I was not ready to be a student of the world, but there I stood in the ancient heart of European learning, picking up platters of melba toast and putrid herbal balls. All night I’d been running in and out of a roaring, candlelit hall, doing whatever the person in front of me did. I was lost in an army of hired servants, clearing the appetizer and serving the fish, clearing the fish and serving the roast — and pouring gallons of wine at the same time. The guests, apparently alumni and faculty of this distinguished Oxford college, had shown great appetite until we’d brought in this palate-cleansing dish, artlessly called “green butter.” Now they’d broken away from their tables, clotting the aisles with an exuberance that terrified me.
“Ohhh, who did it?” a man in a tuxedo moaned. “None of us! It just wafted over!”
I’d come to Oxford a couple weeks earlier through a work-exchange program, the kind that lures students to Europe with the promise of legal employment, a virtual vacation abroad. The invitation extended only through the first six months after graduation, so I’d flown across the Atlantic right out of college. Years before I had briefly visited Oxford and longed to return to its confusing spoke of streets, yellowed stone and dew-covered pastures. After majoring in English, and seeing as many BBC documentaries as I could, I figured I knew everything there was about life in England — especially that it could be awful, in a fortifying sort of way. Of course, I had no idea.
Work-exchange programs exist because students, it is thought, need to learn about life in foreign lands — therefore students, of all people, deserve special dispensation from the world’s complex immigration and employment laws. But there is one problem with the equation. Of all travelers, students are probably the least equipped with the sense of humor required to survive in countries with bad food and double-digit unemployment rates. I needed a few more years on the job market to offset the very earnest effects of my education. Landing fresh and green in England, I did not find England, or myself, funny at all.
Back in the banquet hall, the sleeves of my white catering shirt were stained with red wine, green butter and sweat. During a break between courses, I milled around with the other waiters in the kitchen. “They just eat till they frow up,” one woman muttered. “It’s disgusting.” I found myself talking with an American my age who was headed to Glasgow the next day to study political science. Lucky bastard. I told him about my new day job, filing and typing for an academic program that studied the plight of refugees. He pointed a half-eaten piece of melba toast at me. “What is the definition of a refugee?” he demanded.
I shivered with joy. Here was an invitation to the sort of pointless intellectualizing I’d relished just weeks before on my own campus. “From what I can ascertain, it’s anyone forced to leave their native country for any reason,” I said.
“How about, then, the Jewish diaspora in relation to the present state of Israel …” he started, but couldn’t finish because it was time for me to clear the coffee and serve port and sauterne.
I got nine pounds for my three hours of banqueting — money I desperately needed as I waited for my end-of-the-month paycheck. I hadn’t been able to shake an obvious association between British currency and weight. Nine pounds seemed like a lot of money, a hefty sack of change that could help me do all the British things I wanted to do: see plays, ride trains, buy Yardley soaps. It got me, instead, less than a week’s worth of cheese-and-pickle sandwiches. I begged the temp agency for more banquet jobs just for the variety the leftovers gave my diet.
I’d also heard other work exchangers say they planned to stay longer if they could find under-the-table work at a pub or restaurant. Six months were the limits of our horizons, stamped on our passport, registered with the police and Her Royal Highness’ Secretary of Employment. Staying wasn’t an option anymore, I just didn’t have the special something to make it in England’s underground food-service economy.
In Dorset-on-Thames, I drew the wrath of a demonic headwaiter by getting fingerprints on the polished silverware. I broke a glass before a pubful of thick-headed Welsh golfers. I could not uncork bottles. At Magdalen College, my hands trembled as I poured coffee before smirking portraits of Addison and Steele. I had been assigned to stand at the college president’s door and open it when his guests arrived, but they’d remained, perplexed, on the other side while I tugged and tugged at the unyielding oak slab. Finally, the president had swept by and pulled it open with a flick of his wrist. The wrought-iron handle turned just like a doorknob, I marveled. How modern.
At my day job, meanwhile, I cataloged articles about Ethiopian Jews starving themselves from woe; about Mozambican children forced to see their parents murdered; about outbreaks of pellagra in Africa caused by incompetent aid administrators. “More refugees,” the secretaries in the crowded academic office would sigh with every coup d’itat abroad.
“Home” was not much relief. I lived for a while in a house with a Pakistani family of nine, who squashed themselves together so I could have my own room. Though they made a tidy illicit profit, I felt bad about taking up so much space and hid in my room, listening to BBC Radio and reading “Emma.” Really, I did not read novels anymore, I freebased them. Sometimes a violent thwacking would disturb my junkie stupor. It was either someone breaking into a car by the factory next door or my drifting neighbors on the canal doing aerobics atop their houseboats.
Each day I’d walk to work through a graveled alley by the railroad, the sort of patch of nowhere that could be anywhere. If I squinted a great deal, and blocked out the sight of Gothic spires, I found I could imagine myself at home in Texas, listening to trains rumble across the flat landscape. It seemed the most pathetic thing of all, to be homesick in the very country I’d dreamed of when I had been home and thoroughly sick of it. But the alley still lured me. One morning I was nearly blindsided by a little boy running out his back gate with a school bag. “G’bye, Mum!” he shouted and sped on, dodging puddles full of sky. I saw every smeared gray foot of the road in front of me clearly for the first time. To the boy, this was the most familiar place on earth, I realized. It would always be the center of his private map of the world.
It was then, somehow, that I finally got the hang of England, the dampness, the brown food, the wretched wages. I had no more banquet jobs to help me get by — a perky agency representative said I seemed frustrated by catering. But I lost my frenzied urges to see every manuscript in the British Museum and own every Laura Ashley dress on the rack. I did the washing and watched the telly.
Soon frost rimmed Oxford’s every cobweb and gargoyle, suddenly giving the winter mornings a radioactive nostalgic glow. During my last week, the temp agency called me and asked, out of the blue, if I could do another banquet.
The dons at St. John’s College were dining with American oil men. I arrived to find the wait staff almost outnumbering the dozen or so diners. We cleared some plates, poured some wine and then had very little to do. The head butler, a serious-looking man in a green frock coat, scowled at us and strode out of the kitchen. I waited, with a familiar sense of ineptitude, to be dismissed.
But the butler reappeared with a 15-year-old bottle of Beaujolais. He poured us each a glass. “Plenty more where that comes from,” he said. “Cellar goes all the way back under St. Giles.” The St. Giles Road outside was as wide as a city block.
The butler sipped from his glass, flashed us a poker face and pushed through the swinging doors back to the dining room. He had been laughing all night long without cracking a smile. The Beaujolais tasted mellow and sweet, and the kitchen staff would not let us stop drinking until long after the banquet was over. Oxford was frozen and empty when I finally stumbled home over streets I’d never known were stuffed with wine.