We’re coming to you live from Trinity College, Oxford, now, broadcasting to the internet at 19.21 GMT, which in our mind is 14.20 EST after an all-nighter. It’s been a crazy two days of travel, made subsequently easier by the best Princeton friends anyone could ask or hope for; a very nice professor of Renaissance art and architecture on the train to the airport; a Virgin Atlantic clerk who let me go a couple kilos over on the baggage weight limit; the porter here at Trinity who helped me carry three suitcases up two flights of narrow spiral staircase when I was too exhausted to move another step; and the social generosity of my exchange partner and his friends. I’ve been installed in one of the rooms Trinity puts up visitors in, which, if it does look a bit like a hotel, did come with an electric kettle and a little fridge and bed linens. For this I am profoundly grateful, as am I for my first Trinity hall lunch (not yet as magical as Rocky, but certainly aesthetically more authentic…), for the warm climate, for the fact that I’m in a city where picking up groceries and whatnot is dead easy, and for the fact of course that it’s not just any city, but the city of dreaming spires. I mean, seriously: the fridge is making a bizarre noise and I can’t figure out how to work half the functions of my new phone, but I’m in Oxford!
It’s going to take a while to get the hang of everything here, whether culturally, socially, or bureaucratically, and this is going to be hindered somewhat by the fact that I hate to seem like the dumb American. Tomorrow I am having a library orientation, registering with the college nurse, and meeting with one of my tutors. I also need to schedule a meeting with the senior tutor, deal with various fiscally-related things in the bursar’s office, put money on my Bod Card (Oxford’s version of the prox, which Trinity uses to debit you for food), shop for more sundries, and make various eagerly-anticipated social calls. But none of these things will teach me the social cues of a new culture, and so I’ll have to watch and learn. It took me years to feel as if I’d got Princeton culture down—I hope I can do Oxford in weeks, as I don’t have that much time!
I’m beginning to suss out some of it, though, and most interestingly to realize that things that various Oxbridge-educated or -influenced people I know do are not idiosyncratic, but part of the culture. It’s early days yet (term hasn’t even started), but it seems that as a matter of course, you really do spend your day meandering between the library and the dining hall and various friends’ rooms, where you’re made a cup of tea and are sociable; from anecdotal evidence, you seem to spend your nights being raucously alcoholic, but that may be either selection bias or my delicate American’s sensibilities judging too much. In any case, I, who am so embarrassed about standing-out-like-a-sore-thumb-ever, am so grateful that I’ve already learned the Oxford words, that I can use my cutlery the British way, that I know how to make a cup of tea, and that (surprisingly enough) I haven’t had a meltdown from exhaustion and disjuncture yet.
I haven’t much idea yet as to how my academics are going to work out, except for a sneaking sense of nervousness that I’m going to have problems because I haven’t been able to prepare any work in advance of my tutorials and seminars, and I of course missed all the introductory meetings last term. But I expect all shall go much the same as it does in Princeton, and that I shall continue to read books about 19th-century cultural history and work on the Symonds project, except that I’ll be able to look at archives as well, and to go to Blackwells to stock up my bookshelf, which is looking depressingly empty just now.
It’s all so very slightly off, just barely different enough that you know you’re not in a culture you know well and can navigate. The trick is not to let your American accent embarrass you and trip you up, and to remember that you’re a scholar doing the right thing for her education who is mature and intelligent and therefore sensitive to cultural differences.
More to come….