Thursday, September 20, 2012

I Get A Little Homesick Sometimes

The chatter of the aspiring archers reverberates oddly off the walls of the range. The arch of the brick ceiling seems unsettlingly low, depressed by the weight of the building above. Florescent lights illuminate everything in stark clarity: concrete floor, whitewashed walls, piles of backpacks and discarded jackets to the sides, still damp from the autumn rain.

I've been standing in a line for fifteen minutes, waiting for my brief turn to shoot. I try to concentrate on the book on my hand that I've brought to pass the time, but the confused muddle of voices scrambles the words on the page. My bow, slung across my chest, presses comfortingly against my collarbone.

I stroke the smooth wood of the riser with the pad of my thumb; the polished surface slightly warm from the heat of my body. I trace the graceful curves of the limbs and shift out of the way to let a grinning novice pass. Only four people more in front of me.

I close my eyes...

I'm walking up a gravel road in the woods, the rocks crunching beneath my feet. I stroke the curve of the riser again, securing the bow against my shoulder with one hand. The other hand grips the quiver that bumps against my hip, full of mismatched arrows. The arrows still rattle together, wood and aluminum jostling each other companionably.

I come to the top of a small slope and pause in the full sunlight. The sky is the rich, delicious blue that one only sees over a normally rainy Pacific Northwest city on a sunny day in August--the blue of miracles. To my right, a path leads up over a small slope into the leafy woods; to the left is a field of waving grass punctuated by clusters of flowers. If I step forward a bit, I'll be able to see the distant snowy cone of Mount Baker.

I pay the range fee by stuffing a couple dollar bills into a rusted metal post and continue down the road. From the woods a bird whistles from far off; otherwise the only other sound is the wind. The breeze is cool and comforting, and the sunlight spreads a golden warmth over my skin. The wood of the bow is slightly warm under my fingers.

At the open range, I stop in front of the targets. There is not another soul in sight; I have the range to myself. I have no other plans, no pressing homework, no appointments, no goals for the day except, hours away, to make dinner. I pull the nock of the first arrow onto the bowstring and square up to the target.

I get a little homesick sometimes.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

An extremely biased first impression of the NHS

Ah, the National Health Service. Its praises have been sung as a triumph of the British nation; it was even singled out for particular distinction during the opening ceremonies of the London games. During an information session before I left, an Edinburgh representative assured us that we would not need insurance in Britain--the NHS would look after us. How delightful, I thought, how utterly different from our deeply flawed and often prohibitively expensive American system.

I've had some personal contact with it now. Here's what happened...

I had a lovely time talking and laughing with some new friends last night, and assumed the tightness in my throat was from that. When I woke up to a sore throat, I realized that was wishful thinking. Ah well, I thought, I have to register with a GP anyway. (Does that seem a little...intrusive to anyone else?) So I looked up the nearest GP on the NHS website--it so happens to be the University Health Service--and gave them a ring.

"Hello," croak I in the voice of a dramatic reinterpretation of Darth Vader done entirely by frogs, "I'd like to register with the University Health Service."

"Yes, you can register between 9 and 4 today or tomorrow," the curt voice informs me.

I'm looking at the address on the web page, which says "Bristo Square." This is one of the main squares for the university and has lots of buildings on it. I've walked through it several times during the last few days and never noticed a building with "Health Services" on it. "And where are you located?" I ask.

"Bristo Square." Followed by impatient silence.

"...Right." On to the second topic of concern! "I actually am sick right now. Is there any time I could see a doctor today?"

"No, you won't be able to see a doctor for a few days," the nurse answers. "Okay? Bye!"

Not having anything else to do, I head to the Health Services Center, finding it with the help of a Fresher's Week volunteer who points me to the poorly marked doorway. I sit in an unsettlingly pink, sparse basement room to fill out my paperwork and wait in the line, and when I get to the nurse who checks it...

"Everything in order, that's you sorted!"

"So," I try again, sounding like I had gravel for breakfast, "I have a sore throat and I'd like to see a doctor."

The nurse stares at me, pulls an I-don't-think-we-can-manage-that face, and asks, "Well, is it urgent?"

Is it urgent? Seriously?

Yes, I understand they're busy--there's a long line of people waiting to be registered. But honestly, for the entire 30,000 students at the university, all they can muster is three harried nurses doing paperwork?

And really, how badly sick do I have to be before I qualify to see a doctor--or even a nurse--if there even is one on site actually treating patients? Do I have to be coughing up mucus? Blood? Spurting brain fluid from my ears? Missing a limb? At what point do I reach the required urgency threshold?

I'm not easily panicked by illness and I've had a sore throat many times. As I have pretty much no other symptoms of a cold--no runny nose, no congestion, etc--what I really wanted was a strep test or a doctor's diagnosis about whether the sore throat was likely to be bacterial or viral. If the former, I could get a prescription for antibiotics; if the latter, I could wait it out in peace. Also, the last time I had a sore throat and went to a GP, they found a tumor back there, so there's that as well.

Instead I was dismissed up to the the pharmacy, where the pharmacist gave me some anesthetic lozenges. It's definitely gotten worse since then--coughing and a headache, for instance. I'm not in crippling pain, of course, so I guess it still doesn't count as "urgent."

The point is this: I brought many exchange students to the Health Center at Western over five years working with the AUAP, and went there myself a few times. No matter how busy they were, the nurses would take your information and get you on the list to see someone. Sure you'd have to wait, and they would often just go, "It's a cold, have some cough drops and get some rest," but they never turned anyone away, even my students fresh off the plane from Japan, barely able to speak English. And I have never, ever seen them look at a sick student, purse their lips at a request to see a doctor, and say, "Well, is it urgent?"

So as for the NHS, color me unimpressed.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Farewell London, Hello Edinburgh

Tuesday, Sept 4
    Right about now, I figure, is around the time I should stop being nervous--or rather, that the nervousness should be drowned out by the excitement and anticipation. Instead I'm staring out the window of the train as we draw closer to Edinburgh--only 40 minutes away now; is there any way to tell whether I'm in England or Scotland? I'll have to look it up later--and the only thing that keeps bubbling to the surface of my mind is What was I thinking? I can't do this! I guess this is payback for not having my Ford Prefect moment when it should have happened, and instead I'm having it now.
    For those unfamiliar with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, here's the relevant quote:

    Ford was very kind – he gave the barman another five-pound note and told him to keep the change. The barman looked at it and then looked at Ford. He suddenly shivered: he experienced a momentary sensation that he didn't understand because no one on Earth had ever experienced it before. In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny sublimal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth. On Earth it is never possible to be further than sixteen thousand miles from your birthplace, which really isn't very far, so such signals are too minute to be noticed. Ford Prefect was at this moment under great stress, and he was born 600 light years away in the near vicinity of Betelgeuse.
    The barman reeled for a moment, hit by a shocking, incomprehensible sense of distance. He didn't know what it meant, but he looked at Ford Prefect with a new sense of respect, almost awe.
    "Are you serious, sir?" he said in a small whisper which had the effect of silencing the pub. "You think the world's going to end?"
    "Yes," Ford said gaily, "in less than two minutes I would estimate."
     I experience something like this any time I travel somewhere. The effect multiplies with how far away I am from home and how long I'm going to stay there, and on non-leisure expeditions like this, another factor is at play: the importance of what I need to do when I'm there. It's not really panic, or any clearly explicable thought process. It's really just a sense stretching out into the future of all the seconds ahead of me, everything I'll have to do and learn and accomplish and live through, all compressed into one moment.
    It's comforting in any case to be near the sea. The nice Olympics volunteer at King's Cross assured me that the trip to Edinburgh would be lovely, and sure enough, we're gliding along the east coast amid rolling fields of golden-brown grain, patches of trees--are those artichokes?--and little clusters of brick houses. There's a small but majestic brick church presiding over a little forest of headstones, and every now and then, the cloud-streaked blue of the afternoon sky blurs into the deeper blue of the ocean. Way off, I can see some bizarre shapes, what may be islands perhaps or standalone monuments like Haystack Rock; one is very pale, like the moonstone I saw at the Science Museum.
    I just saw a Union Jack. Does that mean I'm still in England? Only 23 minutes to go so that seems unlikely.
    Monday was much nicer than Sunday in pretty much every way. It was sunny and warm all day, although I began the day with a visit to the British Library's "Writing Britain" exhibit. I think my favorite thing was seeing manuscripts and printers' copies by famous and beloved British writers; there was a handwritten manuscript of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, with little heart doodles scribbled in the margins by Rowling, and a typed manuscript of Hard Times, I think, with the chapter titles and corrections written in Dickens' hand. I also liked the painting of the Shire by Tolkien: simplistic, bright, cheerful, and welcoming. I raced through the exhibit and headed back gratefully out into the warmth and sunshine to meet an old friend from my Thüringen days, Joe.
    For the sake of integrity I should record here that I think disappointment has had a lot to do with the elongation and intensity of the ongoing Ford Prefect effect. I came to the UK a week and a half early hoping to be able to meet some of my friends, all of whom turned out to be unable to see me except Joe. Seeing a familiar face was such a relief!
The best seat in the house
    This is disjointed, sorry, but the train must be getting close now, because we're still skirting the coast but just across the water is another land mass, several miles away. We must be at the mouth of the Firth heading up to Edinburgh now. It's seriously gorgeous, but getting close means a lot of things, not the least of which is that I'll need to pick up all those bags again and my back is already sore...
    Anyway, Joe and I strolled out to Lincoln's Inn Field (or something, I'll have to look it up) and walked around the park; we'd come that way for a certain museum that, it turns out, is closed on Mondays. I hadn't had lunch, so we headed to an excellent pizzaria on Goodge Street and chatted about comedy and traveling and Britian. I tried to explain why I like London so much, and the impression of an American coming to London for the first time, and Joe was very patient and understanding with my ramblings.
Westminster at night
    Joe had to get home before the early evening rush, so we split up at Foley's, a delightfully huge bookstore, but not before he recommended to me a book called Embassytown by China Mieville, which turns out to be about the fabric of reality and addiction to language and the nature of communication and it's fascinating. It's kind of beautiful and disturbing and grisly all at once.
    I only discovered this once I got to start reading it, which I did by curling up in my favorite spot: between the paws of one of the Sphinxes guarding the obelisk on the north bank of the Thames. I sat there with my snacks and book and watched the sky darken. When it started to get too cold, I walked over to the South Bank to take some pictures and returned to my hostel late.
    Crap, we're here. I'll have to pick this up later.

Later (ie Wednesday, Sept 5)
Majestic Edinburgh Castle
    I'm now sitting in the bar at my hostel a day later, so I did end up surviving. Arrival at Waverly yesterday went much better than it had at King's Cross, partly because my hostel is very close to the station and partly because I'd figured out that the train stations provide trolleys for people in my exact predicament. (I was a little slow figuring that out...) The station attendant from whom I asked directions just stared at my mountain of baggage and went, "You have way too much luggage." I couldn't disagree.
     This morning I dragged myself out of bed and up the hill to go on one of Sandeman's Free Tours--note for anyone visiting a major European city: these are always worth it. I did this same one two years ago when I was here before, but I figured it would be a good reorientation, and sure enough, the 3.5-hour trek around the city reintroduced me to all the places I used to know and forgot. After the tour, I spent an enjoyable hour chatting with some other Amis and Canadians over haggis about art and traveling and the frivolity of Starbucks. (Verdict: Starbucks is exorbitantly expensive. Earthshattering, I know). It was only midafternoon, and since you can see the water from the Royal Mile, I figured it couldn't be that far away and headed off that direction.
Leith (apparently)
    Turns out it can be that far away. An hour later I was still walking and fairly thoroughly lost, and being at a lower elevation, I could no longer see the water for reference. I stopped in a Tesco for help, which was pretty unhelpful (the poor man couldn't understand me!), and mostly by chance and through my excellent directional instincts I ended up at Ocean Terminal, which is apparently a giant shopping mall way out there in the middle of nowhere (if you can call Leith the middle of nowhere, and I'm going to go ahead and say you can). I toyed briefly with the idea of seeing Bourne Legacy again, but opted to take the bus back into town instead before it got dark. And here I am!
    I keep having this weird conversation with myself (that's not the weird part; being alone mostly when I travel, conversations with myself are normal). This one is weird because it goes the same way every time:
What Edinburgh feels like
    "We should do [interesting-looking thing] sometime tomorrow."
    "Yeah, or, y'know, whenever. We have plenty of time."
    "We don't have that much time in the next two days."
    "Dude, we just moved here. We have tons of time."
    *surge of genuine surprise* "Oh...yeah. We did, didn't we? Damn."
    I can't seem to remember permanently that I'm actually not leaving here anytime soon. I'm stuck in tourist mode and have to keep reminding myself that there's no hurry, I've got tons of time, I live here now. It's not sticking.
    A huge stampede of tourists just came in the front door to do shots for some crawl, I guess. Yech. I always feel like a grumpy old lady when people my own age make lots of noise and drink too much. I want to shake a finger at them and go, "Isn't it past your bedtime? Don't you need to get a good night's sleep? Do you have any idea what that'll do to your liver?"
    My episode of Leverage is finished loading so peace out, people, and drink responsibly. Not like these idiots.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Something To Be Proud Of

   I'm not always proud to be American. Sometimes it feels like there isn't so much to be proud of. I get uncomfortable when I get asked about my country, especially things I can't explain, like the war in the Middle East or our health care or immigration systems. I found myself apologizing profusely to my new Argentinian friends the other day, for example, over the frankly stupid and expensive hoops they would have to jump through just to come to the US as tourists. (This was after I identified myself as being from "America" and was informed with some prickliness that they were too, just South America.) The US often comes across as uptight, overzealous, arrogant, blind to logic, and tonedeaf to the sensibilities of the rest of the world, none of which are qualities I want to be associated with.
   There are many things, though, that I love about being American. I love American openness and friendliness; I love our generally easygoing attitude and our inclination to laugh and our curiosity. That brings me to what got me on this topic in the first place--I was at the National Museum of Science today, and there was a large part of it dedicated to space research. There in the middle of the room was a life-size model of the lunar module that brought the first humans to the moon, and plastered across the side of it was an American flag. I got to feel a surge of genuine pride in being a citizen of a country that pulled off something so spectacularly, outrageously wonderful. Men on the moon! And now, even though the info desk lady had no idea what I meant when I asked about it, Curiosity is trundling around on Mars, blasting away at rocks with lasers and generally doing awesome sciencey things. That is simply fantastic, the result of hard work and dedication and imagination and ambition and genius and all the best parts of what has ever made America a great country. It's a great thing to remember, especially when wading through the mire of half-truths and meaningless platitudes cooed by our two presidential candidates.
    Mostly, however, in America with other Americans, how one feels about being American is like how one feels about being right-handed: the majority of people are the same, so it's a nonissue until you meet someone who isn't. National identity doesn't mean anything unless there's another group to contrast with. I've had the chance to think about it quite a bit, however, because I've worked for the past year with non-Americans, and the cultural differences are thereby thrown in sharp relief. Returning now to the UK, the sensibilities, habits, and norms that I've internalized from growing up in the States are once again out of place. Not wrong, per se, or bad, just not the norm here. I'm sudden sharply aware again of how American I am--the good and the bad that comes with that.
    Seeing the amazing things that Americans have made and done in the museum today brought home a lot of that good. There were brilliant things there, made by all kinds of people from so many places, and it was inspiring to see the progress we've made. There are altogether many worse ways to spend a dreary Sunday afternoon.

The First Days of the Rest of My Life

    So I've been gearing up for this transition for a while, as many of you know. By "gearing up", you know, of course, that I mean, "shutting my eyes and trying to pretend it's not happening so I don't have to worry about it." This was silly and foolish but the time is gone so there it is. If there are others out there reading this who feel guilty about the mental evasive maneuvers you go through to avoid thinking about a big, scary something that's coming up, then feel stupid once it arrives and you haven't properly prepared--you are not alone.
No further explanation should be necessary.
    Right. Anyway, to both of our relief, my mother and I got all my stuff packed and stored by the time I was due to leave (by some astounding miracle), with most of my earthly possessions in boxes in the basement and the rest in three large-ish suitcases which I would use to begin my new life. My epic journey began for real with the flight to London, so on Tuesday afternoon, Mom and I made the trek to Canada and I left from the Vancouver airport. The flight was uneventful, except for two major problems: 1) there was some fairly stomach-churning turbulence near the beginning of the flight that left me feeling ill, and I have never been airsick in my life, and 2) although they were showing "Avengers" on other routes, including the back-to-the-Americas route, the to-the-UK route had mostly crappy movies and no Hawkeye. This was only partly remedied by them having M:I4 and therefore some small measure of consolation.
    At Heathrow, I coasted through customs after a nice chat with a border agent who advised me to take National Express coaches to Edinburgh instead of the train (apparently it's cheaper) and picked up my three bags from the baggage claim: a 25 lb backpack, a 50 lb wheelie-bag, and a 70-lb monster wheelie-bag. I mention this because it suddenly gets important in the next half of this sentence: halfway through the endless tunnels connecting the arrivals hall to the Tube station, one of the wheels on the 50-lb back just broke right off. The metal pin that should have been holding it in place was so hot from the friction that it burned my fingers when I tried to mess with it. Instead, I ended up carrying the broken bag and wheeling the other, so by the time I made it on the Tube, I was pretty exhausted already.
    I made it off the train at King's Cross and up the first escalator okay, but by the time I'd staggered to the second, I was running out of strength and starting to seriously wonder how I was going to make it out of the station and several blocks away to my hostel. As I stood there regarding the escalator like an invader trying to scale the Great Wall of China, a man and a woman on their way down to the train stopped to ask me if I needed help. They each took a bag and took everything up the escalator to find me some assistance. Upon asking a station employee, though, we were told that the station staff couldn't help me with my bags, at which point both of them decided to help me take everything to my hostel several blocks away, despite my protests. This wonderful pair walked with me all the way there--the man even carried my 50-lb bag in his arms all the way--and then, with a handshake and a hug, disappeared back to the Tube. The random kindness of strangers simply bowled me over; they really saved me and I wish I could've given them more than effusive thanks.
    I got settled into my room and wandered to the Tesco's across the street for a lunch/dinner to placate my seriously confused stomach, as it was then about 4:30 pm local time and about 8:30 am PST. I headed down to the very nearby British Library and looked at the books a bit, munched on my sandwich, and made some semblance of a plan for the following day. The jet lag was getting to me, though, so I made my slow way back to the hostel and went to bed.

August 30th
    I started out at the Globe in the hopes of getting a ticket for "The Taming of the Shrew," but those hopes were dashed by the information that all tickets are sold out until Tuesday. Now aimless, I meandered down the South Bank toward Westminster, and at an Olympics info booth, was advised to visit the Royal Festival Hall. I didn't find much inside, but around back the open square was filled with tents from which wafted the most delicious smells: a Real Food market, full of delightful delicacies and just in time for lunch. I walked around a couple times, trying to decide what I wanted, but I got completely sidetracked talking to a young bloke manning a booth full of preserves and cheeses. It started out by me asking what, exactly, a chutney is, than cajoling him into telling me about the different cheeses, and then him convincing me to try their cider (which was lovely when cut with a generous splash of apple juice), then somehow discussing world overpopulation and the nature of humanity and whether ice cream has salt in. I must've stood there for an hour, just laughing and chatting away, until finally hunger compelled me to go buy a sandwich, which turned out to be one of the best food-related life choices I've ever made (slow-roasted herbed pork, applesauce, and just a bit of lettuce...absolutely heavenly). I dropped by the preserves booth to say goodbye to my new friend and his aunt and strolled off across the Golden Jubilee bridge toward Covent Garden. On the way I stopped by Somerset House, which was hosting an exhibition about Brazil to promote the 2016 Games in Rio. I think I need to start working on my Portuguese asap...
The only proper way to watch the Olympics
    It had been raining in fits all day, and in Covent Garden it started to drizzle again. I took a peek in some stores but didn't stay long--it was all a bit too artsy and expensive for me. Once the rain let up, I headed out again towards Trafalgar Square. There was a Jumbotron set up right in front of the Column showing the Paralympics, so I joined the crowd on the steps leading up to the National Gallery and cheered along with the crowd when Storey won her gold in cycling. It was a very different experience to sit there in crowd who were clapping and cheering as the race happened, rather than watching on my computer hours later. The sun even managed to come out for a bit, but once seven o'clock rolled around and it started to get cold, I was on my way again.
Big Ben watches the sunset
    I made my way down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament, to which I am undeniably drawn every time I come to London. I must have a hundred pictures of Big Ben, yet the tower remains so gloriously photogenic, especially gleaming gold in the afternoon sunlight, that I just couldn't resist. I wandered past Parliament, also golden and impressive, and through the park to the bridge on the other end. Crossing the Thames for the third time that day, I found myself in Lambeth outside the Archbishop of Canterbury's residence--who knew? An educational stroll through the park on the grounds (a plaque set in the sidewalk informed me that in 1802, a hermit named Matthews the Hairyman lived nearby) brought me back to Westminster Bridge as the sun was setting, which of course meant more pictures of Big Ben.
An eye and the Eye--get it?
    My plan was to walk back up to Hungerford where I'd crossed before and take the Northern line from Embankment back to the hostel, and that led me past the Eye. When I stopped to take a picture of one of the frankly bizarre and disturbing one-eyed Olympic mascots, I fell into conversation with a large man with a Spanish accent who was waiting for another man taking pictures. These two, Ale (that's two syllables: ah-ley) and Rodrigo, were on a grand tour from their home in Argentina and were beginning their stay in London after visiting Italy and France. I hung out with them as they waited in line for tickets to the Eye (not wanting to spend £20 for a Ferris wheel ride) and said farewell when they joined the line to embark. Not thirty seconds later, I heard my name: they wanted me to wait for them to get off the Eye so we could go to dinner together. I assented, having no better plans, and wandered back towards the ticket booth to find a cafe to wait. Then I heard my name yet again: Ale was looking for me.
Westminster Bridge from the Eye
    "You come with us," he informed me, slipping his arm through mine and pulling me into the ticket office. "We buy you ticket."
    I tried to pay for it myself, but I didn't really have much choice in the matter. We got through the line quickly and rejoined Rodrigo where he was waiting for us near the Eye, grinning good-naturedly. Almost right away, we were stepping into one of the Eye's glass pods and rising ponderously above the city as the evening lights came on. I'd never been on the Eye before--it's one of the few major London attractions I haven't experienced, as it has been on my list of Tourist Boondoggles that also includes Madame Tussaud's and the London Dungeon--but it was genuinely a treat. The sky was still light in the west, and the whole city was spread out at our feet, cut in half by a river rendered glitteringly beautiful by the night lights. Rodrigo felt a little dizzy and sat on the bench while Ale and I took pictures like mad.
    Back on solid ground, we decided on pizza for dinner and strolled back to Piccadilly Circus via Trafalgar Square. We opted for Pizza Hut and chatted about traveling and makeup (Ale does, like, everything, from drawing and photography to hair and makeup), then at Piccadilly Circus we split up to go home. These two were absolutely delightful and utterly hilarious.

"Why are they wearing hairy hats, mummy?"
--an adorable child in the crowd
August 31st
    I began a little late, so I decided mostly at random to pop by Buckingham Palace to see if the Changing of the Guard was on, and what do you know, it was. I was there for a long time, holding my spot on the side of the fence, but had a great view of the red-coated men in furry hats marching about in the hot sun. They played for us a wonderful piece of classical music and then I wandered off towards Trafalgar Square--although I got redirected by a confused sign and ended up at Piccadilly Circus instead. What the heck, I thought, and started toward the British Library via Shaftesbury Avenue. Halfway there, I came across what can only be described as nerd utopia: a giant two-storey store packed to the gills with everything that makes a nerd's heart skip a beat, with a preoccupation with Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, and superheroes. The entire ground floor was merch of various sorts--mugs, clothing, posters, games, and mountains of statuettes and action figures--and the basement was a nerd-only bookstore. I was in heaven.
    Unfortunately, they weren't selling any of the Bourne Legacy posters they had in the window, so they directed me to HMV to look there. At Oxford Street, I went the wrong way and came upon a free art installation by a guy named Mr Brainwash. I got some trippy art experiences and two free posters out of it, so I was happy. Going the other way down Oxford Street, I finally found the HMV, and although I had no luck with Legacy, I did get another Avengers poster.
Pictured: squeeee.
    After a pasty lunch, I finally arrived at the British Museum. There was really only one thing I wanted to see, so I headed right there. The Rosetta Stone is famous around the world, of course, but I have an emotional attachment to it because I feel like it's part of my culture as a linguist. Historical linguists don't get a break like that very often--the Egyptian language, lost for hundreds of years, was opened to them through that stone, which couldn't have been more beautifully arranged for them if it had been mana from the heavens. The museum's description says something like "the value of the stone was recognized immediately." Can you imagine being those French soldiers, who saw that thing and said (in French of course), "Holy merde, you guys, that thing is going to change the world!"? What a fantastic moment!
    Anyway, I meandered around the Elgin marbles and then headed home because it was cloudy and grey and I was tired. I took a nap and then stayed up too late and it was boring. Let's move on.

September 1st
     Remarkably, the day began with a genuine plan: I was going to the street market on Portobello Road. Unlike last time, when I got ridiculously lost, I had no trouble finding it (maybe the intervening years have made me smarter...I can only hope) and strolled up the streets admiring watching, clothing, and antiques of every type and description. There were only two things I wanted: a new watch pendant and some food. I walked the entire length of the market, bought my watch, and had some delicious paella for lunch. I also found an Oxfam Books, which is like my favorite store ever, and got Tom Reynolds' first book. Altogether a very successful outing.
    I then turned my steps to the Natural History Museum and spent several hours looking at dinosaurs and dead animals of various descriptions, which was all interesting and a nice way to spend an afternoon, especially when I wasn't really sure what else to do. I especially liked the different rocks and minerals in the geology section and the blue whale skeleton, but then the museum closed and two things called my name: dinner and the Doctor.
    Dinner secured from Tesco's, I had to wait a bit to watch the Doctor (another hosteller was watching "The Mask of Zorro" and didn't want to watch DW, can you imagine!) but I finally got a hold of it from the iPlayer. God bless the iPlayer, by the way, although I'd like it even more if it worked outside the UK. Of course the season premiere was brilliant (my first impression is always positive, so I'll have to watch it again and decide if it actually makes sense). I just played on my computer after that until I went to bed far too late.

    That brings us to today, but this post is long enough and the next one's looking to be philosophical (brace yourselves), so...stay tuned!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

First Things First

Hello, everyone! I'm Jennifer, and I'm moving to Edinburgh to do a Master's in Psycholinguistics at the uni there. Sounds exciting, right? Yep, it is. Scary as all heck, too!

I thought to start off, I'd answer a few common questions that I've been receiving in the run-up to this whole thing. Let me know if there's something else you'd like to know that isn't covered below.

Where/What is Edinburgh?
Edinburgh is the delightful capital of Scotland, located on the east coast of the country a couple hours north of Newcastle. Yes, it's rainy, and yes, it's cold, though not as bad as it should be for how far north it is. Also, for future reference: the city's name is pronounced "ED-in-brah" (that's /ɛdɪnbrə/ for the linguistically inclined). It is definitely not /ɛdɪnbɚg/ (with a hard "g") or /ɛdɪnbɚo/ or whatever...although it seems the American version /ɛdɪnbɚə/ is okay. I get the feeling that some people mispronounce the city's name for one of two reasons: 1) they've been trained by well-meaning phonetics teachers that "g" is not generally a silent letter, so they feel obligated to pronounce it and/or 2) they feel like someone somewhere is having a laugh at them if they use the syllable "bra" in the name of an otherwise (mostly) respectable city. As for (1): much as in French (and for many of the same reasons), spelling in the UK is made more of guidelines than actually rules; take, for instance, "Worchestershire." Also, you don't pronounce the "gh" in "enough" and "draught" as a hard /g/ sound, so why start now? And (2): sometimes you just have to suck it up and not laugh at people with a different cultural in linguistic background whose names sound funny. I once had to take a message for a friend of a roommate's named Porn, and had a Korean student in a grammar class named Bum Ho. In comparison, /ɛdɪnbrə/ is no problem.

What/Where is Scotland?
Scotland is the northernmost nation of the four that compose the UK. You know where England is? It's welded right on the top there, like a tartan hat. Y'know, just like Canada.

What/Where is the UK?
Don't ask something like that unless you want to know the answer.

Do they speak English there?
...Yes. Yes they do. England and Scotland have been legally united since 1707 and way before that through royal lineage. They have a long (complicated, and as I understand it in many places very bitter) shared history and along with that, a shared language, that being English. The Scottish do speak and understand English. Really.

But you won't be able to understand them because their accent is so unintelligible! Har har har!
This seems to be the first comment most people make when they learn I'm moving to Scotland. I think it's because "You'll have to wear a kilt then, har har!" doesn't work because I'm female and therefore it carries no threat to my sexuality, and "You'll have to eat tons of haggis!" doesn't work because no one's quite sure what it is, and the only other things anyone knows about Scotland are thistles and Braveheart. Ah well.

Why Scotland? Why didn't you stay in America?
Funny thing is, I tried. I applied to five schools, four of which were in America and four of which rejected me. It was a happy coincidence of the universe that the uni which accepted me was my first choice and also not in America (which was part of the reason it was my first choice). Why Edinburgh in particular? Because the program looks amazing, the people I have contacted have been supportive and helpful and lovely, and because I've wanted to live in the UK for years now (for various reasons), and because it looks like this. Also there's this, and this, and this doesn't hurt either.

What is psychology of language?
It's the study that lies at the intersection of the Venn diagram of psychology and linguistics. This is, of course, misleading--but the name, "psychology of language", is misleading as well. There isn't really any good name for this field, in my opinion; "psychology of language" is wordy and pompous, and saying you're a "psycholinguist" makes you sound, as one paper put it, like a deranged polygot.
The thing is, language is thoroughly, fundamentally, and inescapably psychological. Language only exists to fill the need of two distinct minds to communicate with each other, and thus is completely a product of the mind. The only way to really understand language is to understand the human mind, and thus linguistics and psychology are so inextricably intertwined that trying to separate them is like trying to tell where blue ends and purple begins. Yes, looking at ends of the spectrum, it's easy to see the two are different; but they blend so seamlessly into each other that trying to separate them is ultimately futile.
But I digress. What does one actually study if one is a psycholinguist? There are many topics that fall in this field; one way to think about it is that psycholinguistics attempts to answer the why of linguistics, along with the other human studies in the field (socio- and anthropological linguistics, for instance). This is on a different end of the scale than disciplines like phonetics, phonology, and morphology, which seek to answer the what and how. All the disciplines in linguistics are interdependent and important, but the completely human element of that psycholinguistics accounts for is what interests me.
I realize I still haven't answered the question. I'll try again. Psycholinguistics studies how language interacts with and exists in the brain and the conscious and unconscious mind. It studies how language is learned by children as an L1, and how both adults and children learn a second language. It studies how multilinguals manage their languages and how those multiple languages influence each other. It studies language impairments to discover  how the brain processes and produces language and why damage to particular areas causes particular impairments. It also studies psychological anomalies like synaesthesia to find out why certain people perceive language and reality different than others. Topics like these (and many others) give insight into why humans use language, why it works the way it does, and why it goes wrong or right.
Doesn't that just sound awesome?!
It's not just academic conceit, useful only to squint-eyed researchers, I promise. When we study language acquisition, we help develop and improve pedagogical techniques. When we study language impairment, we contribute to therapy and we increase knowledge about the structure of both mind and brain. And in any case, delving into the nature of mind and language and consciousness is pretty cool stuff all on its own.

Right, it's getting late and I'm off to bed. In the next few days I'll post a summary of my adventures in London. Oh, sorry too about the sparse layout and the weird colors; I'll fix it soon, I promise.