Sunday, July 22, 2012

King's Chapel

The night of our first Formal Hall, the Chaplain Richard Lloyd Morgan told the attendees that we were welcome to set up an appointment with him, and he would bring a group to the roof of King's College Chapel. This is not only a huge privilege of being a student of King's College, but also an honor to be invited to explore something that few members of the public will ever see.

Henry VI started the construction himself on July 25, 1446. That is, the first stone was placed by him. The rest of it was done by a myriad of architects and workers, who dragged each stone from a quarry, cut it perfectly, and then hoisted it to its new position in this beautiful building. It's a very long building, though not very wide. Here are some pictures of the exterior and interior:


I pass this building on my way to classes, each day. I cannot tell you how many times I have just glanced up from the cobblestone when it is rainy and unpleasant, only to be struck still by the beauty and majesty of it.

To say this building 'reminds' me of where I am is nowhere near correct. It is far more accurate to say that it looms over me no matter where I stand in this town, and presses its presence down on me. You are here, it booms from every angle.

The Chaplain met us inside the chapel while tourists writhed around us, trying to get the best angle to take in the architecture. He gave a few of us flashlights, and we left our bags and coats at the bottom of a long stairwell. He said there were 85 steps, but it felt as if that couldn't possibly be right. We got to the top much faster than I expected. That could also have been my anticipation. The walls were cool here, and we saw by the light of periodic windows: thin little things, but illuminated so much more than expected.

Up at the top, we passed through another thick wooden door, and entered the space just above the ceiling. At its thinnest, the rock there is only four inches thick. There are occasionally small holes where you can peek through to see those below you. Despite a lifetime of height-anxiety, I wasn't frightened of what I saw through that small hole. I felt safe standing on the firm stone. This space is massive; it spans the entire length of the chapel, and is only lit by two grated windows at either side. It's very dark, but after the climb, we all felt rather warm. A breeze came through the windows, rustling our hair. For just a moment, I was hoping we would all stop moving and exist in the minefield of silence that awaited us, just below the surface of rustling clothes and camera clicks. 

I did not take any pictures of this place. I couldn't tell you why.

We stepped carefully, using our torches to light the way from one end of the chapel to the other, and exited yet another ancient door. Up yet more steps, and we found ourselves on the rooftop of King's College Chapel. What follows are photographs I took, because I don't know if I could find the words to describe the experience that won't come out as a prayer or expletives.

Looking down at the Hall, where we eat each day.

The most beautiful (and arguably one of the most unique) views of Cambridge.

A story goes that for Christmas one year, students climbed to these points, and hung Santa Hats from the lightning rods on this and many other chapels in the city. They were left on King's College Chapel, because it is a chapel of the Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas.

Also, do you see where the roof angles from one side to the other? We climbed that twice, as you'll see below.

Us climbing the ladder from one side to the other. You can see the Chaplain in the bottom left.

At the dead center. How beautiful is this?

Looking down on the grass that no one is supposed to walk on.

Directly after this, we had to rush down and split up. Most of us had lectures and seminars within ten minutes of the tour ending, and the Chaplain had an appointment. We rushed out with a series of thank yous and promises to stop by again. 

This was an honor. It made me so grateful that this is where I am, that the chapel can loom over me with its big booming reminder, that I am not letting fears or anxieties stop me from making the most of this trip.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Boring Academic Stuff

So not a whole lot happened this week, as far as travels to countries and suchlike. The real work began this week, and that's why I haven't posted. There's not as much to tell. But I've promised to keep you up to date, so here we go:

I'm taking two classes, currently. The first is Varieties of English, with Dr. Bert Vaux, a big deal in linguistics. His specialty is dialects of English, so much of what we learn is directly from his research. Which is pretty cool. I love the class. It's really fun to hear what marks a person as a Scotsman or an Irishman (because they're similar but not the same). We get to sometimes hear speakers of different dialects, as well. We've heard a Welsh accent, Received Pronunciation, and South African. My professor and I got to talking (since I sent him this clip about the "Albuquerque accent"), and he mentioned that Sign Linguistics (what I love and want to study) is the future of linguistics, since they're fully fledged languages that aren't going away and haven't been studied properly. Talk about validation.

Then, I met speculative fiction author Graham Joyce, who is a great writer and also a good speaker. We discussed how stories work, on an organizational level. For example, how can you play with plot? What the necessary rules for plot, and how can you bend them to your favor? I got one of his books, and it is fantastic. His writing comes highly recommended.

Also, here is a picture of a few of the people in my group out here. I haven't asked their permission to give any information, so I won't talk about them too much. But in this group, there is a person from Sweden, Hong Kong, and one person who likes to take creepy pictures just to mess with me.

I've also been working on a story this week, the one I mentioned in an earlier post. As per usual, the plot has deviated away from what I originally thought it would. The life it's taking on is so much more character-driven than before.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Lady Edinbra

I got back from Scotland last night.

We left early in the morning on Thursday. I packed a small suitcase of clothes, knick knacks, and a map of the city.

The clouds out here look listless and grey to a casual observer, or a pessimistic one. But really, they span many shades of the non-color. Light and dark, tumbling and still. But moving ever onward. Trees on the side of the road prevent some of the sightseeing, but other times you're surprised by a sight from window to horizon of green. Purple flowers line the road, reminding us how close we are to Nature's wilds. I found out later that those purple flowers are Scotland's national flower, the Scottish Thistle.

I spent most of the drive writing a terrible romance in my journal (no really, it was horrendous). But the idea was an interesting one, so maybe I'll pursue it a bit later. In general, we made more stops than I would have liked. But I am accustomed to long driving without stops. There was one stop that was well worth it though. We went to Richmond, England. It's a town with winding streets and steep angles. Towering over it all though is a castle. My first castle, to be exact.

To enter is free. As I approached it, I had to wonder what life was like within its walls. The gate is perpetually raised now, but how would you beg for audience with the king from outside the iron bars if it's been raining all day? But say you are admitted, and you take those first feeble steps into the courtyard. I can't imagine what have met my eyes back then, but I find a field of grass green enough to write home about. Flowers of purple and bright orange grow from the stone walls, which are crumbled and falling apart. But we traveled up, to the keep where king and court assembled each day. The view of the town from up there was breathtaking. What could you say but expletives or prayers?

The town and its winding streets, the rushing river, the miles and miles of greenery on every side, the echoes of 12th Century footsteps... and then quick march back to the coach. long way to go yet. I wrote, and then read, and then slept.

And when I woke, we were in the land of the Scots.

 (This is the view from the University of Edinburgh, where we had accommodations)

The next morning, we got up and hiked to Arthur's Seat (pictured below). It wasn't quite raining, but the mist and the wet and the cold were pretty much constant. The hike was more intense than I expected, and I realized I had a long way to go to being in shape. But it didn't matter once I got to the top--Arthur's Seat conquered.

Afterward, my group and I headed to the city proper. We headed down from the hill and ended up at the National Gallery, where a professor from Cambridge was giving a talk on how to look at art. It was so informative for me, because I've never known why some works of art are considered 'great' or 'masterpieces.' I still don't know why I love Van Gogh so much, or why Renoir makes me feel settled and at peace inside. But now I know what to look for to explain it to myself.

That night, there was a Scottish party thrown for the students. We had a live band with members all in traditional kilts who tried to teach us how to do some Scottish dances. We had a blast. Afterward, a few of us went searching for another pub to hang out at. We walked for an hour and a half, and saw many pubs. But apparently none that everyone was happy with. By the time we sat down, most places were closing and we realized we didn't want to drink, we were just hungry. So off we went, searching for fish and chips.

The next day, I was supposed to go on a hiking trip to the Highlands. But I was tired and wanted to explore the city a bit more. Of course, that was made rather difficult by the misty rain and general coldness of the weather. People all across the UK have told me this is the worst summer they've ever seen, so I won't blame Edinburgh for its lack of sunshine.

On the way back, we stopped by the Fountain Abbey.

Fountain Abbey used to be the biggest abbey in England, and the most powerful. It is truly a place of sacred ground and beauty. I feel like I say that about a lot of places in England, but I cannot be more genuine than when I speak of the ruins here. They transport you to a very specific kind of splendor. Where you see the divine in every blade of grass, but also in the buildings which surround you in cold stone.

And if you continue walking away, just a bit, you come to the water gardens. A man and his son decided to divert a river and transform a huge plot of land into another place of beauty. I only have a few pictures of them, but imagine the warm summer air and the hum of quiet conversations in the background:

It was a trip to remember. I am so grateful that I got to see these pockets of true beauty, and the history which surrounds them.

When we returned, a Program Assistant got on the intercom and said, "Welcome home."

And, to a certain degree, Cambridge is home. It's a community of thinkers and writers, where I'm being treated like a true scholar. I deserve respect and have responsibilities as well. That line of simultaneous thinking is what drives this amazing institution forward. For good work, you are rewarded. But it must be good work. I fully intend to produce.

... also, I found Jelly Babies, for anyone who knows and likes Doctor Who. It kind of made my day, although they don't taste nearly as good as they appeared in the show. The lime ones are horrendous, but black currant and strawberry are the best.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Classes Begin

I have spent the last few days running around Cambridge, being amazed at the glory and magnificence of it all... and completely forgetting that part of that honor and privilege includes the responsibility of studies.

I am taking Varieties of English, a creative writing supervisory, and In Sickness and In Health (which doesn't start for another few weeks). Varieties of English is taught by Mr. Vaux, a linguistics professor from Texas. It's very interesting being surrounded by men and women with very British accents, and then to hear him refrain from using the term "y'all." He's a very intelligent man, and knows his stuff. But you have to know your stuff too, before you go answering any of his questions. Which is good. It forces you to do more research than just the assigned reading.

Right now, we're covering varieties of English dialects, and how they were influenced. Of course, much of the influence came from "settlements" (i.e. invasions) by the Vikings and other Norsemen, as well as Germanic, Roman, and even (less violent) settlements by the French. It explains how exactly we get such interesting terms as "cow" and then "beef," as opposed to "cowmeat."

My creative writing supervisory is taught by two writers: Anne Rooney and Brian Keaney. They are both fascinating people with very interesting things to say about writing. Before the program began, I did some research on them both. I was really excited to see that Mr. Keaney and I had a lot in common as far as our philosophies on writing. I don't discount Mrs. Rooney at all, because she is equally as fascinating and helpful. But Mr. Keaney said some things on his blog that I definitely knew I agreed with. I fashioned my proposal to the supervisory based on him, hoping he would choose me as one of his students in this process. I must have done something right, because it worked.

I have an assignment already, and that is to work on something by next Monday and bring it in. I'm going to try something a bit different, and you guys are getting a sneak peek at my idea.

There is a story of the gods Thor and Loki, and how Thor had to fight the giant Geirrod. In the story, Loki is held captive in the form of a falcon for three months until he reveals who he is, as it's obvious he isn't a plain falcon. The giant Geirrod forces him to swear he will bring Thor without his weapons to Geirrod' lair. Loki has to agree, and so tricks Thor into accompanying him on this trip. To make a long story short, Thor defeats the giant by throwing a ball of red-hot iron straight through him. The two gods walk away, wary of each other and on shaky ground.

Well, I thought it would be a good idea to fashion a story with characters I already have based on the basic formula of this myth. A is forced to betray B because C will kill him if he doesn't. So A brings B to see C, but then B beats the daylights out of C, and A and B need to have a serious sit-down afterward. Or something.

If the story is any good, I promise to post it up here and take any comments.

In any case, I will have pictures in my next post. Last night, we had our first Formal Hall, which was very much like what you see in Harry Potter. One large room with an enormously high ceiling, in which everyone takes their seats at a table and the staff brings out the meal, one course at a time. We had the most amazing chicken I've ever tasted (and lemon tart for dessert!). Needless to say, we all wanted pictures of each other in the little group I've joined, so I'll post those up soon and introduce you to some of the people I've met so far.

Also, I plan on putting up a video soon, because I realize just how little the pictures do to serve justice to this place.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Cambridge At Last

So last time I updated, there were a lot of pictures and talking about a journal (that I'm sure no one really cares about), and not a lot of my feelings about the place. And there is a lot to speak to, so I apologize in advance that this post will not be brief.

In case you did care, I found a very nice journal at the Covent Garden market, by a young man whose brother makes them in Turkey. It has a charm on the front, and very nice, smooth blank pages. I am very excited, and couldn't wait to sit down and write in this new one when I bought it a few days ago. This was my first entry:

I write this from a garden, next to Westminster Abbey, that rings with the echoes of Big Ben's last announcement. A child laughs into the grass beside me, and then promptly falls into it, simply reveling in the aliveness of it all. I don't blame her. 

The pictures of Big Ben never show how much it glistens. Gold reflects off its surface. I didn't realize just how much I considered the clock to be the symbol of "I did it," until I turned the corner, and there it was. Beautiful, majestic, hard-working, and constant. Surrounding me, there is grass. I have seen it as green before, but never felt it so soft. A bumblebee sits beside me in the shade of a leaf. We share a laugh about my utter amazement at the place, and then he leaves, his break over.

The day was just so gorgeous. I can't begin to talk about the blueness of the sky or the freshness of the breezes without first citing the works of other great authors. It is, truly, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I am eternally grateful that I've gotten to see it.

Things were not all wonderful, however, and that is the sad truth. That evening, there was a huge party of some kind at the bar below the hostel, and the bass bled upstairs to us travelers trying to sleep. I realized as I tried to find sleep among all the noise just how miserable I was there. There wasn't a place for me to brew any tea, which is a surprising stress reliever I've developed. No place to write postcards to friends and family, no place to journal while at the place I sleep. And did I mention they tried to kick me out of my bed at one in the morning? Something about my bed was changed and wasn't I made aware? I told them pretty sternly no of course, and they didn't ask again. Which was weird.

In any case, I was glad to check out the next morning, even though it meant lugging around 50+ pounds of luggage for the next few hours. It's surprisingly easy in London, though. I took the national rail from New Cross to the London Underground, which eventually brought me to King's Cross. While I failed miserably to take a picture of Platform 9 (or the unofficial 9 3/4 they've put up), I did manage to get to the train rather quickly.

The countryside... I never wanted that train ride to end. For one, it was every bit as picturesque as you see in the movies, and for another... I realized I was scared. Logistically, I had no idea where I needed to be next, and had no internet access to find out. And then of course, there's the programme itself. I am ever afraid when it comes to making friends, though I seem to do all right in the end. But back to the sky--it is impossibly blue. As if the blue feeds from how green the earth is. And though the green goes on forever, you continue to hunger for it, especially as a desert-bred lizard like me.

I came to the station, took out my cumbersome luggage, and waited in line for about twenty minutes while storms formed dramatically overhead. I let the taxi cab driver know about where I needed to go (Trinity Hall College), and he took the circuitous route there of course. To be fair, it only about 7 pounds. But still.

I'm going to make the next bit brief, because it included a good deal of waiting, small-talking with the porters, and eventually making it to my room.

It could not be more beautiful. I have seven separate window panes which open to the street, from which I can see another set of rooms directly across from mine. To the west, the sun set lazily, like even he did not want this first day to come to an end. To the east lay the college. I have a sink in my room, and two mirrors. Two chairs. A couch. A wardrobe, a desk, a night table, and two bookshelves. The light is a Chinese lantern  hanging in the center of this enormous room. I might have cried when I saw it, considering how cramped quarters were at the hostel.

After checking in, I made my way to King's College, for a brief orientation and then dinner. I walked past buildings made of stone that have been here since before America won independence. Not all the roads are cobblestone like I had half-hoped, but they are still impressive. Clouds loom overhead pretty much as a given, and the rain is constant. It is light, though, and umbrellas are only necessary if you're bothered by it hitting your face at irregular intervals.

I got to the main courtyard of King's College, and walked in past porters in long black robes. Many of the buildings are open to the public, and many are not. Many of those which are not... are open to us.

The main courtyard... God, the size of it is fantastic. You have no idea what it's like to be dwarfed by these grand buildings until you're there. Seeing the pictures is one thing, but to watch the spires change in depth as you walk by them is another entirely. The grass is so green you're afraid to look away for fear it will disappear, just like this one, perfect moment. The green bit of the grounds is even bigger than I imagined, and untouched save for the feet of those holding a Ph.D. Clouds stare down absently, and you wonder if they see you among the other beautiful scenery which surrounds you. Every stone whispers of a time soaked in majesty and antiquity. Kings, queens, Nobel Prize winners and other Greats have set their feet upon this ground. And here you are, somehow lucky enough to set your footprints beside theirs.

The day was not particularly long after that, but it certainly felt like it. I made friends quicker than I'd anticipated, and a few of us went to a nearby pub to watch the Italy v Spain game. I left before it was done, but Spain won, 4-0.

This morning, we had orientation at the Cambridge Union Society, which was a society created in 1815 to allow students free speech and debate, set apart from the University. It has a long history of fantastic speakers and thinkers, and some very controversial ones as well. Different men and women introduced themselves to us while we sat in comfy leather chairs and let us know who we contacted for different needs. We met the Lay Dean (aka Dean of Discipline, who's also a Fellow of Stalin's Russia), the Dean of Chapel, head of the King's College porters (they are all quite lovely, and only drink tea, so I hope to stop by and bring them all a brew at some point), head of catering, IT, Academics, the Bursar... so many people who welcomed us completely.

I learned that this is only the second year the programme has been open to non-Ivy League students. I am even more honored to be here.

This is a very long post, and I'm so sorry. I've gone on long enough. Feel free to ask questions, I guess, if I've left anything important out.