It’s been nearly eight months since my last post. In that time I haven’t learnt any new languages (although I’ve acquired a number of new books for my collection), but nonetheless I have been very busy! Instead I have been working very hard on my German, Russian and Yiddish, I finished my degree, and gave two talks at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin on Afrikaans and on how to improve reading and comprehension. I’d like to use this post to say thank you to those loyal readers, likers and subscribers who have stuck with me through this particularly stressful time in my life. Thank you for your patience despite the lack of any signs of life from me. Traffic numbers seem to have remained fairly steady, but there are now somehow twice as many subscribers and people connected via the Facebook page compared with when I last posted! If you’ve written to me recently and I haven’t replied, I’m really sorry, and if you send it over again I’ll get back to you! Basically I’m still here, and now I’m back, and there are some very exciting things coming up over the next few months on this site, which I will go into shortly!
But first of all, university. It’s over, it’s finished, and there’s now a huge gap in my life. I no longer have the tormenting thought of unread books, unwritten essays and unlearnt materials, which for the moment is a very nice feeling. I’m filling that gap with books I want to read, things I want to learn and places I want to visit as I gradually get used to being able to have personal interests and hobbies again. The sense of freedom I have right now is overwhelming, and I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced anything like it to such an extent in my life so far.
But the big question is: was it all worth it?
The four years that I spent at Oxford went by very slowly. There were definitely points where I felt frustrated or even trapped by the constraints of my course. At first I felt a bit cheated by the fact that although I thought I had signed up for a degree in Modern Languages, I had ended up largely doing one in European Literature. When I tried to branch out into Linguistics that ended very badly, and soon I was running back into the arms of literature, crying that all was forgiven and just pleading and pleading that I would never have to look at a syntax tree again. My main interests have always been in history, politics and current affairs, and in the past I’ve always tried to use my languages to understand them better from different perspectives, so literary theory is not really something I was immediately drawn to. But Oxford is a very demanding university and Modern Languages is even an extremely tough course, so I suppose it’s not a surprise that it pushed me to my limits and I always received far more criticism than praise on my written work. There were definitely times when I thought that everything would just be easier if I could escape and be somewhere else, sitting by the sea, living the impossible and elusive dream of doing “freelance work”, and not sitting in a freezing cold 16th Century library in the middle of the night reading an undecipherable German article about some death-defyingly dull aspect of Enlightenment drama that I’d never even heard of until I’d found that article, but somehow unwilling to leave and go home because it’s not the middle of the night, it’s November and it’s 16:30 and pitch black outside and hailing and home is far and the heating doesn’t work and at least the library is dry.
But it turns out that I’m not alone in having that experience. Plenty of people who’ve studied at university struggled with the work load, had issues with being disenchanted with their course, and not all of them do something directly related to it afterwards. However, years later it seems everybody talks fondly of their university years. They know it was hard work at times, but they also know how much going has improved their lives. The skills they developed, the friends they made, and the experiences they had all helped to shape them as adults and give them opportunities that just simply would not have arisen had they not had that piece of paper.
I realise now that going to university was by far not the easy option for me. Studying was a wake-up call: while at school I’d been able to drift complacently through the years without having to put in much effort, at Oxford there was no place to hide and I suddenly had to have discipline and motivation to get through it all. Work days were long, and often seven days a week. The sheer volume of material that we got through in a week is mindblowing. In Oxford you’re learning all the time, but this time you’re really learning – everything culminates in two weeks of 30 hours of exams in which everything you’ve learnt is put to the test. You only get four years to prepare for them, so it’s no good just using Google translate for your homework!
Some people seem to think students are lazy, or that going to university is what people do when they don’t know what they want to do in life. My experiences couldn’t contradict that more. I believe passionately that everybody should go to university, simply because I know how much I got out of it. I do respect everybody’s decisions on this matter, but just make sure they’re based on the right reasons. In the very last weeks of my degree when everything was doom and gloom I told my friend Emanuele that I was bored, tired, overworked, and that I didn’t even know why I was there and just wanted to leave. He told me that he understood, that he remembered feeling the same way, but that going to university was important because if nothing else it teaches you to think, and does so in a way that no other institution can.
So what now?
I’m officially unemployed! I decided I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to make important life choices while I was still studying, especially because of the onslaught of propaganda about working in finance and being “successful” that is everywhere in Oxford. So I’m taking a break – a gap year, if you like – in which time I hope my thoughts will become clearer and I’ll feel more ready to commit to something in the future. That may be further study, that may be work, the truth is that I just don’t know at the moment. So I’m having a think.
But I don’t mean “gap year” in the traditional sense of working 15 hours a day in McDonalds 6 days a week for 9 months and then spending two months racing round South America. That’s not really my style. If I was going to have a gap year I would do it my way instead, which of course means learning some more languages. This is the first time in my life where I really have a lot of time on my hands, and the freedom to structure it however I want. I’d like to see just what I can do in a year and where my own limits lie. And to help me do that I want to meet more language learners and get to know their learning styles, so I’ve enrolled on a CELTA course in August to teach English. And at the moment I’m in Budapest, looking for flats.