Even before, I came to Oxford, I had already realized that the stock American responses to the Oxford experience are fairly cliched. I’m friends on facebook with enough people who have taken a Junior Year Abroad to already have heard every imaginable variation on “I’m in Oxford – and it’s just like Harry Potter!” Now that I’m actually here, I know that our exuberance for all things Oxonian earns a fair number of eye-rolls from our British peers. While usually when people greet me with “You’re American, aren’t you” it’s because they’ve noticed that I speak louder than everyone else, they also seem to guess my identity partly on the basis of my wide-eyed wonder at everything around me. Not unlike the tourists that are crawling in the city, we love the architecture, love the dress, and love all things old.
Maybe at some point I will break free of the stereotype and cease to live the easily-impressed American-in-Oxford cliche. But on days like today, I’m content to embrace the silly traditions and bask in the glorious absurdity of this place. Consider last night, my first formal hall. I donned a tuxedo – for the first time since sophomore year prom (that’s sophomore year of High School) – and, to add a measure of excessive formality, added a silly ill-fitting gown with weird, inexplicably pointless wing-like things on the arms.
I joined a throng of similarly-clad students waiting outside our dining hall. To get in, we each handed a ticket to a white-gloved porter, and took a seat assigned to us. We remained standing until a procession of faculty – one with a beard that (I can’t resist it!) looked just like I imagined Dumbledore’s would – strode in. The heavy, medieval door closed in unison with the rapping of a gavel by the senior professor, which cued the beginning of a grace read by a student, delivered entirely in Latin. We then sat to a three course meal, served by smartly-dressed waiters, while portraits of 18th century kings and college masters gazed down at us.
On the way out, we were each given a glass of port. The rest of the evening was spent in the college bar, which is built into the cellar of a 13th century monastery.
Today was matriculation, which definitely ticked the absurd-tradition-o-meter up another notch. Our garb was full sub-fusc, which means all the usual business plus a white bow-tie and mortarboard (the latter of which you aren’t actually allowed to wear.) Waiting outside in the cold, those of us not from the U.K. were sufficiently giddy about the whole affair that we couldn’t resist goofing off a bit. (It would seem that our two weeks in England have already made us all pasty-white.)
After a college photo, we processed to the Sheldonian Theater, in the center of campus. The building is fantastically grand, though some undergraduates had left a reminder that we are, in fact, still college students, by adding lipstick to one of the gargoyles. Once inside, we were officially matriculated into the university. I snuck in a camera to capture the secret ritual, depicted below.
The actual matriculation was nothing particularly special. The Vice-Chancellor paraded in, led by a Dean-or-something carrying a mace. Once he took up his seat, the senior college master in attendance held a short interchange with him in Latin. According to an ad-hoc translator sitting nearby, the actual conversation went something like this: “Good morning, Chancellor. These are the new students.” “Okay, I’ll put them on the list.” (Apparently, the Latin root of “matriculate” literally means “to list.”) While the post-matriculation tradition is to get rip-roaring drunk (or, “pissed,” in the indigenous British language) at 10 a.m., I’ve quickly realized that I will not survive if I attempt to keep up with the natives in their drinking habits.
Having just experienced Princeton’s graduation extravagaanza, matriculation was perhaps a little underwhelming. Certainly, at Princeton, there was more overt pomp and splendor: the professor’s costumes were more colorful, the university’s buildings more fully decked-out, and the uses of Latin more gratuitous. Still, what happens there is just imitation; it is an attempt to create history and tradition where there are in fact none. Oxford’s matriculation – while a bit more muted – felt genuine, because it is. It blows me away to think of people wearing the same gowns listening to the same words centuries ago. It reminds me of why I love universities. While maybe I ought to hate huge institutions like Oxford for being bastions of conservatism or for churning out i-Bankers, they do, in a sense, embody what I love most: community, and a sense of being part of something greater than myself.
So, I will avoid any Harry Potter comparisons, and close with my evaluation so far: this place is bananas.