You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. There’s one of those sentimental platitudes that has been beaten, battered and mangled into more than its fair share of love songs, memoirs and all other media of trite nostalgia, and any world-weary hark back to glory days of yore will before long be assaulted by this all-purpose statesman among commonplace clichés, like a lengthy internet debate marching onwards to its statistically unavoidable Hitlerian analogy. Loathe as I am to bandy about clichés willy-nilly, through gritted teeth I admit that this one is tragically true. Why, you may ask yourself at this juncture, is a depressed septuagenarian writing to the OxStu in throes of gut-wrenching longing for his alma mater? In fact, I’m only twenty – and I haven’t even left yet. Well, not properly. I’ve just swapped dreaming spires and intellectual insecurity for la vie française and an position of undeserved authority in a school, lording it, when I please, over sulky fag-toting adolescents barely younger than me. To the Oxford undergrad, life inside the oft-invoked bubble, as manic and relentless as it is, is the only university experience we have. The exceptional becomes mundane through the absence of comparison, and the reality of life at a ‘normal’ university without sub fusc, scouts and sconces becomes as alien as the idea of being left injured by the side of the road for want of private health insurance. Both the NHS and Oxford are two essential threads in the fabric of my life in England, which predictably unravelled in spectacular fashion during the first few weeks of jarringly full-on, full-frontal Culture Shock. You often need your privileges taken away before you can start to appreciate them, as I realised after a few days at the jarring ching of the cash register in the GP’s surgery (any visit to the doctor in France costs €23, whether you need antibiotics or an amputation). To have certainties like those pulled away from you is unnerving. I sought solace in my city’s university, an attempt to imitate some form of my routine back home. You often see the eyes of tourists in Oxford glazing over in confusion when nobody can tell them ‘where the University is’; perhaps they’d be happier coming to Le Mans, where the university is a unitary thing, and is thoughtfully located an hour-long trudge away from anything else of cultural interest or practical use in the city. You may decide to undertake this academic pilgrimage by tram instead of foot; upon arrival, you will soon be awestruck by the sublime vision of the architects who decided to build their campus inside a sprawling district of factories, smokestacks belching out noxious fumes to stimulate the minds of the future in their quest for success. Ah, the invigorating scent of academia tickling both your imagination and your bronchial cilia. Of course, the minds of the future are nowhere to be seen, too scared of breathing the air to actually venture beyond the haven of the pebbledash library, which stands proudly beside the unmarked, rusting warehouse, where angry-looking men gather to discuss (unquestionably legitimate) business deals. There are miles of green space for you to enjoy (although opportunities to relax with friends there will be limited, because it’s only the narrow astroturf underlay for the tramline.) On my first visit, I was directed three times to the bewildered receptionist of what could well have been a university building, but was actually a pharmaceuticals plant. I honestly wasn’t after any drugs, just a German lesson. Who made this so difficult?!
I’m being harsh, but in no way do I say any of this because I take the privilege of my university at home for granted. Oxford was never demanded of me and so I never presumed I should belong there. But now that it has become home, and I’ve been made to leave it, my eyes have been opened, in gaping amazement, at the splendour, both aesthetic and academic, of that establishment. People come from far-off places and burden themselves with debts more obscene than our native ones for the chance to study there because it is more than just a brand name. (At least, you hope that’s why they do it.) The universities of England are some of our proudest national treasures, and the whole experience reminds me that we are a nation of people, if not politicians, who consider the integrity of the academic system to be paramount. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting they don’t in France, but it says something that the entrance to the École Normale Superieure in Paris, the near-equivalent of Oxbridge in the French system, is covered in years’ worth of faded, lurid graffiti – bring with it the unease of disrepair and dilapidation that is nowhere to be found between our turreted termtime homes and carefully manicured Fellows’ gardens. When it starts feeling like home, you can lose sight of the magic of our university. The best thing my year abroad has done is to force me to step back from what is ‘normal’ in England. I now know to savour every second of that rarefied air when I return.
PHOTO/fklv Obsolete Hipster