The Orient Express

As I write these lines, I am sitting on the train from Munich (Germany) to Zagreb (Croatia). The train ride is eight hours and passes through the following regions: Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia, and finally Croatia. At the border between Austria and Croatia, I will need to show my passport, a photo of which I am including below.

The view from the large picture window to my left reveals thousands of hectares of pine trees, rolling hills, remote mountain villages, and the occasional farm tractor and person travelling on bike. In the far distance, stretches the eternally snow-capped Austrian Alps with frequent glacial lakes scattered between. To my right are the other passengers I am travelling with. While waiting on the platform to board this train in Munich, I noted how the passengers looked and dressed distinctly different from the smartly dressed businesspeople and travellers I was accustomed to seeing in France and Germany. The sound of the language, too, is changing as I travel. The coarse auditory texture of German replaces the suave sounding pronunciation of French, and now the sounds of Slavic and Eastern Europe replace German. Everyone on this train is Croatian, Austrian, or German. In addition to myself, there are only two other tourists on this train: a young couple with child from Australia. They are speaking loudly in the nasally Australian accent, and complaining about the motion of the train and sounds of other passengers. As the scenic alps unfold around them, the male of the two with several dozen tattoos and piercings just announced that he will be re-watching Star Wars to pass the time during this “boring” train ride.

Above is a video of my train ride through the mountains toward Zagreb via Salzburg.

This train journey is part of my spring break between the end of my second term at Oxford and the beginning of my third (and final) term. The train journey will last four weeks total, starting in Oxford and ending in Istanbul. The distance is around 3,200 kilometres, which I am covering entirely by train. I am taking the following trains: Oxford to London, London to Paris, Paris to Stuttgart, Stuttgart to Munich, Munich to Zagreb, Zagreb to Belgrade, Belgrade to Sofia, and then finally Sofia to Istanbul. At each major city along the train journey, I will be spending three to four nights in local accommodations (AirBnB or family friends). What I find surprising about this journey is that such an ambitious plan can be accomplished entirely by train travel, as described here.

I am attaching here the detailed day-by-day itinerary for this trip at this link: click here to view.

The trip may seem to have required a lot of planning. Although for one person, such a journey requires only three to four days of planning during term time. First, securing the right train tickets via the Interrail train service, in addition to purchasing my connecting return flight from Istanbul to London. Then, purchasing a temporary mobile number for use abroad. Then, searching AirBnB and my list of contacts for accommodations in each city. Then, messaging each host with the details of my arrival and departure from the location. Then, updating my schedule to create an itinerary of all the places I will see and visit. Then, notifying my bank of any travel plans – so that my debit card is not blocked for “suspicious behaviour.” Then checking for Visas and any entry requirements for the countries I plan to visit. Then, the day before departure, I must pack all my belongings into two small bags of 20 kilos total – which must contain all the supplies and clothes I need for a month-long journey. And, after all this planning, I set out and put my plan into action.

The initial assumption for this trip to be possible, and for me to even have enough time to plan out the rail-trip details weeks in advance is as follows: My Oxford term is not too busy or too stressful that I no longer have the time or energy to travel. I’ve been lucky this term.

Language is one of the biggest barriers when travelling. I speak French fluently, so visiting Paris and navigating the culture there is easy. Germany is a little more difficult than France for me, but most Germans in urban areas have at least some limited proficiency of English. However, the farther east of Europe one goes, the fewer people one finds who are fluent in English. As a result, I must communicate with hands gestures, motions, and the unwritten (but international code of) body language. Train reservations also get more difficult as one travels in Eastern Europe, with the train reservations of Belgrade to Sofia and Sofia to Istanbul needing to be purchased in the local train station the day of departure. Conversely, as language and travel become more challenging, cost becomes cheaper. Two nights in a shared bedroom in Paris will cost the same as seven nights in a fully furnished penthouse apartment in Belgrade. Were I to travel in India or Iran (which I one day hope to visit), the price gap would be even greater. Here’s the link to the budget for this trip.

 

Photos of the train from Villach (Austria) to Dobova (Slovenia).

As the trip continues – I have three weeks of travel left before I arrive in Istanbul – I look forward to seeing the southern mountains of Transylvania, the bombed ruins of Belgrade, the churches of Sofia, and finally the Golden Horn and ancient walls of Istanbul. In Serbia, I know the train will pass by Syrian refugee camps, populated by individuals headed in the opposite direction. In particular, I look forward to the gradual shift of cultures one witnesses in accelerated speed while riding the train. Slowly, ever so slowly, one can watch the culture and architecture shift from the Christian lands of Europe, to the multi-cultural and multi-religious melting pot of the Balkans, to the more solidly Muslim world of Istanbul. The climate, too, can easily change in the space of a single hour, with variations between palm trees, flat plains, snowy mountains, and remote forests. This degree of diversity is simply invisible from an airplane flying at 750 km per hour at 10 km above ground in the midst of puffy clouds.

When I arrive in Istanbul, I will be tired, exhausted, and have a bag full of dirty laundry. But, I will be happy in the knowledge that I completed a trip that few Europeans and even fewer Americans will have completed. On a final note, I will now leave you with a few videos from my day trip to visit the family and farmstead in rural Bavaria of a dear friend I made in Oxford. He is a visiting student just like me in the same academic program of the same year long duration. I hope you enjoy! I will post more videos soon.

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The Train from Paris to Munich

The train from Paris to Munich crossed the poppy fields of northern France. The countryside in the vicinity of the World War I trench lines is dotted with cemeteries, a British flag flying over one and a French flag over the next. During the First World War, the dead were not brought back to their hometowns and or homelands to be buried; they were buried a few miles from where they fell. As the train rounded the next hill, one could see the lines of the trenches etched into the ground: a zigzagging band of different-coloured grass stretching into the far distance.

Tutorials this Term

My Room at Catz
My Desk at Catz. Lots of Books.

Since Trinity Term began four weeks ago, I have been busy working, writing, reading, and studying for classes. After returning from my winter break travels in Europe on December 27th, I have been studying every day with breaks only for exercise and lectures.

My four main activities this term as follows: Sleep, Eat, Exercise, and Study. The first three I don’t do for pleasure or enjoyment, I simply do them as a reprieve from studying and to keep myself in good enough mental and physical shape that I can continue studying. I don’t drink, and I don’t go to parties.

I am taking three tutorials this term: one tutorial on the Crusades that meets 14 times over the course of 8 weeks, a second tutorial on Medieval Art (4 meetings), and a third tutorial on English Architecture (4 meetings). This yields a total of 22 class meetings over 8 weeks, during which I must complete 13 essays of between 2,000 and 3,500 words each and 2 oral presentations of 15 minutes each. This work load may or may not be representative of the average expectations of an Oxford undergraduate; I suspect, it might be a bit more than the visiting student’s average.

I begin each week with a trip to the library where I check out the relevant books pertaining to my upcoming essay. I then skim these books for their most interesting content, with particular concentration on the book’s index to aid in finding the specific passages and topics that relate to my essay. Given the shortage of time, I cannot afford to read any book or text from end to end. After a few days reading, I will begin my essay which takes (on average) five hours to complete with footnotes and citations. I like to let my essay sit for a few hours before I send it to my teacher. So… I’ll go to bed, sleep a good 7-9 hours, wake up, do some exercise, and then proofread my essay for grammar and factual errors. And then, finally, I will send my essay to the teacher for comments and feedback at our next one-to-one meeting.

At the end of each term, each tutor assesses the quality of my work and assigns a letter grade. I receive their written assessment, which is crafted both to inform me of how I can improve and to inform others/employers of the kind of work I completed whilst under each tutor’s supervision. The personalized and customized education one receives at Oxford is unique for each student. And it is frequently difficult to infer the nature and content of a class from its title alone; that is, the syllabus in my case was modified to reflect my interests and preferences. So while I began last term studying one subject for my Gothic Architecture course, I ended the term reading something different entirely.  These customized classes are, I feel, one of the greatest strengths of the tutorial system and Oxbridge education.

Thus, the tutors’ report in my view helps to standardize assessment. Click here, for instance, to read my tutors’ reports from last fall 2017. I do not know to what degree these grades and comments are reflexive of the institutional average.

Watercolors of St. Catherine’s College

I painted these watercolors on paper over the weekend. Painting is a good break between studying and essay writing. Unfortunately, I do not have as much occasion for painting as I would like.

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St Catherine's College in Watercolor and Pen
Saint Catherine’s College from the air

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St Catherine's College
Drawing made with ink on paper

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St Catherine's College in Watercolor, Pen, and Pencil
Entrance to the College: across the moat and into the quad

Update: These watercolors were printed on postcards and sent to current students and alumni as past of the Catz’s 2018 fundraiser. Great success!

A Quick Academic Year

The academic years at Oxford are faster-paced than those at Columbia and almost all other institutions. More work and more essays and more readings in less time and in fewer years than other classes. Cumulatively, I will have worked just as hard at Oxford as I did at Columbia, except I will have accomplished more work in a shorter time with fewer classes: 28 weeks per year at Columbia vs. only 24 at Oxford, and 12 hours of class per week at Columbia vs. only 1 hour of class per week at Oxford.

The academic year at Oxford feels as short as the paragraph you have just read. And, eight weeks, feels shorter still if one is working hard.

A Tour of my Room

My college has around 1,000 students. Some live off campus, others on campus. I am fortunate enough to live on campus. I live on Staircase 12 (out of 16 staircases) in a double I share with my roommate, who is another visiting student from from Hong Kong. He is a talented, intellectual, and an aspiring future lawyer.

My room is a “home away from home.” As such, it is a personal space whose order and design is a reflection of my personality. I took the time to ‘decorate’ the room with lamps on the tabletops, throw pillows on the couches, and old books on the walls – nothing too expensive or ambitious, but just enough to make the space comfortable. Given the short duration of my stay, I would not want to invest too much in the décor.

My room and its desk are a comfortable place to study – particularly with cup of tea in hand. The view outside my window looks toward the River Cherwell; ducks, geese, and various birds fly by throughout the day. For the manicured lawns of an Oxford college, Catz is vibrant with wildlife. The sounds behind me vary from the muffled sounds of slamming room doors to the louder sounds of drunken peers returning from Friday night parties. My room feels tranquil, generally, and a pleasant place to relax after a day’s work in the Bodleian Library.

Christmas in Oxford

Oxford is on the trimester system. There are three trimesters of eight weeks each, with a five week break between each trimester. This year, winter break lasted from late December to mid-January.

I chose to spend my winter break traveling in Europe – with a few days each in Zurich, Milan, Venice, Florence, and Siena. Each city has its unique and distinct personality. Traveling alone is an opportunity to explore the differences between these cities, and to examine their art and architecture. I prefer to see travel as a natural extension of my art history studies – an opportunity to explore during my travels the art I can only read about in class.

I had a week free between the end of term and the date of my departure for Europe. College emptied out of students, and the campus gradually slipped into the quiet of winter break mode. For a few of these days, various high school age applicants arrived for the infamous Oxford Interviews – to be questioned by faculty and accepted or rejected by the University. During these days, the ambience of the dining hall was filled with a visible tension of stressed students worrying about interviews to come or doubting their performance on interviews passed. I was surprised to think that a mere two years ago I, too, was in their place whilst applying to Columbia.

A lot can change in two years as one grows older and (hopefully) more mature.

 

Above is a video of the dining hall. In typical Oxford luxury, there is a large Christmas tree in our dining hall, festooned with blinking lights, blanketed with colourful decorations, and crowned with a star. For a small college, it is a large tree – surprisingly large considering that by the time it is erected most students will have already left for winter break. But, then and again, Oxford has no shortage of funding for such fancies.

The table in foreground is set with white porcelain and silverware for the faculty meal. Every weekday evening students are served a three-course meal by waiters in black vests; most weekday lunches, faculty are served. The meal is typically followed by tea per English tradition. Such social events are not directly related to academic work or student studies – but they are an important opportunity to meet fellow members of one’s college and make new friends.

 

The Sheldonian Theatre is a historic amphitheatre in the centre of Oxford – erected in the style of a Roman temple around 1667 (by my favourite architect, Christopher Wren). Most of the formal and most important university events are conducted in the Sheldonian – including the matriculation and graduation ceremonies conducted in Latin that mark the beginning and end of one’s Oxford career. The most prestigious event in the Sheldonian might be the Encaenia held yearly to confer honorary degrees.

I attended Christmas Carols at the Sheldonian – an event held yearly by Oxford’s Christian Union. Accompanied by the university’s brass band, students sing Christmas carols and religious songs. Malala Yousafzai was in attendance this year, sitting near the top row and quietly joining along in the caroling.

My travels alone brought me to Zurich first – from which I travelled by the Bernina Express to Italy. Over the Alps and through the snow, the train wound itself up and spun around and through the steep mountain passes. Finally, as the train descended, we arrived in Italy. The climate gradually morphed from snow and pine trees to the wet rain and occasional palm tree of Northern Italy.

Below is a picture of me on top of the Duomo in Florence. I ascended in the afternoon and spent three hours surveying the city from the cathedral’s God-like perspective. All Florence was spread below me, with the thousands of Renaissance rooftops and ant-sized people forming a living and urban landscape. I watched as the sun set over the horizon and the nearby mountains of Tuscany. The street lights of the city flickered to life as the sun descended, and the city was illuminated anew.

 

Florence 9.27.04 PM

 

And, finally, after two weeks travel and a slog-of-a-plane-ride, I arrived home to my room in Oxford. The campus was, by now, deathly quiet and entirely dark – save the glimmer of light emanating from the room I share with my roommate Edward. As always, he was studying hard during winter break – typical of Oxford students and scholars.

And, here I am, doing some studying of my own in the uplifting library of the Radcliffe Camera. Originally built in the 17th century as the science library, it is now the history library – and as such a fittingly beautiful place to study the great men* of world history.

 

 

inside the radcliffe camera
Hard at work in the beautiful rotunda of the Radcliffe Camera

* History and the arts are historically male-dominated. And so my phrase ‘great men’ is sadly a statement of fact, and not an attempt to be in any way chauvinist.