Sunday, June 14, 2009
It’s graduation season. A few weeks ago I traveled back to Brown for my five year reunion, which took place on the same weekend as graduation. The following day my cousin graduated from Yale with a master’s degree. This weekend it was my good friend’s turn to graduate. She invited me and my mother, who is visiting from San Francisco, to attend the ceremony at Oxford.
Nobody does ceremony quite like the medieval European universities. Dating back to the 12th century, Oxford’s graduation was all tradition. All strange-looking robes with streamers flying from the shoulders, all furry hoods, all color-coded stoles. All Latin.
As we sat for two hours on the hard wood benches of the Roman-style D-shaped Sheldonian theatre, we listened to enigmatic Latin chants, watched graduates bow confusedly this way and that, saw the procession leave the theater, and clapped as the graduates returned through the front doors in full academic regalia.
After the ceremony we went to lunch at Brasenose college, my friend’s place of study. “Graduands” and their guests were invited to dine with the principal and his wife, and we were lucky enough to get seats at the head table. I say “lucky” partly because the head table was the best one, but mostly because the head table was the only one that had seats with padded chairs, which was a welcome relief after the hard benches of the theater.
Lunch was a grand affair appropriate to the Harry Potter-like dining hall. With dark wood from floor to ceiling and portraits of lots of old dead white men, it emanated academia from its every mahogany pore. As we dined on John Dory fillets and drank Pinot Noir, we discussed the history of the college, which is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year. Pretty impressive.
After lunch we decided to go punting on the river. All of my previous trips to Oxford and it’s northern rival Cambridge had taken place in the winter, and my dreams of punting had been deferred. But with the sun shining and the season right, this was the perfect day for poling down the river.
Our English friends insisted we pick up some picnic supplies at the covered market in Oxford before punting. It was the proper thing to do. Eager to follow protocol, we accompanied them to the bakery, where we picked up strawberries, bead, brie, and sparkling Elderflower water.
Picnic food in tow, we headed to the river to get our boat. The Isis was chock-a-block with long, skinny vessels of every color, and the chaos of punters and their companions was a bit intimidating. We boarded our boat as delicately as possible given its instability and our being in dresses and heels.
One of our party was a very experienced punter, and he took the helm for the first leg of the journey. The river was gorgeous and the green banks were bursting with flowers, trees, and waterfowl. Several mean-looking swans eyed our strawberries and brie longingly, but we managed to glide past in peace. It was very civilized.
When it was time to turn back, several others took turns digging the long metal pole into the ground and propelling us along the river. We passed giant greenhouses, centuries old churches, painfully beautiful college buildings, and a children’s cricket game. We saw swans, geese, Mallard ducks, and a million tiny water bugs. We relaxed. We enjoyed the sun.
As we alighted, I felt a tiny pang of regret for not taking my turn punting. My skirt and heels didn’t help motivate me, but I probably could have managed with minimal water damage. I suppose I’ll just have to make sure that there’s a “next time” and dress appropriately for the occasion.