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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Oxford, UK: What a University Town!

Oxford, UK: What a University Town!

The first thing you notice when you get to Oxford is that it’s a stone city.  Massively stone.  Fortress stone.  And there is a castle here, built by one of William the Conqueror ‘s Barons.  The university is the town and the town is the university.  The vast stonewalls of the colleges spread throughout the city, with businesses and pubs fitting in where they can.

English poet, Matthew Arnold dubbed it, the “City of dreaming spires.”  Yes, spires and towers across the city skyline.

Places to see:  

TheAshmolean Museum (for art and archaeology ) Don’t you dare miss it!  Ancient Egyptian and Roman/Greek displays are extraordinary!
Christ Church Cathedral and the great hall, which was the inspiration for the fictional dining room of Hogwarts (Harry Potter).
The Alice sweet shop, where Alice Liddell shopped for candy. Alice, a family friend of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and his inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.
Blackwell’s Books, perhaps the finest bookshop I’ve ever been in.
The Bodleian Library (known as Bodly or The Bod), it’s mainly a research library and each college has its own library.
The Martyr’s Memorial, memorializing three protestant bishops burned alive for their faith  by the Catholic Queen Mary. 
The Eagle and Child pub (sometimes called The Bird and Baby), where authors known as the “inklings,” including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) met for pints and discussion.

But, since this is a university town, let’s chat about that a moment. There are 38 Colleges and six more Permanent Private Halls  (PPHs) that form Oxford University.  Walk down any street and you’ll pass several, their high sandstone walls and picturesque inner courtyards more like fortresses than colleges. The earliest are Balliol and Merton, founded in 1249 and 1264.  Even earlier colleges are no longer in existence. 

What is the difference between the colleges and the Permanent Private Halls (PPHs)?  The colleges are run by the “Fellows” (professors) of the college, while the PPHs are run by various Christian denominations. 

Many of the colleges may be visited during specifically posted hours.

If Balliol and Merton are the oldest, what’s the newest? Kellogg College, 1990.  Two older colleges also combined into one in 2008.

No women allowed until 1878 and they couldn’t earn degrees until 1920.  The last all male college began admitting women in 1974. Now personally, I think there’s a place for single sex education, both high school and higher.  Of course, I’m prejudiced having graduated from all male schools.  But, of course I also prefer big band music and abhor rap. Also, I use the word ‘gender,’ only under protest unless I’m speaking grammatically.  So, I remain quite happily out of date.

Across the university, student population is about 12,000 for undergrads and the same number for graduate students.  Acceptance rate is about 16% for undergraduate studies and about 21% for graduate studies.  So that works out to less than 600 students per college or PPH. Note:  There are a number of other colleges and universities in the city, but outside the Oxford University system, bringing the city's total student population to about 33,000.  Note: The city's population is over 150,00.

Having taken three weeks of course work in Oxford during my younger, bolder (some say obnoxious) days, I love the Oxford system of education, built around reading, research, attending lectures of your choosing, and meeting with your personal tutor periodically to discuss your progress and map out directions for future study. It’s personal education at it’s best and the results speak for themselves, with so many notables having graduated from Oxford over the centuries, too numerous to name. Greatness abounds in every field of endeavor. 

So how do the colleges and PPHs fit together to become Oxford University?  Each of the colleges and PPHs are independently run.  The University is responsible for libraries, labs, and exams.  So, if you want to become a student, you apply to a specific college.  Those are the basics.

Relations between the town and gowns has not always been amiable.  It was in 1209 when students left to form Cambridge University.  The most tragic rioting occurred in 1355, when two students got in an altercation with a tavern keeper, ending with the students tossing their drinks in his face.  Word got out and the riot ended with 90 students and 30 townspeople killed. Wonder if that’s where the cheer, “Standup, Sit down, Fight, Fight, Fight came from.

For now, I’ll offer photos to give you an idea of the city of Oxford.  By the way, the name Oxford, comes from Oxanforda, meaning a ford in the river where cattle could cross.

Go!  Explore! Do not confine yourself to London!  In future articles, I’ll take inside the Ashmolean Museum, Blackwell’s Books, famous Oxforions ancient pubs, and more!

Best Way to Discover Oxford:  Hop-On-Hop- Off Bus 30 Pounds pp for 24 hours. Commentary provided in a host of languages.

How to get to Oxford:  We flew into Heathrow, found our way to the airport’s Central Bus Station and bought round trip tickets straight to and from Oxford.  Trip takes about an hour and a half to Oxford’s city center station.  Couldn’t be easier!

Now, to win a bar bet:  What is the oldest continually operating university in the world?
Karueein (859 A.D.), in Fez, Morocco.  And in Europe?  The University of Bologna, Italy (1088 A.D.)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Sankt Martin's Fest

Sankt Martin’s Fest

Travel is an interesting concept and fairly new.   Used to take months to get to Europe from the New World. Three generations ago, as a young man, my grandfather rode from Florida to South Carolina on a mule.  The U.S. was mostly rural.  Travel meant going to the closest big city, only ten or twenty miles at the most.

Now we hop on a jet and go from the heart of the United States to London in about seven hours. Another hour and a half gets us to Berlin or Rome.

Somehow, local travel has become less attractive, or maybe we just take it for granted.  A shopping trip.  A local museum that’s not as grand as the Louvre or the Prado.  Bragging rights to how far we've been and sights that eclipse the local venues.

For me, living and traveling in Germany is different.  I don’t feel the need to go far. Maybe it’s because I’m an American and everything is new. A fest that’s been going on for centuries is a fresh flower in my traveling garden.  It may be only an hour away, but it’s an adventure.  Which brings me to the village of Sankt Martin and their yearly festival honoring the saint.

A lovely old town.  Solid stone buildings.  Flowers decorating every window ledge. Cobblestone streets. Sights that make your camera click every few paces.  Streets clogged with smiling people and baby strollers, the scent of roasting chestnuts and grilled Bratwürst permeating the air.  Vintners, with doors thrown wide, serving half liters of their best, at prices less than you’d pay for a small glass of vin ordinaire in the States.  But, all is not just Brats and street food.  Wide doors of old hewn oak open to sprawling arrays of foods, from potato dumplings to wild boar goulash and fried schnitzel and heaps of vinegary potato salad.

But, it’s not just a festival of plentiful food and drink.  There’s a deeper reason the town opens up every year and with a name with ‘saint’ in front of it, of course it has its roots in the Catholic faith.  Germans are not ashamed their open faith may offend. No prohibitions on whole towns celebrating this saint or that.

But, now, let’s get more specific.

Martin was a Roman soldier who ripped his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm. While he slept, he dreamt of Jesus and later became a bishop.  In the past, on 11 November, the tradition used to signify the end of the seeding of wheat and the killing of fatted cattle for  Martinmas beef.  Didn’t see any cattle being slaughtered, so it wasn’t the Christian version of Ramadan.  But, each year the celebration continues.

People flocked for the food and librations and at the local Catholic Church, riders came for the blessing of their horses.

Although the town of Sankt Martin carries his name, the celebration carries through many parts of Germany and France.

Of course for me, it’s always the people.  We sat at a long plank table to enjoy Würst und Schnitzel, potatoes in many forms, and luscious green salads, along with pint sized glasses of red wine.  Our table neighbors heard us speaking English and thus ensued a long conversation of their son who lives in the U.S. and questions about what brings us to Germany.  My wife is a teacher and so was his wife, seated across from him.  Her husband and I sat in silence as teacher-talk took over.

Then it was time for another conversation with the folks on the other side of us and when they left, yet another conversation, all the while switching between German and English and a smattering of both when one of us lacked the vocab.

Often, when friends come from the States to visit, they have their hearts set on visiting the whole of Europe.  “How long do you plan to stay?” we ask.

“Oh, about a week and we want to go to London and Berlin and Rome and Madrid.”

“How about we drive an hour down the road?”

They look disappointed. But, wait until they taste the wine and meet some Germans and suddenly their thirst for travel blossoms and that photo op in a slew of big cities will never again quench their thirst.

Under the green lights of a Weinstube, here's a famous sweet and soft St Martin's pretzel.

Yes, the grapes are already harvested, but this is still wine country!