October 20, 2009

At Oxford, old traditions die hard. Or more aptly, they just keep growing older, getting more convoluted and unrecognizable, yet they stubbornly refuse to kick the bucket. That’s why on Saturday I dressed up like a penguin, shuffled into a theater with hundreds of fellow freshers, heard five sentences in Latin, and shuffled back out. Don’t get me wrong; it was great fun. But this year’s matriculation ceremony was basically a shadow of the occasion it used to be.

Once upon a time, to become an official member of the university students had to first sit an exam and then receive the full Latin matriculation recitation one by one, all the while dressed in their "subfusc": a black suit, white bowtie, and knee-length black gown. (As for women, they were of course once forbidden to matriculate at all, but now they wear a black skirt and ribbon.) Mortarboards complete the ensemble, and though they are never to be worn on the head until graduation, they must be carried through the entire ceremony – we hold the future in our hands, I suppose. Subfusc literally means a “dark, dull color,” which isn’t exactly inspirational, but it’s also a fairly apt description.

I have a confession. After we were all shepherded into the grand hall in our gowns, and a wizened, elderly gentleman strode to the podium carrying a giant, scepter-like cane and pronounced a Latin incantation to us…I couldn’t help but think I was witnessing Dumbledore greet the first-years at the Hogwarts welcome feast. The speaker proceeded to make a short but meandering speech about how over the following year we would “wallow in the life of the mind,” but he may as well have mentioned his love of lemon drops.

Now that I’m a proper Oxford student, my subfusc won’t stay in my closet for long. I’ll be putting it on for every formal dinner in the college, which is at least once a week. (Some colleges actually require students to wear their gowns to dinner every single night.) And since traditions have a tendency to evolve with the times, the modern student finds many additional uses for the outfit – for example, as a critical element of his costume for the Sexy Subfusc party the night of matriculation.

October 12, 2009

To Snog or to Pull?

Cheers! Actually, that’s not at all how you use that word, but I’m having trouble getting it right. Apparently you say “Cheers” as a small thank-you, e.g. when someone holds the door for you or the waiter brings your bill. Nevertheless I’ve taken to answering my phone with it every time my British housemate Alice calls, much to her vexation.

Following up from last week, I promised you I would find a suitable British replacement for the essential American term “skank,” and I have. When you see a girl strutting into a club with three strips of zebra-print cloth around her torso, you can call her “Page Three.” This can be traced back to a British tabloid, The Sun, which always includes a photo of a topless model on the third page. Seriously trashy.

I was dismayed to learn that “snogging,” the term that makes Harry and Cho and every other randy adolescent’s sloppy smooching somehow endearing, is going out of fashion. Instead the kids these days use the unsettling and kind of gross “pulling.” That’s right, “pulling” is the word for kissing. As in, “Last night at the club I saw two people pulling in the corner. It was so Page Three.” I’m completely at a loss for the etymological path that “pulling” took to acquire the new meaning. Any hypotheses?

Other tidbits:

-The British people definitely have a “look,” a certain facial structure, that’s all their own. Today in fact I saw an unmistakably British baby, which was pretty weird.

-I had an Oxford student rite-of-passage this week when I strolled past a tour group to enter one of the many registered-students-only landmark buildings on the campus. I had no actual reason to go inside; I just wanted to flash my student card around and test it out. Yikes, two weeks in and I’m already an elitist.

October 5, 2009

I Say Tomato

^That's my backyard. Odd photo for the first post, I know.^

I've revisited the dusty Kuldeep's Chronicles, given it a new name, and now I'm ready to report on all things British. My English housemate has graciously tried to acclimate me to, dare I say, English English, but I'm gradually learning it's practically a whole new language. For example, in an effort to blend in I pronounced the red veggie-fruit a "tomahto," and my housemate asked me if I was trying to take the piss out of her. I assured her I most definitely was not.

Below are some bits of slang I've picked up so far from middle-class English English:
(To simply call it British would be a ghastly error, since not only do Scots, Welsh, and Irish have their own distinct dialects, but so do every single tier of the deeply rooted British class system. Good grief.)

Bumf: Irritating and unnecessary piles of stuff. My personal favorite so far. As in, "My cell phone came with all the bumf about terms and conditions," or "Cole keeps filling my Inbox with bumf about England."

Pootle: A quick jaunt around the block after a big meal. As in, "Blimey, what a feast! Care for a bit of a pootle?"

Fuddle: A midnight snack. As in, "Cole gets himself a fuddle every night. It's his favorite meal."

Mooching: Chillin', lazing about. "But wait," you say, "What would I say when a friend keeps eating my food?" Don't worry...

Skanking: Mooching, i.e., living off your friends. But what exactly the Brits call it when girls dress all nasty and get up in men's bizness, I have yet to learn...

What's exciting about Oxford, though, is how international the community is. A third of the whole student body, and over 60% of grad students, hail from outside the United Kingdom, and this week has been a chance for all the international students to get to know each other. At various pubs I've met a Michael (from Jamaica), Mikhail (from Albania), and Mickaelas (from Cyprus); I've met Andreas (from Germany), Andras (from Hungary), and Andrew (from Philly). I've shared drinks with a CNN India anchor who's abandoning journalism for policy (I told him he looked familiar from Indian television just to stroke his ego a bit), and an Iranian who's not sure when it will be safe to go home again, since another doctoral candidate from Oxford is currently imprisoned there for that reason exactly.

This next week is "Nought Week" (0th?), full of inductions and orientations, and then I jump into classes next Monday. I think I'll have accumulated several reams of bumf before then.