The Beginning of the End

Originally posted December 18, 2011.

I thought my last week at Oxford would be really emotional.  I’m the kind of sensitive person that usually has a difficult time with goodbye’s and I couldn’t imagine how saying goodbye to this magical university and all the people within it would work out—especially since I had no idea when I would be able to return to the United Kingdom.  But, I had so much fun in the course of this last week that there wasn’t really time for an emotional goodbye.

The week started out pretty serious.  I woke up Monday morning and walked down to college in my gown for collections.  It’s weird because at Oxford collections can actually mean two different things: 1) exams that take place after each term, usually after the break or 2) a meeting with the college principal and head tutor to go over tutorial reports. Thankfully mine was the later, but it was still a nail-biting experience. It helped that I had met our principal, Will Hutton, a few times before the meeting.  He is an interesting guy.  If I had read The Guardian before I left, I would have known that he is a famous journalist, but in some ways it was better that I hadn’t because then I didn’t feel like I had to act different around this public figure.  As it turned out, I really enjoyed talking with him.  The first time I heard him speak it was all about economics and although I knew he was making important points, it was all I could do not to eat the dinner roll sitting in front of me. Giving a speech before formal hall turned out not to be such a good idea.  But later in the term he told me a lot about the books in the Hertford Old Library.  Apparently they are worth millions of dollars. But most importantly, I loved the conversation we had during collections.  We did spend a few minutes talking over my tutor’s reports, both of which gave me great marks and said that I was a promising student, but then the conversation turned to Victorian Literature in general.  The best part: I got to bring up the topic of Victorian Adaptations, which is the subject I’m really well-versed at, thanks to that class I took freshman year at Rice.  Plus, he tipped me off to a new Charles Dickens biography coming out.  After loving David Copperfield, I definitely think I should add that to my reading list.

Even though it was my last week with all the Hertford students, I still had to spend a lot of time working on essays as usual.  Though my tutorial reports gave me lots of praise, they also gave me lots of constructive criticism.  If I was a normal person, I could’ve said, “Not only do my grades while studying abroad not count, but now that my grades are in, these essays won’t even count toward them.”  But since I am a perfectionist always, I really wanted to work hard on my last two essays and blow my tutors out of the water, to prove that I could immediately take their advice and fix my mistakes.  It wasn’t easy, especially for my Victorian Literature class.  For some reason, I had picked Tess of the D’Urbervilles as my text for this last week.  If you haven’t read it yet, let me tip you off: it’s one of the most depressing books.  Just when you think nothing else could happen, the worst strikes again.  After I read it my sophomore year of high school, I decided that I hated Thomas Hardy and would never read him again. Now that I’ve re-read the book, I must say that he’s a talented author and that I would definitely read his other books, even though I’ve heard they are equally dismal, but still, this wasn’t the best choice to motivate my work during the last week of classes.  But all day Tuesday and Wednesday I sequestered myself in the cozy little Hertford library and worked away at the essay.  And in the end, even though I didn’t fix all my mistakes, I did improve and my last tutorial on Thursday morning went well.

Andy looks so intense leading the orchestra.  Great shot of hall, too (I can’t believe this is where I ate lunch every day).

Although work was still important, the real highlights of my last week were the final social events of Michaelmas term.  Even though I was still stressed with my essays, I had to make time for these final events not only to say goodbye to my friends, but to experience Oxmas.  Since everyone leaves at the end of eighth week, at only the very beginning of December, they celebrate Christmas early.  Which means that I got to experience a smaller version of most of the traditional British Christmas traditions.  On Monday, I went to the Hertford Music Society’s concert.  The Haydn that they performed was beautiful, but it was really the wind band’s performance that moved me.  It reminded me of band concerts back when I was in high school and for the first time since senior year, I actually sort of missed playing the clarinet. What made it Christmas-y were the refreshments served at the interval (what we would call the intermission back in the States): mulled wine and mince pies.  As I’ve said before and will say again, even though I began to get tired of them, I understand why mince pies are served at all Christmas events.  They literally taste like Christmas.  But the night wasn’t over with the concert; that night was also the Hertford College Christmas BOP.  At first I didn’t want to go.  I didn’t want to scrounge together a Christmas costume or go to a party on a Monday night, but my friends convinced me and I’m glad I went in the end.  Even though we have LOTS of costume parties at Rice, I was glad to dress up and dance with my Hertford friends one last time.  Only Leah, you should have taken those wings off your angel costume and left them at the coat check!

Tuesday was filled with the library mostly, but that evening I left the library, got into my cocktail dress again, and went to the Methodist Advent dinner.  It was great.  I got the traditional British Christmas dinner.  I didn’t really like the Brussels sprouts, but as it turns out, I love parsnips.  And I was especially impressed with the Christmas pudding—which was literally on fire when they brought it out.  I’ve never had baked Alaska or anything as fancy as that.  In the end, I came to the conclusion that Christmas dinner is the big meal for the Brits like Thanksgiving is for us.  They have the ham, they spend the day cooking for it, and it’s steeped in tradition.  I was so blessed to be included.

That’s right: White Horse version of Butterbeer (hot chocolate with toffee syrup).

Wednesday night was amazing first and foremost because I finished and turned in my last essay, but also because it was the night of the annual Advent service at the Hertford Chapel.  Usually carol services don’t happen that early (not even in December), but again, everything gets pushed up for Oxmas.  Again, the event was bittersweet for me because it was the last time I would be singing in the Hertford Chapel, the last time I would wait in the cold for the service to start and process into the chapel and file into the choir stalls.  I loved all the Advent songs we sang, especially since we started with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” as we processed.  It’s my favorite hymn.  In fact, Leah, Alice, and I had been singing it at the top of our lungs on the way to the Christmas BOP on Monday night.  Anyways, the songs in the service helped me get in the Christmas spirit early and in the midst of all that seasonal joy, it felt silly to be sad about leaving just yet.

After my last tutorial, things slowed down a bit.  I spent most of the day, and the day Friday, doing Christmas/souvenir.  It was so wonderful to finally go into all the Oxford specialty shops and poke around.  I’d been passing them every week on the way to the library, to the grad center, to tutorial, or to get coffee.  But then I got to explore Alice’s Shop (the store where the original Alice actually used to buy sweets and now sells everything Alice and Wonderland related) and a bunch of other unique Oxford spots.  And when I got tired I stopped into The White Horse pub for a break—with a butterbeer (not as good or as authentic as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but still deliciously sweet).

Because now I was thoroughly a choir geek, I went to dinner with my choir friends that night and then we all came back to Hertford, got gin and tonic from the bar, and snuck back into the Hertford Chapel to sing more carols, because even though we had sung carols earlier that night at the MCR Christmas dinner, we just couldn’t get enough.  I also said goodbye to the other American students that night in the JCR.  It was funny because they insisted on having red cups and playing beer pong, both of which are seen as quintessentially American.

On Friday, the last day of term, I slept in.  At first I kicked myself for missing out on more time with my friends, but then I walked in to college to meet up with Sonya for lunch in hall.  Sonya was an exchange student at Rice from Cambridge last year and now she’s doing graduate studies at Oxford.  It has been great to meet up with her periodically over the term since she not only understands the adjustment it takes to go from American university to the Oxbridge education system, but she also loves talking about Rice.  Anyways, we ate lunch together (fish and chips Friday in hall, you rock).  As we were eating, I tried to focus on chatting with her, but I kept getting distracted by other people from Hertford saying hello and hugging me since we might not get to see each other again.  I felt bad that I wasn’t giving my full attention to Sonya, but she later told me that it surprised her to see how many friends I had made in such a short period of time.  I am so thankful that she pointed this out because it really did make me appreciate how many wonderful people I met at Hertford.  Even though I was only in Hertford for a short period of time, I made the most of it.

That night I partied with my Hertford friends for the last time.  We had the best time hanging out in the Hertford Bar and then going out to Wahoo (I had heard rumors during term that Emma had been here on Fridays, but I guess she was too busy packing to show up on this last night).  There was no time for tears as we danced the night away. Unfortunately, those arrived the next morning.  I literally had to sprint to college to say goodbye to one of my best choir friends, Alice G.  Then it was super depressing because everyone was packing up their rooms (I’m so thankful we don’t have to do that for breaks at Rice) and leaving.  Usually the center of all activity, Hertford transformed into ghost town.  I couldn’t help thinking of Dickens again.  Victorian Literature definitely wormed its way into my entire life this term. Even my emotions are now colored by the descriptions of Dickens, Gaskell, Eliot, and the Brontes.

But, once again, I could not be sad for long.  I still had a few friends in town, a pile of packing waiting for me back in my room, and a lovely Belgium choir tour to forward to before my return to the USA and the end of my study abroad.  After all, this week was only the beginning …


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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