Placating the Weather Gods: A Selection of Vinaigrettes from the Other Side

[It's a joke. I do know the difference between a vinaigrette and a vignette, thanks.]

The lights are off. The curtains are open. The stars look on, impassive, as week two is blown away by a wind so chill that it cuts through coats, sweaters, and scarves to lacerate your skin and make all but the hardy few retreat to their radiators and sweatpants.

That feels like how it ought to be: dramatic, intense, and exciting, and sure, it's all those things. But this is also everyday life. Even as culture shock and travel weariness have faded and made way for routines peppered with lectures, hours upon hours of reading, supervisions, seminars, more americanos than I care to admit, and the like, what I said in my last post still holds - and probably will always hold, since it is a rare individual who masters the art of confronting the wild and wonder of every fleeting second of his life.

So if it is not an edge of the seat thriller, what is it?


The colleges seem to be oriented largely around staircases. It's a little hard to explain to Americans, because we're used to a single staircase connecting different floors, and I think that's probably the case in most modern English buildings too. But it seems that rather than creating significant horizontal levels, the rooms are all organized around staircases, a few to a level. There's another girl from the International Programme who lives on my staircase at Corpus Christi, and she has been something of a saving grace to the past two weeks. When a friend of hers came up from London today, we bravely sallied forth to fight weekend tourists for a spot at a tea shop and ended up getting surprised in the street by a sudden hailstorm instead. It had been windy and was drizzling a bit, but we were still caught off guard when the drizzle broke into an icy downpour, driving us into the closest doorway along with every single other hapless individual so unfortunate as to be out on the pavement. Startled, with nervous laughs and stamping feet, caught in a tiny space with a crowd of the similarly marooned, watching in wonder as signs blew across the paving stones in the gusts and employees ran to rescue their outdoor furniture. Breathing in the scent of warm crepes and wondering, in a cafe with every table filled, what next?

The half hour before you email your essay to your supervisor is the worst, especially when it's your first one - or maybe it gets harder afterward, because you're afraid that your writing doesn't reflect the careful, thoughtful input you received the week before. I don't know yet, since I've only submitted one paper. But your heart races a little bit, and as you scroll through the Word document one more time, every single flaw and failure is highlighted in glowing neon, as if you've contracted temporary synesthesia when it's too late to be any help. Redundant points that can't be ripped out and mended over, the suspicion that for every good quote and explication you've made there isn't a shred of argument to be found, everything merging into a pang of doubt that says, "Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe you shouldn't be here." The sweetest relief is the moment when your supervisor tells you that, sure, you didn't have an argument, but you had a really great understanding of the text, and that your writing is stylistically good, and then launches into a discussion of the differences between American and British education systems as if it's not really the end of your life and there's always next week and the week after to walk together through the learning process.

For my first two days in England, I thought it might end up being a repeat of the last trip. I thought maybe the sun loves it when I'm here. Then the clouds came and reality set in along with the occasional shower (it's not as rainy as you'd think, but it's usually damp and puddly, and there's always the sense that it's thinking very seriously about doing something a little more official in the way of downpours, only maybe after it's had its tea and biscuits, thanks). The clouds conspire with the lack of daylight savings time to make mornings interesting. The first day that I was able to wake up before 8 was a victory, because it's hard to drag yourself out of bed when the sun probably won't even show its face before the afternoon sets in. That's when you get those two blessed hours of beautiful blue skies that serve to slacken the tense threats of the morning's dishwatery gray clouds, but the hours pass quickly enough, and then it's a prematurely aged day, already conceding defeat and climbing into its armchair with a newspaper and a mug of warm milk near at hand.

It has been two weeks of so much coffee and tea, finding dining halls, nutella and stroopwafels, late night episodes of The Wire, stressing about Plato, making friends, trying not to miss family too much, serious hunts for the best postcards in town (relatively speaking), navigating absurdly complicated libraries with their own absurdly complicated cataloging systems, sitting silently through hour and a half long reading groups with postgrads who are excitedly arguing over painfully fine points of philosophy in the early middle ages, eating Chelsea buns from Fitzbillies but not too often, and occasionally waking up from a deep sleep with the jarring realization that getting out of bed means going out into an unfamiliar world to live an unfamiliar life, grateful for every outstretched hand that anchors your heart and your sanity.

Some of the moments, not all of them, not particularly dramatic or exciting, though often intense; and still more are waiting in the wings, ready for their cue to enter from stage left as their predecessors take a quick and, for some, final bow.


Alterity on the Ground

A wise friend tells me that the best way to get over jetlag is to sleep at the normal hours, but that doesn't help me much with jetlag-induced insomnia. Can't say I've experienced it before, but since I'm too tired to read Plato and too awake to do more than toss and turn, how about a first blog post of the trip?

There is something fascinating about the first few hours, or perhaps even days of one's first venture far outside of one's comfort zone. The body shuts down and goes into survival mode. It's the fight or flight response, a state of heightened awareness tempered by exhaustion, and if I recall my Psych 101 correctly, part of that response is a temporary shut down in the digestive system. Fact: I like to eat. But when faced with the unfamiliarity of another culture, however close to our own, and the uncertainty of awkwardly navigating various modes of transportation to get from point A to point D, the absolute last thing in my mind, except perhaps as a weary mental note, is whether I've eaten or not.

You learn a lot when you listen to your body.

One of the myriad fantastic things that Jerome Miller observes in The Way of Suffering is that we always find ways to patch over ruptures in the fabric of our everyday reality, all of those little or large tears that point to the deeper fact of our lack of control and the indifferent world outside of our small, secure space. We don't dare look them in the face ("Only that now you have taught (but how late) my lack / I see the chasm."), because we fear the unknown and what it might do to our concepts and our percepts.

That's how I could sit at Gate A17 and hold back the ocean of tears that arose at the aching prospect of saying farewell to my sisters for over five months. Keep looking past the ache, and it's not there. That's how I could step off the plane and get through immigration (without being detained, hallelujah!), maneuver through Heathrow, and then navigate the Underground more or less calmly and rationally (excepting that moment at Canada Waters when I totally missed my stop and prevented some poor woman from getting on the tube) without collapsing after a long week, a red eye, and a meager four hours of sleep. If you don't let the sensation of walking in an alien place get to you, then maybe it isn't really happening after all.

The problem is that if I don't let the alterity of the situation affect me, then I might as well have taken a semester off to hang out in West Chester. I might have even learned more that way. It's how we respond to the ruptures, daring to near them, even embrace them perhaps, that really opens up our minds and our worlds.

On the other hand, this insomnia thing? Not a good time to listen to my body. So the real moral of the story is: be alert enough to listen, and be wise enough to discriminate. Or something like that.