None of us lives here. Well, that’s incorrect- because we all do. Either we rent our rooms in college, delighting in living next to our best buddies and suffering through sharing a kitchen with this nasty ‘person’ from upstairs that never does their dishes – or we live in a place somewhere in Cowley or Jericho, we pay our own bills, and hold the carefully cultivated aura of real grown-ups.
We move out of those places every eight or nine weeks, though. It’s barely six months if you count the time we spend here per each year – bit of a meagre number to consider a city ‘your living place’. And yet, despite so short a time here, we’ve learnt our little paths and winding ways through the city centre, the crowd-avoiding second-floor cafés, the sunlit reading desks in old libraries. For every short period of time we’re here, we pass through the city, and we sieve through its tangled mesh, leaving little traces behind – like that time when you dripped shaving foam after trashing; that other time when you cried on the way to the lecture and didn’t want anybody to notice; that time when you glided out of the punt into the river, and you left a wet trail all the way to the college. By this point, we’ve literally soaked into Oxford; I guess we do live here.
But we don’t, not really.
Aside from those rare few who were born here, an overwhelming majority of us needed to arrive first, as wide-eyed freshers excited about gowns and formals. By now we’ve gone and come back at least several times. And whereas it’s somehow disquieting to think about it, we cannot forget the fact that very soon, we will be preparing to leave for good.
Whether you are a fresher or a finalist, this is Trinity. Students in sub-fusc roam the streets, and with them comes the nagging thought at the back of your mind: this will soon be me. Three, four, even five years is a lot of time, but somehow it ends up being awfully short. The academic year is ending, and suddenly you realise that everything here – punting and garden parties, little cafés and libraries, and terrible white-soaked creatures in party hearts emerging from the river, this little shining universe of traditions and people you’ve come to know and love – is ending, and you’ll leave. Even though you’ve just come here.
Tempus fugit, aeternitas manet. A maxim on my clock: time flies, eternity awaits. Doing Italian, I’ve just enough grasp on Latin to know when it can be used for a dramatically melancholic purpose.
I’m a foreigner, a Pole. Therefore, I came here with even less knowledge of the place than an average Brit – a fresher so wide-eyed it’s a miracle my eyeballs didn’t fall out. The first months were filled with adventure and discoveries, some of them pleasant, the other less so: the discovery that the English would smile to you on the street rivalled the discovery of the fact that most of them didn’t really mean it.
The joy of friendship was followed by a terrible culture shock re- garding human relationships – after all, this is very much culturally determined. Falling ungodly ill in the middle of the winter semester was definitely a downside; an upside was discovering how deeply the welfare people cared for a student in need. The first year was harrowing yet rewarding; maddeningly confusing, but, after all that time, I left England in June with a calm, satisfied feeling of having at least roughly figured it out.
Culture shock has something of a Stockholm’s syndrome in it; it cuts through you and rips you out of your own mind, and you no longer understand yourself, or trust your confidence, and even your entire personality is shattered because there is no longer a way to express your- self in a language so very foreign and wrong. My experience is extreme, as I came from a country not even remotely like England, having never spoken the casual language. But this city is so strange that each and every single one of us has to go through this difficult experience of trying to fit in. And yet we grow to love it as we heal, and when we are finally forced to part ways, we hurt again. If that is not Stockholm’s syndrome, then maybe we’re just masochists; because even though this city has hurt me on arrival, and then at many other occasions, it is still not a place I want to leave. Perhaps this is partly because there is going to be another new place, and another culture shock, and it doesn’t really ever stop.
We don’t live here, none of us do. We’re just passing through it, always in transition: slipping our way through the Prelims, Mods, collections, Finals, classes, rooms and roommates, moving in and out for the term, going away, coming back, saying hello, waving goodbye, passing friends on Cornmarket, leaving with them for a party, running past, running through, running from, running towards, ever-ongoing, because the life of Oxford is the life in transition and it never really stops. Maybe neither should we, then.
But there is some comfort in this thought: remember that time you went back to college after falling into the river from your punt? It’s going to stay in there, that wet trail on the cobblestones. Some things are constant here. It may not be us, but some things are.