So Near and Yet So Far
The last letter from the UK! Helena Winterhager will never forget the exciting, and sometimes strange, experiences she has had during her time in Oxford.
Feb 26, 2016
I will never forget the sight of us, about 40 figures standing in front of our college accommodation in wet and cold early morning weather! Some were still wearing pyjamas, others a dressing gown or a T-shirt. Luckily, I had managed to grab my down jacket. What may have looked like a stray group of carnival celebrants was actually the usual result of the annual fire drill. When it comes to the issue of fire prevention here, there is no joking and no excuse for non-compliance. Anyone who stays in their room during the fire drill has to pay a penalty of 50 pounds.
New students are required to attend a one-hour introduction to fire safety, where the simplest rules of fire prevention are proclaimed as pearls of wisdom. Everywhere, even in student apartments and other residential units, doors are designated as "fire doors" – being designed in a way that they automatically bang shut, and if you don't have considerate neighbours, they cause an ungodly racket day and night. The idea of noise pollution doesn't matter, as long as the fire protection rules are observed.
Housing Situation Is Problematic
Of course, this fear of fire, which continental Europeans find extreme, has to do with the centuries-old buildings in a historic city like Oxford. The building situation is problematic in other ways too. While rents are horrendous and Oxford is considered the most expensive city in England with regard to high rent, the majority of students has to put up with fairly simple housing: they often live in noisy, poorly insulated rooms whose quality lags noticeably behind the residential level one is used to in Central and Northern Europe.
Contradiction in Standards
The housing conditions – as well as the railway system or the public health service, to give two other examples – can be taken to illustrate a fundamental contradiction: On the one hand, there are certain areas, like the ones mentioned, in which Britain has arguably not achieved the highest standards of modernity. On the other hand, there are aspects of life where society in the UK appears to be more progressive and innovative than ours; the advanced digitisation could be cited here, or the high standard of debating culture in politics as well as the more pronounced awareness of equality issues both regarding women and minorities.
What I Will Remember
To some extent it is these contrasts that make the whole experience of life in England appealing to me: One lives in a world that is very similar to ours – and yet in many regards is rather different and foreign. In addition to the academic enrichment that is part of studying in Oxford, such personal experiences broaden the horizon and help to gain new perspectives in many ways.
My time in Oxford will continue at least until the end of June. The things I will remember most of all are the vibrant, interdisciplinary community to be enjoyed in college, the incredibly rich variety of intellectually stimulating events, and the unsurpassable international exchange – an experience I wish everyone could share.