Sunday, 26 July 2015


So I have a confession.

I've been running from this blog for several weeks. 

By that I mean I've been avoiding it, because I knew that in my next post I'd have to mention graduation (after all, my time at university, and leading up to it has been a constant theme during the past four years of this blog!). It wasn't really graduation that I was dreading talking about, though of course, my family did manage to embarrass me in front of one of my tutors, and I did find parts of the day quite awkward and hard to get through. Why? Because how do I communicate to my family what the past three years in college have meant to me? How can I explain to them the life I lived, which, since leaving Oxford, no longer even makes sense to myself. 

Anyway, what I was really dreading was having to discuss my exam results. And yes, I do have to talk about them, because I've always written a quick comment about my results, through GCSE, AS-level, A-level and Prelims. Let's be real - studying is something I take seriously and for the past four years or so it has pretty much formed a major part of my life. 

Which is probably contributing to the slightly lost feeling I'm experiencing right now, with my job not starting until 5th August, and having literally no work to do, at all, for the first time since I can remember. I digress. 

I'll cut to the chase; after getting a Distinction in my first year exams I really, really, really wanted to get a First in my Finals exams. It didn't happen. 

In retrospect I realise that I was very lucky with my first-year result - I got an average of 68 or 69% and they rounded up, This year I finished with an average of 68% and they didn't. I got a 2:1. 

Graduation in the Sheldonian theatre, not my photo :P
I should start by saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting a 2:1, it's a good mark and reflects many years of work etc. etc. However, I was especially disappointed as I had achieved a First in a couple of papers, and was 1 mark off a First in my Extended Essay, but was let down by two exams that got a low 2:1. That's the brutality of the Oxford system - you work solidly (as in, almost everyday for 3 years, including 'vacations') and do well in coursework, but ultimately your marks are determined by a week's worth of exams at the end of your third year. If you have a bad couple of days, it undermines a lot of the effort that you put in to the previous 75 tutorial essays.

So, this has been a slightly unpleasant learning experience for me. It has made me re-evaluate my past three years at university - my experiences do not resemble those of my friends at other universities at all - yet I have the same degree classification as many of them. I'm trying extremely hard not to be bitter about the people I know who (having also worked hard) got Firsts, either at Oxford or other universities. This is what it feels like to throw everything at the target, exhausting yourself in the process, and still miss. It hurts. Big time.

I'm getting there though. Several of my friends had exactly the same experience as me - missing the degree classification they wanted by just a couple of marks overall. We're setting ourselves new targets, and telling ourselves that after our first job, no one will care what marks we got anyway. Perhaps that's true.

I felt ill the night before my graduation. What if I was confronted by my tutor? (Everyone in my class had presumed I'd get a First...) What if my peers kept coming up to me and asking about my marks? Would we have to stand up in order of degree classification? Luckily my fears were largely unfounded, though I did have the bizarre experience of staying a hotel room located opposite my third-year room, which was unnerving. I could literally look into the window where I'd spent so many sleepless nights working, and where I'd returned distraught after a couple of disastrous exams...

After some reflection I've realised several important things;

a) Before I came to university I would have been perfectly happy with being told that I would get a 2:1, and do some fun extra-curriculars. I have achieved this,  
b) Before getting my Prelims results I would have been very content to get a high 2:1 overall in my degree.
c) At the end of third year, and even now, I am satisfied with the fact that I came out with a 2:1 and a vaguely sane mentality, rather than suffering any serious mental health problems, for the sake of, and in pursuit of a First.

Onwards and upwards. The liberating thing about being slightly disheartened by my degree classification is that it finally means, after years of schooling and formal education, that life is not just about grades. At moments I produced work that was worthy of a First, but at all times I conducted myself in a ridiculously efficient and studious manner. I completed hundreds of hours of volunteering during my degree, and I tried to consider the welfare of fellow Oxford students, particularly my friends. I rose above a lot of horrible situations and circumstances, and I never stopped trying.

If someone doesn't employ me with this attitude, then they have a heart of stone.

I will talk more about my new job in my next post as I'm aware of how lengthy this one is getting! Stay tuned, I promise the next post will be far more positive! :)

Monday, 13 July 2015

Catania, Sicily

Since being home from Oxford I've been to Sicily for a week, which was a much needed break. Catania made a remarkable contrast to the northern Italian cities of Florence, Pisa and Venice that I'd visited previously. It seemed quieter, less full of English-speaking tourists (like myself and my friends :P) and more traditional in many ways. Our favourite parts of that holiday were eating out in small, street-side restaurants every evening, and grabbing fresh food from the market or bread from the bakery, everyday. Not to mention a day spent hiking on Mount Etna!

Slopes of Mount Etna, one of Europe's most active volcanoes. 

Clouds rolled in just as I was climbing towards the exclusion zone, after getting the chair lift part of the way up. The view on a clear day is said to be spectacular. 

We were pretty adventurous, venturing to a communal (read:free) beach by bus, instead of all of the commercial, private beaches, which blasted music constantly and were packed with people trying to sell us stuff. I saw some Romans ruins, and the best part was how deserted they were. My friend and I were the only tourists there for most of the hour that we spent at one place, and that was a welcome relief at the height of the summer holiday season in Italy.

Ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, which extend below most of the modern-day city of Catania, but are obscured by more recent buildings and roads. 

All in all, we struck a good balance of sight-seeing, beaches and bars. It was cultural enough to feel as though I've learnt a little bit about the history of Sicily, but relaxed enough that I felt as though I'd had a substantial "brain break" compared to the deluge of exam term at Oxford. I even read my first not-for-study fiction book in over two years - a historical novel set partly in Oxford during the civil war. Whether I was lying on the beach with the waves breaking nearby, or sitting on our apartment terrace with the sound of live music floating up for the piazza, the places of 17th century Newport Pagnell, Stony Stratford and London, were never far away.

Piazza Duomo, the main square of Catania and a major tourist attraction due to it's Baroque style architecture, carved from the black lavastone of Etna. 

Despite the deliberately laid-back atmosphere of our holiday, there were a couple of moments that forced seriousness on us. Myself and my female friends received quite a lot of unwanted male attention, which was awkward, as we were literally just walking around buying food, or walking in broad daylight to get to a tourist attraction. Attitudes towards women seemed more old-fashioned, and at times it was uncomfortable to be cat-called at whilst going to the supermarket, or to feel someone tap your backside as you tried to walk past them along narrow streets.

A more imminent crisis facing Sicily, particularly the port towns, is the influx of migrants, mainly from parts of Africa, but we also spoke to some men from Bangladesh, trying to sell us stuff on the beach. As tourists, we were approached on the beach, in the square, or as we ate out in restaurants, and asked to either inspect whatever it was people were selling (usually jewellery, light-up toys, selfie-sticks) or just asked for money outright. It was hard to know what the right thing to do was. No one likes feeling slightly trapped and awkward as someone playing an instrument walks up to you whilst you're eating dinner, stares in your face, continues to play (even if you didn't ask them, and don't encourage them) before finishing their song and holding out their cap, hopefully. The sorrow and despair as sellers, in the boiling heat, walked up and down the beach, carrying their goods on their back, was obvious. The distress of the man who began by singing, but concluded almost in tears as he entreated us to give him money to support his daughter, was very real.

I hope that Europe's leaders reach a more satisfactory, long-term plan concerning the current migrant crisis, because no one deserves a life of constant disappointment and desperation, yet places like Catania seem unable to cope with the current situation. The line of sellers who would attempt to board the bus to the beaches each day, hauling their wares, and often without fare for a 3 Euro bus ticket, was depressing. I don't like to end a post on such a sombre tone, and this blog isn't normally used for serious blog posts, but I feel as though to talk about "my holiday in Sicily" as a one-dimensional, happy affair, would be to overlook something which I observed there everyday, with my own eyes. I would still encourage people to visit Sicily, as its scenery and old-worldly charm are absolutely pervasive, and tourism is clearly a vital part of the local economy, which appears to have been hit hard by the global recession a few years ago.

View of a church and the winding surrounding streets, from a window in our apartment. 

On a lighter note, it's worth taking a moment to remember that the people I went to Sicily with were some of the same friends that accompanied me to Alicante, three years ago (! It feels like a lifetime since I finished school, but keeping hold of my friendship group at home throughout university is something that I'm very proud of. It's been fantastic to have a constant group of people to come home to from university each term, and share stuff with, remembering school times. It's been even better to keep making new memories with them (the sign of a live friendship) so here's to another group holiday, in another three years, or at least, to three more years of friendship!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Finals and finality

My life. Since March.

Seeing as a detailed summary would be impossible, I've decided that what would be most accurate is a series of photos with extended captions, You add the rest.

Revision strikes :( although note the phone in the HelloKitty phone sock, that managed to break a month before exams, just to add to the already tense atmospherics. 
Don't want to think about the number of hours, from April until the beginning of June, that I spent in silence, and alone. I kept myself sane by doing some volunteering (including residential events) with the University's Widening Participation scheme, as well as trying to keep up with friends. I deliberately avoided any timetabled commitments, but in retrospect perhaps this would have been a good idea. It's alarming how much some people retreated into themselves during exams, to the point where having a conversation which didn't concern exams became difficult, as did they whenever exams were mentioned. This made life, well...difficult at times.
My escape to the....grey English seaside. 
I went to the coast to see my Dad for a much needed week in the countryside. This photo was taken during the Easter Vacation and captures the weather in all its glory. To be fair, walking along the pier was refreshing, at least.
Goodbye to a good room!
My noticeboard display, in particular the chain of photo memories made for me for my 21st, by some of my friends that I lived with. Those photos gave me a lot of comfort whilst working at my desk all day! I'd already pinned up some postcards and stuff to liven up the all-beige colour scheme of my uni room (remember at Oxford we're essentially in halls for all three years, so we're limited in what we can do to our rooms, decoration-wise).
All of the luck
Lovely view from my window, looking onto the back of a collection of strange-looking buildings. Nice cards though.
Exam carnations! 
At Oxford, it's a tradition to wear different coloured carnations to each exam. You wear them pinned to your white blouse, which students wear as part of the Sub Fusc dress code prescribed for official University exams. The first carnation, for the first exam, is white. Then it's pink carnation time until your final exam, when you finally get to wear the coveted red one!

In case you're wondering, your college children (assigned to you as first-years) buy you your carnations, just as you would have brought them for your "parents" when you were in 2nd year (most people have major exams at the end of their 3rd year). The "parent" system sounds odd, but actually it's a great way to introduce students from different years and subjects to each other, so that people feel more connected in college. My college parents were there for me in first and second year when I had questions about the year ahead, and in the same way, my college children  were another group of people that I could do fun stuff with, and receive comfort food packages from during exams!
You can say what you like about Oxford...but it'll still look this good as you're revising. This photo is of a walkway known as 'Dead man's walk' - I don't know why! Maybe the city hanging tree and gallows used to be near here?

Sorry, can't hear you over the sound of the symmetrical stripes mowed onto this lawn...did I hear "perfection"?
Back of Christchurch and Merton college, with some of Christchurch meadow in the foreground. 

Oxford, the beautiful Botanical Gardens. Free entry for Oxford students! I always made an effort to come here in the summer months, meeting friends and getting out of college. Also for the Amber Spyglass references...  

Port Meadow, slightly rugged, and definitely needed in a city as busy and tourist-flooded as Oxford in June. I went here for the first time after my exams had finished, and I literally felt as though my life had started anew. Great place to bring a book and a packet of sweets. Or to sketch the wildlife, if you're as artistic as some of my friends! 
Farewell dreaming spires! It's been cool watching you when I was supposed to be looking at books...
This photo was taken from the cupola of the Sheldonian theatre, where I'll be graduating from in about 2 weeks' time. Again, I'd never been up here before (or up the spire of St. Mary's, which I also ascended) and made the most of my student ID whilst I still good! I'd recommend it as quite a quiet place to get a good view of Oxford's spires. It's indoors, which also makes it a decent call for overcast days.

Another thing that I did for the first time after exams was to play croquet! I surprised myself by being quite good at it (well, for someone who's never played before) and decided that I liked the game, though mainly for Alice in Wonderland references and the sheer cliche of playing croquet as an Oxford student.

I left Oxford with the feeling that I was happy of everything that I'd achieved, but that I was also happy to leave. I've never been one to cling onto places (although I'm sure I'll be more nostalgic when term starts again in October) so I felt like it was my time to go. After finishing exams I had little else to do, with is a weird sensation in somewhere as work-orientated as Oxford. I'll romanticise it in years to come, no doubt, but at times Oxford could be a very challenging place to live though. However, it is that experience that has made me who I am today, and for that, among other opportunities, I am truly grateful.