An American at Oxford: The people in the shadows

The Harris Manchester College clock tower rings out and announces dinner time. (Charli Rose / The DePaulia)
The Harris Manchester College clock tower rings out and announces dinner time. (Charli Rose / The DePaulia)

If you find yourself walking amidst Oxford’s castle-esque walls, there is little chance you will get very far without hearing a large clock tolling the time away. If it isn’t one of the college clock towers reminding you of the time, it is your own college hall, ringing out at five past seven, announcing time for dinner.

As a large panel of writing will tell you in St. Catherine’s own college hall, “the stone was laid by Her Majesty the Queen in 1960,” thus making it the most recent and modern of Oxford’s colleges. It proudly lives this through its motto of “Nova et Vetera,” Latin for “The New and the Old.” It adheres to its celebration of the ‘new,’ but it is still Oxford; and it being part of the historic university, it continues the classical traditions that most of us only see in the opening scene of the “Sorcerer’s Stone.” In this town, however, it is not uncommon to find people walking around casually in robes and tuxedoes.

One of these traditions is the service of a three-course meal six nights a week to fellows and students of the college. This is “Hall” and I have had the great pleasure of working as a server there over the past months. The physical room consists of five long tables with lamps down the middle for when the lights are dimmed after the meal begins. Students enter in casual dress, different from other colleges where formal attire is sometimes required, usually carrying a few drinks from the Junior Common Room bar. The Master and his guests will file into Hall from the Master’s Lodgings, a mixture of black robes and formal dress, leaving the students to stand and wait. The Master walks to his tall, leather chair in the middle of his High Table, says a few words in Latin understood by few, bangs his gavel and commences the meal. It’s easy at this time to get the song “Be Our Guest” stuck in your head, as my co-candlesticks and I begin our evening of dipping in and out of the shadows to replace water, collect bread and serve main courses.

This past week, I was asked to serve High Table for the first time and after momentary panic due to my inexperience, I accepted. This is where the college butler reigns and he kindly let me know the specificities of service before I began, including the tradition of beginning with the honored guest to the right hand of the Master, serving from the left and waiting for his signal to begin. My co-servers and I overheard snippets of conversation and asked each other what a specific word means after we have finished our duties.

Amongst the workers, I am the only American and conversations between the servers consist of stories about our countries. I am asked about the style of Oxford teaching as often as I am asked, “America — what is it like?” These questions are accompanied by the occasional friendly teasing of my ‘funny accent’ as their homes include India, Nepal, Poland, Italy, Spain and others. English is not the main language spoken and I find myself loving this. It may be because I feel at home there, doing dishes among people of different accents and cultures. I feel as if I am back in a big American city, where being an immigrant is the norm and simply walking down the street will introduce you to a language you cannot understand.

The High Table includes an extra fourth course, which results in it ending about an hour after regular Hall. From my perch on the sidelines, I find myself waiting patiently for the Master to stand, slam his gavel and end the meal. I glance towards the front of the room where my co-workers happily eat their provided free meal and I feel blessed to call this place my temporary workplace, my temporary home. Our college has its termly formal Hall this weekend and I know that as I sit and dine amongst my peers, I will cast a glance to the shadows, send an encouraging wink to my colleagues and thank whatever forces have led me to such spectacular and diverse experiences.