Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lovebirds and Mulled Wine: A Weekend Away & Back to Reality

Skittles & Banana
After a very hectic Week 7, I took a much needed rest in Dartford, Kent, where I had the chance to spend some time with family, wish my cousin Sonia a Happy 25th Birthday, and meet her birthday presents ---two lovebirds! Now, the lovebirds may look a tad like budgies for us non-avian fans, but they are really quite smart  - and have quite the bite when they are chicks!  

In fact, Skittles & Banana are not allowed to come out of their cage for a few months, until they slowly get used to humans around them and realize that we're not bite-worthy! They actually come from the parrot family and can eventually be trained to talk! They also live up to 20 years.

For a  cute video on lovebirds in love from National Geographic, check out this link! 

I basically spent the rest of the weekend chilling at home and forgetting about work (except for googling places that may fund me for a Phd)  The last part was a reaction to  a very deflating realization of its true costs at the department PhD seminar on Friday). That's right, distinction marks and proof of $140 000 will be part of the conditions if I get in!

Returning to Oxford was bitter-sweet.  Even though I was only away for 3 days, it seemed like I went on a holiday! On Tuesday, we were assigned our first two take-home exam questions - which will take a LOT of work to fit into 2500 word essays! Following that, we had a drink at Royal Oak pub, with our professor, and those of us in our class who could make it. Thanks to Flora for the beautiful collage picture below!

 From top left going across: Ani, Samantha, Flora, Sapna, Dima, Majka, Ernesto, Jeff, Sally, Bronson, 
I did have a chance to try mulled wine - which I've been waiting for. It was pretty good --but I will say that perhaps my expectations were a bit too hyped up! I'll definitely try mulled wine at the Christmas Market in London Southmarket in a couple weeks and let you know how it compares to the Royal Oak's £5 glass. There was even a suggestion that we should have an ALSLA (that's our course - Applied Linguistics & Second Language Acquisition) Christmas party and make our own!

PS - Just a note -- I am very annoyed that Google has started charging us to blog -- $2.50 a month if your pictures are over 1GB, including Google Drive which of course they are, after blogging for 5 years. The best reaction, I think, was Georgina's (she has an awesome blog about Cambridge - click here), and I quote "Boo Google. Boogle. Boo Blogger. Blooger."  Ah, the price we pay for the commercialization of our lives!

Stay tuned for more ALSLA end of the term fun, exam studying time, dissertation and PhD application fun --- and hopefully --once I confirm a place for Kiara to stay ---Christmas in Kent with family and a New Year's Celebration with ALSLA-ers!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Oh, Tassimo! Simple Pleasures of A Studious Weekend (and Week)

 Oxford may be one of very few schools where you can be a complete, totally studious geek ---and still be both totally normal and  MILES behind! For the "weekend" (the last four days), I have avoided the Friday/Monday useful, but optional seminars and have been cooped up in my house, writing the "formative assignment" --the unmarked, one-and-only chance for feedback before writing  our four, end-of-term, graded exam papers worth 100% of our mark for the course. They are the four papers that will determine my (hopefully successful) future and PhD (they call it "DPhil" here) application. 

With the exception of 2 hours of kickboxing, 2 hours of taking my broken Samsung Galaxy S3 screen to Vodafone to be fixed, a couple hours of cleaning the house/laundry , two, 2 hours walks with Kiara,(one to the vet at 8am this morning) and a mere 3 hours a night of sleep, it's been study, study, study - and figure out my dissertation plans. In fact, except for kickboxing training, I've been wearing glasses instead of contacts for the last four days in a row (a rare occurrence!)

Tassimo  has been my saviour!  Thanks to Aunty Viniti and Uncle Steve who gave me this generous gift! While I had a Nescafe "Dolce Gusto" when I lived at home in Edmonton, this Tassimo T40 is much better, with a greater variety of flavours and stronger brews of both tea and coffee, as well as hot chocolate. So far, Kenco espresso (using my own milk to make a cappuccino), Carte Noir Latte, and Chai Tea Latte are my favourites, but look at the variety I get to choose from! Now, all they have to do is get Illy, the smoothest Italian coffee, to let them make Illy T-Discs...and we will really have PERFECTION!

The best espresso!
My Illy Espresso Can! 

Now, as much as I'm trying to be on as protein-high, low fat, low-ish carbs diet as possible (Varsity Kickboxing Match against Cambridge in under 6 months!!!), I will admit that this weekend has involved my deepest sin ----Nutella! (on the lowest calorie bread slices I could find). Trust me, there's something to be said about Nutella and extreme studying energy! (that, or it's just a really great excuse).

Week 6 was one of the most intense, exhausting weeks I can imagine. In fact, on the subject of linguistics and "codeswitching" (words from one language to another during the same sentence/conversation), I think the French word "epui" more fully conveys my feelings! Plus, I still have to review my notes for Weeks 5 and 6 tonight , and prep for my Week 7 (second) meeting with my supervisor tomorrow morning. Is it only Oxford that "numbers" the weeks of term?

Handing in my formative assignment ("How Fluently Can L2 Learners Speak?Evaluating Definitions & Measures of Oral Fluency in SLA Studies") last night and receiving comments on it this morning made me breathe a sigh of relief. The comments were exactly what I thought the essay needed myself ---more examples and definitions of researchers' terms in the four studies I chose to analyze --- which definitely could not fit in a tiny 1500 word count. Perhaps I chose too loaded of a question to ask in 1500 words--but the answers I found will definitely help for my Msc dissertation and PhD proposal. 

Good news is ---researching oral fluency in French and its most effective measures is getting really interesting, and I'm looking forward to making this part of my new career. More on Dissertation Fun in my next post!

Good news # 2 ---Week 7 "weekend" will be an awesome break in Dartford, Kent. Kiara is off to Canada Farm Dog Daycare (I'm a raving fan of that place) and I'm off to visit Aunty Viniti, Uncle Steve, Jhaiji and family (you know you've been reading too much literature when the word "et al." comes to your mind before "and everyone."). Family time and perhaps a play in London coming up on the weekend.

Thanks for staying tuned for my update of this relatively dry (though linguistically exciting) week! More to come, soon!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Churchill War Rooms: Secret Government Offices & Bunkers of WWII

In honour of Remembrance Day, I spent Friday in London, including a couple hours at Churchill's War Rooms, the underground war bunkers in which President Winston Churchill and his staff lived, worked, communicated with Allies, planned war strategy and were (relatively) protected from the outside bombings. Surprisingly, even on a Friday afternoon, the museum was packed with people ---I should have expected it, but I was surprised at the number of uniformed school groups that paraded through. The bunkers have such a historic feel; you can imagine the President and his staff alive and well underground, planning strategically to help the country, as citizens remained above, dodging the air raids.

Churchill War Rooms 

As much as I would have liked to visit the Imperial War Museum itself, both the World War I and World War II permanent exhibits are being renovated. In fact, the entire museum will close in January for 6 months, for a complete renovation, which will continue until 2014, the 100th year anniversary of World War I.  

Here are a few highlights of museum, which I've put into a slideshow below. I'd suggest clicking the top right corner and choosing "slow" for the setting, since there are a few slides on which you can read about the significant staff members and their roles

Beef Wellington
Beef Wellington

  • While the war was on, propaganda told citizens to "Eat Less Bread" and eat more potatoes due to a shortage of wheat
  • However, Churchill had 3 square meals a day, including his favourite, Beef Wellington, which according to the BBC, looks something like the picture on the right
  • Room 63 was a locked "top secret" room to which only Churchill had access. Many thought it was the only flushing toilet in the building --in reality, it was a room with a direct phone line to President Roosevelt
  • Staff usually worked 15 hour days
  • Staff "shared clothing coupons and jokes and formed lifelong friendships"
  • Churchill worked from 8 am to 3am and was known as a particular, grumpy, demanding boss due to the pressure on him
  • They were sworn to secrecy and could not even tell their families about their knowledge; when you visit the museum, you can hear recorded interviews from staff after the war about the emotional toll it took on them
  • The sign "Fine & Warm" is an outdoor weather forecast board for those living underground
  • Cyril Ryder, motorcycle dispatch between Churchill War Rooms, Chequers, Prime Minister's country home. The motorcycle hat in the slideshow belongs to him
  • The slideshow includes a letter to Prime Minister Thatcher asking her to allow the war bunkers to become a museum
  • Smoky was Clementine (Churchill's wife's) cat
  • On the 15 August 1945 - the lights (on 24/7) were turned off for the first time in the meeting room. 
  • Many staff went on to in Whitehall, above ground. Others (that married) were forced to resign as only unmarried women could work in the government
  • Like any politician, there were those who loved him, and those who despised him
  • Churchill was made an honorary American citizen, and many countries gave him medals, but was also the subject of comic books and Japanese propaganda (definitely go to the museum - you can spend hours learning interesting details about Churchill himself! There is even an interactive timeline for every year of his life!
Please click to view the slideshow below --- or click here to see it on my Flickr page.  As we could take pictures everywhere, this is  a really great view of the inside of Churchill's War Rooms....

A note on poppies

I find it quite interesting that the Canadian Remembrance Day poppy is so different to the British one! Ours is made of felt (on the right); the British one is made of paper. Somehow, I just expected poppies to be mass produced in the same way. I will say though, that the paper poppies with stick pins  are good for one thing - getting lost!! Which, as one of the poppy vendors jokes "we do on purpose, so you donate more!"  Well, it definitely worked...I bought 3 poppies before I found a uniformed veteran in Westminister station selling poppy lapel pins :-)  According to the BBC, 65000 Canadian soldiers died in World War II.

Crêpes at Victoria Station

Another note - not about poppies -- if you're ever near London Victoria tube station, right outside the entrance there is a wonderful crêpe shop with insane hot pink and lime green colours ---but delicious crêpes!  I believe it's just called "Crêpe Shop".  In fact, the latte I had (which I was expecting to be mediocre) was AMAZING. The coffee fiend that I am, I asked the young lady behind the counter which brand they use. 

"It's an Italian brand....Ottimo....but it's not the brand that makes the coffee" 
"No?"  Here I was, thinking I knew something about coffee.
"It's the temperature of the milk, the way you make it. When I moved to London, I was so sad I couldn't find good coffee. I used to be a barrista"  You couldn't find good coffee in London???
"Where are you from?"
"Hungary.....the coffee shops here like Caffe Nero and Costa...they burn the milk, then you can't taste the coffee!"
"Oh, wow. Well, thanks. You make a good lattee!"  Hmmm....maybe I should take a trip to Hungary??

Have a wonderful Remembrance Day, and as you wear your poppies, think of the free lives we live. There is a tree by my house, under which there is a plaque dedicated to the residents of Marston (my neighbourhood) who died in the Second World War. This week, there is a cross under it, with a poppy. Just meeting a friend here from Lebanon, and tutoring a student from Syria last year, I have realized how incredibly lucky we are that bombings, shelters, invasions, smashed glass windows at home, streets on fire, death and civilian soldiers are not a part of our lives. As Wilfred Owen so poetically wrote:

"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori. (Owen - 1917-1918)  ----  (The old lie; that it is right and honourable to die for your country"

 Lest we forget.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Full & Half Blue: Oxford Varsity Sports Ranks & Benny Urquidez Kickboxing

   Another Oxford University tradition has come up...the Oxford full and half blue!  Now, this has nothing to do with the Fifth Week Blues, (the stressed out condition most of us are in now, at halfway through term). Getting your "half blue" or "full blue" are honours in the varsity sport world at Oxford. According to the Oxford Sports website, the tradition began in 1827, when Charles Wordsworth of Christ Church college at Oxford arranged a two day cricket match against Cambridge. Oxford was "dark blue" and Cambridge was "light blue". Yes, he was related (the nephew of) THE William Wordsworth. Unfortunately Oxford lost the first few matches, but it sounds like it's been intese rivalry in the cricket world since. (Cricket = boring. I don't follow it).

Some sports are "full blue", like rowing, athletics, dance, field hockey, karate, lacrosse, netball and tennis and others are "half blue" like ice hockey, judo, polo, skiing and ultimate frisbee. What denotes some sports as "half"? I have NO idea (but please comment on this post if you do!). My best guess is that the "full" blue sports have been around longer. You even get the honour of purchasing a 250 GBP blazer ("jacket") with the appropriate emblem emblazoned on it, as well as variety of other apparel, at Walters , where they sell both full and half attire.

Full blue
Half blue

I've just found out that Kickboxing was "recognized" last year as an official "half blue" sport (apparently if your club is not officially "recognized", you can't be part of this tradition). Interestingly enough, the Varsity Sports Status website is not yet updated. I may email them and find out why!  The requirements to get half and full blues depend on the sports, and all include at least one match against our main rival, Cambridge.

So, as a member of the Oxford University Kickboxing Club (OUKBC), I am going to have to work really hard to try to be good enough to train for the varsity match against Cambridge in March. Apparently they are implementing a belt system soon (I wonder if I start at white belt or have to take a test?) Wow, is it ever different though --- I have to buy new shin guards and foot pads, re-learn some "footwork" and master when to use different types of blocks. I've never been in ANY sort of sports competition before, so I'm kinda nervous (and I'm sure I'll have to start weightlifting and downing that protein powder again). More on this and training in a future post!

Benny Urquidez is a famous kickboxer that I learned about when I used to train at  Edmonton Mixed Martial Arts. He is from California, from a  family of athletes, including his brother and father who were both pro boxers, his mother who was a wrestler and his sister, Lily, a kickboxer as well. He is an undefeated champion with over 200 wins and no losses; he retired in 1993 ( Benny moves unbelievably well. I still have so much trouble with distancing and getting in and out of the ring fast enough, especially since I have so little reach. I am now training with the Oxford University Kickboxing Clubwhich can hopefully help me improve my skills. 

Urquidez is most famous for winning a fight against Japanese fighter Okao. Check out the Discovery Channel video's a really cool 3.5 minute clip! Martial arts has so many "flavours" and styles, and this guy just fights any of them! For Benny's official site - click here!

That's all for my kickboxing post for now...stay tuned for a special Remembrance Day war museum post tomorrow!

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Posh Fish, Jack Wills & British Experiences This Week

 Friday was my day off this week, and consisted of a long walk to the vet (to fix K's ear infection), an unexpected discovery of London Road, which is actually only a 35 minute walk away (I had just never walked in that particular direction before!) and the definitely British experience of chips (sans fish) and vinegar. 

I'll admit to trying chips twice (Canadians, that's fries I mean)  -at the Mediterranean fish bar by my house, and at Posh Fish on London Road - and probably not for a long while now, given how ridiculously caloric they are. Plus, it seems like such a waste - they really need to invent an extra extra small size. Ordering a small is enough for me and Kiara for two days! Except that, after being in the fridge for a day, they really don't taste that great. I guess I'll have to get a small army of people to come with me next time I decide to try to go for fish and chips! Posh Fish is definitely better than Mediterranean fish bar; much more fresh!  Oh, and I did try to get Kiara the fish part at Posh Fish, and I tried to ask if it had bones in it, since obviously dogs can't pick the bones out. I could NOT understand the lady's accent for the life of me...she repeated herself twice! Then, another lady said that they only had large fish that day, so I was out of luck. Oh well! If someone knows whether fish and chips has fish with bones, please comment on this post and let me know!

Here are a few pics of London Road, Oxford, in the neighbourhood of Headington. There was Old High Street and New High Street ---a whole collection of shops and banks, as well as cafes that let Kiara sit on the patio. The guy looked SO confused when I asked permission...."Of course it's okay", he responded! 

In fact, as I was trying to tie Kiara to a chair at my table, a lady who worked in the store next door came out and showed me the built-in handle on the outside wall, and then told me it had been there for years, specifically to tie your dog to!  Wow, I love how dog-friendly people are here :-)

London Road, Headington, Oxford
Kiara tied to the "dog handle!"

Since it was nearly afternoon, I then took a short trip into town to check out some stores. Originally, I was planning to post a claim for Kiara's vet insurance to get money back for her ear infection appointment, but it turns out my deductible is £99, and the bill was £94. Oh well!  Oh, another annoying note: I have tried SO hard to get Kiara to the perfect weight over the last three years (to avoid hip dysplasia in the future, and labs LOVE to eat). At our vet appointment at home, they said I finally did it --68 lbs and totally fit!  British vets have another standard, apparently ---she needs to lose a few pounds, according to him. Huh. The people AND the dogs are skinnier here????

After checking out a few stores in the tiny city centre mall (Westgate) and then Primark (yes, it's cheap, but I really was not happy with the disorganization, and generally not that exciting selection and likely not that great quality), I wandered High Street in search of warm sweaters.

 I did try Edinburgh Woolen Mill, but the sweaters I really wanted from there were much, much, too expensive (and cashmere). Jack Wills turned out to be a really great store ---Merino wool sweaters and helpful staff (that's right, helpful staff in England!) The lady even correctly guessed my British size, coordinated outfits for me, and brought them to me to try on. There was even 20% off this week. So, now I have a couple items that will keep me warm and hopefully look good. Perfect!

Other than that, this entire weekend has been full of reviewing notes from the last four weeks, getting caught up on readings, and somehow preparing for my first one-on-one meeting with my supervisor on Tuesday. Dissertation prep time now ---stay tuned for the promised English tea post, perhaps another weekend in Kent, and information on Oxford's "half blue" sporting achievement level and Varsity Kickboxing - coming soon!