I arrived in the City of Dreaming Spires aboard the dimly lit 5am bus from Heathrow on the 7th October. I remember it precisely because I had been awake for the past twenty of twenty-four hours on a flight from Australia. Needless to say, I was not quite starry-eyed, more bleary eyed. Trundling in the early dawn light through the sleepy city I somehow found my college (after several expletive ridden fits on the many occasions my luggage rolled away from me on the cobbled streets). I waited another hour locked outside until an early rising secretary saved me from a charge of loitering and gave me my key. Soon there was an unmade bed, drawn curtains and then it all goes blank...
Waking up, totally disorientated, all I can hear is the peel of evening bells as the many college churches try to out-do each other in their enthusiasm. I venture out of my room and into the college hall, the place where I will be supping most nights with my fellow students. It's cavernous, dark and inviting at the same time. Mostly because I haven't eaten for a very long time and I can smell food. Bright, smiling faces blur before me in the rush of introductions, questions and long statements of claim which make me think some of us are still in interview mode. I don't really want to know if so and so got in, I never met him or her. Was I at a public school? That's a very different question in Australia, thank you. Already I can tell the second year students at a glance. They're twitching their fingers, looking at their watches and muttering about 'Collections' and 'reading' to be done. Us 'Freshers' are still too pre-occupied with Being Here In Oxford to notice really. Soon we start to filter into subject cliques - the PPE kids are already talking about their mathematics work whereas us English students are wondering if it's not too late to watch rather than read next week's text on BBC iPlayer. Would the tutor really notice? Then it's off to the pub, guided by the old hands of the second and third year students- those who haven't already retreated into the library. Much drinking ensues.
Three days into Fresher's week finds me still waking at all hours of the night, awkwardly trying to remember names at breakfast (seriously, we have to talk at breakfast?) and fumbling with my new ID cards as I explore the beautiful Bodleian library - until I accidentally set off the alarm. The streets are full of students like me, crashing into each other as we look up and around, but never in front. We're too busy reading the detailed schedules that we've all been given. Be here at this time, at this place, and do this. There's very little margin for error. Every step Must Be Done in order to ensure your total immersion into Oxford proper. Craving some solitude after elbowing my way into my third packed lecture, I retreat to a quiet café for half an hour and just watch everyone else run about. I'm not the only one hiding here either.
Back at college, one week in, the dinners are becoming calmer and the conversation smoother. Each of us is trying to find a sense of place, coming as we do from all corners of the globe, and establish ourselves here. Interestingly, some have already formed small groups, others are flitting happily between all tables and, in quiet, hushed tones, there is talk of 'tutorials'. The dreaded tutorials, the mention of which causes the older students to laugh ruefully or look at us in a somewhat patronizing way, increases in awe and significance until one is left thinking they will either make or break you.
My first tutorial found me hastily re-reading the essay on the poet Robert Browning I had done before coming up (yes, they made us do pre-term work!). I found myself alone in a not uncomfortable room with my tutor who instructed me to read it. Aloud. There was a long, awkward pause and then I slowly started reading. Tentatively at first, but realising the tutor wasn't going to interrupt with 'nay' and 'not on your life' I continued and even added a bit of a voice over when quoting characters. I finished, and then there was more silence. The word 'Interesting,' reaches my ears and my heart sinks. 'Yes, isn't it?'. The interrogation begins.
The memory has already gone a bit dark here but I think I survived. Later, in a hushed, conspiratorial tone with my other 'readers' we compare notes and congratulate ourselves on surviving the first tutorial with panache. Then, a second year overhears our positive notes and leans in to say 'it's only your first week' prophetically. We go silent and ponder the dessert.