Friday, May 2, 2008

Tales from Oxford, Part I

Skyline panoramic view from St. Mary's

Oxford Street

In the late 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the following lines about an Oxford philosophy student in the “Clerk’s Prologue and Tale” of the Canterbury Tales:

For him was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
of Aristotle and his philosophie
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.

More than 600 years have passed and now I’ve had the opportunity to retrace the steps of Chaucer’s philosophy student. Thanks, in great measure, to a Presidents’ Research mini-grant from Title III, in March I was granted the life-altering experience of lecturing, researching, and residing for eight days at the oldest university in the English-speaking world: Oxford University. Being invited to Oxford to speak was incredible in-and-of-itself; but that personal highlight was as forgotten as the spring lilies as I stepped off the Oxford Express back into history and directly into the worst Easter snowstorm in the recorded history of the kingdom.

Being too stubborn to wait for a cab, I decided that I could pull my rolling suitcases the “few blocks” from the bus terminal to Exeter College. I quickly learned that the English walk much more than we do and a “few blocks” to them, is a long cab ride to us. I also learned that they are as bad at giving directions as are the people I grew up with. I also learned that wheeled-luggage is not engineered to roll over medieval-style cobblestone side-walks; especially in a heavy downpour of snow. The flakes were now the size of one pound coins (or an American quarter) and falling hard and fast. I stopped at a pub, which was surprisingly open at seven a.m. on a Sunday, and ordered a pint of the local bitters and rested. I also whipped out a map and tried to get my bearings.

According to the map, I had been sent to the wrong college. I was next door to Harris Manchester College and needed to head to Exeter to meet the porter so I could check into my lodgings. Just as FVSU is composed of the undergraduate colleges of Arts and Sciences, Agriculture, and Education, Oxford is composed of 39 colleges and 7 religious “Permanent Private Halls” which function as colleges. Each of the 46 academic units function as complete academic corporations with Oxford University serving as the administrative body which brings them together into a cohesive academic whole. It isn’t as confusing as it sounds as the system works as a cohesive whole while providing a great variety of academic freedom for both students and faculty.

After being fortified by the bitters and steadied by the map, I continued to drag my burden through the streets of the city. Oxford is still very much a medieval town. When a new business such as McDonald’s opens, the franchise doesn’t tear down the historic building; they design their storefront to fit into the historic building. This makes for some interesting architectural choices. It is sad, however, to see American fast-food culture obliterating traditional British restaurants. The numbers of locally owned pubs is declining in Oxford while every major thoroughfare has a McD’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Gap. I suppose that this is just the American way of contemporary colonization.

The snow had turned the town into a quiet and beautiful setting that could have easily been the backdrop for a remake of Mr. Scrooge’s timeless tale. Snow capped the comical and grotesque gargoyles which peered down from nearly every building. Pigeons, the size of small chickens, cavorted in the whitened walkways. In time, I worked my burden past newsstands, used book-sellers, and other quaint little shops until I came to the imposing castle-like gates of Exeter College.

The porter quickly relieved me of my cargo and directed me to a spacious dormitory suite that was to be my home for the next eight days. As I unpacked, I looked out the bedroom window and was startled to see a face staring back at me. My new friend was a gargoyle carved to look like a startled priest. Within a few days, his face became a comforting sight each morning as I arose since I know I can appear rather startling to behold before I’ve had my morning cigarette and caffeine.

After a few minutes, the porter came to take me to breakfast. The dining room in which we were to eat was the same one used in the filming of a number of the Harry Potter films. When I was offered the “hot breakfast,” I expected bacon and eggs. Instead, a steaming pile of flesh was brought to my table. Sausages, ham, chops, cutlets, and other meats were stacked on the oversized plate. Next to that was a pair of eggs, over easy, a serving of toast and a cup of tea. When I began on the eggs, someone asked if I would like cereal or pancakes. When I said, “No, thank you. . . .” The waitress seemed genuinely offended. Even though I was famished from the overnight flight and my inability to eat the matter that Delta attempted to foist off on us as food; I could only make a barely visible dent in the mountain of meat. I was afraid I would offend my hosts. Until I saw one of the Oxford faculty return a large portion of their plate uneaten as well. Then I felt less conspicuous.

Breakfast, however, was not indicative of the remainder of the meals I would be served in the United Kingdom. The rest were filling, but bland. Even the Oxford students, the ones who had traveled to the U.S., admitted that Americans make better fish and chips than the British. One student said, “Once you’ve been to Captain D’s, its hard to come back here.”

Next time: More from Oxford.
Dr. B. Keith Murphy is the Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fort Valley State University.

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