Letters from Exeter
A junior majoring in English and classics, Ann Pedtke, Class of 2009, studied in England as a participant in the Kenyon-Exeter study-abroad program. Pedtke kept us updated on her adventures through the following online journal.
- May 22, 2008: London
- May 11, 2008: Torquay
- April 25, 2008: Dartmoor
- April 2-12, 2008: Ireland
- March 29, 2008: Athens
- March 26, 2008: Pompeii
- March 20, 2008: Rome
- March 2, 2008: Totnes
- February 22, 2008: Vienna
- February 16, 2008: Dartmoor
- January 25, 2008: Exams
- January 5, 2008: Stratford
- December 16-19, 2007: Barcelona
- December 13-15, 2007: Paris
- December 12, 2007: London
- November 22, 2007: Thanksgiving
- November 10, 2007: Exmoor
- October 28th, 2007: London
- October 16th, 2007: On Exeter Campus
- September 23rd, 2007: Arriving
My sisters and I are lying on the grass in the middle of Parliament Square. The flow of London traffic encircles us, a blur of red double-decker tour buses and shiny black cabs. This is where everyone wants to be: behind us, Sir Winston Churchill poses on his pedestal; to our right, the façade of Westminster Abbey burns in the morning sunshine; just ahead, Big Ben spikes into a brilliant blue sky, the gigantic clock hands easing toward eleven o'clock. My sisters will have to leave to catch their Heathrow flight in an hour or so, but for now the three of us sprawl on the grass in perfect complacence. Tourists and MPs utilize the lawn as a shortcut from one side of the square to the other, but no one settles down with us to enjoy the sunshine. Our patch of grass is an oasis from which we can watch the world spin.
Cathy and Julie have been in England with me for a week and a half, visiting new places every day and relishing their first taste of European travel. Taking advantage of the differences between the British and American academic calendars, we just managed to squeeze the trip in between the end of Cathy's semester and the beginning of my finals. As soon as I see my sisters off, it will be time to go back to Exeter and face my two final papers and my last exam. In barely two weeks I'll be following Cathy and Julie back to the States, called by my summer job and by the rest of my family, whom I've not seen in eight months. Here in London today, I feel almost as if I've left Exeter behind already -- as if my plane, too, awaits me at the airport.
I've made my peace with leaving England, but I haven't yet decided how this year will stand in my mind. I try to settle on an unequivocal verdict, but it isn't that easy. As in the rest of life, every advantage of studying abroad is weighted with necessary disadvantages. At Exeter I made international friends from Britain, France, Austria, China, and Australia, and became closer to many of my fellow Kenyon students on the program. I also slipped out of the lives of many friends back at Kenyon, and gave up a last year on campus with my upperclassmen acquaintances. At Exeter I took classes like "Children's Literature" and "Literature and the Environment" that I could never have experienced at Kenyon, challenged myself to write 4,000-word papers and stake an entire course grade on one or two assignments. I also traded a tiny liberal arts college for a large public university, and encountered the commensurate bureaucratic frustrations of less student funding, less feedback on assignments, less class discussion. I joined student organizations like the Out of Doors Society, where I was able to pursue activities different from anything available in Gambier. I also ceded my Kenyon leadership roles to others, and will have to integrate myself into student activities all over again come fall. I took a break from Kenyon, got off the hill for a year to refresh my perspective. And I missed Kenyon terribly, not just the people and the classes and my many other activities, but Middle Path and Philo and all the nuances of a place where I am completely at home.
Yet here I am in London, with Big Ben tolling eleven o'clock over a bustling Parliament Square, and a slice of the London Eye curving into view across the river. And this is my unequivocal answer, the reason I'll be able to say "Yes" when everyone at home asks me whether a year in Exeter was the right choice for me. For the first time this year, I have seen London. I have attended theatre productions in Bath and Plymouth and Stratford. I have circled Stonehenge and walked in King Arthur's halls. I have ridden the train up to Scotland. I have toured Ireland from Dublin to Galway to Kilkenny. I have scaled the Eiffel Tower and wandered La Rambla in Barcelona. I have stood in front of the Hofburg Palace as the evening lights were coming on over Vienna. I have explored the Colosseum and the Parthenon and the ruins of Pompeii. The world is mine this year -- or at least for this moment, lying on my stomach on the grass in Parliament Square.
My parents traveled to Europe when they were in college and never went back, after the commitments and expenses of a big family overcame their wanderlust. But for me, a life where I never look up at Big Ben again will be an incomplete one. Sprawling here on the lawn, my sisters and I make a pact: in ten or fifteen years, we'll come back together -- and tour Europe with our own kids, whatever the cost. Who knows what we'll really manage on the incomes of a writer, a chef, and an artist, but here in the London sunshine it seems a simple matter of holding onto the vision until then. A train on the Tube rumbles by beneath us, and the tremble rises up through my fingertips -- like the tremble of an airplane when the engines suddenly roar to life, and there's only one short stretch of runway left between the ground and the sky.
Summer hangs on the horizon at Torquay, like a storm rolling in from the ocean. Everything in the little resort town stands waiting -- the Victorian hotels and shops that tumble down the hill toward the beach, the languid stretch of sand left behind by the tide, the palm trees presiding over bare waterfront gardens that have yet to be replanted for the tourist season. A few kids in swimsuits pick their way through the drifts of seaweed on the beach, but this hub of the English Riviera hasn't yet bloomed into a true summer resort town. The Agatha Christie museum is closed this weekend. The Grand Hotel stares into space with empty white windows. A haze hangs over the sea, tinting it not quite green, not quite gray.
Summer hangs over us, too. Some friends and I are here on a Sunday jaunt, collecting a few last beautiful places in England before the semester winds down. All year we have heard Torquay described in glowing colors; we've pored over web sites, marveling at the gardens and beaches; yet we've managed to put off our visit until this last month, always filling our weekends with other activities, other trips. This morning, at last, we caught the train down the coast -- the same lovely stretch of coast I've passed on my way to Totnes, to Plymouth, to Cornwall. I tried to summon a sense of nostalgia as we sped past the estuary for the last time, looking across the sweep of water to the village of Topsham on the far shore, the beaches of Exmouth with their red cliffs jutting out into the bay. The train dove into the first tunnel, flashed out into light again, pulled away along the coast to whiz through a chain of rocky inlets and secluded seaside towns. It is a journey I love, but today a haze hung over the sea, drenching the scenery in a summer languor. Like the cresting car of a Ferris wheel, England has slowed to anticipate the plunge into June. Here, poised at the summit of the wheel, I can feel no nostalgia, only restlessness.
Now that we have reached Torquay, this white resort town rimming its own bay along the Devon coast, my friends and I are wandering with no urgent itinerary. The hot white pavement blazes in our eyes, so we cross the street and descend a spiraling stairway to the level of the sand. We are met with the pungence of salt and seaweed: the tide's morning leavings lie in soggy webs along the beach. A few kids search for treasure among the flotsam, while their parents watch from folding chairs, pushed back as far as possible against the concrete barrier. The sand is packed brown and damp beneath our feet, as level as the cement above. It needs more feet to stir it, dogs' paws to freckle it, plastic buckets and shovels to scoop new geographies into its surface. But for all the promise in today's heat and haze, the water is still too icy to keep anyone on the beach for long. I climb the gritty steps back up to the sidewalk, wondering why I feel so dissatisfied. I'm trapped between the cool English spring that is slipping away and the hot, lambent summertime that I can't yet enjoy. Torn between a long and exciting year abroad that I must finally give up, and a summer back in Pennsylvania, where a job and a family and a familiar country are waiting to welcome me home.
As we continue toward the marina, I catch sight of a girl and her Jack Russell terrier standing at the end of a concrete loading ramp that slopes into the sea. The girl is dressed for springtime, but the dog has summer dreams. He yanks at the leash, straining toward the water until at last the girl bends down to unclip his collar. The dog rushes down the ramp, stepping into water over his shoulders and then suddenly becoming buoyant, easing into a gleeful doggie paddle as he steers away from the dock. Before circling back, he treads in place for a moment and cocks one ear at his owner in silent inquiry. It's almost summer -- why don't you come in and enjoy it?
And I know the dog is right. I can't extend this year in England or foreshorten it; I can't stave off summer or rush it along. But today I'm here in Torquay, where I can welcome the season without having to say goodbye. I can buy ice cream cones with my friends and pose for pictures on Princess Pier; I can wander into the Pavilion and try out bowler hats and Victorian parasols; I can stroll through gardens of palms and see the first cautious sailboats airing their wings on the bay. I can play at summertime today. And when it comes time to trade this grandeur in for a real summer at home -- for campfires and bike rides and long, uneventful evenings reading a book in the fading sunshine -- I'll be ready.
We are lost in a world of white. Dense fog constricts perspective: my classmates, fanned out over the slope around me, would be invisible but for the bright blurs of their hats and jackets. Just ahead, Professor Groom strikes a singular profile in his wide-brimmed leather hat, his graying ponytail, his sturdy hiking boots. Though we are climbing slowly up the slope, stepping over loose stones and dripping tufts of grass, we cannot see what is ahead or behind. Behind, we know, is our bus, parked on the shoulder of the narrow moor road and no doubt drawing the curious gaze of any sheep that happen by. Ahead -- only Professor Groom knows for sure.
It is our last field trip with our Literature and the Environment class. I listed the course as my first pick for spring semester, lured by the prospect of the field trips and the opportunity to take a class completely different from anything offered at Kenyon. Now, at the end of the term, I couldn't be happier with my choice: the class has proven a perfect introduction to British landscape and identity. Other international students are drawn to Literature and the Environment for the same reasons, and this year's roster includes students from Austria, Germany, Australia, and the US. Assigning an assortment of literature from Shakespeare to Hardy to Conan Doyle, Professor Groom leads us through discussions of how literature and the environment affect one another. "Why are we studying English at a critical time like this -- instead of science, ecology, sustainability?" he asks. "Why does literature still matter? This course is partly a response to those questions."
Such conversations can hardly be confined to the airless classrooms of Queens Building. We meet early on Friday mornings for all-day field trips, taking a chartered bus out to Dartmoor or Tintagel or the Tarka Trail. Professor Groom encourages us to take pictures, make sketches, interview the local people we meet: 25 percent of our class grade will hinge on our field trip reports. We arrange to have our seminars along the way, at pubs or tourist centers. We eat packed lunches on site. We have both deep academic discussions and silly, lighthearted exchanges as we hike through fields or stand on bluffs breathing in the sea.
Today, after stopping at the Dartmoor Visitor Centre and the Prison Museum in Princetown, we ate lunch in the business centre and had our seminar on Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles. The book is perhaps the quintessential piece of Dartmoor literature, and on a day of such atmospheric fog and chill, the story leapt from the page. We hiked through sheep fields to overlook Fox Tor Mire, where the wicked Stapleton meets his demise. We walked among the ancient stone huts at Grimspound, where Sherlock Holmes takes shelter on the moor. We drove past a more modest circle of stones, their prehistoric arrangement almost obscured by the fog and encroaching moss, and we jumped off the bus for a few minutes of impromptu investigation. During our seminar, we talked about how landscapes are constructed, how Conan Doyle hadn't even seen Dartmoor when he began to write his famous novel. And yet, on the moor, we are forced to acknowledge a reality of wind and rain and fog that transcends the stereotypes of Gothic romance.
Now we have come to our last stop of the day, and we are hiking up a slope into white oblivion. Suddenly, gigantic shapes begin to emerge out of the mist ahead: a boxy crag, a toppled tower of stone, a boulder perched precariously atop a rocky spire. I begin to run up the hill, and the granite phantoms rise to meet me. This is Hound Tor, where the hound of Dartmoor -- legendary long before Conan Doyle popularized the myth -- was said to roam with a ghostly band of huntsmen. Soon we are at the summit, exploring the stony outcroppings and marveling at the forms that materialize out of the fog. If the day were clear, we could gaze across counties from this vantage point -- yet the fog, strangely, focuses the landscape, forcing us to appreciate each crack and vein in the granite edifice. And even when we think we have noticed everything, Professor Groom still has one more surprise for us. Just down the hill on the other side, he says, is a ruined village of medieval cottages. He offers to take us down to see. Though I am reluctant to leave the fairy landscape of the tor, I follow him unhesitatingly down into the mist. I know there will always be more to see.
We are at Trinity College Library in Dublin, the oldest library in Ireland. While a few of our number are still poring over the Book of Kells and other beautifully illuminated manuscripts in the exhibition area, most of us have emerged into the library's soaring Long Room. Here the wooden vaulting arcs overhead, and balconies of bookshelves stretch away to the far end of the room. The shelves at our level are roped off from the public, but I gaze longingly at the old volumes, their faded leather bindings, their beautiful gilt lettering. Busts of Greek philosophers eye me superciliously from their pedestals, while medieval land records and other rare manuscripts beckon from under glass cases. Dublin is only the first stop on the Kenyon-Exeter tour of Ireland: after our various spring break escapades, the fifteen of us are back together with Wendy and Read and the boys, ready to embark on another ten days of travel. Yet standing here in this glorious room of books, I hardly want to move on.
We have arrived at Sligo on the west coast, home of William Butler Yeats. Even though dusk is falling by the time we've settled into the cottages where we'll be staying, a beach walk is imperative: Ken, Griffin, Patrick, Clay, and I set off down an overgrown lane, climb over a barbed wire fence under the suspicious scrutiny of a flock of sheep, and finally scramble down the bluff to the rocky beach below. Some of the others are already there, searching the tide pools and skipping stones in the calm water. We walk down to join them; at every step, the stones shift with hollow sounds beneath our feet. As the evening closes in, the bay blurs to one long stretch of gray and green, and a few solitary lights flick on across the water. Somewhere off in the dusk, the stately rock formation Ben Bulben hunches its back against the darkening sky. Like Yeats, we are "Under bare Ben Bulben's head," enclosed in the misty aura of poetry and history as the evening wraps around us.
We are climbing a mountain near Barnesmore Gap in County Donegal. Only Ireland manages to be this wet on such high ground: thin streams of snowmelt sluice down the face of the hill, and even where we cannot see the water, we can hear it, trickling beneath the brown tangle of moss and grass. Solid footholds are rare -- with nearly every step, my foot sinks down into unexpected hollows. Read and some of the others are already ahead of me, tossing soggy snowballs where the patches of snow grow thicker in the tall grass. It is the first real snow we have seen all year, and we are in high spirits as we struggle on toward the summit. When I gain the rock ledge at last, I look up for the first time to find that the mountain has dropped away: the road below looks impossibly distant, and the other peaks of the Blue Stack Mountains disappear into the cloudy horizon. We pose for photos like explorers, grinning into the cold wind. Yet our glory is short-lived. Griffin is the first to notice the ominous curtain of snow sweeping toward us across the valley -- the cry is raised, and we all tumble down the hillside again with shrieks of laughter as pellets of ice and snow begin to hit our faces and the mountain vistas are wiped out by whiteness.
A sun-drenched day, and we are on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway. We have rented bikes and cycled across the island, from the little harbor town of Kilronan all the way to Dun Aengus, the Celtic fort that perches on the cliff overlooking the sea. There are no railings on this precipice: I can lie on my stomach and gaze over the edge until the expanse of open air rushes up into my face and I have to wriggle back. The view inland is no less spectacular. From this vantage point the whole island is spread before us, a treeless expanse of stone walls delineating tiny field allotments, most of which were abandoned during the potato famine. Though a few people live here still, the culture has turned from farming to tourism. The government tries to preserve the heritage, helping to finance island property for anyone fluent in Irish, but still this far end of Inishmore is mostly deserted; the stone fences of nineteenth-century farms might be as long abandoned as the ancient stone fort on the hill.
It is our last night in Ireland, and we are staying in a fifteenth-century castle. After dinner in Kilkenny, we ride the bus out of town -- and suddenly there it is in the dusk, with lamps burning in the windows: Foulksrath Castle Hostel. It is a simple castle tower -- home to an earl or a baron, certainly, never a king -- and it is the sort that might be seen anywhere in Ireland, crumbling to ruins while sheep graze at its foot. But this castle has been rescued and refurbished as a hostel, and as we pass through the stone gates and into the courtyard I feel like a medieval lord being welcomed home. The proprietor meets us in the great dining room, where we sit at long oak tables and receive her instructions as the lamplight glimmers on the shields that decorate the walls. Our room is three floors up -- she gestures to a spiral stone staircase in the corner -- and we are welcome to tour the grounds in the morning. What does it matter if the only toilets are outside, and there's no hot water? This is the perfect end to my four long weeks of travel, and as I lift my suitcase to start up the spiral staircase I am at once thrilled and weary, melancholy and content. Tonight, I know, I will sleep sound.
It is a brilliant day. The morning sun angles into the long street before us, stretching all the way from one end of Athens to the other. Redbud trees along the sidewalk splay their blossoms against the pale buildings, offering a montage of violet flowers, green leaves, yellow walls, blue sky. Pigeons scatter across blinding white plazas; small domes crown the tiny Byzantine churches that nestle into the crush of taller buildings. To either side of us, vendors barter under white awnings, hawking bright beach towels, mock red-figure pottery, gilded icons of the Virgin Mary. For the first time this year, I walk in shorts and a tank-top, and I don't mind that the breeze is raising goosebumps across my shoulders. Rainy weather may have dogged us in Italy, but today all the small accumulated miseries of wet feet and misted camera lenses are evaporating into the glorious Greek sunshine.
It is our first day in Athens, but already the city has won me over. The fine weather, perhaps, accentuates the other small advantages we have encountered: the neat blue street signs in both Greek and English lettering; the easy walking route from the hostel; the free museum passes for anyone with a UK student ID. After the old and unreliable trains in Naples, the sleek new Athens tram is a dream; after the high costs in Rome, the prices here are a welcome relief on the budget. Although the majority of my Kenyon-Exeter friends have chosen to travel in Italy this month, this Greek city hardly seems an inferior choice for an idyllic spring break.
Patrick and I have just come from the National Archaeological Museum, a small but beautifully organized collection of ancient sculpture and pottery, and now we are rambling toward the south end of the city with the rest of the day before us. We have lots of plans for the next few days: visit Piraeus, the city's port; take the long bus ride into the mountains to see the spectacular cliff ruins at Delphi; ride the tram down the Attica coast until we find a tempting stretch of beach. Today, though, we are content just to soak up the glory of the Athens city center. The excitement of travel is reviving in me after two long weeks on the road, and I'm in buoyant, beginning-of-vacation spirits again as Patrick and I idle down the sunny street, stopping to admire everything we see.
Here is a tiny Byzantine church, preserved intact in the center of a busy city square despite the tall office buildings looming over it. The church seems impossibly small, with its dirty stone walls and simple clay-tile dome, but upon stepping inside I enter a dim cavern of icons and mosaics, gilded in green and gold and blue. Here, in another square, is an odd cylindrical monument of white marble -- the last remaining tribute of the many that used to line the ancient streets, celebrating the winners of choral competitions. Here is a Turkish mosque with shallow red domes, built under Ottoman rule in the mid-fifteenth century. It was dedicated by Sultan Mehmet II and dubbed Fethiye Djami, "The Mosque of the Conquest," but now it is closed to the public and small tufts of grass sprout from the cracked clay tiles on the roof.
We reach the end of the street, and the ancient center of the city opens out before us. To our right, an imposing row of Corinthian columns marks the remains of Hadrian's famous library. To our left stands the Tower of the Winds, a graceful octagonal structure ringed with carved wind deities. The rest of the Roman Agora is little more than a wilderness of toppled marble, but the gates are open, and a ticket collector in a fold-up chair lazily waves us through when we present our student IDs. All across the agora, visitors are leaning back against marble pillars, reading books or relaxing in the sunshine; ownerless dogs are resting comfortably in the shade of the palm trees. I wander among the ruins, stepping through long grass and clusters of daisies. Just to the south, over a few more tiled rooftops -- seemingly a single leap away -- rises the stark rock of the Acropolis, and the marble face of the Erechtheion looking down on us. I pause for a moment to marvel at the way the sun strikes the temple pillars. At the end of a long, rainy trip, it's amazing what a little sunlight can do.
I am a vagabond in an ancient city. Rain splashes down onto the cobblestones, puddling in the ruts worn away by Roman carts. Clay-tiled awnings tilt streams of water onto the sidewalk. The stepping stones across the road are wet and slick, gleaming reflections of brick walls and gray sky. On every street, the muddy blur of brick buildings has begun to look the same; I've lost myself in a succession of private houses and public baths, restaurants and temples, laundries and distilleries. I would pull out my map, but it has become so sodden that it's falling apart at the creases -- and besides, the map is riddled with sections of tiny, unmarked apartments and larger areas labeled simply "Unexcavated." Not even the archaeologists have charted every section of this city.
It has been raining for four days. Patrick and I are staying at Portici on the Bay of Naples, but the renowned Mediterranean climate is failing to deliver on our expectations. On Sunday we splashed through the dingy streets of historic Naples; on Monday we waited anxiously at the dock until the tossing waves of the bay finally calmed enough for a ferry to take us across to the islands; on Tuesday we visited the excavations at Herculaneum only to be driven away by an impending thunderstorm. Now it is our last chance to visit Pompeii, the archaeological highlight of the area, and the rain is falling harder than ever.
Through the blurred air, I can just make out the mountains of the Sorrento peninsula -- and to the east, losing its cone in the cloud, the gray form of Vesuvius, the volcano that buried this city in 79 A.D. In Rome, the past is layered helter-skelter, as old buildings were filled in and used as foundations for new. But here, no one had a chance to replace the rutted cobblestones in the streets; no one tore down the cheap apartments to make way for medieval churches; no one poured concrete over the run-down laundries and distilleries. Here, I can see the way homes were left when their owners expected to return in a moment -- not the way they were left when centuries might be expected to preserve them.I duck into one of the larger houses on the street corner, and the interior is even dimmer and chillier than the murky world outside. As I stand in the atrium letting my eyes adjust, the high ceilings gather into solid form above my head. Domestic Roman architecture looks always inward: there are no windows in the outer walls. Small rooms ring the central atrium; other chambers circle the enclosed garden courtyard behind. Through a series of rectangular frames, I can look through the house to the pale column of natural light that filters down upon the colonnaded garden. Nearer to where I stand, rain patters through a skylight into a shallow pool at the center of the atrium. Though some of the walls are still streaked with the reds and golds of ancient frescoes, the gray light of the rain softens the rooms to a dim austerity reminiscent of libraries on gloomy days. The house has ceased to be one more muddy brick building and feels, for a moment, like a comfortable refuge on a rainy afternoon. Returning to the doorway, I gaze out into the rain-smeared street. However wet and exasperated I might be, I have to admit that the rain fits. This is ancient Italy on an average day, not a postcard day -- the legendary Mediterranean sun would brighten these brick buildings, but couldn't make them more authentic than they already are. I can imagine, on a day like this, the Roman workmen from the new bath complex shaking off the raindrops and coming in for a hot meal at the bar across the street. I can picture one of the household slaves on an errand, tenting her cloak over her head as she darts across the slick stepping stones toward the shelter of the next awning. I can see one of the girls at the laundry down the road, sighing and pressing another mass of togas into the bleaching tubs as the rain drums on the clay tiles overhead. Most clearly, I can see myself living here in this house, with my own affairs to attend to -- rain or shine -- in the city I call home. I zip up my hood and step outside again into the rain.
In the southeast corner of Rome, just a few minutes' walk from the Colosseum along Via Labicana, stands the little white basilica of San Clemente. It is far enough from the Colosseum to escape the swirl of souvenir stands and strutting gladiators, yet the church remains aloof behind tall iron gates, as if protective of its anonymity. After three days in the city, Patrick and I have followed the river of tourists through the Colosseum, waited in long lines to gain admittance to the Vatican, wandered the crowded paths of the Roman Forum, and lounged next to the Trevi Fountain amid the hubbub of other visitors. Rome is glorious despite its veneer of tourism -- but today we are on a quest to find something different. The Basilica of San Clemente, recommended to me by Professor Serfass of the Kenyon Classics Department, promises a layered glimpse into Roman history -- ancient, early Christian, and medieval. The beautiful medieval church can be seen from the street, but to experience the earlier historical periods, we must go underground.
Pushing open the iron gate, we find ourselves standing in the twelfth-century courtyard. White arches top the colonnades on either side of us, flashing their brightness against the red clay tiles of the roof. Palm trees stand demurely in the corners, and at the center a tiny fountain overflows its basin and bubbles over onto the mossy stone tiles. The glaring sunshine of the courtyard stays with us as we step inside the basilica, and my eyes take a moment to adjust. Out of the cool darkness gradually emerges the glint of the gilded ceiling, the pale phantoms of marble pillars, the pattern of the green and white mosaic at my feet. But in a moment my whole attention is focused on the apse at the end of the room. The curve of the apse is entirely taken over by a brilliant Byzantine mosaic: Christ on the Cross is flanked by white doves at either hand, while the Tree of Knowledge swirls around Him in elaborate spirals of gold and green. Birds flutter among the tangle of branches; a flock of sheep parades beneath against a background of Mediterranean blue. The whole scene glows.
Yet I tear my gaze away, remembering that there are two more levels of history beneath my feet, waiting to be explored. The woman at the information desk looks up from her book to hand me a ticket, and I follow Patrick down a dim set of stone steps into the remains of the original fourth-century church below. Ladders and scaffolding along the passage reveal restoration efforts to save the ancient frescoes clinging to the walls -- but no one is working here now. Aside from an occasional fellow visitor who passes us in silence, the excavations are empty of people. At last we reach the central room of the old church, a simple nave vaulted in brick -- and though I try in my mind to fill in a fourth-century congregation, the musty dimness makes it impossible to imagine this building standing at ground level in the open sunshine. Yet supposedly it was here that St. Clement's remains were brought, after he was bound to an anchor by the Romans and thrown into the Black Sea as punishment for his missionary work. The water is said to have receded, revealing a divine tomb beneath the waves, from which the saint's body was recovered. St. Clement's remains are still the treasured relics of the basilica; they are kept beneath the high altar, and carried through the streets on the martyr's feast day.
Beneath this fourth-century church, there is one more level of excavations. Another dim stone staircase leads down to a Roman building from the second century, a simple brick structure that was dismissively filled in when the later basilica was built on top. Here the stone closes in and forces us through narrower passages, and the sound of water can be heard somewhere below. Patrick motions to me to lean toward the wall, and suddenly the subterranean stream is roaring in my ears; through some acoustic trick of the vaulted ceiling, I am hearing a magnified echo against the stone. We press on until we come to the Temple of Mithras, a long, low room flanked by stone benches on either side of a sculpted marble altar. Mithraism was a selective cult of initiates, particularly popular with soldiers -- yet many of the rituals and initiations are still a mystery. Since so little was written about the cult's religious practices, classicists and archaeologists must glean what they can from these few excavated temples, with their simple benches and small stone altars.
Patrick and I finish our loop of the excavations, and finally we climb back up into the medieval church. I take one last lingering look at the Byzantine mosaic before stepping out again into the courtyard, where the sunlight debilitates me for a moment. In the dim chambers of the San Clemente excavations, I have forgotten that it is still a sunny day in Rome, that tourists are still thronging the streets outside. As I close the iron gate behind me and head up the street toward the Colosseum, I have the uncanny sense that I am treading on layers and layers of the past -- homes and streets and churches, built one over another in the progress of this city. The Colosseum, the Pantheon, St. Peter's -- all that's up here in the sunshine today -- is no more than a scratch on the surface.
It's a funny little town. From the train stop, I look up at the houses spilling down the hill -- squat white structures with peaked black roofs, like a Fairy Ring of mushrooms encountered by surprise one morning where there was only bare ground before. On a central mound of earth, elevated above the rest of the village, sits the stone wheel of the motte-and-bailey castle. The castle is closed until April, yet it seems to maintain a protective influence over the buildings clustered below -- as if to proclaim, "This is a castle town. We may be small, but we can hold our own." Above the town, the hill turns to pastureland: gentle green slopes to match those across the valley. There is not much to see in Totnes, but on an early spring Saturday with such melting sunshine, just about any place seems worth exploring.
Totnes's medieval High Street is constrictingly narrow, a single lane of pavement with a few feet of cobbled sidewalk on either side. As Patrick and I climb the hill, we are constantly stepping on and off the sidewalk to avoid people walking dogs or pushing strollers, stopping at flower shops or pausing before tempting bakery windows. The occasional car craws patiently up the road, stopping and starting to accommodate the milling pedestrians. Everyone wants to be in Totnes today. The Saturday market is underway in the town square; vendors of all kinds are manning bright tables in the sunshine. I imagine attending the medieval market here, trekking miles across the countryside to buy fleeces of wool or bits of lace. Instead I have traveled half an hour by train to inspect the modern equivalents: plastic toys and metal gardening tools, cotton dresses and potted flowers.
A white gateway bearing a clock face arches over the street just ahead, and as Patrick and I pass beneath I notice a narrow doorway that leads to a set of stone steps, and a glimmer of light above. "Ramparts Walk," an arrow beckons. Intrigued, I pull Patrick off the sidewalk and we climb up onto a cheerful little walkway, sandwiched between an ivy-draped stone barrier and the white stucco walls of adjacent houses. Daffodils bloom in a window box; a bicycle leans against a lone iron lamppost. Before I can get my bearings on this new level of the town, Patrick finds a gate in the stone wall and we climb a few more steps up into St. Mary's churchyard. We are on a level plane of grass again, looking down a short avenue of trees toward the red stone church. Before us, a few old gravestones lean precariously, and ivy crawls over a carved stone sarcophagus. Behind us, the rooftops of Totnes spread away down the hill, and the sun shines on the green pastures across the valley.
The red stone of the priory church is rough and worn. Weeds spring from crevices in the walls; a stone angel lifts from the cornice, pale lichens speckling his face. When we step inside the building, the interior is damp and cool. Although there is a visitor log and a rack of information pamphlets just inside the door, the church is empty, so we wander slowly down the aisles, gazing up at the old stone arches and the wooden vaulting. The rood screen, separating the nave from the chancel, has faint traces of paint clinging to its designs, red and yellow and green. By now I am used to the great gothic cathedrals -- Exeter and Westminster, St. Stephen's and Notre Dame -- but this earlier Romanesque style is beautiful in its simplicity. There is no circular apse, no elaborate rib vaulting or decorated chapels. Yet everything has its place, and together the simple architectural elements create a solid and unified whole.
We emerge out into the sunlight again, and we find that the opposite church entrance meets up with High Street, which has climbed enough in that short distance to make up the difference in altitude. I dismiss the peculiarities of the street levels and step out onto the main thoroughfare once again, ready to follow the next side alley wherever it may lead. The whole afternoon is before us, and we have time to go down to the estuary, climb the hill to the castle, go back to the market and buy irises and crocuses for £1 apiece. Spring Break is just around the corner, now, but there's no reason to let plans for Greece and Italy blot out the beautiful little English towns that are just a few train stops away. Patrick and I merge into the bustling crowd and continue up High Street.
Vienna glows in the dark. Behind me, the floodlit colonnades of the Hofburg stretch out bright arms to gather in the indigo evening. From the palace steps, I can see some of the city's greatest architecture rising in splashes of light across the Volksgarten. To my left, the domes of the Museums Quartier are bright bulbs against the fading sunset. Straight ahead over the trees of the park, I catch a glimpse of the wide Parliament steps, and just beyond Parliament rises the sparkling façade of City Hall, with its golden clock tower overlooking the noisy ice-skating rink below. Across the boulevard from City Hall is the Burgtheater, an ornate edifice of white stone with warm chandeliers glowing within. And slightly to the right, far off beyond the park and the boulevard, the pale twin spires of the Votivkirche spike into the dark sky.
It's a beautiful panorama, and a fitting layout of all the things Patrick and I have seen in a single day in Vienna. We are here in Austria on a weekend whim, having found cheap RyanAir tickets to fly in on Thursday night and fly out again on Saturday evening. To economize, we avoided the large airports in London and Vienna and instead flew from Bristol to Bratislava, taking a shuttle bus the last hour from Slovakia into Austria. We are staying at a hostel a few metro stops out of town, and the whole trip has come out to about £100 apiece. For this, we get a full day to spend in the city center, and most of a second day to tour the imperial summer residence of Schonbrunn outside the city. So far, we've made the most of our time.
This morning, we took the metro straight in to St. Stephen's cathedral in the center of town. The old city was built out in a rough circle around the cathedral, with the Danube canal forming about one quarter of the circle and the Ring Boulevard forming the rest. We joined the bustle of pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages in the hub of the cathedral square, then cut south to the Ring Boulevard and followed the famous street around the west side of the city, taking in all the splendid parks and architecture along the way. Even with a brisk February wind scouring the streets, many people were out and about, walking their dogs or riding their bicycles along the wide, tree-lined bike lanes. Slim modern trams and old red trolleys slid stealthily down the thoroughfare, breathing past the sidewalk with only inches to spare. Despite the grip of winter dreariness, Vienna was alive and animated.
When we had walked the west edge of the Hofburg Quarter, we cut north out of the city center to visit the Freud Museum on Berggasse Avenue, where the psychologist had his apartment and office. We ate lunch at a corner café, where Patrick ordered for us in German. And then we came back to the vast Hofburg estate, with only five hours left to tour the imperial silver collection and the Sisi museum, the opulent state apartments and the treasury, the beautiful national library and the marble halls of the armories. Yet we managed to fit everything in, staying until the very last minutes before closing. At long last we have emerged onto the Hofburg steps, and now, as dusk falls, we watch as the floodlit architecture of the city flares into radiance across the park.
It's a wonder to think that we're spending the year a mere £100 away from almost any great European city. With careful planning and a little flexibility, anyplace is within reach -- Paris or Barcelona, Brussels or Amsterdam, Berlin or Vienna, Rome or Venice or Milan. A weekend may seem short, but a lot can be squeezed into those two days. As we descend the palace steps and walk back through the Volksgarten, Patrick and I discuss what we should do next -- walk to the river? have coffee in front of the Peterskirche? After all, it's barely past sunset, and we still have a whole evening in Vienna ahead of us.
It's a day of blazing sun and wind on the moor. Up here, under these bright, exposed skies, everything is intensified: the angular hills and hollows that cut off to every side, the dry grass that shivers low against the ground, the crests of granite that break through the summits here and there to form crumbling tors. There is not another moving thing to be seen across the bare expanse, just the fifteen of us from the Out of Doors Society, hiking in a lone caravan across the moor. I walk with a slight hunch against the wind, squinting and periodically wiping the water from the corners of my eyes. Though the uphill climb is demanding, the wind billows through my jacket and turns my sweat cold. One moment I feel safe up here, because I can always see the next thing ahead. The next moment I feel an inexplicable danger, because there is no place to hide.
This is Dartmoor National Park, but not all of Dartmoor is moorland. The park comprises over three hundred square miles of moors and bogs, fields and forests, rivers and pasture. The land allotment unsettles my American idea of the homogenous national park: over half of Dartmoor is privately owned, while some areas are Common Land, some National Trust holdings, some property of the Forestry Commission. Footpaths trace the most popular hiking routes, but a walk of any length will usually involve climbing over fences, traipsing across open fields, emerging onto narrow hedged roads, or walking through flocks of wary sheep. Today was no exception. We began at the small town of Okehampton, traversing a few miles of lowland and following a rocky path along the reservoir before finally reaching the heights of the moor.
I savor all of Dartmoor's various environments, but the moorland stands out as something drastically different from anything at home. Lots of Out of Doors Society members are attracted by the alien quality of the landscape. When our group stops for lunch in the shelter of a rocky hollow, I settle myself below the plane of the wind and chat with the other international students: a girl from Austria, a girl from Canada, a guy from Arizona, a pair of graduate students from Germany. Many of the British students seem to take their surroundings for granted -- in response to my musing on the sheer starkness of the hills, one of our leaders remarked matter-of-factly, "That's what moorland is -- no trees." But the other international students and I share the camaraderie of reveling in new experience.
Soon we are out in the wind again, walking briskly in an attempt to warm our cooled muscles. We wind down into a marshy area between the hills -- only a shade different in appearance from the drier footing above -- but decide to take the long way round after some exploratory sloshing among the tussocks. We glimpse a few solitary sheep grazing at the foot of a jutting tor. We pass the ruined foundations of an old stone house, barely shielded by the curve of the hill, and I wonder at the prospect of living out here alone. The moor may seem relatively innocuous under these brilliant skies, when we are equipped with maps and mobile phones, but the thought of traversing this same bleak expanse on a cloudy night is less than inviting.
At last we are climbing the day's final hill, crowned with a jumble of rock know as Brat Tor. Sprouting from the highest outcrop is an old stone cross, erected over a hundred years ago by William Widgery in commemoration of Queen Victoria's golden jubilee. As we come around to the west side of the tor, the wind abruptly dies, blocked off by the mass of rock. This is the edge of the moor: the steep slope before us tumbles down to a rock-strewn field where sheep are grazing, and just beyond is the little town of Lydford, with its castle ruins and its ancient stone church. With this view spread out below, most of our group opts to sprawl in the sun on the calm side of the tor, enjoying the respite from the wind. Two of the more daring girls venture to the top of the rock, clinging to the enormous stone cross and laughing and shrieking as the wind threatens to hurl them from their perch. I scramble up the rocks myself, and am struck by a numbing blast as soon as I emerge over the top. I crouch against the side and try to take pictures of the expansive panorama, but it's no use: my camera is shaking violently in my hands. At last I drop back down to the foot of the rock, where my fellow hikers are hoisting their backpacks again, preparing to head down. The path of low grass and scattered rock slopes before me, and I take the plunge back to the world below.
It's the SAT all over again.
The Exeter Sports Hall stretches before me, an endless expanse of chairs and tables. I have been waiting in the crowded corridor for half an hour, restlessly reviewing my notes, and now that I finally step into the exam hall, the space is daunting. I count a row of twenty seats and do the math: there must be about four hundred students preparing to take their exams in this cavernous room. I drop my backpack against the back wall and check my pockets -- no odd slips of paper, no mobile phone, just my school ID and my ballpoint pens in their clear plastic bag. As other students begin to crowd in behind me, I set off to find my seat in the forest of chairs.
Each table has a neat label with a name and course number. I start checking seats at the back: these blue tags are for a history class, those green ones are for psychology. Slowly I move toward the front, scanning labels left and right, and at last I find my seat in the third row. I sit down nervously, slap my ID card on the table where it can be easily seen, and begin to fiddle with the cap of my pen. Some students are settled in; others are still wandering. "Hey, James!" a grinning second-year shouts to a friend. "I saw your seat way over there at the other end!" The high ceiling catches every noise and turns the room into a cacophony of shuffles and murmurings. So close to the front, with hundreds of students at my back, I keep twisting around restlessly to look over my shoulder.
The atmosphere shouldn't surprise me;
It worried me at first, this aura of strictness, but I've gradually come to see that it's not so intimidating. Professors have been generous with their grades on the whole, and despite occasional moments of panic that I have dropped my paper into the wrong box or signed off the wrong word count, I have never received the steep grade drop that penalizes tardy submissions. Sometimes I even work better under the pressure. Knowing that no concessions will be made for a jammed printer or a forgotten stapler forces me always to leave a little extra leeway.
The last few wanderers in the exam hall have been shown to their seats, and the team of proctors -- or "invigilators," as they are called here -- are beginning their standard announcements. No one is allowed to use loose scratch paper. No one is allowed to leave the room if he finishes a few minutes early. A penalty of £25 will be charged if anyone's cell phone or watch alarm goes off during the test. My thoughts flicker back to my Greek History final last year, when Professor Serfass brought a tray of cookies and invited us to come up to the front of the room to replenish our stores whenever we liked during the course of the exam. Only at Kenyon. I smile briefly at the thought, but then my mind is back on the sheet in front of me, and the invigilator is telling us to begin. The room fills with the rustle of four hundred exam papers being flipped over, and we get down to business.
The shadows have not yet crept out of the street. The old house stands alone, cheerfully independent in a row of mostly connected buildings. The morning sunlight glints in the tiny panes of its faceted windows. The flowers bloom in their window boxes. The low iron fence draws a gentle divide of privacy between the yard and the street. No one passes. In a few hours the house will be open to tourists; docents with nametags will stand in every doorway, and the ancient timbers will creak under the feet of curious visitors. I will be one of those visitors tomorrow, but for now I simply stand across the street, contemplating this house that is just a house, here in the morning sun. The only giveaway is the green wooden plaque, hidden in the shadow of the doorway: "THE BIRTHPLACE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616). Entrance via The Visitors' Centre, 40 metres."
I am here in
I had never had the chance to see much Shakespeare until this year. I had read all the tragedies, most of the comedies, several of the histories, but of course I came to each play differently as I saw it performed onstage. Though I had written papers on King Lear, the spectacular production in
Of course, the Kenyon-Exeter program's Shakespeare itinerary for the year is far from over. In February we will see Othello in
The street is moving into full sunlight, now, and a few passers-by are stopping to check if the Visitors' Centre is open. It's nearly time for me to slip away down Henley Street, cross to the other side of town, and follow the river up to the Courtyard Theatre, where Falstaff and Prince Hal are waiting to exchange their diatribes. As tourists gather at the gate, Shakespeare's birthplace is beginning to emerge from the other
It is just after midnight, and my friends and I stand uncertainly before an enormous oak door in a narrow stone street in Old Town Barcelona. Our plane from Paris arrived late, we mistakenly got on the wrong metro line from the airport, and now at last the three of us stand in this shadowy street, our suitcases sagging on the flagstones. This is our hostel: a small sign proclaims it. Yet all looks dark. Stephanie timidly rings the bell, and, after an agonizing moment of silence, a voice on the intercom tells us to come in. A faint clunk signals that the lock is unbolted, and we push the heavy door inward to reveal a beautiful Catalonian courtyard: an iron lamp hangs above us in the archway, potted trees stand in the corners, and a stone staircase leads upward to the right. The building is shared with private apartments -- our hostel is three floors up. Charmed, I heft my suitcase and begin to climb the stone stairs.
It is late afternoon on our first day in Barcelona, and I'm standing, for the very first time, with my feet in the Mediterranean. The scene is picture-perfect: palm trees are scattered along the edge of the sand, separating the beach from the rising storefronts; the sky is brilliant blue, with just a few rosy clouds hovering over the mountains of the Serra de Collserola. Yet it is still December, even in Barcelona. The breeze is chilly; I wear a light jacket, and my feet are quickly numbing in the surf. A few summer-starved surfers, protected by warm wetsuits, are dodging among the waves. Occasional wanderers pass by with their dogs and are gone again. No one sunbathes. No one swims. But I have just spent a semester in England, and this much sand and sunshine is more than enough for me.
It is evening, and Stephanie and Patrick and I are wandering up La Rambla, the broad and beautiful avenue that cuts through the length of Old Town from Placa de Catalunya down to the Monument a Colom at the seafront. At night, the famous avenue sparkles: curtains of blue lights sweep overhead between the pale branches of the plane trees, and old-fashioned street lamps flank the walkway. There are vendors of all sorts -- standard tourist booths, of course, sporting racks of t-shirts and postcards, but also artists' stalls, newsstands, flower shops. On one side, potted poinsettias spill out into the path; on the other, doves and parakeets twitter and squawk in their cages. We stop at one of the pet stands, and I marvel at two gray chinchillas while Stephanie croons over a silky white rabbit and Patrick makes friends with an inquisitive ferret. We move on up the street, and at last we reach Placa de Catalunya. Lighted fountains bubble in the center of the square, and across the way a storefront balcony sports an enormous Nativity display, with angels, shepherds, and palm trees outlined in wire frames of lights. "Bones Festes," spell the blue letters above. In this warm Mediterranean city, I've almost forgotten that Christmas is so near.
Another afternoon, and Patrick, Stephanie, and I are eating ice cream cones near the Sagrada Familia, the spectacular Art Nouveau cathedral that has been under construction for over a century. We are in Eixample, the northern quarter of the city, where buildings by Antoni Gaudi and other architects of the Modernisme movement provide pleasant surprises amidst the more standard architecture. Along Passeig de Gracia Avenue, one apartment building is crowned with roof tiles like shimmering dragon scales, a turret that seems to be made of whipped cream; another apartment block has balconies draped with iron railings like clinging seaweed, chimneys sculpted into strange, sandy figures that seem to glare down from the rooftop. Yet of all Gaudi's masterpieces, the Sagrada Familia is the most imposing. The temple's slender towers spiral into the sky, the arms of construction cranes appearing here and there between them as a reminder that the building is a work-in-progress. The façade drips with detail, an intricacy of shapes and figures that could occupy the eye for hours. But as we pay the donation and step inside, the cathedral transforms from an impressive edifice to a world unto itself. The interior is at once cavernous and awash with light. I am struck at once with the sense of being underwater: white columns branch into slender stalks to support a ceiling seemingly webbed with flowers and lily pads. The windows seem carved of white shell; column decorations cling like polyps. At the far end of the nave, a forest of scaffolding reaches to the ceiling; since Gaudi died in 1926, the work has gone on. There must be workmen who have devoted whole careers to this project, spending every day in this underwater wonderland.
Our last day in Barcelona. We have ridden the cable car up Montjuic Hill, explored the 18th-century fortress where rusty cannons aim outward over the bay and the castle cats lounge in the warm dust under the orange trees. We have wandered the Olympic complex where the athletes of the 1992 Summer Games competed. Now we sit on a terrace before the grandiose domes of the National Palace, looking out over the city. Barcelona is a golden scramble of buildings, caught between the mountains and the sea in a wash of afternoon sun. Only three days here, but we have walked everywhere, eschewing buses and metro trains in order to soak up the streets firsthand. Three days, and we are at home. Paris may have been wonderful, but it is the easy ambiance of this Spanish city that I will remember best, this sun-drenched splendor. As we begin to descend the wide stone steps to the Placa d'Espanya below, I fix this beautiful spot in my mind for when I come back again.
Our first morning in Paris is a gray one, but my expectations are enough to brighten the dull river and the brooding sky. Paris. The name is so weighted with associations that the city will hardly be able to emerge as its own entity in the short time my friends and I are here. As we walk along the river toward the Louvre, I marvel at everything. These gray waters are the Seine. That gothic spire, pricking above the rooftops downriver, belongs to Notre Dame itself. And there, far ahead of us and across the river, is the unmistakable swoop of the Eiffel Tower. Patrick laughs at my enthusiasm as I gleefully point it out, but he has been overseas many times before, while this is my first taste of European travel. I am marveling not so much at the sights themselves, but at my incongruous presence in a place which, up until now, has been only a polished image in my head.
That evening, after a day at the Louvre, I am standing in the cavernous gloom of Notre Dame, listening to the choir rehearse. The last light of dusk lingers in the immense circle of the rose window, but elsewhere in the cathedral the shadows settle in corners, gather under archways. The vaults of the ceiling belong to a dark and distant realm, untouched by the candlelight below. Incense lifts lazily from the altar; shrines glint in far recesses. Though I am not religious, I find that I could stand here for ages, staying one more hour and one more hour, letting all other obligations slip away. I wonder if this is natural awe, or if, again, I am lured by the power of an association built up in my head. Patrick and Stephanie and I slip away at last, out into the cold night air, where French onion soup and croque-monsieurs beckon from a café on the corner. But the cathedral music lingers.
We are on the metro, heading back to our hostel for the evening. But the stop for the Arc de Triomphe is on the way; surely, though it is growing late, we can fit in one more thing? As we emerge from the metro station, the Arch rises before us, encircled by a swirl of rushing traffic. The Avenue des
The next afternoon, the three of us stand before the Palace of Versailles. We have wandered through opulent staterooms, glimpsed Marie Antoinette's secret chamber door, processed down the dazzling Hall of Mirrors where Louis XIV received foreign ambassadors. Yet, surprisingly on a chilly December afternoon, the indoor galleries cannot compare to the gardens. Behind the palace, two wide, shallow pools on the upper terrace give way to a spectacular tiered fountain, an expanse of lawns and patterned flowerbeds, a long procession-way flanked by topiary, a bronze fountain of Poseidon emerging with his watery steeds, and finally the Grand Canal below. Everyone is out enjoying the last beams of afternoon sun: visitors walk their dogs along the banks of the canal, vendors sell hot chocolate. Patrick and I wander off into side gardens and tree-lined avenues, exploring as much as we can before the light fades. As we turn back at last, I gaze up at Versailles' splendid façade, rosy with the sunset. Perhaps having a palace to live in would not be so great a thing. But oh, to have grounds like these!
That last night in Paris, there is only one thing to do. The Eiffel Tower rises above our heads, an intricate network of lighted arches and beams. We step into the elevator, and the city sinks away as we rise to the first platform… the second platform… and, finally, the very tip of the spire. As we climb the last short stairway to the open-air observation deck, the icy wind bites into us. But the view is worth suppressing our shivers: here the dim glow of the Champ de Mars and the Ecole Militaire beyond, there the tiny cube of the Arc de Triomphe, there the Seine criss-crossed with sparkling bridges. We are at the top of the Eiffel Tower, and the whole world revolves around us. Tourists chat in a dozen languages as they pace around the deck; couples kiss for the camera. Maybe this is only the picture postcard of Paris -- Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe,
It is an auspicious beginning: clear skies over London. Late afternoon sun slants across the Thames, and the wheel of the London Eye glows golden against a blue December sky. It is the beginning of winter break, and I have planned a full travel itinerary with two Kenyon comrades. Today Patrick and I are in London, and tomorrow we will meet up with Stephanie and fly to the Continent for a few days in Paris and a few days in Barcelona. Then we will part ways again: Stephanie will head back to England to rendezvous with a friend from Spain, while Patrick and I will go on to Ireland to celebrate Christmas and New Year's with his family there. Then at last we'll fly back to
It's a hectic schedule, and I don't yet feel as if I'm really on vacation. The last few days at Exeter were a bustle of classes and papers, packing and last-minute errands, and I have the overwhelming sense that I have left something undone. Of course, part of the problem is that there was no comforting conclusion to the semester: I am painfully aware that there will be three more weeks after we get back, during which we will face a barrage of final papers, exams, and presentations. I think nostalgically of Kenyon -- finals before Christmas, the exhilaration of going home and being free for the holidays. This year, I'm taking my textbooks with me over break. And for the first time, I won't be going home.
Yet I am in London with a blue evening sky above me; I try to press such worries to the back of my mind. Patrick and I have just come from Westminster Abbey, where we marveled at the tombs of Chaucer and Tennyson, Charles Darwin and Queen Elizabeth. Now, to crown our first day of break, we have one more thing to do. As we cross Westminster Bridge, a blush of rose appears on the horizon, and the water below us begins to ease into shadow. Will we make it onto the London Eye before sunset?
The line is long. The enormous Ferris wheel turns slowly against the fading sky, and as we stand below, I tilt my head back, marveling at the geometry of wire and white metal, glass observation pods and spreading spokes. This wheel was built by all of Europe -- steel from England, cables from Italy, bearings from Germany, observation pods from France. It's a good beginning to a European tour. Patrick and I reach the front of the line at last, and as the wheel eases around we hand over our tickets and step aboard our pod. The sun is just setting behind the Parliament building, casting the spires in striking silhouette: perfect.
As we are pulled upward into the sky, I stand against the glass, soaking up the river and the lights and the buildings. This is the first time I have seen the city from above, and it is quintessential London: Christmas lights swooping along the riverfront, Big Ben and Parliament and Westminster Abbey rising from Parliament Square, a hazy landscape of chimneys and rooftops stretching out to meet the orange streaks of sunset. For a few weeks of relaxation, for the chance to go home and enjoy a peaceful holiday, would I be willing to miss all of this? We crest the top of the wheel, and for a moment the reflection of the city blazes splendidly in the glass of the next pod. I don't feel relief or release, but something better: the thrill of an explorer setting out on a journey, watching the first strange and beautiful sunset with the knowledge that there are many more ahead.
It's Thanksgiving, and I should be at home.
My dad's extended family was to gather for the holiday in
Plans continue, of course, as they always do. My family will still get together -- though a few of my relatives remain in
When we get to the Bridge in Topsham, Read meets us at the door in suit and tie. After leaving our coats in the foyer, we step through a huge oak door -- marveling at the brass knocker -- and into a long, dim room full of people. At one end is the bar; at the other, a long table swathed with British and American flags. High overhead, thick wooden beams drape decades of cobwebs. The guests stand near the fireplace or settle in the comfortable assortment of chairs and couches, sipping their drinks and crowding the room with voices. Wendy is here, of course, already immersed in discussion with several other professors. Read and Wendy's boys are sitting at a table with friends invited from school. Dr. Fothergill, my favorite British professor, is engaged in an animated debate with one of the English students. Everyone is here, and it feels almost like the good-natured chaos of Thanksgiving at home. I get a drink from the bar and join some friends at a table.
Some time later, the food is brought out. Nothing is lacking: the table is spread with turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, rolls, pie. Read announces that we will have some music while we fill our plates, and a bagpipe player in full regalia steps up to give a performance. However incongruous the throbbing bagpipes seem at first, I decide that I like the effect. The room is small enough to fill with the sound but large enough not to constrain it, and as we form a queue by the table the contrast of nationalities seems appropriate. Before I came to
I eat three helpings too many -- as tradition demands -- and I wonder what my family is doing. My uncle's absence will be on everyone's mind, but I hope that they can still enjoy the food, the talk, the things that stay comfortably the same, whatever else has changed. On the way home I call my mom's cell phone and talk briefly to my mom and my sister. Predictably, dinner preparations have been delayed, and they are just now sitting down to eat. I can hear the bustle of someone setting the table, a football game droning in the background. I leave them to it.
November is here. The English countryside is dulled by a low gray sky, a vague brownness in the fields. I'm not sure we ever had autumn -- at least not the crisp glory of the season that I'm used to in the northern US. The trees colored in patches, and died in patches. Now, as I watch the landscape go by out the bus window, it seems an altogether miserable day for a hike. The twists and turns of the narrow roads are making me queasy, and I think of the looming papers I have to write. What am I doing with the Out of Doors Society on a day like this?
The bus stops at last on a barren plateau of farmland -- a spot graced, improbably, by a tiny gravel parking lot and a block of restrooms. The wind hits us as soon as we step down from the bus, and I feel immeasurably exposed, even with my jacket zipped up and my hood pulled snug around my face. I am surprised when I locate the source of the wind: just ahead, at a gap in the hills, a slice of ocean shows through. We are nearly on the bluff, and the sea air is roaring in at us.
In another moment we turn down into a valley, and the wind is less numbing. We walk through the woods, through trees that lean in against the blustering sea breeze, and the motion gives my blood a chance to circulate. By the time we come out again onto the narrow path that winds along the bluff, my hood is thrown back and my gloves are stowed away in my backpack. The ocean stretches wide to our right, now, blurring at the horizon. Whitecaps chase across the water, and we can hear -- though we cannot see -- the waves lapping the rocks below. Gray land blends into gray sea blends into gray sky.
Several miles later, the trail opens out onto a paved maintenance road, and we are faced with a choice: Do we cut inland and take the shorter way back so we can get hot drinks at the pub before the bus arrives? Or do we continue along a narrower path that will leave us little time to spare? Our group divides, and despite fond visions of the warm pub, I elect to take the longer route. We follow the maintenance road around the hill to where a small white lighthouse clings to the cliff, and there the road ends. The only way to go is up.
So we start up the mountainside, following a barely discernable trail that winds through low brush and scree. The wind buffets us, and it seems all too easy to tumble headlong down the incline, on and on to the water below. The path ahead ends in sky; I cannot see beyond. Yet I pick my way along, one foot after the other, and a last step brings me over the top. Here green pastures roll to the edge of the bluff; sheep graze calmly on the steep slopes. The wind roars in my ears, and I stretch my arms out to feel the billow of my sleeves. For just a moment there is no homework to be done, no long bus ride ahead, no dreariness in the gray landscape. I am on the edge of the world, and
It's raining, of course. The eighteen of us huddle in the square beneath the dome of St. Paul's, waiting for our London tour to begin. The church bells sing out through the drizzle, but the cheerful melody doesn't remedy the fact that my umbrella is back at the hotel. It will be a four-hour walking tour of the city -- the best possible occasion for sunshine. But I remind myself that we had a dry if overcast Saturday, and expecting the rain to hold off for two consecutive days would hardly be reasonable. Besides, we'll be seeing a range of famous sites from Dickens and Shakespeare -- with some Halloween horror thrown into the mix -- so perhaps a little dreariness is in order.
On Friday the fourteen of us took the train from Exeter to London, where we met up with our program directors, Read and Wendy, and their sons, Foss and Avery. After attending three different plays (and taking lots of notes for the reviews we have to turn in upon getting back to Exeter), we are ready to stretch our legs and see the city.
Our tour guide, fully equipped with umbrella and green raincoat, leads us off through the backstreets. We pass by the square where William Wallace was executed; the gate Queen Elizabeth rode through on her white horse; the last remaining wall of Newgate Prison, glimpsed down a side alley. We walk over ground beneath which thousands of plague victims are still buried. Our guide tells us stories of the ghosts who walk the old churches, relates the history of street names such as Bear Gardens and Knightrider Court. This isn't Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, but this is London. In the close-up. In the rain. By the time we cross the Millennium Footbridge to the Globe, I no longer envy the people who are fighting to keep their umbrellas in line against the wind. I'm lost in the context of it all.
We end our tour at a covered market, where vendors sell soup and pastries and hot cider, sausages and cakes and meat pies. Colored awnings flap in the breeze, and on a raised stage a group of medieval actors perform a raucous comedy as the crowd presses close to see. I wander through the stalls, appreciating smells, taking mental notes on vendors to return to -- but I never actually stop, just keep circling and circling, taking in the experience rather than the food.
At last I settle on chocolate pudding and a steaming cup of cider. Over the heads of the crowd, I see that a group of Kenyon students has begun to gather at a table out of the rain. When I make my way over, we exchange tastes of pudding for sips of cider for spoonfuls of spiced pumpkin soup. We're catching the 4:00 train back to Exeter, but we'll be back to London in November, with plenty of time to do the big things -- the British Museum, the Tower. For the moment, at least, it's the little things that matter: backstreets and cups of warm cider. The rain just makes them taste better.
It's Tuesday afternoon, and I'm pounding down the stairs to my next class. Queen's Building, home of the Exeter English Department, is more labyrinthine than any Ascension or McBride -- but after two weeks, I have it down. I have to. There's no ten-minute interim between classes, so my Children's Literature course ends at noon and my Modernism course begins downstairs at the very same moment. It's a tight squeeze.
Students here are disbelieving when I tell them I had over fifteen class hours a week back at Kenyon. Here I have only seven -- and that includes my two-hour Kenyon seminar. It's true that the Exeter professors assign Dickens and Hardy novels to be read in a week, and expect students to know the criticism as well as the primary texts. Yet I find I can usually go away on a weekend trip and catch up with my work on Monday, something I could rarely get away with at Kenyon.
With such freedom, I thought I would be planning lots of independent weekend excursions -- but there are so many other things to do! An Exeter student could go on endless adventures just with the student societies: camping trips, rock-climbing, scuba diving. My favorite is the Out of Doors Society; for five pounds bus fare, I can spend all Saturday hiking in Exmouth or Dartmoor National Park with upperclassmen leaders who know the terrain. Each weekend I'm amazed that out of 14,000 students at the university, only twenty or thirty take up this opportunity.
As I'm making the bigger adjustments, I'm gradually becoming accustomed to the smaller things, too. The accents don't strike me at all anymore, and I'm getting used to moving left rather than right when I pass people on the stairs. I find myself saying "Cheers!" when someone holds a door open for me. And if the conversion from American dollars to British pounds is still an anguishing one, I try not to calculate the extra money I'm spending with every cup of coffee.
Sometimes I miss Gambier -- when I'm running between overlapping classes, or fumbling for the key to get into my flat, or paying out five pence for every page I want to print in the library. But the little annoyances are balanced out by the moments when I'm standing on a rocky outcrop overlooking the moor, or walking through the white streets of Bath, or tripping my way through an English Country Dance in the Great Hall, or just having a dinner party with the other students in my flat. This is an adventure, and perfect or not, I'll make the most of it. Just as long as I can get through the door before the lecture starts.
The sun is just rising over the ocean as I get my first glimpse of the European continent. Ireland is passing 30,000 feet below, a mesh of green just beginning to be touched by sun. From this height, there is nothing to distinguish the landscape from the hills of Pennsylvania back home -- yet I'm giddy at the thought that, for all its similarity, this is the other side of the ocean. And it will be a full nine months before I cross the Atlantic again.
By the time we come into London, of course, I am back in my cramped center-aisle seat, and as hard as I crane my neck to see out my neighbors' windows, I miss the view of the city skyline. London is only three hours from the University of Exeter, though, and it won't be long before we come back to see the city on a theater trip with the Kenyon program.
An hour later, I am standing in the terminal with a group of other travel-worn international students. Someone's flight is late, so our shuttle to Exeter will be slightly delayed. The university coordinator makes inquiring calls on his mobile phone while we lean against our piles of luggage and wait. It's 4:00 a.m. back in the States, and I'm yearning for coffee -- but I'm reluctant to wander too far when we might set off at any moment, so I stay and talk with the others: a girl from France, a girl from Baltimore, a guy from Czechoslovakia.
At last everyone is accounted for, and the Welcome Students in their green t-shirts lead us off through the maze of Heathrow, up ramps and down ramps, through long corridors, in and out of elevators, and finally out into the air. I stow my luggage and climb wearily aboard the bus. For the next three hours, the only things I register are a vague impression of green countryside blurred by rain, and the uneasiness of driving on the left side of the road.
But when a member of the Welcome Team announces, "We're coming into Exeter!" I look up excitedly to take in the cathedral and the shops and the winding streets. When we get to campus and enter the gauntlet of registration tables, I make an effort to introduce myself to other students. And when I have dragged my luggage up one last hill and come to regret every ounce I packed, when I have trudged up three flights of stairs and found my dorm room at last, I put down my bags and turn to go back out again. Because this is the time to meet people, when we are all in the same boat and looking for connections. Because this is England, that other side of the ocean. Because my inner clock will be completely thrown off if I let myself go to sleep now. And because this is freshman year all over again, with all the opportunities it brings.