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Greeting town and gown

Geoff Johnston | Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Oxford! Yup, we Domers have finally made it; after all of the planning, reading, shopping and flying, we are here and settled into our housing. How to describe Oxford to Notre Dame students … that’s the question. I’ll try to break Oxford down into manageable, organized chunks of information.

The town

Domers have no relationship like that between the University and the city of Oxford. The University is dispersed throughout the city so that, between every College building, there are well-traveled roads, bridges and sidewalks.

There are people everywhere. Europeans by the thousands line the sidewalks, dressed in fur, leather, long coats and boots, scurrying about from store to store, babbling in every human language. Buses rule the streets, careening around turns and making sure that pedestrians know their place in the transportation food chain. Bicycles are ubiquitous and dangerous, scooters putter about, and souped up Vettes with huge exhausts drive by our college window at night, vibrating the whole flat with metallic bass.

The city of Oxford is everywhere; there are merchants by the hundreds hawking their wares from 18th century shops, there are street performers and beggars, there are ambulances screaming with impossible volume down every road. The Town is loud, obnoxious, full of life. There is no parallel to the town at Notre Dame.

Social life

But what would Oxford be without its pubs? There are dozens of pubs, each with its own special clientele, some serving primarily students and some serving the city in general. The drinking age in England is 18, so students are everywhere, drinking, eating and laughing. (Though from what I have seen, the argument that lowering the drinking age decreases the number of drunk students is false; there are plenty of students here who plan on leaving the pubs on a stretcher.) Pubs are the place to meet students in Oxford; random people will often sidle up to a half-filled table, no matter who else is sitting there.

The food

Well, British food, from what we have seen, is not very good. In fact, it is downright awful. Even in College, the food is bland, without a hint of spice (and I’m from the Midwest, where food is bland to begin with). But there are two bright spots: The many sandwich shops serve healthy, delicious lunches on-the-go, and the many ethnic restaurants around town serve spicy cuisine faithful to the culture.

The gown

The first thing one notices about the University is that it is old – very old. The buildings of beige Ashlar stone dominate certain sections of the city, with no rhyme or reason to their placement. Amidst all of the shopping, yelling and eating, the University is at once invisible and overbearing. Watching over the walkers below, the buildings seem to be waiting, or perhaps meditating, oblivious to the action around them. But the center of undergraduate student life is the particular college where one eats, lives and studies.

New College

Each of the colleges that make up the University is a castle, with fortifications and battlements, guarded from the noise of the outside world by gardens of Day-Glo green grass and imposing, turreted towers. Inside the College walls, one enters a different and infinitely more tranquil world than the one outside. Passing through winding passageways of weathered stone, the sense of silence, of introspection, becomes more evident with each step.

The New College Hall is similar to the one in Harry Potter: The walls lined with oak paneling, the paintings of College fellows watching meal after meal, the High Table standing above all of the benches and chairs.

Completing the Old Schools Quad, the New College Chapel lies like a great ship docked in harbor, battered by age on the outside but immaculate within. Greeting visitors to Chapel stands a slightly larger than life-sized sculpture of Lazarus: His body seems to be slightly decomposed, emaciated beneath a wrap of bandages, but his head, which is much too large for his body, is turned at an impossible angle to face the altar. Behind the altar, there is an enormous wall filled to the very apex with delicate sculptures of saints, bishops and prophets.

There are many gardens to graze in, and there are lively clubs to join and College bars to relax in, away from studying.


Here are a few of the invalid, sweeping and unfair generalizations I have made about the British. The British are more reserved and soft-spoken than Americans. When I first heard them converse, it sounded as if they were speaking in hushed, secretive tones about everything. Our manner of speaking, which is more a direct, in-your-face, get-to-the-point style, does not suit the British well. Also, the British eat much smaller meals than we Americans do (our portions per meal are probably double the size of theirs), but I haven’t been to the local KFC, so I can’t report on whether the American restaurants still super-size. They also don’t exercise as much, unless you count the miles of walking they do, as few people own cars. There is so much more to say about Oxford, but those thoughts will have to wait for another day.

Geoff Johnston is a junior studying at Oxford for the year. He can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The Observer.