Dinner Talk (or the lack thereof)

A high-vaulted ceiling, four long wooden tables, a fireplace or two, and floating candles describe Hogwarts’s iconic dining hall. At Christ Church – minus the floating candles – the dining hall is essentially the same. It was in this dining hall that I got to eat dinner every evening this term.

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As an associate member, I was given a flat north of Oxford City Centre (“-re” being a British formality) in a little neighborhood called Summertown. I’ve probably mentioned this before. Nonetheless, each evening I would take the ten to fifteen minute bus ride into town and head to Christ Church. Old Tom would toll six times as I passed by the porter that never remembered my face. As most fall nights in England are chilly, I would pull my coat tight across my body and speed-walk across the main quad towards the staircase that led to the dining hall.

The stairwell leading up to the dining hall.

The stairwell leading up to the dining hall.

Dinners were rushed. Students packed into a tiny waiting area around 18:10 and ushered into seats around 18:20. Every dinner resulted in sitting next to people I didn’t know (until I made a dinner buddy with another visiting student – a pact closely related to a blood oath). Sitting next to strangers is not always terrible. After all, I would do it every day in NYC when I took the subway. However, dinner requires one thing that the subways never did: small talk. I loathed the small talk that would never fail to start up. It’s difficult and tends to be insincere. And yet, the food was well worth the “What are you studying?” and “Where are you from?’ questions. My happiness was easily bought with the three course meals we were served every night. Naturally, this dinner ritual became something to dread and to love.

And so, I wanted to share a couple short incidents of my time dining at Hogwarts.

  1. Would You Like Chicken With Your Napkin?

I am buttering my dinner roll, the lighting is low, and no one is talking. A British guy sits across from me and two Asian girls sit next to me. There is another guy next to the one across from me who consistently stares down at his plate. The servers (I never found out if some of them were fellow students?) bring the appetizer – breaded Brie. The British guy devours it with a clacking of knife and fork and follows it with gulping his fourth cup of water. At this point, I assume he is on Speed. Next to me, the two Asian girls whisper something to each other, and I place my roll down and begin to cut away at the Brie. The British guy only talks when he wants something (i.e. butter, bread, or water – at least he knows about the essentials). I give up on starting a conversation, and pull out my book. When the main course comes – grilled chicken – the British guy wraps up the chicken in his napkin. He pushes back his chair and jogs out of the dining hall chicken in hand. I shake my head and spoon some more potatoes onto my plate. Who am I to judge? After all, it means more lemon pie for me.

  1. A Glassy Fiasco

At dinner I found it nearly impossible to manage a friendly nod without feeling the rising anxiety of actually having to talk to people. I recognize this as a problem, but when most of the British students seem just as unwilling to start up a conversation it makes it all the more difficult. And so, I found myself silently eating dinner while watching two students talk about exams or jobs or something finance related. A lull in conversation led to one of the students wanting a glass of water. What happened next was a moment of topnotch comedy. With a potato on my fork half raised to my mouth, I watched as one of the guys picked up the water pitcher and pour it over his upside down glass. The oddity of it all was that he was intently staring at his glass while he poured. Only until the water actually hit the glass did he realize what he was doing. He jerked the pitcher back up saving most of the water. The shock saved him from utter ruin, I think. Nonetheless, the table erupted into laughter, and even I found myself laughing. The laughter dissipated, but like all “good” friends his refused to let him forget the slip-up. One student even ran down the aisle to rub it in by asking him “DID YOU REALLY JUST DO THAT!?” Though I felt bad for the guy, I too had the same question.

There are a few things you learn when you regularly dine alone surrounded by hundreds of people. Talking is hard. Countless times a student would turn to me and ask a cookie-cutter question, and I would answer with a rather brief answer to avoid taking up too much of their time so they could turn back to their friends. Other times, I found myself painlessly participating in conversations with whole groups of students. The ease of conversation inherently depended on my own mood. Rarely was it the fault of the other conversationalist. And yet, the small talk kills me. These questions seem flat. I have heard arguments that small talk is a jumping off point. Rather, I see it as full sprint into a concrete wall.

While at Oxford I attended a Muse Society event. The Muse group is an ingenious system of meeting people; imagine speed dating for making friends. I walked into the college bar at Merton College and was given a discussion partner. We sat down and had a fantastic conversation on topics such as our favorite books and religious beliefs. (It helped that we were served wine and finger sandwiches). After introducing ourselves, we broke through the social norm of small talk and entered into meaningful conversation. For a person I barely knew, I discovered more about this one student than any other student I met while at Oxford. Unfortunately, I only attended one meeting (the free one). That one event, though, encouraged me to shape my questions to mean something. Sadly, deep questions, unless expected, were never received well during the forty-minute dinners. And so, I contented myself with the atmosphere of the dining hall and occasionally participated in that dreaded small talk.

I suppose it is my own personal challenge to learn how “to do” small talk. Otherwise, I fear I may never make any new acquaintances.

Keep on keeping on,

j.s.u.

Eyes Around Oxford (Crowns and Christmas Crackers) #5

In fourteen days I will be back in Hershey, Pennsylvania. In seventeen days it will be Christmas Eve, and in sixteen days it will be Christmas Day.

And so, I present British Christmas! (Mom, this is for you).

Merry Christmas!

Keep on keeping on,

j.s.u.

Eyes Around Oxford (and England) #4

What it is to miss.

The Spanish phrase “to miss someone” is “extrañar a alguien.” I remember learning this phrase in my high school Spanish class. It is a sad word – extrañar. Feelings of estrangement permeate throughout the word. And that is a sad feeling. When I think about everything I miss back home, a fear creeps into the back of my mind. “Things will be different,” it says. “They will be older,” it whispers. “Friends will have left,” it laughs. In these moments of self-consultation, I fear estrangement.

My entire life I have experienced something along the lines of “never-fitting-in-though-all-I-wanted-was-to-fit-in.” Fit into what, I couldn’t tell you. It changed with every new social group I encountered or new place I visited. It comes from a deep discontent with the status-quo. I want to experience everything. That is a steep slippery-slope for people with the gumption to actually carry through. Fortunately, I was blessed with a silver chain locked around my ankle.

This *internal policing of thumos has fostered a rather pessimistic view of life. Instead of recognizing the fortitude of human relationships, it harps on the nature of change in the world. It becomes worse because I struggle with long-distance. I don’t “miss” people, and **it reveals itself in how little I contact people when I am not around them.

The reality of being separated from family or friends does not tend to faze me as much as being separated from home. More so, I know that I will see my family and friends again. This fills the part of my heart that should be actively “missing” a family member or a friend. Yes, something horrible could happen. But if that fuels your “I miss so-and-so,” then how could you survive ever being away from that person? No, I don’t miss my family and friends. I do long for home. In those moments of longing, I can smell the farmlands of PA, and see the overwhelmingly tall buildings of NYC, and hear the Christmas music that fills my house during this time of year, and taste the burritos from Chipotle. In fact, I sometimes “miss” these things a lot. Home for me constitutes so much more than just a place or object, though. It’s been said time and again, but home is more than just a shingled roof and brown siding in a little development in PA. Home, connotatively, means people. I love my house in little ol’PA, but I love being with my family more than anything. And being reunited with old friends is quite possibly one of the most rewarding human experiences. When I am no longer around those I love, I don’t miss them; I look forward to seeing them again.

I suppose I miss my family and friends, but it rarely succeeds in making me emotional. The idea of missing, though, still seems strange to me. Things go missing, and usually proceed to become lost. Relationships, those with true ties, do not go missing. They are always there, no matter the distance or time. It’s something like a remote “lost” in a couch. You might not be able to find it right away, but one day you will sit down and feel a prodding in the side. The remote has returned, and you couldn’t be happier. No more getting up to turn the TV on!

So, you might ask what brought about this rather sentimental post? Christmas season is here in the U.K. There are lights and decorations hanging across the streets, stores have snowmen and fat little Santas in their windows, jumpers have taken precedent over long-sleeved shirts, and Starbucks started serving their holiday drinks on November 1st. To make it worse, I love Christmas. It is that one time a year that fills me up with nostalgia. A missing of how things used to be, but a joy in those old memories takes root in my heart. It is a time full of goodwill as well. People genuinely seem happier. Work slows, families are coming together, and the coldness insists on snuggling by a fire with a cup of hot chocolate (a thing I am usually strongly opposed to). And so, I started listening to Christmas music about two weeks ago. There is something about listening to Christmas music that really brings out the child in a grumpy, tired “adult.” These are the reasons for this post, and the reasons for why I am excited for the ending of my Oxford term. It is wonderful here (and I will be coming back), but there is no place like home.

Keep on keeping on,

j.s.u.

*Some synonyms of wishy-washy (my first word choice): “banal,” “characterless,” “cowardly,” “mediocre,” “weak-kneed,” and “namby-pamby.” I don’t think that was quite the word I wanted…

**Obviously, this is an issue. Sorry.

Rocks that Glitter

It was near the end of September that my friends and I made our way to continental Europe. We spent our travel week split between  Denmark and Germany, visiting cities like Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, and Luxembourg (which is both a city and an independent country). During this time, I had the pleasure of traveling on some of the most questionable airplanes, talking to strangers that spoke a language I did not understand, and using a shower-toilet. I could write paragraphs about the uncomfortable nature of the trip. Instead, I want to convey a simple sentiment that sometimes finds itself overlooked by negativity.

A few months ago, I was convinced I was bound to the East Coast for the rest of my life. I developed a bad case of melodrama; otherwise described as a high school girl whose date to prom dumps her right before the dance. Obviously, this is now a ridiculous conjecture, but I tried to convince myself of this “impending reality.” Pragmatism turned reality – “sometimes we don’t get what we want” – into downright pessimism – “dreams are silly.” I was not exaggerating when I told you I had pick up some melodramatic tendencies.

And yet, here I sit writing this blog entry while studying at one of the top universities in the world. Here I am living out one of my oldest and most distant dreams.  It is as if I woke up from a dream about flying through the sky on a broomstick, to find myself sprawled out on a couch in the Gryffindor Common Room. Just thinking about being here in Oxford makes my stomach clench up and heart race.

Most dreams are like when we find a really cool rock that glitters in the sunlight. We say, “Oh, that’s cool!” and put it in our pocket where it stays for a few days. After awhile though, we pull it out, look at it one last time, and place it in some shoe box where we keep all of our other “interesting finds.” A majority of our dreams become “interesting finds,” trivial keepsakes that we store away because the glittery wonder ceases to amaze us.

Sometimes, though, you should keep that rock in your pocket, and spend time every day looking at that rock. Let it inspire you to start a rock collection or something just as equally “silly.” Surrender a bit of your pragmatism to the trivial or the impossible. Do not let your sense of wonder slip away. It is a sad life that is void of dreams.

Not all dreams come true. I think it is naive to think otherwise. However, dreams do inspire. And sometimes you find yourself ten years later living that dream.

Keep on keeping on,

j.s.u.

On the Oxford Essay.

He sat down at the kitchen table and opened up his laptop. It buzzed and moaned as it started up. His body was dark against cascade of blue-gray light of the rainy morning. With twelve-clicks, the screen flew into a flurry. Safari popped up with six tabs, Chrome opened up to a Youtube playlist of Taylor Swift (it was a late night), a 2,693 word essay on early 20th-century Middle Eastern history grimaced back at him, and Spotify required an update of his “present country” status. For all intents and purposes, Spotify still thought he was living in the US, and thus assumed he was trying to cheat the system. It refuses any attempts to fix it, and he still doesn’t know why. Quickly minimizing three of the four windows, he stared at the essay. It stared back.

Term at Oxford began a few weeks back. At first, it was slow and surprisingly I had very few assignments. The first week, endearingly called “Fresher’s Week,” barely changed from the previous vacation week. My work, if it can be called that, consisted of  two meetings: one with my primary tutor and another with my secondary tutor. Both lasted a good fifteen minutes.

There was a white van sitting in the pebble-covered driveway leading up to a brownstone. He walked up to the front door of 18 Lathbury Road. Facing the door, a dark-blue color, he debated for a minute or two on whether he should knock or ring the door bell. Mind made up, he raised his fist to the door. As he went to knock, the tutor opened the door. “Oh, hello. I saw you coming up the drive,” the tutor said. “Please, come in and to the left.” He walked through the door, and into the small hallway. Laying on a half-table, a large orange cat stretched out its paws. Her claws flexed out, and scratched quietly against the wood surface. He made his way into the sitting room, where he sat down on a striped, high-backed armchair with a cat pillow. The tutor, with gray Wilde-like, hair, sat down across from him. Conversation began, and he soon realized trying to listen to the tutor’s whispery, accented voice would be the most difficult aspect of the tutorial.

My tutorials,  unique to Oxford and Cambridge, soon picked up in rigor and speed. In one week, I had two essays due: a 2,000 word essay on the influence of the Peace Settlement after WWI on the shaping of the Middle East, and a 3,000 word essay on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The library and my headphones became my two closest friends. What upset me emotionally was that a week prior I was sitting in cafes with friends, and talking about the clubs I might join. In one week, I became disillusioned. This was going to different, and most likely difficult.

It was nerves. Mostly. The other part was the apparent lack of books in his college library. “How can they not have Tribes and State-formation in the Middle East?” he asked himself as he scrolled through the list of books located in the closed stack of the Bodleian Library. He shut his laptop, and packed up his things. He wouldn’t have enough time to do all of his reading, and he only had three sources as of this afternoon. Pushing the wooden chair back from the large study table, he flinched at the eerrrrreaaaccchhhh! of wood sliding against wood. A few heads turned his direction, and he shrugged in apology. Walking toward the door, the wood boards underneath his feet moaned. “For such a quiet place, it sure likes to make noise,” he thought as he opened the creaking door to the main hall of the library.

Keep on keeping on,
J.S.U.

It All Begins With A Map.

A response to a friend’s blog post:

I am no good at words.

A few years ago, I would have said differently. It was on the page that my tripping tongue found its footing. Pretentious and arrogant, I said, “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” After two years of college, the only statement that still holds true from Vladimir Nabokov’s quote is “I speak like a child.” It was a depressing realization, but a necessary one.

What once seemed like good writing became silly and juvenile. The essays and stories I wrote felt unfinished. By calling myself a writer, I had foolishly rushed into a world dominated by men and women far more talented. Bogged down by the feeling I was inadequate as a writer, I would write to prove myself wrong. The result would be disappointing, and I would validate my feeling of inadequacy. I circled the realm of words from the outside with head lowered, desperately wanting to get in.

During this time, I had lost focus on why I write. All that mattered was the feeling that I was never going to be good enough. I trapped myself in my own miserableness.

I did not start writing to become a writer. The writing was a product of the stories I wanted to tell. When I was younger, around nine or ten years old, I use to draw maps of fantastical lands. Each map would contain upside-down V mountain ranges, winding rivers, vast woods, oceans, and the occasional whirlpool. In this newly fashioned geography, I would place cities and towns. The next step was to go through the new map and name cities and mountains and rivers and oceans. It was hardly the final step, though. The map needed a story. And so I wrote.

Writing is a means to create. From idea to thought to pen and paper, the story takes shape. The rambling thoughts become solid, and a world comes to be. And so I write.

Occasionally, I stop writing. If one calls himself a writer, this is the second greatest sin he can commit.

If I stop writing, then I fail to tell the stories waiting for pen and paper. That is why I write even though words come sluggishly to my mind. Writing is the way I understand life. Before I write, the jumbled words form half-thoughts and feelings about the world around me. After I write, I sometimes stumble across a truth that I needed to remember. One day, I hope to share some of those treasured truths with others. And so I will continue to write.

Thanks for reading.

Keep on keeping on,

J.

Eyes Around Oxford #2