Published on the AIM Overseas Blog Website: Week 3 – An Adventure to Remember
I am typing from within a train on its three-hour trek from Stockholm to Linköping, Sweden. The English Literature Summer School Program at Exeter finished yesterday, and before heading home I decided to pop on over to Sweden to visit friends. One of the great things about the UK and Europe is the close proximity of all its countries; I would’ve been a fool to not take advantage of that. A plane ride from Heathrow to Stockholm took merely two and a half hours; I wouldn’t even be able to fly across Australia in that time. I stare out the train window at the rain that falls thick and heavy onto the glass, tiny droplets racing each other downwards to the bottom of the window. Like a typical English summer, Sweden gets a lot of rain in its warmer months, and this rain and grey sky reminds me of yesterday, of my last day in Oxford and Exeter College.
And though I left only early this morning, I am already feeling nostalgic about the place. It almost feels like it wasn’t real, but a fantasy, which I suppose it kind of was. Like Exeter, hidden from the outside streets and contained within the tall medieval stone walls, these past three weeks have felt like a whole separate world to that I inhabit regularly. And though I will miss not studying in the Bodleian and not walking down streets that inspired parts of Rowling’s Harry Potter and Lewis’ Narnia, I am excited to go home to reality. I have just had one of the most incredible experiences.
The knowledge I’ve gained from lectures and classes, the cultural and historical discoveries I’ve stumbled across, and of course the friendships I have made have enriched my life these past three weeks and I’m sure they will continue to do so long after I have arrived home. All travel is capable of changing you and your perspective of the world, but studying overseas, no matter how long for, gives you a deeper experience. It is probably the closest thing to actually permanently moving to a new country – you participate in normal, everyday activities that expose you to cultural norms and differences. And even the simplest things such as laundry and grocery shopping make you feel like a local. Add on top of that the academic aspect and what could have been simply a holiday becomes so much more rewarding and valuable.
The organisation and depth of learning offered by this summer school program has been incredible. Over the course we listened to fifteen compulsory lectures, as well as optional lectures teaching us about the history of the university, the city and of England itself. Each lecture focused on different parts of the literature world, a brief but in-depth introduction to theories and writers, movements and texts. I learned about the playhouses of the Shakespearean age, metaphysical poetry, the women writers of the Eighteenth-Century and experimental Modernist literature. Intense though it may have been to be introduced to an entire genre of English Literature in just an hour-and-a-half, I was left at the end of each lecture with a sparked interest in discovering more about writing.
For the first half of our last week, stress is at an all time high. It’s crunch time. From the early hours of the morning til the sun has dipped low beneath the jagged city spires, all the students work hard on reaching word counts and editing paragraphs. The free coffee machine in the college’s Undercroft Bar must be refilled an increasing amount of times a day, and those Bodleian Library cards we’re all so proud to show off are swiped at the front gate so often they begin to fade. By the time Tuesday night comes around, my friends and I have all finished our papers. Any student knows the feeling of pure relief at the moment an assignment is sent off to the professor, and this strange sense of freedom and ridiculous amount of free time had us all sitting in the bar confused and a little lost: what we could possibly do with ourselves now that all our study was complete?
Party, maybe? Tuesday night was the real beginning of our last week in Oxford, and we weren’t going to waste any of our dwindling time in England, both during the day and night. On Tuesday night a group of us made the trek down to the Eagle and Child (Tolkien and Lewis’ local hangout) for a classic British pub quiz night. It is a hugely popular night out for locals and tourists alike, and though our team’s enthusiasm, voice volume and determination to win were high, our knowledge of trivia questions was on the lower side. But coming last out of a dozen other teams never dampened our spirits, and with our glasses a little lighter and laughs a bit louder, we all headed out to bars and clubs to dance the night away.
Sleep was at an all time low during the last week of the program, partly from studying and partly from staying out late. We visited The Varsity Club, a trendy and sophisticated four-floor coffee and cocktail lounge with a rooftop bar overlooking the whole of the city. Sitting up atop the roof with custom cocktails in jam-jars watching the sunset transform Oxford’s skyline from light lavender to deep orange was wonderfully relaxing. And on nights when we possessed a bit more energy, clubs like Plush, Purple Turtle and Wahoo kept us dancing to the almost too-loud music and sipping on cheap drinks. By the time the clubs shut, walking out into the cool, sharp English nighttime air was refreshingly cool on our necks and faces. Prevalent throughout the city of Oxford are food trucks, open only during the late hours of the night, which students flock to for midnight snacks. From pizzas and hamburgers to the ever-popular Oxford famous ‘chips and cheese’, any late-night hunger can be satisfied for cheap. I don’t know whether to be proud or not of the fact the food truck owner knew our names by the end of the program, but hey, that ‘chips and cheese’ was pretty good.
Thursday was our last sunny day in England. After a bit of last minute souvenir and gift shopping, Victoria, Megan and I climbed the church tower at the University Church of St Mary. One of the tallest points to view the city from, the narrow balconies circling the tower just above the church clock offer breathtaking views of the historical centre of Oxford. And when I say narrow, I mean narrow. After hiking the steep stone spiral staircase, whose thick, cold walls you brush your hands along as you climb the enclosing steps, the tower opens up to balconies on each side, giving a 360 degree view of the North, South, East and West sides of Oxford. There is room for only one person to stand or walk along each balcony at once. Climbing up the tower on such a beautiful, sunny day is a must to witness the historical beauty of Oxford’s architecture, and this was the perfect way of getting a last look at this city we had learned in, explored, and come to love.
This year is the 600th anniversary of the bloody yet legendary Battle of Agincourt. On October 25, 1415, Saint Crispin’s Day, Agincourt was won by King Henry V against the French, and is remembered today notably for the remarkable difference in casualties on both sides. While the French lost almost 6,000 men during the battle, English deaths amounted to just 400; for this it was eternalised as one of the most fascinating yet controversial military victories in English history. A voluntary lecture of the battle was held during the last week of the program in the beautiful Exeter College Chapel. Oxford played a major role in the Battle of Agincourt, and Henry V’s youngest brother Humphrey, a connoisseur of literature, donated his collection of 281 manuscripts to the Bodleian upon his death in 1447, creating the inspiring Duke Humfrey’s library. Shakespeare’s timeless words echoed throughout the high ceilings and caverns of the medieval chapel throughout the lecture, his battle speeches from Henry V continuing to inspire and send shivers up the spines of those nestled in the dark wooden pews. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…”
It rained all day Friday, our last day of lectures and meals in the hall, our last day as Oxford students. The rain fell continuously, cold and heavy, as if the city itself was weeping over our sad departure. After our last lecture, we received our completion certificates, then spent the rest of the day finishing last minute packing and looking longingly out closed windows for even the shortest period of dry sunshine. The formal closing reception drinks were held in the Rector’s Lodgings rather than the Fellow’s Garden because of the relentless rain, but spirits were high nonetheless as we began to celebrate our time at Exeter with one another. Unlike the opening night, everyone knew everyone on that last night, and we all acted and felt as though we had known each other much longer than three weeks. The Fellows at the head table in the hall began the dinner with a short speech in Latin, after which Sandie Byrne and Tom Buchanan, the heads of the English Literature and History, Politics and Society programs gave their speeches and thanked the tutors, lecturers, wait staff, room scouts and everyone else who helped to make this experience amazingly unforgettable.
After dinner, everyone gathered in the crowded, underground bar that had acted as late-night study refuge, coffee refill station, beer-tasting venue and karaoke stage over the last three weeks. No one wanted to go to bed that night, for going to bed meant waking up to the end of this journey, to the long trip homeward; staying up meant ensuring we still had a few hours of this fantasy world left to us. Victoria, Conor and I talked well into the night of our favourite times at Exeter and the adventures we would embark on together in the future. And at 8:30 the next morning, the rain all dried up and the sky a mocking, tempting blue, we all piled our suitcases into the back of a taxi and drove off to Heathrow Airport, turning in the backseat to take one last long look at this wonderful temporary home of ours.
And now, sitting in this Swedish train on the way to Linköping, I know the grey rain isn’t the only thing that has followed me from England. While the facts I scribbled down during those fifteen lectures may one day vanish from my mind, and while I will not remember every detail of every day, I will remember what is important. Everyone swears that studying overseas study enriches your life immeasurably, and what stays with me from this trip – the friendships, the history, and the personal discovery – will continue to shape my future, whatever and wherever that leads me. Though it might be a long time before I can return to Oxford, if I ever return at all, it will always be a part of my home. And it’s not the end of a journey, but the beginning of a new one. It was while marking exam papers at Oxford that Tolkien began the creation of his magical literary world, with a few penned scribbles on the back of an exam paper: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” And there the adventure begins.