Wednesday, 24 March 2010
Oxford - Et in Arcadia Ego?
After graduating, I came to England. I had got a job as lecturer at Hertford College, Oxford. The appointment ("tenure") was for 2 years. These two years turned out to be the happiest of my life - after Oxford, nothing ever really lives up to it, you just get used to things because you have to... But that's not what I'm writing about.
I was about 100 years younger than the youngest don there, so whilst officially part of the Senior Common Room (all the teaching staff of a college), my social life happened in the MCR (i.e. the graduate students). I still saw a lot of my colleagues though, mainly at the daily High Table dinner where you wear a gown, Grace is said in Latin, and you make formal conversation over not so good food.
You'd expect an Oxford college to be a hub of academic internationalism. Researchers from all over the world mingling for multinational exchanges. But this wasn't the case at all. I was the only foreigner and one of only two women. Conversation with me at High Table was laboured - Rhine cruises were remembered, and war reminscences (possibly not their own, their fathers'?) offered with the tough duck à l'orange. Narvik featured heavily. It wasn't easy to chime in, I had never been on a Rhine cruise "That must have been so lovely!" and Narvik meant nothing to me "That must have been... terrible!"
Over in the MCR, it was the polar opposite - the graduate students came from all over the world, fee-paying Americans, Japanese, Nigerians, Dutch. In fact I only remember one British national there. It was lively, fun, international - one got to know people and learnt an awful lot.
It struck me, that living in Britain, my life is still organised along those lines: The international background through family, friends, travel, and media. And on the other side there's Britain. Yes, there may be a whole multicultural aspect to it, but that SCR-Britain prevails. British reality is still mono-lingual, awkward with foreigners, still treating "abroad" with polite suspicion. It still chews on that tough duck. Proudly chewing, but inward-looking, and increasingly marginalised.
*)On the photo, the window of my room, second floor on the left hand side, is just about visible.