Monday, April 9, 2012

Senator Costa Comes to Oxford

On 10 March 2012, my grandmother, former Senator Catherine Costa, arrived in Oxford along with my cousin, Sara Haines.  They checked in at their hotel (the rather posh Randolph), and, finding their room not yet ready, settled into the lounge for tea.  They rang to ask me to join them, but I was, unfortunately, in the river, having taken a tumble out of the single in which I was practicing sculling for the third time ever (luckily it was a warm, sunny day, and I was able to scramble back in and row another lap before docking!).  When I finally did meet up with them, it was in the evening, and we were all dressed to the nines for a fancy dinner in hall at Lincoln.  I had managed to get special permission to bring them to this dinner, which was the second half of an exchange with Lincoln's sister college in Cambridge, Downing College.  We arrived early to partake of complimentary sherry and cheap beer in Deep Hall, and then were called upstairs by the butler into the large, impressive hall (where I had reserved us seats in a section where Grandma wouldn't have to climb awkwardly over a bench to get in, and where she might have something supporting her back if she needed it), where the candles were glowing and the tables were beautifully laid.  After the Latin prayer, we were served the first course, which was a piece of salmon in hollandaise sauce.  Grandma had been hesitant, because she usually only likes the thinly sliced smoked salmon, but she tried it, and she loved it.  In fact, she raved about it for the rest of the week!  The main was a roast contrefilet of Beef Bordelaise served with sautéed potatoes, glazed carrots, and broccoli, and the dessert was profiteroles topped with chocolate sauce.  Everything was delicious, and as usual, the wine was free-flowing, so we were all quite giddy by the time it was over.  Back down in Deep Hall afterward, Grandma earned admirers amongst my Lincoln friends for her energy and wit, and no one believed she was nearly 86 years old!

The next day was Sunday, so we met at 9 for breakfast and then went to Church at Mary Mag's. Grandma got Father Peter talking for a good 15 mins afterward, and we discovered that he was impressively well-informed in regard to American politics.  When we left it was a stunningly gorgeous day, so we decided to walk around town rather than visit any museums.  We walked through Cornmarket Street and across to St Aldates, and then we walked through Christ Church meadow to the river (where we admired the swans), and then to the boathouses, which we were able to enter because Aisling and Phil were about to go out sculling.  Afterward, we came back up to Lincoln to use the loo, and then went over to the Bodleian to see the Divinity School and the Romances of the Middle Ages exhibit--which I think I found even more fascinating than they did!  We went back to the hotel to rest for a bit and plan our evening, but we quickly discovered that there wasn't all that much happening on a Sunday night out of term time.  After a brief rest, we went out to O'Neill's Irish Pub for dinner, where we all had an amazing Irish stew (again, Gram raved the rest of the week) and Grandma got a Guinness on the recommendation of the lady next to us (she and her husband were celebrating their anniversary), which became her drink of choice for the duration of her stay.  We had read online about a film showing at the Odeon called "The Woman in Black," a Victorian ghost story starring Daniel Radcliffe.  We decided to see it, and though Grandma scoffed at its silliness, Sara and I were thoroughly spooked.  When we got back, Gram was peckish again, so we had tea and shortbread in the Randolph lounge before saying good night and heading to bed.

On Monday we were supposed to meet for breakfast after my morning outing, but the sleepyheads didn't get out of bed till 11, so we had some pastries and tea in the lounge and then went wandering.  I took them up by the Eagle and Child (where the Inklings met during the 1930s-60s) and through the Lamb & Flag passage to get down to the Natural History Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum, which are two of my absolute favourite museums in the world.  After a few hours there we walked back up toward town so we could enquire about the City Sightseeing Tour bus (a hop-on, hop-off, all-day tour) at the Tourist Information Centre.  We bought tickets for the next day, and then went back to the hotel for a short rest again.  For an early dinner that evening we went to the Turf Tavern, which is a fun place to take visitors because you can reach it by going down a narrow, hidden alleyway by the Bridge of Sighs that used to be known as Hell's Passage.  While there we eavesdropped on the conversation of some American boys at the table next to us, and then Gram got some of them chatting with us, and we learned that they were a group from the Naval Academy off for an adventure on their break.  This somehow led to us escorting them to The Bear pub, with a detour into Christ Church meadow so they could glimpse the river.  I was acting as tour guide along the walk, while Grandma told stories to whomever would listen.  When we finally got to The Bear, Gram ordered a Guinness, and all the boys cheered her.  Unfortunately, they had to rush off to catch their train to London, so we waited for Grandma to finish her beer and then we went back to the Randolph.  Grandma was tired, so she got ready for bed, and Sara and I decided to walk through Jericho, the more hip part of town.  Once again, out of term time it wasn't really hopping, but I did get to point out Frevd, the Greek-Revival-Church-turned-dance-club, and she saw some of the cute restaurants and shops, and was impressed by the architecture of the Somerville nursery.  We decided to stop into the Albion Beatnik Bookstore and browse for a bit, while listening to a writing club go over their work.  Later, we and one other man were the only ones left in the shop, and the man was chatting with the shopkeeper in a pedantic sort of way, but then he struck up a conversation with us.  He was more pleasant than he seemed at first impression, and we had a lovely chat which resulted in his mentioning that he had been at Harvard and been to some of Stephen Greenblatt's lectures, so I asked if he had known Wendy Hyman, my Shakespeare professor at Ithaca, who had worked with Greenblatt on her dissertation.  He said he did know her, and he said to ask her if she remembered Patrick Mackie.  He also gave me his email address in case we wanted to meet up again.

The next morning we made it to breakfast in the hotel around 9:30, and then went to get on the bus tour.  Unfortunately, it was a bit wet and grey that morning, so we couldn't sit on top for the first loop.  We had decided to take the whole hour-long ride once, while listening to the recorded tour, to see where we wanted to stop, and then do it again, getting off at the places we liked.  It was especially convenient that the bus stopped right in front of Grandma's hotel!  We picked it up there, and I enjoyed learning some new facts about this lovely old town while we rode around.  I also supplemented wherever I could with information of my own.  We decided we would get off at the Oxford Castle, at Alice's Shop, and at Queen's College.  We only managed the first two of these, really, but we had a lovely time walking around the Castle and then the Westgate Shopping Centre (including Sainsbury's and Poundland, where Granda found the Maynard's Wine Gums which had been requested by her friend), and also at Alice's Shop, which I had never actually been inside.  I spent most of the time in there reading one of the books on Alice Liddell's life (everything was far too expensive for me to even consider buying it), and then we walked back out intending to catch the bus again.  Fortunately (and entirely according to my plan), Grandma noticed G&D's, and asked if either of us wanted ice cream.  I will never say no to that!  So we went in and had a scoop or two each, and enjoyed the ambiance for a bit.  When we got back on the bus, I think Grandma was getting a bit sleepy, because she asked me if there was really anything interesting inside Queen's College, and I could honestly say that there wasn't all that much for her to see besides the chapel and the huge quads, so we decided not to get off there.  Indeed, we didn't get off again till we were back in front of the Randolph.

We decided to go into the Ashmolean Museum for an hour or so, and we had a lot of fun looking at all the statues and artifacts, and Grandma insisted we see the bit about restoration.  We went up to the top to see if the restaurant menu offered anything appealing, and then back down to the basement to use the loo and check out the gift shop.  We came out by way of the money exhibit, which is always fun, and went back to the hotel.  For dinner that night we asked William, Grandma's favourite porter, for a recommendation, and he suggested the Red Lion.  I had heard good things about it from the people at RBA, and it was quite close to the hotel, so I said we should try it.  It was not the old-fashioned pub I had expected from the outside; inside they had sort of hipster art and fur-covered seats and some modern music.  But we had a couple of really nice, cute young waiters, and the dishes were quite good.  Grandma finally had her fish and chips here, and I finally had a sticky toffee pudding, which I had seen listed on every menu in the UK but never really knew what it was (it was awesome, and I thanked our waiter for recommending it to me).  Very full and sleepy, I walked Grandma and Sara back to the hotel (along with Charlie, my bike, whom Grandma loved), and then went home to get some rest.  The following day, we would be off to London!

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