Yes, “Absentia” should be my middle name, vociferous apologies let’s go directly to the point no need to pass Go, collect £200 or berate me for lackadaisical blogging habits.
A while ago I attended a very strange event. I’m not even sure what its official title is, but for the purposes of not having to trawl my email account for the invite lets go with “The Oxford North American Reunion Meeting of the Minds Weekend.” Its true name will be some rearrangement of those words, please forgive a girl a little disarray. Essentially Alumni get together for a good old fashioned weekend of free promotional pens, newsletters, Oxford-emblaoned tote bags and subtle pleas for funding from bespectacled men who run libraries. Good fun all round by jove. Attendance got off to a bittersweet start, bitter for the earliness of the start (7.30am – an hour with which, as a graduate student, I am joyfully unfamiliar) but sweet because it meant breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria. Having rifled my wardrobe for my best hobnobbing attire I hopped in a cab and, upon arriving, tried desperately to look like someone who spends their weekends at the Waldorf. I suppose I succeeded: at no point was I forcibly ejected. Chalk one up for the power of power dressing!
Having come to the wrong entrance I got to walk through the full length of the hotel, which was great fun! Potted palms, gilded mirrors, families of posh tourists, perfumed air. It’s a truly lovely building. Navigating the right bank of elevators, turning the right way down plushly carpeted corridors and clacking through the right marbled foyers brought me to the right ball room whereupon I was presented with my Oxford-BA-earned goodies: a notebook with the University crest on it and a lanyard bearing all my vital information. The phenomenon of the lanyard makes me laugh, the quiet whisper of importance it brings with it, the way your entire being is summed up on a card that hangs pendulously before you shouting out your college, your subject and the year you graduated in. Strange that it should seem elite when its true purpose is to aid people in not wasting their time on you if, for example, they went to Keble to study Engineering 10 years before you were born and will have nothing in common with a baby from St Anne’s who studied Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut in the noughties. I don’t mean this in an acerbic way, this is the world of networking, American networking no less, and efficiency is the word of the day.
Back to breakfast and the enjoyably odd phenomenon of the networking buffet. How awkward the performance of selecting just enough food items to provide fuel for all the socializing that stands between you and lunch but not enough to seem greedy, of locating the right cutlery for both a bagel and a yogurt parfait, of navigating chafer urns so as not to end up with tea and full fat milk when you really wanted coffee and 2% all the while making nervous small talk with the nearest elderly lady about how smoothly, or otherwise, your journey to the hotel went this morning. “Oh, we met awful traffic over Columbus Circle, took nearly 20 minutes to get across, always happens when we come that way, should have told the driver.”
The adventure doesn’t cease there however, with you dexterously juggling coffee, breakfast and an array of appropriately sized spoons. Next comes an encounter with the many rules of seating topology. Do not break up groups that arrived together, although these can be troublesome to identify as different individuals will have different rates of breakfast selection. Do not sit at a table composed solely of couples, you will be left out. Do not hover awkwardly while trying to decide, people will think you are weird. Do not sit at a table solely composed of old men, they are likely to be weird. If you, miraculously, settle upon an appropriate seat, do not forget that you are weighted down with plates and granola-filled highball glasses, set them down before attempting to pull out your chair. Pray that the person you are coming to the etiquette marathon with, who happens to be late, arrives before you have to blushingly mumble that you’re saving the seat next to you, like a 17 year old girl. Breathe sigh of relief when he shows up and catalyses conversation with his lateness.
Breakfast sees the satisfying of hunger with tiny pastries and the meeting of your essential networking “friends” for the day – namely, the people to whom you will flee in awkward moments when you’re left suddenly alone. All this is accomplished successfully and with only a little donut glaze on the table cloth.
The next phase of the day is academically inclined. Lectures on the general state of intellectualism, culture, books, history, in truth I forget the finer details, all that remains to me is the recollection of a warm, kinetic feeling, the activation of deep thought and the taste of big words in my mouth; big words and low fat cream cheese. Intellectual banter is passed from mind to mind, the light rumble of laughter at grandpa-style funding humour fans outward from the podium like ripples in a pond. All is cerebral peace and studious harmony.
And then there is lunch. Swanky current-crusted bread rolls and fancy waiter-service. Chicken in rich sauces and the elegant architecture of some kind of chickpea salad. Eating is punctuated by plummy conversation, the air is thick with clever things being said, thoughts on the lectures, the changing face of academia, the surge of Oxford into the modern age. A brilliant sheen of unabashed braininess covers the day. Then dessert and the resumption of presentations. I munch red velvet cake – cute nod to the North American environs – and save the little white chocolate disk stamped with the Oxford crest for last. That’s what is so much fun about these events, getting to revel in the insane reach of Oxford’s gravitas. To be able to talk about university without having to make it past the initial “Oh, but you must be really clever then?” which can accrue various shades of awe, sarcasm, challenge, or disbelief depending on who you’ve mentioned it to. To be a massive nerd and not have anyone bother to point it out, as if in your 24 years on this planet you hadn’t noticed your unusual predilection for the study of bird life cycles, ancient Russian poetry, the origins of the universe, or whatever revs your engine. So there I was, nibbling the edge off the chocolate Oxford crest, at one with a bunch of epic geeks like myself and fully intent on reveling in it until I step back outside the doors of the Waldorf and return to reality.
Which reminds me that I am supposed to be working, reality can be a real slave driver and Pirandello waits for no woman, not even one that went to Oxford.