Thursday, May 31, 2007

Our House, Is a Very, Very,Very Fine House

Two more pictures for your enoyment. (Not going to let Mr. and Mrs. Bowes out-do us on the photo front!). On the bottom, our street. Please note the fact that the cars are parked on the sidewalk. And, this is a 2-way street. Also, note that these cars are approximately the size of a nice riding lawnmower. We saw a VW Golf, and it looked huge. No joke. Also, note the intense variability of the houses. We spend a lot of time on corners, arguing about which way to go. Every street looks like this. We're starting to navigate by the pubs: "Turn at the Black Swan. If you get to The HobGoblin ("Where Even Despair Goes to Die"), you've gone too far, luv."

On the subject of size, check out our milk carton, on the top. We have a teensy little fridge, and so we get milk in this leetle beetsy carton. As you can see, it's not much bigger than the apple. The whiskey comes separately, btw. And guess what? It's 29.90. But they won't tell you that. Lots of things are much smaller here. Yoghurt cartons, sodas (500ml, about 2/3 the size of Coke in the US), jars of spaghetti sauce.

Also, I'm not sure what to think about sweets. Bart tells me that the British don't have the sweet tooth of Americans. And I can confirm that the cocoa isn't as sweet, the yoghurt isn't as sweet, etc. But then there's William Cunningham, whose kitchen is dominated by the candy box (2 feet by 1.5 feet, no lid). And, more evidence, the candy aisle at the Tesco is huge. It's always crowded with people fussing over whether to buy 18 Mars bars or 18 caramel Cadbury's. Then there's the half-aisle devoted to cookies. And the prepared cakes in little boxes. And the refrigerator aisle given over to packaged cream rolls and jelly rolls. And the ice cream. And the frozen cakes. And, finally, the rows of boxes of sticks of cake. Yes, cake sticks. For tea, I guess.

So...the Brits don't like sugar. Or something. I'm a little confused.


I found 2 pictures online. The first is of the facade, the second of the Norrington Room. Note that the second image is of a single room, in the basement, of this bookstore. Four stories. Yeah, baby. Or, as the Whigs might say, 'Suck it, Barnes and Noble!'

Why Mold Grows on Stone

Because it's raining.

And to prove that life is really unfair, I'd point out the pattern of the rain. Walk to the library: raining a bit. Umbrellas, but nothing crazy. Charles drops me off, I go in, he leaves to walk back (30 minutes), and...the skies open. Not just today, but at least 3 times already.

In other news:
1. A sign on an Oxford college: No Parking. Violators will be Clamped. (!)

2. We found the most incredible bookstore ever. It appears to be just a couple of little shop fronts, nothing special. And when you enter the left side, you come into a tiny room full of tourist stuff about walking tours. You could be forgiven, at this point, for rolling your eyes and daparting. But wait...a stairway. This bookstore turns out to occupy the better part of the entire building. 4 stories up (with a staircase very much like the one at Hogwarts), with a huge (huge) basement level room (the Norrington Room) on 3 levels of its own. The basement room is one enormous space with lofts, devoted to various sub-genres of academic study. In this bookstore, Sociology gets its own area. Outside the Norrington Room, classic literature receives almost an entire floor. Meanwhile, history...not even in the Norrington Room, because it gets most of the 2nd floor. I'm going there this afternoon and I may never leave.

Also, there's a coffee shop. And I pre-ordered the new Harry Potter.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Moldy Stone

Fiona has been fascinated with how wet it is here. So wet that the stone walls here are growing stuff. Here's her favorite bit of growth:

No, Really

It's raining.

But I have an office! A cold office with no pencils, but an office, nonetheless. With lovely glass doors out onto the Princess Margaret garden. And I have at least 2 completely unrememberable passwords to the Oxford system. They require you to use one capital, one number, one symbol, and exactly 9 characters, but none can spell a word from the dictionary. It should be something you'll remember, they say. Right.



Well, it looks like the British are keeping up in just about every way:,,2090016,00.html

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Graham Has 4 Teeth

Life goes on without us. Miriam laid brick with Will, J. Bizzle painted (and Mrs. Dr. Bizzle supervised, natch), even our dogs are hanging with Grandpa without a care in the world.

We, meanwhile, never leave the house without a jacket and umbrella. We're armed, dammit.

Today, we sallied forth at 9, having dialed the coffee in the presspot back to 5 scoops from 6. The box said to use 9. This morning's coffee was slightly less like petroleum, somewhat more like mud. Charles says he made a pot this afternoon with 4 scoops, and it tasted pretty good. To me, it's all irrelevant, since I've basically stopped drinking anything but tea. So far today I'm up to 5 cups. And counting! I even bought cookies to eat with tea. Shortbread...mmm.

I picked up lunch today at the tuck shop I tested yesterday. Today's selection, since there were fewer people and thus I was less self-conscious: chicken tikka. Basically, this is chicken salad with some Indian yumminess tossed in. They wipe the bread (ciabbata) with chutney, too. Obvy: it was terrible. Truly bad. Inedible. I didn't lick the plastic wrap, though, and you can't prove I did.

So I worked away the morning, reading about how Sallie Edwards (Nast's wife) and her family treated James Parton (her cousin) and his wife badly. They didn't like the fact that his wife was a published authoress with her own money and that she publicly advocated women dressing in men's clothes. They were quite rude. Once, Sallie was talking with Parton's step-daughter, Grace. They had just bought a new house, and Sallie asked how big the drawing room was (does that qualify as scintillating conversation, by 19th century standards?). Grace said it was big enough to do somersaults in. Sallie was so horrified by Grace's unladylike behavior that she decided she and her sisters would not socialize with Grace and her sister. Charming.

After lunch I introduced myself to Linda Kerber. Arnita Jones at the AHA and Miriam said I ought to do so, and I did. Kerber was pleasant, and when she asked how I knew Arnita I said, "Miriam is my best friend." And she said, "A woman with excellent taste!" So there you go.

After lunch I had to stalk some poor girl to get a desk. It's exam time here, so the desks are all filled with unshaven, dirty, muttering undergraduates, madly studying. The Harmsworth library has a 3 story atrium which all the floors overlook. So when the woman behind me answered her cell phone, everyone stopped and looked up. I held up my hands, "not me!" Then she actually said, "I can't talk; I'm in the library." Genius.

So I inserted all sorts of juicy stories today, including the previously unknown fact that Sallie Nast's mother married her father in a total Jane Eyre scenario. She was the governess to George Edwards' daughter and son. Then Mrs. Edwards died. Presto, chango: new Mrs. Edwards. Three more daughters later, Sallie Nast marries Thomas Nast and I start digging around in their family secrets. I figure I'll get a little late revenge for Mrs. Parton by re-telling that story. They should have been nicer.

Charles met me at the Rothermere at 5:30, and we walked up the road to try to check out the Covered Market. I think that the CM is actually a fairy tale, though, because it was closed again. So let's just keep track: Sunday, closed; Monday, closed for bank holiday; Tuesday, closed at 5. We figure that in order to actually get in we'll have to go at 9am, but I wouldn't put it past them to open only on alternate Wednesdays from 11-2 when there's a full moon.

Marching onward through the hordes of Japanese, Australian, and American tourists, we tried first a pub (ack! Claustraphobia!), then a diner (closed, natch), then a greek takeaway with 3 tiny tables. That last one proved the charm, and I had a wonderful square of spanikopita with tomato salad and hummus. Charles had 2 chicken skewers with hummus and pita. I ate his tomato salad. Then I got a triangle of homemade baklava to go.

So far as we can tell, it's an Oxford rule that you have to eat on the street. If you pass 20 people, I guarantee that at least 10 will be eating something. So Charles stopped at a Kabab cart (like LA lunch trucks except they serve: pizza, burgers, kabobs, gyros, fries, and baked potatoes. yes, baked potatoes. And you can get one with beans on it. No joke) and bought a small order of chips. One pound!! That's like a quarter! Ok, actually, it's 2 bucks, but because it's a tiny little coin, it feels like a quarter. And they were really, really good.

Then we walked home, noting pubs that look good and trying to navigate the sidewalks, which are crammed with parked cars and broken beer bottles and overgrown hedges. People here generally walk with their heads down, which might be mistaken for humility. It's actually a survival mechanism designed to prevent falling down. The sad part is: Oxford isn't exactly Detroit. It'd be nice to look up now and then.

Tomorrow: I get an office.

Guess What?

It's raining.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry

Yesterday's rain proved a harbinger of change. Today, instead of rain, we had rain and wind. Because if there's one thing better than rain, it's rain blowing straight into your face. Personally, I prefer my pants to be wet at the thigh and calf. Dry pants are a cliche. Also, if they're going to be wet, I like it to be about 44 degrees so I can really feel it. That's just how I feel.
Tomorrow promises sunshine, but I doubt it.
Meanwhile, I finally got into the library and did some work. Yes, on a fellowship I worked. The History Police are coming for me, for sure.
In order to do the work, though, I had to navigate a thicket of faux pas. First, of course, was arriving looking like a survivor of the Titanic. The receptionist, apparently working alone because today was a bank holiday, showed me the kitchen and left me alone to make tea. "There's milk in the fridge, " she said. And she was right. When I made the first cup, I discovered that the milk in the fridge was of a very special vintage. Lumpy. Mmm. Cup #2 went a little better, and I managed to dry off enough to feel ok about going upstairs to the library.
There, I happily pounded away on my laptop (after reading the map to ensure I wasn't using my laptop in the "quiet area" where laptops are not permitted. Laptops like to talk on their cell phones and chew gum, so I understand this completely). Lunch was delayed by the rain, but by 1:30 it was down to a mere drizzle, so I decided to find something to eat.
The British have tuck shops, which are like little delis that have sandwiches, sodas, chips, sweets, and little pastries. The one on the corner down the street had a line, which is always a good sign. The line doubled up inside, and as you went down the outside you shouted out your order, then you passed along the inside line watching the 3 food preparers feverishly slapping sandwiches together. By the time you got to the checkout counter, the man simply held up a sandwich and said something like, "Chicken tikka with pesto and avocado, love?" and then "3 pounds twenty." Or whatever.
But not me! I had a lamb pakora and something called a flakey cake. I thought it would be cocoanut, since the famous "flake" bar is...wait, that thing isn't cocoanut. Well, whatever. Anyway, the flakey cake was odd. I think it was cornflakes stirred up with fake chocolate and then pressed into squares. Like a rice crispy treat, only cornflakes and brown. It wasn't awful, and the pakora was delicious. Best of all, they didn't cost a million dollars!!
An afternoon of reading about Fanny Fern (wife of James Parton, cousin of Sallie Edwards, wife of Thomas Nast!) and the proliferation of newspapers after 1833 led to dinnertime (despite the disapproval of one member of the staff who effected surprise that I arrived at 9:30 and intended to leave at 5 rather than 7. My god, the sloth!). I met Charles at the Starbucks on High Street and we repaired to the restaurant where one cannot order bangers and chips rather than bangers and mash.
For the record, I had bangers and mash. No substitutions, no problem. I learned my lesson with the 29.90 whiskey. From now on, I just take what I get.

And I don't like mash . . .

The first half of my day was unremarkable: walk to the Rothermere with Fiona in a cold steady rain, venture to the local department store to acquire umbrellas, return to the apartment.

Things were somewhat more interesting come dinner. After meeting Fiona in the city center, we ventured back towards Hurst Street. We popped into an inviting eatery. The temptation: bangers.

The menu clearly listed bangers and mash as an available entree. Further study of the menu revealed both mash and chips as available side dishes at the same price. My selection made, when the waitress approached, I ordered. Our exchange was more difficult, however, than expected.
W:"Are you ready to order, then?"
C:"Uh, yes, I'd like the bangers and mash."
C:"I see you have chips as an available side. Is it possible to substitute chips for the mash."
W:"Yes, we have that."
C:"Ok, great."
W:"So, that's bangers and mash with a side of chips."
C:"Well, no, just the chips, no mash."
W:"Just mash and chips?"
F:"No, see, he doesn't like mashed potatoes."
W:"Uh . . . "
C:"Can I have bangers and chips?"
W:"Yeah, bangers and chips."


Given my trouble communicating here I despair for our visit to France.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I don't like beans

And I don't like spam, either.
Included in our day was a visit to a local liquor store. The large selection of scotch in the window lured us in like lemmings.
After staring at the selection for awhile, we decided on a bottle of Balvenie. The price was marked for the 1991. We only saw the 1993, so we figured it was just an old sign and that we'd see if the 1993 was available at the advertised price.
F:"Do you have the Balvenie Portwood for
M:"No, it was on special last week."
C:"So all you have is the 1993, then?"
M:"No we ran out of the 1991 when it was on special."
F:"Can we get the 1993 Balvenie?"
M:"Sorry, it was on special last week."
C:"How much is that bottle right there?" (pointing)
F:"We'll take it!"
This was a remarkably difficult transaction, but everyone left with a smile, and, more importantly, we left with the bottle.

Day One: Rain

Today, we explored Oxford. In the rain. And by rain, I want it to be clear that I mean mist, downpour, drizzle, splash, and also blowing. All types. It was awesome.
And by awesome, I mean wet.
We started at about 11, because Bart and Tony had been good enough to inform us that Sunday hours are usually 11-4. So we began walking down the Cowley Road at 11, heading into town. Oxford's city centre is about 15 minutes from the apartment, so we had a nice walk before arriving at a cafe on High Street for brunch.
In England, breakfast includes baked beans. They're Heinz, from a can. We knew this, in the sense that we could read "beans" in the list of pork on the breakfast menu. You can get breakfasts that include toast, eggs, and coffee. All include pork, and if you choose most of them, more than one kind of pork. So I got toast, an egg, beans, and both sausage and bacon. Charles went all "budget" - which in Oxford means 9$ for breakfast - which included coffee but had only two types of pork. I think he read the "beans" on the menu, but didn't anticipate the way that the beans would overspread the plate and turn absolutely everything on it into "beans and..."
So breakfast was excellent, obviously. Salty, but excellent.
Onward: to the Rothermere American Institute. They hired an eminent architect to create the building, show it off in photos on their website, and are clearly very proud. I wonder, then, why the building is so hidden behind others that I couldn't see it at all! I did note the four separate entrances, all locked today. Tomorrow I will go check it out, and perhaps see the building instead of its neighbors. Because of the stealth-RAI, we didn't linger there. Instead, we walked past the garden and up to the top of St. Giles St.
St. Giles is a long, wide street that leads to the tourist areas and the main shopping district. We ducked behind it for a while, checking out Jericho (a hip neighborhood which looks as if it has the best restaurants), then walked down the road toward the Carfax Tower.
The Tower, the shopping, the coffee shops and other stores seem as though they're cute. I wouldn't know, because I can't see left or right when my rain hood is up. The sidewalk is very nice, though. Also, MacDonald's, KFC, and Starbucks are apparently colonizing England. Thought you'd want to know.
The Covered Market - once a butcher's row, now an arcade with little shops, including a chocolatier - was closed today. Closed as in: locked iron gates. So we bought a couple of pasties at a takeaway shop, picked up a french press at Starbucks, and started to swim back to the apartment. Along the way we observed a truly remarkable rambling rose at the Botanic Gardens. Also, punts on the river Isis (part of the Thames but in Oxford it has its own name. Bart and Tony tell us that this is typical of Oxford, which believes itself to exist in a unique universe) floated at a dock. This might have been inviting on a nicer day.
So: 11-4 was eventful. Since then, we've been laying about like polar bears after a narwhal feast. Fat and boring. Telly on, tea and biscuits, pasties for dinner. Pretty soon we'll fit right in. Unless Charles orders breakfast with "no Beans!!"

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Jet Lag Arrival

Hello All,

This is a jet-lag inspired experiment which may or may not result in many posts, but those of you directed to the blog may find updates here about our European adventure from time to time.

We arrived in England with no troubles. Customs was a snap. Bart and Tony picked us up (big thanks in order here), and we were off from Heathrow to Oxford (at 100 mph!). With only one wrong turn, we arrived at our apartment - two hours early to meet the agent.

This two hour window was perfect for a first exploration of our neighborhood. We quickly found that within a five minute walk there are plenty of take-out restaurants, a couple of small grocery stores, pubs, etc. We found a Bangladeshi restaurant for a quick lunch. (We later read an advertisement claiming that it is an award-winning restaurant with four branches in Oxford.)

After a quick walk up the road a bit, we ambled back to the apartment. The rental agent arrived shortly thereafter to show us the place.

I would say that the apartment is small, but that might imply more space than we have. This studio apartment is quite sunny and clean. The kitchen is small, but well-outfitted except that there isn't any way to brew any kind of coffee other than instant. The bathroom is off of a hallway from the kitchen. It is almost small enough for either of us to touch all four walls while standing at the sink. The only remaining space in the apartment is the bedroom, located at the end of the five foot long hallway. Other than the bed, some kitchen chairs, and the floor, there is nowhere to sit. We're hoping to borrow a small futon from Bart and Tony sometime soon.

On the plus side, the wired internet connection fired up no problem. The promise of wireless remains unfulfilled, but we may figure that out next week. In the meantime, we've stocked up on the best available foodstuffs (M&Ms, jam, tea and milk, bacon!) and avoided those things that all visitors fear: marmite and vegemite. In fact, the entire jarred-items aisle was a challenge.

Tomorrow, we explore Oxford on foot, despite threatened rain. The Rothermere is about 2 miles from the apartment, while central Oxford is even closer. The big goal, though, is to sleep through the hours 1-3:30am. Unlike today.