Student travel

23rd January 2019

News, Student news

A social experiment, Parisian urinals, a taste of saffron and the choir in Italy...beneficiaries of Wadham travel grants report on their adventures.

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    Jack Hunter reports on the WWI commemoration ceremony for Reuters

Jack Hunter's (History, 2016) internship with Reuters resulted in stories of strikes at the Eiffel Tower, Parisian public urinals and a WWI memorial

When I climbed the white stone steps to its sober Haussmannian headquarters to start a three-week internship at Reuters in Paris in July, I doubted I was in for much excitement. 

Up to this point, I’d found most journalistic work experience to be bone-achingly uninspiring – highlights included being dispatched to London art galleries to count their number of nudes for an “investigation”, apparently, in the Sunday Times

Albeit the world’s largest news agency, the chances of Reuters being much more exciting seemed slim: in my first encounter with French bureaucracy, their HR department had informed me I would be unable to start unless I took out my own public liability insurance. 

So it’s fair to say it came as a shock to have three of the very best weeks I can remember. 

I was thrown into reporting from the start. My first story was about as predictably Parisian as you can get: workers at the Eiffel Tower were threatening to strike over lengthening queues. I interviewed tourists stuck in the queue, and it was thrilling to see my story go out on Reuters’ global news wire, and end up in huge publications like the New York Times. By the end of my first week I’d been renamed their “tourist correspondent”: I wrote about the painters of Montmartre threatening to fold up their easels and move elsewhere in the city, and a French feminist group denouncing “degrading” smutty seaside postcards.

Not only did all this interviewing and reporting bolster my French abilities, but also hardened my steel as a reporter. In one nerve-racking moment, while speaking to migrants in an illegal camp underneath a motorway underpass on the edges of Paris, I was informed that the camp’s “bosses” wanted me to get out immediately, believing I was an undercover “flic” (cop). As some residents of the camp started rattling the fences next to me, I decided it was probably time to leave (and thanked myself for having bought the liability insurance).

At less exciting points, I was asked to write obituaries for living celebrities, which means I am now an expert on very-nearly-dead ex-French prime-ministers, and their string of failed labour reforms and extra-marital affairs.

Other moments made me think more deeply about reporting, journalism and news. Reuters is renowned worldwide for its relentless commitment to accuracy and impartiality, an attitude the journalists I worked with closely adhered to. I’m sure these principles will stick with me as I embark on a career in a media industry grappling with the impact of fake news and misinformation.

Most exciting moment? Perhaps attending the commemoration ceremony for the world war one battle of Amiens, inside the city’s Notre Dame cathedral. It was fun – if stressful – to frantically type up my article on a laptop while Theresa May and Prince William gave their speeches, and to be the first to publish.

Most memorable, though, would have be what I see as my finest journalistic achievement to date: my exclusive scoop on Paris’s new bright-red public urinals causing a stir amongst locals. I spent a weekend speaking to Parisians who were, well, pissed-off at a set of eco-friendly, completely exposed urinals that had recently been introduced to the city’s streets, and the story ended up as the most-read world news piece on the Guardian website.

I’ve always felt mildly embittered about not being a French student with the opportunity to spend a year abroad eating croissants on the steps of the Louvre, so it was great to attempt to squeeze this experience into three weeks, or “quinze jours” as the French say. It taught me important cultural lessons, such as how a €3 bottle of rosé is never a good idea, and that Pierce Brosnan is just as awful at singing in the dubbed version of Mamma Mia.

In all seriousness, though, my time at Reuters has hardened my ambition to work as a foreign correspondent, and has given me a greater awareness the principles – of truth, fairness and scepticism – that I’ll attempt to aspire towards in my work at Oxford and beyond. I’ll long be grateful for the generous Wadham College travel grant that made the experience possible.

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    Wadham's Chapel choir singing in Italy

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Maurice Lange (Human Sciences, 2015) reports on the adventures of the Chapel Choir's tour of Italy

Wadham Chapel Choir’s adventure to Italy this summer was, for me at least, brilliant for so many reasons that it is hard to know where to begin. 

It was a radiant six days spent across four Italian cities with a group of friends that I love. We sang inside of churches and outside of churches, we danced in Rome, laughed everywhere and talked through the days and long into the nights. This was the last of three treasured international excursions I have had with Wadham Chapel Choir, and it was the best of them, and the best possible way to wave farewell to my undergraduate years.

Pisa was slowly introduced to the choir. Arriving the Tuesday morning, I had been able to explore Pisa by day, dutifully propping the tower up in photographs and eating ice creams from every other ice cream shop, but the tour only felt truly underway when by Tuesday night we were at full strength, eating take-away pizza on the steps of the Duomo, happily together and excited for what was to come.

Our first proper day in Italy began with a scramble to avoid the middle seat in the hire cars, and a drive across the Tuscan countryside to San Gimignano, a medieval town with thin towers that rise squarely from the round, green countryside. We arrived, located the relevant priest, and rehearsed for our first concert of the tour. We were not perfect, but this is what we were there for and it felt good to be doing the thing that gives these kinds of holidays structure. Between rehearsal and the concert, we explored the town. It was hot and yellow-orange, too populated by tourists in the centre, but in the back streets was small and not sickeningly quaint. The views across the Italian countryside were not unexpected but no less beautiful for it. Back in the cool of the church, our first concert went well enough, though we weren’t too sad to have only a few people in our audience as we continued to perfect our Tallis and our Parsons. After the concert we drove back to Pisa and the group spent the evening in smaller groups, getting food where they wanted to, before congregating on the riverside for prosecco. We drifted back to the hostel in twos and threes, and played pool and piano before bed.

On the Thursday we caught a morning train from Pisa to Florence and then onwards to Orvieto. Orvieto sits on a rock even more strikingly than San Gimignano, requiring a journey up a funicular to the small town with a massive cathedral. We trundled our bags through the cobbled streets to the convent where we were to stay. It was open but somehow still musty, but we were going to make the best of it and quickly found its best feature, a stone balcony on the edge of the rock on which Orvieto is built. This countryside was unexpectedly vast and I felt an immense sense of privilege to be where I was doing what I was doing. That afternoon we rehearsed and sang in the immense Duomo, by now singing together, for one another and for Katie, our director, this time disappointed there wasn’t more of a crowd. Rheinberger’s ‘Abendlied’ was an especially memorable moment, as our small choir filled the space, causing tourists to stop, turn and listen. A young girl seemingly asking questions to her mother about us was particularly touching to see. After the concert, the true patriots watched the football, bonding with the other English-people abroad as England managed a tired 1-0 defeat to Belgium. The choir coalesced again afterwards for an evening on the balcony, playing games and talking into the night, easily entertaining ourselves though curfewed inside the convent.

The choir slowly made its way down off the rock and onto a midday train to Rome. Though this was easy, navigating to our hostel once in Rome was not. Irregular and full buses were not on our side, and some of us ended up walking 40 minutes, no thanks to my poor navigating, through the 35-degree heat, along dubious pavements. All got there eventually and without scars, dropped our things, and we all ate much needed pasta together before turning around again towards our next concert. This was, for me, the musical highlight of the tour. In a simple 7th century church, San Giorgio in Velabro, immediately following a wedding, we first sang apart from one another, between the pillars, ‘O Radiant Dawn’ by MacMillan. We then came together for our most accurate performance in the nicest acoustic with an attentive and thankful crowd. While some stayed out to explore Rome by night, most headed quickly home, via a comforting McDonalds, to the hostel where sleep came easily.

I rose early in the morning to catch a bus back into central Rome where I wandered from the Piazza del Popolo, to the Spanish Steps, via the Trevi Fountain, and then back across the river to read just away from St Peter’s Basilica. I met with a Roman Wadham friend and was taken to an arancini lunch with him and another friend in the Villa Borghese, really happy to be shown around with eyes that knew where to look. In the early evening we sang our penultimate concert in the Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. We sang Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus’ with the church’s choir before going to explore Rome on a summer’s Saturday night. I ate again away from the main choir before re-joining them, Roman friends in tow, in an externally unassuming bar. Inside though it was choir tour at its most harmonious and alive. There was an excellent guitarist duo playing pop songs with improvisations extending each song to at least 10 minutes. We, of course, joined in loudly, enthusiastically and with sometimes experimental harmony. We made their night and they made ours. While most of the choir returned to our accommodation, a few others and I were able to stay in central Rome at the 6th floor home of a new Roman friend. Watching the sun rise over St Peter’s Basilica is a moment I remember frequently. Nor will I forget easily the hasty drive back across Rome to arrive at the world’s third largest church, St Paul’s Outside the Walls, for my last service with the choir.

The church was enormous, but the priests were warm and welcoming, and the congregation were clearly a community and were one that delighted in our being there. It was a strange way to end my Wadham Chapel Choir career, with a bitty, Catholic service, but I was surrounded by friends and waving my tambourine for our jubilant finale and it was good. Afterwards a few of us went to the nearest park to doze, talk and climb the olive trees, before we all convened for the traditional end of tour meal. The last pizzas were eaten, more wine was drunk, awards were dispensed and loving goodbyes were said, especially to Wendy and Tom Wale, our outgoing chaplain and her husband. After the meal the choir took wine to the Spanish Steps and all celebrated what had been an excellent six days. Returning to our accommodation, some of those leaving the choir with me stayed up late, talking, all feeling an appreciation for the thing that we had been a part of, and clinging to it until we were too tired and retired to our beds.

I didn’t arrive at university envisaging that the chapel choir would become such a home for me, but through the three years it provided routine, challenge, music and most importantly loving and lasting friendships. The tour this summer was the culmination of hard work by the students that organised it, by Wendy our chaplain, and of course by Katie our musical director. I cannot possibly thank them all enough, for the tour and everything that they do and have done with the choir. I would also like to express my most enthusiastic gratitude for my receipt of the grant that financed my travel; it should hopefully be obvious how much I gained from it.

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    Naomi Miall joins a social experiment in Northern Sardinia

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    Naomi on her travels

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Naomi Miall (Biology, 2017) joins a social experiment in Sardinia

Outside Bianccerdu, a hamlet in Northern Sardinia a social experiment is underway. A small community has grown over the past four years, which is learning to live self sufficiently based on the principles of permaculture (permanent agriculture).

Under an olive grove they have built a camp centred around earth huts. One is complete: circular, 4m in diameter and very warm. The current work is building the second which is slightly smaller and with a much greater focus on decoration and architectural design. Alongside sit gardens, a compost toilet, an oven, a fireplace and a well. Inhabiting this is a dynamic community. People come and go often, helping for a few days or a few months before moving on. This year is the first that the camp will be inhabited over winter and preparations for that are already underway. 

I was lucky enough to live here for two weeks, joining in the daily tasks and helping to construct the hut. On most days I would spend the morning working on the huts. We were building faces around the roof, inspired by the Giants of Mont’e Prama, Nuragic stone sculptures from Sardinia. The first job would be to make the clay – we would dig earth and then shake out the largest rocks. Adding water and straw gave a thick mud which doubled as sun-cream. This was slapped onto the house and massaged into place. Messy but very satisfying. When tired we would rinse ourselves in the well, and cook a late lunch. Meals were mostly foraged, grown in the camp (garlic, chickpeas, potatoes, tomatoes and onions) or on local farms, and cooked in enormous quantities over open fire. 

I arrived on a weekend when the camp expands and there were about twenty-five people to greet me. The majority were Italian although the UK, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Ghana, America, Israel and Nepal were all represented. In the week the community dropped to around 12 although this was very fluid with new people arriving and departing every day.

In the evening we would walk along the cliffs or to the beach only 1km away. This was my first experience of an Italian coast and it was spectacular with glassy seas and copious fish. Often we were able to stay until sunset before returning.

It was amazing to experience the communal nature of the project. The practical side of this worked well. All work and the results were shared. There were no rules, rotas or hierarchies – everyone helped with what they were interested in and when they were ready. Perhaps a greater degree of collective decision making could have made the project more cohesive. Everyone made their own individual decisions. As most people’s values were aligned this never caused issues, but it did mean someone could spend time making a sculpture, for it to be later destroyed or reshaped by someone with a different plan. On the other hand, this flexibility meant there was little pressure and made the process feel organic.

We were almost able to live self sufficiently, although we did require some basics like toothpaste and a little food (pasta and flour). We used a fountain in the village for drinking water. I found the most challenging part of living in Biancerrdu was dealing with the dark at night. We only had a few wind up torches between us. Luckily it was the full moon while I was there and it was just about light enough to put myself to bed. Transport was also difficult with only two busses to the village a day, we often had to hitchhike to travel. So there was some reliance on wider society but overall the camp showed me how plausible it is to live self-sufficiently.

This model of living is perhaps one that will become more common when society begins to recognise the urgency of increased sustainability in the face of the climate crisis. It is hard to imagine Western Society fragmenting into these micro-communities, but this camp was started by one person and maybe if enough people take similarly radical action to tackle the climate crisis it will make a difference.
My thanks to the Wadham Society, whose funding made this trip possible.

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    Aikaterini Vavaliou travels to Iran with the Oxford University Byzantine Society

Katerina Vavaliou (Dhil Archeology, 2017) left Iran with a newly found love for the country and its people, and a taste of saffron in her mouth

On the 26 of March I embarked on what I now consider to be an experience of a lifetime. I would join the Oxford University Byzantine Society to our annual research trip, this year taking us to Iran. This would be my first visit to a country where wearing the hijab at all times is mandatory and I have to admit that I was a bit stressed about it. 

Anyway, I had done my best to prepare for the trip, which resulted in me having one of the most pious outfits on arrival. Ironically, my zeal to be respectful resulted in me being scolded twice by local women about the details of my clothing, whereas all my friends, obviously tourists, were not bothered at all.

We had a full itinerary, starting from Tehran and moving to Kashan, Yazd, Shiraz, Isfahan and back. The daily schedule had been thoroughly planned in advance. However, things did not work out as planned. Firstly, the visa of the president of the OUBS, who had organised the trip, was withdrawn the very last minute. Secondly, our guide seemed very determined to make the most of her absence by taking shortcuts and replacing monuments with shopping malls. However, this was nothing more than a temporary setback: We decided to work together as a group to make the trip as scientifically rewarding as possible. We updated the schedule to better fit our academic interests, organised study groups and presentations. This was a unique bonding experience, especially because of the very diversified academic interests of the participants. It also gave us considerable flexibility as the general dissatisfaction with our guide soon turned into a convenient excuse for independent strolls in the cities. Therefore, we had the chance to visit some less touristic neighbourhoods, make short but hearty conversations with the locals, who were very welcoming and generous with their advice, and taste original Iranian cuisine, away from the tourist-traps. The overall experience offered me a great insight into the purpose of and expectations from such research trips, as well as into the dynamic of such a group. This has been a valuable lesson since I am currently the president of OUBS and I am organising the next trip to Greece.

The highlight of every trip to Iran is of course Persepolis, Pasargadae and the Achaemenid Tombs in Naqsh-e Rostam. However, I must admit that the allure of these sites did not increase by our visit. They somehow felt too familiar. On the contrary I was much more fascinated by the fact that I had the chance to trace the development of the Iranian Four-Ayvan Mosque. Apart from the well-known early monuments of Isfahan, we were lucky to visit the Masjed-e Jameh at Nain (AD 960), one of the key monuments in the architectural development of the type. I also enjoyed the majority of the Safavid monuments that we visited, with the Tabātabāei Mansion in Kashan being one of my favourites, mainly due to the excellent guided tour offered on site. The Complex of Izadkhast – an UNESCO world heritage site - with its castle, bridge and caravanserai are not only of exceptional architectural value but also very well documented in maps and drawings, all displayed in situ. From the Iranian gardens to the four ayvan mosques and madrasas and the courtyards of the luxurious merchants of Kashan, it was impossible to miss the omnipresent interplay of private, sheltered, semi-sheltered and open spaces and the exceptional skill of Iranian architects to feature these qualities throughout the ages. Equally evident was the current trend to turn everything into a boutique hotel, after of course a “restoration” that follows the distinctive style of a particular hotel chain. That said, Iranian architectural heritage is definitely “alive”, even though the contemporary function of some sites is directly opposite to their original one. This is for instance the case of Bagh-e Fin (Fin Garden) which was originally designed as a strictly private representation of heaven, where the bubbling and trickling of water, as well as the singing of the birds, used to be the only sound, evocative of heavenly tranquillity. Nowadays a public garden, it was literally packed with families during Nowruz, with kids jumping and cooling themselves in the pools and cisterns that once mirrored the sky on their immobile surface. This reverse interpretation of original intentions to meet contemporary needs, bore close resemblance to our guide’s interpretation of the poems of Hafez. According to him all poems on love, wine and freedom from restraint are allegories that promote religious piety. We had the chance to experience the full glory of the latter on the last day of our stay, when we visited the shrine of Fatima. It was a disturbing experience, at least for the women of the group, who went through a thorough body search before wearing a Chador that looked three times uglier than the plain black one given to local women.  

Overall, I left Iran with a newly found love for this country and its people, a taste of saffron in my mouth, wiser, dreamier and more appreciative of the freedoms of the western world. I wish to go back and visit Tabriz as soon as possible. I am sincerely grateful to Wadham college for supporting me financially in this adventure.

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