It’s a chilly Sunday night in Oxford and I’m in heated conversation over the American elections with a boy at least half my age who has cat whiskers drawn all over his ruddy English cheeks. He seems oblivious to the impact this feline façade is having on our serious political debate and when I ask him about it he replies, vaguely embarrassed, “Oh yes, I’ve just been initiated into my college.”
It’s back-to-school at Oxford and the Scholars Anointed have begun to invade the hangouts along Cowley Road, the main drag on the “town” side of the Magdelan Bridge (pronounced “MAW-dlin” or you are pitifully exposed).
I’ve had an eventful week getting acclimated before the onslaught. I took in a flick at The Ultimate Picture Palace, parted the chain mail curtain at Quality Butchers to stock up on cooked ham and Taylors Original Prepared English Mustard, hung out for hours over a plate of broccoli at Beetroot Café, and befriended the owner of Millefeuille, with fingers sticky from honey-soaked sweets.
Tonight’s main event was a screening of Ex Machina at Café Tarifa a dive-slash-lounge offering Sunday night movies for free. But the Kasbar where I’ve met cat boy is a Cowley highlight. The music is World, the menu is tapas, a guitar suspended by a string attached to the front door rides up and down whenever someone enters or exits, and the manager (Italian) insists on a hug when you arrive with the admonition, “Don’t be afraid of touching!”
Have no doubt, this funky bar and bodega scene is Oxford. If you’re looking for the “dreaming spires” that etch the sky, the venerable pubs, English restraint, and accents cultivated behind hedgerows, just cross the Magdelan. But Cowley Road is no less a part of this rarified scene and the bipolar effect is intoxicating.
On one side of the bridge are students doing what college kids do – congregating in packs with cell phones and making noise. On the other side they are scholars flocking past Medieval halls in the black matriculating robes of their venerable colleges, ever reminding you that you’ve landed on one of history’s oldest and holiest turfs of learning.
They won’t pin an exact date on Oxford’s founding but everyone seems to agree that 1096 is bloody close enough. That means for nearly a millennium this city’s sole industry has been mastering knowledge, its widget erudition, its main product, making people leave smarter than when they arrived, which was pretty smart to begin with.
And somehow (hee, hee, hee) The Sultanette has snuck in under the radar. I’ve taken over the flat of fine friends off the Cowley Road to take non-credit courses in philosophy and history. I won’t enjoy matriculation, graduation or congratulations. But what better place to practice simulating conversation than the oldest English-speaking university in the freaking world? Which brings me to the window-washer.
It’s 8:30am and I’m stealing a few more minutes under the comforter in the flat’s second-floor bedroom before surrendering to the bracing morning air. Weather isn’t something that happens outside in England. It follows you into the house and scoffs at the space heater’s pretense to warm things up. Establish a temperate climate in the kitchen and a cold front awaits you in the parlor.
To feel cozy in an English home is positively unpatriotic. No doubt the Queen luxuriates in nipple-freezing Buckingham, Balmoral and Holyrood, it’s been inbred by centuries of royal coddling in those bone-chilling castles. But back to The Sultanette’s boudoir …
I’d left the curtains open the night before to be awakened by the first light of day. Now I was taking in the purposeful red brick flats across the way (yes, I’m still in Oxford!) when I heard … could it be the clatter of a metal ladder? And lo, a boy’s head appeared in the window before me. You’d think The Sultanette would be used to Romeo’s clambering up ladders to her bedroom but the boy hadn’t even introduced himself!
Luckily I was wearing my Victoria’s Secret night shirt (I reserve sleeping in the buff for The Male Harem). Eyes trained on the unexpected visitor, I got out of bed and slipped on a robe I’d picked up at an Oxford thrift shop – a purple acetate Chinoiserie number (£8) I cleverly fasten with a man’s necktie emblazoned with the Oxford University crest (£2) also procured at the thrift shop to fill in for the robe’s missing acetate belt.
In this getup, I advanced towards the window, remembering that my flat friends had mentioned a neighborhood handyman in case of emergency. “Are you from next door?” I offered, as if he’d just popped by for a cup of tea. “I’m the window washer,” he responded, not very romantically. “Do you come here often?” I asked, or something to that effect. “Once a month,” he replied with equal charm. Awkward pause. No worries of this spiraling into a raunchy neo-Victorian porn scene. “If you don’t mind then,” I said, “I’m going to draw the curtains.” Attendez! When did The Sultanette become Lady Painswick?
Accuse me of becoming brainwashed by British decorum but one thing I’ve learned from their resolute sense of propriety is that you can ace any situation as long as you’re polite about it. In the House of Commons, they address their colleagues as “the Right Honorable Gentleman(or Lady)” before annihilating one another. This culture that calls panties “knickers” has a history of aristocratic scandals from prostitution rings to boffing little boys that rivals any prurience Americans could come up with.
As a less salacious example than sex or politics, one day on the bus I noticed a proper English lady studying my hands. Realizing she’d been discovered, she leaned over and inquired, “By way of explaining why I have been so rudely staring at you, may I ask if your bracelet is in fact, a pair of spectacles?”
When I affirmed it was she forged ahead. “How very interesting! I’ve never seen anything like it! Now where did you get it and who, might I ask, makes it?” Now the whole bus was intent upon hearing that the provenance of my bracelet is Kate Spade in New York City. “I’ve been to the U.S.,” the woman replied, “though one could say to the more boring places … cities in the west and Boston. Oh dear, this is my stop!”
“You might enjoy New York then … or Chicago,” I offered as she gathered up her handbag and straightened her scarf. “Oh yes, I believe so!” she said enthusiastically. “My husband was invited to teach in Chicago. We’d have gone if he hadn’t died.” And she was off before I could offer my condolences.
Maybe it’s just that British accent that makes chatter sound clever and conversation scintillating. But in this breeding ground of Chaucer and Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf and Wodehouse, the play of words still appears to be an art and a sport. And since The Sultanette has yet to discover better foreplay than wordplay, I’ll be studying up on it here at Oxford. I may not earn a degree but I don’t promise to keep my knickers on either.