GW Expat: Creeping insomnia and searching for culture shock in Oxford

Junior Jeffrey Parker, a history major from Winston-Salem, N.C., is spending the spring semester in Oxford, England, after also spending the fall term there. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from England as one of GW’s many expats. God save the Queen.

When my editor asked me to take over the GW Expat column, I was a bit hesitant. “Sure,” I said, “but I mostly just read and write all day. I doubt that will really interest many readers.” Also, considering that my own family complains about my inability to complete the most cursory of correspondence while away, I wondered how I’d do with The Hatchet. Then again, deadlines make things a little different. Fear is a powerful motivator, as I’ve learned here in Oxford, England.

As I write this, I’m trying to avoid looking at the clock in the corner of my computer screen out of sheer horror at the lack of sleep I’ll be getting tonight. Come Tuesday, I’ll attend my first tutorial of the term, and I am very, very afraid.

Despite the fact that I’m up at this ungodly hour writing about Virginia Woolf and the impossibility of truly knowing anything, this tutorial system is what makes Oxford unique, and is one of the reasons I chose to study abroad.

I don’t have to go to class. That’s right, I have zero required lectures. Now, before you jump on the next flight to Heathrow, understand that I still attend lectures; they just aren’t required. In any event, they really only supplement the tutorials, which are comprised of a tutor, i.e. a professor and you (and perhaps one or two other students) in a room, just talking about books.

Really, that’s it. You get a reading list approximately as long as the 9/11 report, write an essay on the books for that week, and talk to your tutor about it. Sometimes you read your essay out loud, which is what I will be doing on Tuesday, which brings us back to my desk in the early hours of the morning being very, very afraid.

At least it’s quiet – the concept of the all-nighter is apparently foreign to British students. They all get their work done during the day, so they can go out at night, every night. Most Oxford students walk a self-imposed razor’s edge between or monastery and bacchanalia, reading and writing for hours on end so they can go out to clubs that play terrible American music (I’m pretty sure that’ll get its own column) or the pubs. And about the pubs: my current favorites are the Turf (because it’s the notorious locale where Bill Clinton “didn’t inhale”) and the Goose (because the drinks are dirt-cheap, which more than makes up for its Starbucks-esque atmosphere). Of course, that doesn’t count Len’s and St. Aldate’s, which are the two pubs associated with my Oxford college, Pembroke. Most of the other colleges here have at least one pub they call their own. There are 39 different colleges at Oxford. Add all the non-college pubs, and you can tell that the British take their revelry seriously. That said, it’s all pretty low-key, and people go to these places to talk over a pint with friends, not to get trashed, which is probably a function of the fact that everyone starts drinking young here, so there’s no taboo associated with it that encourages obnoxious excess.

But I’m not at a pub right now. I’m trying desperately to finish this paper so I can go to sleep. After my sleep schedule got screwed up beyond recognition last term, I promised myself it wouldn’t happen again. I’m not exactly off to a stellar start. I think one of my favorite moments comes when I’m talking online to someone while in the midst of one of these sessions, and the other person suddenly realizes there’s a time-zone difference. Talking to my brother once last term, I recall him saying, “Well, it’s midnight, I’m going to bed,” followed quickly by, “Wait, it’s 5 a.m. over there, what are you doing up?” Ah, the joys of British literature.

I remember once, as the sun broke over the skyline and I typed my last paragraph, Conor Oberst screamed the lines “Oh and morning’s at my window – She is sending me to bed again” from my speakers. Damn you, iTunes shuffle. Who knew my computer had developed a cruel sense of humor?

So yeah, working, sleeping, the occasional pint – sound familiar? This brings me to the other reason I was hesitant to take over this column, which went unmentioned to my editor. I wondered whether or not there was all that much difference between America and England. I have friends going off to much more exotic places this semester: France, Ecuador, Egypt. Even Ireland has its own (dead) language.

Oxford is clearly very different from almost any place in the world, but this is less a function of the country than the academic climate. I have to ask myself what makes this year different for me beyond a greatly expanded intellectual atmosphere, a general lack of sleep and a growing distaste for Charles Dickens. I mean, sure, there’s different minutiae in England, but I don’t want to spend a semester spouting off trite columns about how it’s funny that the Brits say “lift” instead of “elevator” and “chips” instead of “fries.”

Oh, the hilarity. They drive on the wrong side of the road, har, har, har. I love it here, but I don’t want to fake it. Nevertheless, when one of my friends brought up this point, I (perhaps defensively) maintained that there are real differences between Foggy Bottom and Oxford, and I sincerely believe that to be true. Now I just need to figure out what they are.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.