The other week, I flew to Oxford, England to pay a 3- day visit to my good friend Noam and his girlfriend Sophie, both of whom are students at Oxford University. In my last 2 months in Israel, I am determined to take advantage of every available opportunity to crash on a friend’s couch in another country. Carpe Diem, right? My time in Oxford can be condensed into 8 mini-anecdotes, or minicdotes.
Minicdote#1: Oxford, England’s clouds look different.
I really lucked out on my trip: I was fortunate enough to enjoy the first 3 days of sunshine Oxfordians had had the entire year. Although my Mediterranean sun-accustomed skin was freezing; feebly trying to soak in warmth from layers of flimsy cardigans, my hosts and their friends flounced out of the house wearing shorts and gauzy tops.This time of year in Israel the sky is devoid of any disturbance except perhaps a wisp of condensation in the air. Although the sun was shining in Oxford, I was struck by how the clouds hung in the sky; heavy, solid masses, they looked the very picture of grudging acquiescence to the blue firmament.
Minicdote #2: Oxford Takes It’s Grass Seriously
Oxford University has been around since at least 1096. That means that there are 916 years of accumulated bureaucracy and rules in place. This causes some interesting situations in 21st century life. Like the grass. Oxford University is divided into 38 separate colleges, each with it’s own internal structure and building. Wandering around where you do not belong is generally frowned upon, and it is quite possible for respected professors who have been in the university for decades to have never stepped foot in most of Oxford’s Colleges. Each college building has a patch of beautifully manicured, soft, green grass. Used to the hard brown patches in Israel, I wondered aloud how pleasant it would be to relax and have a picnic there.
Noam quickly vetoed that idea. Apparently, the grass is strictly off limits…unless (wait for it) ….YOU ARE PLAYING CROQUET.
Thats right. Croquet. So on nice days the grass is literally covered with Oxford students trying to play, or pretend to play, what has to be (to my crass American eyes) the most pointless game in the history of the world.
Minicdote #3: They Knew How to Build’em in the Old Days: Imposing Architecture.
Oxford’s colleges are these massive, impressive stone structures with every architectural influence known to Europe since about 1200. One of the most impressive examples was Christ Church College, the only cathedral that is also a college. Christ Church seemed surprisingly familiar; the interior of the student’s cafeteria was the model for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Adding to Christ Church’s literary cred is this fact: Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodson, a student and teacher at Christ Church. He was a brilliant mathematician who invented the Alice in Wonderland stories for the amusement of the Dean’s little daughter, conveniently named Alice. Bam.
Minicdote#4: The Radcliffe Camera Library Should be Location-Scouted for the Next Bourne Film.
This building on the upper left? that is the most badass library ever. The building is called The Radcliffe Camera, “Camera” meaning “room” in French. Tourists are not allowed to enter, and students can only enter with a swipe of a valid school ID card. In a move worthy of the greatest secret agents, I passed off Sophie’s card for my own, walked in behind Noam and watched carefully while he exaggeratedly swiped in (for my benefit) under the watchful gaze of the Librarian. Even with Noam’s guidance, I still bungled it up and swiped it in the wrong way, setting off an annoying alarm. Shit. I quickly flipped the ID over and swiped it in correctly, muttering nonchalantly about “these stupid cards”. Phew.
The inside of the Rad Cam was, of course, architecturally beautiful. What struck me though was the sheer force of the concentration shared by the students who spent a significant portion of their Oxford careers hunched over a desk, studying. The silence was complete, without even the hushed whispers found in most libraries. No, the students here were studying for dear life, and the atmosphere reflected the gravity of that purpose. I spent only a few minutes in the upper floors with Noam, so out of place I felt without a book or a purpose to read it. Than Noam took me to the two levels beneath the library. These underground basements were as depressing as the upper floors were uplifting. No windows, industrial steel columns painted a thick grey color, shelves upon metal shelves of books were placed close together, operated apart by use of a manual crank. Noam pointed out a small round table in the corner with a fluorescent halo above it. “I spent 10 hours a day here last semester”, he said as we left. Although I much preferred the upper floors in terms of decor, the basement part of the Rad Cam had one outstanding characteristic; an underground tunnel connecting the library with another library. Sweet.
Minicdote#5: The Discovery of Brown Sauce and Fish & Chips with J.R.R Tolkien
Allright, I thought I knew what I was getting into when I ordered a traditional English breakfast. It is basically the same as an American diner breakfast, but with the addition of beans and fried tomatoes. This was why I was caught off-guard when I was asked if I wanted “brown sauce” with that. Did I? Sophie said yes. Brown sauce is actually a version of HP sauce (which I’ve never had), and Brits smear it on their ham pieces before consumption. It has a soury, umami flavor that becomes strangely addictive with every bite.
My next food quest was to the Eagle and Child; an old, old pub famous not for being old but for being where J.R.R Tolkien and friends (including C.S. Lewis) would hang out and (presumably) get drunk. As a self-confessed LOTR nerd this was hands down one of the greatest moments of my trip. We ordered fish and chips, and were chatting happily when I accidentally pushed too hard on the edge of my plate, sending the half-eaten fish and chips sliding gracefully to my lap. There was a moment when everyone who saw stopped and stared to see how I would “react”. Trying to ignore the burning in my cheeks I did what any girl would do; swiftly pick up the fish and chip pieces from my lap, return them to my plate and continue eating, as if nothing had happened. Only later in the privacy of the loo did I scrub my jeans with a soapy paper towel, fearful lest I smell like stale fish for the rest of the day.
Minicdote #6: The Morning After, and Jubilee Pride
Friday night, Oxford. Word on the street was there was a house party across the road. Nice. House parties are chill. So why are all of Noam’s house-mates wearing bright purple and green and debating the use of glitter? Ah. Right. The house party is “mardi gras” theme. Wait- house parties have themes that people actually follow? this concept was completely alien to me. I friggin’ love theme parties, and have tried desperately to throw them in Israel and in the States. Fancy outfit theme party, 90’s theme party, 20’s theme party, Alter -ego theme party….the end result is always me and one other person going all out with the “theme”, then feeling awkward the rest of the night when everyone else shows up in jeans. Not so in Oxford. Theme parties here are taken seriously, as are house parties. There was talk of a chocolate fountain, gold eyeshadow and tights. Ultimately, we went to the house party, where I felt awkward in jeans, then to a pub which kicked us out at 11:30 pm. Wandering the Oxford streets searching for food, I thought how funny it was that in Israel, a night out that begins before 11pm and ends before 4am is considered a bust. We finally found a halal kebab place that sold fried chicken and chips, which we devoured greasily from it’s styrofoam container in the dark kitchen at the ungodly hour of 1am. The next morning the evidence of some other hungry students’ ketchup-smeared, late night styrofoam meals was found speared on the wrought iron fence of some quaint Oxford street.
Now about the upcoming Jubilee. The Brits have a deep affection for the Queen, which is understandable, as she has been Queen for 60 years. In America and especially in Israel, our political figures come and go so quickly we simply dont have time to develop lasting bonds with them. We don’t have time to celebrate their 60th year of reign, or put their faces on collectable tea cups that cost a fortune, or make “jubilee cupcakes” proudly displaying the union jack. I flirted with the idea of buying a jubilee tea cup, but in the end the 15 pound price tag and my innate fear of disrespecting the Queen (spilling instant coffee down Her Majesty’s face) kept me from doing so. Long Live the Queen!
Minicdote#7: The Importance of Tea, and Impulsive Shopping .
I am no stranger to tea. In my house we always drank tea with fresh mint, Moroccan style. Later on I would start every morning with sweet black tea and milk. To me, tea in the morning is like giving your stomach a hug, whereas drinking coffee in the morning is like kicking your stomach in the face. Many times I am the only tea drinker in the room, so it was with a feeling of homecoming that I touched down in a country where tea is for real. Strong, black tea in a ceramic teapot that has a tea cozy to keep it hot kind of real. I became obsessed with the idea of owning my very own English China Teapot. I never had tea sets or tea parties as a child, so maybe I was regressing. Whatever. This idea took root in my brain and wouldn’t let go, especially as I was surrounded all over by tea parties in progress.
Sophie was kind enough to take me teapot shopping. My requirements were twofold: One, the teapot had to be made in England, and Two, it had to be as twee* as possible (ATAP). What followed was an epic journey in and out of 8 wildly different stores, from malls to boutiques. None of their teapots fit the bill. Finally, faced with the prospect of returning home teapot-less, and coming to terms with the fact that very little English China was made in England anymore, we walked into an amazing vintage shop called The Ballroom Emporium. There on a shelf stood not only a beautiful, twee teapot MADE IN ENGLAND, but an entire complete set of tea cups and saucers, creamer and sugar cube holder. The cups were made in France but this only increased their appeal; I am all for peace and co-existence between the Brits and Frenchies on my Tea-table. That was how, in an impulsive decision, I ended up flying back to Israel with an heirloom-worthy 9-piece English/French Tea set. I bought sugar cubes and biscuits too. Tea party anyone?
The Ballroom Emporium: 5&6 The Plain, Oxford, OX4 1AS
*Twee |twē| adjective Brit. chiefly derogatory, excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental