27 February 2007

Guess who's no longer draft-eligible!

Me, as of 7:30 or so this morning. Ain't aging great?

25 February 2007

Britain, Britain, Britain

Last night I returned home from my farewell (for the moment) tour of England. As you already know from the last post, I spent the first few days in Bristol. We spent the second half of the week in Aldworth, a tiny village (small enough to fit the entire population into one photograph) in rural Berkshire. It served as a base from which to check off two of the major items on my "Things to See in England" list. The first was Avebury, which we visited on the way out of Bristol. Avebury is the stone circle to end all stone circles, and is leaps and bounds beyond Stonehenge because of its size (most of a village fits comfortably inside it), because of its extensive earthworks, and because of the relative lack of tourists. The other big item I can now cross off my list is Oxford, where we spent Thursday. My general impression was that it ranked slightly behind Cambridge on the charm scale but had excellent museums that make you feel as though you've been transported back a century or so. Both places are well worth the trip if you ever get the chance. We managed to see more than Avebury and Cambridge, of course: we also went to Castle Combe (often considered to be the ideal English village), the Uffington white horse (possibly the oldest chalk figure in England, and right next to the hill where St. George is supposed to have killed the dragon), Blenheim Palace (one of the most spectacularly ornate palaces I've seen in Europe and the site of Churchill's birth to boot), antique stores aplenty (if you sense my dad's hand in that one, you're right), top-notch gastro-pubs in Chinnor and Goring, and a "normal" pub in Aldworth that might well be the best in which I've ever had a drink. It was a hectic week, but a good one, and it certainly reminded me just how much I'll miss England. With that in mind, remember when I closed out my old blog with a series of "Top 7" lists about my favorite things in Britain? I promised I'd make one more, and whether you want me to or not, I'm now going to keep that promise with my list of the top 7 things I'll miss about England (and yes, I do mean England; sorry Wales and Scotland, I just didn't spend enough time in either place to get too sentimental).

7) Transportation
This may sound odd, but one of the great joys of my time in Bristol was that I could leave it so easily. This is not because I dislike Bristol (see below) but because I love to travel, be it by train to London or Cambridge or by plane to Madrid or Hamburg.
6) Place Names
Seriously, how can you not love a country that comes up with names like Chipping Sodbury or Wootton Bassett?
5) Pubs
No, they're not just bars, at least not in principle. You don't just go to a pub to drink (though I won't deny that plenty of that takes place, sometimes to excess), you go to sit down and have nice, long conversations with your friends over some beers.

4) Bristol
I'd just as soon not go back to many English cities (I'm talking about you, Gloucester), but Bristol never got old. It's got it all: an historic harbor, beautiful parks, a medieval core (albeit a very small one), a magnificent Georgian neighborhood, and enough pubs and restaurants to keep going out from getting stale.
3) The Landscape
Being quite a Pacific Northwest chauvinist, it's rare for me to rave about any countryside other than my own, but I've found myself oddly nostalgic for England's rolling hills and grassy pastures. The most striking things about it is its perpetual green-ness, a color that is striking even in the middle of winter and is almost overwhelming in spring.
2) Old Buildings
Even in Bristol, which was gutted during the war, it's not uncommon to run across a centuries-old building. Head ten minutes away by train to Bath and you'll see one of the most gorgeous collections of 18th Century buildings in the world. Coming from a country where a 19th Century building is considered ancient, that's nothing short of remarkable.
1) The English
Mind you, I won't miss everything about the English. Like any group of people, they have their faults. However, there are a great many qualities of the English personality that can be chalked up in the plus column. They can carry on a conversation masterfully, but they don't waste words. They will be unwaveringly polite to you, even if they hate you. Most of all, they have the best sense of humor in the world. This is an underappreciated side of English culture, I feel, but it is also true. I know several people who would disagree but, well, they're wrong. Sarcasm is funny. Deal with it.

20 February 2007

The Avon Stream, Redux

This very possibly marks the last opportunity I will have to post a blog entry from Bristol, and I figured I had to take advantage of that opportunity for old time's sake. I'm back in Britain to celebrate an era that came to an end yesterday at a pompous (but exceedingly well-organized) graduation ceremony at which, to the strains of thunderous organ music, my classmates and I were officially awarded our master's degrees. Actually, you might more accurately say that the era came to an end after our subsequent gathering at the pub, which I imagine is the last time such a high percentage of the 2005-2006 MSc cohort will be in the same place at the same time. It is, of course, great to be back in Bristol (which, oddly enough, it feels like I never left), gratifying to receive the degree, and wonderful to see my classmates again. Still, this sort of thing is always bittersweet, since it finally hit home just how much I will miss this city, this country, and the people with whom I worked. Those of you who have been reading my blogs since Day One will remember that my first reaction to my classmates was that they appeared to me to be "one of the most outstanding groups of people I’ve had the pleasure of being associated with" and that I "will really like it here" in Bristol. A year and a half after making those predictions, my mind has not changed in the least. Have there been low points? Of course. Still, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that I am a better person for having spent time at the University of Bristol, and I will be forever grateful to the university, the city, and above all else the people who I have had the pleasure of working with. Thanks, all. Now, off to Oxfordshire!

13 February 2007

Canoe Conundrum

On Sunday, I drove out to Veneta to go to a canoe steaming ceremony. It was a dugout canoe that my uncle had been building for the Kalapuya tribe, and it turns out that in order for the boat to bow out into the right shape, it needs to be exposed to very hot water for several hours. This is done by filling the hull of the boat with water and periodically adding rocks that have been heated in a fire. It's a very tense time, since there's always a chance that the canoe will not expand correctly or, even worse, split, so needless to say the ceremonies surrounding it have traditionally been very important. The affair this weekend was much more toned-down, but it was still really interesting. I had a great time, but I'll admit I always feel a bit voyeuristic at such things. After all, my family history consists of white, white, and more white, and it's no secret that those of Northern European descent have had, at best, a rocky history with the Indians. Don't get me wrong, I have great - and genuine - respect for the Kalapuya and for pretty much all the tribes along the Northwest Coast, both because of their boat-oriented society (seriously, I have great admiration for any seafaring people, from Northwestern Indians to the Vikings to - I'll admit it - imperial Britain) and because their art, culture, and language are the foundation upon which modern Northwestern culture is built (I'm perfectly willing to support this claim of mine, just not now, since this post is long enough already). I've been to a smattering of ceremonies and events like this canoe steaming and for the first summer out of college I practically lived on the Makah reservation, and I've never once sensed any resentment or any objection to my being there. In fact, I've experienced exactly the opposite. Still, I can never shake the thought that maybe I shouldn't be so welcome. After all, just imagine how my Swedish forebears would have reacted if a group of Kalapuya had started showing up at their church services not because they shared the parishioners' faith but because (for some strange reason) they found Lutheran pageantry interesting. I'd like to be able to tie this all up with a nice, clear concluding statement, but frankly I can't. As a matter of fact, I've wound up with far more questions about the relationship between white Americans and Indians than I began with. I suppose you could argue that provoking thought is the highest goal of any human endeavor, so by that measure, this may be my first meaningful post ever! Hooray!

02 February 2007

Happy Groundhog Day!

February has its share of worthless holidays (I'll spare you all my Valentine's Day rant for now), but I'll admit I've always had a soft spot for Groundhog Day, largely because it celebrates something totally meaningless and makes not one shred of sense. Of course there are the obvious questions of what a burrow-dwelling rodent has to do with weather prediction and why we arbitrarily rely on a groundhog from Pennsylvania, of all places, to forecast the turning of the seasons. I've also always thought that we've been reading the whole thing backwards all these years: if the groundhog sees its shadow, it must be sunny out, which seems to me to be more indicative of the onset of warmer weather than a grey sky would be. I'm probably overthinking this, but the good news is that Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow this morning, so Spring should be right around the corner! Of course, any Oregonian groundhogs would disagree: our freakishly sunny stretch continued today, and any animal emerging from its burrow this morning would have been face-to-face with a particularly bold shadow. Fortunately, there are no groundhogs in Oregon (the closest we've got is another member of the genus Marmota, the Yellow-bellied Marmot), so that means Spring starts tomorrow, right?