Street Chats


In every city I find that there is a certain street which acts as the main artery of the circulatory system. Eventually, if you wait long enough, every blood cell will pass by you. In New York, this is fifth avenue. In San Francisco this is market street. In oxford, this is cornmarket street.

The other night, I found that I had an hour to spare before my next engagement. This is rare for me. Free time is not something really worked into my schedule these days as. My average week here in Oxford consists of writing ~5000 words, reading 5-6 books, trying to maintain a semblance of a healthy lifestyle, and occasionally doing something social. This day, a Wednesday I think, I had finished my reading for the day and grabbed my small box of sushi and 2£ miso soup from itsu, a really neat Asian chain restaurant (owned by the owners of Pret a Manger). Not wanting to pay the tax to eat in, and as it wasn't too cold of an evening, I sat on a bench on Cornmarket to enjoy my meal and a healthy dose of people watching. Trying to balance my miso on my knees while digging in my bag for a spoon, a woman walked by me eating a sandwich. She passed me and then doubled back.
"Mind if I share my meal with you?"
"Not at all! Come join me", I replied, gesturing to the empty bench next to me.

She was dressed in all black, very stylish and classic. She walked with dignity and grace, with a certain confidence that I associate with the very rich, very beautiful, and very famous. She ate her ham sandwich with all the manners required of a 5 course formal dinner. Even though I was sitting on a cold bench on Cornmarket street at 7 pm surrounded by tourists, shoppers, and students returning from lecture, I suddenly became very aware of my poor posture and the slurping sounds my soup was making. This woman had about her a feel of royalty. We started up a conversation about Itsu and sushi, and in the way that conversations usually do, we ended up talking about San Francisco and California. From there this woman began to tell me her entire life story. She was born and raised on a sugar plantation in Hawaii, her mother ran the place while her father flew for PanAm. When she was fifteen she moved to Malibu and at nineteen she moved by herself to San Francisco. This was in the late 1960s. She opened up a small registry shop in the Pacific Heights and soon obtained the regular patronage of some of the richest people in San Francisco, probably all of America. To give you some perspective, an average price for a china tea set was about $17,000. That's $17,000 in the late 60s, a time when a buck could buy three gallons of gas and dozen eggs cost 53 cents. She kept her shop open from 12-5, by appointment only. When a customer would come in, she would feed them the finest cheeses and caviar, supply them with ample wine, and then sell them a couple more beautiful one-of-a-kind vases, only for them to come back a few days later looking for more identical such articles. She lived in a beautiful apartment in the Pacific Heights and from her back window she could watch the young Sophia Copolla play in her sand box.

While recalling her life, a life that seems so strange and foreign to me, she seems not to be looking at me. Her eyes glaze over, she is unfocused. her stories get jumbled, she forgets names and details. It is almost as if she is looking back over her life, trying to keep touch with a young, skinny, pigtailed girl, dating movie stars, wearing kick pants, and living the dream. 

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
— Joan Didion

After reliving a weekend of parties in Beverley Hills where everyone spent days drinking and smoking, and doing all kinds of unmentionable deeds, she turned to me and said, "You see, the problem was i was too young. It all happened to me when I was too young. I saw the whole world but was too young to understand it."

She had quite literally seen the whole world. Her father had worked for Pan Am and had flown her all over the world by the time she was ten. Her mother owned a sugar plantation and she had worked in the clinic, helping with the sick and wounded.  She had seen Europe, Asia, and Australia, wealth and poverty, sickness, hurt, pain, love, and happiness...all those things that make up the entirety of life. But she didn't know what to do with it. At the end of the 1990s, what all the posh, elite people were doing was "down sizing", what ever that meant. So she sold her registry, sold her beautiful home in San Francisco, left all of her friends and "downsized" to Oxford. So now here she is, an old woman, living in Oxford with her third husband, with not much to do but tell her stories. 

"Never downsize, dear, never downsize. You see, when you downsize, you can never go back."

It was then just about 8pm and I needed to get to chapel. I thanked her for sharing her meal and story with me. She looked me in the eye and smiled. A genuine smile of warmth and caring. 

"It's important to share your stories, dear, remember that. That is your legacy, so hold onto these years and hold on to who you are, you will want to share all of this someday."

Her name was Patricia.




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Healing of Bath

November is not my month. For some reason, I just don’t like it. I quite enjoy October with the golden light shining through the leaves as they make the change from green to yellow to red. I quite like December too. Christmas carols, the crisp air promising snow, and the expectation of school letting out for holiday. November is a bit like the Thursday of the year. It’s not yet winter  and it’s past the pretty time of autumn. It’s not yet holiday time and it’s not the fun part of the early semester. It is an awkward time when the sun, if not hidden by dense clouds, is always in your eyes and the weather never seems to know what it is doing. As I was watching the news this morning, the weatherman stood in front of a screen predicting the weather for the week, “rain likely, light fog, heavy clouds”—simply dreary. This pretty much sums up November to me. November is made even more awful by the fact that every single November I get ill.

            I remember the first November this pattern began. I was fourteen and I was in my school’s production of Amadeus, the rather intense play about Mozart’s life. A bit too intense for teenagers I think. The week before the show, the first week of November, I got a nasty head cold that slowly made it’s way painfully down my throat and into my lungs. Luckily, my role was the silent role of “maid #1” so I didn’t exactly need the use of my vocal chords. Nevertheless, this inconvenient illness made staying up til midnight or later every night on stage quite dreadful. What makes these illnesses worse is that they last. They don’t just come and go like a normal cold. These November colds remain the entire month. They just never seem to leave, completely ruining the joys of Thanksgiving, the one bright spot of the month. Not that this annoying cold is exactly the Black Death, but it certainly has plagued me. It happened when I lived in Colorado, stuck around in New York, perpetuated in San Francisco, and has now followed me across the pond to Oxford.

            I thought, hoped, and wished, that maybe as I now lead a much healthier life than my teenage years that I could end this pattern of illness. No such luck. November 1st arrived and almost immediately I felt a tickle in my throat and a slight throbbing behind my right eye. And so it began. After a week, once again the little monster had made its way into my lungs and no matter how many oranges I ate, how much tea I drank, or how many hours I slept, I just couldn’t kick it. So I resigned myself to the cold, bought a fresh pack of tissues, and put on a thick scarf and carried on with life, as I have done for the past six Novembers.

            It came to pass that some of my friends were taking a day trip to the city of Bath.  After a bit of convincing, and the promise of a free meal, I decided to leave my warm bed and join them on this venture.

            There is a certain magical quality about Bath. A certain mystery that draws people today just as it did 100 years ago, 400 years ago, and 2000 years ago. I wanted to see what it is about this city that makes it so special. This magic is not so much magic as it is a result of geological phenomenon. The hot springs that give this small city renown, allegedly curing severe illnesses and holding the power of wisdom, are the result of geothermal forces deep under ground—it sounds a bit like magic. When the rain pours down, as it often does, on the nearby Mendip Hills, it soaks into the ground and percolates down through limestone aquifers to about 10,000 feet below ground. Deep in the bowels of the earth, the “geothermal energy” raises the water temperature and under the immense pressure of being that far under ground, the heated water rises to the surface along fissures and faults in the limestone. The water emerges at ground level at around 46°C, perfect for bathing. In 863 BC this geological process was discovered by Prince Bladud, the supposed father of King Lear. After bathing in the muddy waters, being cured of leprosy, he founded the city proclaiming its magical powers and soon after became the ninth King of the Britons—that is if you believe such stories.

            Sitting in the window seat, fifth row back, of a rather rickety bus, I rest my head against the fogged up glass and attempt to nap. My head is aching and I am beginning to question why I thought waking up at 7 on a Saturday only to sit on a bus for two hours was a good idea. Next to me Arianna looks attentively ahead of her out of the front window of the bus. She is pretending to listen to the tour guide as we pass Prince Charles’s estate but I can hear the banjo of the Indie Rock music playing through her headphones hidden under a felt hat. Resigning myself to the fact that I won’t get a nap in this tin can of a vehicle and that I am not in bed, wrapped up in a fleece blanket, listening to the rain patter on my window, I watch the rolling hills pass us by. I’ve never been particularly good at directions, especially in a foreign land. Growing up in Colorado it was pretty easy, the mountains are always West. Unless of course you are in the mountains, then you just have to figure out where the bigger, snowier mountains are and that is West. San Francisco it wasn’t too bad either, the ocean was to the West. That is of course unless you are on the pier next to the bay, in which case the ocean is pretty much all around you except behind. Here however, on this foreign little island, I am in a perpetual state of lost. I am told that Bath is 97 miles West of London and 13 miles South East of Bristol. That doesn’t mean much to me. I do know that it is south of Oxford. And I know that as we drive I can see the rolling hills of the Cotswolds.

            It’s no wonder really that when the Romans, or Celts or who ever was here first, found this land they thought it was special. It is really. With the Cotswolds, homes to dragons, fairies, hobbits, and all manner of imagination, to the north, and the hot water bubbling up from below, Bath is situated in a kind of geographical sanctuary. The road dips down and we pass under a bridge, the windows, or my mind, are too foggy for me to be able to truly see what the surroundings look like. The bus pulls up in front of the Bath Abbey and we all clamber off, eager to move our legs. My head still hurts and Arianna pulls out her umbrella for us to stand under. It’s not raining too hard, just that drizzle that you don’t notice until you are completely drenched. The tour guide gives us directions to meet back in front of the Abbey at 4:30 on the dot or risk missing the bus back to Oxford. After standing around awkwardly, no one really knowing what to do or where to go, people begin to drift off in groups of twos and threes and fours. Arianna suggests that we get inside somewhere.

            Next to the Norman style abbey, complete with flying buttresses and a pointed parapet, stands the Roman Bath Museum—the site of the ancient baths. The Baths were treated as a shrine to the goddess Sulis by the Britons, according to some faintly carved stones found deep under the ground. When the Romans came, they adopted the site, as well as the name of the goddess, and created a sanctuary of rest and relaxation, which they named “Aquae Sulis”—the waters of Sulis. Being masters of adoption, the Romans equated Sulis to their goddess Minerva, who was a derivation of the Greek goddess Athena: goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. The Romans, who were a lot more inventive than I think I have ever given them credit for, created a complex system of baths in this sanctuary.


“Bright were the halls, many the baths,

High the gables, great the joyful noise,

Many the mead-hall full of pleasures-

Until fate the mighty overturned it all”

–“The Ruin”, Exeter Book


Arianna and I enter the museum and give the man our tokens, receive our audio tour guides, and begin the tour of the Roman baths. We walk around the upper balcony, from which you can look down into the main bath. Along the carved rail, looking over the waters, stand a collection of Roman statues: Ostorius Scapula, Julius Agricola, and, of course, Julius Caesar. They strike an imposing image, these statues: all important, all old, and all dead. They all look the same if you ask me. We walk down from the balcony, through some museum rooms full of artifacts and into the archeological site of the bath rooms.  

Despite the fact that the ruins of the Roman temple were hidden under the ground for hundreds of years, only to be discovered in the 1790s, the structure of those original rooms is still firmly in place. Hot rooms, baths, pools, and places of simultaneous worship and relaxation all flow one into the other, following the flow of the hot water. I often forget that there have been brilliant people around for a very long time. Intuition and invention are not unique to modern times. As I stand at the rail, looking into the hot room all I can think is, “whoever made this was absolutely brilliant”. The floor that we see today is not the floor on which those bathers of old would stand, disrobed and relaxed. The floor we see today is covered with apparently random stacks of bricks, and from above it looks a bit like a poorly laid out city viewed from atop a mountain. Chimney stacks of a toy town. On these stacks of bricks would have been laid another floor. The water from the springs would then run between these two levels of floor, around the brick stacks. This would heat up the floor and on which cold water would then be poured. The cold water would turn into steam, creating a Roman-style sauna.

There are then also the baths themselves. There is the extra hot bath, a swimming bath, a cool bath, and one that looks distinctly like a hot tub (minus the jet settings and cushioned seats). Looking into the water I can’t imagine wanting to submerge my body in it. The water is green and slimy. The last place I would want to relax. Especially if ill. And yet, according to the sign next to me, for centuries "from all over England sick people come to wash away their infirmities in the healing waters, and the healthy gaze at the remarkable bubbling up of the hot springs." Maybe the secret to good health is actually in toxic looking green water. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I am not able to test this theory as we were told upon entering the museum not to touch the water under any circumstance what so ever. Either because it’s magical curing water that could grant me special powers, or more likely because of the years and layers of filth that have grown in the water. More likely, instead of being healed, I would come out with a third arm or a layer of scales.

From the baths, heat rooms, and Roman temple, we make our way to the pump room, stopping first in the gift shop. After purchasing some post cards and an overpriced block of soap in the gift shop, we make our ways up the marble stairs and enter into a large creamy yellow room. Hanging from the ceiling is an enormous crystal, or maybe glass, chandelier. Interspersed evenly along the walls are grand pillars with gold detailing drawing your eyes always upward. The general airiness and lightness of the room is marked with deep red curtains draped over the large windows looking out onto the square. A clatter of forks and knifes and rumble of voices proclaiming the deliciousness of the food permeates the air. When I close my eyes I can imagine ladies in sweeping pastel gowns and wide brimmed hats nodding politely at men in top hats and tails while whispering behind fans.

I walk through the maze of tables, trying not to knock into anyone, and come to the bar. I ask, trying not to cough, for a glass of the special bath water. I am handed a glass and ask for another for Arianna, I am not about to try this on my own. We both take a sip. It taste like liquid chalk. Or as Sam Weller says in The Pickwick Papers, it has a “very strong flavour o’ warm flat irons”. Surely something that tastes so disgusting must have healing properties.

Deciding we have seen enough of the baths and wanting to get away from the, in Arianna’s words, “distinct basement smell of Roman things”, we exit the pump room and museum. Like Catherine Morland, the young heroine of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, we hasten away “to breath the fresh air of better company”, as well as in search of food. I follow Arianna into the street, trying to keep my eye on her long red hair amongst the crowds of tourists—it is a Saturday after all. Once we are well away from the Roman Temple Museum and have thoroughly washed out the taste of chalk from our mouths with some peppermint gum, we turn to a street map. Where to? We have no itinerary to follow, we have no commitments before making the bus at 4:30 and we have no one else to dictate what we should and should not do. That is, in my opinion, the best way to travel. Have enough structure that you don’t wander around aimlessly but not too much to prohibit spontaneity.

It is still raining and the wind is picking up.

Huddled under the umbrella, we waddle down the cobbled stone road past some clothing stores, a coffee shop, a bar, candy shop, and tourist shop until we find a pub that has the proper atmosphere for lunch. I don’t remember now the name of the pub nor the name of the street. Perhaps this is due to my poor sense of direction or the fogginess in my head from a handful of cold medicine, or maybe because of the gnawing hunger in my belly. I seem to remember walking down an alley and turning left next to a giant sign of a horse. But of course this means nothing. We found lunch and we found pleasant company.

The plump woman behind the bar takes our orders, a jacket potato stuffed with cheese and bacon for me and bangers and mash for Arianna. As we sit, nestled in the booth next to the window, the door flies open with a burst of cold air and three more of our gang, Logan, Alisha, and Brandon, enter. After ordering their drinks and food they join us.

Maybe not the “better company” of Miss Catherine Morland or such acquaintances as the king of 18th century society Richard Nash, but for me there is no better society than those of good friends. We sit in the corner window laughing at the number of potato dishes among us—five, all of different variety—and discuss studies, life, the weather, home, and Romans.

Once we have had our fill of the comfort food and warmed up our noses and toes, Arianna and I say farewell to our friends and go our way. Out on the street, the fog is beginning to lift and my mind is feeling clearer. Perhaps it was the chalk water or the healing powers of Sulis Minerva. Maybe just the special touch of good company and delicious food, but I am quite certain I am beginning to feel better. After winding our way back to a street that looks somewhat familiar, although to be honest, most of the streets in small English cities look the same, Arianna pulls out the map she had been given by the disgruntled tour guide. It is a poorly printed black and white copy of the map on the “Visit Bath” website. Most of the print is too small or too smudged to read, but after a bit of guessing we figure out that we are on High Street. I do wonder at the creativity of British street naming. I think just about every street is named High, Broad, George, or the name of some other past Monarch. Nevertheless, we are aware enough to know that we are in Bath, not Oxford, and so this High Street is one yet to be explored by our wandering feet. We begin to stroll.

Like any city, the architecture of Bath serves as a skeleton. An underlying structure which gives form to function. Of course there are the Roman sites, but most of those are in the state of archaeology and about 20 feet below ground. Then there is the Norman influence in the domineering silhouette of the Bath Abbey. In contrast to the angular dark grey parapets of the Abbey, stand the honey-coloured façades of the Georgian style houses. When the city was “rediscovered” in the 18th century, it became the social center of English, and beyond, high society. To match with the large gowns and stylish lace of fine ladies and foppish gents, the architect John Wood was hired to create a city in which to enjoy the finer things in life. Although he died before his plan was completed, his son carried on his legacy to great effect. The building fronts originally used as specialty houses to rent, like personal hotels, made of the gold “bathstone” from the limestone Combe Down and Bathampton Down mines positively glows with luxury.

High street eventually turns into Broad street. If you turn left onto George St. from Broad and then right on Gay St. in front of you stands a veritable cake of Georgian architecture. Quite literally, it looks like a cake. “The Circus”, intended for such posh activities as out door theatre or games, is made of three long, curved terraces. Again we hearken to Roman times, imagining that the designer, John Wood, was attempting to recreate the Colosseum. Although, I can’t imagine the British high society watching gladiator fights, but perhaps some pantomime or a nice game of croquet.

We walk around The Circus a time or two, waving pretend fans and speaking in hushed voices about imaginary gentlemen callers, we then exit the circle via Brock street. From there we can see the Royal Crescent. Now I can see why maybe Jane Austen didn’t exactly enjoy living in Bath. The sheer magnitude, while beautiful, is garish in contrast to the hint of nature beyond in the Royal Victoria Park. The Royal Crescent, looking a bit like a giant golden croissant, was the creation of the younger John Wood. Mr. Wood however only designed the curved façade and the basic structure of the 30 houses making up this half-moon building. Each purchaser bought a house and then employed their own architect to build their dream home. The front is completely uniform, hiding an array of differences within. A bit like people I’d say.

Having had enough of looking at big old fancy buildings made by dead guys, Arianna and I turn on our heels and head back to High street. We now have about two hours before the bus is scheduled to leave. Perhaps spurred by the grandiosity of it all and the lingering ghosts of rich visitors, we stop in a few of the shops. Knowing full well that I am a college student living abroad and money is in short supply, I nevertheless can’t help but run my hands through the racks of cashmere jumpers and fur coats. From the flashy store fronts of High St. we turn down a small alley way. Here the store fronts sport hand made signs. After three consecutive hair salons we turn into a second-hand store. It smells of mothballs and old wool. It makes me sneeze. It is warm in here. I look through the rack next to the door, sporting a red sign that says “Sale: £5” and a wide array of gingham shirts, cotton jumpers, and leather skirts. I can’t imagine wearing anything on this rack. Arianna buys a hat that looks like an upside down tulip, the orange felt clashing terribly with her red hair, but it’s funny and she swears she is never taking it off.

We must have been in the shop for quite a while because when we walk out the door, the bell jingling merrily behind us, it has begun to rain again and the sky is distinctly darker. It is just about 3:45 but it looks like 7. I have yet to get used to the darkness of this small northern island. We are not far from the bus station and my head is beginning to pound again, although not quite as badly as before. At Arianna’s suggestion, we find a small café and order two hot chocolates, as well as some water, not the chalky, “warm flat iron” variety. The hot chocolate is dark and rich. It coats my throat, making it hard to talk and bringing on another coughing fit, but it is absolutely delicious so I soon set down my empty mug and look out the window. Arianna chats on and on about Jane Austen living here, imagining her daily life and what she must have done, who she must have seen. Occasionally I nod, but my mind wanders.

The rain is pouring down, far below us the rain is being heated and put under pressure, only to rise back up to the ground. I imagine the water flowing upwards through the fissures and faults in the limestone a bit like blood flowing in our veins. Water flowing, blood flowing, people flowing. This little city, on the southern edge of the Cotswolds, 97 miles west of London and 13 miles South East of Bristol, is charming. It is beautiful. The architecture is beautiful and the history is beautiful. I love the thought that as the water flows up through the ground and as blood flows in our veins so too do people flow. We are all caught in a current of some kind. I have now joined another current. The flow of visitors coming to Bath, seeking healing; healing from illness, from society, and from life.

Every November, I get ill. This also is a current, it is a flow. I can’t say that the trip to Bath healed me, as I sit here writing I am still coughing. That isn’t to say it didn’t do me any good.

At 4:30 we climb back on the bus. Arianna and I sit in the same seats as in the morning. My head still hurts, my throat is sore, and I can’t breath out of my nose, but something is different. I feel distinctly different than I had in the morning. I can’t say what exactly, but I can feel it. I don’t know why it is, certainly not the chalky water or the rainy weather, but something about Bath has healing powers and I feel different. I put on my headphones, turn on some music, and close my eyes. 

A Rural Scene

The account that follows is a true story about two young girls living in the lovely town of Oxford. 

There once were two girls named Justice and Claire, here after referred to simply as J and C. One was tall (in comparison) and blonde, the other short(er) and brunette. They both hailed from the exotic state of California, the blonde from the colorful land of San Francisco and the brunette from the southern area of LA. There came a time when they both decided they needed a little more adventure in their lives and thus ventured into the very intimidating and stressful realm of "Oxford University"–a land where everyone seems to be able to maintain perfect lives of dressing well, partying every night, engaging in intellectually conversation, rowing, playing rugby, watching rugby, breaking the rule of "keep off the lawn" by playing croquet, all while still keeping up with their classes at one of the top ranking universities in the world. After nearly six weeks of being in this foreign country, they found that the brits must drink magic juice every morning in order to maintain this life style because for normal people it simply IS NOT POSSIBLE. Yes my dear readers, the stress finally got to the pretty little heads of J and C and they almost exploded while sitting in their flat near the train station while trying to finish essays (while simultaneously working out rowing schedules, a cappella group practices, and the minds of the british men). So, in order to avoid the mess of exploded brains, J and C went for a run. What a wise decision that was for our two heroines. After running for 2.5 miles along the towpath besides the thames they came upon the ruins of a castle, long abandoned. After a quick yoga session, they turned around and began the 2.5 miles back home.

It was then that they encountered Stephen. An old man wearing a bright yellow vest in a little run down sail boat attempting to sort out his tangled ropes. C turned to J and said, "oh look sailing! that looks lovely", to which Stephen called out "would you like to try?!". Thinking that he was probably offering simply in jest, C replied "oh yes we would love to, when?", "How about now?". That took J and C a bit off guard, but after exchanging a few furtive glances, they agreed and hopped on board. After a quick lesson as to the names of the the different sails, what rope to pull and when, and a firm instruction to not fall out of the boat because he didn't have anymore life vests, Stephen cast us off and we began to sail down the Thames.

(A quick intersting note as to the setting of this tale, this particular section of the Thames is actually a man made section, diverting the river from it's original path. It is conjectured that it was dug during probably the age of the saxons. It runs through the "port meadow", an area of open land in Oxford that has remained an open field, no buildings, structures, roads etc, for over 1000 years. Every year they bring in a new team of horses to roam this land, wild and free. It is quite nice.)

Immediately the girls felt that Stephen was a kindred spirit. While on this cold and windy adventure he told them many a tale, often while imitating a pirate captain or viking leader. He told of a St. Bernard going on an adventure through Europe wearing a suit and tie (a story for "grown ups who never did a good job at growing up"), stories of his friend sea gull to whom he used to feed pork fat. He shows us how he had made his sail boat, which has a fascinating name that sadly this author has now forgotten, and pointed out how each sail is actually multiple found pieces of fabric stitched together. Twice on this venture a loud snap was heard, at which the girls turned around to find Stephen holding a broken rudder. And twice he fixed it using found pieces of broken oars. At one point J looked down at her feet, inch deep in water, to see a little coventry mouse, named Hubert, sticking its nose out of a hole in the stern. Once discerning whether it was safe to come out, he scampered to the back of the boat, ran around Stephen, who worned his little "passenger" not to fall in the water, and then ran back into his safe and, presumably, much warmer home. As they continued on, the odd trio surrounded by billowing sails passed a clump of trees. Upon looking upon the leafs falling to the ground Stephen began to recite these words:

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,

  Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,

  All felled, felled, are all felled;

    Of a fresh and following folded rank

                Not spared, not one

                That dandled a sandalled

         Shadow that swam or sank

On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.


  O if we but knew what we do

         When we delve or hew —

     Hack and rack the growing green!

          Since country is so tender

     To touch, her being só slender,

     That, like this sleek and seeing ball

     But a prick will make no eye at all,

     Where we, even where we mean

                 To mend her we end her,

            When we hew or delve:

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.

  Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve

     Strokes of havoc unselve

           The sweet especial scene,

     Rural scene, a rural scene,

     Sweet especial rural scene.

These beautiful lines were written by the catholic priest Gerard Manley Hopkins in the year 1879 whilst sitting under the trees the two girls were passing by in a funny little boat with a funny little man. At the sound of his voice, usually laughing a jovial, turned low and somber, an odd, almost religious feeling hit the girls. It was a moment that is to last in their memories forever, a moment of suspended time. A moment of living history and beauty incarnate.

However, all moments must come to an end and eventually the two girls had to bid their new companion farewell. Frozen to the bone but enlivened to the core they raced home (quite literally, they had a jog to finish after all) to wrap up in blankets and enjoy a nice cuppa.



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Posh and Ponnies

As I mentioned in my latest post I recently spent a couple of days in Scotland. Despite the impression that Braveheart had given me, not everyone in the cold land to the north wears kilts all the time. In fact, I only saw two men in kilts and one of them was trying to sell me cheap Scottish tourist mementos like a little plastic figurine of Nessy. Actually, to my great surprise, most everyone in Scotland, and the whole British isles, dress a lot like Americans. It's like we all look at the same fashion magazines or something...

The only thing I have noticed that is quite different is that people here really know how to dress up. And not just for nice events or on Sunday morning, on average people here just look nice all the time. Particularly in the university cities. The males tend to wear a lot of bow ties, button up shirts, corduroy trousers, oxford shoes, and fancy socks. meanwhile their female counter parts are typically in nice trousers and or dresses with boots, blazers, jumpers, and perfectly done makeup. This style is referred to here as "posh". I love this term, and style. I believe that it originates from the age old tradition of polo–the "royal" sport. If you are unaware, polo is a sport played on horses. Usually 3-4 people per team, you ride the horse and use a mallet to hit a into the goal. Kind of like field hockey, just on horses, and very dangerous. Despite the danger of being hit by a mallet or getting pushed off your horse, this sport is the ultimate of posh activities. 

The funny thing about polo is that they still wear the costume that was worn in the 18th century when it became highly popular. Of course it has morphed a bit, but in general they still wear the trousers, boots, and jersey jackets of the old days. Which is exactly where the posh style originates. Just think Ralph Lauren, hunter boots, tweed blazers, and button up patterned shirts.

I had the opportunity to attend a polo match on the beach in St. Andrews on this past Saturday. I was surrounded by university students in riding boots and blazers and rich french tourists in their white trousers and sweaters wrapped around their shoulders. I like to consider myself a well dressed person, but I must admit that in my grey James Perse maxi dress and big chunky sweater I felt rather out of place. 

So now I have a mission, to fit in amongst the posh crowd. Not only will I start to shop at Jack Wills, Joules, and various tweed shops (budget permitting), I am determined to develop a british accent and learn how to ride horses.



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Keeping Your Wits

I would like to start off by sincerely apologizing for the lack in writing lately. Between studying hard, exploring Oxford, drinking lots of tea, trying to find gluten free scones, and galavanting off to Scotland for a few days, it has been hard to find time to sit down with Pascal (my lovely MacBook Pro) and type. I now sit at my desk in our little flat across the street from the oxford train station, cup of coffee beside me, and half an hour of leisure until I must begin preparing for a day in London. Above my desk I have a little collection of sketches, postcard, and inspirational sayings–anything to brighten up the dreariness of our off white walls. One of these little scraps of paper says "Keep your wits about you". This is one of those sayings that I grew up hearing daily, along with "Make good choices", "cleanliness is next to godliness", and "remember to wash your brushes properly when you are done painting". It is one of those sayings that I have heard so often, that I rarely actually think about what it means. Apparently it is something that my Great Grandmother Nana said all the time, which is why my daddy says it every time we go somewhere. As I look at it now, I realize how even though I don't actually pay attention to the words anymore, that little saying has been deeply ingrained into me and has shaped me to become who I am today. It is a part of my character. It is something that informs my every decision, whether or not I am aware of it. Now I don't know what "keep your wits about you" derives from, whether Nana made it up or it is actually a real saying that people frequently say, nor do I know how you interpret it. I, though, interpret it as this: In life, there are distractions, there are things that will keep you from the path (literally and figuratively). If you have not your wits about you, you are likely to stray from that path. Wit (n.) is a word of Germanic origin, denoting the mind as the seat of consciousness. It means the ability for inventive thought and quick understanding. This isn't just, or really at all, knowing lots of big words and acing exams. It means being able to know what to do in a sticky situation, being aware of ones surroundings, knowing how to find your way through a strange city without going loco. It means having the ability to, when you miss your train from Edinburgh to Oxford, knowing instinctively to head straight to a train employee, smile on your face, to ask for help. 

Yesterday I came to realize exactly how much "keep your wits about you" has become a part of my character. For the apst few days I have been enjoying a nice little, solitary, trip up to the land of my forefathers, Scotland. I visited my high school friend in St. Andrews for two days and took a train back to Edinburgh Yesterday. I arrived in the Scottish capital at 12:45, knowing full well that my next train wouldn't leave for three hours. So I went on a walk about around town to find a picnic lunch. Somehow, despite having plenty of time, I got caught up in a conversation with a nice man about kilts and plaid and tartans and ended up missing my 3:55 train to Oxford (this would be an example of clearly NOT having my wits about me). Nevertheless, I kept my head. At the moment I ran up to the platform and saw my train leaving the station, the words my father repeated so often started going round and round in my head. Instead of panicking, as I wanted to do, I giggled to myself for my own stupidity and strolled up to a man in a yellow vest. Yellow vests are something so heinously loud and attention grabbing that they can only mean one thing: that person is there to help. This young man with crooked teeth and an almost incomprehensible accent saw immediately that I was out of breath and guessed that I had meant to be on the train he had just waved out of the station. He took my ticket from my hand and walked me to an office. He told me to wait outside while he sorted things out for me. About 15 minutes later, during which I ate 4 apples, he came back out with a wide grin on my face, "today is your lucky day young lady"

He had found a way to get me onto the very last train going to Oxford that day, due to leave in ten minutes. Free of charge. He walked me to the platform, introduced me to the conductor, and showed me where I ought to sleep. The amount of kindness was quite overwhelming. I love this country. 

I know of course that if I had truly had my wits about me I wouldn't have gotten into this pickle int he first place, but hey that is what learning opportunities are for! I still haven't quite refined my wit, but it is on its way. Today as I head to London I will be sure to be alert, attentive, punctual, keen, and always always always remember the words of my daddy "Eat your vegetables."

oh wait no, other words, "Keep your wits about you, lassy"



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With A Smile and a Song?

Every morning I go on a run along the Thames at about 6:30 am. A beautiful run on a rocky bath alongside a green river. I pass narrow boats docked for the night, see ducks and geese floating along without a care in the world, and avoid hitting my fellow early risers. I do this every morning, the same as I did in Colorado and in San Francisco. Just a little bit of uniformity in my schedule to make me feel at home. While the action is the same, I listen to the same playlist, I wear the same spandex pants and nike tennis shoes with the hole in the toe, this morning run is distinctly different. There is no way that I could forget that I am in fact in another country while doing this rather mundane activity. It's not because of the cows or the river or the gypsy boats, no those things aren't odd. It's the fact that I am completely alone. Sure there are other runners, an old couple walking a dog, a young man biking to class, but given the attention I receive it would appear as if I am in complete solitude. There are no nods hello, no cheery "good mornings!", and certainly not a stop for a chat. Occasionally there are smiles, but without teeth, of recognition. It's not just on my early morning run that I encounter this kind of behavior, it's ubiquitous. This is weird to me. In the states I am used to being accosted from every which way as soon as I step out my front door (in San Francisco at least, not so much Colorado except by elks and cows). By American standards I have RBF–translation here– simply because I don't smile and greet everyone with a giant hug and over excited "Hello!". However here in England I am essentially a Disney princess, all giggles and grins like Giselle. At first I thought, "wow everyone here is so grumpy". But I don't think that is the case. I don't think that they are angry. I don't think they are indifferent to those around them. I think it is because they genuinely respect privacy and uphold modesty in behavior. You don't go around pushing your nose into other people's business here, you just don't. I think that this kind of decency is stitched throughout the quilt of English history. It is a part of their DNA because of the simple fact that they are an island. And not just an island, but a great nation on a relatively small island. There are a lot of people here, particularly in London. Everything is just a little closer together which makes finding privacy a little hard. So, how do you compensate for close quarters when you don't have an entire western section of the country to expand into? You learn how to find solitude in crowds. Having a stranger greet you on the street with an absurdly large smile would be comparable to having a giant storm into your living room at tea time. Rude. There are definitely some faults in this system. A smile on the street can brighten any day–particularly one marked with the characteristic English weather. On the other hand though, I think there are some benefits to this sense of public privacy. I have often found that it is hard to tell genuine kindness and openness in a culture that treats everyone as a BFF. Is that person really my friend or are they just that nice to everyone? Are they sincerely concerned about my wellbeing or are they simply asking because it is "the thing to do"? It's hard to create a real sense of community when every single person has a smile plastered on their faces 24/7. I know this might shock you, but just hear me out. We have all at least once in our lives gone through a photo session where you have to stand smiling at various cameras whilst trying not to giggle or cry and constantly shifting weight between feet trapped in uncomfortable shoes. I am, of course, referring to homecoming, prom, weddings, etc. After a while your smile, while at first genuine, begins to fade and your cheeks start to go numb. The best pictures are those ones caught in an instant of genuine happiness. Those rare captured moments of laughter at a joke, a hug of reunited friends, a great surprise. That's kind of what a smile in England like, it shows that someone actually has noticed you as an individual, not as simply another part of the mass of faces. Then if someone actually strikes up a conversation with you, wow, they actually want to be your acquaintance. They may even want to be your friend. I think this leads for a more honest society. It makes social-ness so much easier. 

I am not sure where I am going this and I am really really tired and my mind is slightly overflowing from class today...I just want to leave you with some thoughts. Is going around life like an advertisement for Yoplait really the best way to portray genuine kindness? Or does it lead to cheek numbness and a disdain for those you are "required" to smile at? Is that really the best way to make friends and create a community?

Sure there are pros and cons of every culture, but I just think it is important to take into consideration those of others than just our own. 

Picture courtesy of Judson Alphin

Then again, it would be pretty hard to be cheery and smily all the time when surrounded by such imposing buildings and beauty. Why smile when the surroundings can do it for you?