Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Sweden, it turns out, is difficult to explain to non-Swedes of a British variety. Like why a pop-opera (popera?), sung by a scary blond mezzo in English and French at the Eurovision song contest is incredibly Swedish. Or why the “Swedish Chef” isn’t. As I am slowly forgetting all but the lovelier aspects of summer evenings on the beach in Malmö, and my nation, at this distance, appears as a vision of little red cottages and strawberries, I am bemusedly resigned to being a small part of a grand misunderstanding. Take some German words, mix them with a hefty dose of gobbledygook, pronounce them with Norwegian intonation, add slapstick, a moose and some chocolate, and you get Swedish. Accuracy is of no consequence; we have a sense of humour, and don’t really care.
Thus I, unperturbed, sit in my room, listen to the road outside and dream of my open fields, the silence of a Tuesday evening in Lund and the salty taste of sea-bathed skin, entirely unbothered by even a hint of a nuanced approach to my desires, which would take into account how dull those Tuesdays can be, and instead wallow in a delicious melancholy brought on by the feeling that it should somehow be cleaner, warmer and more summer-like right now. And write sentences that are too long.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
There is something inherently last-minute about this particular choir. We are the cathedral “B-team” and when the little trebles in the real Cathedral Choir are on school holidays, the lay clerks too hung-over, the organist sulking in the loft, or the director of music can’t be bothered, we step in, with all the zeal and haphazard ability we can muster. When our presence is no longer required, we demurely retreat into the catacombs of Christ Church, or, as in this case, haunt other cathedrals. After two days in Belgium we had managed to find our way to the cathedral in Brussels, got lost on the way out of the Belgian capital, and eventually ended up in Antwerp, where we sang a service to the restrained delight of an eccentric vicar in the Anglican church who thought the mass setting by Byrd was lovely, but a bit long. (It’s perfect, thank you very much!) By the time the altos had drunk our bar of choice out of rosé wine, I had already switched to a gueuze by the enticing name of “Mort Subite”.
The repertoire of sacred choral music is as vast and wonderful as the rehearsal time is short. Even when we make it in time for the rehearsal, it is only 45 minutes long. Singing something unfamiliar the first time you see it while surrounded by other people (especially if those people are tenors) is intimidating in a way reminiscent of the Belgian motorway; you never know what may be lurking behind the next turn, someone else’s efforts may put you off track and if it goes wrong it will all crash horribly. Us sopranos have the easiest job, really, as being on top seems to require less concentration. However, if, for instance, you have to come in on, and hold, a particularly nasty high note (and in this old sacred music written for little boys they can be high), you Must. Not. Fail. Get it wrong – you fail. Get it right and hesitate – you fail. Get it right, hold it correctly for one bar and lose concentration in the second – you fail. And if you do, even the most tone-deaf old don in the congregation will notice and you will be guilty of what in the real world might be known as a “blonde moment” – in choirs it is simply a “soprano moment”.
My worst blonde soprano moment (yes, I am both, imagine how the basses tease me), actually had nothing to do with the singing, but occurred instead when I had to lead the choir to communion for the first time. We leave the safety of the choir stalls at the back of the church and march (sorry, process) through the cathedral to receive communion ahead of the congregation. The sopranos at the end go first, and whereas my decani counterpart did the right thing, I kneeled in the wrong place, upset the rhythm and timing of the whole enterprise and when we came back to the stalls we were all in the wrong order. It can only be hoped that the congregation had its mind on higher things…
So, despite (or because of) the mortal peril, and the fact that we are always pressed for time, it is always fun and rewarding. In the end we were a mere 20 minutes late, and got through the mass in Brussels cathedral incident-free – and even if we were only told the set list for the concert 3 hours before the event, it, too, worked out ok. It usually does.
I will never get tired of the Messiah. But I took the Eurostar back home.
Tuesday, September 02, 2008
As I wandered along the Thames towards Christ Church meadow, in the ever so light drizzle, which barely merited putting the hood on my jacket up (even if I did), I reflected that nature can look very pretty in the rain. The sky may be grey, but the grass is greener than ever. Oxford, which I usually prefer sunny, actually looks quite nice when it’s wet too. I had hugged my special tree and was heading for the gate when the rain suddenly changed.
Gone was the drizzle. Replaced by serious rain. The kind of rain which means business. Rain which looks you in the face and says “you talkin’ to me? Well, you about to get wet.”. For a second or so I considered hiding underneath a tree for a while. Then I came to my senses, took my hood off and stared right back at the rain.
Yes, I smiled at the leaden sky, started playing in the puddles and reaffirmed my belief that hiding from the rain is for wimps, the English, and spiders – and realised that this particular brand of torrential downpour really only allows for hiding… and embracing. As I AM in England, and all people in the near vicinity were equipped with higher sensibilities as well as umbrellas, I was quite alone in enjoying the sensation of being completely and utterly soaked.
Merton street was delightfully deserted and flooded and I decided to go for a little extended stroll up the High, ending up outside Hertford – again completely alone. Quite remarkable, at 7 pm on a Tuesday night in Oxford. More abandoned than at midnight; Radcliffe Camera mine to behold in peace.
In short, I had a grand old time and immensely relished the warmth of being enclosed in summer (for I decided that that was what it was) rain, coming at me from all directions. Cheerfully I headed towards High street again, homeward bound this time, and then the inevitable happened.
The rain, unforgivably, stopped. Just as being in torrential rain is curiously warm, being out of it, but still soaked, is curiously cold. Suddenly, people emerged from underneath doorways and umbrellas and I was no longer the only person on the street. I was, however, the only one who resembled a drenched cat. So I scurried home, realised that it must be the humiliation AFTER the rain that makes people hide from it and quickly jumped in the shower (shooing away the spider who was hiding from the rain in it, the silly bastard). But will I play in the rain again? You bet your ass.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Thus Cassandra, narrator of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, begins her story.
I am not sitting in the kitchen sink, but my location is strange enough. And strangely inspiring. I am sitting on a bench in the middle of St Giles. The sun is shining, the autumn leaves are falling and Sunday afternoon traffic is swooshing by me like the deadlines my journal editors like to ignore. I am drinking an enormous latte, which is part and parcel of how I like to enjoy my weekends. The pursuit of good coffee is fast becoming a hobby – not to mention a necessity.
The coffee culture in Sweden is, famously, strong. Not only do we like to drink a lot of it, we like it strong. The “latte” culture which has emerged in the last decade has added a new dimension to coffee drinking, and increased the milk consumption considerably. As a teenager growing into café culture at the same time as the latte culture gained a foothold, I have become a fervent drinker of the stuff. And have been puzzled and dismayed at the dully weak stuff that is served over here. At work I am given the choice between instant coffee (a cheap kind with a distinct aftertaste of soy sauce) and the concoction offered by our coffee machine: a weak brew the same colour as tea. (In an Arthur Dent-like fashion I have tried to persuade it to make coffee; my failure, however, did not result in the mother ship breaking down.) As I don’t drink coffee in the evening (after work), I have two days a week of proper coffee. And yesterday I had an epiphany. I ordered a latte and was able to see the milk carton used by the sweet girl who made it. It was semi-skimmed milk. Aha!
Now, in Sweden clever marketing people have managed to create a new “brand” of milk – “barista-milk” – which is, and this is its sole purpose of existence, to go into lattes and cappuccinos. There is nothing special about this milk, except that it contains a little more fat than the normal whole milk, thus lending the finished coffee product a bit more flavour and creaminess. Not only, then, do the English make the actual coffee weaker – the milk is (due to dieting culture?) weaker too. End result? Weak and watery coffee. But, and this is the point, some places use whole milk and can be persuaded to make the coffee nice and strong. And I am in the process of making a map. The name of this blog may gain another layer of meaning.
Tea culture is, predictably, a lot more sophisticated. When my friend G was here, we treated ourselves to a proper traditional afternoon tea at the Randolph. Not only were the tea, scones and fruitcake and cream great. Essentially it is all about procedure and the right fittings. I decided a while ago that I should really get a tea pot, in order to be able to drink a whole pot of the stuff while reading a Sunday paper. This proved comically difficult. I went to a variety of shops, some specialising in tea and coffee, and simply did not find anything that I liked. At least not in a price range that I deemed reasonable. Finally, I found a little iron monger’s on a side street close to home – an old fashioned one, run by father (mid to late 80s, shaky hands but good at doing sums) and his son and containing everything. Missing a screw? It may have crawled over to this shop to be with its tribe. And there I finally bought a tea pot. It’s not great, but at least it was not expensive. And it is a pleasant and relaxing shade of brown.
The best tea pots I have seen so far were the silver ones at N College, which were specially designed to be fitted onto a device in order to keep their content hot. No expenses saved, apparently. Again, it’s all about the fittings. I had been invited to a board meeting, which was accompanied by tea (in beautiful cups) and marvellous fruit cake. After debating future journal issues for a few hours, we moved to an even nicer room (oak panelling, naturally) where we were served dinner. And what a dinner. This, I realised, is where the money is in Oxford, in the cellars of colleges. There it lies, snuggled up next to the best port you could ever wish for. I tried to stay sober enough to talk intelligently with the professor next to me about things I only have a vague notion of and simultaneously attempted to do justice to, and fully enjoy the flavours of, the food. Predictably, I only half managed any of it. Professor J will not have been entirely convinced by my accounts of the Swedish education system, I never managed to finish everything on my plate before it was taken away to make way for the next dish (I lost count of them) and by the time a different professor had filled my port glass for the second time I was not quite sober anymore. I suppose the many dishes necessitated a certain swiftness, but it seemed sacrilegious to race through it. I was also surprised at the lack of toasting ceremonies. Professor H, a well travelled man, was aware of our Swedish traditions and demanded that I teach at least our side of the table of it was done. I readily complied. Professor J seemed delighted about being lectured on table manners by a Swede; I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, at least in Sweden, he really should have moved my chair for me as we sat down to dinner. That might have taken the lecturing too far.
Throughout the dinner, in the candle lit room with its fine table covered in the finest of plates, glasses and silver, I had to suppress a mischievous giggle. It was like a fairy tale, but one with a comedy element straight out of “Yes, Minister”. You know the episode when Sir Humphrey invites the minister to Balliol College in order to get him drunk (on port among other things) and agree to something? Not sure what I agreed to in the end, but it transpired that one of the gentlemen present was, in fact, a latter-day Sir Humphrey. Sort of.
Oh, and the after-dinner coffee was great.
Sunday, August 12, 2007
Oxford by day (especially Saturday) is a bustling city, some streets nearly impossible to walk along at anything resembling efficient pace, and the hordes of tourists along with the plethora of shops suggest a big city. That, of course, in conjunction with the comparatively heavy traffic which has had me cursing on more than one occasion – daily during the floods. One Friday night the bus, which had had to take an interesting detour to even get into the city, took two hours. As we entered Oxford, we not only found that all traffic, from three directions, was diverted onto the narrow High Street, but that two buses had broken down at the worst possible strategic points, hence necessitating police officers who diverted the already slow moving traffic around them. I got out among the fumes and walked. Straight to the pub. There are times when nothing but whisky will do.
However, whereas big cities tend to never sleep, and to have a fairly steady flow of traffic – be it of cars or humans – Oxford demonstrably is a small city after all. Oxford by night is practically devoid of traffic, pleasant to cycle in and smells of summer sun and, in places, of chipper vans – the politics of which my housemate S is trying to introduce me to. On a particularly late cycle home, in the wee hours of the morning, I only met one living creature on the Iffley road. The fox was probably as surprised as I was at our brief encounter and rapidly disappeared down Stockmore street, heading for Cowley Road – possibly in search of something exotic in what must be the most varied collections of bins in town.
I noted before that city and country collide and converge in Oxford; my new home is, furthermore, at equal distance from the various kinds of city and country on offer. A ten-minute walk in either direction takes us to completely different places, a fact that my housemates and I made full use of on a Friday night outing. We started with an evening stroll along the river, which took us to the village and a pleasant country pub. The sun was setting and all we could see were fields (no longer flooded) and trees. Realising that crisps do not actually constitute dinner, we went back home, collected our bikes and went to Cowley Road. The distance is negligible, but bikes are more fun. Considering, however, that we had had more beer than dinner, were better at laughing than steering and that we only had two sets of lights and one helmet between us, it is, in some ways, a small miracle that we survived and were able to debate whether to eat Indian, Bangladeshi, Thai, Japanese, Italian or simply have a kebab. Japanese was finally settled on – those in the know proclaimed the superiority of the restaurant in question, which served its food in boxes. After having sufficiently “done” Cowley road we went into town, swishing past the old colleges, making full use of the broadness (and, at night, emptiness) of Broad street and ended up sampling the nightlife on “that” side of town. An interesting sociological experiment if ever there was one. Hot pants. I shall say no more.
Life in Oxford is full of joy. There is also the mundane to be dealt with, however, and my adventures have not only taken me to exotic places like rooms in Lincoln college (Descartes in the loo, I expected nothing less), but also into close encounters of the ninth degree with the National Health Service. My first attempts at registering with a GP led me straight into the clutches of what must surely be one of the worst incarnations of the NHS. The woman so utterly devoid of people skills that someone, for reasons beyond human comprehension, had put in the reception, had a personality capable of sending people made of sterner stuff than me into rehab. I kept wondering (hoping, in fact) whether I was on a hidden camera show; as time and the filling out of forms continued it seemed less and less likely. My exasperation must have been visible, because the kind doctor who came into the reception to collect a paper smiled, slightly concerned, and asked me whether he could help. I wanted to throw myself into his arms and beg him to take me far, far away … but the woman replied in my place and said, in her slow drawl, “we are just filling out some registration forms”. He nodded and left. I was on my own. Being used to the concept of standardised institutions in Sweden I was now convinced that this was it, this was what the NHS was like. I also realised that the only way forward was to just not get sick. Ever. Thankfully, a friend suggested that I simply go somewhere else. I did, and ended up in a sunny office, where a lovely woman provided me with information, helped me with my forms, gave me an appointment with an even more lovely nurse and in general took me in with open arms. Needless to say, I called the other practice and told them to burn my forms…
I have been subjected to watching rugby, been cautioned by a police officer on a bike about cycling on the sidewalk, visited IKEA ... and today I found a whole new park, very close to the house. But I already have a favourite reading tree.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
There is a scene in the first episode of “Life on Mars”, in which Sam truly discovers the bustling street around him, full of people and life, and says to Annie that he finds it hard to believe that his own mind would make up so much detail. All this is done to “Baba O’Reilly” by The Who, a song which perfectly reflects the giddiness of exploration. To this tune I embarked on my own wanders in Oxford, happy and only too aware of the fact that this is reality at its loveliest.
My walks took me along the canal, from Canal Street in Jericho up north and back. The water provided in taps for the people who live in boats seemed to taste better than the water coming out of taps in the city. Tap water, so far, is the only thing about Oxford that does not seem to agree with me...
I arrived in Jericho, and left a part of my heart there that I will now have to go and visit from time to time. It truly is a wonderful place, crammed in around Oxford University Press and demarcated by the canal, full of little shops and pubs and small houses that hide the affluence inside behind an unassuming exterior. My circle of acquaintances has steadily grown; from the staff and regulars of the Jude and the Raddy, to the nice guy in the organic shop who I like to talk to and who gave me a leftover croissant on Friday – he thought I might need one after surviving the floods. I did.
My hair dresser, whose telephone number I found in the yellow pages and whose salon I nearly didn’t, is in a posh “health club” in the equally posh part of north Oxford. After having failed utterly to locate the number of the street I cycled down a path, asked a police officer and some builders if they had a clue what might have happened to number 69 (I had found 67 and 71). They suggested asking in the club and to my great astonishment that was where it was. I went in confused and came out with a nice hair cut. So I will be back.
By the time I was looking for my hair dresser I had already acquired what, in the life of me, is an absolute must. A bike. I bought it second hand from a nice man who delivered it to my door and adjusted it for me. It is “mechanically sound”, as he put it, and can go as fast as I want it too. A perfect exploring bike, really. It is, however, lilac. And surely the ugliest bike in Oxfordshire. But it gets me around and opened up the city even further. I had restricted myself to Jericho and the University Parks; now I am exploring streets everywhere. When I finally I get around to actually buying a map of cycle paths (it’s on the list of stuff to do) I will probably know them all. My general map serves me well, so far, and besides, I love getting lost. Getting lost can be entertaining.
On Thursday I went for an evening cycle, managed to get subtly lost in east Oxford and then headed home via the University Parks. Or rather, I was going to. As I got to the Marston entrance I noticed a little irresistible path. The bike and I got on it. After a while it got narrower. There were nettles. And some mud. I had to walk and at times negotiate the bike across puddles. By the time I realised that it wasn’t looking very good it was too late to turn back; 1) I don’t like turning back, something which will forever get me into trouble, 2) how much further could it be? And then, there it was – a cattle fence and the mother of all muddy puddles. I tried, feebly, to get the bike over the fence while standing on a branch but predictably failed. The bike and I went in and I waded out, mud to the knees (it was glorious mud, of the perfect gooey texture for mud baths) and carrying the rather dirty bike. We soldiered on. Finally, I found a little bridge which took me over the river and away from the muddy path. The only problem was that it also took me straight into Wolfson College! I had strayed into college grounds somewhere. Oops. But there was nothing for it – I had had it with mud. So I walked over the bridge, entered the college and walked through it and out – legs and bike covered in mud but head held high. I then giggled rather irresponsibly while cycling home – and had to spend half an hour demuddifying myself, the bike and my poor shoes, who may never fully recover…
Nature is always close at hand here, be it in the parks or in the fields around the city. (Mud lovers never have to go far.) One minute you are in the city, the next you are in the country. And sometimes you are in Wonderland, or in a poem: N. showed me the treacle well and the poplars in Binsey. Port Meadow isn’t just pretty, however, it is also a flood meadow, and one that has now faced a difficult test. On Friday came the flood. Actually it was just rain, lots of it, but due to lack of serviceable draining, lots of rain equals flooding. My colleague A and I spent a good three hours in a caravan of cars trying to drive on the flooded roads, in disbelief at how a few hours of heavy rain could cause such havoc. The motorway was closed, the villages were under water. It was almost an anti-climax to arrive in Oxford where everything was business as usual. Well, we survived, didn’t get stuck and A’s car, hardly built for such adventures, held up. Port Meadow has been transformed into a lake.
My new housemate T and his friends, who were going to the festival, have set up camp here and, refusing to acknowledge defeat, are having a barbeque and play music in the garden. In the rain. So my first night here, in the enormous house that will be my home from now, has been accompanied by the scent of frying vegetarian sausages, laughter and Cohen songs played on a green guitar. At one point we were all wearing silly hats.