Archive for January, 2009

Starting afresh

January 18, 2009 - 6:22 am No Comments

A moment of clarity – as my dad revives his study of the Ancient Greeks, I am once again filled with the overwhelming motivation to do my own equivalent. What is more important than the pursuit of knowledge? In this world, everything is transient – good food, good company, good times – eventually everything ends. As each day passes, we slowly erode our ability to find that child-like wonder in simple things. Why do some studies show that the rich are less happy? Perhaps because the activities that used to bring much happiness become commonplace – over time, something special loses significance in repetition.

No, I won’t let that happen to me. Learning something new each day is the best way to stave off this exhaustion with the world. My mother used to tell me that people can take away your possessions and time takes away beauty and health, but no one can ever take away the knowledge and experience you accumulate in your head!

Reflecting back on my first term at Oxford, I realize that perhaps, I didn’t do enough. Sure, I finished all my problem sets and essays, kept up with the pace of the lectures, and managed to do a substantial amount of work in preparation for collections. But did I really internalize the value of what I learned? No, I admit my own failing. Perhaps I was too overwhelmed with adjusting, or kept on looking back to more familiar times.

No regrets, no looking back! That has been my core philosophy, and I intend to follow through wholeheartedly. For me, this new semester – this New Year – will reflect a marked change.

I study because I enjoy studying. I read because I enjoy reading. I go to lecture because I enjoy going to lecture. I won’t merely go through the motions because it is the expected behavior of a student, but rather, beneath it all, I fundamentally want to. No, I refuse to make studying a chore. I refuse to fall into the easy pattern of complaining and worrying.

It’s too easy to forget our original motivations when routine and obligations kick in. When I’m filling out forms and dealing with logistics for Givology, the original mission may feel sometimes obscured. But just by keeping my commitment fresh in my mind, these issues can be resolved.

After all, we are in essence what we believe.

London and Paris – A Brief Recap

January 9, 2009 - 6:06 pm No Comments

Since my arrival to Oxford, I looked forward to my family’s visit. When they finally arrived on Boxing Day, I was absolutely overjoyed! Christmas had passed very quietly with minimal celebratory flair – my holiday, in effect, was put on hiatus. So much has happened over the past two weeks; I now feel rejuvenated and refreshed, ready to start Hillary term and focus on my academics.

Sending Grace off to the airport was very distressing because it served as a reminder that all good things must eventually come to an end. Happiness is transient and fragile –with the passage of time, all that remains is nothing but a shadow of a memory. I have listed below some of the main events and highlights of my family’s trip as a record. By documenting, I at least have something tangible to hold on to.

Oxford

DAY 1 (December 26, 2008): Settling in

· Trading of Presents – I was finally able to give the presents I bought for my family in Florence, Venice, and Rome – I always enjoy giving presents! My parents managed to find the same exact Swiss Army pocket knife that the airport security guard in Chicago had confiscated from me last February. The gift made me very happy, especially since I missed my original knife very much

· Guided walking tour of campus – We passed by the Bodleian Library complex, the Bridge of Sighs, New College exterior and the Old City Walls, High Street, Queen’s College, All Soul’s College, among other sights. Given that most colleges and attractions were closed on Boxing Day, the tour was less exciting than usual, but at least it gave my parents a good sense of the history of the city

· Trinity College

· Hans Christian Anderson’s Magical Tales at the Mirror Tent – Utilizing an opulent ancient traveling tent built in 1908 in Belgium, the Creation Theatre Company of Oxford put on a very dramatic Christmas spectacle featuring Anderson’s stories. I’ve never seen a production like this before – with no backdrop, the actors relied only on costumes, odd props, puppets, and trapdoors to stage an intriguing show. The stories were woven into a very complex central storyline; I found the overall experience really engaging and…very odd. Walking to the BMW Tent in the frigid weather was also quite an experience – alas, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

DAY 2 (December 27, 2008): Tour of Oxford Colleges

· Magdalene College – In my opinion, Magdalene College is the most beautiful at Oxford with its majestic buildings and open fields. My little sister loved the deer and my mother enjoyed posing for dozens of photos!

· Christ Church Meadows – Very beautiful, the sky was extraordinarily blue

· Christ Church College – Grace and Carrie were very excited by the Dining Hall, especially since both girls are major Harry Potter fans. My dad liked the symmetry of the imposing central quad.

· St. John’s College

· Tour of Oxford downtown

· Museum of Oxford History

London

DAY 1 (December 28, 2008): An orientation to London

· Horse Guards – Alas, we did the touristy thing and took photos with the guards, which mom seemed to especially enjoy (it must be an awful job to stand there perfectly still on a horse and (try) to ignore all the gawking tourists)

· Downing Street

· National Gallery – Given my dad’s short patience with museums, we only spent about an hour and a half at this enormous museum, but we were able to see the highlights, including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, George Stubbs’s Whistlejacket (Grace liked this one!), Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus, Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère (Mom likes impressionism, so she was very glad to see this one!), among many others

· Trafalgar’s Square – It was particularly crowded today, but with such clear skies, we took many good photos. Mom desperately wanted to climb onto the statue, but I am very glad that we managed to dissuade her

· Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey (façade)

· Leicester Square – Good food in Chinatown served to restore everyone’s health and energy for a long trek towards Buckingham Palace

· Buckingham Palace

· Regent’s Street – With all the Christmas lights in place, Regent’s Street was transformed into a magical, sparkling spectacle. Grace enjoyed Hamley’s toy shop a lot.

· Piccadilly Circus

· Notable Food: Perhaps the best lamb and chicken pita sandwiches I’ve ever eaten at kebab shop near our hotel

DAY 2 (December 29, 2008): A trip to Windsor Castle

· Windsor Castle – Since we arrived very early, we were able to enter the palace without delay. The opulence of Windsor Castle (and later on, Versailles) reminds me of the writings of Edmund Burke, who claimed that the public requires a monarchy, the supreme embodiment of history and tradition, in order to define identity. I don’t agree with this statement, as many of the institutions of monarchy and nobility seem rather socially divisive and unjustly deterministic (Why should there be even further divide among people by cause of birth, not merit? Or, why should public tax dollars be used to indulge the frivolities of the privileged?), but I understand the feeling of awe and great admiration when visiting such a splendid castle

· Changing of the Guard – I had a perfect view of this ceremony, complete with band and parade. Alas, despite the authoritative presence of the guards, the only real threat to the castle are over-enthusiastic tourists….

· St. George’s Chapel

· Eton College – Slight anti-climatic, as it looked like a dingier version of the College of William and Mary, but nice nevertheless

· Notable Food: A banquet-style dinner in Chinatown

DAY 3 (December 30, 2008): A delightful trip to Bath

· Roman Baths and Pump Room – Truly amazing! After visiting Rome, I am even more interested in Roman history. Before that, I enjoyed Asterix and Obelisk comics, of which, one of my favorite adventures involved a visit to the Roman Baths. I enjoyed the guided tour – gave me plenty of opportunity to ask all my questions!

· Bath Abbey

· Royal Crescent and the Circus

· Jane Austen’s Gravel Walk – I’m not a very big Jane Austen fan, but for enthusiasts, Bath must have an even more special aura because many of the scenes in Austen’s novels are inspired by her own experiences living in the town

· Pultney Bridge – Very pretty, I could definitely see that it was modeled after Florence

· 2-Hour Guided Walking Tour of the City – What an amazing tour! The tour guide was a local who knew so much random history and facts, from intriguing explanations of architectural delights to gossipy anecdotes about the lives of the famous figures who resided in Bath, such as Beau Nash (the King of Bath). For example, who knew that Cheerio was derived from “Chair Ho”, the request for a sedan chair after a long night of partying?

· Notable Food: Cream tea at Sally Lunn’s, Fish and Chips at one of the best “Chippies” in Bath. It was also really fun to meet with my roommate from Cumberland Lodge, who attends the University of Bath

DAY 4 (December 31, 2008): New Year’s Eve!

· St. Paul’s Cathedral – Ascending to the Whispering Gallery and then to the Stone Gallery was a lot of fun. In many ways, the dome was quite similar to the Sheldonian Theatre, no surprise given that both were designed by Christopher Wren. Most of the tombs and monuments were dedicated to great war heroes and conquerors, though we did see the tomb of Florence Nightingale in the crypt. It’s always interesting to analyze who is remembered in history compared to those who are forgotten, even though the contribution may be the same.

· British Museum – Too many people crowded the Egypt exhibit, but we enjoyed ourselves greatly nevertheless. My father truly enjoyed the exhibits on ancient Greece and the Elgin marbles, sparking an interesting debate on the legality and benefit of their removal. Grace took lots of pictures of the mummies.

· Covent Garden

· Fireworks at Parliament Square – Absolutely amazing! Grace, Carrie, and I stood on the base of the statue of Nelson Mandela so we had a wonderful view of the fireworks, as well as the crowded square, teeming with people of varying levels of inebriation. What a wonderful way to commemorate the end of 2008 and the start of 2009, a year of limitless possibility.

DAY 5 (January 1, 2008): Exploring the Museums of London

· Natural History Museum – Grace was fascinated by the mechanical T-Rex; she must have taken more than twenty photos

· Victoria and Albert Museum – I adore this museum because it spans such a huge range of interesting decorative items, from fashion and jewelry to stained glass and sculpture! We saw Tipu’s tiger, the Ardabil Carpet, and countless treasures of Asia. In particular, the jewelry and gems exhibit was overwhelming, with finest pieces by Cartier, Peter Carl Fabergé and Lalique, among other pieces from more than centuries (let alone millennium) ago.

· Harrods – Ah, a tribute to our consumer culture. I was rather amused by the “pets” section, where you could buy a variety of outfits for your dog and gourmet dog cookies, chocolates, and other treats. A testament to the notion of a market, supply will exist wherever demand calls for it (no matter how odd).

· Hyde Park

· Notable Food: A savory lunch at a local Indian restaurant in South Kensington

DAY 6 (January 2, 2008): A Majestic Tour of Westminster

· Westminster Abbey – My father was particularly impressed by the tombs of Newton and Darwin, while Grace was enthralled by the tombs of the great writers. I very much admire the spirit of Westminster Abbey, which, similar to the Panthéon, commemorates great men and women on the basis of social contribution, not only on the level of piety

· Notable Food: A splendidly authentic and filling meal at a Lebanese restaurant near Earl’s Court for lunch

After lunch, my parents departed. Grace and I returned to Oxford for a weekend of rest and recovery before our next adventure to Paris! During these two days, I had a chance to show her my daily life at Oxford. We visited the Museum of Natural History and also saw Twilight, the movie (obsessive teenage romance = great business opportunity). In general, it was a lot of fun to wander around campus and enjoy a relaxing reprieve before our trip to Paris.

Paris

DAY 1 (January 5, 2008): An Orientation to the City

· Paris was snowing when we arrived. At first, it seemed as if nothing could possibly go right. Our train was delayed by an hour because another train had broken down on the track ahead. Then, we were greeted by a very rude metro attendant who refused to give change (even though change was available and highly visible in the hand of her colleague). Our hotel lost our hotel reservation, and then we had trouble finding a place to eat lunch. But, as always, these nuisances resolved themselves – by getting our bad luck out of the way early on, we had a wonderful Paris trip! This day was filled with lots of walking and monument visitation – it was so much fun just to get oriented to Paris. I was particularly surprised by how wide the streets war; Grace informed me that Napoleon had all the streets widened to prevent the blockades that were very common during the Revolution, an interesting tactic to reduce the incidence of uprising

· Arc de Triomphe – Very majestic! It’s interesting – the French love Napoleon for the glory he brought to France, but all the great figures adored by other European countries are those who successfully defeated Bonaparte’s campaign, yet another reminder of the subjectivity of history

· Champs-Élysées

· Place de la Concorde

· Jardin des Tuileries – The statues and hedges covered in snow made for a postcard perfect scene

· Louvre (Façade)

· Notre Dame – The façade was very dramatic, and the interior filled with light and decorative splendor. Grace and I even caught the tail end of a choir / organ performance.

· Sainte-Chapelle et Palais de Justice

· Tour Eiffel – Unfortunately, due to the inclement weather, we couldn’t ascend the Tower, but the lights were beautiful

· Basilique du Sacré-Cœur – We didn’t know that we should stay away from Anvers at night (oops), but we enjoyed the climb up the Basilique

· Notable Food: Authentic lunch at the Café des Fleur (calamari and faux fillet), baguette sandwiches at a local boulangerie for dinner

Day 2 (January 6, 2008): Trip to Versailles

· Château de Versailles – Versailles was only an hour away, making for a convenient day trip. The splendor is unparalleled, especially the Hall of Mirrors. The sheer lavishness is unparalleled – not a single panel remained undecorated. Louis the 14th was a very popular king, but I still don’t understand why the public was willing to let him indulge in the decoration of Versailles (he burned the bill so that no one knew how much it cost), especially since the majority of citizens lived in abject poverty

· Les Invalides – Napoleon’s grave majestically sits at the heart of this building, along with the graves of his elder and younger brother, and his most loyal adjutants. I enjoyed learning about the symbolic significance decorations surrounding his tomb. The artillery exhibit was also tremendous – what an amazing collection of armory, swords, and weapons!

· Place de la Bastille et Colonne de Julliet – Not much of the Bastille remains, but a column stands there, commemorating all the lives lost

· Place des Vouges et Maison de Victor Hugo

· Notable Food: Lunch at a café near Les Invalides (great deserts!), very authentic dinner at Chez Paula (we were courageous – we ended up eating pig’s snout and very fishy herring in addition to duck and whole roasted trout)

Day 3 (January 7, 2008): Paris Museum Day

· Musée d’Orsay – This was truly an amazing museum! We arrived very early, so we had the impressionist’s galleries nearly all to ourselves. We saw famous works by Van Gogh, Seurat, Gaugin, Degas, Monet, Manet, Cézanne, among many others. The quality and quantity of masterpieces was overwhelming.

· Louvre – The guide book said that it was impossible to see everything in the Louvre in one day, but somehow, I think Grace and I managed to cover every gallery (albeit somewhat superficially) in a little over six hours. From Egyptian antiquities and the treasures and sculptures of Assyria, Rome, and Greece to French Paintings in the 19th century and Italian Renaissance paintings, we saw it all! And of course, we visited the Mona Lisa, which was crowded by an enthusiastic throng of photo-happy tourists. The Borghese Gladiator, Michalangelo’s Dying Slave, Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, Venus de Milo, Hammurabi’s Code, Wings of Triumph, Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa , Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Veronese’s Marriage of Cana…we saw all of these, among many others.

· Notable Food: Crepes at a Creperie Fillibustre near Gare de Montparnasse, carvate (sweet chocolate bread, tastes absolutely amazing!) at a local patisserie, chicken and goat cheese Panini and a full baguette for dinner

Day 4 (January 8, 2008): Exploring the Latin Quarter

· Panthéon – We woke up early to go to the Panthéon, where we saw Foucault’s pendulum, the first dynamic experiment to prove the rotation of the Earth. We also visited the crypt, where we saw the tombs of Marie Curie, Alexander Dumas, Louis Braille, Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Lagrange (to my father’s delight), among many others!

· Place de Saint Michel

· Quartier Latin

· Eglise Saint-Séverin – Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris is buried here, famous for diverting the army of Attila the Hun to Orleans

· Notable Food: An amazing meal at Chez René, a very traditional and well reviewed restauraunt, consisting of coq au vin and boef Boeuf Bourgogne, sweet crepes on rue Saint Severin

As you can tell from this entry, I was very scanty with the detail, but it only captures a bit of all that we were able to see! In London, I had a chance to show my dear family the exciting sights that I had raved to them about over the phone. In contrast, in Paris, I was very much a happy mute – Grace had the opportunity to practice her French and visit the monuments and museums that she studied in school, while I enjoyed the ease of being a passive beneficiary of her knowledge.

Photos are available at my site: www.joycemeng.com/photos