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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why I Stayed Up So Late Writing My Paper

Or, Making Banana Bread

Or, Another Cooking Near-disaster

Also, In Which I Survive an Earthquake

Well, after all those titles, I don’t feel like there’s much else to say, but I do feel somewhat obligated to explain them. Let’s start with the banana bread.

About 3 weeks ago, I found a recipe for banana bread in a cookbook in our house. It looked very good and I wanted to try it. The first problem was getting bananas. Not that it’s hard to get bananas here, but that they don’t seem to last very long in our house. Between cereal, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and snacks, no matter how many bananas I bought there was never any left over. I thought I had finally succeeded last week when three of our bananas started to turn brown, and was waiting for them to ripen some more only to come home and discover they were gone. On inquiring as to what had happened to them, it turned out Will, concerned that they would go bad, had eaten them. Yes, all of them.

Well, I finally got some bananas and all the other ingredients yesterday and decided I would make the bread before starting my paper that was due today (finished and turned in now, Mom). After the usual baking issues here (spaghetti pot as a mixing bowl, etc.) I thought I was all set. I put the butter, eggs, milk and sugar into the bowl (pot) to beat before adding the bananas and flour, but when I went to get our mixer…it was gone. It had been left at another house in our program, which I knew, but had forgotten. Now I had a problem…namely, I had no way to get the butter to mix in smoothly with the rest of the ingredients. There was only one solution.

Using a slotted spoon, I scooped all the butter out of the batter, put it in a saucepan, melted it, put back in the bowl (pot), and continued as usual. Despite all this. the bread was a success (sorry, no picture. I wasn’t fast enough, and it’s all gone now).

However, because I had to mix everything by hand, the bread took considerably longer than I had planned, so I got a late start on my paper. Consequently, I was up until late (not saying how late, ‘cause my parents read this) working. Well, alternately working and procrastinating on Facebook and such. During one of my procrastinating moments, around 1:00 AM, I was talking online with Amy, a girl in my program who lives about an hour's walk from me (I’m in Marston, she’s in Abingdon, for those who care).

Suddenly, I felt my chair shake, as if the floor underneath it had given away. I thought it was odd, but figured one of my housemates had dropped something downstairs (or, you know, ran into a wall for some reason). So I was surprised when a moment later Amy wrote “Whoa. I feel like there was small earthquake in my house. My chair just shook”. Figuring the odds were too big that we had both had our houses shaken at the same moment by independent causes, we decided it really must have been an earthquake. Turns out, we were right. I am now a survivor of the largest earthquake in England in 25 years. It’s amazing what you get to experience when you cook banana bread. After all, if I had started my paper earlier, I would have slept through the quake.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Some (More) Bad Poetry

Lunch at St. John’s College

The sight of the camellia,
already blooming—too early,
caught me by surprise.
Not because of its early flowers,
(though I wonder that the frost last night didn’t kill them)
but because it reminded me of home,
here, where I thought to find no reminder
here, in this country that is not mine.

And now I sit
here, on this bench,
with friends that are not mine,
but have lent me their companionship
here, in this country that is not mine—nor theirs.
And we three aliens,
we strangers in a strange land
here, where they speak a language that is like mine,
but is not mine
here, we sit. Silent. Still.

And for once,
in this quiet
here, by the camellia
here, I think, maybe this land
can be mine.
Then, a friend who is not mine,
Thoughtfully takes a bite of her sandwich.
Chews, swallows, and says,
“That was delicious”.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I Didn’t Have my Camera

But it was Beautiful
I must go seek some dewdrops here
and hang a pearl in every cowslips’ ear.
-Shakespeare, A Midsummer’s Night Dream
The last few days, upon waking up, I have pulled a little corner of my curtain back and peeked out to see if it had snowed. We are most definitely reaching freezing temperatures at night, as small puddles and such are always frozen in the morning, but still no snow.

The other day, upon looking out my window, I observed the most extraordinary weather I’ve seen since I got here. It was a fog, but it wasn't grey, but white and transparent, as if a cloud had decided to sit down on top of Oxford. As I walked into the City Center that morning, I became aware of the effects of this strange fog.

The moisture in it, it seemed, had frozen onto everything it had touche: trees, cars, flowers- giving the whole neighbor a glittering appearance. The sun was already up when I set out down the road, and every time I walked under a tree, a little shower of melted dew-drops greeted me. But it was when I reached the bike path that I caught my breath.

There, hanging from the fences, and twined around flowers, were tiny, sparkling strands of crystal. It was, I thought, as if a fairy had come out during the night and hung garlands on every open surface.

I was almost late to my meeting because of the time I spent looking at these small wonders (which turned out to be frozen spider-webs), and standing in awe of the beauty that can surprise one even in the most ordinary of places.

Friday, February 15, 2008

OOSC—Oxford Overseas Student Cleaners

(for those who don’t know, the program I’m in is the Oxford Overseas Study Course)

Yesterday was St. Michael’s annual tower cleaning. Since Penelope, who runs OOSC, is a member of the tower committee, she extended an “invitation” to any students who wanted the “experience” of cleaning “Oxford’s oldest tower” (1,000 years old, which I find fairly recent). With the promise of a free visit to the top of the tower, and a free lunch, five of us bit. Here’s a few pics of us hard at work:

Amy, Paige, and Penelope hard at work. No, that's not snow, or a blurry picture. That, my friends, is all the dust in the air (not the Philip Pullman kind).

Sam and I pretended to be Cinderallas (or orphans)

As an extra reward, everyone who helped clean got to chime the bells, scaring a couple of tourists that we didn't know were in the tower.

The bells. Appearently, they're so big that if the were rung (swung back and forth) instead of chimed (the thing inside is swung back to hit the bell) the tower would fall down.

Some of Oxford's "Dreaming Spires", as seen from the tower.

And last, but not least...

Friday, February 8, 2008

This Post’s for You

No—not you, you. Yes you. (For my grandma)

I blame the pancakes.

For Shrove Tuesday, everyone here eats pancakes. It’s such a widespread tradition that the first thing my tutor asked when I showed up for my tutorial was “did you have pancakes today?” (ed. note: pancakes here do not have a rising agent in them, so instead of being fluffy, they are flat, like crepes.)

All the talk of pancakes naturally caused my housemates and me to want some (the American “fluffy” kind), so we decided to make breakfast for dinner, and have pancakes, scrambled eggs, fruit, and bacon (for the carnivores). The eggs, fruit, and bacon were easily come by, but after visits to both the local grocery stores, we realized there was no pancake mix or syrup to be had. We were too late getting onto the Shrove Tuesday bandwagon, and all the stores were sold out. So we made our own batter. From scratch. and it worked.

Thus inspired, I decided that I would undertake a family tradition and make Hot Cross Buns for Ash Wednesday. I mean, we’d made pancakes without a mix. Surely I could now take on any culinary challenge, right? (This was a silly thought. Pancake batter only has like 4 ingredients.)

I went online, found a recipe for the buns, decided not to put currants or raisins in them, since I always pick them out, and went to the store for the ingredients. I then commandeered the kitchen (not that there was much competition for it) and began cooking. What followed went something like this: (note: from here on out, my thoughts are in italics, and the recipe is in bold) (note again: the whole recipe is here. This is just some of the steps)

Mix dry ingredients in large mixing bowl.
Mixing bowl? What mixing bowl? We don’t have a mixing bowl, and certainly not a large one. Ah! The spaghetti pot will work.

Heat milk and butter until quite warm, about 125F.
Assuming you have a thermometer? Let’s just heat it until the butter melts.

After kneading for 5 minutes, place dough in buttered bowl, cover in place in warm place until doubled in size.
Buttered bowl? Bowl again. Bowl…bowl…Hey, Will, since you’re washing the dishes, can you clean out the spaghetti pot? I’m going to need it in 5 minutes. Thanks!

Punch down dough.
Got that!

Divide dough into 18 pieces. Roll into balls and place on two 8in square baking pans.
Baking pans? Ummm, well, how about a cookie sheet and a banana bread pan. That’ll work, right?

Let sit, covered, until double in size.
Well, I got that part right, at any rate.

Cook at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes.
Okay- I know how to do this. Look up 375F on our oven temp. converter chart…=190C. Got it. (15 minutes later…You know, I should probably check on the buns, since our oven is different and heats from the sides…good call.) 5 more minutes and I would have had hot burned buns. As it was:

Everyone liked them. A lot.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

An Excursion to Blenheim Palace

A Story in no Need of Embellishment

Blenheim Palace
Yesterday, Laura, an American grad-student I met at St. Ebbe’s, invited me on an excursion to Woodstock to see Blenheim Palace. We didn’t go into the palace itself, which costs money, but walked around the public walkway and had lunch by the lake on the estate. We then decided to walk around the victory pillar that stands in the center of grounds, in hopes of seeing some of the sheep and pheasants that were kept down that way. We set off down a road that ran to the left of the pillar, lamenting the lack of gentlemen to offer us their arms.

The view from our picnic spot

The road bordered the sheep pastures, and ended at a private gate, so instead of walking back down the path, we decided to cut across the field to another path on the other side. Thanks to the rainy English weather, the field was quite muddy, which produced a round of Jane Austen quotations: “Her hem six inches deep in mud!” “She looked positively medieval!”, and speculations on how we would be received if we were to walk into Mr. Bingley’s manor dressed as we were (“wearing trousers!!”). The sheep we passed by seemed equally reproachful, and the looks they gave us were not so much surprise at our presence, but surprise at that we had the audacity to be walking across their field.
We finished our trek across the field and found ourselves back on a paved pathway. But, caught up in conversation as we were, instead of following the path back to the entrance we’d come in through, we continued in the direction we were already traveling in—away from the victory pillar. Upon seeing a gate at the end of the path, we debating going back, but decided that we’d first see if the gate could be opened to the outside of the grounds, and if so, we’d just follow the wall back into the town. The gate proved to be another public entrance, so we exited through it and found ourselves on a road bordered by a narrow strip of grass.

We continued to follow the wall of the estate, and soon found ourselves separated from the road and once again walking across fields where we were greeted by the sight of a rabbit sprinting to her burrow. After attempting to recall as many of the words of Bilbo’s (via Tolkien) The Road Goes Ever On and On, we once again met up with the road. Uncertain, however, as to whether or not the road led into town, and knowing the wall (eventually) would, we decided to continue to walk along its perimeter. As a result, we soon found ourselves between a rock wall and a prickly fence, which blocked the way to the road.

Between a rock wall and a prickly place

At this point, we began to wonder how far we had walked, and so scrambled up the wall a little ways to see if we could see the victory pillar. We couldn’t. The only thing in sight was a small wood. At this observation, we concluded that in exiting the gate, we had somehow ended up in some other world, albeit one with cars. With nothing else to guide us, we continued to follow the wall, now through some pretty dense foliage.

Finally, the fence separating us from the road ended, and walking out to the street, we found a sign welcoming us back to Woodstock.

Laura bravely leads the way

We took the road back into town, and rewarded ourselves with tea at The Bear (Couldn't find a link).

Then, appropriately tired, we took the bus back into Oxford.

Our journey across and around the estate, marked in orange. All told, we walked over 5 miles.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Bloggers' Silent Poetry Reading

So, I just visited my favorite blog, Yarn Harlot, and read about this poetry reading. So I thought I'd join in, and offer one of my own poems, written in arrgogant imitation of Robert Frost's The Road not Taken. Enjoy! (And critique, if you feel so inclined.)

The Woods: In Retrospect

In these long forgotten woods I stand,
A changed man from when I last passed by.
Remembered roads lead from either hand;
One leads to lonely, now well-traveled land,
The other once dismissed with a sigh.

Was there so much virtue to be found,
In a road not used by other men?
Did I think their judgment so unsound,
That by walking on less trodden ground,
I’d ensure I’d never fall again?

Should I choose to go a different way,
Having now another choice to make?
And take the well worn path, come what may,
And to learn what others have to say;
Though I think the past was no mistake.

Others know lessons already learned,
Teachings I could never find alone.
And if their lessons I choose to spurn,
Then so by falling, my fate I’ve earned,
This, the cost of walking on my own.
-April 27th, 2007

Friday, February 1, 2008

Reverse Culture Shock

A (very) Short Story

This past Sunday, I had the most unusual experience while walking back to my flat from church. Now, it’s important that I set the scene at this point. For the past two hours or so, I had been surrounded almost entirely by people speaking with an English accent. Whether listening to the sermon, or talking with people afterward, my ears were attuned to its particular cadence.

Returning to my story, I was about halfway back to the flat when I ran into a group of college-aged people, talking, laughing, and taking up the whole width of the sidewalk. I rather abruptly found myself stuck in the middle of the slow-moving group, and began to grow frustrated that they wouldn’t move aside and let me pass. It was then that I notice they all seemed to be talking with a very distinct accent. Curious, I began to listen in to see if I could identify it, and experienced a brief shock on realizing that the “accent” was American!

The entire experience, from running into the group to recognizing that they were American lasted only a few seconds at most. But for that short moment, I was in rather unique position of hearing what my own accent must sound like to others here.