A Good Life?

    Last Friday, John and I suffered our first major defeat in becoming cross- and high-cultured. I had been looking forward to seeing Beckett's "Waiting For Godot" since as soon as I saw it advertised at the York Theatre Royal. We were bragging about it all day to our fellows in dorm, class, and program, and set out a reasonable half hour early for the box office. However, when we walked through the doors, we were met by a large yellow SOLD OUT sign across the day's listings, and a rather stern older woman informed us that there was absolutely no way we would be able to see any of the remaining showings. But, I think I'll manage to pull myself together, and our budding plans to see the play version of "1984" are helping. This time, we'll know to pre-order our tickets.

    Other than that, in my day-to-day activities, I'm trying to cultivate a good life for myself. This has mostly involved the more intellectual aspects of my life. For one, reading has never been such an important and rewarding part of my everyday life. Nearly everything I've spent time with so far, whether assigned readings for classes or impulsive library check-outs or impromptu internet discoveries, has all been working to give me a bigger picture of culture, literature, history, religion... the list could continue. And what has been even more exciting than this for me is the way my understanding of contemporary life is being affected. It's strange that learning about Vikings or the Arts and Crafts Movement could seem relevant to whether or not I want to go to grad school, but that's not far from the truth. I'm trying to make the most of this sort-of monastic sabbatical, as it's likely a one-of-a-kind opportunity. My hope is that all these abstract, theoretical mind games will be able to translate into real action and change in my post-England life. For now, though, it seems like all I can do is keep my nose in the books and my head in the clouds.

    In other news, lots of cards have been happening as of late. Nearly every night there have been massive games of speed/spit, spoons, poker, rummy, and who knows what else. Tonight, there was a line of three games of spit happening on my bedroom floor while I sat and read. I take pride in thinking that I was somewhat involved in the beginning of this card craze, when John, Trine, Anne-Marte, and myself played a fierce game of Canasta last week. Of course, Trine and I cleaned up, as you can see in the below scores:

    John, Anne-Marte: 3055
    Trine, Ryan: 4220

    John and Anne-Marte were forced to forfeit to avoid further embarrassment, which John tried to excuse by calling Canasta "just a game for old people. Besides, it's getting late..." I guess some people just aren't cut out for Canasta.

    | photo: Canasta in action!


    A Full Day in Manchester

    This past Saturday was our program excursion to Manchester. We left at about 8:00AM for a one-and-a-half-hour train ride. I tend to love train rides, but I was a bit sleep-deprived and napped for most of the way. Napping may not have been the best idea, as I felt disoriented and upside-down, like on a space station in another dimension, when I woke up. Coffee cured that quick enough, though, and we were off to the Manchester Art Gallery. Of course, only a few minutes into our walk, some of our group ran in front of a street tram and, narrowly avoiding death (maybe not quite that), managed to cause a huge traffic jam as the tram was stuck in the middle of an intersection while its brakes cooled. Another tram or two had to stop behind it, and there were cars backed up for a few blocks in every which way. God bless American tourists...

    Our main task at the city gallery was to view their prime collection of Pre-Raphaelite work. We've been studying the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) for our class with Jamie, "Victorian Britain and Postmodern Culture," and they've made frequent appearances in my 19th Century Literature class, as well. My enjoyment of the PRB's work was dramatically increased in person, as their signature vibrant colors and almost neurotic attention to detail were more distinct than in mere facsimile. It was good to see the more well-known/essential works, such as Ford Madox Brown's "Work" or William Holman Hunt's "The Hireling Shepherd," but I think I most enjoyed the haunting "Ophelia," by Arthur Hughes. Their Modern(ist) collection wasn't anything too incredible, but I did enjoy seeing some pieces by Wyndham Lewis (whose literary work I've encountered), as well as LS Lowry, Francis Bacon, Modigliani, and some others I can't remember.

    After that, we were off to the nearby Manchester City Hall, one of the most elaborate (and expensive) Gothic-revival structures around. The interior is incredibly elaborate on the first few floors, but as you climb higher through the building, the details get less intricate--clever, eh? The building's Great Hall features a dozen or so murals of varying quality by Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. These reminded me of the Diego Rivera murals in the Detroit Institute of Art (back when art mattered enough to be displayied in public?), although dramatically different in theme and content. The ceiling of the Great Hall is decorated by coats of arms from each of the cities and/or countries with which Manchester has/had connections, and some of these proved mildly entertaining (Canada=beaver?). Something that seemed especially quirky from our contemporary tourist context was the "Manchester bees" mosaic-ed into the tile floors outside the Great Hall. Not only did it seem odd to permanently embed a swarm of bees in the midst of the dramatic gothic architecture, but the things (which are supposed to represent the buzzing, busy spirit of the city) looked a bit like something from a newspaper comic strip.

    We wrapped up at City Hall just in time for lunch, so John and I headed to one of the cheap buffets outside of town. The food wasn't that great, but we still managed to eat almost our body weight in greasy Asian-esque treats. We then headed into the small but densely-concentrated Chinatown to do some shopping at the Wing Fat Supermarket. We got some much-need goodies there, including:
    - tea (Chinese longjing?) in a nice tin
    - Sri Racha hot sauce (quite hard to find amongst the bland, creamy, meaty foods they stock in British supermarkets)
    - incense
    - kim chee
    - cool little printed paper things
    All in all, a very productive shopping venture.

    We rushed off from Wing Fat to meet our group before leaving for the Museum of Science and Industry. Manchester has its claim to fame as the first industrialized city in the world, and we got to see the artifacts (some working) of their textile-industry heritage as well as the steam-engine power systems that fueled the industry. The steam engines were inspiring in their intricacy and brute mechanics (quite a contrast to our current digitized, microscopic machines), but I especially enjoyed learning about the processes and systems involved in producing cloth. Now I want to build a loom! Even learning about the fabric itself put me more in touch with something so commonplace as to usually avoid attention or scrutiny. I was surprised to learn how many common types of synthetic fabric (I believe polyster, acrylic, and nylon among others) are actually petroleum-based, aka oil. That's something I don't often hear discussed.

    The Museum of Science and Industry marked the end of our official group program, so we were free to do our own thing. I had hoped to stay in the city later into the night, to see the sights and enjoy the new scenery, but for some reason the whole group was exhausted and wanted to get home by the time we were done with museums at 5:00PM. I had read online, though, that there was a great view from Cloud 23, the 23rd-story bar at the Manchester Hilton. This strange, modern, somewhat precarious-looking hotel structure was right near the Museum of Science and Industry, so I convinced Brian and John to take a detour there with me. We had to wait in line in the lobby until a couple slick-looking doormen let us up the elevator. The place was quite posh, with quiet electronic music playing and rich European socialites milling about with double-digit mixed drinks. We flipped through the menu (the first page featured a bottle of champagne for 2000 pounds), managing to select something that wouldn't break the bank. All the seats were taken up by the aforementioned city slickers, so we milled about trying to look natural with our backpacks and scruffy clothes while taking in the views of the city, which were fantastic! The sun was nearing the horizon, so the whole city was swamped in a blueish-orange haze. We could see the clock tower of the city hall, the authentic Chinese arch (commissioned by Chairman Mao back in the day), and the various waterways cutting through the city. Part of the bar extends out from the rest of the building, seemingly hovering over thin air, and part of the floor took advantage of this fact with glass plates that make it seem like you're standing on thin air above the miniature pedestrians and cars below. We were glad to have overcome our exhaustion and complete this expedition, but as nice as it was to seem posh for a short spell, I'm glad not to be one of the suave, refined people we saw there. It all seems quite dull and empty from an outside perspective, even after just a half hour.

    Cloud 23 consumed the last of our reserve energy, so we walked back to Picadilly Station just in time for the next train to York. I again fell asleep, dreaming of steam engines on golden landscapes somehow mixed up in our class with Jamie. And again, my nap left me disoriented and dreamy for the walk back from station to campus. Oddly enough, we all agreed that coming back from Manchester felt like a return home. We knew the streets, the skyline, the campus, and our own individuals rooms and beds. I guess that's a good sign as we approach the halfway mark between our arrival in York and the coming insanity of Easter break. For a while, at least, I have a home across the Atlantic Ocean.

    | photo: Ryan on Cloud 23, although the spectacular view of the city wasn't quite captured on film


    Birthday Party!

    Last night, we went to Lisa's birthday party with Trine, Mari, Suzanne, and Anne-Marte. It was a bit of a cold walk out to the off-campus YSJ apartments where Lisa lives, but like the last time we were there, they had prepared enough food to feed a castle. Cakes and cupcakes and cookies! And coffee, too!

    I got the chance to try out my new suspenders, which were well received, and I also learned that they are called "bukseseler" in Norwegian. Trine taught me some other words and phrases by writing things down on napkins. For example, for our trip to Norway, I learned the phrase "vakre kvinne hva heter du," which I thought meant "what is your name, beautiful woman?," but apparently this translation they gave me doesn't have quite the poetic or romantic connotations I had hoped. Better luck next time? My fate improved then as we preceded to discuss the phonetic spellings of such strange English words as "kernel" and "colonel." I guess I've always been better at spelling than romance.

    Thanks to Trine and her handy digital camera for the pictures below!

    | left: Lisa blows out her birthday candles
    | right: me with my bukseseler, eh?


    Minster and a Movie

    Wednesday night, I went together with our group went to Evensong at the Minster. After the service was a book reception hosted in the main room/sanctuary/hall(?). This book was the result of last year's Ebor Lectures, hosted annually (I believe) at the Minster. Free juice and wine! After some brief (or not so brief) words by various people involved with the book or the lectures or what-have-you, we sat down for the introductory session of this year's Ebor Lectures, featuring a lecture by sociologist Grace Davie, entitled "Patterns of Religion in Modern Europe: A Global Perspective."

    Much of the talk, both during the book reception and in Davie's lecture, was related to the recent controversy here about some remarks made by the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the relationship between British government and religious traditions, specifically one example he cited of Islamic sharia law. Of course, the press here had just as much of a heyday with the Archbishop's remarks as the US would have with any controversial remark made by, say, a Presidential candidate. Beyond just this recent British hubbub, though, are the growing tensions in Europe over immigration from Southwest Asia. Compared to all the commotion in the US over illegal immigration from Mexico, things here in uber-enlightened Europe can get just as nasty--an interesting contrast of perspectives, especially in the context of Davie's lecture.

    To begin with, she offered two general observations: 1) Europe is relatively "secular," but the rest of the world is decidedly not, and 2) the rest of the world is arriving in Europe. She then considered the status of religion in contemporary Europe along five subjects: 1) the almost overwhelming presence of religion, specifically, Christianity, in Europe's cultural heritage, 2) the "vicarious" practice of religion by minority groups on behalf of whole communities, countries or cultures, 3) the shift from obligation to consumption (personal choice) as the motivating factors for holding religious commitments, 4) the presence of new arrivals (and their religious and cultural heritage) in Europe as a primarily economic phenomenon, although with great implications for religion, and finally 5) the question of what's going to religion in Europe.

    One thing that interested me was her observation that religion has shifted from a compulsory status to one in which there is a growing space for personal, meaningful choices and commitments regarding religion. Although I would definitely object to her language of "consumerism" and even "free choice" to describe one's faith, I think the growing possibility of meaningful decisions is valuable. Other than this, I especially noticed her predictions for the future, which included, 1) the presence of Islam in Europe not being something that can be ignored, and furthermore not just another option on the spiritual market, but a catalyst for a sea change in the whole religious landscape, the relationship between church and state, and the definitions of liberal democracy, 2) the "increased salience of religion in public life," and 3) the fact that in the future, Europe will for once be drastically influenced by the rest of the world, and not vice versa.

    Then on Friday, we had another movie night at the Smiths', this time to see Miss Potter, the new(er) movie based on the life and career of children's author/illustrator Beatrix Potter. On one hand, it was really just one of those typical historical biographies for families, a handful of which are released every year--sentimental, cheesy symphonic score, etc. But more than that, I actually really enjoyed it! It was honest, although with a dramatic and happy-ending twist, to the tragedy and solitude that were a backdrop to such characters and stories as Peter Rabbit or the Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck. The movie should also be applauded for dealing (somewhat seriously) with the variety of social issues surrounding her life and career as well as her conservation efforts in later life. These sorts of things were what made her ultimate personal and commercial success (and this movie's resolution) more than just another typical happy ending.

    | left: John and I in front of the North doors of the Minster (compliments of Brad)
    | right: Brad's first attempt with the camera didn't work out so well, but the result was still pretty nice looking, I think


    Procrastination in the Radiant Garden

    Most of today, as well as a portion of yesterday evening, have been marked by a bout of procrastination in the midst of completing our first real "assignment" here in York. The task is simple, a "reflection" on what we've learned about the history of this place, Romans and Vikings and all. And in fact, I've been quite interested in this material (our readings in books such as A Traveller's History of England by Christopher Daniell or group excursions to the Yorkshire Museum or Clifford's Tower). More than just purely academic interest, even, our brief survey of England's long and varied history has opened up new perspectives on our present-day culture, its bipolar strengths and weaknesses, and where we might all be headed. But, the burn-out I experienced at the end of last semester was not dealt with during the off-season of Christmas break, interim, and getting here to York, so now I'm stuck with trying to re-motivate myself for academics. Oh boy... I think I'd rather just keep reading poetry.

    On a lighter note, on my way to lunch today, I stopped to check my post at the Student Union, and in the "W" box was a nice little Valentine addressed to me from "the ladies of GFC," via representative Kay Berry. I guess you could say this wasn't exactly the sort of mail I was expecting (I thought perhaps a late textbook had arrived by now), but it was wonderful surprise. I was with my dorm-neighbor, Emma, at the time, and she was so overwhelmed by the "cuteness" of the situation that she spread the event to I think the entire female population of apartment block E. Now all the girls are complaining about not getting Valentine's from the adults in their life.

    After lunch, John barged into my room to drag me off to Morrison's "to buy a blanket." However, once we got there, he became discouraged at the high price tag of fleece throws (and they only other bedding options they seem to have here are fitted sheet, duvet, and pillow case), and I decided to fulfill my goal of buying a planter for my window. Miraculously, we wandered into the produce section of the store and there discovered an abundance of potted herbs. I chose coriander (cilantro) and flat-leafed parsley, while John opted for the more aromatic choices of mint and basil. To complete our project, we also picked up a couple narrow plastic bins and some potting soil, then headed home to take care of the transplanting. Below is a clip from after our little adventure, although it's a little too bright to see anything.

    | video: The Radiant Garden (complete with audio tour)


    Choral Evensong

    Brian, John, and I just returned from the evening service at the Minster. As the contraband program with which I absconded after the service describes, "Evensong is the form of Evening Prayer that is distinctive to the Church of England and other Churches of the Anglican Communion. It includes elements from the medieval Latin evening services of Vespers and Compline, and has been largely unchanged since the first English-language Book of Common Prayer in 1549." For the two Sundays that I've been here, I'd heard the church bells ringing as a summons to this service, and so today we finally made it a priority to get ourselves there.

    For me, it was a fabulous experience. The immense presence that the Minster has exerted on me while walking the streets in the city center or looking out my bedroom window is only all the more concentrated inside its immense walls and expanses of stained glass. The space beneath its high arched ceilings seems almost otherworldly, all that history and tradition floating upwards amongst the chatter of tourists passing through. The majority of tonight's hour-long service consisted of the choir singing (as my program again explains, "The cathedrals and other great churches of the Anglican Communion maintain a strong choral tradition..."), and although the abundance of Latin was somewhat inhibiting, I was able to sit tight and be truly edified by the music. Now, I'm no expert in choral music, but the music to me was incredibly powerful. Listening to the final echo of voices reverberate in the distant corners of the ceiling or watching the carved stone wrap around the sky-colored stained-glass windows allowed me to back out of my imminent, mobile, autonomous culture and receive something special. The history of the words being recited and the engraving on the wood beside my seat all became important to what was happening at that moment, what has happened in the past, and what could happen in the future. The happenings of the year 1549 became important in my mind, the young choir girl not quite keeping up with the music mattered immensely--even the flickering candles between the aisles seemed to signal something important. To have such potentially or typically trivial circumstances and objects be crucially involved in a church experience is exactly what I needed, at least for this evening.

    Please forgive my baroque and over-dramatic language above, but the music tonight was quite nice indeed. And the echoes!


    More Eavesdropping

    A few days after arriving in York, I went with John and Brad to the local public library. I checked out a selection of collections of poetry, only to discover, right in the middle of Billy Collins, yet another piece of correspondence not addressed to me. This is not quite the find as the last "found correspondence" I posted (this one is not nearly as old, extensive, or quirky), but I was perversely excited nonetheless. On one hand, there is not nearly as much to decode in this postcard as in the letter from Jay, but otherwise it's all the more mysterious and intriguing because of its brevity. So much context is taken for granted by both author and recipient, it feels like overhearing a conversation between strangers. At any rate, it's as British as the day is long, and I think I want to meet some of these characters: "Stuart Humby?" "Rosemary Stubbs?" You can't make this stuff up...

    Below are images of the postcard and a transcription of its message:

    Dear Val,

    I hope all is well with you and
    yours. You may know that Stuart Humby
    has finished his stint as an overseer, and I
    have been appointed your overseer in his place
    (still shared with Rosemary Stubbs). As always,
    do give me a ring if you need help. I hope to
    pop in and see you & Makel--and Elizabeth--before long.
    I'll email you to fix a time.

    Best wishes,


    Approx. Week 2

    After another "routine" week of life here, I feel myself settling in to just that: a routine. Or, at least I feel mostly familiar with my immediate surroundings, with my schedules and daily requirements, and so on. But, along with this settled feeling, I am also beginning to notice the typical cloud of requirements, obligations, and due dates that tend to only compile as any semester (even during a vacation to Europe) progresses. Over the past few days, I've already felt conflicts between what I would like to be doing (both leisurely-laziness and personal goals and projects) and what I really "need" to be doing academically for this next week, this next semester, even for this upcoming summer and afterwards.

    In spite of this growing shadow, I'm still trying to keep my time here as a sort of retreat or hermitage. Granted, I've been living the 21st century version of a hermitage, complete with blog, Skype, and iPod, but at least I've had some time for reflection and personal cultivation--the essential things, right?

    We've spent a few nights this past week at Jamie and his family's house. They've been very gracious in opening up their house to a dozen marooned college students. Last Sunday, we were there to observe the American Football match known as the Super Bowl. Granted, I read an essay on early modernist poetry during much of the game and left after seeing Tom Petty's half-time performance, but it was still interesting to get a more British perspective (it on a local British channel, hosted by 1 British and 2 American commentators) on American sports, or culture in general. Then, on Friday, we were there again to watch the movie "Atonement," based on the popular English author Ian Mcewan's book of the same name. It was an interesting film, to say the least. It had the feel of a film adapted from a book, but was at the same time very visually arresting, reminding me even of the Pre-Raphaelite painting we've been looking at in class. I'm not usually one to keep up with popular culture, but between football and seeing a handful of the award-nominated films this year, I feel like I'm becoming a proper American over here in York.

    | photo: Brad reacts to a crucial moment in Super Bowl XLII


    Washing By Hand


    On my knees,
    I can wring out the dirt
    into a small white basin.

    These garments of mine
    have soaked a long time,
    soaped now fruited,

    rinsed, hung out
    on a thin, white cord
    between the walls

    that hem me in, before
    and behind, stretching out
    from one end of all space

    and time to the other.

    I took a bit of Sunday afternoon to do my laundry. The machines here are ludicrously expensive, and besides the laundry room seems open infrequently, at best, so I decided to invest in a plastic bin in order to wash my clothes. For drying, I strung up a bit of rope or I utilize the extensive radiators and heated piping that runs along the border of my room. It was such a good experience, I think I might try to do away with the use of laundry machines even when I get home. I can simply purchase a washboard from Lehman's or make a more serious investment, such as the Wonder Wash. Great!

    | video: a demonstration of my groundbreaking, state-of-the-art laundry techniques


    Blooming Hyacinth

    My room these past few days has been filled with the sweet, fruity scent of my blooming hyacinth. Even Emma next door can smell it, and the hall is taking on a new, fresh aura. At night, I like to light my two candles, set the flowers on the floor beside me, and read some of the books of poetry I got from the public library here--it's a great way to pass an evening alone.

    Or, for evenings not spent alone, there is a fair amount to do in town (for instance, 365 establishments of drinking--one for every day of the year?). This past Friday, John and I went to the apartment of some international students, where some girls from Norway filled us up with pizza after pizza. Apparently, the Norwegian method of eating pizza involves copious amounts of ketchup squirted onto the finished product. I tried this tactic once, and I'll admit, it wasn't as strange as I expected, but I still decided that it wasn't quite for me. There were some students from France and Spain there, as well, and it was nice to be able to meet such a variety of people. One of the Norwegian girls' banker-boyfriend was coming up from London, so we all walked down to the city center and spent some time at a posh nightclub full of young professionals sipping martinis with their legs crossed. We all felt a bit under-dressed, but the Norwegians turned out to be make quite good partners in conversation and crime (on the dance floor, I mean). Enough so that John is now set on adding Bergen, Norway to our already concentrated Easter Break itinerary... it would be nice to see those fjords...

    Saturday our group from Calvin went on our rescheduled tour of Roman York. Our tour guide turned out to be an eccentric but brilliant middle-aged man, somewhat of a cross between Johnny Depp and a fan of death metal. His outfit was all black, except for purple shoestrings on his leather boots. He wore a long trench-coat over a snazzy vest, with chrome pendants and a pocket watch chain draping from one vest pocket to the other. Over the course of two freezing cold hours, he led us along the Roman portions of the city walls and into a couple fortresses and ruins, ending near some Roman coffins and a statue of Constantine. The entire time, walking or standing still, he spouted off information about dates and locations, archaeological finds, and bizarre trivia and anecdotes (for example, Romans mixed bull's blood into the concrete of their walls and Roman soldiers sometimes wore wind chimes dangling from their crotches to fend off evil). His progression seemed to be just as much haphazard recall and stream-of-consciousness babbling as well-rehearsed speech material. A few times he nearly struck passers-by with a sudden over-excited flailing gesture intended to emphasize a point he was making about the strangeness of Roman military uniform. Between these types of antics and his constant fidgeting with his water bottle, the tour was the combination of a highly-informative educational experience and a bizarre circus spectacle. John and I considered following this character home, or trying to get him to come hang out with us for the evening, but at the last minute we kind of chickened out. Maybe next time.