Friday, November 19, 2010

First Letter Home

I arrived in Oxford for a year-long Master's program (M.St. English 1550-1700) on 28 September, 2010. I had been here twice before for summer programs, so I was really excited to be coming back. I sent the following note home to New Jersey in the first few days, when I was still recovering from the flight and still full of the heightened sense of an adventure beginning!

Hello there!

Now that I have settled in a bit, I thought I ought to send out an email to let you know that I am alive, I made it here safely, and I am very happy to be here. I have an adorable little flat that consists of a hallway with two bedrooms off to the left, a vacuum closet at the end, a bathroom and kitchen to the right. It is part of the Bear Lane Complex--named after a pub called "The Bear" at the end of the street--which has a gate that you need a key card to open, so it is quite safe, even though I am only one floor up. There is a neat little courtyard below my window (which, unfortunately, means I have to keep my shades closed most of the time; I am working on a way to rig a curtain so I can still have some light), and a computer lab downstairs, which is convenient. I am also two minutes walk from Lincoln College and the Bodleian Library and all that good stuff that I came here for, so that is great. My flat mate is named Jackie, and she is a California girl (though she did her undergrad at Yale) working on an M.Sc. Research in Experimental Psychology (!!), though she is nowhere near as scary as that makes her sound. In fact, she is quite sweet and fun, and we have similar habits, which is great when you are thrown together to live with a stranger!

I have attended a few coffee socials for freshers and an International Student Orientation, so I have made some acquaintances, and I am asking everyone I meet who is doing a D.Phil whether they think I should do one, too, because I would have to apply in about two months. Though I have not yet managed to set up my UK bank account or get a mobile phone, I have walked around a little bit, doing some shopping for things like food and toiletries, not to mention pillows and bed linens. The first night I did not have a chance to purchase sheets or a pillow, as the stores were all closed in the evening, so I slept on my rain coat with my towel as a blanket and my sweatshirt as a pillow. It was really cold, so I turned on my heater, but that dried out the air so much that in the morning I had a sore throat! Then I discovered, in a great head-slapping moment, that the top part of my window had been open, which is why it was so cold. I went to Primark, a great discount store in the shopping center near the train station, to buy sheets, though I had to ask a few people for help, as I wasn't sure about sizing or whether I needed a duvet *and* a top sheet, or just to pick one. The only single-size duvet cover I could find was a fabulously bright magenta, so I bought my sheets in magenta and hot pink. My bed is far more exciting now! Though of course everything got wet on the way back, because it has rained pretty much every day, and I got a bit turned around by Gloucester Green and ended up on the wrong side of town, hehe. Oh well.

On Wednesday I went to Walter's of Oxford on Turl Street to get my gown, which I will need for Matriculation next week, but also for any time I want to eat dinner at the second seating, known as Formal Hall. There was a perfectly Hogwartsian elderly man with really thick glasses and a bit of a hunch to his shoulders wearing a suit and standing behind the counter. He fitted me for the gown and hat, and offered me some advice in a confidential tone, so I listened eagerly. He began in his rich, raspy voice (which sounded a bit like John Hurt, or the guy who does the Boar's Head Deli Meats commercials), "This is a very friendly little community you have here, with Lincoln (which he said is an appropriately strict college) and Brasenose and Jesus College all together, and you will make lots of friends, to be sure. But never, ever under any circumstances, loan your gown or hat to anyone. Some day you will need it, for exams or a dinner, and you won't remember who has it, and you'll never see it again!" He was so absolutely perfect; I couldn't have cast a better shopkeeper. His only slightly younger assistant had an Irish accent and cheerfully commented on the rain, saying that at least it wasn't pouring down as the forecast had threatened the previous day. I thanked them both for their kindness and stepped out into the rain again, my frizzed hair and new duds making me feel like Hermione Granger. Now, if only I could have located a wand shop...

Finally, yesterday I had an expensive day of shoe shopping and coat shopping, though it was one of those rare sunny days that just drags everyone outside, so I had to deal with crowds, which you know I hate. In fact, I was going to open my bank account, but I didn't want to get in the line that stretched out the door! Have to do that soon, though, for the sake of paying my tuition, and the crowds are only going to get worse, as all the undergrads are coming in this week. Anyway, I got some Gortex Clarks (men's 8 1/2s, as they had no women's 9s, which is what I am here, apparently) for a whopping £84, and then a pretty red coat for only £21, so I guess it evened out. I wanted the coat because my rain coat is too fitted to go over sweaters, and it is awfully chilly already. I also let myself get lost for a while just to reorient myself to Oxford, and I hung around by the Bodleian and the Sheldonian Theatre reacquainting myself with the misericords (the carved grotesque faces that adorn the buildings and sometimes act as water spouts). Then I went to Lincoln Library to read a book on bibliography, which was semi-interesting in its description of the process of hand-press printing, but also a bit dull. It got really cold in the library around 7, so I wandered over to the MCR for some tea and found Jackie there. Later an archaeology D.Phil named Anna (she's Greek but grew up in New York, with her father who went to Columbia U.) came in who talked to me for a while about doing the D.Phil. She said that it is really better to do it at Oxford than in the States because it takes only 3-4 years here as opposed to 5-10 in America. That is a good point, I guess, though I don't know exactly what the time frames are for the English Ph.D at an American university.

The other day I spoke to Anne-Claire, a D.Phil in English (though a later strand than mine, maybe the 1800s?). She is a petite French woman, though her accent sounds very English, and she is also the head of the Lincoln MCR social committee. She told me that the D.Phil can certainly be challenging, but if you have a good advisor that can make a big difference. She raved about hers, whom she said was a good role model because she was a mum and had a normal life outside of academia, which is rather anomalous amongst the highly eccentric academics around here! I suspected that she might be talking about Fiona Stafford, when she said she worked at Somerville, and so I asked, and indeed it was Fiona, who I know is well respected by her colleagues. Anne-Claire did say that most of the English department is "kind of blah," as far as personalities go, and it can feel very competitive because there are so many English people in the business an so few jobs. But she still recommended doing it, and reassured me that she hadn't even really known what her topic was, in any specific sense, when she started. I did feel better after that, and I am encouraged to give it a try. I want to talk to a few more people in the department first, though. I am due to meet many of them next week, particularly on Tuesday, which is Induction day for the English Grad Students

Hmm, I am babbling on and on now, and you probably aren't interested in quite this much detail! Besides, it is already 1:20 in the afternoon, and I have done shockingly little today (though really, there is little you can do on a Sunday, as libraries, banks, and most shops are closed!), so I had better get going. I had such great plans to get up early and be productive, but I guess the jet lag hasn't worn off yet, because I am still struggling to get out of bed before 9. I was invited out last night by a boy named Will who was celebrating his birthday, and I was going to go, but I got delayed by my chat with Anna, and then it was cold and wet and dark and the place they were going to was far away... (hehe, I am so antisocial). But I justified it by saying I would go to bed early and wake up at, say, 6. So much for that! I will do better tomorrow, I think.

I hope everything is going well back in the States! Are the students at Doane behaving? How is the weather? I am sad to miss the autumn in New Jersey; send me photos if you think of it! I will post some to my Facebook profile soon.

Take care, and write any time!



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