Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Difference Between Traveling and Living

It's a vast difference-- the traveling part is great.  The living part, it turns out, is really hard. I've been in Oxford just over a month now (this Saturday will be exactly 5 weeks) and I think I've actually crossed over into living here-- what I've been doing up until now has really all been largely traveling, with various elements of getting settled.  But, I've now taught classes for two weeks (which includes returning to "normal" activities like reading student work and prepping lecture/discussion notes), spent several evenings at home watching TV (I have switched to catching up on what is currently being aired in the US online-- I can only take so many Law and Order: SVU, CSI:, and NCIS repeats and I've reached my limit.  On the upside, somehow season 2 of Homeland is being broadcast here, running one week behind the US broadcasts on Showtime.  I don't quite understand what contract allows this since it seems to be running on what we would consider network TV, but I'm not going to complain about it. [Well, maybe a little-- it runs on the same night at Downton Abbey which means there is only one evening of non-US crime dramas and I would prefer it more spread out.]), and spent days in my flat doing work (like prepping for class, working on other projects) rather than going out and exploring Oxford or other places.  It's the daily living that makes this whole experience hard-- I've moved to a new place where I know no one and where the way things work is all a bit different so I still haven't gotten the daily living thing down. 

Like, I still have yet to actually go to a yoga class (this lack of yoga is becoming more important to me-- I can feel the effects of walking so much every day and I think yoga would help.  And, I've just about given up on being able to play tennis at all here.  I think yoga, which is my other regular "organized" sport activity in the US, would add some sense of normalcy.)  I tried to go this past Monday but couldn't get into the class, despite arriving 25 minutes early, because it was already full.  Turns out, space needs to be booked in these classes, at least during the school year.  No one ever mentioned this to me, not even the last time when I showed up to find out the class had been canceled.  (I have booked a place this coming Friday. I'm hoping it's a whole third time's a charm thing.)  Booking is incredibly important here-- that's becoming more clear to me-- even when it's not stated that it's necessary.

And, I certainly haven't figured out how to meet people.  Not that I haven't met people-- I talk to people every day when I'm out.  But, I haven't figured out where people "like me" are, probably because when I'm out and about during the day, people like me are at work.  So, mostly the people I meet are travelers, which makes them transient as well.  What I don't have is people to hang out with or actual friends here.  I've moved quite a bit and so I get that this takes time-- it's taken time to establish that friend base every time I've moved somewhere new.  But, there's also the realization that I don't really have time to contend with-- I have a little less than 3 months left here.  It's a weird liminal space to be in-- I live here, but not for long.  How do you establish yourself when there's a nearing expiration date?  And, where do you actually meet people when you don't have a regular work place?  While I'm teaching here, I'm not connected to any department-- I'm on my own, a department of one.  This is nice on one hand-- no meetings to attend (I'm getting a perverse glee out of deleting emails about committee meetings at my university in the US and even more glee from actually responding decline to meetings scheduled through Outlook Calendar.) and no other service requirements for 4 months (other than making sure the 24 students I came over with are still alive-- which is a great service, I think).  But, having not found tennis connections (which is a big source of my social life in the US) and having no professional ties nor workplace (other than the classroom I've been assigned), two major sources for meeting people are gone.  I have lots of free time to do stuff and be out and about... but where to go to meet people to do that stuff with is a question I haven't answered yet (or, my answers haven't proven to be the "right" ones yet).

There are also questions of how to manage the "household." I haven't really figured out how to eat here-- not that I'm not eating, but I'm not eating the way I normally do. I cook a lot at home and that means that I eat healthier than I think I do here (it's hard to tell because I'm pretty good about knowing things like how many calories I'm eating in a day when I'm in the US and I have a guess about that here based on food labels, but I'm really sure. Plus, ingredients are just a bit different...different enough that I'm never quite sure what they're equivalent to, or not.) It's not that I can't cook here-- I have a full kitchen (though, no microwave which does make leftovers more problematic to heat up; not impossible though).  But, cooking doesn't just require equipment and basic ingredients-- it also requires spices and herbs and oils and other kinds of staples that I'm not sure I want to invest in because they cost quite a bit of money and I'm not going to use them up in my remaining three-ish months and so I'm going to wind up abandoning these things, if not throwing them away. (I think about this quite a bit-- groceries are quite expensive here and I don't like wasting food. That combined means I'm really concerned about what might be leftover at the end of my time here-- there's the opportunity to waste both time and actual food.  For example, I've already bought a bag of rice-- which is relatively inexpensive in the grand scheme of things as rice is in most places-- that I'm never going to use up, partially because that's a lot of rice and partially because I've come to the realization that this wasn't the smartest purchase since it's hard to make just one serving of rice at a time and somewhat difficult to heat rice up without a microwave.  The oven doesn't work-- that just creates a crunchy mess.)  Plus, the traveler part of me really wants to eat out and try new restaurants, which I think is one of the great experiences of traveling, so, I'm not all too inspired to cook (until I start worrying that the food I'm eating out isn't necessarily healthy, even if it might appear to be... I don't really know how it's prepared or exactly what's in it.  It's a vicious cycle.)

Cleaning products don't pose the same dilemma for me-- there were some here when I arrived, so I feel some obligation to leave a few behind as well. And, they don't expire, really.  But, some of those chores are oddly disorienting, especially laundry.  My clothes are being ruined-- there's no other way to look at it. Edges are frayed (especially, for lack of a more polite word, on undergarments), socks are quickly threadbare, and everything shrinks in the extreme heat of the dryer. (This brings up a separate shopping dilemma as well-- I really didn't bring enough clothes with me [don't ask what my suitcase was filled with that made it so overweight when I checked in. I haven't figured this out yet either.  It may be that the suitcase itself is heavy.] and I'm down a pair of jeans since the zipper fell apart the first time I washed them [Gap is replacing those-- my mom returned them in the US. They were a new pair of jeans. Even with the questionable washing machine/dryer combo here, they shouldn't fall apart after one wash.  And, the replacements have been mailed to me-- but it could take weeks for them to get here.].  So, I have the urge to go shopping-- yet, I don't want to spend money on clothes that will also most likely get ruined in the wash.)  I have yet to figure out if it's the machine itself or the laundry products-- the soap seems harsh in texture and there's no discernible place to put fabric softener into the machine. (I need to find a manual really-- I never seem to think of this at a convenient moment.)  It's strange that something so ordinary can become such a focus and source of disorientation.

Another ordinary and yet now disorienting feature of living abroad: trash.  New trash cans (and recycle bins!) were brought to the building-- apparently the whole trash pick-up thing has been a source of great consternation for a while. But, it's unclear (since I live at a corner) which street they are supposed to be put out on.  And, there is an alternating week system here, so trash is picked up one week and recycling the next-- I'm bound to lose track of the weeks.  Information was provided about which bin to use for each, but not on what day anything would be picked up (my landlord investigated and found out it was Tuesday... she finally got an answer pretty late Monday night, so I never put the cans out.  I think this week was recycle-- it's ok because the cans have only been here a few days. There wasn't much in them.).  And, there's no assigned cans, so I'm guessing that means they can all be used communally?   But then this begs questions of who is supposed to move the cans... which I'm guessing we all have since I don't think anyone in the building put any of the cans out this week (then again, it's possible no one knew that Tuesday was pickup day).  It's such a basic thing-- I do this automatically and with little thought in the US. So, it's really strange that I've put so much thought into it here (like, where in my flat do I divide trash and recycling-- at home I have two separate bins, but do I want to go out and buy a new trashcan for recycling for this flat?  I certainly don't want to have to go outside every time I have something to put in the recycling-- it rains a lot.).

All of this brings up strange things I never would have thought I would miss-- like my washing machine and dryer.  And my microwave.  And cliff bars. (I have brief moments of missing my dishwasher... but since I don't cook that much, that's fleeting.) And, central heat.  There are radiators in every room, but the one in the living room doesn't seem to work. (I have been told that it does work and that the fact that it doesn't come on immediately has something to do with the whole differentiation between day and overnight electricity, but the bottom line is, I can't get heat from it.)  My lovely landlord did bring me a space heater.

It's blindingly bright, but it does heat the couch area of my living room. Or the dining area table (which is why it's on right now-- the wireless modem is in the living room and the signal gets weak if I have my computer in the second bedroom.  So, now it resides on the dining table, which is fine.  That gives me a nice view of my gorgeous back garden as I type.).  Still-- I would like to just turn heat that runs throughout the flat.

I think living here is just harder than I thought it would be-- all for reasons I hadn't considered before I left (I had thought about the potential for being lonely; I had not considered that my clothes would quickly be in such bad shape I would look like I've been living on the streets).  It is mitigated by the whole traveling part of the experience, however.  I am going with a tour group (hopefully a chance to meet some people-- I purposefully booked a weekend tour hoping that it would have locals who just wanted to do something cool for the day) to Blenheim and Cotswold on Saturday (this also brings up questions of expenses... but I think I've decided that I only get to do this once so I may as well spend the money rather than regret not doing things).  And, I spent the day yesterday at the Ashmolean Museum.

I especially like the statue at the top that looks like it's welcoming visitors.  The museum has an impressive collection from all over the world (though, not much from North or South America-- I can't really remember anything from either) and through all time periods.  I took a lot of pictures of mummies, mostly because my niece has asked for pictures of mummies and this was the first time I'd seen any.  There were the expected varieties of both adults and children.

And then the unexpected mummified animals, which I found fascinating.

There's a cat at the top right and the one near the bottom is a crocodile.  I guess it's the ancient Egyptian equivalent to taxidermy, but I still thought it was interestingly strange (did they have pet crocodiles? Why these particular animals were mummified was not explained.).

I also really like the Roman tragedy masks.

This is a king-- and connects to the theater traditions I learned all about in my undergraduate theater history classes.  It's kind of like the Marconi telegraph for me-- I really appreciate seeing the original versions of artifacts I've read about in great detail.

There were also interesting musical instruments, like a virginal, which I've heard of, but never seen.

It looks a lot like a small piano, but there are also strings which were (according to the sign on the wall) also plucked manually.  And, there was a large collection of Toby Jugs.

They were originally made in Staffordshire in the 1760s and most commonly based on recognizable people (often Kings) though eventually they were produced worldwide.  They are a cute English-origin piece of pottery (and, I kind of want one now...).

There are also lots of important paintings in the Ashmolean, but photography is not allowed, so I can't show any of them.  The most impressive for me were in the Pissarro room and surrounding ones-- these include works by many of the Impressionists, names I recognize and paintings I've read about.  I'm pretty sure that many other words are equally impressive, but a lot were names I don't know-- it did make me realize that what art history I do know is limited largely to a particular time period (late 19th and early 20th century).  I still find when I go to museums that it's the exhibits of things (like furniture, mummies, ancient money) that keep my attention much more than the paintings.  (There were some lovely pieces of furniture-- they were largely scattered about in rooms with the paintings, so I couldn't photograph them either.) 

The Ashmolean is a wonderful collection, but I still think that for the experience, the Oxford Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum are the must-sees (that does say a lot for my personal preferences about what I like to look at...).

The whole experience of spending a day in a museum or looking forward to a day touring Blenheim and Cotswold sort of emphasizes my point though-- the living part of my experience is caught up in mundane things that tend to seem difficult in magnified ways on days when even just one thing goes amiss (like a cancelled or full yoga class) while the traveling part of me can see how this is an opportunity I'll probably never have again and relishes the things I get to do that are so out of the ordinary routine of what my life were like if I were (easily) living in my house in the US and going to my job every day.  It is what I keep focusing on when all the stuff from the first part of this starts to wear (and, the excitement of new yogurt flavors-- this week a pineapple, passion fruit and mango combo and butterscotch toffee-- doesn't seem so exciting anymore.  To be honest, I'm really not this much of a yogurt nut-- but my observation of how even this little thing like yogurt is different has created some strange, specific interest from a few who are following this blog-- you know who you are-- so I've included the yogurt update.).

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