Friday, May 27, 2011

Of Picnics and Parks

And suddenly it was the end of Fourth Week.  Who knew time could move so quickly?  Everyone says that Oxford has its own time zone, and the Master Timekeeper appears to speed it up and slow it down with capricious abandon.  Depending on which set of bells you and your tutors follow, you can be simultaneously five minutes late and three minutes early for a class or lecture!  Some people respond to this by being perpetually early to everything, while others consider their tardiness forgiven, even when it is more than a matter of minutes.  I wonder how the examiners deal with it?

Of course, examinations have begun, so any time I have left the house lately I have found myself wading through crowds of students in full sub fusc, all wearing carnations whose colours signify how far into exams they are (white for the first day, pink thereafter, red for the last one).  I am quite pleased to hear from various sources that recent governmental attempts to abolish the sub fusc tradition (citing it as a sign of outdated elitism) have been repeatedly met with opposition from the students, who always vote in favour of maintaining the dress code.  They have earned their elitism, dash-it-all!   And they look so dapper and respectable, especially the boys.  The girls apparently have a bit more leeway, and I have seen some pretty poor excuses for "skirts" walking down the street--thank goodness the gowns are generally long enough to cover their bums.  Though I have heard one or two people complain about having to dress up for exams, it is one of those traditions I really love, and I (almost) wish I had exams, myself, so that I might participate in it.

But then, I have my dissertation, which is consuming enough of my time and energy as it is.  Earlier in the term I tried as often as I could to do reading and research outside, but lately I have been more or less locked in my room when not rowing.  I suppose being outside was more distracting than anything else, but the weather had been so very beautiful!  One day toward the end of April (I think it was Good Friday) I was sitting on my picnic blanket in Christ Church meadows, and this lovely family came and sat next to me.  It began as a mum and dad and their three little blonde girls (Holly, the eldest, 'Tilda, who had major middle-child syndrome, and a little chubby one who looked like a Cabbage Patch doll, whose name I could never catch), eating some fruit (they really loved melon) and telling jokes, all beginning with "Why did Little Red Riding Hood..." and having very silly punch lines.  Sometimes they would substitute "poo" for random words, which made me wince with childhood memories of cracking up at "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells."  They kept saying, "I've got one, I've got one!"  Daddy finally tired of this and told them to stop because they had worn out the they moved on to knock knock jokes!  Children are so wonderfully easy to entertain sometimes--though as a friend once warned me, that means that if you do something with them once, you have to be prepared to do it a hundred times or more.  After a trip to the loo with Mummy (during which Daddy got some peace in which to read and sunbathe a bit, though we were all mostly under the trees) they were joined by another woman with her two girls (Claudia and "Anna-bana") and baby boy (Harris).

The older two girls took a walk, and as they left I could hear Claudia complaining that there was nothing to DO here, and other parks were so much better.  Holly, who had been fine before, chimed in, "I know! There's no climbing frames or water slides or anything! Just trees. And all we do it sit."  I had to suppress many a giggle, as I knew they would eventually find something to interest them.  When they came back, all the girls began to play a game that the dad called Rocky, the mum called "Mother's-something," and which more or less reminded me of Red Light-Green Light, where one stood facing a tree and the others moved forward and when she turned around they had to freeze like statues (which they adorably took literally and froze with one arm up in the air like a statue).  After this they played "What time is it, Mr. Wolf?" which was similar, except the wolf had to call out a time and they could take that many steps...but then when they got really close the wolf would say "DINNER TIME!" and chase them all over.  This was highly amusing to me, even when the little one got knocked over and started crying, or when Mathilda decided she wasn't playing anymore and sat down on the ground in a sulk (she did that frequently, whenever things weren't going her way or she wasn't getting enough attention).  The dad suggested they play hide-and-seek for a while, but that, too, ended in someone getting pouty, so then they all kicked a ball around for a while.  That stopped when the ball hit the baby in the face--though he hardly seemed to notice or care!  What a good little fellow; he was content to belly-squirm his way around the blanket and occasionally grab at the strawberries and shove them into his mouth.  Later, they held a gymnastics competition with Daddy as the judge, which had them doing headstands and handstands and cartwheels and roly-polys (somersaults) which I thought ingeniously designed to tire them out.  And then, in another brilliant move, they played a game called Sleeping Lions, in which they all had to pretend to be asleep!  Of course, Daddy came to "check" that the lions were asleep, and tickled them into hysterics.  It was so much fun to watch them, I obviously got very little reading done.  When they left they said goodbye, and I thanked them for entertaining me.

Actually, that weekend was pretty work-free all around, as there was Easter baking to do and an Easter picnic to attend!  My classmate Rachel was having people over for an Easter brunch, so I baked a honey-vanilla pound cake, which was a huge hit.  Rachel had made two types of quiche and a homemade bread and a fruit tart, and we got to wear pretty Easter dresses and sit outside in the glorious sunshine.  I also got to wear my bonnet, which Daddy had bought for me at the open market, and which I had been just dying to find an excuse to wear!  It was a lovely morning, and afterward Rachel came back to help me bake some more.

That morning I had made, for the first time all by myself, a batch of my grandmother's taralle (variously spelled toralli), which are these sort of fish-shaped (or cancer-ribbon-shaped) biscuits.  We made three more batches together in a quite toasty kitchen, and then Rachel went home with some in a baggie as her reward.  Later that night I video-chatted with my family while they ate Easter dinner, and it was a very happy holiday indeed.

Sigh, I may have to pause here, as I allowed myself only 30 minutes' break from dissertation work for this post, and it has been 45.  I look forward to writing about the City Bumps races, the Royal Wedding fun, and May morning festivities, which are only part of what I did at the start of this term.  Fifth week is not likely to afford me much blogging time, as the concert is on Monday and then Summer Eights racing goes Wednesday through Saturday...but I will try!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Banyoles and Beyond!

Because it is now Second Week of Trinity term, and I have not managed to catch up the blog yet, I thought I would do a sort of rush-job covering only the major highlights of April.  The first week is easy enough, because from the 3rd to the 9th I was in Banyoles, Spain (near the French border, about 90 mins outside of Barcelona by bus) with the rowing club at a training camp.  We stayed at a hostel next to a former Olympics course on a gorgeous natural lake, in a valley overlooked by mountains.  We had lovely weather for the entire week, and the water the natural lake was so clear, you could see straight to the bottom (though there were bits of green algae floating here and there, but rather beautifully, like semi-clear gelatinous bulbs. I even touched one once, just to see if it felt like a jelly fish. It did.).  The mountains surrounding the lake were covered in trees, and there were two in the distance that were snow-capped.

The hostel was nicer than most: the room and bunk beds were comfortable, and there was a pretty little balcony from which we could see part of the lake--and there were two sheep with BELLS around their necks that grazed around in the back yard and stared at us when we were eating breakfast, as well as a few roosters, one of which liked to crow at ten second intervals from 5 a.m. till 7 a.m...which was pretty annoying.  I was rooming with my boatmates, Sophie, Anne, and Kirsten, and we had a great time chatting and giggling and singing songs and watching "Mama Mia" and "Juno" and about three-quarters of "Seventeen Again."  (I had never seen any of these films before.  They were all better than I had expected!)

When we weren't being silly girls, we were rowing 2-3 outings per day, and doing core exercises and watching video of ourselves to improve our strokes.  Oh, and eating: they fed us at least two platefuls of food at every meal, and we supplemented with stores of snacks in our rooms and occasional ice creams from the cafĂ© by the lake.  And of course, there was the hand taping... 

With the sudden change to warm temperatures, plus increased humidity and harder rowing, plus alternating between wooden and plastic oar handles, everyone formed serious blisters, even after just the first day.  So each morning we would go through a complex ritual of cleaning, drying, bandaging, and taping these holes in our hands in the misguided hope that extra layers between our skin and the handle would somehow protect them.  But sweat and friction generally rendered our efforts futile, and we just learned to row through the pain. Because we are just that hard core.  Or something.  On the last day our practice was cut short by a fire going on in a nearby town.  We were told to clear the lake because the water planes would be coming through to pick up water.  Of course, as we couldn't row, we all decided to go swimming (close to the docks, so not near the planes).  It was a wonderful end to a long, hard week.

Because there was really no opportunity to work on my dissertation while I was at the rowing camp, I knew I had to get into work mode when I came home.  I still had no idea what my actual thesis would be, so I decided to begin by reading more or less the entire works of John Donne.  The sun shone in Oxford for weeks after I got back, and as this was so very uncharacteristic of the place I took advantage of it by doing as much dissertation reading as possible outside, on a picnic blanket (a.k.a. an old white sheet that had been sitting in the laundry room since September and has now been appropriated by me) in Christ Church Meadows.  This served the twofold purpose of getting me out of my room and getting me away from the internet, which is my favourite distraction.  (For example, right now I ought to be in bed, fast asleep, as it is nearly midnight and I have been up since six, but I am not only blogging and occasionally checking emails, but I am also watching a clip of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle on BBC iPlayer.  Now that's multitasking.)

I have now finished my preliminary reading, and am moving on to criticism this week.  I even have a thesis...sort of!  (I'll share it when it is a bit more clear.)  There were not any more events of note going on until Easter, which brings us officially into Trinity Term, so I will cover that in another post, as it is definitely bed time.  Ciao for now, folks!