“Alkdnasdlkfnadsl.” This delightful collection of letters characterizes almost every message I have written home thus far, and also the truly great and terrible beauty of studying abroad at Oxford. I will warn readers that this blog may be somewhat hard to follow, as the writer is still dealing with the constant screams of Oxford students in the aftermath of the JK Rowling interview, most of which sound something like the word I used above; this holds particularly true for whoever lives below me, who expresses the depressed feelings of an incorrectly completed Ron-Harry-Hermione love triangle through morbid piano at 8:00 a.m.
While it may seem like an odd decision, (particularly to people who have observed what I consider high fashion these days: flannel, jeans, and more flannel) I am going to spend some time breaking down the fashion at Oxford. My week has, for a reason understood only by a higher power and Anna Wintour, revolved around navigating the art of dress codes, so I thought I might clue curious minds in to this hidden, but apparently very important, aspect of abroad living. Before I begin I will remind readers of two things: I do not enjoy shopping or spending any substantial amount of money shopping, which means that everything I advise you to do can be done on a budget that would make even Ron Weasley’s mum happy; and secondly, while many of these anecdotes at first glance may appear to be Oxford-specific, in reality many can be broadened to include abroad experiences in various nations, so feel free to cite me when someone asks you for the name of your fashion icon.
This week Lady Margaret Hall received the honor of hosting the Princess Royal at our college, meaning that for one night every single Englishman transformed from a royalty-ignoring student to one filled with stars in their eyes and dreams of courtly living. With approximately two weeks notice that a member of the royal family was to dine with us, students took to Skype to request rush deliveries of dresses and tuxes from back home. This is where being a student studying abroad requires extreme foresight: with an ocean between you an your closet, the time window proves small and the cost is high when it comes to shipping things to your new university.
Lucky for me, my parents had the wisdom to insist I pack a few dresses that could be defined as “nice enough to be worn in the same room as royalty.” I am not advocating that everyone going abroad should rush out to invest in the latest in haute-couture; instead, find a formal outfit that you have worn in the past that looks nice on you, that you feel comfortable in, and that you don’t mind slightly dribbling white wine on (it will happen; experience has shown me that either you or one of the people at your table will try to be classy and say a toast, only to spill wine everywhere). Personally, following the lead of one of my icons, Dutchess Catherine, I recycled my junior prom dress and no one was the wiser. So long as you look smashing and are prepared for and unafraid of the principal of your college looking you up and down and addressing you by name in whatever you have chosen, go for it.
Lesson from me to you: Pack at least one formal outfit that is uniquely you. Even if you don’t wear it to anything particularly fancy, you will avoid any need of having to buy something nice while abroad if an unexpected formal event occurs. What’s more, it may even be more fun than sitting in a Hogwarts-looking room filled with people reciting Latin prayers and seven pieces of cutlery, if no formal event transpires, just have your friends all get dressed up and go out on the town in your nicest kits! Be a royal for the night!
Speaking of dressing up with friends, I must confess that two nights ago I broke one of my cardinal rules: never dress in costume. I will freely admit, I never liked Halloween and actively avoid any mall Santa/elf/Easter bunny. Ever since I was a small child, the appeal of people dressing as someone else never made sense. But, this week the hall where I lived heard about a college-wide Disney-themed club night and decided to dress up. In the spirit of joining in, something I advise all people studying abroad to do, I decided to go as Alice, complete with the puffy skirt and the goofy bow. To my surprise and total enjoyment, I was legitimately the person who most closely resembled normalcy.
While most people get the impression that the English are reserved and proper, I can proudly say that this is not necessarily true at the great institution that is Oxford. Here at LHM, (apparently) we commit to getting dressed up and having a good time. Among the characters in my gang of friends were: a Buzz Lightyear (complete with a helmet and wings); a face-painted green alien toy from Toy Story; Scar from The Lion King (an outfit that used layers of dried coffee stains to dye his hair and gloves); the genie from Aladdin; Ariel sans the red-hair; and what can only be loosely described as Pongo from 101 Dalmatians (as some face paint and a black and white spotted cardigan from Delias that I bought 8 years ago hardly makes a 20 year old man look much like a puppy. As such a cast of characters, and hopeful for a prize, we embarrassed ourselves in a cab and then waiting in line, only to discover they had moved the date, and thus we were 8 people in a regular club dressed like children. The rest of the night only got more entertaining, which I can tell the world involved me watching Buzz and Scar dance to Flo Rida’s “Low.”
Lesson from me to you: Bring something that could be transformed into part of a fun costume, be it Disney or decade themed. More importantly, dress up with everyone else, even if the sight of people in costume makes you want to literally become Peter Pan and fly off to Neverland. Give it a go and have a laugh because you never know what sights you may see!
Another critical note on the dress code when you are studying abroad: the act of studying also requires somewhat fancier attire than at Vassar. While I found, through personal experience and observation from my special desk at the library, that at Vassar, students feel very little inhibition about rolling into the library wearing spandex, a ripped Van-Halen that makes people think they are cool enough to listen to classic rock, and half a face full of leftover glitter from who-knows which party they attended last night, at Oxford, that outfit does not fly. I am not arguing that people will actively bar you from the Bodleian or attempt to cover you with their spare jumper (read cardigan). Rather, you will get stares the likes of which Maggie Smith would be moderately impressed with.
While this may seem restrictive and old-fashioned, there is a critical benefit to wearing a nice pair of jeans and a respectable long-sleeve shirt while studying: warmth. As I think most JYA students who are living in a temperate to cold climate would agree, the libraries here are cold. Not the Vassar kind of chilly where you can pop down to get a warm drink from the Bean or discover that super secret and very hot room (I am not telling you where it is because I don’t want to return to Vassar as a senior only to find that my secret hide-out has been taken over by wide-eyed freshman and sophomores complaining about their workload), I mean it is actually cold. Many of the libraries in these institutions are hundreds of years old and pre-date the heating system. You know that your university will not be properly equipped for students in the winter when you see small radiators or space heater tucked in the least convenient places or when your tour-guide informs you that certain books are so old their bindings are attached to the wall by a chain forged before America was even a country. (both of which have happened to me) After weeks of trial and error I have found a formal that I find works across the wide range of libraries here at Oxford. Out of a desire for all future JYA students to survive studying without being forced to lose digits to frostbite, I will share this formula with you.
Lesson from me to you: For every portrait of a war hero, bust of a benefactor, or golden inscription written in Latin, observed within 15 seconds of entering the room add one piece of clothing to your outfit. If the number exceeds 6, decide that no amount of your tutor judging you is worth freezing in the book-laden tundra that is the library.
Other mini-anecdotes that will make you love Britain:
-Assume that you are always too young to purchase items. Just when I thought I figured out the rules about purchasing-ages (no knives until you are 18 and have ID) I got blindsided with the knowledge that you cannot buy more than 30 Advil at a time. I tried to buy Advil from Tesco in an attempt to curb the Norse apocalypse that was supposed to happen, only to be forcibly told that the purchase of more than 32 tablets of pain medication was not to be. Maybe it was the desperation in my eyes, or maybe it was the fact that I looked like I hadn’t slept in days (because I actually hadn’t) but for whatever reason the cashier assumed that 3 small packets of pain medication was more than I deserved and had the manager confiscate the rest of my small stash.
-Curling is the best winter Olympic sport, and maybe even the best sport ever. No further discussion is necessary because I will brook no dissent.
-Invest in a bicycle. As a person with a supreme dislike for bikes and who only road them on the roads of Wales in the summers, I never thought I would give this advice to anyone. But after six weeks of grocery shopping at the nearest location, a mere 20 minutes of walking away from the dorms, I will declare to all listening that a bike will save you looking like you have been on Splash Mountain with all your clothes on. It will also save you literally crying over the spilled milk that may coat someone’s driveway thanks to a broken shopping bag.
-When your tutor says you have one week to read 33 texts and describe the importance of imperialism to twentieth century British history, do NOT laugh. It isn’t a joke. It may feel like a joke, but what will happen is he will look at you as though you have done something highly inappropriate and you will wish the earth had swallowed you whole already.