Geography Lessons

I may have mentioned it before, but I’ll repeat it: I love my living situation.  I stay in a four story townhouse on a street right outside the college, and I have a reasonably sized room on the ground floor (that’s “zero floor” in British).  Thanks to the generosity of the previous Sachs Scholar, I have a kitchen so well outfitted an outside observer might have thought I had just been married and received some excellent wedding gifts (A new goal for my time here is to figure out what all the appliances  I inherited actually do).  While having a kitchen and living off-college might suggest that I have inched ever so slightly towards living in the real world, our house does have a maid or “scout” who comes in daily, both to empty our trash and remind us that we live in la-la land.

It doesn’t hurt that my house compares quite favorably to most of the other housing I’ve heard about here.  The dark side of Oxford’s fabulous antiquity is that many of the dorms are fairly decrepit.  While it’s lovely to eat dinner in a grand and ancient dining hall, it’s less pleasant to sleep inside quarters built for ascetic 13th century monks, as some Worcester students do.  My favorite part of 19 Richmond Road, though, is my roommates.  Aside from dragging me out of my room at just the right times, they are also, being from three different countries (U.K., U.S., and Germany) and studying four different subjects (Environmental Policy, Chemistry, Indian History, and Business), perpetually interesting people to talk to.

Our best conversations come around dinner time, when we congregate in the kitchen.  Our gastronomic efforts run the gamut from my elaborate but poorly executed vegan cooking to Nicola’s endlessly recurring pasta to Christoph’s rather stereotypically bachelor-esque meals of bread and cheese.  This evening, our multi-cultural multi-culinary party turned to into a debate.  Christoph, playing perfectly the part of the pro-European Union German, was arguing with Nicola, a consummately English euro-skeptic, about the new Lisbon treaty, which would, among other things, create a new President of Europe.  When Christoph challenged Nicola over her opposition by asking, “So are you against Europe?” she offered a reply that surprised me: “No.  But England isn’t part of Europe.”

This is not England.  Its also not in Europe.
This is not England. It's also not in Europe.

The United Kingdom?  Not part of Europe?  Maybe this is my naïve American-ness shining through, but the possibility that England would not be part of “The Continent” had never previously occurred to me.  But as I have quickly realized here, these kind of geographical nuances matter when you are here.  As I am constantly reminded, the British Isles are not equal the United Kingdom, which is a different entity than Great Britain, which is in turn only partially composed of England and only partly occupied by English.

It’s curious to me how distance—both literal and cultural—makes generalization, i.e. “It’s all part of Europe,” seem so obvious while closeness makes this kind of lumping absurd.  To offer a more direct example, someone here, upon our introduction, actually asked me, “Are you North American?”  I almost laughed.  I have never, ever, ever heard someone from the U.S., Canada, or Latin America self-identify by continent.  And yet to at least some people in jolly old England (Britain?) we’re all sort of the same.  (This really offends Canadians, while Americans seem to shrug, as if assuming that we’ll eventually take over Canada anyway.)  While as a social scientist I’m used to thinking everything is socially constructed, it’s rather amazing that even the seven continent we learned about in grade school do not necessarily have fixed or objective boundaries.

Being in the U.K. isn’t providing the kind of life-rocking experience that Uganda did, but it is stretching my worldview bit by bit.  And it’s nice that this can happen in a place where there’s hot water and electricity.

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