Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Americans in Oxford

Are they marketing to expats in Oxford or Americanophiles?

I feel more American living abroad. It happens every time I open my mouth. It doesn’t matter that I’m wearing a battered Barbour and muddy wellies or even that my husband is English. My accent declares that I’m not British.

We Americans grow up with a sense of England from watching Masterpiece Theater on public television. We expect Oxford to be just like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, forgetting that it’s fiction and from another era.

In the two decades I have visited and occasionally lived in England, I’ve seen a great deal of convergence between our countries. There was the spread of first McDonalds and the GAP and now Starbucks etc. I wouldn’t call this a good trend, but my kids appreciate the super-sized “American cookies” (instead of “biscuits”) at train stations. A "coffee Americana" in Europe is what we could call "coffee black."

I am happy to find bagels in the supermarkets now even if they taste more like bread. My first homesick year living in London (1980’s) I actually called the American Embassy to ask where to buy bagels. They didn’t know. My fiancé found them in Leicester Square, and later I discovered a Jewish area in Brick Lane.

My notion of England must sound warped to British ears, and British concepts of America sound just as funny to me. In the very English department store Debenhams I found this display of “Maine New England” clothing. Where can I start? I have never seen landscape like that in my home state. I’m guessing the photo was shot in Cornwall, not in Maine. The pink-red shirt color is native to New England, but it’s called "Nantucket Red." It’s popular with sailors and preppies on an island in Massachusetts. Button-down, short sleeve shirts are much more prevalent in England than in the USA.

One advantage of living abroad during an election year is to have a filter from all the frenzy. I check the primary results in The New York Times on line and see the race covered by the English media. I’ve been less than impressed. Mary Dejevsky’s commentary in The Independent was typical of the English coverage, and I’m sure there are American equivalents. Too many articles focus on race vs. gender when discussing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Of course that is a key issue, but I find it demeaning to the candidates to reduce them to inherited characteristics.

There are clear policy differences between Clinton and Obama. Living under the National Health in England is bliss: no insurance forms or co-pays and everyone is covered. I can admire Clinton for wanting that for our nation. Then there’s the war. The British are very concerned about the War in Iraq, and yet they seem unaware that Obama has opposed the war since day one, without waffling, whereas Clinton voted for it before doing an about face.

Obama is a fascinating candidate for reasons that go beyond race. I’m reading his incredibly well written memoir Dreams of My Father. I found it prominently displayed at Paddington Train Station. The most compelling article I’ve read on Obama was by Andrew Sullivan in the Atlantic Monthly. Sullivan is British and Oxford educated but lives in the USA. If you read only one article about Obama, read that one to understand the political culture and the meaning of his candidacy. You can buy American magazines in England, but they cost as much as books. This one was worth it.

Walking through Oxford, I found this sign in a dorm room window. I’m guessing there’s a Rhodes or Marshall scholar in residence. President Bill Clinton was one himself, but I haven’t seen any Clinton signs for his wife. Ironically, I believe this window is at Univ, Bill’s college at Oxford.

Another memoir I’m reading is Rosa Ehrenreich’s A Garden of Paper Flowers about her time as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford. I can’t say I’m enjoying it. It’s a very subjective and whiny account that plays to stereotype: the American can’t fit in with the rigid, class-bound Brits. Her naivety is almost humorous. She chose Christ Church and then complains that it was too upper class and religious, when even a spot of research could have told her that.

Ehrenreich finds fault in the Oxford system compared to Harvard without realizing that she’s comparing undergraduate education to a graduate program. Of course graduate education in political science is going to be more theoretical, narrow and full of jargon. It’s a big part of the reason why I left academia myself.

It is much more fun being an undergraduate, especially in the American system. I took elective courses in music, forestry, literature and art history while studying politics. English students enjoy their undergraduate years too. Like Ehrenreich, my husband had fun rowing, but he also received a first rate education at Oxford and then at Harvard. Henry appreciated both despite their differences.

Ehrenreich does do a good job describing what it feels like being a confused ex-pat American at Oxford. Her personal reactions will help guide character development in my third novel. I’ve also talked to my cousin Peter Nohrnberg, who was another Marshall Scholar but at Magdalen College. I have 3 American friends who very much enjoyed their junior year at Oxford.

I studied abroad during my junior year too but at King’s College London. Last time I lived in England (2004), my husband was leading Colby-Bowdoin-Bates semester in London for Maine college students. This academic year Henry is doing a research fellowship at Oxford for his sabbatical while I'm researching my third novel. My work in progress places an American student at Oxford in the 1980’s and now.

The true experience probably falls somewhere between my good years and Ehrenreich’s misery. If there is misery, I’d like to find the humor in it as well. There is nothing like living abroad to give insight on a foreign culture but also on one’s own. We see ourselves in another’s eyes better than by looking in a mirror.

If you know of other books (fact or fiction) about Americans at Oxford, please comment below. I’d also love to hear some personal accounts. You can comment anonymously.

In case you were worried after my last post, the flood waters have receded. The sun has been shining for days! The crocuses are blooming through the muck, but there's snow/rain in the forecast. It's just like late mud season in Maine. Doesn’t this photo (click image to expand) look like an oil painting? It’s the digital zoom and the winter light.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Port Meadow Flood

A police officer knocked on my door. Persistant rain has caused the ground water levels to rise, and the Thames/Isis has turned Port Meadow into a bog. Her flyer gave a floodline website and phone number (0111222 in Oxford) and instructions to pack a “flood kit” for emergency evacuation, including such items as wellington boots and a torch (rain boots and flashlight in American.)

Our neighbor had already gone to pick up the government-provided sand bags.

This neighbor just had milk and firewood. A farmer delivers fresh dairy milk in refillable glass bottles. Most people aren’t panicking since our road was fine in the epic July floods. Wolvercote, despite being low, is surrounded by wetlands so homes are well protected. Other overdeveloped neighborhoods weren’t so lucky. Being green makes good sense.

The horses out on Port Meadow knew to gallop to higher ground. The ponies had already been collected. Owners fed their horses as there was little dry grass for grazing. The older horses led the herd to the safe areas.

Big water dogs and young boys were having a blast, but the little dogs weren’t quite convinced. I wished for waders, but these lads didn’t mind the water spilling down the top of their wellies.

The hardy lads made it the top of the picnic table to the consternation of the geese.
My dog knew how to dry off after more of a swim than a walk.

Not a good day for the Wolvercote Common/Port Meadow car park.

This one had the right idea. It’s exactly what folks would have done in Maine.

Going to the pub for a pint, however, was quite British. Nobody seemed to mind that the raging river was only kept back by the ancient wall. The Trout dates back centuries, so it should survive this latest deluge. The deep frost in Port Meadow seems so long ago.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hampstead Fairies and Asian Restaurants

It was frizzling in London. My daughter and I coined that term to describe what English weather does to curly hair. It was not heavy rain but more persistent than drizzle. The last frost seemed a dream. Perfect time to enjoy the January sales! At half price, British goods are almost affordable for Americans.

The train to London on a family rail card off peak was under £40 ($80) for the four of us, including the underground (subway) for the day. Our train was late; that happens 20% of the time. The countryside between Oxford and London, along the Thames, is lovely. One hour later, we arrived in Paddington and split up.

Henry and our teenaged son headed to the recently reopened London Transport Museum. I blame my son’s interest in transportation on The Big Dig in Boston, as my son lived his first 3 formative years in its shadow. He also collects maps and spent a chunk of his Christmas money at Standfords Map Store, established in 1853. They had a tasty lunch at Lido in London’s China Town and then went to the British Museum, home of the Rosetta Stone (my mouse pad!)

My daughter and I went shopping in Hampstead Village, North London. Four years ago we lived nearby in Swiss Cottage and fell in love with the little village. Hampstead is full of alleys, quiet back streets and rose covered townhouses. At this time of year, nothing was blooming except for the sales.

My daughter and I both love the high street clothing store Jigsaw. Hampstead has its own Jigsaw Junior with the best tween clothing, stylish but not too grown up. There’s no Value Added Tax on kids’ clothing too. The adult Jigsaw is conveniently across the street but is less affordable. Hampstead has plenty of upmarket chainstores and boutiques.

Had the weather been nicer we might have taken a stroll in Hampstead Heath or gone for a snack at La Crêperie de Hampstead. Can you believe a stand that small has its own website? Then again, usually the line is very long.

Best place for lunch is Dim-T. They have a kid’s menu that is £4.50 ($9) with a choice of dim sum dumplings or a box lunch and ice cream. It didn’t include a drink. They make a really good fresh mint lemonade. The restaurant was full of families but has a hip atmosphere. I always order my favorite of dim sum which comes in stacked bamboo baskets. The best ones are prawn or vegetable. Don’t dip them in soy sauce – they create their own delicious broth inside as they steam.

After lunch we headed to the Hampstead equivalent (first photo) of Diagon Alley. Mystical Fairies is truly out of Harry Potter or a little girl’s fantasy. Words cannot describe the pink splendor.

We found the perfect gift for my niece’s seventh birthday. We chose the only item that wasn’t pink, lavender or baby blue, but still fit for a princess. The vaulted ceiling was painted blue with stars, twinkling with soft light. It’s a girly girl store, but tastefully done. No Disney in sight. My ten-year-old daughter is beyond the fairy princess stage, but it was fun to reminisce.

For dinner we met the guys at the best Japanese restaurant in London. Jinkichi is really, really good, even by Tokyo standards. It’s nothing fancy, just a simple yakatori restaurant that also serves good sushi and noodles. It’s tiny, like a sushi bar, with a few more tables in the basement. Best to book a table ahead as it’s always crowded.

If you’re not familiar with yakatori (meat and vegetable skewers cooked on an open grill in special sauce) you can order the first set menu designed for gaijin (foreigners.) The second set menu is for the more adventurous or for native Japanese and features delicacies such as chicken gizzard and liver. We started with the special eggplant appetizer (best I’ve ever had) and Agadashi Tofu (fried tofu in a broth like sauce) then ordered the first menu and some more a la carte later.

Everything was delicious, including the few bits of sushi. Henry ordered in Japanese although the waiter spoke English well. All the staff was Japanese as were half of the customers. Jinkichi is prepared for children – they fashion easy pincher chopsticks out of a rubber band and the chopstick wrapper.

Best of all, the meal was excellent value by London standards, about £70 ($140) for the four of us. Dinner was worth the trip in itself. We were back home in time for bed, dreaming of sugar fairies and a better exchange rate.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Set on Magdalen College

I fell in love with Magdalen College as a teenager visiting England. It seemed a coded language that the pronunciation was Maud-lin. I loved animals, and here was “the college with the deer.” What a surprise to step off the bike-congested Oxford streets into rural countryside. Like a secret garden, thick walls keep the dull roar of traffic at bay. Deer graze in the meadow and quiet paths meander through the woods. Canals are ideal for romantic boating.

After watching Brideshead Revisted on PBS, I dreamed of going to Oxford University. Instead I did a junior semester abroad at King’s College, London. My lucky cousin, Peter Nohrnberg, did a Marshall Scholarship at Magdalen. He enjoyed reading poetry in such a bucolic setting. He told tales of towing a bottle of champagne by a string while punting to keep it cool.

I retuned to Magdalen for my friends’ wedding. Stewart Wood and my husband had bonded over being two Oxford Brits at Harvard and falling in love with women raised in Manhattan. Stewart took a position teaching politics at Magdalen so the lovely, candle-lit chapel was the obvious place for the small ceremony.

After the service, we walked enchanted through the quad of cloisters and dined in hall. The dark paneled, high-vaulted space felt from a different era and it was. The college was founded in 1458 by William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester.

Magdalen sees less of Stewart now as he is on leave advising the Prime Minister. Stewart is Gordan Brown's senior policy advisor on foreign policy, Northern Ireland, culture, media and sport. He's also my advisor on Magdalen.

Henry and I met Stewart for a pint at the 14th century Turf Tavern hidden behind The Bridge of Sighs. Check out the visual directions for a laugh or if you have any desire of ever finding it. Contrast that to neon-signed American bars. The Turf was mentioned in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. I feel part of a literary tradition, living in Oxford as a writer.

Stewart told us of a centuries old tradition of shooting a deer for a feast when a Magdalen fellow passed away. The custom has recently changed so that they now order venison from the butcher. People these days don't like to know their dinner. I'm looking forward to more tales and a dinner at high table.

My husband revealed yet another personal tie to Magdalen if a sad one. Two of his grandfather’s cousins had attended the college and died serving in WWI. The Cattley brothers’ names were engraved in stone with other young Magdalen men lost to The Great War. The plaque is near the entrance to the chapel. It was so moving to see Henry’s ancestors and to feel a personal part of history.

When Henry and I had walked around the gardens, blooming in early fall splendor, the leaves were just starting to turn. It had felt too early in my year at Oxford to have chosen a setting for NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE), and I may still create a fictional hybrid college for my novel.

On the other hand, Oxford has so much beauty and history that I don’t think I could improve upon it. The deer park would appeal to my native Maine character. One Magdalen alum was King Edward VIII, who fell in love with the divorced American Wallis Simpson and abidacted the throne to marry her. How perfect a setting for another Anglo-American romance.

I peeked into the Old Kitchen Bar, and I could see my characters gathered round a table with pints of amber bitter or golden lager. I’m guessing back in the 1980’s the students would have been served more than hot drinks.

Henry has stories of dons pouring sherry for morning tutorial. He seemed to have spent a lot of time down the boozer with his mates playing darts. Oxford University Guidlines now state that undergraduates should not be served alcohol before lunch!

I long to see inside a tutorial room and student lodgings to gather more details. Like character acting, I’m character writing. I will especially enjoy trawling more old pubs! They have such funny names. Now that’s another blog....

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Port Meadow Frost

“What do you miss the most about home?” asked an American friend visiting Oxford. It was a rainy December day.

“Snow!” My children replied before I could answer.

Brunswick, Maine on New Year’s Day 2008 (by Stephanie Foster)

I had been missing snow until a deep frost settled over Port Meadow. My dog and I set off for our morning walk in mist so thick that it was hard to find the horizon. Bike ruts in the frozen grass looked like ski trails in snow. The meadow is a flood bank for the River Thames (called the Isis only in Oxford) and communal grazing grounds.

At this time of year, the cattle are gone and only a couple dozen horses are left to forage. Their warm breath melted the frost into green grass as the sun was struggling to burn through the clouds. Could this be England? I felt inside the pages of an Annie Proulx story, home on the western range. Or maybe a late Rothko painting?

A Shetland pony, not much bigger than my dog, watched us with curiosity. She looked warm in her shaggy coat, even dripping frost. My dog wanted to play, but the pony lost interest once she realized that Stella’s tennis ball was not a green apple. Seeing us every day, the herd barely twitch an ear at my bouncing golden retriever.

Despite the chill, Stella was eager to get to the river. She swims in the ocean year round back in Maine. Seagulls, geese and swans eyed my swimming retriever nervously, but Stella kept her eye on the ball. The Greylag Geese were once domesticated but now have gone wild, interbreeding with Canada geese. The Queen owns the swans. No one can explain what seagulls are doing here this far inland.

As we headed down the river past the lock, the water became a mirror. Another walker and his dogs were dots along the bank. Despite the beauty of dawn, we were otherwise alone. Even the wind had slept in.

The only sound was the honking gaggle of geese. The meadow teams with myriads of migrating water fowl and attending bird watchers during the fall. My son and I once surprised some black and white birds that took off with a startled “Eeek!”

Port Meadow is dog heaven for a retriever. Every writer should have a dog. I do some of my best thinking for my novels on our walks. I’m sure Port Meadow will feature in work in progress. Not so sure about the wet dog . . . .

Happy New Year! We spent ours in Cambridge.

Did other bloggers have trouble up-loading images or publishing? I fear everyone made a blog-more-often New Year's resolution.