Thursday, September 27, 2007

Grasmere: people

One of the best things about the Wordsworth Conference is that you get to spend a lot of time with the other attendees. It's a small conference, and they schedule only one session at a time, so there's never a question of which session to go to - you either go to the one that's available, or you don't. After nine days of hearing all the same papers with everyone, and eating with everyone, and going on excursions with everyone, and going down the pub or hanging out in the hotel lounge with everyone at the end of the day, if you haven't made some friends it's probably your own fault. And all the established scholars make a point of being friendly and encouraging to the students; it's a very congenial atmosphere.

It's also a very multinational, multicultural, and multiethnic atmosphere. I got to talk to people from the US, Canada, England, Ireland, Wales, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Hungary, Taiwan, China, Japan, Syria, and India, and almost all of them were delightful*. Here are a few of my favorites:

Of course I already knew Sara from school. It was wonderful to see her again, and because she had been to the conference the year before, she already knew her way around - which was really helpful when I got lost on my way into town.

Natsuko is from Japan. She speaks excellent British English, and studied Jane Austen for her MA; her conference paper was on Mary Shelley. She is beautiful, but dislikes having her picture taken.

Thomas has no interest in Wordsworth, and prides himself on the fact that he did not attend a single lecture while he was at the conference. He only came because his Mum is the conference administrator. He is seventeen years old, bright, well-informed, and hysterically funny.

That's Ayah on the right, in the headscarf. She is from Syria, but is currently studying in the UK. She was rather quiet, but very nice to talk to.

Prateeti is from India. She seemed to be about my age, although I didn't like to ask. Obviously we come from very different cultures, but it felt to me as if we had something intangible in common ... maybe something about our personalities. That's John Ruskin's gravestone that she's standing next to, by the way.

Shelly and Dave are the proprietors of the Forest Side Hotel, and they went out of their way to be accommodating and helpful to Sara and Natsuko and me, even though we weren't staying at the hotel. Shelly is very polite, while Dave tends to communicate with people almost exclusively through the medium of mild insults. I found this very funny, and enjoyed chatting with him when he and Shelly were at the desk.

There were many other graduate students there, most of whom stayed at the youth hostel in the village. From left to right, Peter, Chris, and Thomas embrace Long Meg, while Frank looks on, bemused. Frank goes to school in New York, so he's way too cool for stuff like that. :)

More students, at the pub. Chris, Peter (hidden behind Chris; not a student), Jacob, Katie, Rebecca, another Peter, and Emily.

And just for fun, here's a random international group shot from the hotel lounge. Pictured, left to right: Nick Roe (St. Andrews), Sara Nyffenegger (now at University of Zurich), Kaz Oishi (University of the Air, Japan), Nick Groom (Exeter), me (US), and Natsuko Hirakura (Toho Gakuen).

*The slightly less delightful were as follows:

- An angry woman who told one of the presenters that her paper was "unacceptable," although it was clear to everyone else in the room that Angry Woman had misunderstood the point of said paper. In her continuing quest to make everyone as uncomfortable as possible, she threw a twenty-minute hissy fit when the hotel staff threw away an empty plastic bottle she had left lying around, and demanded that they replace it. She also believes in dragons. Really.

- A man who seemed mildly but perpetually angry at everyone and everything, which made me wonder why he insisted on coming to the first half of the conference and hanging around with everyone. Maybe it was so he could ask angry questions at the lectures (which he did), respond angrily to questions people asked about his paper (which he did), and have angry conversations with people over a pint afterwards (which he also did).

- A man who kept trying to engage me in an essentialist debate about Jane Austen. He wanted to argue that there is something irreducibly feminine about her writing, and also that she was not able to write complex male characters convincingly because she was a woman. The only Austen novel he had ever read was Pride and Prejudice, and he didn't read that one very well - he described Mr. Bennet as having "faith" that "Lydia's marriage to Wickham will turn out just fine."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Grasmere: the Lake District

Of course I'd heard of the Lake District before I came there. You can't really study Romanticism, even in the most cursory way, and not have heard of it. And I was given to understand that the area was quite picturesque, scenic even. However, I admit that I arrived in Grasmere fully prepared to be unimpressed. I mean, come on, I've seen plenty of lakes before. Likewise hills, rocks, rills, etc. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and I've seen my share of Picturesque and Scenic Nature. Surely the scenery here would be like any other pastoral scenery.

It took five minutes in Grasmere to change my mind.

There really is something different about that place. The light on the fells changes every five minutes, giving endless variety to the landscape. Every prospect looks like something from an art photography textbook. It was so impossibly beautiful that I half suspected the scenery was composed of matte paintings that were put up to impress the tourists. Even the sunsets seemed specially magnificent, different from others I've seen. This inspired me to take numerous pictures of sunsets and fells, which, of course, utterly fail to live up to the experience of seeing them firsthand.

By the way, did I mention that the Lake District is a very sheep-intensive region? It is. Very.

Then there's Grasmere Lake itself. Sara and I scraped ourselves out of bed early one morning so we could go round the lake before breakfast with some other people from the conference. Ten minutes into the experience, I turned to her and gasped indignantly that I thought we were supposed to be on a walk. It turns out that Richard Gravil, the conference convenor, uses the word "walk" to mean several things: charging briskly around a lake first thing in the morning; charging briskly up and down the fells; charging briskly along scenic woodland trails; charging briskly into Cathedral Quarry, etc. He does not use it to mean "taking a leisurely stroll with frequent stops for photographs." So I don't have a ton of pictures of the actual lake. We stopped at one end for approximately three minutes, and I snapped a few shots before we strode briskly on.

Apparently there's a famous rock formation in this shot, called the lion and the lamb. There are other places around the lake where you can actually see it - and it really does look like a lion and a lamb - but of course I couldn't stop to take a picture from those places, because I was too busy striding briskly. (Double click on the picture to get a very slightly better look at the rocks.)

Look - here's Sara, striding briskly around the lake.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Grasmere: the venue

This year the conference was held at the Forest Side, an old country house that's been converted to a hotel. I use the word "old" loosely, of course; the house was built in 1853, so it's not particularly old by British standards. The driveway which leads to the hotel is long, winding, lined with trees, and has one rather odd feature: a small circle of moss-covered stones surrounding two trees.

As you walk up the drive, you occasionally catch glimpses of the hotel between the trees.

Then you round the last bend and see the front of the building.

This used to be someone's house. Probably their second house.

The conference sessions were held in a room with enormous wood-framed windows that look out onto the hotel grounds. It was lovely, but distracting at times, as you may imagine. (Double-click to see the picture in more detail - it's really gorgeous.)

The hotel also featured badgers. I think I was the only person at the conference who found this unbearably funny.

They were kind of cute, but it was hard to get a good picture because they only came out at night.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Grasmere: my first impression of England

Flying into England was an odd experience. The plane had monitors that showed a graphic display indicating our progress, so I could see when we had entered British airspace and were passing over places whose names I knew. But of course the weather was cloudy and I could see nothing of the land itself. I looked out the window and waited, curious. When we finally broke through the cloud cover, I saw very ordinary fields and hedgerows – nothing particularly scenic or spectacular that would explain the rush of emotion I felt. I had never been any closer to England than the State of New York, but I felt that I was coming back to a beloved home after a long absence.

I think I was expecting kind of a Keatsian, looking-into-Chapman's-Homer moment, and instead found myself having more of a Walter Scott moment.

"Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,
From wandering on a foreign strand!"

Although I probably would have said it without the exclamation marks.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Grasmere: getting there

Trying to blog about my trip to England seems really overwhelming, so I've decided to take a page out of Nicole's book and write about it over several entries. This one, as the title suggests, is about getting to the conference.

The flight over was uneventful, which in itself surprised me. On the first leg of the trip my seat mates were very nice, by which I mean "not interested in talking." I was glad. I changed planes in Cincinnati, which means that I have now technically been to Ohio. (Verdict: humid.) From Cincinnati to Gatwick, I sat next to a lovely Frenchwoman named Sylvaine, whose name I have probably spelled incorrectly. She was very charming, and complimented my French accent, and chatted pleasantly until they turned the lights out. She was on her way to France to see her daughter perform in an opera.

Gatwick airport in London turned out to be a bit downscale, and somewhat poorly labeled. It might not be like that normally; they had signs posted that said they were "refurbishing." I took this to mean remodeling. Gatwick is also where I started to enjoy my trip a whole lot less, mainly because I was tired and confused and couldn't figure out where I was supposed to go. Eventually I made it onto the train that took me to Victoria Station, which was a completely bewildering place, especially to someone who had been awake all night. (Did I mention the two babies on the plane who took turns crying all night? I am so not taking my kids to Europe anytime soon.) Half the ticket machines at Victoria weren't working, so there were huge lines everywhere, although in England they are of course called queues. There's even a verb: queueing. So I queued.

I made it from Victoria to Euston Station, where I bought a ticket for yet another train, this time from a very snooty person who looked at me like I had just crawled out from under a rock, and ignored me when I asked her where to catch the train that I had just bought a ticket for. Nice! Catching a train at Euston Station is kind of an adventure, because they don't tell you what platform your train will be leaving from until it arrives at the station. So everyone stands around looking at a bank of monitors that lists the various departing trains, and when a platform number comes up for the train people are waiting for, they bolt for the platform as fast as they can, in order to get a good seat on the train.

I fell asleep on the train to Oxenholme – it's something like a four-hour trip. After a couple of very uncomfortable hours, I woke up to the sound of someone in the train shouting, "Elvis is in the 'ouse!" for no reason that I could ascertain. I then realized that I had no idea where I was, or how long it would be until I needed to get off the train, nor could I understand the person who was announcing the stops. Somehow I managed to get off at the right place, then had to cross the station and get on another train, which took me to ... OK, I'll be honest, I don't even remember where that one went. Probably Windermere. From there I caught a bus, which is referred to locally as a "coach," and which inevitably let me off at the wrong stop in Grasmere. I had to call Sara to come into the village to get me, because I was totally lost. But I made it one piece, with all my luggage. Yay!

This is our room in the Bed & Breakfast:

and this is the view from the room:

Our room looks right into a graveyard. How Romantic is that? (Answer: very.)