My Grand Christmas Adventure

Before exams, I went on an adventure with my older sister to London and Paris. It was quite a lot of fun, but nothing like I expected. We absolutely loved London. It seemed that there was a place for everyone in London. It was such a mix of different cultures and traditions. We did all the classic touristy things like seeing the London Bridge, riding the London Eye, and watching the Changing of the Guards (which was a bit underwhelming). But we also did a lot of wandering in different places, finding Christmas markets tucked in little street squares, or pretty buildings that have probably been there for centuries. Perhaps my favorite part was attending Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at Westminster Abbey. I don’t imagine there are many people who can say they’ve done that.

In comparison to London, Paris was actually a bit drab. Perhaps it was just because it was winter, but everything seemed a bit dirty and unkempt. Plus it was cloudy and cold almost the entire time we were there. Nevertheless, we still managed to have a good time. We did a really cool tour of the catacombs, and of course went on the Eiffel Tour. For New Year’s Eve, we went to the Champs Elysee. That was actually a lot of fun. I got to translate pieces of the French constitution as they scrolled across the Arc de Triomphe, then they did a really neat light show that ended in a big fireworks display. Of course there was a big concern that the Yellow Vests were going to do something that night, but it was actually pretty calm. Though we did see a dude get tackled by the police, and another dude get chased by police dogs. On my last day in Paris, my sister left in the morning and I spent the rest of the day with a friend near Sacre Coeur. We found a really neat little artist’s square with tons of local artists set up, painting and selling their art. Some of it was quite good. We also found a delicious crepe shop nearby. All in all, it was a pretty great way to end my stay in Paris.

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Exams…

I finally finished exams last week, and I still can’t decide whether I like them better here or not. As I think I’ve mentioned before, exams are spread out over three weeks after Christmas break. I also discovered that they are extremely rigorous when it comes to eliminating cheating by students or grading biases by professors.

To eliminate cheating, pretty much the only things you are allowed to bring into the exam room are pencils, IDs, water bottles, and calculators. Although calculators are only allowed if they have stickers on them to show that they were pre-approved. Phones are also allowed, but they must be turned off, placed in a brown paper envelope, and placed under the desk. Exams are also only held in special examination rooms where desks are evenly spread out, never in a normal class room. Since there are a limited number of these rooms, multiple exams are usually held in the same room at the same time. But annoyingly, exams don’t always have the same end time. One of my exams was two and a half hours long, and I believe the room was shared with a 40 minute test, an hour test, a two hour test, and a three hour test. It’s a bit distracting when the other people are leaving, but the room is organized so that each test group is grouped together, and it’s ordered so that people with shorter tests are closer to the door.

There is an equally rigorous system for avoiding grading biases. For one, the professor is not in the room during the exam. There are instead official test administrators in the room who have no connection to the tests being taken. Your name is also completely concealed from the exam paper. You write and sign your name in the corner of the answer booklet, but then you fold the corner over and seal it. The only other identifying thing on the cover is your ID number. But it doesn’t end there. Apparently the professors don’t actually grade the exams (I’m not entirely sure if that’s always true, but it’s definitely true in the math department… or the maths department as they call it here). I have also heard that each exam is always graded by two different people (to ensure the point tallying is correct), then someone else comes along to make sure the points actually add up, then someone else comes along to see if the overall grade scale needs to be shifted (with the approval of the professor), then finally someone else comes along to do one final check. I actually heard about that five-step process from a different university, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do something similar here.

To top off the entire strange exam system they have here, we don’t get our grades back until March. That is very annoying for financial aid’s sake, but I suppose it’s worth it if they’re using that time to eliminate cheating and grading bias.

The Difficulty with Accents

I have been in England for over two months now, but the accent still throws me off sometimes. There are some words that are pronounced completely differently from the American pronunciation, almost to the point where it sounds like a different word sometimes. One example is “longitude.” The American pronunciation is “lonj-itude,” but people here pronounce it “long-itude.” It throws me off every time (it’s a fairly common word used in physics). As another example, someone once asked me, “do you say gloss or gloss?” I was completely confused because it sounded like she was saying the exact same word twice. Then she pointed to a cup and asked again, and I realized she was saying “glass.” To her, she was asking if I say “gloss” or “glass,” but I couldn’t distinguish between the two sounds because of her accent.

I have also discovered that I can’t watch British TV shows without subtitles. It’s weird. I know what they’re saying (it is still English after all), but my brain just can’t process the meaning of what they’re saying unless I also have the words in front of me. I definitely don’t have that problem with American shows, so apparently it’s just the accent, plus the random different words they have for things. I have discovered that the cockney accent is the worst. For one, London is apparently notorious for how much slang is used, so half the time I just don’t have a clue what in the world they mean. But the other half of the time, I can’t even make out the words they’re saying. I could swear it was a completely different language. Sometimes when I’m on the bus, I hear others having a conversation in what I assume is a different language, but after a while I realize that it’s actually still English, but with half the consonants missing and a few extra r’s added in. Some of the bus drivers also have really heavy cockney accents. Sometimes when they’re talking to me, I don’t have a clue what they are saying, so I just have to smile and nod and hope it wasn’t something important. It’s really weird. I sometimes feel like I’m not a native speaker of my own first language.

Rain, Rain, Go Away…

Considering how far north I am, I had assumed that I would be seeing snow by now. But as it turns out, the fact that England is surrounded by a giant ocean means that the temperature stays warmer longer, so we’re still stuck with rain. At least, I assume that that’s the reason. While Norman has already had a snow storm (or at least an ice storm from what I heard), it still hasn’t even reached freezing here yet. It came close a couple weeks ago, but now it has warmed back up to the 50s again. And it has rained almost every day for the last week. Today was a welcome break from the downpours, but it looks like it’s going to be raining again tomorrow, and most of next week too. Apparently it doesn’t usually snow until January or February here.  At this rate, I’m going to have a muddy Christmas rather than a white one!

The Weather

Surprisingly, it actually does not rain particularly often here. Most of the people I talked to in the States who had been in England before made it sound like it would be wet and drizzly almost all the time, but it really isn’t. That said, I have heard that the weather has been quite unusual this year, so it may be that there is usually a lot more rain. I have also heard that southern England is usually a lot rainier too. But now that the temperature has dropped down to the 40’s, I am glad that it isn’t any wetter. The hills here are bad enough when they’re dry, so I would be terrified to have to face them when they’re frozen over with ice.

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Homework (Or the Lack Thereof)

At first I was skeptical about there not being much homework for my classes. But now I think it is actually really nice. Because I have less homework to do, I have more time to spend doing the homework I do have. And that means I can actually take the time to try to understand what it is I am doing. Also, most of my professors post additional homework that is not assessed, so I can work on the homework without worrying about a deadline, and I can put as much or as little effort as I like into the problems because I don’t have to worry about them being graded. It is really quite nice. I also discovered that receiving an A in the States is the equivalent of passing with over a 70% in the class here. That makes the finals that are worth 85% of my grade here much less daunting.

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The First Week of Classes

Classes started last Monday, and I can already tell that this semester is going to be a bit of an adventure. For one, the classes are not scheduled at regular time intervals. At OU, classes are always at the same time on set days of the week, like 3:00-4:15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But here, my classes are scheduled at random times on random days, like 10:00 on Mondays and 1:00 on Tuesdays. The meeting time or place can also change for a week randomly. That means that my schedule is a lot harder to remember.

Probably the part that is most different about classes here is that the final is always worth at least 85% of your grade. That is slightly terrifying to me, especially since I’m going to have a month between when classes end and when finals start. I really don’t understand why they would put Christmas break in the middle of their semester! That means I have to be studying and worrying about finals instead of actually having a relaxing break.

It is nice that I won’t have so much graded homework though. At first I was concerned that we wouldn’t have any homework at all, which would be bad for me since I rely on the homework to actually learn the material. But it turns out that they just make the vast majority of the homework optional. There are one or two assignments that are actually graded, but the rest you just do on your own and check your answers when the key is sent out. That is actually kind of nice. Less pressure to make the homework perfect. I do wish the final wasn’t worth quite as much though.

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Arriving in England

I arrived in England two Sundays ago, and I spent all of last week getting acclimated to the new city and culture. Probably the greatest difference I have noticed between England and America is that everything in England is way smaller. The roads are tiny, the cars are tiny, the stores are tiny, even my room is tiny.

The drive from the airport to the university was an hour long, and during the entire drive, I saw a total of five trucks, including commercial ones. Coming from Kansas/Oklahoma where you are guaranteed to see at least five trucks at just one intersection, that was pretty strange. I was also amused to see that there were one-way bridges with stoplights at either end to allow two-way traffic to pass. There are actually places like that in the city too.

The tiny stores are a bit annoying, but I can appreciate them too. The fact that they are small means that you have to go to a different store depending on what you want to buy. You buy your pots and pans at the hardware store, your food at the grocery store, and your shampoo at the pharmacy. There is definitely nothing like Walmart around here.

There is also not a large selection of merchandise either. In America, the shampoo aisle has probably a hundred different types of shampoo to choose from. At the little pharmacy down the street, there were about ten options to choose from. Even the “huge” grocery store was rather limited. But it’s not all bad. The fact that they are small means the quality of what they do have is much better than what I am used to. There is a wonderful little fruit store (dangerously) close to where I am staying. I bought three pears for one pound (about $1.25), and they were the most delicious pears I have ever eaten. The juice was literally dripping out of the fruit when I took a bite. I could definitely get used to paying so little for such great quality.

Off to England

I am finally going to be studying abroad! I will be off to England for the next academic year, and I am very excited. I think I am really going to like being there. After all, a tea pot is guaranteed to be provided with all the living arrangements! So far I am going to have three flatmates, and there is room for one more still. It is going to be quite an adventure sharing one kitchen and one bathroom with so many people! It won’t be so bad though. Apparently the physics building is quite close to where I will be staying, and buses drive by every 5 or 10 minutes. But even then, I will probably just walk most of the time since it’s close enough. I am so excited to finally leave the country… and go on a plane. Fortunately I will be traveling over the summer on a plane, so my first plane ride will still be a domestic flight rather than an international one. That makes it slightly less terrifying at least.

Eating Hot Pot!

After all these years of living with a Chinese major, I finally got to eat hot pot. My roommate talked about it all the time, since she has eaten it several times with her Chinese friends. But this is the first time I actually got to try it myself. Her fiance came over with the special hot pot boiler thing, and we provided all the food. We had fish balls, pork, lamb, tofu, fish tofu, shrimp, needle mushrooms, fat mushrooms that I don’t remember the name of, QQQQQ noodles (Q means bouncy in Chinese apparently), bok choy, romaine lettuce, another lettuce I don’t remember the name of, and probably some other things I have forgotten about.

Hot pot is lots of fun because it takes lots of time to eat. Basically, you start with a soup base, then add the different food and eat as you go. We started with the meat and made our way to the vegetables. We had so much food that it actually took us two days to finish it all. We started eating on Saturday at 8:00 pm, and we ate until 11:00 pm when we were too stuffed to eat any more. Then on Sunday we started eating again at 2:00 pm and finally finished (almost) everything off at 5:00 pm.

The only problem with eating hot pot is that it is, well, very hot. Temperature hot that is (and spicy hot too if you want it). Since you have the water boiling in front of you the entire time you are eating, it tends to get very hot very fast. That’s why hot pot is usually eaten in the winter. Unfortunately, our air conditioner is broken. We had a fan blowing on us while we ate, but we were still burning up by the time we were done. It was entirely worth it though.