Monday, July 1, 2013

The Keen American's Guide to London

In two days, I leave old Albion for the 'schland, so before I forget (how could I ever), here's a post on how to just get by in London. I was inspired by Brie's own post from two years ago, when she was at Oxford. If you're reading and thinking about spending your junior year abroad in the UK, I definitely recommend you give it a read.

This guide is not an update, but London- and LSE-specific.

Cheers, London. You're a beautiful city, and while Seattle will always be the first and only place for me long-term, I hope I can come back for another extended stay some time soon. This year has definitely been one big "rerum cognoscere causas" moment.

1. Become a morning person. Not only will you catch the rare sunrise, but on top of that, if you run, the AM is the best time to get in a work-out before the smog builds up and the tourists clog the roads.

2. If you don't know which way to look for oncoming traffic, look down. The crosswalks are all marked with "LOOK LEFT" or "LOOK RIGHT."

3. The pub is not simply a quaint bar--it's a way of life. And if you don't partake in some way, you will be ostracised. Personally, I rarely drink (and on the offhand I do, it's cider) and receive friendly teasing from my German, Swiss, Italian, British, and Canadian teammates for it, but there's more to the pub than simply downing an ale or a lager (did you know there's a difference?). It's a nice place to relax and socialise after a long day (and by "long day," I mean "regatta day").

4.  Get an Oystercard and always have it ready at the turnstile! Nothing more visibly irritates commuters than waiting behind someone digging through his/her pursue, wallet, or backpack for the OysterCard, which is the most convenient little piece of plastic you will ever own during your stay.

Some ungodly hour in the morning at Waterloo Station

5. Play up the American stereotype. It's "endearing." Or something...

6. When using the stairs at the Library, observe the right-hand rule. It's a busy place, and the last thing you want is to fall down, down, down those vertigo-inducing spiral stairs. (Speaking of vertigo, listening to U2 is the best way to start your day.)

7. Do not use the East Building lift to go up just one floor. The stairs are faster, and if certain professors in International History can use the stairs up five floors, then you can use the stairs up just one.

8. Endear yourself to the baristas at the Garrick. Once you order that black Americano or jasmine green tea a few times in a row, they automatically know and prepare your drink before you get to the till. This streamlines the caffeinating process, and trust me, the LSE (like any university) would be a scary place, if the students were not caffeinated.

9. Make an effort to interact with LSE students outside of the General Course. I'll probably receive some stick for what I'm about to say, but here goes. Regular undergraduates (and postgraduates) at the LSE have two very polarised views of General Course students; we are either enthusiastic and hardworking...or neither of those things. While it's easy to fall into a crowd of people who share your national and therefore cultural and educational background--and even treat your year at the LSE as a "year off" from your home institution-- know that LSE students are some of the kindest, funniest, most clever people you will ever have the privilege of calling your classmates and even friends. Work hard, earn their respect, but more importantly, get to know them. In the process, you can learn a lot about the world and yourself. And don't you ever--not even for a minute--take any of it all for granted.

10. Take what you do seriously, but yourself...not so much. The British do self-deprecating humour very well. Learn it. Live it. Love it. Besides, we're only twenty years old and may never have the chance to be as brutally flippant as now.

11. Make an effort to learn the lingo. Jumper, not sweater. Crisps, not chips. Football, not soccer. Dodgy, not sketchy. Lorry, not truck. You get the idea.

12. While you're at it, do not insult the sanctity of soccer football. You guys, it's a big deal. Like, a BIG DEAL. Once you're a partisan to some cause (Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, etc.), you're a partisan for life.

An undisclosed location somewhere

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Postscript: In which rowing is a mere footnote

Last Monday, my friend Liz arrived in London. We've known each other since ninth grade, so these last few days have been spent spontaneously bursting out into song in the middle of sidewalks and generally frightening the nihilistic British public.

In all seriousness, although I had writing deadlines to meet, it's been a week of good long walks and talks. Liz woke me up a few mornings to read and write, whilst she purposefully lost herself in London. I'm not such a bad friend, that I didn't show her around. We went to South Kensington, so she could see the Victoria & Albert Museum (easily my favourite museum in London).

And then walked to Green Park, Buckingham Palace, and around Westminster. Somehow, we ended up in Piccadilly Circus, where tourists asked us for directions to the KFC.

We also took a day trip to Cambridge to see my friend Brie, who is currently reading for her PhD at Caius (pronounced "keys"). Because last week was May Week, most of the colleges were closed to both Cambridge students and visitors. That isn't to say Brie didn't try her very best to sweet-talk us through the gates of King's College. Nevertheless, she showed us the leather-and-mahogany nooks and crannies of Caius (like the window to Stephen Hawking's office and the College Chapel, Library, and MCR). I think the highlight of the trip for both Brie and Liz was the Chelsea bun at Fitzwilliam's; a Chelsea bun is like a smaller, flatter cinnamon roll, but these ones actually had quite a bit of volume on them--and were just as sticky.

Back in London and five pages of a fellowship application worksheet later...Liz and I headed up to Hackney to see my favourite band, Spring Offensive, play at Hoxton Hall. While the second of the two opening acts was quite...bad (it doesn't matter how much the lead vocalist touches his hair, Pet Moon, your music doesn't become any less loud and obnoxious), Spring Offensive's set made up for it. I had never liked 'Worry Fill My Heart' until that night, which goes to show live music generally trumps a recording. The same for acoustic sets.

One last thing, I was surprised that I enjoyed that concert as much as I normally enjoy classical music concerts (and for all you Seattleites, if you walk through the Metro tunnel at Benaroya Hall in the late afternoon, you can sometimes hear the Seattle Symphony rehearse--it was absolute magic the season they performed Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet). But, for 'Not Drowning But Waving,' the bass drum (another lesson for you Pet Moon: your drummer was far too enthusiastic) didn't overpower the snare or cymbals on the kit. It didn't even overpower the individual notes from the guitars, so in the end, each element of the song, down to the last note, was audible. Quite special.

And of course, I wouldn't be myself if I didn't somehow mention rowing, so here it is: taking the train over Kew Rail Bridge is just as strange as standing on Hammersmith Bridge. On our way to Kew Gardens (well, Liz to Kew Gardens, because I ended up at the National Archives), I spotted the Far Arch of Death on the Surrey side of the Tideway, where the Sea Horse is seemingly permanently moored. And oh man, the arch looks so much narrower and so much more menacing from the Rail Bridge than from the stern of an 8. (Not that my heart doesn't pound just as audibly when I have to steer through Kew).

So with that, I have to say I'm coming down to my last two-ish weeks in London, and therefore my last few posts. Preemptively, I hope you've found reading these posts as entertaining as I find writing them.  Here's some beautiful English countryside to show you, that this side of the Atlantic isn't half bad:

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Done is Good, But Still Running Around in Circles

Done! Done! Done! On Monday I sat my last exam at the LSE. Because GY244 was taught over only twelve weeks, the exam was assessed similarly to the half-unit courses run for the MSc students: two hours, two essays.

En-LIGHT-enment: Sunset over Kew Bridge

Non-compulsory reading never felt so good 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Packing Up: The Year's Memories in Music

Yesterday afternoon, I finished my revision for GY244 (is revision ever finished, though?) and returned a stack of books to the Library. Passing through the turnstiles, I realised it was probably the last time I would be there for a while. And then I realised that on Monday at 17:30, I would be officially finished with my year at the LSE. Strangely scary, isn't it? 

The Penguin outside Waterstone's. I will never understand why there are so many animal statues at the LSE.

On this blog, I haven't told you every funny moment, embarrassing fumble, or even the absolutely wonderful happenstances I've experienced, because words could never express them completely and I'm afraid that, if I do put them into words, they'll lose their meaningfulness. What I can do, though, is review my year with you through music: the albums that impressed me and the songs that said what I can't say. Psychologists call it echoic memory; the brain stores aural data in exact copy for short periods of time. But I prefer the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's of human musical experience. In a passage from Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, he writes:  

"We find that one fine art still remained, and must remain excluded from our consideration since there was absolutely no suitable place for it in the systematic context of our presentation: and this is music. It stands completely apart from all the others. What we recognise in it is not an imitation or repetition of some Idea of the essence of the world: nonetheless, it is such a great and magisterial art, it exercises so powerful an effect within us, is understood so deeply and entirely by us as a wholly universal language whose clarity exceeds even that of the intuitive world itself...It's imitative relation to the world must also be very intimate, infinitely true and strikingly apt, because it is instantaneously comprehensible to everyone."

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of Schopenhauer's Idealism, the philosophical movement associated with him, for Schopenhauer music is the highest in the hierarchy of artistic forms, because it expresses the universal Will, or the totality of the world. Schopenhauer envisions Will as the "will to live"; it's a sense of striving, which operates as the motor setting everything into motion. Schopenhauer's universal Will is the unification of all individual wills, human and otherwise. Consequently, that music universally evokes deeply intimate reactions within human beings, Schopenhauer sees music as the art form which connects human beings most completely to the universal Will. Music allows human beings to experience the Will beyond the limits of imitation, like pictorial representation, or even science, religion, and philosophical explanation (primarily, Immanuel Kant's metaphysics). 

Philosophy makes my head hurt in a good way. 

"Are you sure you want to turn the page?"
Having glossed over all of that, here is, in chronological order, the contents of my iPod. Feel free to judge, but know that I know that you listen to Taylor Swift, too. We all want to dress up like hipsters and make fun of our exes, have breakfast at midnight and fall in love with strangers. Because we're happy free, confused, and happy at the same time. (Duh.)

Macklemore--The Heist (Ten Thousand Hours, Can't Hold Us, Make the Money, Gold)
Snow Patrol--Fallen Empires (Berlin, In the End, This Isn't Everything You Are)
The Naked and Famous--Passive Me Aggressive You (Young Blood)

Thomas Newman--Skyfall (Skyfall)
Ellie Goulding--Bright Lights (Wish I Stayed, Little Dreams)
Justice--Cross (Genesis)
Spring Offensive--Not Drowning But Waving (Not Drowning But Waving)

The build-up to Remembrance Day
Duke Ellington--Nutcracker Suite
Rachel Portman--Mona Lisa Smile (In the Heart of Every Girl, Mona Lisa)
Florence + the Machine--Ceremonials (Only if for a Night, Spectrum, Strangeness and Charm)
Muse--The 2nd Law (Madness, Survival)

HafenCity, Hamburg! 

Florence + the Machine--Ceremonials (Leave My Body, Strangeness and Charm, What the Water Gave Me)
Ellie Goulding--Halcyon (My Blood)
Lana Del Rey--Born to Die (National Anthem, Off to the Races)
Taylor Swift--Red (22)

Bonobo--Animal Magic (Kota)
View from E509. January was grim. 

The Killers--Hot Fuss (Smile Like You Mean It, Somebody Told Me)
Imagine Dragons--Night Visions (Tiptoe, Radioactive, It's Time)

But in February, we got a kettle, so things became less apocalyptic

Death Cab for Cutie--Codes and Keys
The Temper Trap--Conditions (Sweet Disposition)
The Clash--London Calling (London's iconic!)

My running partner, Sarah, visited
We promptly destroyed breakfast

Florence + the Machine--Ceremonials (Only if for a Night, Strangeness and Charm, Spectrum)
Florence + the Machine--Lungs (Howl, Blinding, Hurricane Drunk) 
Parachute Youth--Can't  Get Better Than This
Blue Scholars--Cinemetropolis (Chief Sealth, Seijun Suzuki)

Zeina and I managed to enjoy some sunshine
We also whined about revision

Oasis--Definitely Maybe (Slide Away)
Florence + the Machine--Lungs (Swimming)
Death Cab for Cutie--Plans (What Sarah Said, Marching Bands of Manhattan)
M83--Hurry up. We're dreaming. (Midnight City)
Baz Luhrmann--The Great Gatsby 
Michelle Branch--Hotel Paper (Breathe)

But mostly, there's just been a lot of saying Hail Marys everytime I pass under Hammersmith Bridge at low tide. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Long Time, No Write

It's been a while since my last post, but I promise I have a good excuse: exams. Additionally, I have begun work on the first of my two senior theses, so my brain has been stretched to a few more corners than usual.

Preparing and sitting for exams here has been one of the most challenging things I've ever done (but then again, that's been the case for the entire year at the LSE). Not only does the British university examination system differ from the American university examination system, but both systems differ vastly from Bryn Mawr's. On the last day of Lent Term in March, I received my personal examination timetable, which laid out when and where I would sit each of my four exams. While some students' exams were compressed into the space of one week, mine has been drawn out over the course of four-ish-five weeks. The exams are structured to cover most, but not each, of the topics taught over the twenty-week  period between Michaelmas and Lent Terms. In order to prepare, students pick six (I've heard some students pick upwards of eleven) topics to "revise," which means "study" not "edit a paper," intensively. The LSE makes past exams available on the Library's website, which students use to guide revision. It's important to know that British universities are very much specialist institutions, so if you study history (like I do), you are theoretically supposed to leave the course with a thorough understanding of not just the dates and events, but also the contemporary historiographical debates surrounding those dates and events. The course convenor ensures this by, and here comes another major difference, providing a comprehensive reading list for each topic, and the number of books and articles on each list can reach upwards of twenty books.

Still with me so far?

Let me give you an example: I revised six topics for HY315: the European Enlightenment, which is a three-hour three-part exam with two short-answer source criticisms (called "gobbets") and two longer essays (of somewhere between 800 and 1500 words, or three to four sides of bluebook pages). For the topic "Voltaire, Candide, and the Lisbon Earthquake," I looked through the past exams for all questions concerning the topic in order to isolate the themes to guide my revision, e.g. Leibniz's theodicy and the genre of the conte. With an eye to those themes, I read all of the primary sources on the reading list, as well as ~80% of the secondary sources. I then grouped the past exam questions together by common themes and wrote outlines for each grouping.


Contrast that with Bryn Mawr's examination system, which per tradition of the Honour Code, lasts one week (in the Fall Semester) and two weeks (in the Spring Semester) and is self-scheduled. Because I received the offer letter from the LSE at the end of January 2012, I had to take certain specialised seminars in my major/minor disciplines, so that I wouldn't be behind my classmates when I returned. This means, that unlike my other second-year classmates, I took primarily 200- and one 300-level courses, as well as audited a German literature seminar for which I wrote the weekly response papers. When it came time for exams, I only had one real sit-down proctored exam, Geology (for my lab science requirement--you don't want me at the seismograph when Mount St. Helens erupts again, guys). I self-scheduled it first thing of exam week, because for my other courses, I had one take-home examination and two final (called "summative" here) essays. I managed to work out my schedule, so that I used up all of examination time down to the last three hours before all written work was due. On the flight home from Philadelphia, I remember looking back on that entire week of consecutive late nights working and reworking my essays.  In some respects, studying at Bryn Mawr is much easier than studying at the LSE, because during examination period, you are allowed to go at your own pace. In other respects, studying at Bryn Mawr is much more difficult than studying at the LSE, because setting your own pace means the onus is all on you to get it down.

Final verdict? Both systems are difficult and legitimate in their own ways.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Coxswain's Guide to Exam Preparation

1. Make a race plan. Before I cox a race, there's always a discussion of how to maximise the crew's strengths either on the course or across a specific distance. As I covered in my post on the Boat Race, there's a strategy to steering a course and motivating the rowers, especially on the Tideway. Exam preparation should be no different. Twice a year at Bryn Mawr, I make a "Done is Good" list, and I have done the same for my end-year exams at the LSE. I sit myself down, think through my academic strengths and weaknesses, prioritise my tasks accordingly, and set about completing them. The rankings of my priorities are never set in stone (case in point: Fall 2011, when I realised stressing out over one Political Science paper was doing me no good, and ended up saving it for last--it turned out pretty well and ended up being the basis for some summer research). So give yourself some flexibility. The worst you can be is too hard on yourself.

Done Is Good 2011meet...
...Done Is Good 2013
2. Dress appropriately. First rule of coxing (okay, after "safety and security of crew and equipment are paramount"...and the river rules). I learned this the hard way during my first season racing, when I emerged from the 8+ unable to feel my feet during Seven Sisters 2010. The point is, have you ever tried to study for eight hours in jeans? It's as uncomfortable as sitting at a start line during in sub-freezing temperatures. Instead, wear lycra, and not only will you be able to cozy up to Alexander Hamilton (what a babe) and the Federalist Papers, but you will also be motivated to go to the gym afterwards. Endorphins are much more effective than caffeine, so you will be able to stay up much later.

3. Write it down. Write it down. WRITE. IT. DOWN. I always familiarise myself with the particular traffic pattern of a race by drawing the course map (yes, I know I could just print it out), and writing down all of A&E and marshalling points, as well as the landmarks, e.g. the University Post, the Ship Inn Buoy. Similarly, for end-term assessment (because at Bryn Mawr, while we do have sit-down exams, I've rarely had to take one of them, because I'm not one of those "hard science" students). After you've completed whatever background reading, delve into the more specific content with a discerning eye. Write down what's important. Write down what doesn't seem important. Write down what could be important. At the end of the day, no matter what the examination style, you are going to need to be able to see the forest and the trees, the general ideas and the specifics.

Katharine Hepburn, Bryn Mawr 1928. Disturbed by the gender binary. Can actually give you reasons why. 

4. Visualise yourself being awesome. Easier said than done. Anna once told me to look at myself in the mirror and tell myself, "You are hot shit" before my races. I would be lying if I said, that I had never done this. I did it once, and it was weird. My go-to strategy here is to make a "race day" playlist, which I listen to in preparation for every race. Listen to something upbeat. Listen to something that makes you feel awesome (as an American, I regularly overuse this word) about yourself.

5. Practice your calls. Rowers practice their strokes until they have committed the motions to muscle memory. Coxswains practice their calls, until they don't have to think--they just say. The road to getting there, however, involves a lot of word chundering (vomiting, Americans, vomiting) and word fumbling. I can't tell you how many times I've started a command only to mess up the last part, e.g. "Hold the fin-atch-ish." Doing so throws off the rowers' focus, because they don't know what the hell a "fin-atc-ish" is. Presumably, the coxswain meant a "finish," but the fumble in the middle creates a lot of confusion. Undoubtedly, you will encounter something on your exam that confuses you. Have a strategy for dealing with the paralysis, which will follow. Take a deep breath. Make the call to skip the question and move onto the next one. Practice doing this.

6. Clear your head. The weeks leading up to any major race, as to exams, are stressful. There are the countless hours of lost sleep. There are days, when I leave the water completely dazed from giving the same start commands and staring at an endless field of grey-green water. However, when I leave the boathouse, it's me-time. Time to switch gears, so that I can be fresh and ready for the next outing--and of course, the race. As far as school is concerned, studying from 9-5 is doable, but getting to that level of self-discipline takes time. Besides, there are numerous distractions at your fingertips: Facebook, Twitter, email, repeat. It's okay, if, after three hours, the words are blurring and you are no longer so much reading sentences as just the words. Schedule a break. I'm lucky to have rowing in my life, because for a few hours of the day, I can enjoy being outside with great people. The same with having tea or coffee with a friend, even if it's just to talk about the day or sit in silence.  Further to that, taking time for yourself, by yourself is good, too, and I often think that's what I enjoy about running.

Zeina and I have tea!

Sunrise over the Thames from the Surrey side of Chiswick Bridge.

The last few runners of the London Marathon, taken from Blackfriars Bridge

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Nature's First Green, or the Hyde Park Romp

I bought a gym membership a few weeks ago, but have been neglecting it lately, because the weather has been so nice. After an entire term of leaving ULBC absolutely drenched in a combination of Thames water and rain--as well as studying indoors, I thought it would be a waste of sunshine not to take my exercise outside and run (I'm quite injury-prone, but thankfully, my body has been able to keep up with my wanderlust)...or walk.

The Thames Walk along the South Bank gets quite congested after 10AM, so I try to run earlier. Otherwise, it's a mess, trying to dodge tourists between the Jubilee Bridge and the London Eye. The congestion doesn't clear until after you pass the Houses of Parliament and and get back onto Victoria Embankment. I will say one thing, it's really motivating to have Italian teenagers cheer you on, as you run past Oliver Cromwell. 

Cooling down to this view of St. Paul's doesn't hurt, either. 

Whether because of the rain or the traffic (vehicular and pedestrian) jams in central London, I usually don't see many people without maps or matching group t-shirts on my runs. However, when the thermostat hits 20 degrees Celsius, all the Londoners suddenly emerge from the Tube and office buildings to take in the sun.

Sort of like these daisies behind Parliament: 

Zeina and I took another revision break and went to Hyde Park. 

It was really cool to be there in person, after spending most of last summer watching video footage of it.  I had thought about doing a triathlon with my running partner  at the end of last spring. Although that didn't work out, it was exhilarating to watch Alistair Brownlee run the Olympic course at Hyde Park and eventually take gold in the event. 

Apart from experiencing residual Olympic spirit, it was nice to see so much green. I make this comment all the time, because living in Seattle is very much like living in a "smart" forest; there's WiFi connectivity and postmodern buildings with all kinds of touch-screen capabilities, but you can never escape the evergreen trees or the mountains (why would you?). In Hyde Park, there were trellises of flowers in bloom, daffodils, and large stretches of grass. The hedges and trees may have been manicured, but it's always nice to be outside and watch the seasons in transition. I think that's what makes autumn and spring so wonderful--and in London, so miraculous. I wouldn't trade in all the grey for continuous sunshine, because the long winter made me appreciate the surprises of spring.

And yes, I am that tiny in real life.