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On getting smart at Oxford

Skipping lectures for coffee and cheap beer. Leaving assignments until the night before. Making friends for life (but not really). Finally finding subjects to love… in the last year. Experimenting with <insert vice here>. Otherwise known as the pretty average, fairly normal, university life experienced by most.

Do you know what’s not a pretty average, fairly normal university life? That which is experienced at Oxford.
The Radcliffe Camera - because all good things come back to Harry Potter

Situated in England’s South East, the University of Oxford may only be a one-hour train ride from London but you might as well be on the Hogwarts Express, bound for a completely new world/time/place.

Sure, when you first arrive and walk into town from the railway station, things look pretty familiar. Chain restaurants, chain coffee shops, student flea markets. But give it a minute…

There you go!

And as you exhale and marvel at the impossibly grand building in front of you, one of thirty-eight colleges that make up the university, you just know you’re somewhere special, complex and extremely not normal. (Honestly, I do feel for those tourists visiting Oxford and ask repeatedly where the university is so they can take a photo. It’s just not that straightforward, I’m afraid.)

Besides, photos hardly do the place justice. How can a photo explain the wonder of sitting in a pub that dates from 1242? That’s The Bear is the oldest pub in Oxford and it was a true honour to bow my head and enter the tiny doorway that lead into the even tinier rooms. The pub even has Australian wines on the menu! (I know, I know, but when that happens over here it’s really exiting – save for Yellow Tail obvs.)

When I was at university, lunch usually consisted of cheap sushi shoved in my mouth while walking between lectures. Oxford? Not so much. The dining rooms are exquisite. Although I must admit I’d feel the weight of history every day while having King Henry VIII staring down at me as I partook of whatever delicious hot meal was being served that day. (Even a soggy pie would taste pretty special in a dining room steeped in history… and used in the Harry Potter films.)
I mean, could you relax at mealtimes with that lot looking down at you?

Oh, and what of the Eagle and Child (est. 1650)? Just a local watering hole where writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to meet (aka ‘The Inklings’). I swear I could feel writing inspiration flowing through my veins as I drank my wine beneath the pub’s timber beams. Although, I could also have been a little tipsy by that stage. (Hey, there are a LOT of historic pubs to visit in Oxford!)

But back to the university itself, supposedly the oldest in the English-speaking world (thanks Wikipedia!). As we ambled around the colleges, awestruck by the buildings and trying to figure out if that courtyard or this college were also used in Harry Potter, actual students whizzed by on their bikes, hustling from one lecture to another. Students who were studying in the very same lecture theatres as the actual Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence), Oscar Wilde, Aung San Suu Kyi, Kate Beckinsale and…five prime minsters of Australia(?!) just to name a tiny few of Oxford’s rather long roll call. It was a stark reminder that Oxford is a fully functioning university. I know this is an obvious statement and some of you may question the heading of this post after reading it, but usually a place steeped in so much history is usually a tourist/visitor location. Not so here, my friends. Oxford is for smarts first, tourists second.

When I attended the University of Melbourne (founded in 1853 – basically last year), I was constantly distracted by Italian coffee, if I could get away with not doing my reading for any particular tute, which club would be the location for Thursday night’s revelry, could I take up smoking and not have to buy my own packets – you know, the usual. At Oxford, my distraction probably would have been more along the lines of saying to my fellow students ‘wait…Lewis Carroll met his muse for Alice here?!?’ And I’m not going to lie, I would be probably be that person who stared at the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at every.single.meal.

I can, of course, only dream of attending Oxford and how intimidating and gruelling it would be. But visiting was the next best thing. I left feeling smart, inspired (ie probably drunk), and excited to know there’s still a bit of magic, a bit of the extraordinary, left in the world.

(P.S. Special shout-out to my Oxford travel companions, my sister and her bf, who left the UK to head back to Oz yesterday.)


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