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All is full of linkpost April 10, 2015

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I was going to devote this week’s post to the Hugo Awards situation, but to be honest, I thought better of it. Why waste my energy on the emotionally draining behaviour of a bunch of immature, selfish, cruel, destructive people? I’d rather talk about people who build, create, nurture and share.

At Safe, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz talks about words, actions, and using power for good. It’s a post filled with hope and compassion. (Content note for discussion of abusive behaviour.)

Rochita’s post refers to this one by Laura Mixon, which comes with a similar content note.

I absolutely adore M Sereno’s poetry. Her latest, ‘The Eaters, published in Uncanny Magazine, is gorgeous. Amal El-Mohtar reads it aloud here.

BBC Radio 4 is doing a programme featuring extensive interviews with Ursula Le Guin, Ursula Le Guin at 85.

Short stories I read and enjoyed this week include ‘Monkey King, Faerie Queen’ by Zen Cho (published at Kaleidotrope) and ‘Ambergris, or the Sea-Sacrifice’ by Rhonda Eikamp (published at Lackington’s, illustrated by Likhain).

Over at SF Signal, authors pay tribute to Terry Pratchett and Leonard Nimoy.

Ken Liu discusses his new novel The Grace of Kings at SF Signal.

This round-up post at Ladybusiness has some fabulous short story recommendations.

It’s always disorienting for me to see real-life friends and former academic colleagues getting discussed in SF publications.

This is the most Cambridge story ever.

Please spend your weekends being lovely to each other.

How I stopped worrying, and learnt to love Lent Term March 1, 2010

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I don’t tend to do too well during Lent Term. It’s partly due to the lack of daylight, which by Australian winter standards is pathetic (10am to 4.30ish pm), and it’s partly due to the fact that Lent Term is when it starts to get serious, workwise. Last year, I went a little bit crazy, although it probably didn’t help that I spent about five weeks in the lead-up to Lent Term spending all my days alone in my room drinking various alcoholic beverages…

I spent most of this term being very tense. Every two weeks or so, I’d hand some work in to my supervisor, and every meeting she would say that it was not at a high enough standard. I started to despair, thinking that I was incapable of writing research at a level higher than an MPhil. At the same time, I was preparing for my first-ever conference paper, which caused the Return of Panic!Ronni, Now With Added Hysteria. My friends must’ve got very sick of me, as every time anyone asked how I was, I would launch into a litany of shrieking complaints about how terrified I was about the conference.

At some point, though, I realised I had to pull myself together. I had been having trouble writing in my room, so switched to working mainly in libraries and cafes, with excellent results. Every so often, I’ll get a psychological block about writing under certain circumstances (I’ll suddenly be incapable of writing on a computer, or in the University Library, or in the department common room), but I’ve found that if I simply change my writing circumstances (write by hand with a pen, move to a different library, try writing at a different time of day) I can unblock my writer’s block. That’s what I started doing. I worked in libraries in the morning, then came home, went for a run, ate lunch, and worked in cafes in the afternoon. I wrote everything by hand in exercise books, which meant a bit of extra work transcribing the writing, but it was worth it. I’m now sitting on 5000 words (as well as about 15,000 other words that aren’t really up to scratch).

But the best thing about those 5000 words? My supervisor said they were good, and that the new line of inquiry I’ve been following is a worthwhile topic. After she said that, I felt as if I were walking on air! The thing about my supervisor is that she expects a lot, and she’s fair but firm. This means that when she says my work is good, I can confidently expect it to need very little improvement. She reads everything thoroughly and won’t give empty compliments, so when she’s happy, I know it’s with good reason. She really gets what is meant by ‘constructive criticism’.

And what about the conference? Well, I was very frightened on the day. (My friend J and I, who were both giving our first papers, were sharing a hand-out for the talk before mine, and neither of us could hold the hand-out as our hands were shaking so much!) But the thing about me is that I have such a strong sense of shame that I’ll work hard to avoid being ashamed or embarrassed by anything. (When I was a child, it was even worse. It was fear that motivated me to study, because I was so terrified of making mistakes and having people think I was ‘stupid’. I managed to get through so many gymnastics competitions without a hitch – without falling or stumbling or slipping – because I would’ve been so ashamed to look bad in front of the judges.) It’s a handy trait to have, because although I’d prefer to be motivated solely out of love for my research, I think that fear is a stronger motivator. Thus, although I was freaked out about giving my paper, I was more terrified of giving it badly, and so I forced myself to speak with a well-modulated voice (having journalist parents is good training for this!), gesture with my hands, make eye-contact, make sure I was pronouncing the Irish words as correctly as I could manage and prepare for the sorts of questions that I felt people would ask.

Once I was done, I actually found I’d rather enjoyed the whole thing, and was looking forward to doing some more conferences. This chimes with my previous experiences of public speaking: I’m terrified the first time, but once I’ve done it, I rather enjoy it. I used to love giving tutorial presentations as an undergrad and high-school student.

[Look! Here’s my name on a real, live conference program! It’s in the PDF, and you can see me listed as one of the committee members for last year’s conference, when I helped organise it.]

I feel like I’ve jumped over a massive hurdle with this conference, and nothing will daunt me now until I move on from graduate conferences to conferences with a mixture of postgrads and academics. But that won’t be for a year or so.

My next big lot of work is my registration piece (10,000 words, plus my proposed chapter structure, plus an annotated bibliography, plus a report on training I’ve been doing, plus a mini-viva), which is coming up in just under two months. I’ve got all the necessary writing, but it’s not at a good enough standard yet. Oh well, that’s what the holidays are for!

The frozen North, the sunburnt South January 10, 2010

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That is a satellite image of Britain as it is at the moment. I’ve just got back from a month in Australia, where I spent pretty much every morning swimming at the beach. As you can imagine, I was shocked at the contrast.

My time in Australia was a mixture of nostalgia and happiness. It was very odd to return, and at times I felt like the typical exile that I write about, a person who lives in a foreign land, and then returns home to find that it’s not ‘home’ any more. But for the most part, my trip back was enjoyable, and it was wonderful to see all my friends and family again.

I landed in Melbourne first, and spent about five days staying with my dad, stepmother and two little half-sisters. The time was marred only by the fact that Dad had giardia, and looked rather emaciated. But it was fantastic to see my youngest sisters, who are growing up so quickly that they seem like different people every time I visit them.

I also managed to see several other friends while I was in Melbourne, which was excellent.

After that I flew to Sydney, for what turned out to be a three-week-long catch-up fest. The first night I was there, I went to a housewarming for two of my usydgroup friends, and the day after that, pretty much everyone I knew in Sydney (and some Canberrans) turned up for a picnic that I organised at Bronte. I had my first swim of the holiday there, and it was great.

I saw most of those people (a mixture of usydgroupians, Canberrans and others) a couple of other times during my trip, but it was great to see them all together, especially at an event that I’d organised, as I find organising and hosting events very stressful.

I saw a lot of my extended family. I was living with my mum and my sister (who had just moved back home) of course, but I also saw a lot of my grandparents, four of my aunts (the fifth was on holiday in Japan, Korea and Thailand), most of my cousins and my uncles. I also managed to catch up with one of my Obernet friends for lunch and secondhand bookshopping in Newtown. Raphael and his mother drove up from Canberra for a few days, and it really meant a lot to me that they did this primarily to visit me. We had a great time browsing the bookshops in the CBD.

Aside from all the socialising, I managed to spend some time earning money by working in my old patisserie where I worked as an undergrad. It was the Christmas lead-up, so it was insane, of course. I realised how much I enjoyed doing that work, which makes me worry that it may be the only job I ever completely enjoy doing. I suspect I’m destined to work in that patisserie on and off until the day I die.

It was a good trip, but it raised lots of troubling emotions. Although I relished seeing everyone again, I couldn’t help but feel a little awkward, as though I was trying to force myself into a space that no longer existed. I suspect that this feeling might’ve lessened if I’d remained longer. It’s hard to explain, but if you go away for this long, people (of course) do things without you. Their lives change without you. I’m not saying these changes are for the worse, just that you realise that the universe goes on without you. Time doesn’t stop for you.

Of course, as soon as I got back to Cambridge, I wanted to go back to Australia. The snow, which was such a novelty last year, is a pain this year. I can’t run outside or I’ll slip on the black ice. (I saw some hardy souls running in shorts today. Their knees were bright red with the cold.) The lack of sunlight depresses me.

Most of all, I lapse back into childhood the second I spend any time with my mother. Although I’ve always been able to handle the more practical aspects of independence (cooking, cleaning, shopping, budgeting etc), I’ve always been incredibly emotionally dependent on my mother. It takes me about a month to regain my emotional resilience after seeing her. At the moment, however, I just want a hug.

Same, same but different October 28, 2009

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My first PhD year has begun not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a series of small volcanoes. It seems everything that could go wrong went wrong.

First up was a housing crisis. As I was not sure until mid-August that I had the funding to continue with my PhD, I had given up my old lease, thinking to save money. This, of course, required me to flit between London and Cambridge, from friends’ couch to spare bedroom to floor, in a rather chaotic, peripatetic manner. This caused all kinds of problems, ranging from living out of a suitcase, wearing the same four outfits over and over again, to getting on the bad side of college and being woken in the middle of the night by angry porters.

Almost as soon as I had my own roof over my head, I had a computer crisis. My college, until last year, did not require Mac users to run a virus scan in order to use the college network. This year, all that changed, and I was forced to suffer the indignity of installing McAfee antivirus software on my poor computer. Bernard, my computer, liked it no better than I did. The internet slowed to a dial-up speed crawl, and constantly froze. After several hysterical conversations with both my college tutor and my supervisor (who was so outraged she considered forcing college to pay for a new computer), I got one of the local tech-heads to fix Bernard for me. Everything’s working fine now, but if you know anything about me, you’ll know that depriving me of internet for two weeks will not be a pretty sight.

Once that was sorted out, I got a cold of epic proportions. My old doctor used to prescribe me with seretide, taken through an asthma puffer. If I used it twice a day in the few days when my throat started to feel scratchy, the worst symptoms of the cold would normally pass me by. She did this because until the age of 23, I got colds so badly that they’d last for months, causing me to get a hacking cough that would continue ceaselessly, giving me sleepless nights and aching muscles. So when I got the Cold From Hell, I went to my Cambridge doctor, hoping to get a new prescription. No such luck. ‘That’s a steroid’, he said, when I showed him my seretide puffer. ‘You’ll become dependent on it if you use it too much.’ As my friend said to me when I complained about this, ‘You’re kind of dependent on breathing, too.’ Well, no breathing for Ronni, apparently.

I’m finally better from the cold, and all healthy and ready to face whatever disaster Cambridge next throws at me.

I’m enjoying my first PhD year so far. After struggling to write for ages, I did what I always do when I’m getting writers’ (and researchers’) block: schedule a meeting with my supervisor, which tends to scare me into getting back to work. It worked: I’ve now written nearly 2000 words in two days! Only 78,000 to go!

I’m sitting in on a lot of undergrad classes. My favourite is probably Medieval Irish, where we whip through texts at a much greater speed than we did last year. We’re currently translating Audacht Morainn (‘The Testament of Morann’), which is part legal text, part wisdom literature. It’s all about how to be a good ruler. I’m also taking second-year Latin, where we’re translating St Patrick’s rather idiosyncratic Confessio, and Welsh, where we’re translating the seriously baffling Canu Urien (‘Songs of Urien’). Finally, I’m taking beginners’ Modern Irish, which I love.

As far as life goes, I’m happy, but it’s a happiness tinged with nostalgic melancholy. Last year was just so perfect that it was always going to be impossible to top. I think part of the reason I loved 2008-2009 was because I’d been so miserable for so long before that. It was not going to be hard to have a better year than 2007! And so my friends in my department were kindred spirits, both in their love of all things obscurely medieval and in their love of the pub. My housemates were perfect (aside from the inability of some of them to do the washing up), and they became not merely the people I lived with, but good friends. I have to try hard not to make unfair comparisons, but it’s difficult. I’m in the same house, but with entirely different people, and the dynamic of the house has changed. None of my close MPhil friends continued on for the PhD, and to make matters worse, many of my good undergrad and postgrad friends also graduated.

Last academic year was so good in so many ways. It gave me the confidence I’d always been lacking. It gave me the sense of place for which I’d always been searching. It gave me the sense of purpose for which I’d always yearned. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but I never imagined it would be this hard. Up until last year, I always looked back with nostalgia at previous stages in my life, wishing I could do them again. I did not do so last academic year, and imagined myself to have broken the cycle. Apparently I have not.

Master of Philosophy? July 21, 2009

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I can’t believe it’s been a month since I updated this blog! I feel incredibly guilty about that, since so much has been happening. My mother’s just left for Heathrow after staying here for six weeks, during which time we went to Spain, walked 22 miles to Ely, and ate way too much Indian food, but before I talk about all that, I’d like to fill you in on the biggest news: I graduated!

Me with my snazzy Cambridge degree.

Me with my snazzy Cambridge degree.

Like all things related to Cambridge, the graduation ceremony was poorly organised and highly ritualised. We were told that it would begin at 11 o’clock. We were to present ourselves for inspection (we had to be correctly dressed) at college at 10 o’clock, and our guests had to be at Senate House by 10.50. When we got to college, we were informed that the ceremony would actually start at midday. I had no way to contact my mother, as she had my phone, which was switched off. So I sat in the SBR with one of my housemates, watching appalling reality TV on the computer, agonising about my poor guests.

After an hour, we started our procession through town. This is a tradition for the graduation ceremony, and I’m certainly glad I am a member of a college that’s close to Senate House. I can’t imagine how awful it would be to process from somewhere like Girton, running the inevitable gauntlet of gawking, camera-happy tourists.

The ceremony itself was very quick: no long-winded, patronising speeches like at Sydney. You (I swear I’m not making this up) hold the college Praelector’s fingers, he says some Latin over you, you kneel down in front of the Vice-Chancellor (in our case it was the Vice-Chancellor’s representative), she says some more Latin over you (‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ – non-Christian monotheists can opt out with ‘in the name of God’, but there’s no opt-out phrasing for atheists or polytheists, unfortunately), you walk away and someone hands you your degree. You then hang around outside Senate House until the session is over and then everyone swarms out to congratulate you.

It felt a bit more anticlimactic than when I graduated from Sydney, simply because I graduated with college people rather than my friends from my course (although two of them were at my session). Somehow it’s more meaningful and more poignant and more significant to graduate surrounded by those who went through everything with you.

Prior to graduating, I’ve been having a grand time. Mum got here just before I handed in my dissertation, and it was a great relief to have her there during the final stages. Hand-in was followed by May Week, Cambridge’s traditional week of debauched excess. My May Week kicked off with the John’s May Ball, which was absolutely insane. Imagine the most over-the-top funfair+formal+barbecue+bar+al fresco dining+dance party+rave+jazz club+indie music street festival and you still haven’t quite encompassed all that the May Ball was. I had a fabulous time, but the not-quite-closet socialist in me felt a bit outraged at the excess of it all. I probably wouldn’t go again unless I was taking someone from home to show them ‘the Cambridge lifestyle’.

I followed the May Ball with several more sedate May Week activities: a couple of garden parties, which were all about the Pimm’s and the finger food. At these I caught up with the ASNaCs, which made me a little melancholy. So many of my ASNaC friends are third-year undergrads, and won’t be coming back next year.

After May Week I disappeared to London for a bit with Mum, where we stayed with friends. She did a few interviews for work and I caught up with one of my oldest friends from Canberra and her boyfriend. She was in the UK for a conference and they’d decided to make a bit of a holiday of it. I hadn’t seen her for nine months, so it was amazing to catch up.

Then it was time to return to the ‘Bridge for my viva, a nerve-wracking experience akin to being dragged across a bed of nails while having your hair pulled out strand by strand. Nothing about it was pleasant, and the examiners’ comments were interesting, to say the least, but I must have done acceptably, because my marks were good enough for me to continue for a PhD. Funding, however, remains elusive. Fingers crossed.

After the viva, Mum and I went off to Spain for eight days. We went to Madrid (where we visited three great art galleries: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Reina Sofia and the Prado, as well as unexpectedly finding a fantastic Annie Leibovitz exhibition). We spent a lot of time walking around the Retiro park, where Mum got some hilarious footage of people rowing around a tiny pond, and even paying money to be taken around said pond on a little steamboat. If I can, I’ll upload it here.

After Madrid, we spent four days in Barcelona, where we mostly hung around in the gothic district of the city, apart from one day when we walked to Parc Güell, the crowning glory of Gaudí’s architecture in Barcelona. (I was hoping to see people with glowing eyes running around, à la Röyksopp’s ’49 Percent’ but alas, it was not to be.)

I’d never been to Spain before, and was most impressed at what good food you could get for basically nothing. Most places had a breakfast special (coffee, pastry or sandwich and orange juice) for about 3-4 euro, and a lunch special (three courses, drinks and bread) for 8-16 euro.

After Spain, we came back to the ‘Bridge for a few more days, then went to London, where I caught up with yet another visiting-for-a-conference old school friend (we’ve known one another since we were 11) and went on an excellent walk around Hampstead Heath. It’s amazing that such a beautiful place exists within such a huge, noisy city.

Then it was back to Cambridge for graduation and various admin-related tasks. I’m about to head off to Ireland for a Modern Irish language course, and I’ve been trying to organise that. But the whole thing was tinged with sadness. Over the past six weeks, I’ve unlearned all the independence that I gained over the nine months I’ve been away. Having my mother here was wonderful beyond words. For all I love my new friends, there’s nothing like having someone around to whom you don’t even have to explain yourself, who gets you on a level beyond language. I coped before, and I will cope again, but the initial stretching of the umbilical cord is going to be painful.

It’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiney day May 24, 2009

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I realised that I hadn’t written about Cambridge for a while, so I thought I might remedy that. Easter Term has been very see-saw-y. Very up and down. My moods swung according to how well I felt I was going on my dissertation. Early on in the term, when I was very lost, I felt appalling. I inflicted my whining on everyone around me, wailing about how I just wanted to go back home to Australia. But as soon as I met my supervisor and told her that I was stuck, she pointed me towards St Anselm and the concept of the individual, and I never looked back.

After that, writing came easily. I aimed to write between 500 and 1000 words a day on days when I was writing, which meant that my dissertation proceeded at a leisurely amble – just the way I like it. I finished my draft on Wednesday (we had to hand in the drafts on Friday) and have been essentially celebrating ever since. I remember that same feeling of relief when I wrote my Honours thesis. Just seeing those 15,000 words sitting there, the result of seven months of research and reading and editing and translating and fobbing off your supervisor, is an amazing feeling.

The only other piece of assessment we had this term was a take-home essay on our seminar texts. We got given the questions (which were really just a series of words – ‘distance’, ‘illumination’, ‘interaction’ and so on) on a Thursday and had to hand the essays in the following Monday. I chose ‘interaction’ and wrote about the interaction between past and present in Virgil’s Aeneid, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and Beowulf. Oddly enough, I really enjoyed it. I love writing exercises of this kind. They were what I loved most about being an undergrad, too. Some people are in academia for research, and some are here for the writing, and I, unfortunately, am here for the writing. I suspect this may cause problems further down the line…

There’s been less socialising this term because everyone is very busy; MPhils with dissertations, undergrads with exam revision. Even so, I’ve managed to get out to ASNaC pub most Fridays and do whatever other fun stuff I could manage. There’s been a lot of movie-watching and afternoon coffee followed by browsing in Borders.

Last week I went with one of my housemates and one of my other friends to a country fair at Grantchester. We (all of us are from countries outside the UK) came away convinced that this country is insane. There was a sheep-shearing exhibition, a dude showing off his hawks and owls, a bunch of medieval reenactment people and a Punch and Judy show. We probably spent more time laughing at inappropriate moments than was strictly necessary.

I wish I could say more, somehow, about what this term has been about, but I haven’t quite sorted out in my mind what defined Easter Term. Michaelmas was all about the ‘ooh, shiny Cambridgeness’, and Lent was all about despair (not helped by the gloomy weather), but Easter’s been oddly schizophrenic. I’ve had moments of ‘what the hell did I think I was doing, coming here?’ followed by periods of undying love for Cambridge, my friends and my subject. I’ve had periods of writers’ block-filled self-doubt, and bursts of joy at how much I love my dissertation topic and how much fun I’ve had writing it. I’ve locked myself in my room with Bailey’s and chocolate, and I’ve danced in the living room with my housemates as we watched the Eurovision Song Contest.

In short, I’ve had the full range of human experiences, and I’ve loved every one of them.

Under the ‘Bridge March 24, 2009

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The two people who read this blog might be wondering why it’s been so long since I’ve written about life in Cambridge. The answer is that until today, I simply couldn’t bear to do so. Lent Term hit me with the full force of a slap in the face, and for the eight weeks of its duration I felt as if I had been thrown into a pit of quicksand, while an army of leprechauns squeezed my heart through a clothes wringer and stamped repeatedly on my face. Florid metaphors aside, Lent Term was a grind.

Old Cambridge hands tell me it is ever thus. You spend Michaelmas Term floating around, in awe at your own cleverness and the old buildings and well-stocked libraries. Then the sun goes away and you realise that you might actually have to do some work if you’re going to survive, and more importantly, get paid to write about obscure medieval texts written in a dead language.

The main piece of assessment in Lent Term for me was two exams, euphemistically termed ‘Written Exercises’. Mine were in Latin (first year) and medieval Irish (second year). Three things you should know about me:
1. I don’t like exams;
2. I hadn’t taken an exam since mid-2005; and
3. I really, really don’t like exams.

For most of the term, although I was revising solidly, I walked around with this stunned, increasingly hysterical look on my face. People in the common room were treated to Attacks of the PanicRonni on an almost weekly basis. The other M.Phil students had to put up with my anxiety-ridden whining every second day.

Oddly enough, though, the exams went okay. I did mix up pluperfect and perfect verbs in the Latin exam, and claim that a dative noun was accusative and a genitive noun was accusative (apparently everything’s accusative) in the Irish exam, but the translations themselves seemed fairly straightforward and I didn’t run out of time in either exam.

I ran into one of my friends in town after the Latin exam, and she said that I was looking happier than I had looked in weeks.

Lent Term also destroyed my confidence in my ability to write. I went into it with very clearly defined goals for my dissertation. I was going to write 1500 words per week, so as to be finished the dissertation by mid-April. What I ended up with were 5000 rather disjointed, badly put together words, most of which I’m too ashamed to show to my supervisor. I spent many an hour convincing myself that I was not cut out to be an academic, and that what I wanted to do in fact was to return home to Australia, work in a dead-end retail job and feed my brain by blogging about books.

I think I’ve mostly got over this self-doubt, thankfully.

When I set out my experiences like this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Lent Term was unremittingly bleak. This was not the case. What got me through was the people around me. The longer I stay at Cambridge, the more I appreciate the ASNaCs. Who else would think to build a snow longship on a snowy day? Who else would bring port to the weekly departmental lunch? Where else would you find a common-room full of people able to tell you the tense, person and number of a Latin verb that you’re too lazy to look up for yourself?

It’s the little things that matter the most. Weekly coffee sessions with my fellow M.Phils. Latin study group. The crazy conversations at ASNaC pub. The enthusiastic turn-out at CCASNaC. The fact that my Irish tutor spent a month patiently going through unseen translations with me. Consolatory trips to Borders on Wednesday afternoons.

My non-ASNaC friends are wonderful too. Again, it’s the little things that matter. Watching films at the John’s film nights. Being able to borrow milk, bread or cooking oil when I need it. Late-night, drunken post-Hall conversations in the kitchen. The fact that my American housemate bought me a small jar of Vegemite from the big Sainsbury’s.

Almost every week I have a moment where I think that this is it, I cannot endure being away from home any longer, I’m going to go crazy, this is intolerable. And every week, it is the accumulation of little things such as those I’ve outlined above that make me realise that not only can I endure being here, but that I enjoy it. Coming to Cambridge forced me to grow up, to live outside my own head and to open my eyes to a world beyond my front door. If nothing else, I feel it’s made me a slightly better person, and for that I have my wonderful friends to thank.

Round Two January 27, 2009

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I’ve been meaning to write an update here for a while, but Lent Term has tied me screaming to the railway tracks and then proceeded to run me over with the force of a train (and caused me to make silly metaphors, too) and I’ve spent the past few weeks feeling utterly exhausted.

Things have been carrying on nicely, however. I felt like I finished Michaelmas Term on a high note. I was pleased with how my Review of Scholarship turned out, and my supervisor was very happy with how I’d worked, and life was good. I then proceeded to have the most unproductive Christmas holidays ever. I had fun, though.

I spent Christmas with Middleton relatives I’d never met before, in Southport (which is near Liverpool). I only stayed for four days, but I had an excellent time. My relatives were lovely, and so welcoming to the Australian stranger in their midst. On Christmas Day, Mum and Mim rang me, and I surprised us all by not falling to pieces. (As Mimi said incredulously to Mum afterwards, ‘I can’t believe Ronni didn’t start crying’.)

I was back in Cambridge for New Year’s Eve, which I spent at the house of one of my M.Phil friends. We played poker with her housemates, ate excellent food and drank mead. It was a very low-key New Year’s, but was exactly how I like to celebrate it. I’d much prefer a small gathering with good food, where I can talk properly to everyone, than a large party filled with inane small-talk.

The rest of the holidays rushed by in a blur of fantasy novels and streamings of Supernatural and Battlestar Galactica. Suddenly it was time for term to start.

That was a bit of a shock. Suddenly I realised that I had eight weeks before my exams. Let me point out something here. I loathe exams. I haven’t taken one since 2004. I don’t normally go too badly in them, but I always survive due to my memory, rather than any actual understanding of the work. In my second-year Old Irish exam, rather than learning any of the grammar, I memorised an entire Táin story, so that when I got to the exam, I simply had to scroll through my mental map of the story to the appropriate part, and spew out my memory onto the page. For my IB biology exam, I memorised the entire syllabus in one night. Can I tell you anything about biology? No.

On Wednesday last week, I was hysterical. Whoever was in the common room at 1pm was treated to the return of PanicRonni. At one point I was so distressed I had to leave the room and take several deep breaths in the kitchen to avoid crying. I’ve calmed down a bit now (mainly because I started revising and realised I actually do know some things about the grammar of medieval Irish and Latin) but I wasn’t very pleasant to be around last week.

I suppose it’s karma. Last term, I was dancing around, carrying on about how much fun I was finding writing the Review of Scholarship. Everyone else glared at me and muttered inarticulately about the lack of resources for their particular subject. Now, all these exam-conditioned Cambridge people are calm, while the Australian interloper freaks out.

Life is going well, though. I’m still inordinately pleased to be here, and still can’t believe it, at times. There’s a surreal element to my Cambridge existence.

This year, the university turned 800. Yes, that’s right, 800. My university is older than my country by a good 550 years. As part of the celebration, a series of images supposedly summarising the university’s many achievements were projected onto the walls of the Senate House. These included very wonderful Quentin Blake illustrations portraying Darwin riding on the back of a Galapagos Island tortoise, and apples falling onto Newton’s head. But the coolest moment came when a photo of Stephen Hawking appeared on the wall, and I looked around to see Hawking himself, watching the display. No matter how long I stay here, I will never get used to such surreal moments.

Another night, another morning, another cup of coffee December 17, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in sraffies, university.
Tags: , ,

It’s been a very long time since I’ve updated this journal, and I apologise.  I’m very good up adding to my LiveJournal with all kinds of silly memes, links and fangirling, but I always feel that this blog should be a bit more well thought out, so I write less.  I was chatting to Anna last night and she mentioned that lots of people had been asking her how I was going, so I thought I should do something to let everyone know.

I’m on holidays right now, and have been for about a week and a half.  First term was tough, but not as insane as I had first thought.  I had two classes – Latin and Irish – which required quite a bit of preparation (mainly translation and exercises).  On top of that was Welsh, which I’m taking, but not being assessed in, and the M.Phil seminars, which require reading and preparation.  It was hard to get back into the confidence I had felt as an undergrad in tutorials, and I was very silent and shy in class the first few weeks, before suddenly finding my voice and then not being able to shut up.

The main piece of assesssment last term was the review of scholarship (literature review), a 5000-word piece of writing summarising previous research that had been done on my area and locating my intended research in the previous scholarship.  While many of my friends found this exercise both distressing and annoying, I found it oddly relaxing.  Some people do this for the love of research, and some do it for the love of writing.  I am the second type of person.  I adore writing, putting sentences together, choosing words well, and it was a joy to write something other than a blog post or book review after so long away from the academic world.  I found it an oddly satisfying challenge.

When that was finished, I worked franticallly on my PhD research proposal (AKA Please Give Me Lots of Shiny Money).  I’m reasonably happy with it, and my supervisor checked it over and seemed pleased too, so let’s hope it’s good enough.

When I look back over this term, it’s measured out in coffee spoons and small glasses of wine.  There were the cups of strong coffee, enjoyed at a cafe I’m not prepared to name (it’s the only decent place in town, and it’s small, so I don’t want too many people to know about it.  Those who know me know what I’m talking about).  There were the two glasses of wine, usually pinot grigio or Australian shiraz, that I allowed myself every Friday night at ASNaC pub.  Sometimes there were people around me, sometimes there weren’t.

That’s one of the things I’ve noticed this term.  I’ve always craved a good balance between company and solitude, but it’s only now that I’ve been completely comfortable alone.  I’m utterly happy when left alone with my own thoughts (and even happier if I have a keyboard upon which to type these thoughts), and view people as a sort of added bonus.

People.  There have been a lot of them these past few months.  Sometimes I think I’ve met more people since October than I’ve met in my whole life.  There’s something about the college environment that causes everyone to rush out and befriend every stranger they come across.

The first people I met here were my flatmates.  There are 14 of them.  Of course, I am closer to some than others (some I simply never see), but I’m very happy how the whole sharing-space-with-strangers thing worked out.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly wretched, it’s enough to walk out to the kitchen or downstairs to the common room and talk to whoever happens to be there, remind myself that there are other human beings in the world, and I feel oddly happy.

I mainly hang out with the other ASNaCs, a mixed crowd of undergrads, PhD students from around the world, and M.Phils like me.  Unfortunately, most of the M.Phils aren’t particularly sociable, whether due to shyess, work pressures or lack of interest.  However, they’re all very nice, and I spent a fantastic weekend in London recently at the house of one of them.  She invited me to come and stay: I must have been sending out needy vibes, because she thought I could do with some home-cooked food and life in a non-student house.  I relished it, of course.

It’s been great to meet many of the sraffies, too. I had five of them come and visit, and we met up with several others, including the founder of TRoH, which was very cool.  I was a rather stressed out host, as I always am, but I still had a good time.  Meeting internet people is always a bit odd to begin with, because they are a strange combination of known and unknown, strikingly similar to their chatroom and forum personalities and different at the same time.

At the moment I’m just hanging around in Cambridge until I head off to Southport to visit relatives I’ve never met before.  I’ll spend Christmas there.  It should be fun.

On LiveJournal I’ve been promising to reveal a Secret Project for a while.  I promise that by the new year, all will be clear.  Right now, however, I’m looking forward to a bit of a holiday.

What a difference a month makes October 26, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in memories.
Tags: ,

I’ve been in Cambridge for just over one month, so I thought it was about time to bore you all with my impressions of the place and my experiences. It’s hard to believe I’ve been here this long, because it seems like only yesterday I was dumped unceremoniously at Parker’s Piece, shivering in the cold, numbed with tiredness and tense with anxiety, to find my way to my college and then my house. But then I think about how much I’ve done in the past few weeks – a whirlwind of parties and pub crawls and Latin verb declensions and phone meetings with my supervisor and late-night conversations on the stairs with my housemates – and I feel that it is impossible, that I couldn’t possibly have lived so much in four short weeks.

My life is kind of divided in three, so I shall talk about each third separately.

The first third is, of course, my research, classes and the people associated with it. I’d like to say that it’s going well, but not quite as well as I’d like. My supervisor is great, the perfect combination of friendly, helpful and scary. She gives me good suggestions for books, but, being out of the country, isn’t quite as effective at prodding me to work as would be ideal. The big thing this term is the review-of-scholarship, a 5000-word literature review. My reading is going fine, but the actual writing is not going so well. I wrote 800 words this weekend. Whether they’re good words is another matter entirely. As long as I have 3000 words by the end of this week, though, I’ll be right on track.

My degree is partly coursework-based, so I take classes. I’m studying medieval Irish, Latin and medieval Welsh, as well as Modern Irish (which is just for fun and not assessed) and attending M.Phil (Masters) seminars and graduate student seminars. These all, of course, require a lot of work. Just to give you an idea, last week I: translated a whole story from the Táin, did three pages of Latin exercises, translated a big chunk of De raris fabulis, read about 80 Psalms for my M.Phil seminar, and did many pages of Modern Irish exercises. My right little finger has acquired a blister from resting against the page for prolonged periods of time.

Luckily, since I spend so much time there, the people in the ASNaC department are fantastic. They’re just the right mix of nerdy and crazy. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to talk to people who know what Buile Suibhne and Longes mac nUislenn are. Also, they’re quite fond of a party, the ASNaC crowd. We have drinks on Mondays after the grad seminars, and drinks on Friday nights (this pub is, fabulously, around the corner from my house). I suppose when we’re all studying stories where most characters spend a fair amount of time ‘at the drinking of mead’, it shouldn’t be surprising.

The next third of my time is taken up with my housemates. I’m lucky to live in a house of very sociable and friendly people. This manifests itself in big ways – such as last night, when we had a big housewarming party, inviting friends and other people from our college – or in smaller ways, such as the fact that we all cook dinner at the same time, spending a few hours each night gossiping and chatting in the kitchen. There’s none of this ‘phantom flatmate’ hiding-in-his-or-her-bedroom business here.

My final third of time is taken up with societies and clubs that I’m involved in. I’m doing two things. I volunteer at a community cafe, which is nice and laid-back and gives you that warm, fuzzy volunteering feeling. I’ve also taken up trampolining, which is mad fun. I’ve only been three times, and yesterday I learned how to do full turns into a back drop, which is scary but surprisingly elegant when you get the hang of it. Being a gymnast, I can grasp the concepts better than other first-timers, so that I know, for example, if you keep your body tight, things will work out easier for you, but it’s still a little bit scary. Trampolines are just so bouncy, and a lot of the trampolining moves seem, to my gymnast’s mentality, like falling over – you know, that thing you’re not supposed to do. But it’s lots of fun.

So, all up, I’d say, Cambridge is going well. Oh, that’s not to say that I’m never homesick, or that I don’t have days when I wake up in the morning thinking, ‘What the hell was I thinking when I decided to come here?’ but in general, I’m cheerful. Sometimes I’m in a black mood and feel like I’ll snap with irritation the next time I have to translate my Australianism into British (or American) English. Sometimes a wave of anguish hits me when I think it’s been a month since I’ve seen my mother or sister’s face. Sometimes I want to shriek with rage that I am such a blank canvas to everyone around me, my history as yet unknown and irrelevant. But mostly I wake up cheerful, confident in the knowledge that I’m doing what I want to do, in a place I want to be, surrounded by people who, if not yet friends or family or surrogate family in the way of those I’ve got back in Australia, may become such things to me in the future.