Abroad Profile: Thanksgiving at Oxford

Jordan Javelet

Contributing Editor

At the beginning of November, I was walking through Oxford with some friends when I noticed that Christmas decorations were already hanging from nearly every building. I pointed out the shining white lights to a British friend and said, “I can’t believe there are already Christmas decorations up! It isn’t even Thanksgiving yet!” My friend looked at me for a moment, a confused look on his face, and then said, “Jordan, Thanksgiving isn’t really a holiday here.”
It took a moment of thinking over the traditional Thanksgiving story that every American grows up hearing before I realized that of course Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated outside of America (although Canada does have its own version, which is celebrated in October). When I realized that there would be no celebration here, I grew a little worried. After all, last year, I stayed on Goucher’s campus and ate Kraft macaroni and cheese for Thanksgiving—which was delicious, of course, but it was still a little bit depressing to be alone for a holiday traditionally meant for celebrating time with family while eating as much turkey as possible and watching football and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
I talked to some of the other visiting American students at Oxford, and they told me that the college hosts a small dinner for the visiting students, but we were all a little bit skeptical. Still, we all booked a seat at the dinner, and on the evening of Thanksgiving, we dressed up in our “smart casual” attire and marched into the college dining hall like we owned the place—after all, it was our holiday.
A few British students managed to book the dinner or to get invited, and for many of them, it was their first Thanksgiving. I even saw one of my tutors, and when I asked him if he had ever celebrated the holiday before, he said “No, but it’s quite lovely.” I will admit that it felt genuinely baffling to hear that a 30-something man had never celebrated Thanksgiving before.
Still, I think that it was actually quite nice that many of the British people at my table had never celebrated Thanksgiving before. They were all so excited, and as the Americans regaled them with the tale of the Native Americans who taught the colonists to bury fish with their corn seeds to make the corn grow, there was a sense of wonder and awe that doesn’t really exist in America, where everyone has already been celebrating Thanksgiving for years. One of my Dutch friends made a particularly interesting comment when he realized there was a ten-year-old boy in attendance, a guest of one of the tutors: “It’s so cool that he gets to be here and celebrate this at such a young age!” All of a sudden, Thanksgiving didn’t feel like something that I’ve done twenty times—it felt like a really special occasion, an American tradition that I got to share with my new European friends who knew nothing about the holiday meant for celebrating connections between people and for being thankful for all the good things in life.
At Mansfield College, there is a phrase that is said before every meal: “No good thing is worth having unless it is shared with others.” I find that it is a fitting phrase for many occasions, but I think that it particularly applied to this Thanksgiving. My twentieth Thanksgiving was the first Thanksgiving for many of my friends, and I didn’t spend it in America, but it was still the happiest Thanksgiving that I’ve celebrated, and that’s because I shared it—and a little piece of American culture—with a host of new friends.

Abroad Profile: Education at Oxford

Jordan Javelet

Contributing Editor

In the next three days, I need to produce at least 2,000 words of writing—and not just any sort of writing that you might put in a reading response or a journal. No, the writing I must produce is nine parts critical analysis and one part scholarly research to support my point and to prove that I’ve done my research and I know what I’m talking about. The 2,000 words will be based on approximately 400 pages of reading I’ve done over the past week; most of it primary sources like Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” and some from the various scholars who spend their lives studying and writing about literature (and who also spend a great deal of time passive-aggressively arguing with each other and criticizing each other in their articles). Writing Oxford tutorial essays is a bit like stepping into Wonderland—there’s Stephen Greenblatt, the Mad Hatter of the Shakespeare “lit-crit” world; over in another part of the world is Stanley Wells, the White Rabbit who is constantly lurking about and pulling observant pupils into the crazy world of Shakespearian studies. Simon Palfrey is certainly the Cheshire Cat, playing with every aspect of Shakespeare’s plays and turning the world upside-down. Every essay that I write is a step further into this world, and I feel it changing me just as Wonderland changes Alice. Comparing my scholarly work to Wonderland might seem ridiculous, but the education I am receiving here is truly like entering a different world. The depth of knowledge that is expected from and imparted upon me is quite different from the liberal arts emphasis on breadth of knowledge and interdisciplinary study, and I feel a connection to the world of English literature as a much stronger force here than I ever have in America. I have come to see myself as something of a “method scholar”—like the method actor, the method scholar must actually take in every aspect of the work that he or she is studying. “Hamlet” is written into my skin; “King Lear” has become my skeleton. “Coriolanus” runs red in my blood, and “Titus Andronicus” is a shock across my every nerve. I feel as though I have dissolved into my copy of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” and it is an experience that I must transcribe into a 2,000 word essay every week. It is painful work, but I am somehow enthralled by the masochism of it. I knew upon my arrival at Oxford that the work here would be difficult, but I did not understand the exact form that this difficulty would take. I expected pages-long reading lists (which I receive every week) and exorbitant amounts of writing (which I produce every week), but I did not expect the transcendent intellectual experience in which I have found myself immersed. Although it is a challenging mental state to occupy, though, I am forging ahead into new territory, pushing the limits of my intellectual power and enjoying the rush that comes with every new connection that I make, every idea that reshapes my vision of the world, every paradox that forges new ideals. In the next three days, I need to produce 2,000 words of writing, and I look forward to writing every single one.

Abroad at Oxford: Befriending visiting students

Jordan Javelet

Contributing Editor

A recent article in the Oxford Student Newspaper advised against speaking with visiting students, saying, “Don’t bother befriending any visiting students. Yes, they’re unbelievably exotic, but too late you will realize that they aren’t in it for the long haul and before you know it they’ll have abandoned you for their ‘real friends’ back home.”

This perspective has had some backlash around Oxford; another newspaper on campus wrote an article about this same quote saying that it isn’t true and that visiting students are well-loved. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle. As a visiting student, I’m treated with respect and slight familiarity. I get a nod of recognition around campus, but I have noticed that many British students see uninterested in mingling with the visiting students.

In some ways I can understand why. Before arriving in England, I had the belief that the nine months in front of me was nearly a lifetime, but now that I’ve been here for more than a month, I have come to realize that time moves faster than I ever thought, and soon enough, I will be leaving. Why should I make an effort to make close friends here if I’ll just be heading back to the United States? And why should anyone here make an effort to make close friends with me knowing I will be leaving in a few months?

I think the answer is this. All of life is transient, but if we dwell on that fact, we will never connect with anyone. Andrew Marvell wrote in his poem “To His Coy Mistress:” “At my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” He did not write the line to mean that because things will end, we should protect ourselves by refusing to participate in life; in fact, it was quite the opposite. Marvell wanted to convince people to act now because things will end, and we have to experience things now, while we still have the chance. We can’t live forever, but we must live while we are here. At the end of my nine months here, I would rather go back to the United States missing the people I have befriended and come to love in the United Kingdom than spend my time here avoiding making connections simply to prevent the sadness associated with the inevitable good-byes. I would rather use my short time to its fullest, for, as Marvell also wrote, “Though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

Abroad Profile: Learning to love country music

Jordan Javelet

Contributing Editor

have been in England for three weeks now, and one thing I have realized is British people do not understand the appeal of country music. In their defense, many Americans do not understand it either—including, until recently, me. Since leaving the States, however, country music is all I want to listen to, whether I’m studying or reading or hanging out in my room or eating dinner. When I first felt the urge to listen to country music, I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but after a few days, I realized that my desire for the twangy sounds of Luke Bryan and Keith Urban stemmed from my desire to feel closer to home. There is something about country music that is quintessentially American.

Country music tells the same stories over and over: girls and boys falling in love, getting drunk at a tailgate party, parking the truck on a back road and listening to music (maybe even stealing a kiss), hanging around campfires eating greasy home-cooked foods. Hardly a complete picture of American values; more like a small microcosm. And I’ll admit that this experience of life has not been my experience by a long shot. But being familiar with the musical stories of such experiences makes me feel it has been. I can see America by listening to the songs. And it makes me feel closer to home.

Country music talks literally about American soil in its every verse, describing the people and their relationship to the vast, open land that exists in much of America. In America, we can drive for hours upon hours and still be in the same state. We can find places out in the woods to hang out with our friends and build bonds with each other and with nature. We can swim in lakes and run around in fields and climb mountains. America is a nation unified by the concept of freedom, and that sense of freedom comes in part from the wide open spaces the land itself provides, and with those wide open spaces come the freedom to go.

Because England is a small country located near a lot of other small countries, British life lacks the sense of vastness and freedom that exists in America. My British friends don’t see any appeal in the idea of a summer spent swimming in a lake and sneaking whiskey out to a cornfield and blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” on the Fourth of July, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that many Americans understand that, even if they’ve never lived it and never will. And that is what country music denotes.

My life in America was not like a country song, but now that I’m in another country, it feels more like it than where I am now. So while I’ll admit that there’s something a little strange about my intense desire to listen to country music when I’m studying abroad in England, I’m thankful for the reminders of the Americana lifestyle that country artists such as Billy Currington in his song “We Are Tonight” provide: “Summer pouring through a rolled down window / Tearing down all those two-lane back roads / Freedom and fireflies in the air.”

Abroad Profile: Filling the empty spaces

Jordan Javelet

Contributing Editor

I have never been particularly good with change. Up until now, the biggest change I had ever experienced was moving from my home in Denver to attend Goucher, and let me assure you—the transition was terrifying to me. Suddenly, I was on the other side of the country with no friends, no familiar spaces or comfort zones, no support other than what my parents could offer me over the phone. I spent nearly two weeks going through the motions of life and falling into bed at night, completely disheartened by my paralyzing fear of change.

But after two weeks, I began opening up. I made new friends. I became familiar with Goucher’s campus. I formed a support group of faculty members and fellow students. I no longer felt empty, and I was proud of my accomplishment. I actually grew to like the change from my hometown.

It was then that I realized that change was not really the thing that scared me: I was afraid of the transition that must take place for change to occur. I picture it like coming to the end of the chapter in the book and then turning the page to start the next chapter—the end of one chapter might be sad, but there is hope when the new chapter begins. The scary part is the blank space in between the last line of one chapter and the first line of the next, where all the doubt and uncertainty waits to seize you. What if you turn the page and hate follows? What if it’s nothing like you anticipated or imagined it would be?

All change comes with this empty space between what has been and what will be. It is the transition period between starting a new job, the settling in when you move to a new house. It is the tenuous limbo between here and there, the uncertain helplessness between now and then.

The blank space in my journey abroad has not been easy. I arrived in England a day before my program started, which meant I had one night completely alone in a hotel room across the world from anything I knew. I was trapped in the white space between chapters, waiting for the page to turn.

I spent the first two days in London craving some sort of permanence in my life. I was living out of two suitcases in a hotel room, I had no friends, and I certainly didn’t feel anything familiar. Looking around London was difficult because it felt almost like New York City, but there was this strange foreignness—something I couldn’t even fully describe—that kept me from feeling at home. I was scared that the blank space would never end, that I would never turn the page, never start my next chapter.

But then I remembered something: when I went to Goucher, I was unhappy until I took the initiative to make friends and familiarize myself with Goucher’s campus and the surrounding area. So on my third night in London, I decided to forego staying in the cocoon of my hotel room watching House of Cards on Netflix and, instead, venture out with my orientation group at ten o’clock at night in Central London. As we walked through the city, we began a lively discussion about free will and morality, quoting reputable sources, excitedly interjecting our insights, and I began to feel comfortable again. My knowledge became my comfort zone, confirming that I have something valuable to share, and suddenly I felt connected to ten new friends. And just like that, the blank space finally ended.

Pre-departure thoughts: Moving out and moving on

Jordan Javert

Contributing Editor

My bedroom floor is currently a mosaic of my past memories.

I am in the process of packing up my possessions before I take the long journey across the ocean to England, where I will spend the next nine months. But anyone who has tried to pack a large volume of miscellaneous items into square boxes knows that half the process is spreading things out in order to see how they might all fit together. It’s like putting together a puzzle made out of past memories embedded in the objects that you choose to pack, and right now, those memories are spread out all over the floor, staring up at me.

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Life, as seen on TV

Jordan Javelet

Contributing Editor

Today as I was walking through Best Buy, one of the biggest televisions in the store caught my eye. It was a Samsung LED television that boasted a 65 inch display, vibrant color definition, and an image quality that made the video of New York City that was displayed on the screen look as real as if I were actually in New York. But what really caught my eye—in fact, the only reason I even bothered stopping—was the fact that the television was curved.

     A salesman approached me and started listing off the details of the television (as if a college student could possibly afford the $3,000 price tag), and I listened even though I wasn’t really interested in making a purchase. I just wanted to look at the pretty picture of New York for a few seconds before continuing on my way.

     As I was brainstorming ways to make a quick escape from the salesman, he said something that caught my attention: “Really,” he said, “this is the best image quality out there. In

fact, with the color enhancing technology in this device, it gives you a picture that is better than real life.”

     If there was any phrase that was going to convince me not to buy that television, it was that one. And worse yet, as I studied the image on the screen, which had switched to a colorful view of Prague, I was tempted to agree with the salesman. The reds were brighter, the blues richer. The definition made every window in the city visible in a way that the human brain could never process even as the eye saw it, and the cars on the street took on a spectacular, lively potential as they sped through the city and wove between buildings.

     Suddenly, in the middle of Best Buy, I was having an existential crisis hinging on the existence of a television that makes a picture that is better than real life. If I could purchase a television like that, there would be no point in traveling or even in leaving my house, right? I would be able to sit on my couch and display an image of the Great Barrier Reef, and I wouldn’t have to get a SCUBA certification or be worried about all the animals that would probably be trying to kill me as I swam around the Australian waters. I could display the summit of Mount Everest without having to fly across the world and actually climb it. Worst of all, I could play a sitcom on the screen and stay in my house pretending that I had actual friends. After all, the picture is better than real life, right? Why even bother with real life if I can get a better picture on a screen?

     Spelled out this way, it’s obvious that there are flaws in this sort of reasoning. Despite the fact that people are making televisions with displays that are better than real life, I’m sure we can all agree that there is an important distinction between real life and what technology suggests real life might be. Anyone on Instagram knows that social media would be dull and pointless without filters, owns that the whole network is an exercise in posturing as more interesting than you really are. In fact, the more you look at any sort of technology, the more it feels like technology reduces real life into a series of images.

     In 1928, René Magritte painted a work called “The Treachery of Images” (French: “La trahison des images”) in which he painted a pipe and captioned it “Ceci n’est une pipe.”: “This is not a pipe.” Perhaps for the next few years, people will remember that televisions and Facebook and the internet are not real life, and perhaps for the next few years, people will maintain their interest in real-world living. But it is not hard to imagine a world in which people stop thinking this way; as Chuck Klosterman says in his book “Eating the Dinosaur,” “We are latently enslaved by our own ingenuity, and we have unknowingly constructed a simulated world…the benefits of technology are easy to point out…but they do not compensate for the overall loss of humanity that is its inevitable consequence.”

     Technology raises important questions of authenticity and truth. A television can display New York City in a beautiful and artistic (read: color enhanced) way, but what is shown on the screen cannot convey the energy of a hundred thousand people walking shoulder to shoulder down Fifth Avenue. It cannot convey the human spirit of New York City.

     Maybe the Best Buy salesman was right: a curved television can produce an image that is better than real life. But I do not want my life to become a series of images on a color-enhanced LED display, curved or not. I want to walk down Fifth Avenue. I want to touch the shoulders of the people I pass. I want to make contact with humanity.