Monday, 2 May 2011

IX. Punting and Pimm's Parties, London and Berlin Revisited, Paris Visited, and the Value of Spontaneity

I will begin by unabashedly stating the obvious: this chapter has been relegated to the backburner for an inexcusable amount of time. Yes, my travels have been incredibly hectic, perhaps in some regards even more so than they were over winter vacation, as everything was spontaneously decided. With the exception of the flight to Berlin for choir tour (which I hadn't even directly purchased myself), I made bookings only days in advance, and was alone in transit between cities.

But that is hardly an excuse. I did technically have time to write, especially since I stayed for much longer in each place than I had on my last European adventure. And the words were there, accumulating in my head more and more every day, until the crescendo became almost overwhelming. I promised myself over and over that I would write them down, when I reached my next destination, when I was firmly settled again in one place, when I was feeling better, when I had a stable Wi-Fi connection. But the opportunity never quite arose; there was always something, or someone, that prevented it from happening. And for one week near the end of my travels, when I was in a stable place with a good Wi-Fi connection, I wanted to live in the moment for as long as possible. I did not want to reflect on past events, as wonderful and exciting and fresh in my mind as they were. I wanted to remain in the bubble of the present, away from technology, because I was happy, more blissfully happy than I ever could have imagined. But that bubble will constitute a future chapter in itself: not this one. It is not the right time.

So now I am confronted with the dilemma of having too much to write about—as with chapter VI, I hardly know where to begin. Bubble of happiness aside, one chapter will not be sufficient to capture everything else that has happened in the last seven weeks; I will need at least two. And even then, I will be missing out on several important details simply because I have forgotten them, because time makes memory fuzzy around the edges. Which is not always a bad thing, as it allows for general reflections, which I noted when recounting my winter travels. But this time, the portrait will be even more impressionistic, with less brushstrokes of clarity. Because when you reflect upon something after it is completely completely over, you inevitably will write about it in a different way than you would have written about it while fully immersed. Such is the angle of retrospection. And so I have decided to try something different for once: I will start from the beginning of my voyage and work my way forward in time, rather than backwards.

I want to begin begin, however, with my first week back at Oxford—because although term officially started yesterday, already quite a lot has happened of the eccentric and outrageous variety. I intended on moving back in on April 22nd, as I had an essay due on April 28th that required an immense amount of reading, and all of the books were only accessible at Oxford.

But this didn't quite happen. I had spoken with Jane Osborne, the Accommodation Manager at Pembroke, about returning a week early before I left for vacation, and she told me that it would be all right as long as I emailed her in advance. I sent her an email a day or two too late, however, because she was on vacation herself (for the Easter holiday) and could not respond. So then I emailed Brian Harvey, the Head Porter. His reply was a little startling: I could not return early because I had indicated on my moving-out form that I would be coming back on the 28th. But I was in Belfast at the time and had already booked my flight to Heathrow for the next morning, and it could not be cancelled.

After making backup accommodation arrangements with several friends who had already moved in, I returned on the 22nd as planned, in the hopes of convincing the porter on duty that I should be able to have my room because I had already spoken with Jane Osborne in person about this and received her permission. Because she was on vacation, however, the porter could not call her, and had no choice but to abide strictly by the College rules: no one was allowed to move back earlier than the date indicated on their moving-out form (which can only be changed by the Accommodation Manager). Moreover, there had very recently been a conference that used up all of the spare rooms, and because it was Easter weekend the scouts were not available to clean them. Jane Osborne would be back on the 26th, so that was the earliest I could return to my room.

Not wishing to cause a fiasco, I did not attempt to plead any further, and thanks to Sam and Cory I had places to stay until then. I do admit that I was more than a little irritated, however—after travelling for six weeks straight and living in hostels and friends' houses, I was more than ready to have my own personal space again. I needed privacy to write, to reply to dozens of emails that had accumulated in my inbox, and to do work: I have an extreme aversion to studying in the library, because I find the atmosphere both distracting and stifling.

But everything worked out in the end, and Sam and Cory were such entertaining and wonderful hosts (not to mention the fact that both had mattresses so I did not have to sleep on the floor). I stayed with Sam on Friday and Saturday. We cooked a delicious dinner on Friday night and ate it al fresco because the weather was so pleasant—during the day it had been as high as 25 degrees C!—and the Chapel Quad lawn was finally open. On Saturday there was a wedding in the chapel, for which Sam was hired to play the organ, and I tagged along under the premise of turning pages because I love weddings (I've only been to one other in my entire life, that of a family friend at the New Jersey Botanical Garden). It was a delightful affair, and the perfect way to jumpstart my weekend, along with the lemonade that Sam and I had made the previous evening. I had a glorious time with Cory and his friend from Sunday until Tuesday, when I was indeed able to return to my own room. Easter was relatively uneventful, as I spent most of the day in the library working—but I was able to swallow my aversion and managed to have a relatively productive session.

If Easter weekend was calm, May Day weekend was a complete storm, and it was exactly what I needed after hibernating in my room from Tuesday to Friday to work on my essay. On Saturday, there was a Pimm's Party on Chapel Quad hosted by the Pembroke College Boat Club, and due to inordinately sunny weather and the joy of collections being over for most people, the lawn was inundated. It was my first time drinking Pimm's, which I am fairly certain is unique to Britain, as I had not encountered it on any of my travels. I would say that it is the closest in taste and composition to sangria, except the alcohol is gin rather than wine. But both are infused with fruit pieces and mint leaves and best served with ice in large pitchers, and don't really taste alcoholic—which means that you don't realise you're properly drunk until it's a little too late; the inebriation is quite insidious. Great fun, especially if you go punting after.

PCBC Pimm's Party

Which we, of course, did. We being Sam, Ashley, Andrea (Ashley's girlfriend, who I hadn't seen since Berlin), and Tara, who is also in Pembroke Choir. It also happened to be my first time on a punt, so I was not quite sure what to expect. In appearance punting sort of resembles a gondola ride, but they differ in one important regard: the punting pole touches the bottom of the river, which has to be quite shallow, but the gondola pole does not. And punting isn't really common across all of England; in fact, I think it's mostly an Oxbridge tradition.

With Sam and Ashley, it was, to say the least, an adventure. Both exhilarating and traumatic, in the best possible proportions. We were all fairly tipsy or beyond at this point from the Pimm's party, and we had brought along the obligatory alcohol funnel along with some just-as-obligatory Sainsbury's cider. Thankfully, I finally agreed to try the funnel (yet another first) after we had disembarked and were safely grounded—it was a complete disaster but would have been even more of a disaster had we been on the punt (and luckily there is no photographic evidence).

Sam took control of the pole, which was good because I am convinced that I would have fallen into the water or the boat would have capsized had I made an attempt. Due to inebriation levels and tomfoolery with the funnel, however, the ride was not as peaceful as it conventionally should be. At one point, Sam tried to steer us down a narrow side stream that was exciting uncharted territory, but the punt got enmeshed between a submerged tree and the branches on the shore. At another point, the pole got stuck in the river, so we had to paddle back to retrieve it. We also tried to steal several ducks along the way, tempting them with bread from our little sandwiches, but to no avail. On the whole, though, the sailing was very smooth. Here is my video footage of the entire affair. [On the way back to Pembroke we saw a tree walking down the street. Seriously.]

Sunday was May Day, which has become one of my favourite holidays because of the hilarious festivities. In Oxford it is especially bizarre. Traditionally, everyone wakes up just before the crack of dawn to hear the Magdalen College Choir sing like angels from the top of a tower. Directly afterwards, many students jump off the nearby bridge into the river, at the risk of severe injury—fractures and broken limbs are common, but one year someone actually broke his back. I did not hear or witness any of this, however, as I wanted a solid eight hours of sleep and had other plans: David Kirke had invited me to a special celebration in South Parks, a Pink Pimm's Party. Ironically enough, it was the complete inverse of the party in Pembroke, which had been a proper and tranquil affair; many people had shown up in fancy dresses and suits. The attendees at this peculiar gathering were all clad in outrageous bright pink costumes (which happens to be Pembroke's colour), complete with wigs, ludicrous hats, feathers, and polka dot bathrobes. They were also quite literally from all avenues of life: I met several automobile engineers, several planetary geophysicists, and Adam Harper, the man who pioneered a fire extinguisher-powered dinghy and the fastest electric car. He has promised to take me on a ride in the former sometime this summer. I hope my first punting adventure has prepared me well...

The Pimm's was poured into a huge rubbish bin up to the brim, and refills seemed virtually unlimited because the level kept rising the more people extracted from it—normal laws of mathematics never apply to alcohol. There were also many explosions of all shapes, sizes, and varieties, bridge-jumping (but with a harness, of which I have also taken video footage), tree-gliding (with a rope), spontaneous food fights, torches (employed to singe off facial hair), a bomb-powered water car, a sledgehammer, inflatable couches, a random tent (that I suspect was only there because it was pink), broken champagne bottles, an accordionist, several little traumatised children, and the obligatory maypole. Definitely the most alternative celebration I have ever been to—although one of the attendees informed me that it was much worse last year, as they had killed a giraffe. I don't think it was real though.

Pink Pimm's Party in South Parks

Now, finally, I shall rewind to the beginning of my spring travels: my weekend in London just after the end of Hilary term. Like my previous half day in London before my trip to Edinburgh, practically everything went according to plan. I had formulated an itinerary the day before of what I wanted to see, knowing that hardly any of it might actually work out, but I always need to have a plan regardless. This was my first proper time exploring the city; I had visited for a week with my parents when I was six, but I hardly remember anything except for the fact that we went to Buckingham Palace and my mum saw the Queen (whereas all I could see were the heads of people who were much taller than me). And it fulfilled all of my very high expectations, despite the fact that I was primarily in tourist-infested areas. I can easily imagine myself living in London in the near future, or at the very least making many return trips. Of all the major cities I have ever been to, it is most probably my favourite.

The Palace was of course on my list (I walked there directly from Victoria Coach Station), as were St. James's Park, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, King's College, University College London, the British Museum, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tate Modern, walking along the Thames, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and Parliament Square. All of this I managed to do in two days, with the most incandescent of company. On the day I arrived, I met up with Ryan Baker, the British boy that Andy and Anna and I had befriended in Rome, as he lives quite close to London. The meeting was spontaneously arranged via Facebook and texts that very morning, but everything worked out—we found each other outside the National Gallery (to which I absolutely must return for an entire day), and then made several loops through Chinatown and the Covent Garden area before settling on a place for dinner. As I recall, it was a two-floor restaurant with a distinct bar vibe upstairs—very edgy and modern. The desserts were heavenly; I had a cheesecake as per usual and Ryan ordered an intense cookie explosion that definitely lived up to its name.

I stayed once again with my friend Amber at UCL, and she introduced me to several friends of hers: Roisin and Tess, who are also studying abroad at UCL from Columbia, and Andrew, who was visiting Roisin on Columbia's spring break. Andrew and I instantly became best friends, even though we hadn't even heard of each other before. It astounds me how you can always know, to a certain extent, whether or not you will get along with someone—and how well you will get along with them—within minutes after your first interaction. We soon discovered our many similarities: we are both Aries (and fiercely proud of it), working on novels in progress, lovers of photography and art in general, studying Linguistics at Columbia, risk-takers, conscientious eaters, free-spirited and quite outgoing. The unfortunate thing is, we won't be able to see each other again for a long time, as Andrew will be studying abroad in Barcelona for the entirety of next year, my last at Columbia. But we are keeping in touch via Skype—he will be giving me virtual bartending lessons—and I have the perfect excuse to visit Barcelona on my spring break next March. And we both plan on doing post-graduate study in the UK.

I also saw two other Columbians in London: one of the invaluable Inside New York 2011 staff editors, who is studying abroad at LSE for the year, and a girl who had written for me when I was Books Editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator. The former meeting had been arranged (also via Facebook and texts); the latter meeting was pure coincidence. Andrew and I were at the Tate Modern and from out of nowhere I heard someone call my name, but I almost didn't recognise her at first because it had been so long since I had last seen her. She's studying abroad at Trinity College in Dublin this semester, and was visiting London for the weekend. I love such moments, when the world seems to contract infinitesimally, and I've had several others on my trip—but they won't be recounted until my next chapter. They make you wonder at the natural patterns in life. So much is random chaos, but the unpredictability is not completely senseless.

Ryan and his Cookie Explosion

Caressing the Fake Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

Twin Lunch


The Eye on the Thames

Big Ben

Daffodils in St. James's Park

I returned to Oxford from London for two very long (but enjoyable) days of choir rehearsal prior to our departure for Berlin. We were there for five days, in which we delivered five superlative services and concerts at the most distinctive cathedrals and churches: Friedrichstadtkirche, Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche (which is so startlingly modern that I did not recognise it was a church), Kreuzkirche, and the glorious Dom itself. The audiences were very supportive and generous with their donations; we ended up garnering over 700 euros in total, and all of it was inevitably spent on food, drink, and more drink. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned at Oxford is that alcohol and singing exist in a mutualistic (albeit precarious) feedback loop; neither can truly exist without the other, but if too much fuel is added to the fire the results are not acoustically pleasing. Regardless, as inevitable as getting absolutely hammered seemed, I did not have any shitshows this time around.

It was nice to return to a place I had already been, as I felt much less like a tourist, less pressured to see all of the highlights in between rehearsal and concert time. The snow and holiday markets were gone, which made the buildings look even more stark and industrial than they had seemed before, but the weather was actually bearable (although not very pleasant; it was overcast most of the time and there was a bit of rain). During our concert-free day I went for a completely unplanned eight-hour walk and saw areas of the city that were utterly derelict and abandoned, as well as the Berlin Wall's East Side Gallery, a 1.3km-long stretch of paintings and graffiti. As disquieting as the scenery was, I am glad that I experienced it, if only because it was completely different from anything else I had encountered in my travels, and was the perfect opportunity for me to pause and reflect.

Berliner Dom


East Side Gallery


21 Amaretto Shots

The evening before, I had booked three flights in a row on easyJet, to and from Paris, Madrid, and Venice, for a mere £153.75. I had finally decided to stop waiting for Septimus. Things would not work out; we could not travel together, at least not deliberately. I had known this before, but I hadn't been willing to acknowledge it openly. There were too many distractions, thanks to David Kirke and my two weekend excursions—the term seemed infinitely shorter than Michaelmas had been—and I wanted to keep myself immersed in them for as long as possible so that I would not have to think about this, about the situation. Denial at its finest.

I first sensed it at the beginning, a few days after we met up for lunch back in late January. He sensed it too, I am sure. But we both ignored it. The lunch had been wonderful, but not what either of us had expected. And from them on, at least from my perspective, reality drifted farther and farther from expectation. It reached the point where I almost could not tolerate his presence (although that would be a rather extreme way of putting it). I simply could not be myself around him, or anyone even close to myself. I found it extremely difficult to communicate with him face to face. Everything was a performance. Everything was superficial. And I detest superficiality.

The most ironic thing of all is that I could be myself with him when it was just words. This is true with all people to a certain extent—the disjunct between words and actions—but with Septinus it is especially heightened. And that is what made me uncomfortable. That is why things were awkward, at least from my perspective. He responded perfectly when it was just words, but in real life it was the complete opposite. It was as if the words did not exist at all, or as if there were two different versions of him. And as I explained in my last chapter, I cannot trust people whose words do not match up with their actions. I am a writer. Words matter to me, more than they should, and if they are rendered meaningless, there is no point in using them in the first place. It is the most fundamental violation of all.

In any case, he understands. Of this I am certain. And it has all worked out for the best, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the spontaneity of the decision. Having completed my travels, I can look back and say with the utmost sincerity that I have no regrets at all whatsoever. Moreover, the decision was not entirely spontaneous—the pieces had been there beforehand, just scattered. I had always had a vague backup plan in mind, because I knew people either studying abroad or living in places throughout Europe that I wanted to visit. The only issue was figuring out an order and trying to minimize cost. But the latter mostly determined the former and everything unravelled by itself. I definitely spent less than what I had over winter vacation because I went to fewer places in total and only stayed in hostels half the time. Because these places were more spread apart geographically, I ended up taking seven flights, which I did not think I would be able to endure (that's an average of more than one flight a week!). But I have, and I'm a stronger traveller for it.

I had to be alone in order to meet people. For me, this is as much the purpose of travelling as exploring the places themselves. People stimulate me; they quite literally fuel my writing, for I view everyone as a character to a greater or lesser extent. In Berlin, I made many new acquaintances at the hostel itself, from completely different social and cultural backgrounds. There were two lovely girls from Virginia who were studying abroad in Florence; I went with them to the Sunday flea market. There were three very attractive guys from Denmark who I convinced to come to our concert in Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche after talking with them for just ten minutes. There was a kindergarten teacher from San Francisco who also sings in a punk rock band (I briefly saw her again in Paris because she booked the same hostel as me). And there was a group of seven delightful Swedish boys who moved into my room right after the choir people left; I was staying an extra day because my flight to Paris did not leave until then. They corrected several of my misconceptions of Sweden: Swedish fish are manufactured in Canada, the wildlife mostly consists of moose and reindeer, and less than half the population is actually blond. Most importantly, they went to sleep at a decent hour (between midnight and 1am) and did not snore, which is more than I can say for two of the British gentlemen who had shared my room on the previous four nights. I now want to visit Scandinavia more desperately than ever.

The Beautiful Swedes

One unfortunate result of the drunken choir tour was that I fell ill, for the first time in two years. But it wasn't exactly a proper flu or even a cold—just a headache and a sore throat, the latter of which worsened in Paris to the point where I could not open my mouth more than two centimetres, much less swallow, much less talk. The pain was excruciating; it was definitely the worst sore throat I have ever had, and probably also the longest. It took a week in total to go away because I was travelling alone, which requires a great deal of concentration and exertion even if you are not physically moving around, and I was determined to still see everything; I could not stop talking because that is just my nature, and there were so many people to talk to; I did not rest until I had no choice but to rest (sacrificing two days of Paris sightseeing, in which I had planned to conquer the Louvre). I had bought cough drops and painkillers in Berlin, but not proper medicine. I did drink tea, though. Loads of it. Camomile with honey. And it helped, if ever so slightly.

Along with my sore throat, I arrived in Paris at 10:30pm with an ear-splitting headache and a head-splitting earache from the plane ride. But I did not make it to the hostel until almost midnight due to the long train ride into the city and the half hour walk from the station, burdened with my 20-kg suitcase (I debated whether or not to purchase a backpack for this trip but decided I could not abandon Tipsy) and a 10-kg handbag. I miraculously did not encounter any sketchy people or get lost—the provisional map I had sketched on the back of a sheet of notebook paper before leaving Berlin actually worked. Perhaps I do have some rudimentary sense of direction after all; it is definitely much sharpened when one is travelling alone.

After seeing London, Edinburgh, Holland, and the highlights of Central and Eastern Europe, I must admit that my expectations were not very high for Paris. I had heard both very positive and very negative things about it, and was convinced that it was overly romanticised. Sure, it may be pretty, but most of its residents are far from pleasant—everyone possesses a dislike and distrust of foreigners, especially Americans. The rude ladies at the information booth near the airport's ticket centre confirmed this. I clearly needed help with the machine but did not want to interrupt their conversation, and the lady behind the desk clearly saw me standing there, but did not so much as raise an eyebrow. After she had finally helped me, I repeated something she said and they laughed, as if there was something wrong with my pronunciation or grammar. And I am sure there wasn't, as the phrase had been quite simple.

After a seven-hour walk through the main highlights of the city, I began to change my mind. I couldn't live in Paris, I decided, but I could still appreciate its beauty and its history. I could spend hours upon hours walking along the Seine, or sitting in Notre Dame, or just ogling the architecture on the streets and breathing in the scent of fresh baguettes (all of which I did). My opinion was further improved after I met several of its residents, both of whom happen to be involved in the film industry. This was my first encounter with either of them in real life: one had friended me on Facebook through one of my friends a week prior, and sent me a message because he saw that I was in Berlin and wanted to know more about the city. We met up for coffee one evening and had a lovely conversation, slipping in and out of French and English.

The other person I met isn't really Parisian, but works there on occasion—in between jaunts to Shanghai—and is originally from Toulouse. We actually met through another person, Jesse Barack, who had added me as a friend on Facebook a few months ago, au hasard. I accepted because we had one friend in common who I trusted, and because his IMDb profile is pretty spiffy-looking (I have always been interested in the film industry). Throughout the past few months we have been sending each other messages, about film and literature and other odds and ends; I asked him about his current project, Polypore, and he said that someone was filming for him in Paris. On a whim, I asked whether I could make an appearance in the movie, since I knew I would be going to Paris soon. He said sure and told me to message this person, so I did. And he just so happened to be returning to Paris a few days after I would arrive, and was filming a scene that required two females. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was—we couldn't film because the other actors and actresses weren't properly assembled on the only day in which we could meet up, my last in Paris. But it was wonderful regardless. He arrived at my hostel at around noon and we set off from there. First we went to the Père Lachaise Cemetery, an unbelievably beautiful and tranquil space that has been used in many films; quite a few famous writers and artists (Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Max Ernst) rest there. Then we strolled down the Champs-Élysées to the Tour Eiffel, which I had not seen yet up close (it's rather anticlimactic compared to how it appears at night from afar—very rusty-looking), walked to a boulangerie where one of my friend's cousins works for a transcendental baguette, popped by his friend's flat in Chinatown to escape the rain, ate dinner in the area, walked around some more, ended up at McDonald's for sundaes, and raced each other back to the metro station. All in all an exhilarating day. And now I have a reason to visit southern France. He also might be in New York in October, which would be perfect because Jesse lives nearby and then the three of us could meet up. What's ridiculous is that Jesse actually hasn't even met him in person himself! Facebook is much more powerful than I had imagined; it has completely revolutionised human relationships, but not necessarily in a negative way.

Despite the fact that I was sick for over half of my eight days in Paris, I encountered some very interesting characters at my hostel. When I arrived, there was a chirpy Canadian girl in my room who I instantly took a liking to. She was vivacious and talkative, had studied art at University, spoke with a bit of an Irish accent (after having spent three months travelling around there), gave me all of her Vitamin C tablets, and reminded me a bit of myself when I'm not incapacitated by a sore throat. I invited her along to the Centre Pompidou, where I had planned to meet my friend Madina, who is studying abroad in Paris for the semester. We also spent a day in Versailles with another Canadian from our hostel—it was absolutely splendificent, of course, but I need to return when all of the flowers are in bloom, as the gardens were virtually indistinguishable from each other.

The Seine


Gardens of Versailles

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Then there was Simone, a lovely writer, journalist, and photographer from Munich who moved in after the Canadian girl left. She is in her mid-thirties, but I could tell immediately that she was very young at heart. There was something so pure about her. She understood me and I understood her; we come from very different backgrounds but we have had similar experiences, and we think in the same way, because we are both writers. We told each other stories, both happy and sad. I wish we could have spent more time together, but I will hopefully be seeing her when I return to Munich in one month.

And finally, there was Jon. I met him on the day that I finally began recovering my voice, and could open my mouth almost all the way without flinching in pain. We were sitting next to each other at the public computers (the Wi-Fi signal was atrociously unstable), and he was muttering aloud about random things, incessantly, and somehow we began talking to each other, and I was in such a good mood that I offered to make dinner for us. I hadn't cooked for months, there was a grocery just around the corner, and restaurants in Paris are, inevitably, quite expensive. It was a success, but the entire time I cooked he kept trying to irritate me by asking if he could help in any other way, and we quibbled about the most trivial of matters (I asked him to watch my purse and he somehow distorted this into an imperious command). On one level it was amusing, particularly to anyone who may have been observing, but on another level it was intensely irritating and absolutely ridiculous. He is a 27-year-old engineer from LA, but acts like a 14-year-old boy, and is very much aware of it. Throughout the course of our very long conversation (which carried on late into the evening), I discovered that he didn't know what a corset is, and also hadn't heard of either Jane Austen or Pride and Prejudice. I've always thought that I was the one who lived under a rock in a cave, but this was beyond belief. Regardless, we had an interesting time together, to say the least, and he gave me some nice insights into a personal piece of writing, as well as some funny stories of his own. Oh, and he calls himself "a very in-depth character." Whatever that means.

Friends and hostel companions aside, I was also accosted by two random strangers during my stay in Paris, both of whom happened to be from Senegal. One was in the Jardin du Luxembourg, where I had been minding my own business sitting on a park bench and watching a tennis match. He sat down next to me, saw that I had a map, and asked to see it; I was a little uncomfortable but showed him out of politeness. Then he began asking me questions, but not in an unfriendly way, so I used it as an opportunity to practice my French.

The other encounter was much stranger, at the base of Sacré Cœur—a group of men literally would not let me pass through because there was apparently some sort of important religious "festival" going on. Hakuna matata, one of them said. I was a bit worried because I was alone but it was broad daylight and a tourist-infested area, so I heard him out. He took some red, yellow, and green strings and tied them around my finger. I had no idea what he was going to do; all I could do was stand very still. He kept talking to me and asking me questions about myself while braiding the strings, and soon he had made a little bracelet, which he tied around my wrist after asking me to make a wish, since it was a good luck charm. It is still around my wrist now, for that matter, as the knot is very tight. And it has indeed brought me luck, if one believes that luck can be brought by such things.

Luck. It seems as if ever since my arrival at Oxford, I have had more of it than usual. So many things have happened to me in the past seven months alone that have surpassed anything I have ever experienced before, and I know that these things will continue to happen. It is not just the place, but the people. It is always the people. I have stressed this before, but I cannot stress this more than enough. I fundamentally believe that change comes from without and not from within; it is others who change you and make you do things that you never thought you would have done before. People redefine you. In the past seven months I have definitely changed for the better. I have discovered more of myself; I have been willing to try new things, to take more chances. I have become more open, I think. More accepting and tolerant of novelty and strangeness. And this novelty and strangeness engenders more change; it is a constant feedback loop.

Speaking of taking chances: in Paris I did something that I did not think I would do for another few months at least—I got a haircut. Like all of my other decisions on this trip, it was completely spontaneous. I woke up one morning (the morning that I first began to feel much better), and said to myself, "I am going to get a haircut, because I am in Paris." So I did. And was actually quite pleased with the result.

My Parisian Haircut

I have so many more stories to tell—this is only half of my vacation—and thoughts to reflect upon, but this chapter has rambled on for long enough. I shall conclude with several video clippings from my lunch in Al-Shami (a lovely Lebanese restaurant in Jericho) two months ago with David Kirke and Piers Ashworth. Here is what the latter about breakfast television and the fascinating miracle of skinny jeans. And his promise that he will introduce me to Keira Knightley by the time I leave Oxford. The clock is indeed ticking.