27 March 2010

The Half-way Mark (ish)

I arrived in Coventry six months ago today, wide-eyed, nervous, and excited. I am still wide-eyed, nervous, and excited, just in smaller doses...and not every day. I don't honestly have much to say about this momentous occasion, but I figured I'd mark it with a blog post. Today, I am only panicking a little concerning the several assignments I must finish in the next couple of weeks. I have just completed my sixth module, (don't make me explain the strangeness of the class distribution for this degree) marking that I have only two left before embarking on my thesis research! (don't tell anyone, but I've already started)

This most recent module, I'm sad to say, marks one of the most boring and seemingly pointless weeks in my academic career. Well, it may not be true, but when classes are squeezed into a five day period, the boring parts are more obvious.
The high point of the week was a good old fashioned field trip to London to help the London Fire Brigade coordinate a disaster exercise involving all 33 boroughs of the city. (33 boroughs, take that NYC) 'Exercise safer city' (if I'm allowed to disclose that,) marked by a lame name, a 0430 wake up call, and the prospect of going to London without doing anything terribly interesting, had the class boarding a bus as hired help. Did I say hired? I mean voluntary. I did it again! I mean uncompensated labor. Well, there was free lunch.
We were each assigned to a borough and then called their emergency office over and over making their lives more annoying by supplying 'injects' or problems for the office to solve throughout this flood based emergency. These were things like, fallen trees blocking the road, a half a meter of water stopping traffic, evacuees from flooded tube stations, etc. My favorite one, that I felt particularly guilty for delivering, was that a evacuee rest center urgently needed supplies for making tea. Urgently! I gave my borough, Kensington and Chelsea, over 80 injects in five hours, and they performed admirably; always pleasant and understanding, which was unfortunately not the experience some of my classmates had.

Other than that I played with a toy firetruck in public, downloaded itunes (what?!), and didn't set off the fire alarm.

25 March 2010

Bargaining with a Beggar

It shouldn't be like this
it should be easy.
All this change,
jingling in my pocket,
is not a sign of wealth.
But when you hear it,
you call it 'spare.'
The desire to be generous
stemmed by lack of resources,
and cruel skepticism.
When what is offered is not enough,
there can be little difference between charity
and robbery.
Still.
It should be automatic,
like feeling for a lightswitch,
offsetting a lifetime of punishment.
Is food the goal,
or a ticket home,
or a pint, I can't tell.
What story today for 20p?
But whatever the pretence,
whatever its intentions,
I would have wasted it too.

21 March 2010

I Feel Nerdy

Last week I learned that Oxford is more than a bunch of colleges you have to pay to visit. So much more. I went to Oxford in past trips, and experienced a small cross section of the university and the city. I can understand why the tour company didn't let us loose in the city then, people like my parents and I would have never gotten back on the bus.

I had a few places I wanted to check out in Oxford, each more nerdy than the one before. But that's okay, I'm not sure there is anything to do in Oxford that isn't nerdy. We stared with a stroll through town ending at the Ashmolean Museum. The first of four museums we visited in a day, and the first of four that I woefully underestimated. Not wanting to completely bore the crap out of my companion, I suggested we split up and meet back in an hour. After passing the threshold of the museum, I began to realize the scope of it. So, armed with the 'things nerds will most want to see' guide, I headed in.
I felt simultaneously fascinated and overwhelmed by its seemingly endless number of rooms and all of the objects here. As a museum of art and archaeology, it doesn't take either subject lightly. From 2000 year old Roman artefacts, to Turner paintings, the Asmolean truly has a little bit of everything. They also house Guy Fawkes' lantern and a Stradivarius violin, which is pretty random and cool.

Anyway, I digress. When we had had our fill of being overwhelmed there we went for lunch and a pint at the Eagle and Child, or the 'Bird and Baby' as the locals would call it. And by locals, I mean JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis who used to hang out there. Apparently they and their friends would meet every week to muse about philosophy and the latest chapters of their respective books. And why not? It's quite a charming pub with a warm interior, cask ales, and classic pub food, what's not to like. (this post is sounding too much like an advert)
After nerding out in there for a few extra minutes, we headed to the Museum of the History of Science. Really. This is the worlds oldest public museum, built in 1683. Today it houses all manner of scientific instruments including Islamic astrolabes and other ancient celestial navigation tools, and also optical, and medical equipment. I didn't understand how most of these things worked, but our ancestors were pretty clever. I often fail to appreciate the magnitude of the discoveries made with these instruments and how far they advanced humanity. So, there I go again.

From there we accidentally found the Museum of Natural History. This is in a beautiful, purpose built building that I really enjoyed, let alone what it housed; Locally discovered dinosaur bones, taxidermied birds and animals, and rocks that are billions of years old. When I stumbled on the adjoining Pitt River museum, I nearly turned and ran. Really, there's only so much awesome history and art I can take in in one day. And this one was again full of inconceivable history. The museum started with the original Pitt Rivers collection of some 20 thousand anthropological items, and has grown a bit since 1884 to around 300 thousand objects from around the world. From clothing, textiles, musical instruments, weaponry, and everything in between, this is an amazing and vexing place. Without a clear starting point, one can wander for hours between the displays, I lingered mostly at the display of shrunken heads, and then the fire starting tools from around the world (all surprisingly similar).

So, it was with tired feet and an even more tired brain, we trooped back to the bus to take us home.
It's okay to love England. It's okay to love England in all the nerdiest ways possible.

14 March 2010

Gloucestershire (pronounce that, yanks!)

Gloucester, (gloss-ter) is a town west of London. Its position along the longest river in Britain, the Severn, made it a bustling inland port town for quite some time. Now, its old docks, warehouses, and mills have become a beautiful tourist spot. The town itself dates back to Roman times, and Saxons laid the foundation of the now cathedrdal in 681 AD. Wow.
Today it is a beautiful city with many historical gems. One of the largest tutor style buildings is hidden down a narrow alley sandwiched against a modern building. Also the real setting of Beatrix Potters 'The Tailor of Gloucester' is here, as it is based on a true story of a tailor in the city (minus a talking cat and mice who can sew).

King Edward II was buried at the cathedral in 1327, a long awaited home for the murdered king (in fact, he was buried a full three months after his death to avoid riots in the streets.) As well as making Gloucester a pilgrimage site, his grave saved the cathedral from being torn down during the reformation in the 16th century.
And, although the cathedral houses one of the largest medieval glass windows in Europe, and the graves of a king and the eldest son of William the Conquerer (Robert Curthose), it is most famous for being the set for Harry Potter.
In a controversial yet brilliant move, the cloisters of the cathedrdal were transformed for the filming of the 1st, 2nd, and 6th movies. The religious themed windows were changed, the gravemarked floor covered, and any other modern things were covered up (including a light switch panel.)
A cool part of the cloisters is the lavatorium, an ancient bathroom where the monks would wash up. Even on this mid-March day, it was pretty cold. Except for the cold bathroom and 2am wake up calls, becoming a monk back in the day was a pretty good career move, well, by 13th century standards. We also visited the crypt which housed the British coronation chair and the cathedrals East window during WWII to protect them from harm.

Oh, British history!

11 March 2010

Frigid Northland

Before I left to come here, I really tried to avoid 'panic packing' and end up throwing a bunch of unnecessary stuff in my suitcase just to make me feel better. One item that lingered in the suitcase/storage limbo was my rocking BA camping sleeping pad. A silly waste of precious packing space, I know, and when would I need it? Well, last weekend actually.
By strokes of luck and kindness I was invited to camp in the lake district with a few friends. Happily, through their uncesasing generosity I was furnished with tent, sleeping bag, and mattress! So, on Friday evening after collecting camp food we were off on the M6 to, well, for me, anywhere. I realized I didn't know where we were going nor what we would do when we got there, but I didn't really care. I was camping! In the country! In England!

All camping trips begin with a few amusing hiccups. This one was no different, especially when confirming the camp site on the way there. The rest of the car was quiet, carefully listening to our side of the conversation.

'Hi, we're planning on camping there tonight, but won't arrive until about half ten, is that okay?'
'Right...ok.'
'I see. Yeah'
'Well, are there any camp sites nearby that you know are open?'

With even greater interest we listened to the next phone call, were we were happily assured of a spot. Arriving in the dark is always a bit mysterious but it didn't take long (after passing the 2nd pub on the property) for me to realize this was not the campground I was used to. We were actually situated on a terraced, currently unused, sheep pasture. The cloudless night had us staring at the stars discussing rods and cones, and our complete lack of constellation knowledge (except here they call the big dipper the 'plough' It took me a few minutes to figure that out). 'Oh, you mean the big dipper?' 'The what?' 'Um, you know, a big...dipper.' Who says dipper, anyway?

The night was certainly chilly, and even with my every layer on I was happy to get up at 6:30 just to move around. What I missed in the darkness was that we were surrounded by beautiful snow covered hills. I would have loved to have seen my face as I stumbled out of the tent and looked around. I was absolutely dumbfounded and thrilled.

We got everything sorted and mapped out our route while finding it difficult to look at anything other than the scenery. The trail head was a few miles south in Glenridding. From the drive there through the entire day I marveled at the use of stone in the area. Indeed there is a lot of it (staking the tent was annoying) and it is seen in every building and in miles and miles of dry stone walls.

The hike was awesome, and silly, and beautiful to say the least. I didn't take long for us to get amazing views of Ullswater and Glenridding, and soon that was traded for snow covered mountains as far as we could see. Our trail eventually led us to that snow, and lots of it! It's really hard to describe the snowy part of the hike. It was unlike any environment I'd been in, treeless, rocky and really just amazing. I felt like we were in a different world. We had our packed lunch before the last leg and then set off toward the summit of Helvellyn (3114'). The trail, for me, became kind of scary; slippery with wet snow, and a very long sharp drop on one side. I questioned our sanity, especially when a cloud came in and obscured where we had come from and where we were going. We made it about half way and I was not comfortable with going any higher, but between the clouds and warning reports from other hikers, we all became suddenly satisfied with our achievements and headed back down.
The way back was a little less steep, and though the snow underfoot wore out its welcome, the views were amazing from every angle.
In the evening we warmed up in the pub, and that night was very cold indeed. Tiredness won out, but getting up was a battle between not wanting to leave the sleeping bag, and the need to get the blood moving. After packing up we drove to Ambleside, a great little town with more outdoor stores than residents. Tea, apple pie, and ice cream from there will cure what ails you.
Everything about the weekend was a surprise, each more pleasant than the one before. (Including spotting a rare red squirrel and a badger!) It was completely worth sore legs and nearly freezing to death. Pubs are not the only perk of camping in England. There aren't any bears either.