Thursday, May 21, 2009

Trip Report: Oxford

Ah, Oxford. The city even smells like learning. Gothic spires poke out between buildings, students and professors ride their bikes while black robes flap in the wind, and there are signs everywhere stating: Not Open to Visitors. Oxford was very touristy, but yet, it's charm kept me all day. We chose to start out at Oxford Castle which was opened to the public in 2006 by the Queen's decree. Going on a tour is the only way to see inside, so we signed up, and were two of the four total people on the first tour of the day. The castle was a prison up to 1996, and has experienced a multitude of torture, entertained a variety of villains, and has seen British history come and go since the 11th century, in which it was built. The visit includes a trip to the top of St. George's tower with an impressive view of the countryside, and also a trip to the crypt, a must for any castle visit.

Lunch was had at Cafe Creme, a mix of British, Middle Eastern and French cuisine. My white cheddar and tomato grilled panini was perfect, and I chased it with a double shot of espresso and a cake-brownie creation covered in Cadbury Flake. Inexpensive and delicious, this was a great place for a quick stop.

We took a quick visit of the Natural History Museum, one of the many free museums of Oxford. Unfortunately due to timing we were unable to see the Pitt Rivers Museum which is housed in the same building and looked to contain an impressive variety of artifacts from around the world. The reason for this timing was the culmination of my visit to Oxford - a tour of the Bodlean Library.

The Bodlean Library is a must see. Reserved for students, faculty and visiting scholars, if you are a regular traveler like myself, the only hope you have is to book a tour. Extended tours are offered only on Saturdays (so unfortunately we missed out). Many of the books of the library are chained to the wall, and no books are allowed to leave the library - ever. It is one of Britain's few copyright libraries, which means it is granted a free copy of all books published in the UK. In fact, they build two miles of shelving every year to handle all of the books they receive (many are located in satellite locations).

If you are ever in Reading or London, take a moment to visit this beautiful city. Wander the narrow cobblestoned streets, gaze up at the churches, browse through the used academic bookstores, and make sure to purchase something to commemorate your visit - I am now the proud owner of a quite unique Oxford University t-shirt.

Trip Report: Reading, England

Jet lag can be problematic on long-haul trips. Fortunately I have recently discovered a love (or need) for coffee, so I decided to stumble through the day high on caffeine and oblivious to the fact that my body truly wanted to collapse. Finding the father-in-law's house was easy. This is my fourth time to Reading, and all of the old landmarks remain, including an odious TGIF restaurant that doesn't seem to belong with all of the Chinese take-aways and Off-License shops tucked into corners. Not much has changed here, with the exception of the father-in-law's obvious weight loss. Settling in with an Indian dinner made by his Pakistani housekeeper that he effectively calls Hattie, seems fairly normal. I managed to do a spot of shopping as well - including the purchase of fluorescent socks, which seem to be back in style after they went out of style sometime in the early 80's. My husband put me on a bus to the University of Reading and went back to bond with his father, while I attended a lecture by Dr. Robert Parker on sacrifice in Ancient Greece - a valuable (and free) opportunity I didn't want to pass up. Finding my way home was another matter. I missed the bus by a pinch and had to walk for fifty minutes before I found a bus that took me the remaining bit back. Had I caught the original bus, however, I would have missed the opportunity to stroll by artfully designed red, white and gray brick houses with gated gravel-lined parking areas and beautiful English gardens. I would have missed the walk over the Thames where I watched little black ducks glide through the water. It made it even easier to collapse on the sofa at night.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Trip Planning: Learning the Native Language

Less than a week away. With everything planned for me, I started to focus on task #1: learn some of the language. A big surprise to me, they happened to have the Pimsleur short course for Egyptian Arabic at the local library. I happily threw myself into the course with abandon and started lesson 7 today. For anyone traveling, Pimsleur is a great alternative to memorizing flashcards. Focusing on conversational fluency and listening comprehension, the idea is to stop you from feeling like an idiot when faced with a native speaker by providing a lot of practice, short response times, and phrases that are useful to anyone travelling either for business or pleasure.

This is my third Pimsleur course, and I am a huge fan. For those who wish to delve deep into a language and work towards fluency, the three-course program is for you. This is what I used when I learned Italian. Thirty minutes per lesson, it was done easily on the way to and from work. Not knowing any Italian, but being familiar with another romance language, I can say that it was a great step into the language, one I have followed up with written exercises. I also took the three-step course for German, but as a refresher. It works great in this capacity for those of us who took a language in high school but have had little to no opportunity to practice. As for Egyptian Arabic, there isn't enough time to learn the script, but I can happily report that I know how to ask for some coffee, say hello and goodbye, and say that I don't speak Egyptian Arabic well. That's a great start.

One of the best things about learning some of the native language before travelling is that when you travel internationally, you're a diplomat for your country. You may be the only person from your country these people ever encounter, and you want their lasting impression to be a good one. Taking the time to at least learn greetings, and how to say thank you, will cause a great first impression, and may possibly make you some friends that you will have for a long time to come.

Check out the Pimsleur website here:

Also, take time to visit your local library. They just might have the language for you.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hades' Daughter by Sarah Douglass

I rarely have the pleasure of being so caught up in a book, so entrapped by its characters, that I fail to notice the steadily increasing pile of laundry on the floor, or dust that is accumulating past an inch. But this book did, with its heady blend of Greek and Celtic mythology, its factual references to many customs of the 11th century BCE, and its sprinkling of fantasy - just enough to claim the world as the author's own.

The characters are refreshing. Brutus, a headstrong descendant of Aeneas (founder of Rome), Cornelia, a proud child princess who is only looking for affection, to the darkwitch Genvissa, descendant of Ariadne, the original Priestess of the Labyrinth. I alternated between wanting to smack all of them for misbehaving, and cry during their desperate struggle. Good and evil are often very hard to define here, and all of the characters have their moments, where it is clear that they are only trying to do what is best for their land and their people (though some more at the expense of others). But where Douglass shines at fleshing out her characters, be forewarned that she is also ruthless with them. By mid-book, I knew not to be too firmly attached to any of them. Yet the snippets of happiness thrown in, made me eagerly press on, hoping for that happy ending.

If you are familiar with the myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the minotaur of Crete, you will jump right into the story. Ariadne has already helped Theseus at the expense of her family. Now pregnant and jilted, the book opens with Theseus sailing away with his new lover, and Ariadne seeking revenge by making a pact with Asterion, the minotaur. But this story isn't about Ariadne. It is about the result of her pact, and successive generations of her bloodline and their struggles, as well as those around them, to keep their land from dying. It is also the story of Brutus, determined to found New Troy on the land of once peaceful Mag and Og's domain. It is about his struggle through the Mediterranean and across the waters, and affect everyone and everything he touches, and not necessarily in a good way.

Douglass has done her research well. She throws in details familiar to many ancient historians, from the topless Minoan young women where women rule as honored priestesses, to the matriarchal society of Albion where women ask the goddess for a child and are beholden to no man. Then there are their manly neighbors who ride naked into battle, painted black and blue and cause chaos and destruction in their wake, treating women no better than chattel.

It's clear the story isn't finished with this first installment, and there are three books to go. It's also a story that leaves the reader eagerly wanting to know what happens to the characters, and who will win in the end, and I look forward to the second installment.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Greek & Roman Mythology Websites

With millions of websites out there, I'm determined to put a list together of the best Greek & Roman Mythology links available on the web. I encourage people to let me know of other ones so I can keep the list alive. Other than Wikipedia, here are the best sites that I've found thus far:

General Guides & Research Sites
Theoi Greek Mythology
The aim of the project is to provide a comprehensive, free reference guide to the gods (
theoi), spirits (daimones), fabulous creatures (theres) and heroes of ancient Greek mythology and religion.

Godchecker's Mythology Encyclopedia currently features over 2,850 deities (not just Greek & Roman).
Browse the pantheons of the world, explore ancient myths, and discover Gods of everything from Fertility to Fluff with the fully searchable Holy Database Of All Known Gods.

A site dedicated toward Greek Mythology. Myths, folklore and stories of the Olympians, Titans, and some of the greatest heroes. In the other sections of Classics Unveiled, you can find information on Roman History, Roman Life and Latin Vocabulary and Derivatives.

Classical Myth: The Ancient Sources
This site is designed to draw together the ancient texts and images available on the Web concerning the major figures of Greek and Roman mythology. For University of Victoria students, but a good guide of where to look for specific myths in literature and art.

Perseus Digital Library
The Perseus Classics collection began as an integrated collection of materials, textual and visual, on the Archaic and Classical Greek world. The collection contains extensive and diverse resources including primary and secondary texts, site plans, digital images, and maps. Art and archaeology catalogs document a wide range of objects: over 1,500 vases, over 1,800 sculptures and sculptural groups, over 1,200 coins, hundreds of buildings from nearly 100 sites and over 100 gems.

The Internet Classics Archive
441 works of classical literature by 59 different authors, including user-driven commentary and "reader's choice" Web sites. Mainly Greco-Roman works (some Chinese and Persian), all in English translation.

Encyclopedia Mythica
Award-winning internet encyclopedia of mythology, folklore, and religion. Here you will find everything from A-gskw to Zveda Vechanyaya, with plenty in between. Mytholgoy section is divided into geographical regions. Also a folklore section, image galleries and genealogical tables of various pantheons.

Specific Gods/Goddesses
The Shrine of the Goddess Athena
The Shrine of the Goddess Athena houses: the Museum of the Goddess Athena were can be found information about all existing objects related with the Goddess from the Archaic Period to the present; an Encyclopedia with all major information concerning the Goddess; a Dictionary with all important words used in this Shrine; an Atlas showing the locations of every places mentioned; a virtual Temple to the Goddess Athena and an Athenaeum were contemporary reflections are made about the Goddess Athena.