheapest item that I found: thumb-sized editions of individual plays for ten pounds a-piece. I joked that I’d like to see a thumb-sized complete works, which would have been many, many times thicker than it would be tall. Speaking of which, there was an amazing early 20th century three-volume edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works with the most beautiful wood-cut illustrations which I was incredibly tempted by before reminding myself that the tragedies alone cost the same as groceries for the entire rest of my time in the UK.

Shortly after this, Sophie had to leave for a meeting, so she dropped me at one of the Museums, which was essentially a smaller version of the British museum’s antiquities collection. I did have a good laugh at the fact that much of their Greek and Roman collection used to belong to a Victorian-era Cambridge faculty member who happened to have the named Disney, meaning that you’ll run across a statuette of Aphrodite with “Disney” stamped on the base. After this, I stopped off at the market briefly to buy my sister a present and grab something to eat before heading back to the train station to catch the train home to recuperate for a day before heading out to Oxford.

And I thought Millikids hated townies

In Oxford, I took a walking tour. A friend suggested a company that operates on a tips-only basis, so I built my day in Oxford around that. The tour guide was clearly well informed, though he did have one of the most impressively pompous and quintessentially Oxford accents I’ve ever heard. He showed us around the larger colleges and talked about the various rivalries and traditions. It’s probably just because my Cambridge experience didn’t have anything analogous to the tour in terms of actual information about the college, but I got the sense that Oxford is much bigger on identification by college and on formulating different traditions around them. For instance, Merton College’s sole ceremony happens in the early hours of the last Sunday of October. During this time, the members of the college walk backwards in a circle in one of the quads wearing academic dress and drinking port wine. This is humorously meant to maintain the integrity of the time-space continuum as Daylight Savings Time ends.

At the same time, though, I was struck by the intensity of the external “Town and Gown” rivalry, referring to the tension between the students of the university (“gown”) and the residents of the city of Oxford (“town”) which has existed virtually since the University was founded. Our guide told us about the St. Scholastica Day Riots, which happened in 1355 and amounted to an all out war between the scholars of the university and the men of the city of Oxford and the surrounding countryside with the Chancellor of Oxford University and the Mayor of Oxford leading the two “armies.” The conflict was only brought to an end by the intervention of King Edward III and the matter not formally settled between the two parties until the 600th anniversary of the riots in 1955. As much as the students at Millikin dislike the townies, I can’t picture anything close to this ever happening, and I certainly can’t see President Jeffcoat leading the charge. Not saying it wouldn’t be awesome, just saying I don’t see it happening.

Anyway, this is definitely reflected in the layout of Oxford. Unlike in Cambridge, where the city centre is where most of the more prestigious colleges are clustered with little shops and other “town” establishments around them, Oxford is very clearly divided between the city and the colleges and, in most cases, the colleges and other university buildings will be the only things on a given city block. After the tour, I went and had lunch (a very tasty falafel, couscous, and houmous wrap from a shop I’d passed trying to find the starting place for the tour), bought a gift for my mom and rounded out the day with a trip to two of the museums: The Oxford University Museum of Natural History and The Pitt-Rivers Museum of Anthropology, which is connected to it.

The Natural History museum was one of the best-laid out museums I’ve been in in awhile. The specimens are organized taxonomically and it’s clear that in laying it out the curators have taken into account what exhibits are likely to be of interest to the average visitor. For instance, the only major break in the taxonomic layout is a case right at the entrance that contains all of the specimens that inspired Louis Carroll when he wrote Alice in Wonderland. Otherwise, you just pick what you want to look at and you go.

The same cannot be said for the Pitt-Rivers museum. It is, in a word, an absolute mess. I don’t take pictures in museums for the sake of not doubling the time it takes to get through them, but it is impossible to imagine how cluttered they are. As an illustration, when I get back to the states I’m embarking on an extended research, writing, and performance project involving Ireland’s Bronze Age, which is not particularly well documented, however I have been checking every museum I’ve been to for any artifacts matching this description. At, for instance, the British Museum this is pretty easy because everything is organized by location and era, whereas the Pitt-Rivers, for some reason, is organized by use. So, for instance, all of the weapons are housed on the top floor and, by extension, every single spear from Ancient Rome to 19th Century Africa are all housed in one case, right next to another case full of every sword in the collection. This means that you have to scan every single item in every display case to pick out whether there’s anything in it from the era you’re interested in.

Which is the other problem: the collection is massive and it’s all on display. I didn’t get the sense that there were a whole lot of “archives,” so every single artifact is crammed into a display case with the result that trying to take it all in is absolutely exhausting. This seemed like a museum in much need of contemporizing, as it seemed to think that just looking at things is why people go to a museum, so it gives you a lot of things to look at without a whole lot of context or information about the things themselves. I gave up on trying to find any Bronze Age Irish artifacts about halfway through, only having found a few pieces of jewelry in a tiny display in the corner of the second floor.

So that’s where all of the spare “w”s and “y”s went!

Which brings us to this weekend, during which I visited Sierra, a friend from school who is doing a term at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. Like Cambridge, this trip was more about visiting a friend than about experiencing the history and culture, which is a shame, since I do really enjoy that part of traveling, but at the same time to do both things I’ve discovered you really need more than a day or two in a location.

Anyway, I had the extreme bad luck of visiting at the same time as the Wales-New Zealand Rugby Match in Cardiff’s famous Millenium Stadium, meaning that I literally had one choice in terms of hostels, which was a bit more than I was expecting to spend on accommodations. The place itself was fine and I have no major complaints about the business, but since most everyone else staying there was a Kiwi (Not offensive, for the record, though it really sounds like it should be) explicitly there purely for the game. But we’ll get to that later, since that’s really the story to end the post with. I was fine with not having a repeat of my awesome Barcelona hostel experience, though, since, as I said, I was mainly there to visit Sierra.

The main event of my trip to Wales was a trip we took to Caerphilly Castle a few hours north of Cardiff.
Which doesn't look at all like it belongs to House Greyjoy.

The atmosphere was definitely helped by the fact that on the day we visited the rain literally never stopped. It felt quintessentially Northern European, which actually was a rather cool experience. I’m not particularly bothered by cold or rain, and so it definitely helped with the historicism of the whole experience.

That afternoon we walked around the various shops and arcades, which are not rooms full of pinball machines, but rather indoor marketplaces. I also found out a bit about the Welsh language, which, like Irish in Ireland, is printed alongside the English on every major sign. It’s probably most famous for using all of the spare “y”s and “w”s that the other languages had left over. This is largely because “w” and “y” are vowels in Welsh, so they get a lot more use and in places which seem odd to speakers of other languages, which is why it may seem to speakers of other languages that Welsh has a consonant surplus. Sierra also said that Wales is trying to bring about a revival in the Welsh language in much the same way Ireland has been slowly doing with Irish Gaelic, which is a cousin tongue to Welsh. The big push right now is to get it taught in schools.

Before going back to her flat to drink and hangout, we paid a visit to Chippy Alley, a side street in Cardiff that is famous for its many Fish and Chips shops. I’m a huge fan of Fish and Chips, but since coming to the UK have been disappointed by one thing: the tartar sauce. Not the quality, mind you, but the quantity. Every place I’ve been in London, save one, has not let you get your own tartar sauce, which is a problem because for a huge slab of fish, they will only give you the tiniest tub of sauce. I literally started laughing at one place at the sheer incongruity of it. So imagine my surprise when in Chippy Alley, they gave me not a little tartar sauce, but none whatsoever. They had mayonnaise, one of the component ingredients of tartar sauce, but none of the good stuff. Thankfully the fish was good enough on its own (the key: good fish and chips is horribly greasy) that it was still edible, but I’m starting to get majorly frustrated. If I manage to find a place that will simply let me make my own condiment decisions, believe me, you will hear about it. The place I mentioned before was a stand at the Southwark festival in September, so it’s not like I can just up and go whenever I feel like it, which is unfortunate.

Anyway, let me leave you with the reason I was so tired yesterday when I came back.

As I mentioned, the town was crowded because of the Rugby match, which had left me in a room full of New Zealanders, one a group of guys who lived in England, and the other a pair of girls who were studying in Dublin. Apparently the rush of the game, in which New Zealand absolutely crushed Wales, was enough to get the old hormones raging for two of them, who, laboring under a grave misapprehension regarding both their ability to refrain from making noise and the ability of the average person to sleep through said noise, decided to engage in sexual activities. In a room with four other people sleeping in it. At five o’clock in the morning. This left me with about two hours of sleep total under my belt for my coach ride back to London the next morning, as well as newly cognizant of my own crippling aloneness.

In all seriousness, though, that incident and lack of tartar sauce aside, I really have loved the last two weekends. Travel does have a way of tuckering you out, though, so I think I’ll stay in town this weekend. Don’t worry though, I’ll have plenty to tell you about, provided we’ve got internet. Burger King is running a new Europe-only special…

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