Saturday, October 25, 2014

Travel Journal: Oxford, UK

This reminds me of a puzzle...
When I was younger I used to dream about visiting England. My sister used to tell me stories about the country, the time she visited, and how different it was. A land steeped in history where you practically can’t step 1000 paces without bumping into something historical. A place where antique shops sell things older than the United States. A place that culturally views violence with more disdain than nudity. I never thought I’d wind up living there.

Adventures ahoy!
A few months ago when my girlfriend was accepted to the University of Oxford, and got a rather prestigious scholarship that allowed her accept the position without any reservations, my world was changed. Suddenly I was an immigrant, a word which has a fairly negative connotation in America. The process for applying for a VISA was supposed to be simple and friendly, but the website (which is admittedly in Beta) had a few bugs that made the process fairly stressful. This was combined with the fact that their email attendants (who are supposed to answer questions) didn’t really read my questions before answering, and there was literally no phone number available to get answers on the questions I had, save an official pay service that charged something like $2.00 a minute and was only “fairly sure” of the answers they gave me but insisted that I don't accept their word as being 100% correct. Applying for a VISA took about a week of my free time, about $600 (the application fee), and a full day to get through my “scheduled vitals appointment” where I had to sit in line for hours waiting for my number to be called. The ultimate result of my effort was a rejection because the person looking at my application saw that I used two addresses (a mailing and physical address), and thought it was suspicious. The annoying thing here was that they didn't ask any questions, just denied me, and I had no option to refute the decision… This outcome ultimately reduced my time in England from ten months to six.

The cake of a true patriot (we ran out of stripes)
It took until the day before we were planning to leave before I packed, largely because I use much of the things I’d be taking with me. The fact that we were leaving for England still hadn’t really hit me until well after we follow the traditional departure rituals of stepping on another’s feet, standing in the doorframe for a moment of silence, and driving north to the Villages, one of the largest elderly communities in the world.

We stayed at the Villages with Kaitlin’s grandparents for a day, as we had things to drop off and we were hoping to see them one more time before leaving the country. We ate, we chatted, we watched Golden Girls, Wheel of Fortune, Ellen, and got a full tour of the Villages before it was 3pm the following afternoon. As we stood at the bus stop, located next to a pretty awesome looking water lock, it started storming. We said our goodbyes and boarded the bus for an hour and a half journey. It finally felt like we were leaving for England.

We breezed through security (I expected a lot more hassle with my accordion backpack and nearly expired passport), waited awhile, and finally got on Aer Lingus to Dublin, our stop on the way to London. The flight was a lot more enjoyable than I’d expected. Food was given out, there were in-flight movies (we tried watching Cleopatra but gave up exactly 2.5 hours into the 4 hour film), and it was fairly roomy but it still didn’t compare to Korean Air… Nothing will. I worked on music until my laptop died and the following morning we woke to see the mist roll across the terrain of Ireland below us. The beauty we saw cannot be described in words by me. We were literally moved to tears just looking at it.

The Dublin airport was much like any other airport, except that there were signs telling Irish citizens to encourage their friends to promote international work/trade with Ireland, which I found kind of different when compared to the equivalent ads in America that would be anti-terrorism or fast food inspired. Our terminal changed no less than 4 times in the hour we were in Dublin without any warning whatsoever but we eventually found ourselves on the right flight to London. An hour later we arrived.

The last time we arrived in London Heathrow Airport it was vastly unpleasant but for some reason this trip through was not such. We got to avoid many of the queues from the previous journey (probably because it was not a holiday season, partly because we flew in from Dublin) and were picked up shortly by Kaitlin’s parents, who drove us back to Camberley. Once again the traffic signs, lights, and traffic driving on the other side of the road disoriented me, but I was able to stay awake for the rest of the day this time around. We had tea, chatted, opened up a bank account at Gringotts-er… Barkclays and prepared for our journey to Oxford. Did I mention that Oxford is where they filmed many of the Hogwarts parts of the Harry Potter films?

Quidditch anyone?
The next morning we departed for Oxford! It was a shorter drive than expected and the weather remained pleasant. I was told the following week that it was the driest September England has seen in 50 years! It was also fairly warm, averaging around 25 degrees C. My first impressions of Oxford were of its ancient buildings, its bustling foot traffic, and its lack of parking. It was almost exactly how I’d imagined Diagon Alley (no, really… There are candy shops, broomsticks, and Harry Potter merch in some of the store windows because its apparently visited by Harry Potter enthusiasts with regularity). We checked in with the property manager, found a parking spot (a feat in itself), and loaded the first round of boxes into our new flat. Just to clarify, it’s not that we had a lot of stuff, it’s more that we had a fairly small car (by American standards) to transport it all. After we got the basic tour of the flat we decided to go for a walk around the city of Oxford itself to accomplish a few tasks and also acquaint ourselves with the surrounding area.

A very interesting boat goes through the lock system
We passed a boat lock system, the historic Thames River, and dozens of long boats that seem optimal for river travel, all of which seem to have been greatly customized by their owners in terms of paint despite the fact that all boats seem to be the same identical shape. We passed a bunch of graffiti by some hooligans named “zuz” and “realm”, which was later scrubbed away by a community organized cleaning brigade about a month later. We passed a mix of ancient buildings, new ones, and quaint cottages. We ate lunch at a pub that J.R.R. Tolkien frequented, which is said to be the oldest in Oxford. We saw castle-like structures, old churches, the place where Harry Potter got quiddich lessons, the great New College Hall (also from the Harry Potter films), archways, and multi-century old pubs. It was exactly how I’d envisioned England to be.

First impressions of Oxford
Walking through crowds took a few days to get used to. Since driving in the UK is on the other side of the road, most of the people have a natural tendency to ‘keep left’ whereas in the US people have a natural tendency to ‘keep right’… However, even after mastering the art of keeping left we soon learned that Oxford has so many tourists from around the world that utterly disregard this tendency, throwing off the entire process of not bumping into people while walking. You more or less have to read the body language of the person you're walking past very carefully, which can be difficult as most tourists are not looking where they’re going in the first place.

Similarly to the Blair Witch, a shadowy knitting society has left mysterious markers around the city of Oxford
It was evening before we knew it and we departed for Camberley. We spent a day there, got some work accomplished, packed more, and returned to Oxford the following day. We found the same parking space by some miracle, loaded in the second (and final) set of boxes, unpacked, bought the basic necessities, and walked to dinner, a nice pub I can’t quite remember the name of. Then, just like that Kaitlin’s parents departed and we were living on our own in England.

The most visually impressive graffiti in Oxford...
Thankfully removed recently.
We walked to town the following morning (Sunday) to check out the Ashmolean Museum’s King Tut display, which was impressive. That took up most of our morning, and we also said hi to a manikin wearing Lawrence of Arabia's clothing. We walked around Oxford a bit more, bought a few more key items (a microphone stand, more pillows, a UK 3DS charger) and got a cup of tea at a local coffee shop. Despite the fact that we speak English in both countries, I quickly discovered that words have different meanings in England. When I bumped into people I said “pardon”, which I later discovered (after using the phrase for half a day) implies that you’ve farted. This was figured out after a nearby woman broke up into laughter. Other English words for things like q-tips, coupons, trucks, and various produce items were less embarrassing to learn, but made communication slightly more difficult. As with Belize, many words like ‘jailer’ are also spelled in a way utterly unlike their American counterparts. It’s taking time but I’m slowly catching on.

A nature trail just past the train station
Since Sunday I’ve begun life in Oxford, which in itself really doesn’t warrant much to blog about. Little nuances like checking the voltage and amperage on everything before plugging it into a power converter, or remembering to switch off the plugs after use, the fact that the water pressure in the shower here could skin a cat, and that the hot water (if applied past the first setting) could probably liquefy pewter. We try to go for a walk just about every day in the morning, before the US is awake. It's peaceful, and I still feel like i'm accomplishing much the business world I interact with is even awake (though some of my friends still haven't gone to sleep). We walk through town, through the nearby open fields and harbors, through the nature trails just outside of town, through a land very much steeped in legend and history, at least to me. This is my home now, on an off for 6 months out of the next year, and I’m very much excited at the prospect of this lifestyle.

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