Tuesday, April 26, 2005

So... about that Oxford place...

I know that I haven't written much about Oxford itself, but to be honest, we like just finished our first week of classes. The first week here was Orientation stuff and then we had our Bing trip and classes started last Tuesday. I really like Oxford so far. The town is very quaint and small and antique-looking. Much more historic than Stanford. Architecture is very gothic and they use stone a lot.
Oxford has 30-odd colleges, which is where the students take classes, live, eat, etc. The Stanford kids are affiliated with three of the colleges. I belong to Magdalen, which has a reputation for being a harder college to get into, but it's also very proper and snotty. I've only eaten in the dining hall twice so far, but the food hasn't been great. But we just leave trays at our table, and people come pick them up-- a little different from Stanford. The student culture is also really different. For one thing, people don't smile as much. They're not as approachable, so you feel awkward talking to or sitting with strangers. This means that I haven't really met many of the students. I've had some random conversations, but it's just really hard to approach people you don't know.
The people in the Stanford program are all really friendly. There are 47 of us total-- 32 girls and 15 guys, so... yeah... Unfortunately, there aren't that many opportunities for us to get to know each other. We all eat in different colleges and classes are kinda grouped my majors, so the only time we all interact is when we go out. But only half the group goes out, so that's also a mixed bag. But everyone that I have hung out with is cool, so that's good...
Yesterday, I dragged Veronica to a meeting of the "Oxford Scout and Guide Group"-- basically a college-version of Girl and Boy Scouts. They meet every week to do random activities. Yesterday, we did this quiz event in teams with puzzles, and flags, and drink identifying. It was pretty fun and everyone was really nice, but these were definitely some of the geekiest kids I'd met. In a cute way, of course.
I also tried out a ballroom dance class yesterday. I suck! I didn't realize how complicated it was. I'll probably give it another shot next week, along with Latin dance. Tonight I'm trying out Steet Jazz.
Classes are good so far. We take classes with other Stanford students. Oxford kids don't really have formal classes because they work on a tutorial system, in which they are one-on-one with a professor. We also take a tutorial while we're here. Mine is on American Presidents. I know that's a little weird to be taking in Britain, but this is what I think my thesis will be about, so I'll be getting a head start. And my tutor is awesome-- I talked to him about my concern and he doesn't think it's weird to be studying American stuff here. I'll be getting a new perspective. He's also going to give me a crash course on the British election, which is on May 5. I think it's cool that I was in DC for the American election and now I'm in Britain for the UK one! So political! Anyway, my tutor seems very nice and knowledgeable, so I'm excited and relieved about that.
I am also going to be taking a class on globalization to go to the big Stanford conference in Berlin. I'm also taking a class on comparative British and American constitutions. That professor is awesome. He has a great sense of humor and is super-engaging.

That's all for now... like always, keep those emails coming!

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Bing Trip to Lake District, Liverpool, and Chester

So those cities do not sound very glamorous. But Bing trips are supposed to be all amazing and stuff, right? Not this one...
First, I guess I didn't have the best attitude because of my low expectations.
Then, the weather was awful- cold, grey, and rainy the entire weekend.
The trip was also really focused on art, museums, and outdoorsy stuff-- none of which I am really interested in.
What I was most looking forward to for the trip was a chance to bond with the whole group, but that didn't really happen because 47 people is a lot and most of the trip was free time, so groups just kinda went off on their own.
On Friday, we went the poet William Wordsworth's old house. This meant nothing to me. We then took a hike along the lake, which was pretty and scenic. Then we checked into our pretty nice hotel. There were two people to a room, which was pretty sweet. We got a very nice three-course dinner. No one wanted to go out because it was pouring outside, so we stayed in and just did random stuff.
On Saturday, we went on a boat ride and a real hike. The boat ride was pleasant and the hike was pretty long and strenous. The views were great, but the trail was really wet and muddy and there was sheep poo everywhere. We then went back to our hotel. My group went out for Indian food and then just crashed early.
On Sunday, we went to Liverpool, took a ferry ride there, and then went to the Tate Liverpool art gallery and the Maritime Museum. We then drove to Chester and checked in to another hotel there.
On Monday, we took a tour of Chester and walked around for awhile. That was a really cute city-- probably my favorite one.
Overall, the trip was okay, but just not very student friendly. I could think of a gazillion other places I'd like to go to or things I would have rather had Mrs. Bing pay for. We also had to contribute $80 for the trip, and I'm not sure that was worth it.
But now I can say I've been to the Lake District, Liverpool, and Chester... Yay!...???

Classes started this week... I'll write more about Oxford stuff in my next post.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The all-famous Roman Colliseum.

The leaning tower of Pisa!

View from the Duomo in Florence.

At the El Retiro Park in Madrid.


So the day after we bought our plane tickets, we found out that the Oxford house would be closed on Monday, the day that we were arriving. So we decided that we could spend our first night in London. What we forgot about was all of our luggage...
Me, being the great packer that I am, had two massive suitcases of 62 and 70 pounds (right at the weight limit). So you can imagine my glee when we had to take the underground subway to get to our hostel. Getting to the subway involved crazy, fast escalators and TONS of stairs with NO elevators. I was SO sore by the time we got to the hostel (like three hours later). My back ached, my arms hurt, and I could not walk. We had a similar routine getting to Oxford the next morning, but it was a little better because we took a taxi to the bus station and took a direct bus...
We met up with Angela in London that night and explored the London and Europe night scene. We didn't really want to spend money, given that we were a group of six girls and everything in London was already SO expensive. We weren't having much luck in the beginning-- people were charging 4-5 pounds to get into anything, which is $8-10 per person! We finally found this cool-looking place called the Zoo Bar and we told the bouncer that we'd only pay 2 pounds per person to get in. The guy clearly didn't do math very well because he said he'd let all six of us in for 10 pounds, which is cheaper than we were willing to pay! The bar was awesome-- it had really good music and a good-sized dance floor. European guys are definitely more forward than American guys and this was a pretty international crowd. It was a lot of fun and I was glad that the semi-random girls I was travelling were up for having a good time...


The hostel we stayed in in Madrid was my favorite one from the trip-- it was clean, with good breakfasts, and nice people. The city was also pretty cool-- it had really clean and efficient subways, pretty cheap food (although I am not a fan of Spanish food overall), and just very pleasant. Attractions we saw: Palacio Real (very cool and beautiful and big palace), Plaza Mayor, El Retiro park, and some other pretty plazas. I met up with a friend that I made in DC in the fall who was doing an abroad program in Madrid through Georgetown and she took us out to dinner and hung out with us for an afternoon, which was very cool. Meeting up with people you know in random places is always fun.

This was the crazy part of our trip where we managed to be in 4 cities within 36 hours. We took a train to Granada and went to see the Alhambra Palace. It was kind of random for us since we were mainly sticking to the really touristy cities. But a girl in the group really wanted to see the palace and I was glad that she did. Granada and the Alhambra palace are part of Spain Moorish legacy and its Muslim influences, so the sights were really different from everything else we saw in Europe. The Palace was gigantic and just really gorgeous in every room. We were there for over four hours.
The train we were supposed to take from Granada to Barcelona was full so we had to take a detour to Seville, and we hung out there for just a few hours. We got to see the famous cathedral there and just walked around for a bit. We then caught an overnight train from Sevilla to Barcelona.

This was definitely the highlight of Spain. It was just gorgeous! We saw the works of the famous architect Gaudi, including La Pedrera and the highlight of Barcelona: La Segrada Familia, which is this amazing unfinished church. We climbed almost 200 feet to the top and got gorgeous view of the city, albeit with some sore legs. We also saw Barcelona's famous cathedral and monastery. We also went to the Barcelona waterfront and marina and took a skycab/ ski lift thing to the Olympic Stadium from 1994 and then to the Barcelona beaches and Olympic villa/ boardwalk area. It was a great city with lots of fun stuff to do...

The one funny story from Barcelona was at our hostel. We were staying in a really cheap hostel and the service there was just really bad. They charged us extra for sheets! We were really annoyed with them all around. But the last straw was when they tried to charge us for keeping our bags there later than 3 pm the day we checked out. They never told us about this rule and then tried to charge us 3 euros each for six people even though are bags just sat in an empty room together. We were trying to argue with them and then one of the two ladies got up to take a phone call. I had been eyeing the key for the luggage room the entire time because I had seen where they'd set it down. So when the one lady got up for the phone, I discretely took the key off the desk and slipped to one of the girls behind me. Me and another girl kept arguing and distracting the woman while the other girls used the key to get into the room and get their stuff. Unfortunately, my luggage was on the other side of the room from the rest of theirs and the girls' hands were full so they weren't able to get mine. I saw them come out so I went in to get my luggage, but by then we'd been found out and the women were really mad. They trapped me in the room with my luggage and wouldn't give me back my suitcase until we paid up. By this point, it wasn't about the money anymore. I was just so mad at these stupid extortionary women. First the woman was asking me for three euros just for my bag. I should have probably just paid up at this point, but I pretended not to have any money on me. My plan was to exchange the key that I thought we still had for my bag. Unfortunately, the other woman had scared one of the girls into giving the key back to her. She actually grabbed Veronica [Sudekum-- my current roommate, very cool!] and made her give back the key. So my plan was lost and then the stupid woman started saying that we had to pay 9 euros to get my bag back. So I had three euros that someone had given me originally. We were starting to get late for our train, so one of the girls just coughed up 6 euros to supplement my 3. But I told the woman that I wouldn't give her my 3 euros until she gave me my bag back. So she gave me bag and I proceeded to run out with my 3 euros (of course) and the women were screaming behind us. But we got out just fine. I am still mad that we had to pay the 6 euros, but it was quite the adventure and it certainly makes for a good story. I hope I told it okay... =)


Italy was probably the most awaited destination for us, especially since we wouldn't let ourselves eat any ice cream before we got there, in anticipation of the gelato.

The journey into Italy was definitely not the most desirable. We were taking an overnight train from Barcelona to Milan and then Milan to Florence. There were six of us and cabins have 4 people in them so we drew to see who'd be the 2 people on their own. I was one of the unlucky people who had to share the room with the two random people. The two random people were two Italian women who knew no English. They also started off not knowing each other, but were somehow best friends by the end of the journey. In any case, they were both smokers and even though we were in a non-smoking cabin, they started smoking as soon as me and Renata left the cabin. We just hung out in the other girls' cabin and the smell wasn't actually too bad so I fell asleep okay... UNTIL I was woken up by the stupid conductor who wakes people up like 45 mins before their stop. One of the women's stops was like 2 hours before ours so I got woken up in the process. This was like 6:30 am. This would have been okay if she'd have gotten up quietly and left. But the other woman was really stupid and decided she wanted to get off with her new friend. This caused a huge commotion because her ticket was for Milan and the conductor still had her passport. Then the two women went outside to smoke and got caught. So THEN, we had the Italian police and drug dogs come into our room at like 7 am. They made us all get out of bed and take out all of our suitcases while the dogs sniffed them. Needless to say, I could not go back to sleep and our stop wasn't until 10 am so I was one very unhappy camper.

Thankfully, Italy was uphill from there. In Florence, we saw: the very pretty Duomo cathedral church thing and climbed up to the top of the dome for a great view, Michelangelo's David sculpture (amazing!), the Medici Palace, Palazzo Vecchio, the Ponte Vecchio Bridge that has a really cute tradition of lovers going up there and guys locking padlocks to a certain sculpture thing and throwing the key away as a symbol of their undying love, and we saw the Pizzale Michelangelo, which has the most amazing and free view of the city. We also took a day trip to Pisa, which is an hour away, to see the leaning tower of Pisa. This was very cool, but I was also surprised by how short the tower is. It would be a really lame tower if it didn't lean.

We also met up with a bunch of the kids from the Stanford Florence program, who were really cool. We went out to some bars with them on a Monday night, which was awesome. My only complaint was the bad customer service in Florence. They have so many tourists that they really don't care about them and people can be very rude. But it was a great city, other than that...

We took an amazing, high-speed (one-hour) train to Rome, and I think this was my favorite city overall. It was SO beautiful. There was so much history and beauty at literally every block. There were big fountains and sculptures EVERYWHERE. We were there for the day before and day of the Pope's funeral (we hadn't planned it like that), so the city was packed with people, but they were pretty much concentrated around St. Peter's Basilica, so the other attractions weren't too bad. Unfortunately, the Sistine Chapel closed the day we got there to prepare for the enclave of Cardinals to pick the new pope, so that kinda stunk.
But we saw: the Colosseum, Roman Forum ruins, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Vatican Museums, Villa Borghese, the pretty plazas, and the monument of Vittorio Emmanuel (a beautiful building that you don't ever really read about). Angela and a friend of hers from Florence hung out with us in Rome on the last day, which was cool. We also found the most amazing gelato place call San Crispino that's been featured in the NY Times and Gourmet magazine and the fruit flavors there were just unbelievable. You actually felt like you were eating an orange or pear or apple. If you're ever in Rome, email so I can give you directions to this place.

Crazy story: I ran into my IHUM TF in a McDonald's in Rome!!! It was insane. She doesn't even teach at Stanford anymore because she's in New York with her new husband and baby (they were all just vacationing in Rome). But she saw me in McDonald's and called my name. I couldn't believe she remembered it, but she was my TF for winter and spring and I am a very memorable person ;-) But that was just totally crazy! FYI, McDonald's was totally our friend during this trip: cheap, reliable food, where you can always understand the menu!

We went down to the Amalfi Coast with Angela and her friend for a day, where we planned to spend our second to last day just relaxing and lying on the beach. Unfortunately, it rained the entire time. The coast was still beautiful and we had a blast with our newly expanded group, but getting wet wasn't so hot.

We went back to Rome on Sunday because we were flying out of there on Monday morning. We got to go back to the amazing gelato place and then we went to St. Peter's Basillica because we hadn't been able to go there before. We went to St. Peter's Square, which was awesome, but arrived just in time for Sunday mass, which was the first one since the Pope's death so the place was PACKED. It was gorgeous from what I could make of it, but I could barely see anything in the church, which was a little sad....

On Monday, we took a bus ride to the Rome airport, got on our flight, and then a two hour bus ride to Oxford. But I am finally here and it is SO nice to have a real bed and home and internet and just be in the same place for more than two days. I loved the whole traveling experience, but there is no way I could do it for more than two weeks. I am glad to be home (or the Oxford version of it)...