Slightly Ignorant at Oxford

Hey guys.

So this is what is going to happen for the time being. I’m going to keep this blog open for now and occasionally update it with fiction and such. I will also update it with any info I have about publishing. I still might close it, but right now is not the time to be making big decisions.

Why?

Well, that’s because I’m going through a big change right now. Not only is my summer vacation finished, but I am also now starting my junior year abroad at Oxford University in England. And, like many before me, I feel the need to record my exciting year abroad. For this purpose, I’m experimenting with a new blog.

http://slightlyignorantatoxford.wordpress.com/

Photo Oomph [Flash Fiction]

“Your voice makes me think of sex,” I told him right after he introduced himself as Thomas, the guy I was supposed to be meeting. It was the year that I’d decided being honest was the best thing to be under all circumstances.
“Oh no, I’m going to kill Vic’… I hate to break it to you, love, but I’m gay.”
“I know, don’t kill Vicky, she’s a sweetheart.”
“But you just-”
“I wasn’t coming onto you. You just have a good voice.”
That was how Thomas and I met. He still says that he’s never been so turned on by another woman as he was by me telling him that his voice made me think of sex. But it did, and it still does. It makes it difficult when he brings guys home and I’m in my room with the lights off and nothing but his dirty talk and my insomnia keeping me company. The walls are too thin in our apartment.
It’s a good thing that Vicky warned me before I met him to watch out for my heart. I would have fallen for him for sure. As it is, I’ve fallen for my boss round the pub, which isn’t a much better choice since he’s married and twenty years older than me. But he’s a flirt, and he’s told me more than once, when he’s had one too many with the lads – “It’s good for business, drinkin’ with the customers, but don’t you ever dare do it,” he always tells me – he’s told me that he’d fancy me in a second if he wasn’t wrapped around his wife’s little finger.
Just look at me. I sound like one of those sad cases on the telly, those girls who are all moaning about the men who don’t fancy them anymore. That’s not what I’m about. My life isn’t about the lads I fancy, nor about the ones I bring round from the pub when I’m feeling lonely and need someone to distract me from Thomas’s voice.
What’s my life about, then? I take pictures. That’s what I do when I’m not working or out having fun with Thomas and the rest of the gang. I photograph people around the city. Just people. Anyone, really. My mum thinks I’m crazy, and dad thinks that I’m wasting everything I learned in art school.
I used to paint, see. I still can do, I suppose, but it doesn’t give me that feeling, you know the one, that oomph down in the pit of your stomach where everything goes when you’re terrified or extra happy. Remember when you first went really high on the swings as a little kid? Your mum or dad or big brother were pushing you and you wanted them to stop, and maybe you even told them so, but they ignored you and kept pushing you higher and higher and your little hands were holding on so tight that later they stank of metal for hours. And then, when you were so high that you were getting dizzy just thinking about it, you came back down and your belly came right up into your heart. Even though you didn’t know anything about biology, you knew that shouldn’t be happening, your stomach shouldn’t be moving up to where it did, and it felt like it was being tugged with a bit of string, yanked really, and it was so weird but also felt good. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what taking pictures feels like.
Not always, obviously. But when I get one right, it feels just like that.
This morning I got one right, for instance. It was the best thing I photographed all month. It’s a woman feeding a bunch of squirrels in the park. She’s sitting there, not on a bench or anything, just on some of the grass that isn’t wet anymore now that the sun is finally making an appearance, and she’s got this vat of popcorn in her lap. There are squirrels all around her. It’s strange. I still don’t know if she was bonkers or homeless or both or neither because I stayed far away so that I wouldn’t scare the squirrels. They were around her in a circle and they kept running forward, right onto her lap sometimes, to take some popcorn. Then they’d run away and eat it with their back to her.
In the picture I took, though, she’s eating some of it herself. All these squirrels, some stealing the stuff right from that cardboard bucket she was holding, and she takes this fistful of white popcorn and stuffs it into her own mouth. Like she was starving or something. It made my stomach go oomph, all right.

To Berlin!

Yes, it’s true, I’m going abroad tonight! Again! I know, I know, this is getting insane… But to be fair, this time I’m using my mileage on Swiss-Air to fund a flight! And I’ll remind you all again that flying to Europe from Israel is much less hassle that from North America, or indeed, Australia/New Zealand. It’s about three and a half hours to Frankfurt, where we switch planes and fly to Berlin.

Yes, this is the third trip abroad that Sir B. F. and I are undergoing together! The first two were to London, England, a place we both love beyond measure. London is fantastic city, absolutely amazing in everything from culture to architecture. But we’ve “done” London twice, and we decided we need a change.

Sir B. F. has a family member who’s relatively wealthy and he has an apartment in Berlin which we can stay in – there’s no way we could have succeeded in funding this trip if we’d had to stay in hotels. Even the cheapest of hotels cost about 100 Euro a night. But no, we get our own cozy little apartment in Charlottenburg, and we have the Schloss Charlottenburg, which is a palace with extensive gardens, right in our own neighborhood! It’s definitely a perfect location for us  – it’s quiet, so we can rest peacefully at night, but close enough to transportation so that we can get right into the centers of Berlin.

While I’m gone, I will try to keep up with everyone’s blogs as often as I can – and yes, I’m still visiting your blogs, but I’m just commenting less. I want to keep my circle of friends here, and I know that in the bloggy-world, the first sign of waning friendship is less commenting – so I truly do apologize, and I’ll do better in future!

I’m also going to try to write a bit (or a lot) while I’m there. I’m bringing my trust netbook, and we have internet in our apartment – plus, there’s neighbourhood-wide wifi connections in some areas of Berlin! Now that’s a service that I think every city should adopt. But back to the point of this paragraph – writing! I’ve already started my travel journal, which I intend to write in as extensively as possible, and if I have time then I’ll also try to continue with my own project which has slowed down a little, although things are getting clearer and closer to an ending, at which point I’ll finally be able to start working on a second draft! Woo!

And so I leave you now to tackle the rest of my day and half the night, as I wait impatiently for my exciting vacation to begin.

Ethan

It seemed that no matter how his hair fell, he looked fabulous. If it was in his eyes, it looked boyish. If it was curled up a bit, it looked sexy. If it was cut short, it showed off his perfect forehead. That was the kind of man-boy he was. He could wear whatever he wanted, and did. Anything from black boots, black jeans and a biker jacket to a waistcoat, pinstriped pants and loafers. In his pocket, you could easily find either a pack of cigarettes or a watch on a chain. If all that weren’t enough, he also projected his comfort and self-esteem and acceptance of who he was. His presence was enough to make anyone weak-kneed, men and women alike. He wasn’t even twenty yet.

He stood smoking outside of his apartment building. As I walked by, he looked up at me, and I saw that his eyes were wet, on the verge of spilling tears. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out “Ethan? You alright?”

He mutely offered me a cigarette, lit it for me, and leaned back against the brick wall, one leg going up to prop himself. He was wearing his black boots, I noticed. I stood beside him, puffing away, feeling more intimate with him than I ever had before, despite being his neighbour for over six months, and despite us having many mutual friends. It seemed that I saw him all the time – around the building, at clubs and pubs. He was a fixture of the Soho night-life, and I often found myself dancing just a few people away from him. It wasn’t that he was a snob, exactly. He wasn’t posh, his father didn’t go to Eton and he hadn’t even finished university. He was just a regular bloke like me. Of course, I couldn’t pull off half the image he had, but then, that’s me.

“Boyfriend,” he sighed. He took a last drag and then threw the butt down. He stomped on it with a force that made me shiver a little. He looked at me, and I think I must have looked a little guilty, since his eyes flashed from heartbroken to angry to resigned in quick succession. “You knew?” He’d already ducked his head, pulling out another cigarette from his pack.

I couldn’t deny it, but I didn’t want to let him in on the fact that, well, we all knew. We all thought he knew it, too. We’d seen them together almost every night of the past few months, but we all knew. The boyfriend lived in Manchester, only came to London every month or two. He’d been over just three weeks ago. So, obviously, we all thought that Ethan knew.

“Sorry, mate.”

He shook his head. His hair flopped, looking perfect no matter what he did. That hair, that hair that my eyes always fixated on, it was still as glossy, as perfect, as natural as it always was. But the rest of him… Well. For the first time since I’d met him, I wasn’t intimidated.

“When’s your birthday?” I asked. I knew it didn’t matter one whit, but I asked anyway.

“February. February 9th, ’88. Why?”

“No reason. You’re two days younger than me. I always thought you were older than me. Never mind. Come upstairs, come on, I’ll make you some tea and we can watch whatever football game is one tonight, right?”

He chucked his smoke way across the street so it hit the building across and a little spray of sparks shone red-hot before falling to the ground. Brushing a hand through his hair, he followed me into the building.

A Taste of Conference Work

Although I’m taking time off from school – or maybe because of it – I still think a lot about my academic work. Over the last few months, I did more research and reading about obscure and interesting subjects than I dreamed was possible for such a short span of time. I found it immensely satisfying, challenging, and frankly fascinating to read things that I would never have picked up on my own without the structure of research and coursework to guide me.

Now, at Sarah Lawrence, the most important and unique part of the system is conference work. This is basically independent study and research that is done for each course, with the professor supervising the process and helping out when and if needed. I thought I’d give a small taste of what this is like. Below is the handout I gave to our class, as instructed by the professor, towards the end of my writing process of what turned out to be almost twenty pages of essay, end-notes and bibliography:

Elizabeth Barton, The Holy Maid of Kent, and Anne Askew, Protestant Martyr

Political and Religious Importance in Early Reformation England

  • Elizabeth Barton – In 1525, Barton began to have visions and make prophecies. She soon joined a nunnery after an impressive public healing in a chapel in Kent, and became renowned in England for her prophecies. She prophesied directly against King Henry VIII, predicting his downfall should he marry Anne Boleyn. Executed on April 20, 1534, for treason.
      • What was her political role and what goals did she set out to meet? What political role did she play in her arrest and death? Was she autonomous in her actions or merely being influenced and used by her mentors?
    • Quote: A warning from Thomas More: “Good Madam… I shall beseech you to take my good mind in good worth… many folk desire to speak with you… But some hap to be curious and inquisitive of things that little pertain unto their parts; and some might peradventure hap to talk of such things as might peradventure after turn to much harm…”
  • Anne Askew – In 1545, after being kicked out of her home by her Catholic husband, Askew traveled to London where she was soon apprehended and examined for her Protestant beliefs. She recorded her examinations – the first in 1545 and the second in 1546 – and her manuscripts were published after her execution on July 16, 1546, by John Bale, a Protestant activist.
      • Were her words her own, or were they edited? What was her political and religious significance, before and after her execution? Was she used by others or working as her own free agent?
    • Quote: John Bale praises Askew: “Soch a won was she… whose harte the lorde opened by the godlye preachynge of Paule… “

A Monarch’s Responsibilities

History is a vast and incomprehensible mystery to me in many ways. We have facts about things that have happened in the past – we have dates, records of events, paintings reproducing the faces involved in those events, poems and diaries devoted to giving opinions and preserving what happened in a biased manner. We have all these things. Mystery, to some people, seems like a wide-open book, its contents there for us to look through, sift for what interests us, and indulge ourselves in knowledge of old.

I don’t feel this way. In my opinion, history is full of so much that we don’t know and so much that I wish I could know. True, we know when Martin Luther began to speak and write about his emotions about being a monk and part of the Catholic Church. In his instance, we can find quite a lot of emotional and sentimental writings from his own pen, or maybe quill, and we can see into his mind, as far as he lets us.

But what about others? What about the farmers and the spinners and the dye-makers that England had in such profusion in the sixteenth century? What were the children running barefoot through the streets of London, so much smaller than it is today, thinking? What games were they playing? What was the man smuggling illegal documents from Europe into the English Empire thinking as he worked? Was he scared for his life or merely waiting to get paid so he could go home to his wife and child? What were the nuns, sequestered in their cloisters, talking about? How did they speak to their young students, and how did they infuse them with a love and a belief for the divine? Through fear? Through love? Through simply offering worship as a fact of life?

And if these so-called simple people’s lives aren’t interesting enough for historians to dwell on – well then, what about the monarchs? How could Henry VIII hold such power in his hands and play with it so lightly at times? What did Katherine of Aragon feel as she was condemned? We can guess, surely, but how can we know? What of Elizabeth? How did she feel when she was sought after for marriage through the years? Did she decide on her own to remain a single ruler in order to maintain a stable throne? Did she, perhaps, not find men pleasing in the manner she would have been expected to? Had she fallen in love with someone who never returned her love or never could?

It’s bad enough, thinking of the power that politicians and governments hold today. At least it’s distributed power, and is more or less given by the people. But monarchs… They were born. Some of them believed they were chosen by divinity to be kings or queens. They held so much power in their cupped hands, that they’d let some of it run through their fingers to those sitting at their feet, just waiting for a pearl or jewel to drop from those mighty hands. I can’t imagine how such responsibility could be held without driving the holder mad with indecision, worry, guilt. Such are the things that the annals of history can’t reveal to us. Thoughts, emotions, private sighs of elation or grief.

Sorry-Sorry-Service

The waitress was pretty, in a conventional way. Her hair was that sort of natural bright yellow that all those who dye their hair want to have. Her figure was trim but womanly, short without being stocky. Her eyes were big, brown and innocent looking. Her school-girl looks were probably the only reason people were being semi-patient with her.

She’d been running around tables all day. She had no idea why she was lucky enough to get this job at Patisserie Valerie, one of the most popular hangouts in Soho. She had no idea how she was there with her English being so imperfect. She also, unfortunately, had no idea whether or not she would be allowed to stay; so far, she was a disaster.

A group of three came into the cafe: a red haired woman, a girl in her late teens who looked like her daughter and a young man with dark, curly hair. They sat down at a table, and the waitress was shooed over to them by the woman who’d been helping her on and off all day. She bobbed over to the table and asked in her broken English what they wanted to drink. They answered, and the flurry of words was almost too much for her. She went to the kitchens to relay the order. Once she brought it, she realized that she’d forgotten two items. She hadn’t understood what they wanted, she supposed.

Asking about the food was worse. The young man, bless him, merely wanted the sandwich as it was written in the menu, but the woman and her daughter asked for all sorts of changes. Simple enough, if she could only understand what it was they wanted. She felt like her brain had turned to mush, and she only understood every third word, though she dutifully scribbled in her notepad obligingly the keywords that she could understand.

It took her three runs to the kitchens and back to make sure she had everything right. Then the kitchen botched one of the orders. She lost her head completely, and took the order out anyway, saying as she did so that she told the man what to do and he hadn’t done it right. She was about to set down the plate anyway, but the three stared at her uncomprehendingly and then asked her to please get them the order they’d asked for. They didn’t mind waiting, but they wanted to eat the food they’d ordered – not whatever the kitchen’s whims were.

The waitress felt the tears well up, but they didn’t break out. She quickly brought the things back to the kitchen. When she came back, finally with the correct order, she bobbed a sort of half curtsy and explained that “It’s my first day, so sorry, so sorry.”

***

The really strange thing was that when I returned the next day for another meal at the same place, I got the same waitress. It was, again, her first day – sorry-sorry – and again the orders weren’t done right. I don’t blame her. I’ve waitressed. It’s hard, it’s pressuring, and it requires some knowledge of the language. I do, however, blame the restaurant for not even pairing her with a more experienced waitress for a couple days. My mother tells me, however, that Patisserie Valerie has been known since she lived in London more than twenty years ago as a place with good food but notoriously bad service.

The food, at least, was indeed delicious.