Archive for October, 2009

Part Two of the Triple Shot Espresso Day:

Inspired by Albie Sachs and his tales of apartheid-butt kicking woe, I bought his book and had him sign it. His inscription reads,”To Yaffa,

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”–Eleanor Roosevelt,

Best, Albie”

Little did he know that Eleanor’s quote has been a part of my Wellesley email signature for the last two years. When I casually mentioned that such was the case, he looked puzzled –“Email signature?” At which point I realized he was 70+ and not internet savvy. One of his aids must have whispered some sort of explanation into his ear because the next thing I knew he was shaking my hand with the only hand he has– his left one.

I ended the day with a trip to the Oxford Union, the  birthplace of British pretentiousness. And by pretentiousness, I mean every man, boy, creature above 5′ 9” wore a bow tie and tux. Yes, bow tie and tux are a part of a typical Thursday night ritual. Now in terms of the actual debate, half of the speakers were talking to hear their own mellifluous British accents and half of them said something of substance. My personal favorite was Sir Peter Tapsell, a conservative MP in Parliament, who aside from not being the biggest bud of Israel, claims that Kenneth Kaunda, former president/maniacal socialist dictator of Zambia (yep, I only learned of Kaunda two days ago!) is his homeboy. When one of the Oxford students questioned Kaunda’s kind heart, Sir Tapsell shouted, “Kenneth Kaunda should sue you” and then proceeded to reminisce about his days at Oxford 53 years ago. Moral of the story: Early retirement is not an awful thing. In an email to the Union president afterwards, I recommended he send Sir Tapsell the first few seasons of “The Golden Girls,” a show which highlights that retiring after 55 in Miami is the best decision any British lord searching for  a hot Italian granny can make.


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Do you ever have one of those days when you wake up at 5 AM, thoughts of failed economic policies in Zambia ricocheting through your mind, and you just know that today is going to require a triple shot of espresso? Well, I certainly did, and the lack of warm water in my flat did not help matters.

Luckily, both of my tutorials went surprisingly well… with one exception. On the  way to my Comparative Government tutorial, I remarked to Ted, my fellow tutee, that bored with my own ideas I neglected to write a conclusion. Conclusions are just regurgitations at the end of longwinded essays that add little substantive material to the arguments at hand. Well, when Philip, my tutor, returned my essay, he wrote, “EXCELLENT ESSAY, Yaffa. Great use of examples. Perfect except for the fact that you neglected to write a conclusion!” Um, I know, Sherlock. Maybe next week I’ll neglect to write an introduction…

Afterwards Helen and I went to our African Politics seminar and I had one of those “this is why I came to Oxford” moments. The speaker was Albie Sachs, who sat on the Constitutional Court of South Africa (equivalent to US Supreme Court) for 15 years and has the most inspiring life narrative. The son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, Albie devoted his entire life to fighting to end apartheid and protect the rights of all ethnic groups. He even lost an arm and vision in one eye when South African security agents placed a bomb in his car in 1988. And despite the threats to his life, he continued to fight till the end of apartheid in 1994. After which he spent time writing the South African constitution and adjudicating in the highest court. Though a secular man who when asked at age 13, “Albie, when’s your barmie?” responded, “Um, never,” he struggled to protect the rights of all religious groups in the fledgling state.

Which is why after his speech I reserved my copy of his new book- “The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law.” In it, Albie details the reasons for his major decisions, including his most recent: granting gay marriage to South African couples. Ah, the joys of justices who acknowledge that the government should not be deciding matters of personal intimacy.

I am a wee bit tired, given my early morning entry into Oxford academia, so I will conclude the tells of Albie tomorrow. I will also recap my first Oxford Debate. The subject of the debate: Do Western democracies have an obligation to spread democracy across the world, BY FORCE if necessary? Get ready for some pomp, pretentiousness, and oh so many bow ties.

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You know you’ve hit rock bottom when you walk into Starbucks at 8 AM and the barista says, “Grande skinny vanilla latte, love?” And you, barely conscious, remark, “How did you know that?” Only you know the answer already. You walk into that Starbucks every single day and make it 2.65 pounds richer every single morning. So you pay you dues, plug in your Mac, and blast your “Chilled Melange” soundtrack of Simon and Garfunkel a la 1980. Fast forward four hours and you have a potentially cohesive paper comparing Allende’s failed Chilean government to Bush’s failed American policies abroad.

After which, you meander to your African Politics lecture, where once again your tutor makes such remarks as, “Like we all know regarding the horrors of Charles Taylor and his Liberian conquest in the early 90s.” Only you’ve never heard of Charles Taylor and you can barely place Liberia on the African map. Yes, you study abroad student have a lot of learning to do while you’re at Oxford. A lot.

Which is why today, while sitting in lecture, the words of my sophomore computer teacher Mrs. Minkin, a Russian who refused to wear any color but black, came to mind. After failing to successfully design my first business card which read– “Yaffa S. Fredrick, Certified Stalker. Experience dating back to age 12.”– Mrs. Minkin remarked, “You slow. I help you.” And she was right. I was slow, particularly in the realm of modern technology. Only now I am realizing that I am slow in African politics, which until my arrival in Oxford I was sure was my passion in life. Yes, I’ve got miles, er kilometres, to go before I sleep.

Of course my solution for augmenting my breadth of knowledge in African politics– go hear the Russian ambassador speak at the Oxford Union. Hey, at least it’s an academically-enriching form of procrastination.

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You find yourself sitting in your African Politics Seminar and think, “I can’t possibly rip the speaker’s paper to shreds. That would be so hurtful and impolite.” Unlike my European colleagues and academic superiors, I did not feel the need to insert my ego and ideology into my seminar yesterday. Instead I reserved my criticism for my notebook.

I must say it was a shocking realization to discover that Brits are a lot more blunt than their stereotype would dictate. As Philip Roessler, my comparative government tutor, gave a lecture explaining causes of civil war in Africa, graduate students and professors around the room snickered at his methodology and conclusions. While some of their criticism was legitimate and relevant to the topic at hand, I was amazed at the word choices they made in their delivery. In the United States we criticize academic working papers, but it generally resembles something like this:

“Thank you so much,Professor ______, for sharing your research with us today. It was insightful and helpful in understanding the situation on a new plane. I wonder if you might be able to address some other points which were absent from your presentation, but of which I am sure you have much to say.”

In Europe, however, the comments go as follows:

“I completely disagree with your conclusions. Your methodology is awful. And damn it, why do you spend so much time focusing on ethnicity in conflict? What even is ethnicity? Is there any clear definition? And without a definition, your paper goes to hell in a hand basket. However, if you had used my methods, your paper would have been perfect.”

It’s like I traded the puppy litter for the lion’s den. Another reason I imagine Brits feel the need to drink incessantly.

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"Doe, a deer, a female deer"

"Doe, a deer, a female deer"

Apparently Noah had regular deer and reindeer on the ark....

The age-old adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” is starting to take on new meaning for me. When I first arrived in Oxford, I clung to my American ideals– coffee, never tea; order, in place of chaos; living towards the future, not in the moment. This weekend, however, has shaken me of my steadfast American ways. I am beginning to embrace the British lifestyle, minus the 40 pounds (=75 dollars) worth of alcohol each student seems to drink every night, and I have to say I have been pleasantly surprised with the results.

Last night was the second St. Peter’s College bop. Translation: party or drunken fest involving lots of flashy Euro club lights and college students dressed up as pigs, dolphins, and of course, when all else fails, whores. I was hesitant to attend, but then every visiting student on my floor knocked on my door saying, “Yaffa, the theme is Noah’s Ark. Hence the party is holy and of Biblical proportions. Oh, and Jewish-themed.” Even when I responded, “Noah wasn’t a Jew. And to many commentators he actually was no great shakes,” no one seemed to care. They wanted me to put on my “fancy dress” (Brit term for costume) and be one of the many animals Noah saved from complete and utter destruction. Adria and Marissa, my Barnard buddies, decided all three of us should be deers, which involved antlers, face paint, and hideous brown dresses we bought from a thrift store called “Uncle Sam’s, America’s Finest Vintage Clothing.” And by finest, they meant hideous African tribal clothing, with sweat stains beneath the arms and questionable brown blotches along the breast area. Somehow, we stilled managed to spend two hours in that store, trying on every single dress and gawking at the absurdity of our behavior.

After acquiring and creating our costumes, we bopped over to college bar, where Adria ordered me a Cross Keys, which is a five pound (=7.50 dollar) drink that contains six different shots of alcohol, and is green with little bits of gold sparks at the top. It is the signature drink of the college since our emblem is a pair of crossed keys and our colors are green and gold. It also tastes like someone vomited into the drink, then added a touch of rubbing alcohol, and topped it with a shot of gin. In other words, Cross Keys do not translate into yay,happy fun times for one rather short deer on the Ark. Luckily, Adina, my Romanian friend and reindeer, has the tolerance of a 300-lb Russian man, and drank five of the six shots in the cup.

After which, me, slightly buzzed, and Adina perfectly sober, took to the dance floor with all of our fellow wildlife, including raccoons, pandas, bumble bees, and lady bugs. My personal highlight– Sweet Home Alabama, at which point I noticed two very British bumble bees screaming at the top of their lungs, “Lord, I’m coming home to you.” I casually asked them where Alabama was, and they responded, “Next to New York.”

A few hours later, I was back in my room, scrubbing off my fantastic face paint and sipping my new favorite tea– Apple-Pomegranate with a touch of honey. I figured it would clear my body of any alcohol remnants.

Today I have brunch with the visiting students, followed by a whole bunch of reading on the successful policies of structural adjustment in Ghana versus the failed policies of structural adjustment in Zambia. I also discovered a secret; instead of reading really long African tales of woe, find working papers, which are 15-30 pages of academic writing that summarize the topics you need!

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Never ever write two 10 page papers in 24 hours without first overdosing on caffeinated beverages and or pills. Otherwise in the 23rd hour, you will begin to feel queasy, experience irregular heart palpitations, and have the sudden sensation that you might as well lead the most promiscuous lifestyle possible because frankly, hell can’t be worse than this. Sadly, this was a lesson I had to learn on Wednesday when my African politics paper collided with my comparative government paper, and the only thing I had to hold onto was Paddington, the classic British teddy bear. (I didn’t even have Sherbert, who is my favorite New York stuffed animal.)

However, if you decide to dismiss this advice and attempt to pull an ER doctor style shift in the library, remember that Thursday is just around the corner. And on Thursday the sun shines (ok, maybe not shines, but it certainly makes an effort to peak through the English clouds), small children with British accents roam free, and cute European boys resembling Prince William approach you. At least in Oxfordshire. Simply put, on Thursday your papers will be complete and you will be able to bask in the glory of becoming a prolific writer, second only to Charles Dickens himself.

Basically both of my tutorials went surprisingly well. In fact, Ricardo even gave my essay an A/A-, which I am now choosing to believe means that he actually read it and decided once and for all that English is, in fact, my first language. Certainly Portuguese is not, as I completely butchered the names of the national liberation organizations in Mozambique, which despite forming in response to Portuguese oppression, adapted Portuguese names. Seriously, if you are going to liberate your people, might you not also want to shed the language of European colonialism and imperialism in the process? Conveniently, Ricardo is Portuguese so he was quick to rattle off the full name of the FRELIMO– Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique and its opposition, the RENAMO, whose full name I shall not even attempt to spell out.

After African Politics, Adina and I journeyed to the Oxford Union, home of the infamous Oxford Debates, and purchased our year long membership. In addition to the unlimited supply of $1 pints of beer, we have access to the beautiful Union library, which houses lots of artsy films made by Godard, Gitai, and Antonioni, as well as entrance to speeches given this term by the President of Kosovo and Diane Von Furstenberg, the fashion goddess herself.

I capped off the afternoon with a journey to the Department of Politics and International Relations, where my comparative government tutorial is held. And well, for the first time in three weeks I realized I am not completely inadequate. In fact, if prompted, I can engage in serious intellectual conversation about majoritarian and proportional electoral systems in the United States, Israel, and my personal favorite, New Zealand. While my attention span may be the size of a peanut, my brain is certainly not. Ah, the joys of having an American tutor who approaches academia in a manner not entirely foreign to you!

To culminate a day, which almost entirely redeemed the semi-suicidal sensation of Wednesday, Adina and I ate glorious Indian food, while listening to Lord Hannay, the former UK ambassador to the UN, claim President George W. had “screwed up” the United States’ relative power position in world politics. He did add, though, that Obama gave him a warm, fuzzy feeling and that with time, Obama would redeem the US, at least in the eyes of the EU, which as a Brit, Lord Hannay thought was most important.

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Never ever add up the pages of the 15 political science books currently residing on your bookshelf. It has a tendency to instigate panic attacks. I know because I pathetically decided the best way to start a Monday would be to conduct some small scale mathematical calculations (ok, fine, I used a calculator, but it was quicker that way). And, well, 2451 pages of reading in three days, in addition to two unwieldy sized essays does not spell yay, happy fun times in the land of Queen Elizabeth and crooked teeth.

My solution: Don’t do it.  Instead go to a sketchy bar called the Wheatsheaf and watch improv comedy with my Wellesley friend Sarah. Since she’s Muslim and I have the tolerance of a peanut, we both ordered diet cokes and were subsequently sober enough to enjoy the comedy of the night. My personal favorite Imp (as the comedians refer to themselves as) was Jamie, a 6′ 3” Scottish student, whose BMI is probably 17. But if we average our BMIs together, he would no longer be considered emaciated and I would no longer be considered the girl with some junk in her trunk.

Weight aside, the best part was the last sketch of the night, which was a modern version of a Shakespeare play, entitled “The X-Ray Operating Machinist of Stone-hedge.” By X-ray operator, they actually meant radiologist, which is where part of the humor lay. In the midst of a 1500s royal tragedy, in comes a 21st century radiologist and his images of bones. They accuse him of witchcraft, of malpractice, and of plain incompetence as he can only diagnose the king’s broken leg, but cannot actually put it into a cast. If not for the thous and thys, one might have thought it was just another SNL skit addition to the American health care debate.

And now I return to civil war in Mozambique. Thank goodness for Chocolate Chai tea.

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