Last night we were invited to dine with one of Scott’s colleagues. It was at Oriel College, one of the many colleges here at Oxford.
Oriel College is one of the oldest colleges at Oxford, and is very keen on its traditions. For instance, every evening the college serves dinner in its dining hall to the students and faculty, and has done so for 700 years.
Seven hundred years. Just soak that up for a minute.
The dinner is not only multi course, but multi-stage. This is how it went:
First we hung our cloaks in a cloak room and followed our host and his trailing robes to the dining hall. (The Oxford professors and students wear their school robes to dinner. Guests–like Scott and I–could come in a suit or dress.)
Just before we were allowed into the hall we chatted for a bit in a waiting room area. Here there was a long wooden board displayed on an easel. The board represented the High Table, and around the board were cards with names. That was how we knew where we were to sit once we entered the dining hall. I was (purposely?) not seated next to my husband.
We headed into the dining hall. The high, beamed ceiling arched above us and the walls were lined with paintings of past provosts and knights and The Queen. Our places were set with china, glass and silver goblets, and loads of shining silverware, expertly arranged on a long wooden table that was probably older than Columbus’s mother. The students of Oriel College sat at the student tables, and we sat at the High Table.
If you think of Hogwarts Dining Hall you will have the proper mental image.
The presiding faculty member banged a gavel and a priest gave a prayer in Latin. I understood the word AMEN.
We ate by candlelight. First there was the bread. Then soup. Then a delicate slice of fish. Then the main course. Then an artistic dessert. Each course had its assigned cutlery and I was grateful for all those etiquette dinners I had as a youth, so pay attention kids. You never know, some day you might get to eat dinner at Oxford.
When everyone was finished the presiding faculty banged the gavel again and we all stood. He said another prayer in Latin. We took our linen napkins with us and headed outside, across the chilly, starlit courtyard to another chamber.
We entered a large pink room with a blazing fire, two giant crystal chandeliers, life-size portraits, more candles, goblets and china (Now think Downton Abbey) and another table that was not quite as old as the first–perhaps as old as George Washington’s mother. We had assigned seats here as well, but we were seated next to new people, so all the conversations were fresh.
On the plate in front of me was a mysterious bowl of water with a lemon in it. I was not sure what I was supposed to do with it. Drink it? Wash my fingers in it? Gargle? So I just did what everyone else did which was move it to the side.
Then came the fruits. Beautiful platters of exotic fruits were passed around the table, some of them I didn’t even recognize nor have any idea how to eat.
Following the fruit there were three crystal decanters of alcohol in lovely shades of pink, rose and burgundy, which I passed on their merry way. A little tin box of snuff came next, which I also passed. Scott told me later there was also a plate of sweets which somehow didn’t reach me. Curses!
When everyone was finished we moved to another room: a drawing room-type place (think Jane Austen) where we were served coffee and tea (and for us Mormons, more water. I drank A LOT of water last night).
During this whole exercise (which took three hours) I was surrounded by brilliant minds. Over the years I have had many opportunities to talk with very intelligent and accomplished people (through Scott’s job). This used to intimidate me a little, but not any more. First of all, I love talking to academics. They are attentive, curious, inquisitive and enjoy explaining things as much as they like asking questions. They are very knowledgeable in their field and in some cases they know more about a certain topic than anyone on the planet. I love to see how animated they become when they have a captive listener who wants to know about their life’s work. But even they will admit that they know a lot about a little and they are always interested in learning something they didn’t know before. After all, is that not the very nature of academics?
For the first stage of dinner I sat across from a man named Mark who was a lecturer on The Classics. Now, to me “the classics” means Charlottes Web, To Kill A Mockingbird and Where the Wild Things Are. I knew enough to know I had no idea how to progress in a conversation with this man. So I said, “What would be an intelligent question to ask someone who lectures on The Classics?” He gave a broad smile and then we were off like a couple of race horses, having a fantastic discussion of Greek papyri and ancient Greek songs which I think we both found quite satisfying.
In the second stage of dinner I was seated next to another Classics professor with brown eyes. Thanks to my new friend Mark at the previous table, now I actually had some background in the subject and could ask intelligent questions on my own. Mr. Brown Eyes and I had a truly fascinating conversation about Greek love poetry while eating passion fruit with tiny forks. It is a good thing I’ve never been attracted to brown-eyed men.
These academics were just as generous with questions about my life. When I told them that my magnum opus is raising five children they were dutifully impressed and wanted to know more about my kids and how they were “getting on” in Oxford. We talked about many other things last night including Mormon handcart companies, British Parliament, the vastness of the state of Wyoming, 2nd Amendment rights of Americans, genealogy, the proper way to heat tea (NOT in a microwave), what my mother is doing with her life at 75, cougar hunting, and why so many Brits are wearing a poppy on their lapel this week (Armistice day/Veterans day).
It was a wonderful evening of food, conversation and tradition. To sum it all up: everyone is interesting. Everyone has a story to tell or knowledge to share and no matter how much you know there is always something to learn. How I love living in a world filled with so many wonderful and different people. Thank you Oriel College and especially Mike Devereux for a lovely and unforgettable evening!