My college has around 1,000 students. Some live off campus, others on campus. I am fortunate enough to live on campus. I live on Staircase 12 (out of 16 staircases) in a double I share with my roommate, who is another visiting student from from Hong Kong. He is a talented, intellectual, and an aspiring future lawyer.
My room is a “home away from home.” As such, it is a personal space whose order and design is a reflection of my personality. I took the time to ‘decorate’ the room with lamps on the tabletops, throw pillows on the couches, and old books on the walls – nothing too expensive or ambitious, but just enough to make the space comfortable. Given the short duration of my stay, I would not want to invest too much in the décor.
My room and its desk are a comfortable place to study – particularly with cup of tea in hand. The view outside my window looks toward the River Cherwell; ducks, geese, and various birds fly by throughout the day. For the manicured lawns of an Oxford college, Catz is vibrant with wildlife. The sounds behind me vary from the muffled sounds of slamming room doors to the louder sounds of drunken peers returning from Friday night parties. My room feels tranquil, generally, and a pleasant place to relax after a day’s work in the Bodleian Library.
Oxford is on the trimester system. There are three trimesters of eight weeks each, with a five week break between each trimester. This year, winter break lasted from late December to mid-January.
I chose to spend my winter break traveling in Europe – with a few days each in Zurich, Milan, Venice, Florence, and Siena. Each city has its unique and distinct personality. Traveling alone is an opportunity to explore the differences between these cities, and to examine their art and architecture. I prefer to see travel as a natural extension of my art history studies – an opportunity to explore during my travels the art I can only read about in class.
I had a week free between the end of term and the date of my departure for Europe. College emptied out of students, and the campus gradually slipped into the quiet of winter break mode. For a few of these days, various high school age applicants arrived for the infamous Oxford Interviews – to be questioned by faculty and accepted or rejected by the University. During these days, the ambience of the dining hall was filled with a visible tension of stressed students worrying about interviews to come or doubting their performance on interviews passed. I was surprised to think that a mere two years ago I, too, was in their place whilst applying to Columbia.
A lot can change in two years as one grows older and (hopefully) more mature.
Above is a video of the dining hall. In typical Oxford luxury, there is a large Christmas tree in our dining hall, festooned with blinking lights, blanketed with colourful decorations, and crowned with a star. For a small college, it is a large tree – surprisingly large considering that by the time it is erected most students will have already left for winter break. But, then and again, Oxford has no shortage of funding for such fancies.
The table in foreground is set with white porcelain and silverware for the faculty meal. Every weekday evening students are served a three-course meal by waiters in black vests; most weekday lunches, faculty are served. The meal is typically followed by tea per English tradition. Such social events are not directly related to academic work or student studies – but they are an important opportunity to meet fellow members of one’s college and make new friends.
The Sheldonian Theatre is a historic amphitheatre in the centre of Oxford – erected in the style of a Roman temple around 1667 (by my favourite architect, Christopher Wren). Most of the formal and most important university events are conducted in the Sheldonian – including the matriculation and graduation ceremonies conducted in Latin that mark the beginning and end of one’s Oxford career. The most prestigious event in the Sheldonian might be the Encaenia held yearly to confer honorary degrees.
I attended Christmas Carols at the Sheldonian – an event held yearly by Oxford’s Christian Union. Accompanied by the university’s brass band, students sing Christmas carols and religious songs. Malala Yousafzai was in attendance this year, sitting near the top row and quietly joining along in the caroling.
My travels alone brought me to Zurich first – from which I travelled by the Bernina Express to Italy. Over the Alps and through the snow, the train wound itself up and spun around and through the steep mountain passes. Finally, as the train descended, we arrived in Italy. The climate gradually morphed from snow and pine trees to the wet rain and occasional palm tree of Northern Italy.
Below is a picture of me on top of the Duomo in Florence. I ascended in the afternoon and spent three hours surveying the city from the cathedral’s God-like perspective. All Florence was spread below me, with the thousands of Renaissance rooftops and ant-sized people forming a living and urban landscape. I watched as the sun set over the horizon and the nearby mountains of Tuscany. The street lights of the city flickered to life as the sun descended, and the city was illuminated anew.
And, finally, after two weeks travel and a slog-of-a-plane-ride, I arrived home to my room in Oxford. The campus was, by now, deathly quiet and entirely dark – save the glimmer of light emanating from the room I share with my roommate Edward. As always, he was studying hard during winter break – typical of Oxford students and scholars.
And, here I am, doing some studying of my own in the uplifting library of the Radcliffe Camera. Originally built in the 17th century as the science library, it is now the history library – and as such a fittingly beautiful place to study the great men* of world history.
* History and the arts are historically male-dominated. And so my phrase ‘great men’ is sadly a statement of fact, and not an attempt to be in any way chauvinist.
Catz Night is the one-night each year that the college hosts a fancy meal followed by a party and drinks in our Junior Common Room (think ‘student lounge’). Fancy meals are hosted elsewhere during the year, and there are no shortage of black tie events. But, Catz Night is our night and is the one fancy ball unique to Catz.
The event is heavily sponsored by the University – tickets cost only £14 entry. We are served by waiters in black tie a three course meal with red and white wine. This year, the first course consisted of fish and a light salad, followed by chicken, vegetables, and polenta for the main course, and chocolate pudding for desert.
Remarkably, the hardworking dining hall staff at Catz are able to pull off this feat of Herculean proportions. Each of the 600 attendees is served 3 meals on 7 pieces of porcelain per person, with 7 eating utensils per person, and 3 glasses. We are given a new plate for each course, with a new set of fork and knife, and a new glass for each sample of wine. In total, this makes for 1,800 separate meals, 3,600 plates to wash, 4,200 silverware to polish, and 1,800 wine glasses. For weeks before hand, I could catch glimpses of the waitstaff preparing for this meal – polishing cups with cloth and hot water, stacking and dusting dishes, and various other menially repetitive tasks.
After our three course meal, we proceeded to the lounge area where the festivities continued. More drinks. More live music- this time on the ‘dance floor’ with a DJ. More decorations and colorful paper bunting around the room to set the ambience. The dancing and partying continued towards midnight and into the early hours of the morning.
In reflection, it is a privilege to join such a party and to be surrounded by peers one has grown to love over the academically intense course of an Oxford term. I don’t think many schools, other than those in the canon of Oxford or Columbia, could afford so fancy and meticulously planned a party. But, such is Oxford… an academic culture and a lifestyle. It is possible to attend Oxford and avoid participation in its lifestyle of high-class dress balls (simply by not attending). But, it is not possible to attend Oxford and avoid participation in its culture of hard work, intense readings, and a deep love of learning.