Gozo visit

Wayfinding in Malta

Today’s expedition was to Gozo: the second largest island in Malta, reached by means of a twenty minute ferry ride. Like the island of Malta, Gozo is speckled with churches of a distinctive architectural style, each of which serves as the most visible component of the towns of golden-yellow stone that dot the coastlines and hilltops.

Unlike previous days, our Gozo tour happened primarily by minibus. This allowed us to see what seemed to be a good cross section of the island’s attractions, and left our legs feeling strangely fresh at the end of the day. We saw a number of churches, the citadel, and a remarkable natural feature on the coastline called the Azure Window. I will make sure to post some images of it once I return to Oxford. It consists of a pillar connected to the land by a flat slab. Beneath it, the surprisingly violent waters of the Mediterranean churn.

The tour group format of this whole trip is quite unfamiliar to me. I am learning that it definitely has advantages: primarily insofar as housing and transport are arranged. Never having to mess about learning how to get places and waiting for buses really increases what you can see over a period of time. There is also value in being able to converse with relative strangers who you will nonetheless see again and again over the course of the week. I tend to work my way to the front of the column of walkers, pause to take a photo or two, and end up at the back again. This gives me a regular rotation through the ranks of our fellow travellers.

March may be the ideal time to visit Malta. The attractions of the place – like those of Italy – are split between the aesthetic and the historical. It has certainly been very sunny here, though not nearly so warm as July or August threaten to be. As such, we’ve been reasonably comfortable walking the terraced hills: looking at the cacti and lizards, as well as stopping regularly at the innumerable cafes. Malta certainly has more to it than you expect of a sun-and-sand style destination, and it’s certainly helpful that absolutely everyone seems to speak good English.

I dispatched a second wave of postcards today. Unfortunately, I forgot that the only copy I have of most people’s addresses is the one in my iPod – which I decided at the last minute to leave in Oxford. Thankfully, to send cards to people in Oxford requires only memory of which college they are at. I will also send postcards to as many people as possible who emailed me their addresses when I was in Estonia. With 81 emails in my inbox (as well as more than 200 automatically marked as spam) and the internet expensive and frustrating to use in the hotel, new contributions are not being solicited at this time.

The next two days are the last real touring days. Each is meant to involve a fairly long walk, which I am keen on after a day with relatively little exercise in it. I am onto my third roll of film (the second roll of T-Max 400, with another roll of HD400 untouched) and I’ve filled half of the 512MB memory card in my camera. Obviously, only a fraction of those shots will ultimately be good enough to post, but I am already looking forward to picking out the best (and removing the irksome fungus blotches from the digital shots). Mostly, the photos have been of the landscapes, though anything distant tends to be obscured by haze. I’ve also been chasing around some of the local wildlife. The birds in tiny cages that the hunters use as lures are easy enough to snap a photo of, though the result is as depressing as you would expect.

One thing that I miss about self-directed travel is the freedom to choose where you eat. The simple lunches of cheese, bread, and tomatoes that my mother and I have been eating are probably tastier, and certainly better value, than the hotel meals, which are fairly generic and not very vegetarian friendly. It’s certainly decent fare, but obviously geared towards meat eating Brits who are not very adventurous.

My return to Oxford will probably be late on the night of April 1st, after I see The Producers in London with my mother. Anyone who is burning with anticipation for an email response or a photo posted to the blog had best find something else to occupy their attention until then.

Malta introduction

Doorways in Mellieha

My mother and I have now passed an enjoyable day in Malta. We arrived yesterday evening and met with the group of mostly retirees with whom we will be walking over the course of the week. The first walk was today and, while it was not strenuous, it was nonetheless more challenging than I had expected. We got a couple of quite stunning hilltop views of this part of the island, as well as St. Paul’s Bay. Malta has the overall look of a Mediterranean country, with rough stone walls separating terraces and rows of somewhat parched hills extending down into bays. I expect that it will be a pleasant place to spend a week.

The group doing the harder hike seems to be largely composed of retired scientists and engineers. As such, I spent a good deal of the nine hours of the expedition talking about either engineering or photography. Everything from point and shoot consumer digital cameras to relatively ancient screw-mount Pentax SLRs were represented on the hike. Between the six or so avid photographers, these walks promise to be well documented. Personally, I used both my A510 for more documentary shots and my Elan 7N for the photos that I hope will prove artistic. Examples of both will doubtless find their way online. The vistas are quite nice and the architecture reminds me of Latin America: primarily because of the pastel colours and rectilinear forms.

The climate here is cooler than I expected, but certainly very sunny. After a few straight hours of walking in the sun, my brain felt positively cooked. I will probably need to regulate the temperature with some Maltese lager before I turn to my qualifying test notes. Surprisingly, the main local brew tastes a great deal like Sleeman’s Cream Ale, from back in Canada.

On one of today’s hilltops, we stopped to watch people arriving at a wedding reception. Between the appearance of the building – which declared itself to be a ducal villa – the stream of shiny black Mercedes automobiles, and the security men in suits around the perimeter, the whole affair had quite a godfather feel to it. Aside from some ludicrously dressed trumpeters, who looked as though they came from a bad imitation medieval restaurant in Tallinn, it certainly seemed a very classy affair. My pity goes out to all the foxes that died to adorn the necks of women standing in the hot sun.

With out buffet dinner starting in a few minutes, I should probably turn to academically related emails. Unfortunately, the computer in the hotel is too crippled in its functionality to be used to post images to the blog. That’s a bit surprising, since the place is far more upscale than the kind of accommodation I am accustomed to while travelling. My mother and I, for instance, have a better kitchen than the one in Library Court right in our room, as well as quite a nice view of the bay and the church on the next hill from our balcony.

Cyclically adjusted

Me and my bike in the Wadham back quad

People will be pleased to know that my mother very kindly bought me a bicycle, from Beeline Cycles in Cowley. I tried both the hybrid – which felt quite good – and the mountain bike – which was obviously cheaply assembled and far too small – and we decided on the former.

The bike is a fast feeling hybrid, with thin wheels, mudguards, and a rack on the back. After having coffee with Emily and my mother, I took the bike out for a ten mile ride to test it out. I went up the Banbury Road, through the countryside to Kidlington, through Kidlington itself, and back. The ride was a reminder that I haven’t cycled in a long while, but am luckily not badly out of form. Using the British roadways for the first time, I was glad for all the cycle paths and the relatively clear signage. Next time, I will try going south.

For now, the bike. will need to wait in the Wadham bike shed until I get back from Malta. I suppose it’s nice to have something to look forward to after a vacation.

Cyclical adjustments

Oxford Natural History Museum

Bicycle shopping today went badly. I tried eBay and Craiglist without finding anything appealing. I also walked to the Oxford Cycle Workshop, on Magdalen Street between Iffley and Cowley, but they don’t have any bicycles in my size available. They did, however, issue the third warning I have received not to buy used bikes from the Cycle King on Cowley Road.

One option that seems as though it might be good are the police auctions that take place from time to time. The Thames Valley Police website doesn’t seem to say anything about them and the best I can find elsewhere is the vague suggestion that they might happen on Wednesdays. I will stop by the station on St. Aldates to ask about them tomorrow.

I do have a bike back in Vancouver, but the difficulty of conveying it here probably means that it’s better to leave it there for now. I got it quite a long time ago, during the summer after my first year at UBC (2002). That is when I was first living in Fairview – working as a cashier at the almost completely empty Pharmasave. I remember biking down to see Jenny and Zandara, when they were living near the Alma Street 7-11, as well as regularly making the 22km trek from UBC to my parents’ house in North Vancouver.

That ride was a really nice one if done properly. You can follow a route parallel to Broadway that is specially marked off for bikes. Alternatively, you can follow the beaches that encircle UBC eastward until you reach the Burrard Street Bridge. From there, you can follow the shoreline past the Aquatic Centre and along the really stunning area near English Bay. It’s especially lovely in the evening. Once you get to Stanley Park, you can follow trails that parallel the causeway, eventually joining it to cross the Lions Gate Bridge into North Vancouver.

The last good bike trip I had in British Columbia is when I went Galiano Island with Tristan and his brother. A few of my photos from the trip are here. I can’t seem to find any of Tristan’s online.

After a couple of years of not riding regularly, I doubt I would be able to climb the hill from Marine Drive in North Vancouver up to my parents’ house. They only live about eighty metres above sea level, but it is a lot harder to push yourself and a bike up that kind of hill than it is to walk up. Of course, such concerns do not exist in Oxford which – for good or ill – barely has a slight slope anywhere in it.

One of the reasons getting a bike would be so nice is that it would let me explore the area beyond Oxford a bit. During the summer, when the days are longer, it would be interesting to visit some of the outlying towns and villages. In general, it would also be good to get some exercise. If nothing else, it might help me sleep.

The bicycle plan, then, has been prioritized and is moving on apace. Hopefully, my mother will be able to bring my helmet, D-Lock, and lights from North Vancouver. Buying them here seems like it would cost seventy Pounds, or more.

  • With only a week left in the term, the search for someone to sublet either my room in Wadham or the one I am moving into on Church Walk is becoming pressing. Either is available starting between April 10th and 20th and until June 17th. Anyone interested in more information should email me. The room in Library Court is available to Wadham College students only.
  • My new MDR-EX71SL headphones arrived today. Listening to them as I walked up Cowley and down Iffley Road, the sound quality seems to be quite good. Compared to my very similar broken headphones, they seem to put more emphasis on mid-range sounds and accentuate percussion a bit more. In any event, I am happy enough with them, even though they seem to be made from a lower grade of plastic. The original pair lasted about six years before falling apart. We will see how these ones fare.

Ascensions in Bath

The Sacred Pool, Bath

To the east and west of the centre of Bath are hills about 200m high. Both on the coach ridges there and back and while in the town itself, it was largely this topography that struck me. Oxford, you see, is a cracker. Only from south of the Magdalen Bridge can you find any kind of hill, and even those are laughable. Bath, by contrast, is almost perfectly composed to be looked over from above.

Upon arriving with the coach load of Sarah Lawrence students, the first place half of us went was the former Roman baths themselves. There, we atomized, and I didn’t see anyone again until we met for the coach ride home at five. Now built somewhat awkwardly into a museum – encased in black painted walls that look like the backstage area of a theatre – you can see the remains of former saunas and the realities of a collection of still-existent pools. The over-dramatic audio guide will tell you in almost comically reverent tones about the goddess to whom the former temple is dedicated.

The town of Bath reminds me a lot of Victoria, British Columbia. It has a similar pedestrian focus and the same sense of being designed for tourists. Even the residential areas that surround it, such as the one that runs to the top of the first hill I climbed, have a similar look. It’s a much larger place than Oxford and considerably more open. It may have been the brilliant weather, but people also seemed to smile more. The second hill I climbed – the westerly one – is capped by a fairly large park that, by walking around the circumference, offers views of all the surrounding hills and countryside.

Unsurprisingly, between ruins, town, and hills I took quite a number of photos. Rather than post them all at once – which would require editing the dust/mold specks out of the whole collection tonight – I think I will post them one by one until I run out of good ones. It may not represent the place where I am from day to day, but it should be more interesting than perpetuating the parade of Oxford shots.

Misty Oxford Wandering


This afternoon, between bouts of reading Connelly’s The Terms of Political Discourse, I went for a long solitary walk along the darkening riverside. It was reminiscent of my long wander in the cold in Helsinki and it effected a fairly comprehensive shift in the way I was feeling. In contrast to the increasing gloom, I found my mood progressively lightening. That may be partly because the river is the only place in Oxford where you see significant numbers of animals, aside from police horses. There were herons and Greylag Geese, as well as teams of rowers moving in elegantly coordinated fashion along the Isis. I know this is the second time these particular waterfowl have been the subject of the photo of the day, but I feel a considerable amount of affection towards them. They have a look that I really appreciate, and they are completely fearless when it comes to people, which makes it easier to photograph them.

Walking along the tributary of the Isis that breaks northward towards Merton College, while listening to Vivaldi’s “Winter” (perhaps my favourite piece for strings), I felt almost perfectly at home. Because of the cloud and gathering darkness, I was the only person in the whole vast area, a circumstance that cannot help but conjure a sense of liberation. Returning to Starbucks to carry on reading, I felt like my brain had been completely reset and that everything that had happened in the last few days had taken place a long time ago. Paradoxical as it may be to feel at home in disconnection, it makes sense to me. The times when the world seems most incomprehensible are exactly those where the precise place and time you are at become critically important.

As I mentioned to Bilyana earlier today, Oxford life has reached the point of mental saturation for me. Like the vague feeling of eternal placement you get a few months after returning to school after a break, it has become something so automatically present as to comprise almost everything you can remember or imagine. This isn’t really a positive or negative development, in and of itself. It’s simply reflective of comprehensive immersion in an environment. All this is partly a reflection of comfort: I know the city now and would never think of carrying around a map, as I did during my first few weeks. Also, I know from my first-term evaluations that I am at least meeting the standard for my program – an enormous relief to someone a bit anxious at starting at a new school.

Oxbloggers meeting postponed

On the matter of the bloggers’ gathering initially planned for this Friday, it seems that most people want the date shifted. Since there isn’t really a mechanism for coordinating otherwise, I will just arbitrarily dictate a new date that seems to work for most people. I hope to see many of you there.

New Oxbloggers’ Meeting date: Tuesday, February 21st. 8:00pm. The Turf Tavern.

  • The Sainsbury’s Chunky Vegetable Chili soup is quite good, probably their second best vegetarian soup after Tomato Basil. Given that I’ve eaten about thirty litres of the latter, it’s nice to have something new to try. I appreciate that the chili soup is at least slightly spicy, and that is has beans in it. I can’t even look at the Carrot and Coriander soup, since I bought fifteen of them when they were on sale for 20p each.
  • Some particularly clever articles from The Onion: on endangered species and American politics.

Halfway done term two, week two

White balance error... in my favour!

My essay on realism and neorealism has finally been dispatched to Dr. Hurrell. It will be nice to give my EndNote databases a rest, though it really just means a return to more reading. The last class on foreign policy analysis is tomorrow and I’ve yet to do the reading for it. Hopefully, this class will be better set up for the large group format than the last one was.

As a gift from China, Neal sent me a tin of Tieguanyin: “one of the most famous and highly prized teas in China, and possibly the greatest oolong tea produced anywhere.” He explains that Guanyin is both a Taoist saint and the Sino-Japanese-Korean Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Apparently, this specific varietal of Camellia sinensis is called Hong-Xing-Wi-Ma-Tau. I wish I had my beautiful Murchie’s teapot – itself a gift – in which to brew it. Many thanks.

Having nineteen emails in my inbox, where I only keep items that require some kind of response, is a marker for how busy the term is becoming. It’s a feeling I generally appreciate. At least when I am spending time doing things other than reading, I am generally doing things that are entirely justifiable and necessary.

The next item on my personal travel itinerary should be Africa. I’ve never been there before and it really seems like the kind of place you cannot be complete until you’ve seen. For a first trip, the most likely options are Kenya, Tanzania (Mount Kilimanjaro being near the border of those two states), South Africa, Nigeria, or possibly somewhere in West Africa, like Ghana or Benin. Regardless of where the trip ends up being to, I’d much prefer to go with someone who knows the country in question already. A trip to a French speaking part of Africa would also be preferable, since it would give me an incentive to brush up on my French before leaving and an opportunity to converse in at least one of the native tongues.

  • Tim has some interesting cabinet speculation. Canadian mousepad wonks, have a look.
  • On a related note, the definition of ‘wonk’ in the OED has nothing whatsoever to do with its most common usage today.
  • Many thanks to Margaret for informing me that this Saturday (January 28th), Philip Pulman will be at an Alternative Careers Fair at the Exam Schools, talking about how to be a writer. I will most certainly be in attendance. The event begins at 11:00am.
  • I bought another two months worth of multivitamins and omega-3 fatty acids today. While they’re obviously not a substitute for eating well, they make for a nice accompaniment. Those who are concerned about my diet, rejoice.
  • Anyone who doesn’t believe that the world, as we see it, is largely constructed on the basis of assumptions your brain makes about the world should watch this video. It’s a relatively rare case of a strange three-dimensional optical effect that still works when filmed (ie. presented without the benefit of stereo vision).

Things to do in Vancouver

I’ve been asked to provide a list of things to do in Vancouver, for the benefit of people visiting. For the critical reason that it is not statistics, I am going to do so now.

The first area to address is the ‘classic touristy stuff’ category. Included within it are both things worth seeing and things better avoided. I would definitely suggest going up Grouse Mountain but, if at all possible, I highly recommend doing so by climbing either the Grouse Grind or the Baden Powell Trail. Both would provide a much more authentic Western Canadian experience. Both are fairly energy intensive trails, but nothing that a young and fit person wouldn’t be able to deal with. A less strenuous option in the same area is to walk up or down Capilano Canyon, either from or to Cleveland Dam.

Also in North Vancouver is the Capilano Suspension Bridge. My advice: skip it. It’s one of those ‘drive a whole tour bus full of (probably German or Japanese) tourists with digital cameras and expose them to actors in period clothing’ kind of places. If you want to see a suspension bridge, I recommend the one in Lynn Canyon. It’s free and there are a number of nice hikes there. You can walk around Rice Lake (very easy), up to Lynn Headwaters (still easy, but longer), up to Norvan Falls (more of a challenge), or all the way up Hanes Valley, up Crown Pass, and then down Grouse Mountain (a serious day-long trek, with an interesting but difficult to navigate boulder field segment).

Among more urban attractions I would recommend: Granville Island, a kind of cultural conglomeration under the Granville Street Bridge, built on former industrial land. It features a number of good theatres, such as the Arts Club. Check what’s playing. Also located there: a number of good markets and restaurants. A good place for souvenir shopping.

Downtown is worth a bit of a wander, but I would avoid Granville Street. Instead, walk westward along Robson Street towards English Bay. That route passes some of my favourite restaurants in the city. Tropika, not far past the provincial courthouse, is an excellent Thai/Malaysian restaurant which is ideal for going to with a group. Farther along, Hapa Izakaya is one of Vancouver’s funkiest contemporary places, serving modern Japanese food in a unique atmosphere. Farther still, where Robson meets Denman, you will find Kintaro – an authentic Asian noodle house popular with the business crowd, Wild Garlic, a fun little bistro with good drink specials, and Tapas Tree, a safe option for non-adventurous diners that still offers some interesting menu items.

Once you get to Denman, walk southwards along it, possibly stopping for gelato at one of many places nearby or for a coffee at the Delany’s there. Alternatively, ask someone to direct you to the nearby liquor store and watch the sun set while sitting against a log in English bay with a bottle of two of the excellent local Granville Island Breweries beers. I recommend their amber ale and the winter ale, if it’s in season.

North and east of the central area of downtown, you find Gastown, which is probably worth a bit of a look as well. It’s right beside some of the dodgiest areas not only in Vancouver, but in any city I’ve visited, so watch out. The waterfront between the Pan-Pacific Hotel and Coal Harbour (next to Stanley Park) is also a nice walk. For something longer, you can extend it all the way around the sea wall, under the Lions Gate Bridge, and then back around into English Bay. A bit less ambitiously, you can cross the causeway leading to the bridge, walk around one side of Lost Lagoon, and reach English Bay along one of a number of nice paths.

Personally, I would recommend visiting the campus of the University of British Columbia. If you do, don’t miss the fantastic view from the escarpment near Place Vanier (ask some students how to get there). Consider walking down the wooden steps to Wreck Beach: Vancouver’s nude beach and an attractive place to visit any time of year. If you carry on northwards, along the beach, you will pass two spotlight towers installed during the second world war in case of Japanese invasion. Farther still are Jericho and Spanish Banks: really nice beaches to visit in the summer to swim, windsurf, or have a bonfire.

Another nice expedition is to catch the Seabus from its downtown terminal at the base of Seymour Street across Burrard Inlet to North Vancouver. It only costs $2 or so and it gives you a nice view of the harbour. The other terminus is at Lonsdale Quay: worth a bit of a look for its own sake. A few blocks up Lonsdale Avenue, you will find Honjin: one of many cheap and excellent sushi restaurants in Vancouver.

If you want to eat on the cheap, the 99 cent pizza downtown can’t be beaten. Avoid Love at First Bite on Granville. Instead, go to either AM or FM classic (on Smithe and Seymour, respectively) or to my favourite, which is located across Seymour Street from A&B sound, near the 7-11.

Another area worth visiting is Commercial Drive. Either catch the 99 bus down Broadway or one of several buses or the Skytrain from downtown. This street features a number of art galleries, fun cafes, and a nice bohemian atmosphere. It is to Vancouver what SoHo is to New York or what Kensington Market is to Toronto.

There are lots of good theatres in Vancouver: the Orpheum downtown, the Stanley out near Broadway, the Firehall theatre near gastown, and the Chan Centre and Freddy Wood theatres on campus at UBC. Grab a copy of The Georgia Strait to see what is happening, in terms of music and live theatre. It’s free and includes the excellent column “Savage Love.” Look for it in boxes around the downtown area.

Dance clubs really don’t interest me, but the ones people seem to go to are mostly on the northern bit of Granville Street, before you reach the bridge. I would recommend The Cellar (the jazz club on Broadway, not the sleazy dance club on Granville) for some live music and a nice atmosphere.

This is nowhere near a comprehensive list, but it should be enough to get started. Vancouver is a really wonderful city: beautiful, easy to get around in by public transit, and large enough to have a good level of culture. While it can definitely get extremely rainy at times, if you find yourself with some nice weather, I strongly recommend one of the walks or hikes I mentioned above, or something else of your own devising outside.

Good day or weekend trips from Vancouver include Whistler, for skiing or snowboarding as well as general mountain exposure, or Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

Demure day

The Isis on a cold day

The possibility of having to walk through snow to reach the Library Court showers was realized for the first time today. As described on Ruth Anne’s blog, we got a dusting last night that has not endured through the warmer part of the day. Indeed, having to tramp through it in bare feet was actually proof of my waking up acceptably early. I was initially alerted to this unexpected meteorological phenomena by Tanushree’s audible jubilation this morning; my fellow Wadham inhabitant had not previously encountered snow. It’s rare enough for Vancouverites, as well. I wouldn’t mind getting a foot or so of it at some point, if only so I could zip around Oxford getting photos that look at least a bit different.

I heard, but did not see, that Abra – one of the Canadian law students here – has returned to Library Court: increasing the population by 50% over yesterday. No indication yet of where Nora is, though I am quite sure she has returned to the U.K. from North Carolina. The prospect of re-population is a welcome one, as is that of trying the recipe for dahl that Tanushree gave me today. Perhaps an upcoming New Year’s party will provide it. I’ve been a fan of lentils for as long as I can recall, and could certainly make use of some additional protein.

Tomorrow, I am making my third trip to London since arriving in the UK, as well as my second for which the city itself is my objective. In the evening, I will be meeting with ITG, but I will probably go a bit earlier and take a wander through the Tate Modern and a few other places. Perhaps there will be some opportunity to meet with Sarah Johnston, if only for a quick cup of coffee.

Having tallied up the surprisingly high cost of the Baltic jaunt, I must actively try not to further increase a credit card bill that has already become somewhat daunting. At the same time, I need to resist the urge to overcompensate by falling back on a cheese and bagels diet (which I’ve sworn off, for now) or complete social isolation. With snap peas 80% off, after Christmas, there is no need.

There was one nice thing that happened this evening, but this isn’t really the place to discuss it.

  • People concerned with putting images on the web might find this page interesting and useful. It’s about the nuts and bolts behind different image formats. In particular, the discussion of the specifics of JPEG compression is probably useful for digital photographers.
  • If you are younger than 30 today and living in the developed world, you are likely to be alive when the human population peaks: at around ten billion people, around 2050. It’s an astonishing thought, and a welcome one, given that slowing population growth should increase our ability to reduce poverty, and decrease the strain we are putting on the planet’s resources.
  • Finally, I love The Economist‘s Christmas issue. It’s full of exactly the kind of wonderful, obscure facts that prompt people to ask “How do you know that?” in astonished tones, when you relate them. If you buy only one issue a year, this is the one to choose.
  • General Sir Rupert Smith, who I saw speak in late October, has a new book on the changing character of war out: The Utility of Force. It seems to have been well reviewed, and has consequently been added to my ever-lengthening discretionary reading list.