Yesterday, I joked with Simon, Katy, Howard and Sara in our first Hum 3 class here that "only the dead know Oxford." I was hoping that they might have read the story by Thomas Wolfe whose title I was ripping off.* It fell flat, as my jokes will, but it seemed a propos since we were reading the Apology and Crito by Plato, and in our conversation it became clearer to me that (in Plato's way of looking at it at least) the dead know more than the living, or at least see things more clearly. So I thought of Wolfe, whose story begins:
"Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo, because it’d take a guy a lifetime just to find his way aroun’ duh goddam town."
Thus: "Ere's no man livin' wot nowz Awksfd end to wend, for id'take a bloke a lifetime jus to find 'is way around the bleedin' town."
In Wolfe's story, some nameless lug pulls out a map on a subway platform asking for directions. This starts an argument about how to get to "Eighteent’ Avenoo an’ Sixty-sevent’ Street."
Here in Oxford, the same kinds of arguments get started as to the nature of the University and its relationship to the city it occupies (I choose my words here advisedly). Just for starters, there's a long-running (centuries, that is) rivalry between three colleges - Merton, University and Balliol - as to which is the oldest. And then there's the fact that the University itself (i.e. as opposed to University College - you begin to see what I mean) was here even before any of the Colleges. And even people formally attached in whatever way to the University and (38 and counting) Colleges are pretty hard put to describe how the place works. I occasionally quiz people here on it, and like the crowd on the platform in Wolfe's tale, they all have strong opinions and reasons to back them up, but none are quite alike.
Of course, we are all now well-provisioned with maps of the city; a major activity here is dodging all the little knots of people that move randomly around the place while gazing at a piece of paper to know where they are or want to go. (as Wolfe's Brooklynite puts it: "an’ so help me, but he’s got it - he’s tellin’ duh troot - a big map of duh whole goddam place with all duh different pahts mahked out.")
And we've already had a tour (from the best Blue Badge guide in town I am told; there we are below, everybody one day off the plane). And I and Heath (Oxford '08-'09, who visited for a few days before heading to Edinburgh to start a master's program) have been doing our best to give hints about life in Oxford, where to go and how to get there.
But we're getting our footings, and beginning to leave our maps behind. In fact, Sara announced to me yesterday that she'd already managed to get lost for a while this past weekend; a triumph. I am hoping that we all get lost a few times before we finally find our way back to Chicago.
So, we'll check in now and then just to let you know we haven't fallen off the deep end. But if you wonder where we are, just know that we might not know ourselves. No worries.
*"Only the Dead Know Brooklyn."