A high-vaulted ceiling, four long wooden tables, a fireplace or two, and floating candles describe Hogwarts’s iconic dining hall. At Christ Church – minus the floating candles – the dining hall is essentially the same. It was in this dining hall that I got to eat dinner every evening this term.
As an associate member, I was given a flat north of Oxford City Centre (“-re” being a British formality) in a little neighborhood called Summertown. I’ve probably mentioned this before. Nonetheless, each evening I would take the ten to fifteen minute bus ride into town and head to Christ Church. Old Tom would toll six times as I passed by the porter that never remembered my face. As most fall nights in England are chilly, I would pull my coat tight across my body and speed-walk across the main quad towards the staircase that led to the dining hall.
Dinners were rushed. Students packed into a tiny waiting area around 18:10 and ushered into seats around 18:20. Every dinner resulted in sitting next to people I didn’t know (until I made a dinner buddy with another visiting student – a pact closely related to a blood oath). Sitting next to strangers is not always terrible. After all, I would do it every day in NYC when I took the subway. However, dinner requires one thing that the subways never did: small talk. I loathed the small talk that would never fail to start up. It’s difficult and tends to be insincere. And yet, the food was well worth the “What are you studying?” and “Where are you from?’ questions. My happiness was easily bought with the three course meals we were served every night. Naturally, this dinner ritual became something to dread and to love.
And so, I wanted to share a couple short incidents of my time dining at Hogwarts.
- Would You Like Chicken With Your Napkin?
I am buttering my dinner roll, the lighting is low, and no one is talking. A British guy sits across from me and two Asian girls sit next to me. There is another guy next to the one across from me who consistently stares down at his plate. The servers (I never found out if some of them were fellow students?) bring the appetizer – breaded Brie. The British guy devours it with a clacking of knife and fork and follows it with gulping his fourth cup of water. At this point, I assume he is on Speed. Next to me, the two Asian girls whisper something to each other, and I place my roll down and begin to cut away at the Brie. The British guy only talks when he wants something (i.e. butter, bread, or water – at least he knows about the essentials). I give up on starting a conversation, and pull out my book. When the main course comes – grilled chicken – the British guy wraps up the chicken in his napkin. He pushes back his chair and jogs out of the dining hall chicken in hand. I shake my head and spoon some more potatoes onto my plate. Who am I to judge? After all, it means more lemon pie for me.
- A Glassy Fiasco
At dinner I found it nearly impossible to manage a friendly nod without feeling the rising anxiety of actually having to talk to people. I recognize this as a problem, but when most of the British students seem just as unwilling to start up a conversation it makes it all the more difficult. And so, I found myself silently eating dinner while watching two students talk about exams or jobs or something finance related. A lull in conversation led to one of the students wanting a glass of water. What happened next was a moment of topnotch comedy. With a potato on my fork half raised to my mouth, I watched as one of the guys picked up the water pitcher and pour it over his upside down glass. The oddity of it all was that he was intently staring at his glass while he poured. Only until the water actually hit the glass did he realize what he was doing. He jerked the pitcher back up saving most of the water. The shock saved him from utter ruin, I think. Nonetheless, the table erupted into laughter, and even I found myself laughing. The laughter dissipated, but like all “good” friends his refused to let him forget the slip-up. One student even ran down the aisle to rub it in by asking him “DID YOU REALLY JUST DO THAT!?” Though I felt bad for the guy, I too had the same question.
There are a few things you learn when you regularly dine alone surrounded by hundreds of people. Talking is hard. Countless times a student would turn to me and ask a cookie-cutter question, and I would answer with a rather brief answer to avoid taking up too much of their time so they could turn back to their friends. Other times, I found myself painlessly participating in conversations with whole groups of students. The ease of conversation inherently depended on my own mood. Rarely was it the fault of the other conversationalist. And yet, the small talk kills me. These questions seem flat. I have heard arguments that small talk is a jumping off point. Rather, I see it as full sprint into a concrete wall.
While at Oxford I attended a Muse Society event. The Muse group is an ingenious system of meeting people; imagine speed dating for making friends. I walked into the college bar at Merton College and was given a discussion partner. We sat down and had a fantastic conversation on topics such as our favorite books and religious beliefs. (It helped that we were served wine and finger sandwiches). After introducing ourselves, we broke through the social norm of small talk and entered into meaningful conversation. For a person I barely knew, I discovered more about this one student than any other student I met while at Oxford. Unfortunately, I only attended one meeting (the free one). That one event, though, encouraged me to shape my questions to mean something. Sadly, deep questions, unless expected, were never received well during the forty-minute dinners. And so, I contented myself with the atmosphere of the dining hall and occasionally participated in that dreaded small talk.
I suppose it is my own personal challenge to learn how “to do” small talk. Otherwise, I fear I may never make any new acquaintances.
Keep on keeping on,