Zeroth Week in Oxford

Other than the rustle of leaves (or is it the patter of rain?) there’s an eerie quiet in Merton College.

It was Sunday afternoon when I returned from the holidays and waved my parents goodbye. I returned to my room, unpacked my things and then stood for a moment, pondering. ‘What now?’

Last time, arrival felt so exciting. It was the cartharsis of a summer of anticipation, the denouement of a year of application and offers, the pop of a champagne bottle you bought in the January sales to save for New Years.

This… this is not that. Oxford doesn’t feel like fizz, or relief, or excitement right now. It feels like a dried up creek with a marooned canoe. The rooms are empty, and although they slowly fill up around me (with the clatter of moving furniture and the grunt of multiple trips from the car with boxes), it’s an ebb not a flow.

Perhaps fittingly, the JCR (our social centre) is currently occupied by the packed up belongings of those who aren’t here yet- it won’t be functional until everyone arrives.

Each night at dinner, the hall gets a little bit more full but it’s at the rate of a couple of seats at a time, not whole tables. That’s not to say it’s felt empty. No, it’s felt more than full with the ghosts of busier times. In the silence, you can hear the memory of chatter and laughter. Nostalgic jealousy kindles as conversation dwindles, once discussions of what we got up to over the holidays fade away.

I think part of the problem is that it’s zeroth week. Oxford terms (like many universities) are organised numerically- 1 to 8. Before hand, there’s a week where people are invited to come back before work begins, to settle in and get ready for the collections (exams) at the end of the week, which loom spectre-like over all interactions. When you first start, it’s called Freshers’ Week and it lives on the hearts of those who experience it like a Baz Lurhmann montage sequence (even for those who didn’t go out partying, like myself- just the flurry of handshaking and the overwhelming barrage of faces was enough). It was a week of collisions and conversations and getting to know new friends. It was a week when just an hour in the student bar left your ears throbbing and your throat hoarse from having to shout to be heard.

This week, when I went to the student bar, my group were the only people in there all night.

But in that there’s hope. Rather than just being sat in the bar on my own, I had some small company. Five or six very friendly faces which made me feel joy, with whom conversation could outlast simply, ‘How was Christmas?’ or ‘Have a good New Years?’ And with each day, more people are coming back. The garden path becomes busier, the chatter in the hall louder. The noise of feet running up and down the stairs is more constant, and the beep of fobs as doors are unlocked after six weeks away is a reassuring harmony. Each window lit up at night is like a door on the advent calendar being opened. A metaphorical Christmas approaches. Oxford returns.

About halfway through last term, one of my lecturers asked as his opening question, “Are you citizens of Oxford?” It was all we could discuss at dinner afterwards- where were we citizens of? Having been in Oxford for six weeks, it felt strange to refute it but at the same time, it was only two or three weeks until we returned to where we’d lived all our lives- how could we deny citizenship from there too?

When I returned home, I was shocked at how quiet Blackpool felt in contrast to Oxford, how dormant and slow. My memories of Oxford were so hectic and exciting that Blackpool seemed quite the reverse. Having returned to Oxford, though, and found the slowness hanging about here, I think I’ve discovered the key. I am a citizen of Oxford, but not of the city. Not even of the university, in terms of its colleges and libraries (although I’ve made full use of those). I’m a citizen of Oxford in terms of its students, and the community they comprise.

Until we’re all reunited in the quads and the halls, the Oxford we all fell in love with doesn’t exist. The Radcliffe Camera is a stunning piece of architecture, but I didn’t appreciate it fully until my first visit as a student, with a few friends as we looked around, feeling as if we should be sneaking.

Though nevermore we tread the ways

That our returning feet have known

Past Oriel, and Christ Church gate

Unto those dearer walls, our own.

Geoffrey Bache Smith, Ave Atque Vale

This stanza, from a poem by a student leaving Oxford, keeps returning to me. ‘Unto those dearer walls, our own.’ How can these buildings, which have stood for hundreds of years and will (hopefully) stand on for hundreds more be ‘our own’? I think it’s because of the knowing of our ‘returning feet.’ It’s the satisfaction of discovering this place for yourself, of carving out your own little bit of Oxford in the rich miasma of its longevity. Each year group has its own fresh take, its own community and, in this way, its own Oxford. Mine will be back in full swing next week. I simply cannot wait.

PS. This week has also been the week in which many students received offers to become next year’s students. Congratulations for those who did! I hope that you enjoy your time here, greatly, and that the little bit of Oxford you carve out is entirely your own.

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