I will never forget my first day in Oxford, which was arguably one of the best days that I had during my year amidst the dreaming spires.
I was fresh off the plane from the USA—wide eyed, eager and ready to rock.
Except I didn’t know anyone… or how to get anywhere…
All I knew was that I had just entered the most majestic, fairytale land of a town imaginable: I was ready to experience everything.
As I wandered aimlessly around the enchanting grounds of Magdalen College, hoping to locate the graduate common room, I spotted a friendly-looking young man and approached him in hopes of directions. I was in luck: he happened to be on his way to the “MCR” (graduate or Middle Common Room) at that very moment – said I should certainly come along and check it out. Great! I introduced myself, asked him for his name. He told me. Again, please? I must have misheard.
“Hice,” he said “It’s Dutch.”
Still no idea. Could he spell it?
Right. From then on, he was “Ghijus.”
Ghijus quickly became my personal tour guide (and first pal in college). I was in luck: that day he had planned a Magdalen “End of Summer Celebration” with his friends, Matthew and Al. I had arrived just in time to join in on the fun. I quickly learned that the day would consist of:
1. Magdalen Tower Climb
2. Wine and Croquet on the New Building Lawns (“New” Buildings = older than my country.)
That’s about as quintessential Oxford as you can get. Most students don’t even accomplish this list during the course of a three year doctorate! But I got to experience it all on my first day in town.
And I thought Oxford was going to be nothing more than a bunch of libraries and latte-sipping yuppies…
The panoramic views of Oxford from the top of Magdalen Tower were stunning; my first game of croquet was challenging and educational.
But the unquestionable highlight of this fantabulous day was, indeed, the evening punting trip down the river Thames.
Like most of you non-Oxbridge readers, I had no idea what “punting” was, either. In fact, when Ghijus invited me to “go punting,” I initially thought he was challenging me to some weird, Euro variation of American football…
I suppose the only experience even remotely comparable to punting is that of riding in a Venetian gondola (though punting is way, way better). And these two forms of leisurely water navigation are actually quite different. A quick breakdown:
Punts vs. Gondolas
Oxford / Cambridge
|Historic function||Shipping cargo, fowling, angling.||Competitive sculling, public transportation.|
|Now used for||Afternoon leisure, people watching, boozing (some tourists).||Tourists, tourists, tourists.|
|Steering Mechanism||Long pole||Long oar (looks like a pole)|
|Typically propelled by||Tipsy English student||Money hungry Italian…|
I’m sorry, but gondola rides are hugely overpriced. Even the most costly tourist punting excursion in Oxford—which includes an expert guide and a bottle of champagne—is remarkably less expensive than most Venetian gondola rides. And punting is, in my opinion, much more enjoyable. (But if you are set on taking a gondola ride before you die, here is the most affordable option that I have seen.)
Right, so the delightful tradition of punting is indeed unique to the meandering tributaries of Oxford and Cambridge. Funny enough, there is an ongoing debate between these rival institutions regarding the “proper” way to punt. Cantabrigians stand on the little raised deck; Oxonians also stand on the end but down in the punt. (Courageous Americans, apparently, run into trees, boats and bridges)
Other important things learned:
1. “Night” punting is not actually permitted by the college; we were thus, obviously, back by 9:30pm.
2. Punt poles are definitely not long enough for the strong currents and deep waters of the Thames.
3. Punting is the best.
A huge thanks to Ghijus, Matt and Al for an amazing introduction to one of my favorite places in the world.
I’ll never forget it!