UK Experience (Part 3)

Posted: February 1, 2012 in Unrelated Shit

As the conference moved along, I found the presentations increasingly fascinating.  A number of the scholars touched on the notion of American hegemony in historical context…comparing our moment to the ancient Greeks, for example.  One professor drew an excellent comparison between Bush’s venture into Iraq with Woodrow Wilson’s Mexican invasion.

As part of the Conference’s requirements, we had to sort of critique and ask questions about two of our collegues’ papers.  I had the privilege of reading essays written by South African and Japanese scholars.  The South African work struck me the most.  Her paper dealt with the early post-Apartheid era and–in particular–how the new black majority would address former white leaders’ atrocities.  Her country decided against severe punishment.  Instead, if the accused showed sincere contrition to a representative political committee, he or she would be allowed to go free.  The point was to foster national unity…the fear being that severe punishment could provoke a white backlash and plunge South Africa into a civil war.  Like I said, this paper resonated deeply with me as an American.  I cannot imagine our citizenry acting so “adult” under similar circumstances.

I enjoyed the daily academic enrichment, but I loved the evenings even more.  Each night, a bunch of us would gather outside the dorms and venture out to the pubs.  I found myself becoming the chief pub protaganist.  Of the participants, approximately 40% were American (the rest drew from Japan, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other countries).  The United States disproportinately represented the conference at Oxford’s drinking establishments.  (Shocker, I know.)

But here’s the thing.  This wasn’t like college…where it seemed (for guys anyway) that the exclusive purpose for going out was to get laid (or at least obtain a phone number), and if that failed…drinking to excess.  These Oxford excursions were nothing like that.  We went out for companionship.  I remember sitting around and listening to wonderful stories from all of these folks–these people have lived.  We of course imbibed in English bitters, but not for the purpose of getting wasted–rather as a social bond among people who geniunely liked each other.

One professor shared an experience visiting Moscow with a friend in 1972, back when it was the “Big Bad USSR.”  He recalled wandering off down a city street accompanied by just a friend.  (Uh, for you younger folks, that was something you just did not do in Soviet Russia.)  They noticed two people following them–probably KGB agents.  As the pair walked back toward Red Square, a limo pulled up in front of them.  The two agents behind them grabbed a Russian citizen, threw him into the vehicle and sped off.  Crazy stuff.

We began calling this particular professor “Clouseau” after he talked about a Paris trip with his wife where he spoke English in a bad French accent for three days.  I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever heard.  It may not seem humorous to you now, but after some ales and bitters, it sounded pretty damn hysterical.

As we migrated from pub to pub, a professor from New Zealand would sort of appear out of nowhere.  Then, suddenly, he would vanish, only to reappear later at another establishment.  We named him “Stealth.”

Finally, a third collegue earned a nickname when one particular venue would not admit him because of his beige pants.  We never found out why that was a big deal, but he became “Mr. Beige.”

I think the beauty of the whole thing was how low key it was.  The pubs closed at 11, so we were home and in bed well before midnight.  Nobody got “drunk,” so we awoke hangover-free the next morning, ready to actively participate in the next day’s conference.

Oh, I have to mention one embarrassing, but funny story, and it happened at the Kings Arms Pub.  Mr. Beige turned me on to cider, and I had three pints of it before I realized the higher alcohol content was beginning to kick my ass.  I remember sort of stumbling to the bathroom.  I walked in, not cogent enough to notice the lack of urinals, and headed for a stall.  As I did my business, I began hearing the sound of women laughing as they entered what turned out to be the ladies room.  Mortified, I yelled out, “I’m sorry, ladies.  I wandered in here by mistake…I had too many ciders and…I’m leaving now.  I promise not to look.”  I sped out of there with my eyes closed, hearing hysterical laughter coming from those same women.

The next day during break, I chatted with a professor from Hawaii.  He was a retired naval intelligence officer.  Talk about fascinating stories.  He testified in front of Congress back in the ’90s when the US intervened in the Bosnian conflict.  He had been asked to provide a realistic timetable for an American withdrawal.  He did his analysis and told his superior officer, “five years.”  He was told, “make it shorter.”  He then came back and said, “two years.”  Again, he was told, “make it shorter.”  So, when it came time to actually testify, it became, “90 days.”

I think my favorite conversation with him related to the French.  We Americans love to hate them, forgetting that they saved our ass during our revolution.  I went to France back in the late ’90s and enjoyed it immmensely.  The French seemed to appreciate my geniune (albeit weak) attempts to communicate with them in their language.  The Hawaiian professor had a similar take.  He enjoyed spending time with his French intelligence counterparts.  He said he had planned a reunion of sorts with them after the conference’s completion.

To be continued… (but hopefully not in a lame Back to the Future way.)

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