Saturday, 14 June 2008

Formal Hall

Most of us have a vague idea of the British academic traditions: gowns, processions etc. It is all, however, very abstract until you participate in it. I had no idea that some colleges in Cambridge still have formal dinners once a week or more. I like it! I am very much for traditions, and there are almost none in Sweden. We do not even have gowns. I am for traditions because there are too few occasions for celebration in our hectic life, so every occasion should be happily grabbed at. I have learned this wisdom from the Moomin characters in the wondeful books by Tove Jansson. They never missed a chance for a feast.

I was invited to Formal Hall at Homerton College as Morag's personal guest, which is a great honour. I was worried about dress code, but Morag told me that any decent clothes would do. You don't want to be overdressed either. Formal Hall begins with people gathering at Combination Room. Now that I will soon be part of this community I must pay attention to the right names for everything. Not Common Room, not Congregation Room. Combination Room. I didn't pay attention then. In Combination Room you get your preprandials. "Preprandial" is a word you use when you want to impress native speakers. It is not exactly one of the thousand most common words in the English language. Ever since I learned it I never miss a chance to show off. There is, however, a risk that your native conversation partner won't know it. For preprandial you get sherry, which, my journalist husband claims, is the most academic beverage in the world.

After half an hour a gong announces that dinner is served. A train of academics, at least half in gowns, moves toward the Hall. I was awed. Yes, I have seen it in movies, but this was IRL. Together with other teachers I was placed on a podium while students sat at long tables below. Harry Potter again. Grace was said in Latin. I was now more thrilled than awed. This alone was worth the painful procedure of applying for the job. (Yes, I know that I have a tendency to become soppy).

When we got back to Combination Room for coffee, fire alarm sounded. We were not in the Middle Ages after all.

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