Some perspective

I read something tonight – something Astrid sent me from Ecuador – that makes me feel ashamed about how trivial all the thoughts and concerns represented on this site are. How is it that we can legitimately complain about this or that aspect of life in Oxford when the whole experience of it is incomparably safer and richer than that of a huge tranche of humanity? A vignette of some of the more shocking products of that inequality lends incredible poignancy to the question. A more important question that follows is: what must we do?

To be exposed to the enormity of poverty and injustice is to be charged with an overwhelming ethical sense that something must be done; and yet, the content of that something is unclear. The experience is reminiscent of that of reading an article my aunt wrote: one of an astonished powerlessness. All that I feel as though I can do now is not to forget about it, just because it is usually concealed and peripheral to my thinking. If we are go get anywhere, as a world of people. we need to deal with this.

Perhaps, on the basis of her experiences in South America, Astrid will be able to understand – and help many more of us understand – the complexities and the imperatives involved.

Tallinn trip confirmed

Man in Graveyard

I am now officially booked to go to Tallinn from the 16th of December until the 22nd. It’s an area I’m excited to visit, since I’ve never been anywhere remotely like it. After my EndNote course today, I went to Blackwell’s and looked through the travel books on Estonia for a while. Some of its appeal as a destination comes from how I know so little about it. It should be an adventure. There also seems to be the possibility of going to Finland for a day or so; apparently, Helsinki is a cheap three hour ferry ride away. Sarah and I intend to have a look at that, as well.

The other thing that caught my eye at Blackwell’s was a collection of large laminated wall maps of the world, each with metal strips along the top and bottom, such that they can be hung. The strict new prohibition against Blu-Tac in Wadham increases the importance of the latter feature. Given that I’ve just spent one hundred pounds on flights to and from Tallinn, as well as some travel insurance, now is not the time to buy such a map. At the same time, it’s a thing I should definitely get eventually. I remember spending long periods of time perusing the one on the wall behind the fax machines at the law firm whose mail room I used to work in. The more time I spent within three kilometres of Wadham (35 days or so), the more I begin to fantasize about exploring much farther afield.

This evening, Nora and I drank the tea that Meghan sent me. It was a pleasant reminder of good things left behind on the west coast, and I appreciate her sending it. Thinking about Vancouver reminds me of how odd it will be to spend Christmas in Oxford. It will probably be a bit like the days in the December of my first year when Nick, Neal, Jonathan, and I occupied the near-empty dormitory for the winter solstice and “Pagan X-Box Con 2001.”

Later in the evening, I had a good wander with Emily: talking about the program, upcoming papers, plans for the break, and such. She says that she can help me get some kind of decent and well-paying job in London for the period between the two years of the M.Phil. It would be incredible to both have my first ‘real’ job and have the chance to somewhat reduce the amount of debt I will be taking on next year. I’m also excited that she has invited me to have dinner with her and her father at some point. As I may have already mentioned, he is a sculptor who lives in Oxford and who, if I recall correctly, made the heads around the top of the Sheldonian Theatre, as well as the friars at the Blackfriars tube station in London.

The walk, up and down St. Aldate’s Road and then to St. Antony’s along St. Giles, was a good conclusion to a day that has restored me to some kind of productive emotional equilibrium, after the curious dip of these past two days. Now, I can get on to the serious work of drafting two papers and a presentation, all for next Tuesday.

PS. This Friday, there is to be a gathering of Oxford bloggers, at a yet-to-be-decided location. It will be interesting to meet some contemporaries of that kind. Perhaps it will offer some tips on how to improve the rudimentary formatting of this blog, as compared with the slick complexity of some of the others.

Stuck in a library, perhaps, but with thoughts in loftier places

The Social Sciences Library

Despite another mishap with my alarm clock, I managed to do quite well today. With two short breaks outside excluded, I was in the Social Sciences Library for the entire six hour span from opening to closing. To start with, I read the relevant half of Shlaim Avi’s War and Peace in the Middle East. While very readable, it underscored just how little I know about the region at the time. It would be quite impossible to develop a comprehensive knowledge of it by Tuesday. Actually, I have serious doubts about the wisdom of this academic approach. On the basis of no actual instruction, we are being called upon to synthesize weekly arguments on the basis of highly detailed, numerous, and academic accounts. While it’s a game that I have some ability to play, I don’t really think it is making me more knowledgeable or capable.

Despite my doubts, and bolstered by two sandwiches prepared from materials purchased at Sainsbury’s, rather than purchased directly from there, I carried on reading. I finished half of Elizabeth Monroe’s Britain’s Moment in the Middle East: 1914-71. It too was fairly good to read, though it made many references to personages and no-longer-extant political entities that I know nothing about. As with Avi, I at least maintain the gist of the argument. Once I finish reading the relevant sections from David Fromkin’s The Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East I should have enough raw material to build a decent fifteen minute presentation about.

During one of today’s short intra-library breaks, I created a Google Group for the graduate freshers in the IR program. It will be publicly accessible, in case anyone is interested. I am hoping to use it to coordinate weekly meetings with the six other members of my heptet for the core seminar. Since none of us will be able to do all the readings, it would be enriching for all of us to have a short discussion before the actual seminar takes place. Doing so should also reduce some of the stress and wastefulness associated with having everyone prepare presentations independently.

An hour after the library closed, I met Margaret outside Nuffield. Through the light rain, we wandered to a coffee shop on St. Aldate’s, which is open until midnight every day of the week. While I can’t remember the extended form of its name, it abbreviates to G and D’s. It is located quite near the music shop where Nora bought a guitar string and not far from Christ Church College, the Head of the River, and the Folly Bridge (each progressively farther south).

As before, talking with Margaret was relaxed and pleasant. I learned that we share the intention of eventually climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. As I recall, someone from my father’s firm climbed it at some point during the past few years. It’s something I would rather like to do during one of the stretches between terms, if only so that I could mildly amaze people who asked me what I did over the course of the vacation. After coffee, we wandered to Wadham and then back to Nuffield, where I left her in the company of her friend Anna.

Tomorrow morning, I am to visit the Wadham doctors on Beaumont Street for a meningitis and mumps vaccination. After that, I shall return to the scrutinizing of The Peace to End All Peace before meeting Emily at one. In case I haven’t mentioned her already, Emily is part of the IR M.Phil group, Canadian, located at St. Antony’s, and an alumna of Brown. I wonder if she knew Eva. She has kindly invited me, at some indefinite future point, to come to dinner at her college.

Other tasks for tomorrow include learning what NatWest would charge me if I simply wrote a cheque from the Bank of Montreal for the amount I want to transfer, rather than going through the bother of acquiring, signing, and mailing an Agreement for Verbal and Facsimile Transmissions to my home branch, then authorizing a wire transfer that will cost $50. In a related task, I need to go formally request an extension for paying my battles from the Domestic Bursar. They will have started charging me interest on the 14th. I also need to contact the department about why they haven’t sent me a bill for my first term tuition and the BC student loans office about why they haven’t sent me anything in months. It should be more-or-less obvious by now that the above list is mostly for my benefit, because it is very useful to have such things in places where you can find them quickly and they cannot be lost.

Looking through the glossy brochure for the Oxford Union, there is much that makes it tempting. They seem to have a fairly large lending library, which is always a valuable resource (especially when it is focused on history and politics). They regularly have excellent speakers: presidents of countries, Salman Rushdie, Terry Pratchett, and Jeffery Sacks this term alone. They have a couple of nice looking member’s lounges, complete with the availability of £1 pints. Up until Thursday of next week, I could get a lifetime membership for £156 (C$340). After that, it becomes even more expensive. At a third of the cost, I would join readily. As it stands, I think that I shall not. $340 would go a fair way towards my eventual Kilimanjaro climb.

Kilimanjaro is 5,895m tall: 4.7 times as high as Grouse Mountain, which is what Alison, Jonathan, and I meant to climb a few days before I left. While the comparison is obviously quite deceptive, in terms of the respective difficulty of the climbs, it does offer the hope that it would not be an entirely impossible thing to actually pull off. Climbing Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro requires neither rock nor ice climbing skills, the major difficulty being the need to acclimatize to prevent altitude sickness. The climb can apparently be done in as little as four or five days. Wikipedia tells me that 15,000 people a year try to climb Kilimanjaro, though only 40% persist to the summit. Seeing how eminently feasible it would be to make an attempt in the next few years, my determination to do so increases considerably. It might be a good way to celebrate the completion of my M.Phil. Obviously, it would require quite a lot of fitness training beforehand.

I should, in any event, stop wandering through Kilimanjaro sites and return to the enormously less interesting task of reading for my core seminar.

Oxford libraries

Fountain in Nuffield Quad

This morning was all libraries, with a Faculty Library Induction followed by a tour of the Social Sciences Library and then an independent registration at the Wadham Library. Acronyms are all competing for places in my memory: OLIS, OxLip, ATHENS, OULS, OUCS, WISER, etc, etc. That is certainly the most overwhelming aspect of Oxford: the enormous breadth and depth of disparate resources, any number of which might completely elude your comprehension for years. Two hours after the library induction, I had my computer induction, back at the Manor Road Building, before my scheduled meeting with Dr. Hurrell.

I rather enjoyed our induction with the DPIR IT department. The man in charge, Derrek Goeneveld, was funny and personable. Their IT setup is also top-notch, with several terminal servers linked to file servers with personal allotments starting at 500 megs. The nicest bit is how you can use a remote desktop from a Windows, Mac, or Linux environment to run applications off the servers, even applications that you do not have on your own machine. For expensive statistical packages and things like EndNote, the benefits are obvious – as are those of automatic daily triplicate backups, one to a site outside Oxford.

The meeting with Dr. Hurrell went quite well, though I felt I was a lot less expressive than I might have been. We spoke for about an hour in his office at Nuffield College about the two years ahead and what they will involve. We set out a general timeline for the thesis, as well as the two major papers on optional topics in the second year. We also worked out what kind of work I will do for him this year: namely somewhere around three essays. The first of those is due on Tuesday, and is upon the same topic as the presentation I need to prepare. Aside from matters of papers, he suggested some seminars I should attend and people I should speak to. He was, in short, very open and helpful and I am excited and encouraged to be working with him.

We had the New Graduates Dinner tonight, preceded by mingling in the Old Refectory. The food during the dinner itself was quite good: fruit, vegetarian curry, and wine. I ate sitting beside Bilyana and the rest of the MCR Committee. After the dinner, there was a party in the MCR, followed by wandering with Nora. Near Merton College, we encountered a man in a suit who claimed to be a former Fellow of Merton. After conversing with him for a while, we headed back to college.

Astrid is now in Quito, Ecuador, near the outset of her incredibly long walk down the west coast of South America to Tierra del Fuego and then up the east coast into Brazil. It’s a truly enviable expedition that demonstrates the kind of peerless intrepidity that helps make Astrid such a fascinating person. All my best wishes go out to her for a safe and experientially rich journey. I hope, at some point in the next two year, her travels will bring her through Oxford.

I conversed for a while this afternoon with Neal in Beijing. Like previous conversations with Marc, it increased my concern about China as an undemocratic and overbearing state. Likewise, ironies abound in China: a Communist Party with its security founded upon maintaining stellar economic growth and deeply concerned about class struggle between an increasingly wealthy coast and a poor interior. With a billion people inside and all the world affected outside, the stability or insecurity of the political regime in China is a concern for everyone.

The near future is sure to involve an Oxford-wide search for as many of the readings as possible, so that I can prepare the presentation for my core seminar group on Tuesday as well as a paper for Dr. Hurrell on the same subject. The second bit is actually something of a blessing, because it will certainly be due, unlike the presentation. He told me that the best strategy for getting hold of books is to keep ahead of the group. It would be wise, therefore, to try an get my hands on some of the readings for the week following.

In closing, I want to thank Nora for her many kindnesses since my arrival. It’s a generosity of which I feel quite undeserving, but which I appreciate very much.

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Arrival in Oxford

The main quad of Wadham College

When I arrived in Oxford, it was raining. I made my way from the train station, with bags in hand and strapped to my body, guided by the map I bought with Sarah, until I reached Wadham College. With little difficulty, I found the Porter, who gave me the keys to my room in Library Court. My windows open onto a balcony that overlooks a courtyard, with the college library beneath it.

Within minutes of arriving in my room (before I was even unpacked), I met Kelly, the Alabaman student of ancient languages and medieval history who is living in the room beside mine. She means to stay in England permanently. I spoke with her for about half an hour, sharing tea in her room. She has helped me to become somewhat oriented, a process that was enlarged upon later when I made visits to the Domestic Bursar’s office and the Tutorial Office. Before doing so, however, I met another resident of the upper portion of the Library Court: Nora, who is from North Carolina. She and Kelly are studying Latin together for an hour each morning and afternoon.

After giving myself a bit of a tour of the college, I set off back into town: intent upon at least starting the process of opening a bank account. Unfortunately, NatWest won’t give a free youth rail card to international students opening accounts, as they will for domestic ones. I shall, in any event, have to wait until Monday for any banking stuff to move forward. I was able, nonetheless, to purchase some groceries to tide me over until the college begins serving dinners at start of term. Even then, it will be up to us to produce our own breakfasts and lunches. I have a very small fridge in my room and there is another down in the shared kitchen for the Library Court residents. We each have an en-suite washroom with a sink, as well as shared shower rooms on the floor below.

As I came back from shopping, I found my way down to the computer room and met Richard Leach, the IT Assistant. He set me up with a temporary keycard for the side gate of the college and the library. Since the Bodeleian cards for the other Wadham grad students are not yet working, I am probably the only graduate student at Wadham who has such access.

This evening, I had a lovely dinner with Nora and Kelly. We made pasta with sauce infused with fresh vegetables. Accompanying it was a bottle of Shiraz that I purchased at Sainsbury’s for £4.50. All told, both the preparation and the consumption of the meal were most enjoyable. Nora provided me with a somewhat detailed overview of British history from 54 A.D. until the time of Richard I, to be continued at a later date. The part that stuck in my mind is mostly about how a great deal of time was spent fighting one another, Scots, Danes, and such. After dinner, we retired to Kelly’s room again and combined the drinking of tea with what became a conversation (read, somewhat heated debate) about the importance of understanding the thought processes and reasoning of terrorists, whether we consider their actions justifiable and rational or not.

In short, I’ve been impressed by my first day in Oxford. The initial rain soon became a nicely diffused sunshine that complimented my initial wanderings. I’ve also had the excellent fortune of making the acquaintance of two neighbouring D.Phil students who are good conversationalists. Right at the end of this evening, we were joined by another member of the upper gallery of the Library Court: a 27 year old former Osgood law student with a focus on international humanitarian law. A bit odd to have two young women from the southern United States and two Canadians suddenly living together, but definitely not a bad arrangement. For the first time ever in residence, I am excited about my neighbours and glad to live in their company. I am glad I came early. I am glad I chose Oxford. Many anxieties have been neatly quashed today.

I was astonished a moment ago to see the time. Even with whatever effects jet lag should be producing, I still feel quite energetic. In the morning, we are going to meet for breakfast, along with the newest addition to our social and self-orientation group. In consideration of that, I should go to bed. Since all of the college bureaucracy will be closed for the weekend, I am supposing it will be best spent in meeting people and getting a start on my reading, by means of the key card that Richard so helpfully provided for me.

Published from 11 Library Court, Wadham College, Oxford

Milan on the Millenium Bridge in London. Photo by Sarah Johnston

Sitting on the train to Oxford, from London, I am thinking back on the exceptionally extended day that was yesterday. Sleepless on Tuesday night, I spent much of the flight to London in a kind of uneasy resting trance: punctuated by turbulence and the screaming of infants. As it worked out, I had one such child on each side of me.

Unable to find a bus to Oxford from Gatwick Airport, I decided to take the train into London. I arrived at Victoria Station at 5:00am in the local time. Knowing that I couldn’t carry on thinking of myself as a fairly decent human being if I called Sarah so soon, I spend the next two and a half hours reading The Metaphysical Club. It’s a book about which I cannot possibly hope to hold on to the details, once I am finished, but about which I’ve appreciated the general thrust. In particular, I like the bits about the nature of the Northern abolitionist movement in the United States prior to the civil war, as well as the lengthy section discussing the evolution and frequent misapplication of statistics.

At 7:30, I called Sarah and then conveyed myself – along with my weight in baggage – from Victoria Station to a tube station in the northeast part of greater London, where she met me. She and her fiancee Peter are living in a flat immediately beside the construction site where their new and permanent home is being constructed. Glad to be able to leave my bags there, I headed back into town with Sarah for a day of wandering.

We began by visiting Covent Garden, one of many places that I remember from my prior visit in the summer of 2001. Nearby, we visited Sarah’s favourite map shop and I got small maps of London and Oxford. Just having them in my pocket, I feel less out-of-place. From there, we briefly visited Trafalgar Square: with Nelson’s column, Canada House, and hordes of marauding pigeons on display. Afterwards, we stopped by University College London, where swarms of international students are waiting in long lines in colour coded sections. Naturally, I got my photo taken beside the preserved corpse of famed utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. We then met with Peter for lunch in the building where he works; Sarah tells me that the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 is modeled after it. It was also a favourite building of Adolph Hitler, who apparently intended to make it into his headquarters once he conquered Britain.

After cappuccinos and conversation with Peter – who works at digitizing data when not doing historical research towards his PhD – Sarah and I took the tube to Saint Paul’s, crossed the Millennium Bridge, and visited the Tate Modern Gallery. She had never been there before and I took care to bring her into the building through its soaring atrium. A converted power station, the Tate Modern has a very distinctive aesthetic that I quite appreciate. Wandering through at about three times standard, respectful museum walking speed, we realized that we have a view of modern art that is not overly dissimilar.

Back at Peter and Sarah’s flat, we had lasagna and wine for dinner. Despite the interesting conversation, I found myself seriously wavering by 9:30, having not properly slept since Monday night – some sixty hours previously. This morning, I woke up around 7:30am, feeling much more awake than I would have dared to hope for. Sarah accompanied me along the streets and through the tube to Paddington Station.

As was the case last summer, I am overwhelmed with appreciation for Sarah’s exceptional hospitality. It changes the whole character of arriving in a strange place to have a helpful friend there. I shall have no such friends in Oxford, but this day in London has mitigated many of my concerns about that.

PS. Let it be known that the Shane Koyczan CD that Sasha Wiley gave me (American Pie Chart) and the Apocalyptica CD that Drew Gave me (Reflections) are both superb. They enriched the plane ride and the days before it.

Farewell to Vancouver, and the West

Hilary McNaughton and I, Edgemont Village. Photo credit: Jonathan Morissette

Some sort of melancholic poem might be appropriate here, but I’ve been too busy to prepare one.

Tomorrow morning, I am to wake at 4:30am in order to cross town to the airport, get through whatever kind of security screening they feel inclined to subject me to, and board my 8:30am flight. Stopping in Edmonton en route, I should reach Gatwick Airport, outside London, around 3:40am on Thursday (GMT).

I am not the only one heading off during this space of time. As I understand it, Neal is in the air right now on his way to China. In the next few days, Kerrie and Nolan will be leaving for Ghana. I wish all of them the very best, and a safe journey.

Meeting with people during the past few days, as well as speaking with them and corresponding, has been highly gratifying. Meeting Jonathan, Emerson, Hilary, and Nick at various times today was likewise very welcome. Speaking to Meghan, Viktoria, Sarah, et all was certainly also appreciated. By far the biggest negative aspect of going to Oxford will be the breadth of separation created between my family, friends, and I. Undoubtedly, the two years will provide at least a few new ones. With luck, I’ll have the chance to introduce them to people who come visit me in Oxford.

I really should have cleared the contents of my cell phone after calling everyone to say goodbye, but, alas, Meghan Mathieson can testify to the quality of my memory. If I missed you, it’s probably because I didn’t have a copy of your phone number archived somewhere in my GMail folders.

In any case, I still have a few little bits of packing to do, which I’d like to deal with before it gets late. It’s impressive how all the bits and bobs that I’ve spent so long sorting and packing will probably amount to very little once I actually get to Oxford. I will not, for instance, have the slightest thing with which to decorate my room. All such concerns really ought to be pushed aside for the moment, however. When next I write, I shall still be your faithful blogging correspondent: now with a United Kingdom posting.

Packing to depart

Packing in North Vancouver

Aside from a few well-deserved breaks, today was all packing. Things staying behind were put into large plastic or cardboard boxes and then duct taped shut and piled in the closet. Things coming along have been piled hither and thither, in anticipation of the moment where the suitcases will come out and their ultimate fate is being decided.

The first and most extensive of the well-earned breaks was to have coffee in the Village with Jonathan. Tea, actually, for me, but that’s beside the point. After he headed off to meet Dania, I spoke briefly with Cheryl (from my grad class) and Lana (who works at Delany’s).

It strikes me as quite important right now to think as little as possible about the whole leaving for two years thing. Otherwise, I am liable to get very sad and spend anguished hours contemplating how far I will be from some truly wonderful people. Clearly, that kind of sentimentalism is less than productive and, with great piles of every dimension and description strewn about the entire basement, I haven’t the time for such sumptuousness.

Going to England, it also seemed wise to apply some of the Gore-Tex enhancing spray that Meghan and I bought for the Bowron Lakes adventure to my jacket. A few precious books, perhaps some photographs, and the scotch from Ashley will all be squirreled away in my various suitcases. Due to a combination of getting residence in College and being daunted by the dimensions of the box I got for it, the bicycle will be spending the next two years decorating the area under my parents’ porch. I’ve always been much more of a walker anyways. If I had time for more symbolic gestures, some grossly elaborated stroll would be just the thing.

As it happens, it looks as though I will be having a Galleria sandwich for lunch, as I told Hilary I would. Hopefully, Jonathan will come along, as he will just be finishing his shift at Whole Foods. Seeing Alison and Sarah P. would also be ideal, though we will have to see what can be managed. Tomorrow night, there is to be some kind of a terminal family dinner.

Despite an eleventh hour email from her, I don’t think there is much chance of seeing Kate before my departure. While it would have been wonderful to do so (as it has been wonderful to see off so many others), it strikes me as ultimately more important that we are both keen on meeting than it would have been to carry the desire through to completion. We live through the impacts that we have on the minds of others and it makes me feel somewhat redeemed to be back somewhere near Kate’s good graces. I hope she will be among those who visit me in Oxford.