Oxford Minus the Crazy

On Thursday afternoon, I finished writing the seventeenth essay of term. Seventeen essays in eight weeks, plus at least as many pages of notes. Yesterday, someone asked me how it was possible to write fifty thousand words in a month – we were discussing NaNoWriMo – and I pointed out to her that both she and I write easily as much here every month without even making an effort. It just happens. Accidentally.

Saturday was eerie. It is the busiest day for tourists, and as I walked down Cornmarket, I could feel their presence, their palpable excitement, but there was something missing. It was the students’ derision, the offsetting ingredient, the eternal cool of the pretend local element. After all, the students aren’t real locals. They’re as temporary as the tourists in their own way. They – that is to say, we – take advantage of Oxford for a certain amount of time. We enjoy its charms, we revel in its beauties, and we use every single drop of the rivers of knowledge it has to offer us. We drain it of its cliches, getting drunk and drugged and heartbroken along the way. We study hard and party harder. We pretend to be more confident and grown up than we are and we give off a worldliness that we need to exude in order to feel.

But Saturday of Eighth Week turns everyone into small critters, blinking rapidly as the cage door is opened. One moment, a frozen shock, and with a shake of the tail there’s a mad dash to get out, get out, get out. I went to Christ Church Picture Gallery to see the artwork there, and as I left via the tourist exit, I could see the line of visitors waiting to enter the Hall, where some of the Harry Potter films were shot, even while students were streaming out with suitcases and backpacks, loading things into their parents’ waiting cars.

By Sunday, I succumbed as well. I slept until three pm. My brain refused to wake up even when my body was aching to stretch and get out of bed. There is a fatigue that comes from such long-term, stressful, continuous work that happens over such a relatively short period of time.

Monday’s Oxford was eerily quiet. The tourists weren’t there, and nor were many students. As the countdown to Christmas echoes the pink lettering across the screen in “Love Actually”, I suspect the town will get emptier and emptier. The locals don’t live in the center, or else will be visiting family somewhere less depressingly empty, and the local students will be going home for the most part, and those who remain here will discover that there isn’t much to do in a university town during Christmas time. There’s a reason why this place has it’s own holiday time, OxMas.

As I sit in Turl Street Kitchen, it’s easy to pretend that it’s term time and everything is normal. After all, it’s still Ninth Week. A young tutor and her student sat beside me and completed their oh-so-cool tutorial, surely their last of the term. They both left smiling. The cafe itself is as full as ever with the usual alternative, interesting crowd. Two dads and their baby, sitting across from one another in the armchairs in the lower room. The cute, pink-shirted barman in front of me, baring his tummy and his red boxers as he reaches up to put glasses away. The dimpled girl smiling at and having coffee with the older woman who may be an aunt, a friend, a mum, a tutor, a woman she’s just met. The blonde and her brunette friend who don’t appear to be listening to one another. The quiet, red-skirted woman with amazing hair hanging over her face, alternately texting and reading her book. “Two hot chocolates!” announces another barista.

The tutor has come back, bringing with her another student. He’s about to look at his essay, which she has returned without too many comments.

But even so, even with a tutorial happening here, there is a sense of relaxation. More than usual. There aren’t as many of us hiding behind laptops, earphones buttoning us away from the world, glancing up impatiently when someone makes too much noise. There aren’t as many people here alone, eyes glazed over as their thoughts pass between their rumbling stomach to their heightened thoughts.

The madness has lifted. For a few brief weeks, the cloud of dank, difficult, crazy concentration is less dense over this city.

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