Pieces of my world

Thursday, April 19, 2007


It's All Chinese To Me...


Oh dear.

I surrepticiously flick through the brightly coloured pages of the textbook before me in anticipation. And promptly choke, as a cloud of dust, accumulated over months of neglect on my shelf, is disturbed.

I go for what, in my head, is a super-confident, 100 mega watt, Hollywood smile, to mask the panicked fluttering in my stomach. In reality, the image I project translates to a nervous baring of teeth, accompanied by a deer-in-the-headlights expression. Attractive.

“How do we say ‘I want to buy a return ticket from Durham to London’?”

“Umm- Wo…yao…yi…zhong- errr -lai…hui piao…”

The agonizingly stilted tirade stops mid-flow as the dreaded blankness strikes.

What’s the word for “from”? What is it? What is it? Think OctoberPoppy, think! I know your brain has been taxed immeasurably through lolling around on the sofa all day watching back-to-back episodes of “Lassie”, but come on! Think!

I glance down at the jumble of notes scrawled illegibly over several tattered pieces of paper. At the dull grey surface of the desk, as though the answer will suddenly be revealed. The expectant silence from both teacher and class yawns unbearably. The tension is notching up steadily on my spine. This is painful, it really is. But then, just as I’m beginning to despair…



It is Thursday evening, and it’s just gone half past six, which means that I’m at my weekly Mandarin class at the Language Centre. Like many other Freshers-to-be, over the summer I was inundated with a sizeable wadge of glossy pamphlets and pieces of paper advocating all the exciting, novel things I could get involved with at university. And so I rolled up in October, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to get involved with anything and everything. Choir? Sure. French society? Great. Debating? Ok. Beginner’s Mandarin? Why not? After all, surely it would just be learning the basics- greetings; what I like to eat for breakfast; the numbers from 1 to 10; describing the characteristics of Fido, my utterly fictional dog…generally, the Mandarin equivalent of Year Seven French.

I could not have been more wrong.

The lessons are two hours in duration, decidedly intense and swiftly paced, moving from familiarising oneself with the four tones to constructing full sentences in a matter of weeks. In short, anything but basic. After a day full of lectures, it can be a real effort to sustain concentration and remain sufficiently on the ball to untangle a language which displays very little correspondence whatsoever to ours: the syntax, vocabulary and even thought process are completely different. When you consider that we’re learning Hanyu Pinyin (the romanized version of Mandarin) and haven’t yet progressed onto learning characters, the mountain that we face to attaining fluency seems almost insurmountable. Every week, a collective sigh of relief is exhaled from the class as the teacher pronounces midway through the lesson “xiu xi”- break. We have watched as people have successively dropped out and the class number has steadily dwindled over the weeks. One thing is certain: the class is a real challenge. Priced at over £100 for two terms the course doesn’t come cheap, either. So has it been worth it?

In an age where a degree is no longer enough and prospective employers are looking for something distinctive from their applicants, Mandarin could just give you the edge. I’m sure there’s no need to mention that, with the rapid relocation of industry to the Orient, an economy which is already the fourth largest in the world and showing no sign of stopping and a phenomenal population of over 1,300 000 000 Chinese, a qualification in Mandarin could well prove to be a very useful asset. It was only the other month that The Times featured a week of China- themed supplements, highlighting the growing need for a Western comprehension of the East. The lessons are well organised and you truly get what you pay for: two hours of direct interaction and communication- something which you can’t just teach yourself from a book or CD. The lessons are not only useful, but, moreover, they are rewarding, with an unrivalled sense of personal satisfaction at finally getting something difficult right. It’s not easy; the classes can be frustrating and demanding, requiring dedication and perseverance.

Will I be signing up next year?


Saturday, March 24, 2007



"Mummmmy!!" The strident wail rings resoundingly. "B-B-But daddy's CANCELLED my Harvey Nicks card!!!"

It is 11.14 AM. We are sat in St Cuthbert's Society dining hall . The cold winter sun glints through the panes of glass, illuminating the long cafeteria-style dining tables. I blink the sleep out of my eyes, take a long gulp of piping hot coffee- my newfound aid to get me through a hard night of last minute essay crisis, Brokeback Mountain, positively unhealthy amounts of Pro Plus and a grand total of 4 and a half hours sleep. It's a tough life, being a student.

But it was all worth it.

For before us, out trays are loaded with steaming plates of freshly cooked, succulent Brunch. Scrambled eggs lie cheek by jowl a glistening rasher of bacon, inviting pool of baked beans and a fatly inviting pork sausage. The hash brown is golden and crisp on the outside, begging, just begging, to be cut into, like a good hash brown should be. It is Saturday, lectures a far distant memory and I could do nothing all day except watch episodes of Friends and Deal or No Deal back to back if I so choose (not that I would- me be slovenly?! Pah, never!)

I swallow the guilt of being an impostor (we have not paid for this; merely snuck in, the lure of a free meal being a temptation too hard to pass up) and instead eye a buttery croissant. Temptation gets the better of me. I reach out, break the flaky, buttery pastry in one smooth motion and am about to raise it to my mouth when I am interrupted from my chain of food-orientated thought.

"But Mummy, it's a tragedy!! I mean, Gawd, life without Harvey Nicks??! What will I doooo?"

Tara Darling Plonkington-Smith, ear still glued to her mobile phone, announces her pain and trauma (oh, how we feel for you) in foghorn voice to the entire dining room.

I stare at her. At the aviator sunglasses (in early March- why???) perched on top of her barnet. At the natty, gnarled tresses dyed a barbie-like hue of platinum blonde piled into what resembles a haystack on top of her head. At the padded Michelin-Man-like gilet over a stained "Durham University" hoodie, in turn thrown on over a tiny tiny creased skirt which barely covers her posterior. At the worn, battered ugg boots which adorn her feet- they are so old that the left sole has come unglued from the boot, while a gaping hole in the right reveals Tara Darling Plonkington-Smith's chipped frosty-pink nail varnish on her toenails.

Poor girl, I whisper to Phillidia. All that money and her parents have never taught her the meaning of the word "grooming" beyond looking like one has performed a spontaneous "supermarket sweep" of the Salvation Army, coupled with the double misfortune of being dragged through a hedge backwards.

I long to console her for this tragic upbringing.

There, there dear. We feel your Harvey-Nichols-orientated pain.

Unfortunately, we don't very much care, either.

The frightening thing is that Tara Darling Plonkington-Smith is not alone in her hideousness. For she of the foghorn voice floated into the dining room moments, literally moments, after Hugh Barnarby Weathering-Jones was kicked out after throwing a wobbly and bawling at the kitchen staff for refusing to serve him because he was attired in only a baby-pink dressing gown, flipflops and a conveniently placed towel.

Tarah Darling Plonkington-Smith snaps her phone shut with an exasperated expression, before throwing herself into a chair and glaring moodily at a glass of no added sugar fruit juice.

Around us, the comforting chink of knife-and-fork-on-plate, hum of conversation and occasional crumple of an Independent page being folded reigns supreme once more.

I take a bite of my buttery, calorie-loaded croissant and my thoughts re-align.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Where do I begin?

Long time, no post.
When I started this blog, I envisaged that I would avidly write. I had a concept of what uni was like. I thought I knew where I was going; where I was heading; who I was going to become.
In some ways some of my expectations have been fulfilled.
But mostly it's like living on an intense rollercoaster. Everyday seems to churn up the unexpected. And I constantly surprise myself: in my reactions, my outlook on life, who I am turning into.
I don't know myself anymore.
This of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. If I was the same person as the naive girl who first came to university in late September then I really wouldn't have got much out of the experience at all. I was counting up in my head all the experiences I have had and boy, are there a lot of firsts. First time living away from home; first time I've been to a nightclub; first alcoholic drinks; first attempts at cuisine; first kiss; first boyfriend; first time I'm going to New York; first time I'm going on tour; first lease I've signed on a house for next year; first time I've thrown a party; first time I've had proper friendships; first formal; first Valentines day; first time I've been sent roses, first- well, I could go on, but trust me in this: there are a lot of firsts.
I am confident that this is only the beginning. There is an awful lot more out there and by no means have I experienced everything that university has to offer, but I still have three more years of university ahead of me, so there's plenty of time to get more involved on the society side of it- in terms of thinking of jobs and practicalities etc. This year has been about growing up; finding my feet; making the transition from dependent to independent. Basically, about life experiences.
Admittedly, I have not been wholly happy. It's had it's (many many) ups and downs. Lots of it, particularly this term, has been characterised by anguish and indecision. In making way for the new, I have had to let go of some of the much-loved old.
As for the future? I don't just know.
As for the present?
I rest optimistic.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Near miss

"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Oh My God I'm Going to Die!"
My life flashes before my eyes as the car accelerates towards me before screeching to a halt just as the bumper touches my knees.
"Oh My God!! What do you think you're DOING?" I shout at the driver of the Vauxhall Astra. He has opened the door, surveying me with a stunned expression on his face. I am shaking with shock at how close I came to being knocked over. "I'm on the bloody ZEBRA CROSSING!"
"Sorry, the sun was in my eyes- I couldn't see you" he mutters.
He didn't even have his visor down.
"Yeah, well, if you'd have been going any faster you wouldn't have been able to stop in time. You could have killed me! Do you get that? Killed me! Jesus!"
He slams the door and drives away.
I lurch up the road, still stunned. That Zebra Crossing is clearly marked and worse, put there for a reason: there is a school next to it. That Zebra Crossing is not there for students (although we all use it to get to the uni library); it's there for the kids. If that had been a kid crossing when that stupid man driving was there they wouldn't have stood a chance.
I have dark purple bruises beneath my knees this morning and it didn't even knock me over; the bumper just touched me. In a fight between a pedestrian and a car it is no contest as to who will win.
Idiot drivers.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007



Pop. Pop. Pop-Pop. Pop-Pop-Pop-PoBANG!

“Was it supposed to do that?”

We peered into the pan anxiously. “Well. It seems alriWaaahhhh!” We screeched as the oil in the bottom of the saucepan spat unexpectedly.

The popcorn making was obviously not going to plan. The remains of two horribly disastrous popcorn making attempts had carefully been secreted beneath a bush in the garden, the pan (somebody else’s) was blackened permanently on the bottom and we had poured so much burnt oil into the potted plant in the corner of the kitchen that it was already visibly beginning to wilt.

“I don’t remember this being so difficult,” I frowned. “What on earth are we doing wrong? Oil? Check. Popcorn kernels? Check. Medium heat- not too high, not too low? Check."
"Maybe if we put more oil in?" Phillidia suggested.
The result was better, but still not up to form, what with half the popcorn kernels refusing to pop and those that did pop staying hard, crunchy and somewhat indigestion inducing. Not even Paul, who is literally a walking stomach and will eat anything, wanted that popcorn.
We surveyed our efforts dolefully.
"Maybe we should get Adrian from upstairs?"
We looked at the charred bottom of the (borrowed!) saucepan. At the now much depleted reserves of popcorn kernels. At the plant which was not only wilting at terrifying speed, but whose leaves were turning brown.
I nodded. "I'll go and get him."
And so we looked on in disbelief as Adrian, in one attempt, not only produced double the quantity of popcorn in half the kernels we used, but produced popcorn that was perfect- fluffy, hot and satisfyingly edible. The popcorn was, unlike our dismal attempts, wolfed down in a couple of minutes, with requests for more.
Maybe I'll just stick with the microwave-in-a-bag failsafe popcorn in the future...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007



My mind is chocked full of questions. Uncertainties. Dilemmas. Who am I? Am I losing myself? Am I getting the most out of uni? What do I want? Should I take a year abroad in the 3rd year? Who are my friends? What, or who, do I most value? Am I ready for a relationship right now? Am I turning into a shallow person? What is love? What is attraction?
I hoped that this break would clarify the confusing tangle of- well, I was going to say relationships (friendship and romantic) at uni, but I think it's just uni in general.
Instead I've thought and thought about it until it has become an obscure, indistinct mess in my mind.
I don't know which way to turn.
I just don't know.
I feel like putting my fingers in my ears, singing loudly and blocking it out. But I can't. Because the problems aren't external: they're in my head- the problem is, fundamentally, me.
It's been a huge transition. Everything in my world has changed. Nothing is constant. I've been transplanted from one world to another. All my friends are different; the course is completely different; I'm in a strange new part of the country; I'm having to fend for myself without any parental support; I've met more people in the shortest time than I ever have done before in my entire life. And it's good- much as I love home and it's been really great to see my family, I'm champing at the bit to get back. I'm independent now; I'm an adult. So it's not surprising that things internally have changed.
But I'm concerned. Concerned that I've changed too much. And I'm desperately clinging onto the last vestiges of the old OctoberPoppy that remained. There's not much left of me. I still don't feel like the uni self is me. I don't feel like a woman although, at almost 19 (on the 16th) and self-sufficient, I know that I am. I'm a woman. No longer a girl. The change in terminology is minute. The implications are enormous. With one last act and the old, innocent, OctoberP is completely gone. A memory. Eradicated. Part of me feels ready for the leap. But part of me is panicking. That part of me doesn't want to go back to uni; doesn't want a boyfriend; doesn't want to have to be self-reliant and grown up.
Why can't I just trust?
Leap off the bridge, eyes shut, dive in, have faith that it will all turn out ok?
Why can't I trust in the fact that I've done the hard bit- I've got through the first term at university and now it should all be downhill?
Why am I still in denial?
Why do I still feel like a scared little girl and not an adult?
Moreover, when the transition is complete and I emerge, fully fledged woman, how will I know?

Thursday, December 28, 2006



I normally never bother with New Years Resolutions. They have always been a case of made today, broken tomorrow. There was the "I am going to keep a personal, private diary for an entire year"...which lasted the grand total of a week and a half. There was the "I am going to do 50 stomach crunches every single night before I go to sleep until I get a washboard stomach!" That lasted two nights before the excuses rolled in...and was ultimately abandoned. There was the "I am going to learn how to knit!" Then I discovered how time consuming it was and how costly wool is and thought again. The "I am going to walk an extra mile a day to school and lose that excess"- which, to give me credit, I did for the remainder of my college days...only I ate more at breakfast and break to compensate and so the positive effects were, sadly, ruined.

But no more.

I am, this year, going to make small but significant resolutions and stick to them, like

1) I am going to sleep properly, instead of surviving on 4-5 hours sleep a night at uni (going to bed at 2 and getting up at 7 everyday cannot be healthy, I am sure). I am going to stop being an insomniac at uni (I've slept normally ie: very deeply, like the dead, at home- it's just at uni that I CANNOT seem to get to sleep and, even though I'm desperately tired, cannot switch my brain off).

2) I am going to be brave and actually cook with eggs! (I have been too scared of poisoning myself and giving myself salmonella...even with lyon brand eggs- ridiculous I know)

3) I am NOT going to let the fact that I am now in a relationship (with my very first ever boyfriend at the grand age of 18 almost 19) wreck my degree- I AM going to focus on my studies and not think about him all day!

4) I MUST do more work this semester and spend two hours per day at the least in the uni library.

5) I must make an effort to a) phone home b) email home c) update blog regularly

6) I must must must do more Mandarin (sadly neglected)

7) I AM going to join some more societies and pack my days as full as is humanely possible to get the most out of my experience.

That is all. I think that's achievable... no problem...