An American in Oxford

“Look right!”
I can’t recount the number of times – in just the week I’ve spent in England – that I’ve moved to cross the street, tossing a glance over my left shoulder, only to be nearly crushed by traffic coming from the right. Some American stereotypes are truer (and more dangerous) than others, but I must admit that I’m certainly not exempt from this habit. Besides walking carelessly into the street, we’re known for our lack of basic geographical knowledge, loudness, and repeated mentions of Harry Potter.

In defiance of the particular American stereotype of obsession with Harry Potter-land, my real favourite piece of Oxford media is not Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the acclaimed Babel, or even the Inspector Morse detective show. As a coursemate at Oriel will testify, it is Rob Lowe’s 1984 “Oxford Blues”’ Trashed by critics and viewers alike, full of half-baked plotlines and insensitive stereotypes, it is a hilarious piece of cinema wherein the American main character, Nick, cons his way into Oriel College in pursuit of the alluring Lady Victoria, a British woman attending Oxford. Throughout the course of the film, he blunders his way through Oxford in a way that inspires second hand embarrassment as well as laughter. Interestingly, another main character is a fellow American girl that he meets on his first day in Oxford.

On my first night in Oxford, I attended a charming dinner with the fellow international students at my college, including two other Americans. Two of us struck up a conversation and became fast friends throughout freshers week – we’d like to think not just by virtue of our shared nationality. However, the situation couldn’t help but bring to mind a scene from Oxford Blues, where Nick is talking with the other American at Oriel, and says rudely that “I did not travel ten thousand miles to spend my first morning in England talking to some wise-ass girl from Weehawken, New Jersey.”

I myself am from a good four miles from Weehawken so it can’t entirely apply, but otherwise, that quote struck at the heart of my quick friendship with my American. Whether we came here to escape America or not, for better or worse, we Americans simply cannot seem to be rid of each other.

Infamously, geography is also a sore subject. Although to be at Oxford, it is implied that one must be reasonably intelligent, the age-old idea that Americans couldn’t point to their own country on a world map still seems to apply. Though it’s never done with even a hint of derision, I have been asked if I have heard of fairly major cities in the UK and elsewhere in Europe as though they’re tiny towns in the middle of nowhere. Truly, the saddest part is that I wish I could argue against the stereotype, but I have experienced American geographical ineptitude firsthand so many times that I have accepted that this is a cross I must bear.

Speech is slightly different too, and I’ve found myself guilty of a few “American moments” of failing to comprehend basic expressions. On the first day of freshers week, after responding to polite ‘where are you from?’s, I was casually asked how I found the state I had lived in. I pondered for a moment before answering that Florida is quite southern, and on a map it’s the peninsula that sticks out of the bottom right-hand side of the United States. My new friends had been asking about my experience living in Florida, not how to place it on an atlas.

In Oxford, one might accidentally step on the spot Cranmer was martyred on the way to pick up a coffee, or in my college’s case, on gravestones between the quads.

Though I was warned of culture shock in advance of arriving in England, I can’t say there has been a great deal I have found shockingly different. There are some notable exceptions, though. On Monday of freshers week, my college put on a pub crawl where we walked around the city visiting various establishments. In the White Horse, I had my first experience of someone proclaiming in a truly heartfelt manner that monarchy was indubitably superior to democracy, which I found astounding to the point of hilarity. As a proper Yankee myself, I gleefully tapped the monarchist on the shoulder and asked, in my most exaggerated American accent, “Who won the war?”

One leg of the pub crawl ran along Broad Street, past the stone cross in the pavement marking the spot where Thomas Cranmer was famously martyred. It was there that our monarchist stopped the whole group of tipsy freshers and gave a short speech honouring the martyrs and their ascent to heaven. I wasn’t the only person who continued to our next stop bewildered.

Thankfully, I have met wonderful and welcoming people in this first week in the UK who have taken care to introduce me to such quintessentially British experiences as Tesco and Wetherspoons. I am well on the way to being properly British since I have managed to register for a Tesco Clubcard (although my phone refuses to believe I live in the UK, and I cannot download the app) and been to a pub at least three separate times. Spoons is definitely an experience, and it was in fact thanks to a Spoons TV that I first learned that the US Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, had been deposed.

Though the stereotype of the silly American will never really miss the mark, I feel that being from the US has made me especially aware of the enchanting and sublime in Oxford, and for that I am grateful. The United States is an incredibly large and diverse place, and it depends very much on one’s region of origin, but often Americans come from a place where history is bulldozed to make way for four-lane roads and Walmarts. I am originally from the Northeast of the US, where the past and present coincide much more than other places, but for the past six years I lived in Florida, and though Florida does actually have the oldest extant European settlement in the country, St. Augustine, the state is often characterised by a soulless suburban sprawl.

Oxford is likely the farthest possible thing I can imagine to a Florida suburb. If you walk an hour in almost any direction from the city centre here you’ll end up outside of the city, but the walk is a bustling small city with shops, cafes, colleges, and museums stacked up against one another. In Florida, you may walk hours and hours along the same harsh, busy road, and end up nowhere at all. Florida has a rich and enthralling history, but it is shamefully obscure. In Oxford, one might accidentally step on the spot Cranmer was martyred on the way to pick up a coffee, or in my college’s case, on gravestones between the quads.

It is here and nowhere else that I have read Walt Whitman in the gardens while the sun shone through the leaves. It is here that I have seen the stars framed by four ancient walls after midnight. It is this place, so distant from my life five thousand miles away, that ignites my morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

This past Thursday, my college hosted a lovely dinner with the tutors to welcome the bright-eyed freshers in advance of term. Our president gave a beautiful speech in which she called upon the 468 year history of our college. I couldn’t help but think that my entire country is only a little over half that age. We are barely a flicker in the jaded eyes of this university. As my other American said, here, you must be aware of death.

Image credit: Laurie Byrne via Unsplash

Image description: The Hertford College bridge