Beki Grinter

Hello from Oxford

In European Union on July 7, 2014 at 5:50 am

As many of you know I’m teaching in Georgia Tech’s Oxford Program at Worcester (say Wooster) College. We compress a semester into six weeks, its very intense, but also very enjoyable. Here are a few musings about this experience.

1) Oxford is not like Cambridge. In 2000, I lived in Cambridge for six months. I assumed that Oxford would be similar to Cambridge. Perhaps the Universities are; not the towns. In Cambridge I never saw or heard any town v. gown (University) conflict. I’ve only been here a week and I’ve already overheard conversations that underscore a tension between the two. I don’t worry about a repeat of the Oxford riots of 1991, but I see and sense more active conflict here than I ever saw in Cambridge.

2) Walking. I’m walking more here. The weather makes a big difference. Its humid but much cooler in Oxford than Atlanta. There are a number of trails and footpaths in Oxford which people use, and judging by the posters, are actively fighting to keep. I could buy any number of walking guides of Oxford, but my favourite are the free walk maps provided by CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) that mark pubs worthy of a stop. Yes, you can have non-alcoholic drinks at a pub too.

3) No Sugar in my Bread. Just before leaving the US I went to the grocery store, to the “Industrial Bread” section as the French would call it to buy a loaf of bread. All of the loaves contained either sugar or high fructose corn syrup. In bread! Why? Here the loaves, whether hand made or mass produced don’t. I don’t often buy industrial bread in either country, but it was a reminder to me of the role corporations play in our foods. And I was pleased that not forcing sugar on me here was acceptable.

4) Inspector Morse and Harry Potter. Colin Dexter, who wrote the Inspector Morse novels, lives in Oxford. Needless to say Morse, and the sequel (Lewis) and the prequel (Endeavour) are all set in Oxford. Everywhere you look there are scenes from a Morse. Worcester College has been used three times (Last Bus to Woodstock, Sins of the Fathers, Deadly Slumber). But I expected this. What I didn’t expect was the presence of Harry Potter. I’ve traveled in Northumberland prior to this, and there I visited a castle (Alnwick) in which the Harry Potter films took place (I traveled their from London’s Kings Cross but didn’t use platform 9 3/4). But apparently they also took place in Oxford and even the choir I went to see on Saturday night (performing Handel’s Coronation songs) sung on one of the Harry Potter sound tracks. There have been lots of films, and I am beginning to think that Harry Potter might be to the UK what Lord of the Rings is to New Zealand. This I did not expect.

5) Hand Drawn Ales. I used to be a member of CAMRA (see above). I love, and miss, hand drawn local ales. I pay attention to the sign that says Cask Marque. I look for ales that are hand drawn at the bar. In the last couple of years I’ve begun to feel that its getting harder and harder to find a good local ale. Of course, the cost of the pint may well be a factor. Ouch.

6) Private Eye. I purchased the current Private Eye the day after I arrived in London. I love Private Eye, because it is at once both very funny but very serious. It takes up issues such as hypocrisy in politics, corruption and lack of ethical conduct in sports (e.g., FIFA) but through biting humour. I read it and think about Kate Fox, who explains a lot about humour in her book “Watching the English”—the use of humour to be serious. It can and has been controversial in the past but the first one I picked up featured a front cover with the England team getting off the plane in Brazil, with a cartoon bubble of the pilot asking whether they should keep the jet engines running. Their ability to predict England’s dismal performance in World Cup 2014 was nearly as good as Paul the Octopus.

7) World Cup. I was excited about watching the World Cup in the UK. Pubs have divided into two, those showing the games and those as a place for those who don’t want to watch the games. And then England crashed out. England wasn’t expected to win, and polls suggested that the British didn’t think they would. But there were lots of England flags out. Some even had England written on the St. George flag just to ensure that there was no confusion as to what the flag represented. I felt sorry, and also a bit awkward in my Mannschaft t-shirt, which I’m wearing on game day, and given the German performance I’m having to wash regularly.

8) Washing Machine. I have a small front loading washing machine in the US. Yes, front loaders have made it to the USA. Also they don’t come with 8 bazillion options. Hot, warm, cold. Fast, regular or slow spin. This is pretty nice. I don’t need to decide on temperatures or RPMs. I say my washing machine is small, and it is, but it can actually hold a week’s worth of clothes from two people. I’m missing this as I do laundry twice a week, especially since laundry is a walk away from where I live. That said it is an excuse to walk more. So perhaps that’s a good thing.

9) Being here. A colleague here has been asking his class of students (who are all from Georgia Tech) whether they’ve been in any setting where they’ve been alone or with one other person and a lot of the locals. Most of them go out together in groups, and I can understand that, especially as a woman abroad. Safety in numbers and all that. His point is that if you haven’t been alone or outnumbered then perhaps you’ve not really visited Europe, not in the sense of meeting the locals. I think this is related to the position that Rick Steves’ advocates in his books, about doing things that put you into more situations where you are likely to be among the locals or engaging in activities that people who live here do. Inspired by my colleagues suggestion I was reflecting on my own travels. I’ve had the company of my husband, but other than that we’ve been in a number of situations where it’s just us together with the locals.

But what does it mean for me to be with the locals of a place I was born and grew up in? I’ve been away for 23 years now, which is longer than I lived in the United Kingdom. Things change. I realize that its important for me to spend time being here in order to have a sense of what has changed. Not to become a local again (absolutely impossible in six weeks), but at least to understand what it is that I don’t know about the country by chatting with people who live here. I’m still working this all out in my mind, but the idea of really being here in the UK has been given a new type of form for me. Love to hear from other ex-pats about what going “home” means for them.

10) My Accent. I’ve been surprised on this trip that people have asked me what part of England I’m from. Over the years this was happening less and less. Initially (first 5-10 years of being away) people often asked me if I was from South Africa, Australia or New Zealand — I think because they thought I was a native English speaker but not sure where from — so perhaps they assumed accents that were less familiar to them? Then it shifted over to American. I’d gotten used to English people thinking I was American. So, this trip was something of a surprised. A good number of people have asked me where I am from, I’ve said Atlanta, GA, and then they’ve asked me where in England I’m originally from. Can it be the case that my accent has shifted back? I don’t really know, but I am surprised.

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