From the outside—with its ornate windows, magnificent stone details, and the adjacent, jutting precipice of St. Mary’s Church—the aptly named Congregation House seems more of a parish chapel or gothic chantry than a stylish café. Walking into the café, I noted the speckled-stone grave markers just feet from the entrance. I hoped the departed liked the smell of coffee, which filled my nostrils in a warm wind as I pushed through the glass door. “One latte and a piece of chocolate cake please,” I said, making my way nimbly in the crowded line. I looked up. The ceiling was rib vault, again invoking the feeling of a gothic church. The “congregation” was bustling and the room was filled with the harmonious clinking of various dishware and the occasional baritone sound of chairs moving–a hymn for the morning. From an elevated platform, an employee hurriedly stacked trays, looking like a lector in the pulpit trying to find the day’s readings.
After collecting myself and my food, a small rush of anxiety came over me. Where was I to sit? I found a lone chair in the middle of a long table and sat in the already warm leather chair, which was severely erect, most likely to economize the space in the slender aisle. I was surrounded by people on both sides, a concept wholly foreign to me. In California, you never sit at the same table as strangers. Although I was meant to be observing, I had the feeling I was the one being observed, as if people knew how odd this experience was for me or found it strange that I was alone and looking about. I began to doubt myself. How do people drink coffee in Oxford? Should I hold my saucer as I drink? No, don’t be dramatic, no one else is doing that. As I sipped my latte and pretended to be casual, I noted the large poster on the wall depicting a long-necked man (A monk? A scholar?) holding a cappuccino. The text below informed me that the room had once been a meeting place for the university council, known as “The Congregation.” I felt a bit important sitting in my cramped chair, as if my latte came with a bit of distinction.
I bit into my fudge cake—death by chocolate. It was certainly decadent! I was unsure if the cake was too rich for me or if I had just not had any chocolate since touching down in the UK. Ever since my arrival, things like chocolate and candy have been an extravagance I could not afford, but I decided to indulge just this once. I again cradled the pearly ceramic cup in my hand and looked towards the soft glow of the sunny afternoon, so common in San Diego but a transient rarity in Oxford. Despite the hectic conversations and close quarters, I felt that this was the first time I had been happy to be in Oxford since the day I arrived. Back then, the thrill of being in a new place distracted from the cold shock and bitter loneliness that infiltrated what was supposed to be the “semester of dreams.” Newly caffeinated and in good spirits, I welcomed an alien pleasantness that I hoped would stay.