Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oxford: Not to be confused with "The Other Place"

Day Five
I arrived into Oxford late the previous evening. I had a slightly traumatic experience with the hotel situation. I arrived at the hotel only to find out that my room had been given away because the owner thought that when I asked if I could cancel, I was actually cancelling. Lesson learned: always confirm hotel reservations. She had another room in a building where some students were living, and though I wasn't entirely comfortable with the situation, it ended up working out. She charged me less because she felt badly.

On the morning of day five, I headed into the city center (or centre here) to take a walking tour of Oxford University. There was a group of about twenty of us. We had a lovely tour guide named Monica; I've noticed that tour guides have become my closest acquaintances since I'm traveling with none. Thank goodness they are so polite, accommodating, and knowledgeable.

First and foremost, our guide made sure to distinguish between Oxford and "The Other Place" or Cambridge. Oxford is divided into 38 separate colleges. If you apply there, you have to preselect your college. I would assume that they all have good/bad reputations, but can you really choose incorrectly at Oxford?

We first visited Jesus College, one of the oldest established colleges (established during Queen Elizabeth's reign). Lawrence of Arabia attended Jesus, just to name one famous former student. Almost every college includes a chapel, dining hall, residences, classrooms, and maybe even a library. Jesus College is very proud of a magnolia tree that lives in its courtyard, because it is the only one in England that has survived over the years. I couldn't help but find this amusing, when we have them around every corner in Texas!

We also saw Trinity College (from a distance), and went into Keble College (Victorian Era). As the Victorians were prone to, Keble was created in an ornate and large manner. I also saw the front of the building that appears as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series. Some students were walking outside the building in the traditional attire that is donned for special events like graduation, exams, etc. Students who receive scholarships wear longer gowns.

Oxford is incredibly breathtaking in its architecture. Chances are that my pictures won't do it justice. One of the most interesting aspects of the architecture to study are the gargoyles atop the buildings. Some were redone in 1993 with depictions that would spell out the letters of the university's first female president's name: Marilyn Butler.

At the end of the tour, Monica showed us the memorial for the bishops who Queen Mary (daughter of Henry VIII) put to death because they refused to comply with her preferred religion of Catholicism. It was interesting to me to see these men revered as martyrs, when the martyrs I'm familiar with (St. Thomas More for example), were martyred for remaining faithful to Catholicism under Henry VIII's reign.

I grabbed lunch in a cafe near where the tour finished, and took my lunch into the courtyard. A middle-aged American man asked if he could use one of my chairs. Once I noticed there weren't any other tables available, I offered to share my table with him. He saw that I was reading Pride and Prejudice and asked if I was a student of (can't remember the name). He said that he was going to be teaching at Oxford this summer through a program with the University of Texas, and his focus . . . British Romanticism - including people like Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott.

I tried to maintain composure as I asked him many questions about his teaching experiences, curriculum he includes in instruction, etc. I thought it was so fortuitous that we should meet that day! I tried a few months ago to arrange a meeting with someone at Oxford, and had no luck. Here was someone who not only would be teaching at Oxford, but who also was stationed in my neck of the woods. He was very kind and answered all of my questions, in turn asking me questions about the school where I teach, my students, and the novels/books we read.

He expressed that my students will certainly be at an advantage when they enter college having read Jane Austen. We both agreed that though it might be a difficult process, it will be invaluable for students to discipline themselves to read and re-read for understanding, and then of course make connections to their own lives and the foibles they observe in the people around them. We shared some ideas about readings to pair with Pride and Prejudice. I appreciated the fact that he was an interested in our high school education as I was in education at the college level. We exchanged information, and he encouraged me to contact him with any questions. What a happy meeting (to use Jane's vernacular)!

After lunch, I headed to the Oxford's Museum of Modern Art. It isn't very big, and has exhibits that rotate through every few weeks. They were exhibiting Howard Hodgkin, a painter. I have to confess that I'm not drawn to a lot of modern art, particularly when it is a few lines and dots (and looks like something a five year old could do).

I was glad to catch a few minutes of a video about the artist though, because I learned that what he created was actually meticulously planned out. He had some interesting things to say about people trying to stifle his desire to be an artist, as well as just how much he had to depend on his own determination and ambition to succeed. He spoke to the interviewer about the perception among the English that ambition is sinful, as it is so self-focused. How different that is from the American sentiments relating to ambition! We see it as an incredibly valuable asset.

I then headed to the botanical gardens. Did I mention that the weather has been beautiful so far!! It really has felt like California weather - 70s and breezy. Needless to say, the gardens were an oasis. Because it was a Saturday, there were a lot of families there picnicking and enjoying the day. Little girls wore big sunflower tiaras that they made in the craft area.

I went to get dinner after that at a restaurant a little farther away from the university. It was nice to have a little more peace and quiet, as the university was incredibly packed and busy that day. I'm definitely getting more used to the eating by myself/being by myself in general. It is so rare, after all, that we sit and observe and contemplate. It doesn't matter if people think you're weird for being by yourself, because you'll never see them again in your life!

What I'm reading:
Pride and Prejudice! (can't figure out how to underline on this computer - they are different than the U.S. I swear!) This is the third time that I've read it, and I can't help but think how complicated Elizabeth Bennett is. She so clearly knows and doesn't know what she wants all at the same time. At least in the end, she isn't too proud to admit what she finally learns that she wants. The character descriptions in the novel are amazing; I still have to chuckle at Mr. Collin's speeches, Mrs. Bennett's rantings, and smile in admiration at Jane's kindness. This is why we love Jane Austen: those people still exist for us today in our everyday lives! We all know a Mr. Collins or a Mr. Bennett.

Other observations:
-British people talk very quietly so as not to disturb those around them, unless they're between the ages of 15 and 20.
-Exit=Way Out
-In England, people pronounce the "h" in herb
-You have to let waiters know when you'd like the check, otherwise they just stare at you.


  1. wow ms. becker. your trip seems to be going swell. :) i love your blog and have decided to read each of them. :D by the way, i passed my AP exam. <3 thank you so much. enjoy your trip, you definitely deserve it. :)

  2. Yay! I'm glad you got to meet an Oxford Prof!!

  3. What an awesome blog! The meeting with the Oxford professor couldn't have been planned better. I can't wait to read your next blog. :-)