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A guide for the impromptu undergraduate tour guide

How do you even begin to show a relative or friend around Oxford? In Michaelmas, a friend studying in London came to visit. She stayed over for a whopping three days which, to me, was a disproportionately long time to spend in a city that was a fraction of the size of London. Oxford is no big, bustling metropolis; it has no famous tourist attractions (besides the university itself), no world-class restaurants, no breathtaking natural scenery. My days are filled with lectures, tutorials, libraries, and an occasional escape to the pub or club. What was she going to fill her days with? 

Well, first, the obvious – the Radcliffe Camera (affectionately referred to as the “Rad Cam” by Oxford students), Bridge of Sighs, Bodleian Library, Ashmolean Museum, etc. My friend is a huge Harry Potter fan, so that was easy – I was already at Christ Church, so I showed her around the dining hall and cloisters, got my friend from New College to show her around the courtyard (which had a feature in the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), and brought her to the Divinity School. Lunch in the Covered Market, dinner at a Christ Church formal, then an impromptu post-midnight Hassan’s for the complete Oxford student experience. 

But all these places could be discovered from a quick Google search of “things to do in Oxford”; my friend didn’t need me to point them out to her. Besides, I felt too much like a tour guide, not someone showing their friend around the place that will define their life for the next three years. I wanted to show her the places where I forged my best memories – where I live, study, eat, socialise and cry. This was the first time I’ve seen her since we left high school, and I wanted to show her around my new life. 

If she had come on a weekday, I would have brought her to one of my lectures. We couldn’t study together in the Rad Cam (my library of choice), so instead I brought her to Caffè Nero to try their godly hot chocolate. We got a quick bite from Najar’s, visited the cows in Christ Church Meadows, and queued for an hour in the cold for Ramen Kulture (and it was absolutely worth the wait!). We ate bingsu (Korean shaved ice) at Endorphins Dessert Cafe. We watched the sunset from the rooftop of Westgate. And all along the way, I pointed out snippets of my life to her – this is where I ate my first meal in Oxford, this is where I was drunk out of my mind after my first night out, this is where I cried when I felt so homesick. This is where I saw the most beautiful sunrise of my life. This is where I walked whenever I was stressed or anxious. This is where I built my new life, in a foreign country 6000 miles from home. We got G&Ds, then chatted the night away in my room, reminiscing about the old and catching each other up on the new as we settled into the next chapter of our lives. 

So, to answer the question: how do you begin to show a relative or friend around Oxford? What makes for a good impromptu tour? Of course, show them the grand, romantic architecture, the buildings steeped in mystique and history that tourists marvel at when they visit Oxford. But also show them what Oxford means to you. Show them where you like to go on a night out. Where you go for lectures. Where you churn out your 2000-word essay dangerously close to the deadline. Where you get your groceries.

I’ve been thinking about how friendships change and evolve as we move on to university – as you grow older, friendships become less about experiencing life together, and more about telling each other about your respective lives. This rings true for family as well. Before university, we spent virtually every day together with our family or friends – they are integrated into our lives, as we are into theirs. Now, with each of our paths diverging, I barely see my friends from school anymore. By hosting them when they come to visit, I am, in a way, integrating them back into my life, even if it’s just for three days. That, I suppose, is what makes an impromptu undergraduate tour worthwhile – the surreality of seeing old friends and family in such a new environment, and the familiar warmth they bring to remind you that they’re still here. It’s like no time has passed at all.  

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