Wednesday, 31 October 2007

I'm being Shakespeare for Halloween

Halloween was a bust - spent researching for a paper (on the "nether worlds" in Victorian London, appropriately enough) and talking to my mom. On a break, I found myself coming to Sonnet XXIX once again in my life, and so in order to prevent myself from gaining a point of permanent banality (name that reference!) I'm posting this poem for general appreciation. Also, though, it kind of sums up my life right now. I hope you enjoy.

WHEN in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, 5
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee,—and then my state, 10
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Epiphany! The Musical

I've decided that I am either:

a) a closet extrovert


b) a were-extrovert

Because I feel so much better when I've talked to people and socialized and made friends. Literally that's made this week so much more bearable. The thing is, I also love just sitting in my room imagining different ways I could direct "Twelfth Night" (tonight it was a Christmas version where Viola and Sebastian are Tin Soldiers and the whole thing takes place under a Christmas tree in a 3/4 thrust. And really big presents.) or how awesome it would be to go and see X play with Y people. So maybe I'm an imaginary extrovert.

Just felt like sharing.

A Meditation

I have far too much work to do anything outside of write the silly essays and rehearse and review and the whatnot. Halloween probably won't happen after all. So, of course, I'm writing in my blog.

Here are some things I am thankful for:

- "In the Bleak Midwinter," a Christmas Carol
- Sainsbury's Brand Chocolate Chip Cookies (only 56p! And lots! And just as good as Chips Ahoy!)
- Actors that take direction
- Actors that like their work
- Actors that like sucking up
- Carl Jung and the idea of mythic structure as a whole (it will get me through my essay. Again.)
- Clouds that move too quickly
- The concept of an eclectic collection of (seemingly) useless nautical instruments
- The National Youth Theatre (an internship possibility?)
- Cookies. Again.
- Biscuits too, particularly Hobnobs.
- Ready to eat sandwiches, bought in these little triangular packages.
- Nice chavs.
- Agape and phileo love, if not love as a whole indefinable thing. I might also have included eros if there was any eros to be thankful for. (yuk yuk yuk)

So I met some real life chavs today! They were from Cornwall, which is apparently like the Texas of England, in that they have their own language and are more or less a separate cultural entity. Except Cornwall sounds pretty dangerous from the way these chavs were relating it to me. Cop cars everywhere, apparently. Also, I discovered there was more to a chav than just being a gangster without ambition, as the estute Avery Macleod asserts. Rather, chaviness has a serious economic weight. They're mildly anarchic, all the antics that gives the word "chav" a negative connotation are little forms of rebellion. They apparently idolize Eminem. If you want the definition of a chav, look at Eminem.

So forgive me while I represent for my mates from Cornwall. Word.

There is the educational existential side to this meditation though, as in "am I really learning something at Exeter?" Note, this is not the angst-ridden side of the meditation. I had that already, I am allowed one angst post per blog. And it's out of my system.

Rather, this is the honest question of am I learning anything? Certainly most of what I am learning is from experience, not classes. It's from getting out there and being in England, not sitting in a classroom. But let's examine the classroom for a moment, as that is, in a sense, what I'm paying for.

I have mixed feelings about the Drama department here. On the one hand, they are, for the most part, not the Kenyon drama department. I heard people in my directing class today talk about the "message" of a play, when just last week Wendy Macleod, in our drama criticism class, had made it clear that plays don't really have messages, they ask questions of the audience by presenting them with a story. So, get the story right = questions. Also, there were a lot of issues earlier in the year about scheduling and we were put at the lowest end of the totem poll. Maybe that's just a bias ringing out. Also, they're much more into exercises, very into talking about ... things I can only classify as "weird," which makes me a horrible snob. Found-space and site-specific theater are entirely fine by me, but listening to an Exeter drama student critique a production I heard them say "it was good, but it doesn't really challenge your notion of theater at all." But do you have to? My actors have already talked about their emotional connection to the characters, how they work out what the character is thinking, emoting, showing, etc. Well, mine haven't talked about emoting or showing, but I've heard other actors talk about it. My personal sense is that the department here is more geared towards artifice than plot, theater rather than drama.

But, on the other hand, the Exeter Drama Department is not Kenyon. Whereas I spent a year learning Aristotle, these kids spend their first semester taking a required class of theater games, simply to develop a sense of play that will last them their careers. My directing class is largely formatted around us directing our pieces and asking the lecturer for advice. There's no real technique involved, though if we want to go into a topic he's happy to present for us (we had a great lecture on staging and the different known ways to arrange an audience), or work one-on-one with us on specific issues. I'm much more free to make mistakes here. I can do stuff here I couldn't do at Kenyon, for better or worse. I'm not so worried about being wrong. And there's got to be some merit in that.

And on the other hand (foot?), I have a lot of free time. A lot of free time to do an independent study of my own. And I haven't made that many British friends, which may sound depressing, but means I can actually read things like The Playwright's Guidebook and do the exercises they give me if I want to. I can actually go to the library and read, or explore the city of Exeter, or go shopping, or whatever. And I'm seeing a lot of plays I will need to know for my Drama major. And I'm taking a class on writing dramatic criticism, which I've never done before and is really interesting! But that's Wendy's class not an English one.

But, speaking of English, what about my English class? Victorian London. It's certainly given me a new perspective on ... Victorian things. And London. It's given me a lot of names and critics and books to look at and the idea of the flaneur, and I have to write a 1,500 word essay about the netherworlds of London in the Victorian era and I don't know how I'm going to do it but it sounds fun. And next semester I'm taking a class on comedy. In England.

But. It's not that it's not's seminar a week. A paper every now and then, required reading, presentation. Maybe this is just the British system.

And I don't mean it to sound like I have loads of free time: what free time I have because I don't have friends. I am so busy right now my butt's going to fall off. My room is a complete wreck and there's no way I can clean it because I need to be writing something.

And ultimately I do need to be writing something, but plays not papers. I need a play done before senior year. I have Wendy at my disposal. I have England at my disposal. I most likely will never get a chance to come back here. I must make the most of it.

That said, it's very lovely here. Kenyon too, though.

Sunday, 28 October 2007


On Friday I went on a fairly realistic trip to London.

For starters I only got a few hours of sleep the night before and had to wake up early to get to the station on time. The K'Nex students perfected moving like a herd in and out of public transportation this weekend, starting with St. David's station in Exeter. Reserved seats that spread the group apart? Don't worry! Everyone has meerkat-like telepathy that keeps them in tune with where each person is sitting at all times. Did we leave someone behind? Don't worry! We all emit not only a musk that allows us to identify any missing student but which leaves a scent-trail back to where they are!

And the best part was that Read Baldwin gave us 80 pounds. Yes we had to spend some on train but that meant FOOD.

But approaching London was nowhere as interesting as approaching England. There was no felt more obligation than adventure. For one, I have an essay to write and a scene to rehearse - I didn't exactly have time to go to London to see three plays. Not that being forced to see three plays for class is a bad thing, BY NO MEANS. I wish I could do that for class for most of my life, I think. Or maybe I'll just go see plays.

In any case, London has turned out to be I think my favorite city, and by London I mean Kensington-and-Central/Bankside/Big-Ben-and-Westminster and the surrounding areas. Because that's all I saw this weekend, except for a bit of the northeast of the city, which, okay. Ultimately I haven't seen enough to judge.

The reason I like London is that London is not a city. Not in my sense of the word at least. London, like Pittsburgh, seems to me rather a very large suburb with skyscrapers, and in this case, a handful of millenia's worth of history. A city for me is Philadelphia and New York: big, brash, loud, dirty, smelly, and most importantly overbearing. I never, really, feared for my life in London, except when crossing the street. But that's the same in Exeter. We all got lost after we got off the train out of Paddington station, and proceeded to follow the perimeter of Hyde Park until we found how to get to Kensington. We stayed at a bed and breakfast called The Vicarage (I think...). The people there were courteous and welcoming, and the building was this townhouse with four floors and red carpeting. My room had a balcony. I stood on it. And it wasn't grandiose, it wasn't flashy or gimmicky, it was just what it was. A Bed and Breakfast in a lovely white townhouse in a neighborhood of lovely white townhouses and yes, it was probably expensive as anything to live there, and yes, I got a very sheltered view of London, but I wouldn't mind living in that room and writing on that balcony. I want to go to London on my honeymoon (crossing fingers to have one...).

Mostly I didn't pick up on a sense of direction until a few days in, so I was heavily dependent on both my Oyster card and A to Z Guide, two of the most useful tools ever invented since the box. And Oyster card is essentially an EZ pass card for any public transportation within the city of London, whether double-decker buses or the Underground. An A to Z, or an "A to Zed," Guide is a book of maps of areas in the city, and an index in the back that has streets, places, and practically addresses that you can look up. You find one in the index, it tells you where to find it on the map. Brilliant!

The Underground is a fantastical adventure. Oyster cards are keys to mythic quests. I think this will be the only time I really wax whimsical in my description, because the Underground makes me go "mmm...whimsy...." For people watching it's the best, with interesting characters, and while getting in and out is hectic and especially frightening if you're trying to keep a group together, it makes up for it with really long escalators that have ads all along the walls for theater (The Wyndham Theater is doing Shadowlands! I'm trying to go back and see it.)! Plus, the street musicians are really talented. I got off a train to hear a lilting aria drifting and echoing through the tunnels to the way out. As we walked deeper into the underground and went up escalators, we found an opera singer stationed at one of the landings. She had an iPod hooked up to some speakers, playing accompaniment.

I quickly ran out of money. We saw the National Gallery, Big Ben, Westminster, then moved on to seeing The Country Wife, about which I have to write a review for class, so I'll say no more about it.

The next day we woke up, had breakfast (like the bed, it was amazing), and I promptly was separated from the main groups of people off sightseeing, and left to fend for myself with my A to Z, which I think I did. I met up with Stepahine Reiches and together we went around doing a little sightseeing, mainly St. Paul's Cathedral - I want to go to mass there so bad - and then, while looking on a map, I saw the word: Blackfriars. "The Blackfriars Theater?" I thought to myself. Little did I know there's a whole area named after the old monastery. So we wandered down to Blackfriars, the area, and realized we were running low on time before the next play. Quick, to the tube! Alas! This line is closed for the weekend for repairs! No! We'll walk (Blackfriars to Sloan Square, for anyone who knows the area)! No, we can't do that in an hour! Quick! To the double decker bus!

This is when I learned that Oyster cards work on double decker buses to. And people ask why I believe in God.

We also ended up sitting behind a blue-badge tour guide (the best kind) on his way home, named Nigel, who made sure Steph and I knew how to handle the bus. We ended up at the Royal Theater before most everyone else.

We had FRONT ROW SEATS for Rhinoceros, which is, by far, the best play I've seen in England, and certainly one of the better ones of my lifetime. I wish I was writing a review on it so I could finally get credit for being pleased with something. First of all the theater as a space was really great. The set fell apart as time went on, used dust as an image system ("This is the first play I've seen that established an olfactory sensation." - a paraphrase of Ken Worrall), and had, get this, a full bodied rhinoceros costume that charged onstage at the end of act one. And was frightening and amazing. The pacing flew by, as well, which is good because Ionesco can get very word-heavy very fast, but all of the actors flew through everything without missing a beat, which actually made it all the better. The soundtrack was, and is, haunting. As for "Rhinoceros" as a play, I wanted to hug Ionesco for being comprehensibly weird. "Thank you," I wanted to say, "for not being 'Waiting for Godot,'" which I'm sure I probably just need to see staged as well but for now I do not like. There were one or two moments in the production that were off to be, in particular the ending (spoiler?): Berenger is left alone in a world where everyone has turned into a rhinoceros. There are rhinoceros heads that have bust through every wall in his apartmnet, every door and cranny, and they're watching him. (I won't give away anything but the last moment). He picks up a shot gun and aims towards the back wall. Blackout.

Where was the gunshot? The gunshot that could have meant he killed himself or killed a rhino and we didn't know? IT WOULD HAVE BEEN PERFECT! Apart from that, I heart that production.

I want to do Rhinoceros now, if I wasn't so sure I'd screw it up. I think that sums up all my problems as a growing director/dramatist in one statement.

And that was only a matinée. We got food at a Thai restaurant and then went to see Cloud 9, which sadly was not on the top of its game. It was a preview performance. It was the... Almay Theater? Al-something theater. As a space it was great! It's a round stage with a sort of 25% thrust audience, and a balcony that is carved out to look like it would fit with the Bolton stage (nostaliga...). The set was simply the figure of a house with a central door and two windows on an off kilter platform, and the rest of the stage around it. The man who played Betty in the first act and Edward in the second was very good - most of the cast was, really. I don't know about the second act as an actual piece of theater but it was at least interesting. One of the actors, though, did blow a line, and admitted it in front of the audience. So I might not like the second act because of that.

Cloud 9 strikes me as a play I'd really like to get into, so who knows, maybe I'll see another performance sometime. Ultimately this production didn't leave me wowed, or even sort of excited. But it was better than The History Boys.

By the way, none of this criticism is actually me trying to be critical, like formally critical. This is very much just my feelings about the shows, useless in a critical sense as they are.

That night, after we made it back to The Vicarage, I stayed up with other K'Nex students playing, in no particular order, Truth or Dare and Never Have I Ever. And I had hot chocolate.

And the next morning we went on a tour of London, highlighting Shakespeare and Dickens. St. Paul's Cathedral was another highlight of the tour, and seriously the place is pretty amazing. It was a major target of Hitler's during the Battle of Britain (apparently) and so there were Fire Watchers (I think that's the term) stationed at the very top of the dome that tied ropes to secure themselves and would climb along the dome with tongs and pales of sand. When a firebomb would come down on St. Paul's, they'd climb down onto the dome, take the bomb and extinguish it. If a firebomb went through the ceiling onto the rafters, they'd climb down there too.

Our tourguide was sure to point out all the good pubs along the way, and even went by the site of the Blackfriar's theater, which was tucked away amidst the buildings that were constructed on top of its ruins, since it was torn down the Puritans, a fact I had forgotten before I went looking for it.

We ended by visiting the Globe and then hopping over to an open air food market which sold great, and expensive, food. Then there were plenty of trainrides home, from there to dealing with stuff having cropped up all weekend, watering the basil, from there to rehearsal, from rehearsal back home to check my email to find out that the study I participated in, measuring facial recognition and levels of empathy, gave me a 41/80 on an empathy scale.

41/80!? 41/80!? I always thought of myself as more than 51% empathetic. Maybe I need to work on that, if the test is even right. So a busy weekend was met with bad news. Hopefully it'll be a good week, though.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Alleys Yield Results

There is a distinct lack of crazy alleys leading between buildings to alluring, hidden, and secret places in America. Exeter is home to the smallest street in the world which is barely one person wide. I haven't been down it yet but after my experience today I'd imagine there HAS to be something great at the end.

For one, between two rehearsals, I went to go find the Devon County Library. This was at the end of Gandy Street, a.k.a Diagon Alley. really looked Diagonish today. It has these black and white flags hanging everywhere and it's cobblestones and there're no cars, and these big draping plants on all the walls, and really nice shops too. If I had the money to spend on something so ephemeral as expensive food, I would've stopped by the chocolate shop there... but as you'll find out, I spent my money this week on things that were SO much more useful.

So down Diagon Alley there's a theater called The Phoenix with a bunch of oddly steampunk metallic statues. Some kids were trying to determine if the bird-like one above the doors was a pterodactyl or something. I almost stopped and told them, "I think it's a phoenix." Kids.

You take another alley away from the Phoenix theatre and you get to the Library. In the library, they have a floor that is, literally, the "drama section" with its own librarians and everything. I was walking past shelves just running my fingers over the spines, I almost wanted to say "these are my friends" a la Sweeny Todd. That and I haven't met nearly enough British people, which is sort of a sad thing to say. In any case, I really did want to kind of hug the bookshelves. I need to get a library card before I can check everything ... I mean "anything" ... out, but once I do that....mmmm....

Later that day I encountered another alleyway, which was more or less a shopping mall tucked away in the facade of a bunch of buildings, called the something Arcade. It has the word Arcade in it.

First, there was a comic book/game/hobby store there, and once my travelling compatriot, Ken Worrall, told me they had RPGs in there, I quickly turned around and went in. While he was trying to order Magi-Nation the collectable card game (Ken: "It hasn't really come out yet..." Guy at Desk: "-then we can't really order it." Ken: "I know." Guy: "It's not cost effective to have a lot of CCGs, because if they don't sell, we're left with a bunch of boosters." Ken: "Yeah, I know. But I'm sure this one's about to make a comeback!" Guy: (skeptical look) ), I walked deep into a narrow path of bookshelves, and discovered none other than assorted Old World of Darkness Sourcebooks, including a Kithbook for Changeling: The Dreaming, which is an amazing find because a) I'd never seen a physical book for Changeling before this, and b) it's a Kithbook, meaning it's more or less a senseless supplemental book that no one sane would ever buy. But then, sane people don't play White Wolf. That's sort of their slogan.

So I found and bought the following:

The Silent Striders Clanbook, from Werewolf: The Apocalypse
The Stargazers Clanbook, also Werewolf.
"Urban Legends," a sourcebook for Hunter: The Reckoning that is LITERALLY, from what I can tell, just information that helps you set a Hunter game in an urban environment.

Mmm. Books.

Then at the end of that street was a vintage/second-hand store called The Real McCoy at which I purchased some elf ears for my Halloween costume: a piskie. Piskies, according to wikipedia, originate in no other area of England except, drumroll, DEVON and CORNWALL. They live in the open areas near DARTMOOR and lead hikers astray and play pranks. In other words, piskies live in and around Exeter. In other words, I am not just randomly dressing up as a fairy (there's a subtle difference between a fairy and a piskie) but I am going to be a walking folklorist exercise. It's gonna be pretty cool.

Anyway, I returned home a happy camper with no money but a lot of hope.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Embarrasing Things Said to Important People

So I had my class with Wendy Macleod, my professor leading the trip who's a playwright and all and stuff and whose program gives me money to tool around England and see plays. Two things:

First we were reading "Rhinoceros" which we were going to see, and I was asked to read a part. Great! I love reading! So I was reading this part and I got really into telling this girl off towards the end of one of the selected sections. To the point where I added, "bitch" on to the last line under my breath.

Sadly, due to timing issues, that "bitch" came right after Wendy asked us to pause reading, so the chronology was:

Wendy: "Okay let's stop there-"
Me (still in the scene, ad libbing): Bitch.

And it was awkward, cause I not only like Wendy a lot but her family too. They're nice people and they buy us all food.

After class, we figured out the logistics of going into London this weekend to see Rhinoceros and Cloud 9 and The Country Wife. We had just finished, and I had a big Cadbury chocolate bar, and I was offering it around. I had one piece left, and I offered it to Wendy, who was happy to accept. It was cool, I like having good relations with my professors! Yay! Maybe the ad lib mix up was gloss-overable!

Her piece was smaller though, cause this was a chocolate bar with nuts in it, so you try to break it down the lines but the nuts throw everything off. And so I was like, "it's okay, your chocolate has TWO nuts in it."

And then I turned around and left. Cause I was 0 for 2. Figured I should get out before I accidentally broke the TV or something.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Stiff Upper Lip

I was in a musty room in part of the Old Library - it lives up to its name because it's so amazingly hard to navigate that you'd expect to find a minotaur somewhere. In the Old Library is a special collection of popular culture, particularly from the Victorian era but also from the 20th century. But, for my class, Victorian London, we weren't interested in the Mickey Mouse statues.

So we were in this musty room with a bunch of ancient books, old book smell x40 - it was great - and this girl got up to leave because she felt dizzy. She walked out of a door. Then she fainted. Collapsed.

People looked up, one or two got up to help her (including the lecturer). Everyone else watched it happen, didn't really comment except for things like, "well, we shouldn't crowd her," and "would be best to stay seated." A duck might as well just have flown into the window and gotten the same response. It seemed like they were looking up from their books towards the event and asking, nonchalantly, "really? Did that really happen? Huh."

I was worrying about a medical emergency, I was worrying if EMTs would have to find their way through this senselessly ill-planned Old Library to find this girl before she got seriously hurt, which luckily wasn't the case at all - she's fine - and so I was baffled by everyone around me and their response. Not saying they're bad people or my response was right, but just if anyone every asks you the meaning of "stiff upper lip" THAT'S it.

I think someone even told me "stiff upper lip."

Monday, 22 October 2007

A Beggar of My Own Spare Change

I have an empty box of Nutri-Grain bars that I put all my spare change in. Recently I dug out all of the 50p pieces and most of the 20p pieces for laundry. Today I need to buy breakfast. I dug through and found 6 20p pieces, enough to buy a triple chocolate muffin. Paying a cashier with essentially quarters is a little lame, but I'm going to have to do it. I considered for a moment what else I could get, except that the only thing I had left in my till were 5p, 2p, and 1p pieces.

So I counted up all the 5p's and I'm going to see if I can't get anything else. This is the horror of the British Economic System.

On a lighter note, a lot of buildings have these little bowl-shaped tops to their chimneys that gulls seem to think are made for them, so they'll just sit there, but in the chimney, chillaxing. One wonders what happens when the fire goes...or maybe that's the point. Maybe it's like a little butt-warming experience.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Subtle Sympathies, Delightful Incongruity

Post-Church tea at the Chaplaincy was all abuzz with news of the recent rugby and/or football game. England got all hyped up because their team, which almost lost to the American team, just last week beat the French in the finals and either is moving on or had moved on to the next finalist game against South Africa. I get these things confused because I don't keep up with them. And also, England is having an interesting time in rugby and in football right now.

So, in one of the sports they just lost. I think in rugby. And they're sad.

And in one of the sports South Africa is, or was, a threat.

So at the Chaplaincy, the one South African girl was wearing a little pin version of her flag, which got joshing attention from the other people at tea. This turned into a historical (an historical) conversation, "they [the South Africans] always say, 'you and your redcoats started the war, but really we didn't have redcoats then, it's a complete fabrication.'" Or something to that effect. And they went on about the angry farmers in South Africa and then to other parts of the British empire, meanwhile this girl sat there quiet. Meghan Gibson and I, as two K'Nex students, knew a little of what she was going through, as a citizen of a formerly colony turned rebel turned independent state sitting around at a table in her 'Mother Country.' I leaned over and said, "don't worry, we used to be part of the Empire too."

I don't know what good it did her argument to have the crass Americans side with her, but I hope it helped. That's the first time I've really felt like America was a colony, not a superpower. And I guess that's sort of the European political mindset in a nutshell: everyone is a tiny state with its own specialties, and they all have to get along to work. Concordia must be achieved. Or maybe I'm completely wrong. But treating America as it must have been in its infancy and teenage years, before the World Wars, and not just as THE power in the world...was a new experience. And one I felt like sharing.

The second was a simple repartee with a friend of mine, James Bennett, and some other people in the Chaplaincy. I mentioned the Manga version of the Bible, endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This thing does actually exist, it's the whole Bible done in manga form, and it's not a joke, it's an honest manga Bible. Anyway, I mentioned it, and James turned it into "well that's all well and good, but I'm just for the Pokemon version of the Gospels to come out."

Me: "Go, Holy Spirit!"

James: "Zechariah the Tax Collector, I choose you!"

Matt, another friend: "Gotta save 'em all."

Me (miming throwing a pokeball, "catching" Peter): "I will now make you a fisher of men."

I think there might've been more to it, too. Just felt like sharing.

Friday, 19 October 2007


So a bunch of my flatmates - several Mexican girls, three or four French girls, Thomas the Norwegian, Alice and one of her friends, who are ... Italian I think?, and then Stephanie Reiches and I, the two Americans - were playing "Never Have I Ever."

(On a tangent, there needs to be a venereal noun game for groups of people of a certain nationality. "A Freedom of Americans" or "A Souffle of French" or something.)

So we were playing "Never Have I Ever," which no one could really get down as a statement ("I have never never," or "I haven't ever ever" were some replacements.), and people had been saying things like "Never Have I Ever tried a cigarette," or "Never Have I Ever cheated on my boyfriend." And then it came to me.

So I posed the question to the group, "do you want this to be a dirty game of Never Have I Ever? Or do you not? Because I can make it dirty very quickly..."

And instantly everyone encouraged me to make it dirty. Little did they know ...

"Never," I asserted, "Have I Ever ... received buttsex."

A hush swept through the room.

"What is this 'buttsex'?" someone finally asked. Stephanie and I were already cracking up.

"Buttsex? Buttsex? It is, uh, how you say, buttsex?"

Instantly a flurry of translations and attempts at explanations in three or four different languages were shooting back and forth across the table. Some had misheard me, some thought I was saying "bad sex" and so, begrudgingly, were drinking. "SO-DOM-Y" I called out, but it pretty much was a cry in the wilderness.

Finally they caught the gist of it. "In British English, they say 'arse,' so it would be 'arse-sex'" one assured me. And they were all laughing, embarrassed, and some gave me a really bad look. But ALL of them were watching everyone else in the group like a hawk to see who would drink.

I also found a cat today and went on an adventure in Exeter, but these somehow pale in comparison to a bunch of Mexican and French girls sitting around a table saying the word "buttsex?" over and over and over again, vainly attempting to figure out what on earth it could be.

Thursday, 18 October 2007


The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.

I've seen it written with "Way" capitalized too.

I've had a couple "I really need to cry" moments in the past couple of ... well, hours, and I don't quite know why. Not cry like, "Oh my gosh England is too big and lonely and I don't know what to do," more - at least I think - more "Things are so beautiful and dangerous I really just need a moment." That sounds so sappy and so unbearably me-ish that I can hardly read it.

But like it was sunny out today. MIRACLE. I went to an amazing tea place today, called Boston Tea Party (any former Exeter students reading this can agree) that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. It's not just a creature comfort either, I don't think. I mean the food is good but the place is old wood, they give you tea in pots if you choose to stay in, there's an upstairs lounge with a long Saxon-mead-hall-esque table and comfy chairs, students reading books. And I'd been to Boston Tea Party three times already, so it's not like it was a brand new experience. Tomorrow I'm hoping to spend the whole day in town, finding the secret floor of the Exeter City Library where they keep all their plays and just reading all day. I hope.

And I started directing Act Two of Oleanna by David Mamet for my Directing class. My actors, even although they insist on getting into the character's heads and feeling what they're feeling, are great. The hurtle is that I have to do it with two women, but with minor changes of "his" to "her"s and readjusting the sexual tension for two women, it looks like it's going to be fine. But even then, whatever issues I was worried about between the Kenyon drama training I've received and the English drama training these actors have received have begun melting away.

I was skeptical about the girl-on-girl Oleanna before today, and now I'm not. Now I'm excited for it. That sounds sketchy but since I am no longer skeptical I am happy.

I went to a vintage shop with Ken and bought a shirt WITH A GRIFFIN on it. And the vintage shop itself was like (Kenyon people:) The Pink Flamingo times 10; or (New Hope people:) Love Saves the Day but without the Penis Pasta and naked things. And bigger. (If you know neither of these places, I'm sorry. I tried.) Like I'm starting to think about what I need to be for Halloween (any suggestions feel free to comment)!

So it's been a beautiful day, fun class, fun adventures, prospects of an even more beautiful day tomorrow, and then I went to a late night "Kabob and Pizza" store just now with Ken and Stephanie Reiches. It was pretty sketchy, but for some reason when I was sitting there I had one of these moments. Among Christian mystic circles I've heard them described as "mini-sabbaths" but who knows if that's what I was actually experiencing. Maybe it was just that there were four bobbies down the road and I felt suddenly safe and a part of everyday England. Or maybe it was that I was out with friends. It wasn't warm and fuzzy like Boston Tea Party, it was poignant, almost. I don't know.

I think I've finally come to understand England as a real place, though I stand by my claim that it's a fantastical kingdom. Now it's just a REAL fantastical kingdom. Which makes it ... magically realistic? Oho, literary genre humor, do you ever get old? Yes.

But there is a reason this post is called "Bedlam."

After I was done having that moment at the Kabob and Pizza joint, my mind was stuck with an appetite for lofty things. Of course I can't induce a perception of beauty, so I turned to far-down-the-road, speculative, and semi-existential thinking. Like "how much longer will I be in England?" "How much do I miss Kenyon?" "What would've happened if I had stayed?" "What would've happened if I went to Saint Andrews?" "What am I going to do with my life once I graduate?" "What am I going to do when I get back, over the summer?" "What am I doing now?"

I find myself now punching tables and then regretting it.

I've had much more time to write, much more time to read, now that I'm here. And maybe it's just the change of pace but England is very inspiring. So am I going to settle down and be a playwright? How will I make money? Will I go to grad school? Where? Will I direct? Will I dramaturg? HOW DO YOU LEARN ABOUT DRAMATURGY? I need to get more organized. How do you get more organized?

And maybe it's just that I am some sort of overstimulated sap, who spends all his time enraptured by the English countryside. Maybe it has kind of driven me mad, but I don't think that's entirely true. England fills me with contrition: a lot of preconceived notions are beginning to fall away and there's nothing else left for me but this lovely, horrible contrition. Like pulling a baby tooth out, or pouring steaming water on a poison ivy rash.

So I guess this makes England practically too silly to be real, not entirely too silly to be real.

There was a guy we met at The Turf, the pub near Topsham I talked about in my last post. He was in the first year of the Kenyon-Exeter program. He met an English woman that he fell in love with. I think then he went back to Kenyon, finished his degree, then moved to England, married her, bought a house in Topsham, has a family, and he and his wife earn their living as food and wine critics.

THAT is how to use an English major. Like, when you think about it, that seems just like the perfect life.

But is it? Is it really?

Monday, 15 October 2007

Nanci Griffith is my Porn

Thanks to Tesco, I have two potted herbs that sit by my window waiting for the sun to shine. I don't have a windowsill, so if I want them to survive I have to move them around the room into the sun whenever I get home. One basil plant and one parsley plant - they're comforting and occasionally make my room smell like pesto, if I get them a lot of sun.

It's gotten to the point here that hearing someone pronounce "er"s at the end of words sounds unnatural to me. Sometimes. It's really when you catch someone from Bristol that it's most obvious ("you alright my lovERRRRRR?"), but it happens when listening to other Kenyon-Exeter students, or K'Nex students. Sometimes at least.

America is still oddly present for me here in England, and when it turns up it's like having deja vu, or bumping into an ex while holding someone else's hand. It's...wonky, I guess is the best term.

Like I was in my room trying to read Dombey and Sons, I think, and my window was open. Another window near mine was too, and inside that room a bunch of Italian girls had gotten together and were watching a DVD, in English. So there was chattering in Italian and then you'd also hear the DVD in English.

And then suddenly a few familiar chords make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and the theme song on the DVD starts playing:

"California....California...HERE WE GOOOOOOOO!"

And so I was really listening to a bunch of Italian girls watching The OC somewhere in my dorm. And I had no idea what they were saying, and I've never even seen a full episode of the OC, but I knew exactly what they were talking about (Eyebrows Guy?).

Or you hear an actor doing a monologue from a Tennessee Williams play, and you're just a little taken aback by the fact that they don't know if it's "New Orleans" or "Old Orleans."

I heard a Chinese exchange student while washing dishes with me start singing "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" and I asked him, "are you singing The Lion King?" "Yes!" he replied, "great song. One of my favorites." And then he started humming something by 98 Degrees, or N'Sync, or something.

You meet people, too, like Canadians, and it's like you're part of a secret society, or some downtrodden people or underground political movement. You can recognize them as soon as they talk to you, and it's just like, "yes, brother, you're not alone." "I know, brother, neither are you." At least I have subtext with Canadians like that when I meet them. Maybe that's just me.

And there is a language difference between British and American, like "sketchy," and "raisins." I was telling someone something was sketchy the other day and they quirked their head, and then I said "oh, do you have 'sketchy' here? That must be American..." and I completely forgot my point and it was awkward.

You are a stranger in an oh so strange land. The Drama department here even seems to train their actors in an entirely opposite way than Kenyon does. I understand Kenyon doesn't have all the answers, and so maybe it's just my programming malfunctioning, but it's just another communications barrier, as a director I have to sit down and re-define terms to make sure nothing gets lost in translation. And then when I'm acting I have to translate for myself. I don't know what to say about the drama department ultimately. More data needed.

Speaking of more data, we went to a tiny town on the river Exe (Ex?) that runs through and past Exeter. It was called Topsham, and from there we caught a ferry to a pub on the other side of the river. They had a playground in the yard made from, literally, AN OLD BOAT with a swingset and some ropes and a tire playset attached to it. IT WAS AMAZING. There was no plastic, no slide, even the swings were chains and what looked hand-stained, or at least hand-made. Everything about it was old, the ropes looked like they'd been soaking in a little too much river air, and if you jumped too hard on the boat you might literally put your foot right through the deck.

But what I discovered at this pub, The Turf, was a hard cider called "Dragon Tears" and I think the title went on to have something to do with Saint George. In any case, it was amazing. The bartender told me I had to promise to drink all of it, but it wasn't hard. That's really the first drink that wasn't Gin and Tonic that I finished, and I don't count a single shot gin and tonic as particularly hard to finish. That's kind of the point, isn't it?

Anyway, you'd never find that pub in America, from what I can tell. It's great. It's cool, "awesome" even, though that's an American term, I guess. That playset and that pub were so amazingly British that I don't know how I could want anything else. But sometimes you wonder.

For instance, Subways here (the sandwich store) are restaurants of ill-repute: they're never well-kept and Chavs loiter in and around them. To top it off, they use balsamic vinegar instead of red wine vinegar. So even once you make it past the dirt and the Chavs just to get your Spicy Italian footlong sub for twice as much as it would cost at home - thank you exchange rate, thank you SO much - once you get it, it doesn't even have the right stuff on it.

And you get these little cravings, and you push them to the back of your mind, because, I mean, THIS IS ENGLAND. YOU ONLY HAVE NINE MONTHS HERE. Do you really want to spend all your time at a Pizza Hut? Or a Starbucks? It's just not socially acceptable for a transfer student to be wanting these kinds of things.

I knew someone named Eric Wagner who went to live in the woods for two weeks with a program - you learn to survive and you find yourself, it's supposed to be great. You eat, like, muskrats. And so the counselors don't let you talk about food from back home, because inevitably the kids end up going on these huge rants: "loads of mashed potatoes with gravy trickling down the sides, your fork pushes in - firm potatoes - but soft enough to swallow whole." They call it "Food Porn" and I'm pretty sure they take any food porn they find and go bury it or something before it causes any more trouble.

What I do, when no one's looking, is I go home and I lock the door. And usually I close the window and the curtain for sound muffling. And I take out an old CD I brought with me, one of the only ones I actually packed up and took: Nanci Griffith's "One Fair Summer Evening." And I listen to it the whole way through while checking my email.

Nanci Griffith has a thick southern drawl, it's even Texan, and a chirpy voice, it almost sounds like she never really grew up. You can dislike her music, surely, but this CD is a live recording, so you hear her introduce every song. She literally introduces one like this:

"Most of my mother's family came way out from West Texas in a little town called Lochland which is somewhere close to Luvlan. But not too close to Luvlan. Nobody likes to be too close to Luvlan.

"But I had five great uncles who were all farmers during the Great Depression, and after the Great Depression well four of them sold off their family farms and they bought liquor stores and dry-cleanin' businesses getting ready for the war boom, y'know, but one great uncle - my Great Uncle Tootie - never sold his farm, and he pushed a plow for eighty years, and he's still livin' out there in Lochland Texas and this next song is a tune I wrote for him and his wife my Great Aunt Betty Mae.

"And my Great Aunt Betty Mae said that survivin' the Great Depression on a farm was not easy and she understands why the young farmers nowadays are havin' such a hard time, because, she went through it herself.

"And the dust blew so hard during the Great Depression on her farm that she said she was afraid, to go to sleep at night, cause she was afraid the dust would blow so hard one night that she'd wake up one morning and find herself living in Oklahoma and she by God didn't want to live in Oklahoma!"

So I think you can dislike her music, but from the sound of it, I can't bring myself to dislike her as a person. And I really like her music anyway. It's twangy, and southern, it uses words like "banjo" and "pickup" and "five and dime." It's NOT Euro-pop, or Coldplay, or even The OC or The Lion King or 98 Degrees. But it's good, it's not country. It's just southern. My Mom and my Aunt Meg used to play it all the time.

So, Nanci Griffith is my America Porn.

She solidified her title when I was walking through the City Centre (re, not ERRRRRRR) of Exeter the other day and saw a Woolworths, and I thought to myself, "Woolworths. Huh. I've seen that somewhere, or heard of it. But I don't remember ever actually going to one." That night I went home, closed the curtains, locked the door, got ready for bed and, carefully slipped "One Fair Summer Evening" into my computer.

There's a song called "Love at the Five and Dime" that starts out with someone playing a repeated series of chords on an acoustic guitar, and the series always ends with this little, it's horrible to describe in words, but this little high pitched PING on the guitar. It sounds so much better when you hear it.

While the guitar's playing she opens the song like this:

"One of my greatest fascinations in life has always been a little store where you can go in and get a vanilla coke. Listen to the popcorn machine, go pop pop pop! Dig through a record bin and find a record for sixty-nine cents that you always wanted all your life..."

And she goes on, talking about high school, stopping by this store while waiting to transfer buses with just enough time to look for records, get yourself a drink, wink at the boys and get back on the bus. And it's a Woolworth's that she's talking about. And I almost shit myself! Because:

"... and Woolworth stores are the same everywhere in the world. They have this wonderful smell to 'em, they smell like, popcorn and chewing gum rubbed around on the bottom of a leather soled shoe.

"The first time we went to Europe we, landed in London and we were driving through central London and we came around a corner and, by golly, there was a Woolworth's store. And I wanted them to stop the car and let me out so I could go fill up my suitcase with unnecessary plastic objects."

I had JUST passed the place and hadn't even bothered to stop in and SMELL it! CRAP!

"And if you've ever been in a BIG Woolworth's store. Where there's an elevator. Or a 'lift' as they say in Europe. Every time the doors open on the elevator they make a little noise like this:"

And the guitarist has just gotten to the end of a series, and PING.

"I've often been asked what that little noise was. And that's what it is. It's the elevator doors."

If I could figure out a way to include the song on this blog I would, but I'm not skilled with computers. And it's not on Kenster - ye Kenyonites - I've looked. As far as I'm concerned the only copy available to me of these songs is the one CD I have, with its jewel all stained with coke and cracked. That's why I brought it.

So now I listen to Nanci Griffith with the windows open, the curtains pulled back and the lights on. Naked.


Not actually naked. Just kidding.

Anyway, the darkening clouds are moving like Protoss Carriers (look it up on google images if you don't know), blotting out the sun as it sets. My poor basil is going to have to wait until tomorrow to get any nutrition... I know I promised I'd write shorter posts, and I will. Just not today, I guess.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Proof Positive

A complaint about the utter lack of street signs from about one hundred and fifty years ago. I hear you buddy. Rock, rock on.

Friday, 12 October 2007

The Wheat from the Chavs

Allow me to write an Ode to the Cream Tea:

Oh Cream Tea!
First tasted at the
Catholic Chaplaincy!

If Jesus’ last supper
Could have been you-

“take, eat, this scone is my body-
Broken for you and for forgiveness of sins.
Whenever you cover it with cream and jam
Do this in remembrance of me”

“drink this, all of you, this tea
Is the blood of the New Covenant.
Whenever you drink this, do it
In remembrance of me”

- then Judas totally wouldn’t’ve
Been able to betray anyone.
Cause he'd be too busy stuffing his face.

Okay, so it’s not really a poem of any kind. And hopefully its not blasphemous. Not really at all. I think Jesus might’ve quite liked Cream Teas. Though maybe not that much.

A Cream Tea: a tea party, usually around 4 o’clock, with assorted biscuity things but mainly revolving around scones, which are broken open and have jam and clotted cream spread on them. There is some heated debate amongst the British about whether you put the jam on first and the cream on second, which one goes on top of what, whether either jam or cream is necessary, and also whether it is pronounced “scones” with a long o or “skahns.”

I had my first, and second, cream tea at the Catholic chaplaincy on campus - it took an expedition to get there, since the Catholic chaplaincy is easily confused with the Anglican chaplaincy, which is towards the center of the Stretham Campus. You have to go down a hill aptly named "Cardiac Hill" to get there. Then you have to go up Cardiac Hill to get back. The Catholic chaplaincy is basically on the other side of campus from where I live, past any sort of academic building and into a residential area - there’s litereally a fence where the University ends that you have to cross - and even then it’s hard to spot. So much for the state of Catholicism at Exeter…

There is, however, a Cathedral in town that is high gothic, has people from the middle ages buried under it, and functions as the seat of a Bishop (that’s the difference between a Cathedral and an Abbey: Cathedrals have Bishops that live there). But it also holds Jazz Mass on Sunday afternoons. Some time on Sunday at least.

The Cathedral green is the town park, and it would be much more beautiful if it weren’t utterly covered in litter. Another thing about the English, at least those in Exeter: they have no idea how not to litter. Obviously Captain Planet never really made it big over here. Maybe if he was called “Sir Globe, the Hero Who Slays Pollution” with his “Earthy Squires” hailing from different countries in the UK then MAYBE the message would’ve been spread. As it is, the Planeteers remain an ineffective power in England.

J.K. Rowling also attended Exeter, so much of the University’s environment is said to have inspired her, and same goes with the town. I’ve actually walked down the alley that Diagon Alley is based on. It’s right nearby a Tesco’s and the only gay club in Exeter is at the other end. That said, I’m still looking for the brick to press so I can get to Olivander’s.

Down another alley is The Ship Inn, which literally has a sign on the side with quotation from the journal of Sir Francis Drake saying that apart from his own ship, he preferred most to drink at The Ship Inn in Exeter. And they have Karaoke now, though apparently it’s not very good.

Pubs here also seem to be, like Mancuso Antiques - an old antique shop I used to work in that is really an old church complete with graveyard - made out of old existing buildings that have gone under. George’s Meeting House, for instance, is a pub that we found on our first night here, and it’s an old chuch too. Stained glass windows, pulpit, amazing woodwork, and bar.

Speaking of pubs, one thing that I’ve been doing extensive research on in England is alcohol. Well, not really extensive. More like EXPENSIVE. OH SNAP. BURN. This is one of those, “let’s all laugh at Griffin’s naiveté for kicks” moments. But first a tragic interlude:

This summer I had an ear infection, but not a bacterial one, a viral one that dislodged a tiny bone in my ear so that whenever I woke up the room would spin and basically I’d have to throw up. The bone’s back in place now that the virus is gone, but not only am I still sensitive to dizziness (if I sit up too fast I get dizzy much easier than before), but I’m also gunshy about dizziness (“oh no, not this again” sort of a thing). According to wikipedia, my ear should be fine and the sensitivity to dizziness will go away eventually, but for now my experiments with drinks have been very limited, as even one will leave me waking up a little woozy, which is a place I really don’t want to be.

Anyway, so here’re my results from my drinking experiences so far:

Beer 1.0: Blegh.
Hard Cider 1.0: Blegh again.
Guinness 1.0: Mmm. Until you get past the creamy part. More data required.
Gin and Tonic 1.0: MMM.
Gin and Tonic 2.0: This is now my fall-back drink.
Red Wine 1.0: I like it more as vinegar.
White Wine 1.0: Well I can drink it.
White Wine 2.0: Good for cooking. With everything.
Hard Cider 2.0, a different brand: Mmmmm. Now what was the name of it…
Bailey’s 1.0: Cough syrup and cream much?

While we’re on research, here is a list of things that I have not been able to find in England:

Grape Jelly
Chicken Broth
Stick Deodorant (but I knew about this one beforehand)

I know it seems small but it will keep growing. “Shaving Cream” was on there until recently, when I found it and shaved. THANK HEAVEN. My beard was getting out of control, as you’ll see in the face book photos of this early era.

Subways, like the sandwich store, here also don’t use red wine vinegar, but balsamic vinegar. That was shocking the first time I tried it (yes, I ate at a Subway in England. Twice. So sue me. It’s not like there’s much English cuisine I should be trying anyway apart from Indian Food.). Coca-Cola has a little sign on it that says “GB,” meaning “Great Britain.” Made in the UK sort of thing. Except GB Coke tastes really watered down, so it tastes like Pepsi. And Pepsi tastes even worse!

Pasties, on the other hand, are amazing. Not the little things you stick on your nipples to expose the rest of your breast, oh no, these are meat and gravy creations served inside a bread pocket, like what a medieval blacksmith might’ve thought a hot-pocket was supposed to look like. Mmm. Pasties.

On a non-sensual note, Church here is very beautiful, maybe more so than home - Exeter has a very prestigious choir program and so they run it out of the Anglican church on campus. Hymns are much more beautiful too, I’ll see if I can find any sound files somewhere to post … there’s been one per service that I’ve taken note of to seek out on a later date.

Also on a spiritual note, I’ve often been worried about England as a bastion of overwhelming secularism - that’s sort of the impression I got of Europe as a whole. But that doesn’t seem to be true. It’s tough in America, there’s no sense of anything really permanent about religion, it seems. Most of the main history of Christianity: the reformation, Catholicism/Orthodoxy, the lives of the early church fathers, JESUS, THE OLD TESTAMENT, all of it happened across the Atlantic. And, as far as America goes, the founding fathers were certainly all for civic religion, it seems, and - coming from a public school - the culture is very much about keeping religion private and to yourself, and someone other than God help you should you chose to make it public. But maybe that’s just a beef with public schools and not the culture as a whole. In any case, it is not so in England. Or at least it has not seemed so in my travels. I’m not saying it’s some sort of faithful person’s paradise, it isn’t, but I mean there’s a CATHEDRAL in the center of town, and Exeter really isn‘t even that big. At the University you study THEOLOGY whereas at Kenyon you major in Religious Studies. I have yet to think that the culture disrespects me as a Christian here. I’ve thought that a lot in America.

For those of you who may have never talked faith or philosophy with me, this paragraph may seem iffy, but then by all means come talk faith and philosophy with me. For those who have, I’m thinking Austin Bookheimer here, that paragraph will seem like more of the same.

England is a little dirtier, a little more rustic at times, though. Everything is designed to use less, low flow toilets, outlets that have a switch on them that turn the whole outlet off (Al Gore wants us to unplug our appliances to save electricity. The English are one step ahead of him with these switches), cars are smaller, roads are smaller, walking is better, etc. etc. etc.

And living with international students has had its ups and downs as well. While a bunch of Kenyon-Exeter students were trying to cook a meal for ourselves, a French girl remarked to us, “it is funny, you are all American. I expected you to be cooking hamburgers and French fries.” It still irks me. And she’s actually an amazingly nice person who helped make us crepes at one point, but that one little comment still bugs me.

English people doing an American accent is also an interesting experience. It mostly has to do with getting really nasal and saying the letter “a.” The word “awesome” is stereotypically American. In England they use “brilliant” and say “cheers” whenever you do something nice or leave a room. “Cheers” has wrapped “goodbye,” “thank you,” “peace,” “have a nice day,” and “this signals the end of a conversation” into one word.

If you ever want to talk to an Englishman, or Englishwoman - Englishperson - start talking about accents. They love it. Except the pronunciation of the word “tomato.” (let’s call the whole thing off…) They’ll kill you for that one. I’ve never tried it myself, but I’ve heard about it.

England is also home to an entirely unique phenomenon known as “chavs.” The American equivalent to a chav might be something like a “wigger” but really they’re two separate entities. Chavs have been eloquently described by Avery Macleod, with a kid’s honesty, as “gangsters without ambition.” They rove around the streets wearing hoodies and baggy clothes, usually white and black, and sort of just cause trouble. They seem like a benign little flavor to the English countryside but they’re actually a problem. A group of Kenyon-Exeter students was jumped by them at night in the City Center. Thanks to Closed-Circuit TV the cops were there in seconds and arrests were made.

Exeter is a peaceful place though. The policemen, as an example, don’t carry guns, only a baton. Despite minor chav-related issues it doesn’t seem like that much of a crime zone.

There are those times, though, when you’re walking home late at night and you pass by an alleyway, barely lit, that would make the walk much easier. You tell yourself it's dangerous, but it seems so tempting. And you think to yourself:

These woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

At least I think that to myself. But I’m lame.

A Sea-Change

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

The phrase “cloudscape” is one of those profoundly accurate phrases, like “backhanded compliment” or “cool as morning” or “hootenanny,” which I should note I spelled wrong, but auto-correct fixed for me. I could write “Orvis” or “Ozymandius” and it would yell at me, but it’s okay, it knows how to spell “hootenanny.” The English language is safe.

But cloudscape is an accurate turn of phrase because I woke up from drifting in and out of sleep and I looked out the window of the plane, and you could start to see the beginnings of the sunrise in the distance. And below us was just raw, solid cloud, as far as you could see. There was just enough light to see them, but not enough to really illuminate them, so the shadows were still pitch black wherever they were cast. It was honestly like looking down at a jungle, with mountains and valleys, and gulleys that you couldn’t see the bottom of, but then it would change to flat salt planes, or a tundra, or a snow-swept artic bay with these meanacing, glacial figures in the distance. Other times it was like looking at two scrims layered on top of each other, and you could only make sense of what you were seeing individually, or later only in gestalt. And it occurred to me that I was about to go to a place that I had basically no conception of, that could be anything, and it would be absolutely new. I had only ever heard about it, seen it maybe in artistic renditions. England was more a concept, a state of mind than a physical place. Like the repartee in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead:

Ros. I don’t believe in it anyway.
Guil. What?
Ros. England.
Guil. Just a conspiracy of cartographers, you mean?

England was beyond my understanding, and I was about to go there, and it would be entirely new. In my half-awake state, I concluded that this transition must be something like what going to Heaven would be like. Again, I was drifting in and out of consciousness.

At some point I checked out our stats on the TV, and it gave me some numbers about how fast we were moving and how many miles were left (kilometers too), and it looked like we were getting close. So I looked out the window and sure enough, on the horizon, I could see the beginnings of that sunrise peeking over the tips of silhouetted mountains. Land ho! I concluded it must be Ireland.

I sat there staring at them wondering exactly what was happening in Ireland right now, who was up, who was asleep, what they were doing, and how I was going to pass right over them without them even noticing it. At least, I thought I would pass right over them, since I could see the mountains in the distance out of the window, meaning they were to the far left of the plane's course (port side?), and the plane wasn’t turning. So, we must be flying south of Ireland? I couldn’t ask the Welsh lady next to me because she was still asleep, but I just kept sitting there, figuring the plane would turn soon. Maybe we weren’t going to go over Ireland, maybe we were just going to swoop under it. I sat there, entranced by the mountains for a little while longer. Eventually, I caught sight of the TV again, and then out again at the mountains. The numbers didn't match up. Then I checked the map. I slowly realized that the whole time I had been looking at more clouds, not mountains, and pretty soon I watched what I thought was Ireland pass into the rest of the cloudscape until there was just a horizon. The TV's map had displayed our course, and we were still smack dab in the center of the Atlantic ocean, still far from Heaven.

A few hours later we passed over Ireland without me noticing. England as well. I had heard that there was a storm due when we touched down, but rather than a storm it was more an impenetrable cloud cover. I actually didn’t see any land until we were about to touch down in Bristol, and we descended through the mists and suddenly there it was: land.

I will just state this: England is very beautiful. From the sky even more so. It’s these rolling hills covered in farms, arranged like a stained glass window with green or brown or yellow panes bordered with lines of trees. And as we got closer I could make out cows and sheep in some of the fields, or we’d pass over these tiny, tiny towns that maybe were whole cities with winding roads and roundabouts and city planning that looks like it will never give you the quickest way between point A and point B, but rather the most rewarding, most adventurous way. But apart from that there was no trace of any urban area. I also had a Simpsons moment, as I shared Marge’s comment when she was in a similar state, “a lot of people have pools.” Except she was naked and in a balloon. But as we were descending, it got to the point where I could count the spots on the cows, and there was no sign of an airport. And there weren’t any emergency landing procedures, but I honestly thought we were going to land in a field. We must have been under 100 feet in the air when, out of nowhere, an air strip appeared and we landed. I caught my breath and we slowed to a stop. As we taxied, I looked out the window and there was a fence along the one runway, and on the other side some goats were grazing, and some people playing golf were watching planes land.

Only in England.

I found my way through customs pretty easily, and even all my bags arrived on time to catch my Welcome Bus to Exeter. At one point I left my Orvis Brand Carry On Travel Bag (bought at a 50% + 20% employee discount from the Orvis in Lahaska) open while I was getting my bags, and my passport and money were in the side pocket. I got the bags I wanted and came back to my stack, noticing my tremendous faux pas, and rushed to check to see if documentation and money were still there. They were. Nothing had been moved or stolen. I don’t think it was even considered. I dragged everything out into the lobby where University employees were waiting for me.

A number of Exeter students volunteer to help out during Welcome Week, which is when the international students and the freshmen show up. They are required to wear these green shirts the entire time, even when say clubbing in town or walking down to the grocery store, so that if anyone needs them they can pick them out of a crowd and ask any question they need to ask. They’re lovingly called “Greenshirts,” and I can’t understand why you’d do any of that without being paid. And I’m usually all for volunteering.

Anyway, so some Greenshirts were with the Welcome Bus to help everyone pack their bags in, relax, and everything, but my four suitcases and two carry on bags quickly confounded their packing abilities. Whatever I couldn't stow in the bus I carried with me, and we headed off, out of Bristol and into the countryside.

I tried to text my mom saying I was safely on land, but not only was my cell phone still running low on batteries, but it got no service. Ever. It was kind of frightening, because I couldn't call anyone in case of an accident. If I hadn't been so tired I would have gritted my teeth or something: the bus driver hauling this very large metal thing full of people along a highway, barely missing other cars and squeezing through exit ramps and the like. This is the second lesson I learned about England: never let your guard down around English drivers. They are crazy, can drive within inches of you without hitting, and take advantage of the fact that there are little to no traffic laws protecting pedestrians except that a herd might really damage a car. Also, as my friend Andrew, who I met at the airport and lives a floor beneath me, would point out, in England there’s a tax on having a car based on the size of the car’s engine, so if you see anyone in a car, they’ve got a deal of money. And if you see someone in, say, a BMW, they’ve got a whole lot of money. So people in cars in England are generally used to getting what they want, suggests Andrew.

I saw a complete rainbow on my way - I've only ever seen one side of a rainbow, like one part of the arch going from ground to cloud or something, but this was a complete one, it had a beginning, middle and end. An Aristotelian rainbow. I tried to take a picture of it with my dying cell phone, but I accidentally hit "delete" instead of "save" after I took it. It was probably just to magical to be documented.

English farmers also like putting things on the side of the highway if they have a farm that buts up against it. So if you’re looking out the window you’ll see something like this: cow sheep cow sheep cow cow cow sheep sheep cow sheep cow sheep sheep GIANT WICKER STATUE OF A MAN DANCING cow sheep sheepdog cow cow sheep cow sheep PINK AND BLUE FIFTEEN FOOT TALL STATUE OF A TYRANOSAURUS REX UNDER A TREE cow.

Only in England.

When we got to the University of Exeter, the number of Greenshirts increased, and we were all shuttled into the place where we get our keys and filled out our forms, and all that. They unpacked our bags from the bus and I quickly pushed my six bags together and away from the group so I didn’t get in anyone’s way. As the herd moved on, I noticed that they were moving up a hill to a large building that I would eventually know as Cornwall House. I tried to pile all my bags together and pull them, but they quickly fell apart. So, naturally, some kind-hearted Greenshirts came over and offered to carry all my bags. Little did they know what they were getting into, because, as I would discover, the Streatham Campus of the University, which is the main campus, is located entirely on hills, and big ones at that. And not only that, but there are plenty of stairs, and my bags had those five drama anthologies in them …

By the end of the day I was known throughout the Greenshirt community as “That Asshole with Five Bags.” Really, I was "That Asshole with SIX Bags," so that rumor was an upgrade.

We unpacked and got settled, most everyone on the Kenyon-Exeter trip made it, except for Ken Worrall, but that’s a separate adventure which I’m sure he’d be happy to recount for you if you wanted.

My room is good enough: a single, big enough to live in, a long desk, a bed, my own sink and mirror, bookshelves, window, adjustable radiator with five levels of heat, curtains, room light, bed light and desk light. Very secure, very safe. From the window you can see down into the town, and there’s a spire from one of the churches sticking up. In the distance you can see the rolling countryside and, on a clear day, of which England experiences about five a year, the mountains.

One comforting thing I realized is that the Quakers who first came over and settled in Pennsylvania, particularly Bucks County as it was one of the more colonized areas, were trying desperately to make their new home look like the West Country of England, with the fields and the rolling hills and old, preserved architecture. But they failed miserably. In Bucks County, the urban sprawl is moving in the roads are widening, and on the whole it just can’t compare to the real thing. In England, the roads are narrow, have been for hundreds of years, and the farms aren’t going to go away any time soon, and even though there’re more people in England than the country should probably be able to hold, there’s still plenty of open space. Open, beautiful space. So whenever I’m sad or feel homesick, I really just have to look out a window.

One thing the English don’t do very well is organize. Yes, they’ve made getting in line an Olympic sport, and yes, their trains run better than ours do, but take, for example, the Water Closet, or W.C. Suite. Just a toilet in a room. But what about the sink where you’re supposed to wash your hands afterwards, did you think about that, England? And there’s never any toilet paper because no one ever goes in there except to go to the bathroom, and if that’s the case you never notice there’s no toilet paper until it’s too late, and there’s no random girl putting on her makeup or guy washing his face that could notice the lack of toilet paper and fix the problem. It’s a never-ending cycle. And that light switch is probably the dirtiest light switch in all of Christendom, if you’ll forgive the random Shakespearen-esque saying. Conclusion: A W.C. Suite is a silly idea!

Or take the fact that the idea of a street sign must never have occurred to anyone until probably ten years ago, and they were obviously very bitter about their mistake, and so when they did put up a street sign they never put it anywhere you could notice. And this posed a serious problem to us Kenyon-Exeter students, as we wondered around Exeter searching, in vain, for a pub. In the rain. To the point where we ended up far outside of the city center and in an upper class residential neighborhood. With no other option left we, a bunch of crass, loud, lost Americans, asked a woman coming out of her house and her two children where the nearest pub was. She gave us directions.

(For those of you who don’t know, Americans speak louder than British people. Someone suggested it’s because our country is so much bigger, and they’re probably right. Many English people find this annoying. Many Americans find English people silly.)

Or that after an overnight flight into Bristol, a six hour time delay, a bus ride to Exeter, lugging my bags around, unpacking, finding my friends, finding a pub, finding our way back, and finally going to sleep, our fire alarm went off at 4 a.m. And we, an entire dorm full of confused international students who spoke either sub-par English or American English meandered out into the halls, completely unaware of whether this was a test, a malfunction, or whether it was a real fire, and it occurred to all of us, simultaneously, that we should probably get out of the building, but we had no idea what to do afterwards, what the fire protocol was. So we all meandered downstairs and opened the door, the door which has an alarm rigged to it that goes off if you don't hit a door release button - it won’t do anything else it will just be obnoxious. But none of us knew, the first day in and at 4 a.m., how to turn this door alarm off. And it was really cold outside. So we all literally huddled in the lowest landing, some people didn’t have shirts on. Then a security officer came up to us and yelled at us for huddling because there was a fire alarm, and so we all went outside. Then more security officers showed up. And the alarm was still going. And it became obvious they didn’t know how to turn it off. And it started raining. Cold rain too.

If there had been a real fire - which there wasn’t, some people just tampered with their fire alarms - we all would have burned alive or been hit by smoldering debris, since the ones who made it outside were huddled against the building to hide from the wind and the rain. And, apart from a note on our door that suggests what we should do in the case of a fire, to this day we have not had any kind of consensus set up as to how to save ourselves should the building start burning, or collapse, or get bombed by Germans or something.

Only in England.


I’ve said it before, but before I actually left the States, going to England was one more obligation I had to fulfill in my schedule. There wasn’t much in the way of anticipation for it because I was doing so much day to day that I had no time to anticipate. I guess that’s a blessing in a way, because I had no expectations, England could be whatever it would be.

And it is. But we’ll get to that.

The city of Newark is why I agree that Pennsylvanians should line up on the banks of the Delaware holding large wooden poles and push New Jersey out into the Atlantic. Factories and highways and smoke, it’s not really a looker. And so flying out of there from Bucks County, with its lawns, or level downs, and flocks grazing the tender herb, were interpos'd - a Bucks County I would not see again for nine months, well, it was distressing. Paradise lost?

$90 a bag for each bag beyond the second one stowed in the plane might have been more distressing, since I had five bags to stow brimming with essentials - like my five drama anthologies, which cover about half of the reading I have to do for the major. One of the bags was a little tote thing, hardly worth $90, so that one’s being shipped. I’m developing a good beard now since that bag had my razor, but we’ll get to hair care issues as we continue.

Hugging my parents goodbye and then emptying my pockets into those security trays - no mean feet as I carry every essential I could need on the flight in my pockets, mainly pens and loose change - I squeezed through security and started to search out my terminal.

This I made a note of when I was in the airport: airports are the last wild frontier in America. They’re these expansive, dangerous, tender environments where almost anything, you think, could happen. Over there someone’s getting off a flight and hugging another group of people, a family united? What’s that guy doing over there skulking in the corner? Is he a pick pocket? Is he jerking off? There’re two guys walking close together in fashionable clothes, are they gay or just European? Oh look, a nun.

I actually ended up racing a nun on my way to terminal C 95 for Continental Airlines. We started off just walking and then I hopped up on a walking conveyor and speedily overtook her. I didn’t want to think “ha ha, where’s your Messiah now?” because I’m also a Christian, but I sort of did. I’ve always envied the dedication it takes to live an ascetic life, at least a litlte bit, and maybe it was just that coming out. Then I got off one conveyor and onto another conveyor, but I got stuck behind an Asian lady with a stroller and a baby. She was taking up a lot of room and not walking, and I didn’t want to try to force past her because I didn’t want to hurt the baby - I was lugging my book bag and my Orvis Brand Leather Carry On Travel Bag (bought at a 50% + 20% employee discount from the Orvis in Lahaska) - so I was stuck behind this lady. I looked to the walking lane to my left, and the nun was speeding by without even trying. Her and her inner peace. The Asian lady hopped off at the end of the conveyor and I quickly power walked around her and away to my terminal, just barely passing the nun as I left. I had won! But then I looked back and realized the nun was carrying only one carry on, a small pastel bag that completed her ensemble, and suddenly my book bag and my Orvis Brand Carry On Travel Bag (bought at a 50% + 20% employee discount from the Orvis in Lahaska) felt particularly heavy and particularly uncomforting. I got the sense she didn’t need to win that race to have me beat from the start.

There were also these three girls who were sitting nearby me at one point who, though I’m sure they’re perfectly nice people, reminded me of the three witches from Macbeth. Or harpies. One of the two. They kept giggling and I got the sense they were staring at me and not in the good way. Maybe it was just my paranoia about airports coming out, but I was glad when they weren’t there anymore. There were also a bunch of English people heading home that I sat nearby while waiting to get on the flight, mostly elderly. I overheard some talking, and apparently going to America right now is the thing to do if you’re a retiring middle-class Brit, because the exchange rate is so good from pounds to dollars that you go to New York and New England and just do everything you ever wanted to do. Most of them, from what I heard, had taken helicopter tours of Manhattan. A Welsh lady who I sat next to on the flight had taken a helicopter tour of Manhattan and Niagra Falls. Why the English find helicopter tours to be an extravagant adventure I don’t know. Maybe it’s the new equivalent of a safari. This was the first encounter of mine that taught me an important lesson of living in England: never question British logic, as it’s far too silly to ever get anything close to a serious answer.

My cell phone almost ran out of batteries before the plane boarded, so I shut it off so I’d have some energy left in case there was an emergency. My pre-flight and in-flight reading was mainly a play by William Nicholson called Shadowlands. The protagonist, a decided bachelor named C.S. Lewis (muthafuckahs!), meets his wife-to-be, Joy, and a soul-searching plot ensues, ending in a kind of hopeful tragedy. Very good play, very fitting. At times in the play, a large wardrobe is revealed in the back, and it opens up to reveal “THE OTHER WORLD,” which a character actually enters in and out of. Hard to do onstage, but resonant. We took off at about 9:30 p.m. maybe, and Newark was, thankfully, shrouded in darkness. I had a window seat, which is my version of an in-flight movie. Continental had this hoo-hah it would display on the TVs with our flight’s stats: our expected time, how far we’d traveled, how far we had left, and eventually a map with where our plane was. As we got further and further into the Atlantic and I started nodding off there were more and more clouds below us, and a full moon, and an open sky where I could always see the big dipper. Follow the drinking gourd…

I consider everything I’m going to write from now on in my journey as a message from the other side of a wardrobe. I keep getting the sense that when I fly back I’ll discover I haven’t been gone more than a split second and no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to get back to where I am right now. And I don’t know quite what to make of it.

Preludes but no Nocturnes...

Hello from the Isles of the Mighty. Some of you have already been keen on finding out how I’m doing on my expedition, and so I’ve finally gotten my act together to write my travel log.

A quick note before I begin: England, as you’ll discover, means a lot to me. But there’s no possible way I can bring you here and show you. So I can try to tell you, but it’s going to come out a little, well, story heavy, cause that’s the only way I can think to convey that level of meaning. If you want England as it really is, drop by some time. I also don’t intend to discuss anything seriously personal: this is a travel log, not a journal. I’m constructing this as a catalogue of curiosities, eccentricities, observations, meditations, musings, stories and epiphanies, and even then I doubt anything I‘m able to hammer down consciously into a sentence will match the real thing, or even what I‘m thinking as I walk, raptured, through the countryside. But if you want to know about how I personally am doing, drop me a line and we’ll talk person to person, and even though it’s through email, it’s much more personable than something like this, which is more of a blanket proclamation.

And of course, this is going to be published in reverse order, so thank you for scrolling all the way to the bottom and reading this first. And if you didn't: you silly person.