The Life Academic, OR My Wes Anderson Reference Fell Flat Just Now, But I Tried

It’s been nearly three full days now, and I’ve become more or less settled into a vague routine in Oxford.

I’m noticing a lot of familiar inconveniences here, things that I first encountered in London last fall and that I am now maddeningly encountering again: icy cold nights, dim lighting, slow internet with an ethernet cord, showers that weakly sputter (and sometimes die mid-cleaning), and shampoos that bizarrely leave my hair feeling greasy right after I’ve just washed it.

More than anything else, though, I’m most perplexed by the English insistence upon separate hot and cold water taps. You either wash your hands in water so hot that steam rises out of your sink (good luck with that), or in water so cold that you have trouble feeling your fingertips for a few minutes afterwards (the lesser of two evils, I suppose). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve basically cooked my own hands in my basin.

The Oxford life, overall, is treating me much better than living in London did. I was expecting to find Oxford more boring, more expensive, more inconvenient, etc., but it has actually bested London on all accounts: there’s always something to do or see, always just the right kind of shop around the corner, and won’t break the bank the way even a London Tesco might (I swear the prices here are a bit lower than they are in the city).

Moreover, the pubs are less trendy and a bit more earnest-feeling, the libraries are gorgeous, there are a multitude of charming little paths to scamper down, the passing cars aren’t ready to mow you down, and there’s a sense of serenity on campus that you can’t get anywhere in London, not even in parks.

– – – – –

An Oxford day begins with a “scout” knocking on the door to empty the rubbish bin and replace used towels. Breakfast begins at seven, far too early for me to expect to get there every day. I mostly sit around doing reading/checking email/organizing until the 1 pm lunch hour. Then I run to class and find my way back before dinner at 7.

My first high table dinner was last night, a four-course event involving a “smart” dress code, courgette soup, pancetta-wrapped salmon, guinea fowl over lentils, and a smooth chocolate tart on creme Anglaise. (I have pictures of some of it, but I’ll share them some other time.) Most nights, dinner is a less formal version of something like this.

Things quiet down immediately after 9 pm, the sun sets suddenly at 9:30, and I turn in not long after midnight.

– – – – –

After I finished settling in, I took a walk down to Merton and Christ Church colleges:

Behind Christ Church Library.

Christ Church College.

Near Merton College.

Near Merton College.

– – – – –

I’m perpetually afraid of doing something wrong here. A combination of the accents and the formality and the unfamiliar vocab and practices (we even had to be sworn in before we could have access to the Bodleian Library) makes me weirdly anxious about making a misstep. I feel like there are so many rules and customs that mostly go unsaid that it’s only a matter of time before I majorly fuck something up without knowing it.

So…more on that later, I guess. Just in case that happens.

– – – – –

Trinity College.

– – – – –

The Oxford college system is enormous. It’s not one big university, but rather a whole bunch of little ones that are only loosely affiliated with each other. If you are a student of Christ Church College, for instance, you eat there, sleep there, and probably hang out there, and you also have access to the Christ Church Library, which students of other colleges are barred from using.

In a way, this is charming. Each little college develops its own “personality” — that is, each one looks and feels different and attracts different students, and all the colleges work together to give the overall university a varied, patchwork quilt quality. But this is also frustrating — there’s a distinct sense of exclusivity that’s created when certain people are allowed into certain colleges and other people aren’t. Or maybe I’m missing some vital piece of information? Maybe there’s some kind of access protocol for Oxford students that I’m just not aware of, and it’s actually far less limiting in reality. I don’t know.

– – – – –

St. Giles’ Street.

The Eagle and Child.

To celebrate the first day of classes today, a few of us had a quick drink at The Eagle and Child, a pub historically associated with the epic literary bromance that is J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

I can’t even. I just can’t.

– – – – –

The kind of loneliness I get here is very different from the kind I had in London. In London, I was surrounded by young people, beautiful people, fun people, stylish people, drunk people, and was constantly reminded of all the fun other people were having. Here, where it’s quieter and the city goes to sleep earlier, I’m surrounded by 30-somethings working on their Masters degrees, drowning in reading, and tucked away in the highest corner of a silent quad overlooking a little grassy grove. It’s the kind of loneliness that comes not from feeling left out of other people’s lives and interactions, but from the feeling that there isn’t much interaction to be had, and that my being alone here is less voluntary and more profound.

– – – – –

Currently reading: Selected Writings by John Ruskin.


One thought on “The Life Academic, OR My Wes Anderson Reference Fell Flat Just Now, But I Tried

  1. I’m glad you’re enjoying it! (although confused by the shampoo situation??)
    There really aren’t that many traditions in practice- and if you ask, people will be happy to explain. I think it’s best to just enjoy that part of the history, even if it seems incomprehensible!
    In terms of access protocol- if you have a Bod card (i.e. if you are a member of the university), you are perfectly entitled to enter other colleges and walk past the “no visitors/tourists” signs. The colleges have their own libraries, but you are unlikely to need a book that you cannot get from elsewhere- and if you did, there would be a way of getting permission to use the other library. I don’t think colleges are exclusive or like separate universities- all faculty libraries (and the Bodleian of course), are for the use of all students, all lectures and classes are centralised, there are a lot of university-wide facilities and societies, such as for sport… it’s more like having a house system, which gives you your own little community to settle in to rather than having to negotiate a group of thousands. Hopefully you find your feet and don’t get too lonely- there is always so much going on, so you will definitely meet some interesting people!

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