Stepping off the aeroplane at the airport on Christmas Eve was like stepping out of a time machine. It has only been three months since I moved to Vienna to work as a language assistant, but it feels like it has been ten times as long.
Having swapped the sandstone buildings of Oxford and the cobbled streets of Edinburgh for the imperial and high-ceilinged apartment blocks of Austria’s capital city, I have tried to live (almost) like a local.
I found somewhere to live during the notorious September rush, sat in prime seats at the theatre for six euros, and learned when and where it is safe to ride the underground without a ticket. I have also adopted Austrian slang, admired the Danube by night, seen the old Hapsburg Palaces cloaked in snow, and introduced a generation of Austrian teenagers to The Inbetweeners.
In many ways, living abroad has given me a new perspective on life at Oxford. In a world where meals in hall are a distant memory, the word ‘collection’ refers strictly to recycling, and commuting is a 40-minute bike ride at 7am (instead of a five-minute jog down St Giles), I have never felt more free of the academic pressures of school and university. And it’s been rather an emboldening experience.
Austria does not have elite universities, and the whole concept of Oxford and the bottom-dropping-out-of-your-stomach feeling that still features when first week comes around, has never felt so literally or figuratively far away.
I feel as if I have finally put my head above the parapet. The pomp and circumstance of caps and gowns, formal hall, grace in Latin, report readings and tutorials, college politics and punting, collection prizes and principal’s interviews, has all been reduced to background noise. It’s the background noise of a pretty obnoxious brass brand, I grant you that, but it is a whole lot better than having it constantly blasting in your ears. Over the last two years I realise that I have developed a severe tunnel vision. And, it has taken moving countries to remind me that there is more to life than essay deadlines and days spent hiding in the Rad Cam.
Being abroad is like being in a time machine or, perhaps more accurately, a world which operates in a different time zone. People often talk about ‘the Oxford bubble’, yet coming home has reminded me that my life in Vienna is not that dissimilar.
This disorienting realisation first came to me on New Year’s Eve, when it occurred to me that 2017 would arrive a whole hour earlier in Austria than in the UK. The almost non-existent time difference has had little impact on my ability to communicate with friends and family, provided we make it clear to which time zone we are referring, but living a life across two time zones can make you feel a bit queasy at times. It’s like being on an escalator where the hand rail moves faster than the steps.
The problem with being on those escalators is that you end up standing in the most uncomfortable positions. It starts out okay, but if you forget to move your hand, or fail to move a few steps upwards once in a while, you get to the top of the escalator looking like a snapshot of someone clinging on for life in a hurricane.
Whilst being a somewhat disconcerting experience, it’s well worth it. I hope, that when I return to Oxford I will be a little worldlier, perhaps wiser, and a readier to see the funny side of things. Finals are no longer so daunting when you remember there’s a whole world that exists outside ‘the bubble’.