08 June 2010

Oxford Backstage – Fragments of a Working Holiday

"And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,/ She needs not June for beauty's heightening".

Hi guys. Oxford being Oxford, I am sure that you have all been burning for this post. My situation being my situation, I did not write about this beautiful city earlier. That does not mean though, that I have not been scribbling ideas on the edges of old power point slides. Below you find my impressions of the last two months, loosely put together.

Out of the Metropolis: A Breath of Fresh Air
Alright, I said I would be offline until Monday but after spending up to eight hours straight in the library Monday to Sunday, I feel the need to blog.

Oxford is a lovely town, even more so in spring. The branches of blooming Magnolia trees adorn old stone walls stretching along the side of the road up to a bridge overlooking a low canal with a promenade leading you downstream to where a small group of houseboat owners live.
Historic church-like sandstone buildings radiate a warm golden glow everywhere around the city centre and light up beautifully in the sun. Pedestrians and cyclists who occasionally dodge one of the many buses, give the city a rather bohemian-bourgeois character reflected in the kind of fashion displayed in the shop windows on the busy High Street. Basques of all kinds perform on Cornmarket Street, the central pedestrian zone and meeting place. I have heard some fine acoustic guitarists there, sometimes playing right outside HSBC and making the trip to the bank actually worthwile. Even HSBC is different though. The reception is more formal and “professional” in the European sense and the more mature staff generally more knowledgeable compared to busy London drive-throughs. Also, the bank does not look like a dump.

Everything is within walking distance and I have already made out some beautiful places to rest in, such as the Buttery in Broad Street (their warm chocolate & pecan nut brownie with fresh clotted cream is to die for!) or the first floor cafe inside Blackwells wherefrom you are on level with the thoughtful stone faces of the Old Bodleian Library opposite while indulging in contemporary poetry and snuggling into your window seat. This cafe has also turned into my alternative academic library for Blackwell aims to provide all books on Oxford University reading lists and has a VAST room in the basement stocking everything from Philosophy over Medicine to International Relations. Staff is generally very enthusiastic and helpful – like real librarians! Only once did a lady in her fifties ask me how to spell “catastrophe” when I enquired for a book. By the way, the terms and conditions for the free wifi on the Oxford Tube talks about “interlectual” property rights – What irony!


Get me out of here, I'm no monkey!
No six-letter word evokes as much awe and is as pregnant with projected symbols as “Oxford”. It allows you to charge £140 per week for an English language course and draw the respect of anyone whom you proudly present your student card with the dark blue strip on top.

Studying in the grass outside Christ Church Cathedral in high season is like studying in a zoo – with you as the animal. I was sitting under a tree to enjoy the sun without baking in it while reading a book to prepare for an exam. Tourists, instead of walking in the middle of the way in the hot sun, prefer to walk under the shadow of the trees and just so inconspicuously peek at your reading with an admiring smile when they walk past, obviously taking me for a local student. Often, when new people in the hostel ask me what it is that I do and I reply that I am a student, they immediately ask me with large eyes if I am an Oxford student.

But look at me talking! When I first came here, I was observing other students too and at one point found myself with my folder in Starbucks surrounded to 90 % by groups of East Asians staring into their iBooks, plugged into their iPods and their designer bags tucked neatly to the side, fancy stationery scattered across the table. What a cliché, I thought to myself. And me right in the middle with my mini stapler and large pins and mini colouring pens.

Nightlife is a bit of a different matter. That is where you see hundreds of US-American style donned-up and made-up and dressed-up students letting out their inner beast. Scantily clad girls on high heels dress to impress or perhaps it is just the clubs around my area.


Oxford – The City where people dream to aspire*
On first coming to Oxford, one immediately notices that the city is full of very athletic young people, apparently always on the way to sports practice (every college has its own gym and those that do not, offer free gold memberships in local gyms; you also see a lot of students engaged in ball games every day in the University Parks) or music practice or at this time of the year, the library or exams – easily recognisable by their subfusc they have to wear during the examination (if you do not wear it you can be failed in your exam unless of course your professor does not properly wear their own gown).

Indeed, much of the city reminds me of Vienna or the nearby town I went to school in: The “middle-class” flair, the green spaces and groomed vista of urban architecture, the overviewable character of town – you can walk, cycle or take the bus everywhere. The student flair similar to any student city like Cambridge or Leiden. My most frequent haunt was the Social Science Library – part of a modern glass and concrete complex to the Eastern outskirts of the city. The library has recently absorbed the previously separately located Refugee Studies Centre collection, the probably greatest collection of its kind world-wide. I swear, the first time I picked up my requested items, it was like touching gold! I am sure many researchers and other relic hunters who come to Oxford to access Bodleian collections in any of the around 40 locations share the same feeling.

The canteen on top of the library serves hot food for £3.50 to every one who walks in – the closest you get in Oxford to Hare Krishna food. It also makes a great place for brainspotting. Once, while writing my essay there, I could not but stare in voyeuristic intrigue at a representative of the more snobbish variety of Oxford undergraduate student who for nearly 30 minutes (!) practically entertained her two companions entirely on her own through a self-indulgent soliloquy on some political scientist's hypothesis – which thanks to her penetrating airy voice (à la Luna Lovegood), made it impossible for me to get my work done. Her male companion would agree hastily every seven minutes or so without being able to articulate much why but his body language spoke volumes: Most of the time, he leaned back widely in his chair with his hands behind his head, showing off his athletic chest and strong arms. The third person, a girl appeared to be bored or unimpressed but anxious to be found out, especially when she noticed me watching.


My hostel world
To begin with, staying in a hostel was a bit of a daunting prospect at first. I arrived alone late at night in an unfamiliar city with two suitcases, a backpack and a bag full of scavenged food from my London kitchen cupboard and expected not to get too much sleep.

Ultimately though, I met some of the nicest people with whose help I finally managed to overcome some of my issues. They also reassured my faith in people. I met a OU researcher from Marseille on the lookout for a flat who daily practised his juggling skills when he was not playing his Balalaika (absolutely impressing a Russian girl who just came from participating in the Irish Dance championships in Glasgow) and who taught me how to Salsa. He also goes to work in Rwandan clothes. I overheard his boss saying that he (the boss, a Professor and the most refined English gentleman I have met) actually had a working class background which you would never be able to tell. I also befriended a multicultural but mostly German-minded biochemistry PhD who currently drives taxis until she finds a job. Her wisdom and knowledge of human nature are impressive. There also briefly was a merry and cheeky middle-aged man from West England who had come all the way to Oxford with his wife for her to have a surgery the doctors would not agree to do elsewhere. His wife, I should mention, is physically disabled but tests outdoor sports for other disabled people and then publishes them as editor in a dedicated magazine!

Currently, I am sharing a room with a smart Polish student doing a research project in Oxford as part of her PhD in Stanford. The other girl is a professional model/actress from New Zealand who could just as well kicked ass in Genetics. I also met a funny guy from a North Italian village (50 people in winter, 200 souls in summer) who did not speak any English apart from “Hello” “How are you” “Thank you” “Me too”. Although he retains a strong and somewhat endearing Italian accent, I have to say his English has improved substantially in only two months. There also is a woman from Spain who did her PhD on olive oil there and has been hired as a botanist by a rich family in Oxford and previously, by the Madrid City Council. There also was a Spanish teacher from Argentina who had previously evaluated Masters programmes for the Argentinian Ministry of Education and is now looking for consulting jobs with “the big four”. As I said, a lot of interesting people in about to do something - a great company to be with if you are an in-between as well.

As for what comes next for me, that is a matter for another blog post entirely!

*Oxford is often referred to as the “city of dreaming spires”, referring to the “harmonious architecture of the old buildings”, after a poem by Matthew Arnold in 1865. The two relevant lines are excerpted at the beginning of this post.

2 courageous comments!:

Kat said...

This makes me want to live there :). I loved the architecture when we visited and being able to use these wonderful libraries must be an amazing experience.
(And of course, I wouldn't relinquish that pecan thingy either ;-)

Heidi said...

:D I'm sure you'd love it here!

You'd go crazy using these libraries! You wouldn't want to come out of them again. Kind of addictive!