Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Beginning of the End

I was on the Quad the other day and ran into a friend I hadn’t seen all term.  We had a nice little chat, and he asked me if I’d updated my blog lately.  “No,” I said. “I’ve gotten so behind—it’s too daunting to deal with right now!”  “Too busy living life to write about, huh?” he said.

So that’s my excuse.

We’re going to leave the traveling stories for now; maybe I’ll make that a summer project.  Briefly: After Prague, Annie and I went on to Salzburg, which is by far my favorite city of all I’ve visited.  I then flew back to London on my own, and my family came in the next day!  We had a wonderful week together, even if some of the circumstances were less than ideal.  After they left, I went to Paris by train and met Annie and some other kids from OOSC.  I ended up doing most of Paris on my own, as I had a much tighter timeframe than everyone else.  It wasn’t my favorite city ever, but I did run into Kelsey McGuire in front of the Musee d’Orsey — definitely the highlight.  From Paris I went to Amsterdam, and Megan met me there the next morning.  Amsterdam is beautiful, and the Dutch people are absolutely lovely.  After Amsterdam the two of us went to Berlin and had a history-rich couple of days there.  Megan then went home to Oxford, and I took a day-long train ride to Krakow, Poland on my own.  I spent a day at Auschwitz and another exploring Krakow before going home to Oxford.  The next couple weeks were all about catching up on sleep, fending for myself in the kitchen, listening to plenty of This American Life, laying in the Parks for hours, watching all the American TV I had neglected during Hilary term, and just a little bit of reading.

Now it’s Wednesday of 6th week of Trinity term, and the end is rapidly drawing near.  This term has been joyfully hectic.  The chaos began on May Day, really.  For the sake of Oxford tradition, we stayed up all night and were at Magdalen College by 5:30 am to hear their choir sing and welcome Spring.  A full English breakfast afterwards made it all worth it, as did the six hours of sleep I managed to get after that.

The following week was absolute academic hell.  My tutorials this term are Modern poetry for eight weeks, and C.S. Lewis for four.  I adore both of them, but 2nd week was utter misery.  I had C.S. Lewis due on Tuesday, Modern due Thursday, and then, due to both tutors needing reschedules, another essay for each due for the following Tuesday!  That’s four essays in a week.  Four Oxford-quality essays in one week.  The first C.S. Lewis one went well, but I underestimated how much work the Modern essay would take.  It was meant to be a running commentary of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and for various reasons I didn’t get to start working on it until Wednesday afternoon.  Since it didn’t involve formulating an argument, I couldn’t just throw something together—I had to elucidate the whole entire poem.  It took me the whole night.  Literally.  I finished writing around 7 am, went home to shower and change clothes, bought a breakfast baguette at Green’s, and then made my way to tutorial at 10.  No sleep.  My first ever all-nighter for work.  Besides nodding off at my tutor’s house while he made tea, I managed to hold it together for our discussion.  Still, I never want to repeat that experience. Ever.  The next C.S. Lewis essay was embarrassing, but my tutor admitted it was a difficult topic that she probably shouldn’t have assigned.
After both tutorials were done on Tuesday of 3rd week, I thought I might actually catch up on sleep… but I thought wrong.  We had lucked out on rowing only in the afternoons up until this point, but Wednesday of 3rd week the early morning outings began.  Here’s the rowing rundown of the past few weeks, starting with 3rd.  We rowed Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, then in 4th week, Monday, Wednesday afternoon, Thursday morning, Friday morning, then in 5th Monday, Tuesday, and then Summer VIIIs began!  I’ll come back to that, though.

My amazing friend Jessi came and visited me in 4th week.  We’ve been friends longer than I’ve known most of the people in my life, and she’s practically family.  We had a fast and busy week together, with two quick trips to London (saw Billy Elliot which is FABULOUS), punting down the Thames, visits to Magdalen, Christ Church, and the Bod, afternoon tea, a trip to the Perch, and Formal Hall.  I so love when the worlds collide.

While on a train from Amsterdam to Berlin, Megan leant me A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller.  The point of the book is that we could learn how to live better just by paying attention to the ways good stories are constructed.  No one would read a book in which the main character just faffed around for 800 pages—why are we content with faffing away our actual lives?  How can we live a better story?  I definitely suggest you read it for the full impact, but the ideas he put forth would not get out of my head.  I’ve wanted to be so many things I’m not… why have I never pursued them?  The main thing that was on my mind was that I’ve always wanted to be a sporty person, or at the very least in good shape.  I’ve played various sports in my life, even varsity lacrosse in high school, but the past couple years have been seriously lacking.  Why was I okay with not being who I wanted to be?  With this on the brain, I got an e-mail from a girl at Regent’s asking if anyone wanted to run a 5k with her in London in June—9 weeks away.  I immediately looked up the Couch-to-5k running plan online and discovered it’s a 9-week plan.  Perfect.  I started running three days a week in addition to rowing, and it has been amazing.  The 5k in London is no longer happening, but I’m looking to do one in Oxford the week before I leave.  Regardless of whether or not I actually do a race, I’m now up to running 25 minutes without stopping, and I like it.  This has never, ever happened before.  I’ve also been more conscious about not eating eighty biscuits at every Brew, and I’ve limited myself to one dessert a day.  With just these changes I’ve dropped almost ten pounds and have a set of pretty nicely defined legs.  I’m not ready to call myself a “runner” yet, but it actually feels like I could one day.

Back to Regent’s Park—There’s a tradition of doing a play in Trinity on the Quad, and this year my friend Marchella directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I was Titania, the Fairy Queen.  It was great fun—we performed this past Sunday, and there’s video footage on Facebook if you look around for it.  I’ll see if I can post a snippet here later. My love interest was played by my friend BG, and we completely hammed it up together.  The weather was perfect for us, and everyone who came said they really enjoyed it.

I feel like I should mention that I do really like my tutorials.  They’ve been hard work, but enjoyable hard work.  I’ve discovered that I’m really good at analyzing and writing about poetry, which is probably the most useless aspect of an English degree, but it makes for fun work.  Most of the time I feel like I’m cracking a code, and my tutor and I always have great chats.  I did come here for the academia, right?

Okay. Let’s talk about Summer VIIIs now.  It’s the gigantic boat race every Trinity term, and from what I’ve heard, it tends to get more press coverage than the Oxford-Cambridge boat race.  Here are the basics of bumps racing.  There are six (I think) divisions for both the men and women, the better boats being the smaller numbers.  Bigger colleges have more than one crew, and so it’s a kind of Varisty/JV type division.  But because we’re so small, we only have one crew for men and one for women.  Incidentally, we also only have one boat.  More on that later.  When it’s your division’s time to race, you paddle up the river to the starting line, which is staggered along the bank, and you take your place according to either your finishing place the year before or according to your time in Rowing On.  When the starting gun is fired, you take off rowing as hard as you can until you bump or get bumped—that is, until you crash into the boat in front of you or you get crashed into by the boat behind you.  When bumping happens, both boats are done with the race; you move over to the side while everyone else races past you.
Bumping = good.
Getting bumped = bad.
The third option is called “rowing over,” which means you don’t do either and you end up having to row the whole length of the course.  It’s not as great as bumping, but it’s definitely better than getting bumped.
Okay. Are you prepared for all the rowing chat about to hit you at full pressure?
On Wednesday, we only had one boat behind us, called the sandwich boat.  It was a crew from the division below us, and literally the only reason they are there is to bump us.  If we were to get bumped, we would become the sandwich boat and would have to row in other races as well—not to mention, we would lose our spot in the division for next year and would have to row on just to qualify for Summer VIIIs 2011.
We were not feeling very confident as we got into the boat Wednesday.  The boys had raced right before us, and there was a bit of commotion getting them to the dock, getting them out, switching our blades, wrestling rogue footplates into place, getting us in, and taking off for the starting line.  We’d done the proper carbo-loading and all that, but we just had no idea where we stood.  We didn’t know how we were going to compare to the other boats in Division IV.  We were with other colleges’ second and third crews, but that really could mean anything.
The gun sounded and we had a brilliant start.  It felt perfect.  Our cox was screaming that we were about to catch the boat in front of us, but I thought she was just being motivational.  Then, all of a sudden, CRASH.  We bumped only twenty or thirty strokes into the race!  Absolutely not what we were expecting at all.  Bex, who sits in front of me, cried, and I might have gotten a little teary-eyed.
On Thursday we got to move up a place in the starting line, so we now had two boats behind us.  When we took off, they immediately bumped out, and we were hot on the heels of Merton II.  They were fitter than us, though, and they were able to lose us and bump the boat in front of them.  That meant we had no choice but to row over.  That was some serious pain.  Lunch was haunting me, and my right hamstring felt like it might snap and go pinging out of my leg and down the river at any moment.  After a bump the day before, rowing over felt kind of disappointing, but it certainly wasn’t anything to be ashamed of.
On Friday we once more had two boats behind us, and when we took off the one directly behind us was making quick work of catching up to us.  We were chasing Balliol II who Merton II had caught the day before, and we were expecting to bump them pretty far down the river, if at all.  All of a sudden, our cox started yelling, “Hold it up! Hold it up! Okay Regent’s, I need you to keep listening to me. Do exactly what I tell you. Heads in the boat.  Keep it here.”  I was convinced someone had jumped into the river, or there was a massive pile-up in front of us we were trying to avoid.  Bex yelled, “’Chella! What happened?”
“Oh!” With the exception of the girls in the very back of the boat, none of us had a clue that we had bumped!  It had taken longer than the first day, but it still wasn’t a long chase at all.  So now we had two bumps and one rowing over—not bad for a motley Regent’s crew!
On Saturday, the weather didn’t cooperate.  It was chilly and rainy in the morning, but it stayed dry for our race.  Once again, we had a massive frenzy getting into the boat when the boys got out.  I don’t know how it happened, but we got to the starting line (with three boats behind us) just as the one-minute warning gun went off.  We didn’t get a proper warm-up in, and the stress was almost tangible.  At the start, we made some gains on St. Catz, but they pulled away from us.  The two boats behind us bumped out, but the sandwich boat at the end was still behind us.  The next minutes were literally some of the hardest of my entire life.  I was in all kinds of pain—imagine being forced to sprint as fast as you can for eight-plus minutes.  And then it all went to pot.  We had some technical issues that massively slowed us down and then we really struggled to regain momentum.  As we neared the end, the sandwich boat pulled strength out of who-knows-where and bumped us.  Right in front of our own boathouse, where everyone was watching.  As we came to a stop, I couldn’t decide if I was going to cry or throw up.  Because the boat that bumped us was a sandwich boat, we lost our spot in the division.  Next year’s team will have to row on to qualify.  Heartbreak.

The end of rowing was the beginning of The End.  I’m starting to freak out about going home.  A week or two ago my friend Rosie said, “Melody, you’re going to go home to America, and you just won’t be funny any more! You’ve had to completely adapt to our sense of humor.”  I know she was joking, but I really do have these fears in the back of my head.  Have I changed?  Am I still going to be relevant in my circle of friends?  Am I going to be able to keep in touch with my English friends?  Will I ever see them again?

I won’t get too sentimental until the actual end is here, but I will say this much.  Abbie and I had a sleepover Saturday night, and it hit me—I told her, “When we’re all in a group, I feel like I was always meant to know you.”  I can’t imagine my life without these amazing nine months, but it just as easily never could have happened.

I’m ready to go home, but I’m not ready to leave.

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