Listen to the audiobook of this essay:
(skip to 15:15)
This is the story of how an ice cream cafe got me through my English degree.
Every week at Oxford, I had a 2,000-word essay due.
It was generally understood that essay-writing was torture. I joined in on what I thought was a requirement: locking myself in the library and staring at my laptop the day before my essay was due. All day. Deep sighs, deliriousness, exchanging sympathetic groans – all required.
I thought that hard work had to be painful in order to count.
To be fair, pain is embedded in Oxford tradition. We’re the only uni in the world to still have a dress code for sitting exams. (That’s not the painful part – I liked sub fusc).
Exam season appears to be a picturesque parade of academic dress, a sea of students with a Valentine’s Day palette of carnations in their lapels.
In actuality, the carnation colours represent BLOOD. We wore a white carnation for our first exam, then pink, then red, symbolising bleeding for our degrees.
One day I realised that I could have the flowers without the blood.
I couldn’t bring myself to camp out in the library again, so instead I took my work to G&D’s, an ice cream cafe.
Each table was set with a fresh daffodil, held in a milk bottle. Cheerful cow imagery everywhere. I ordered an affogato – ice cream with a shot of espresso – and wrote.
It was so pleasant.
I had a lightbulb moment: It was possible to eat ice cream and take work seriously at the same time.
I came back to the cafe for my next essay, and the one after that. It became a ritual: I arrived at opening to claim my favourite table, order my affogato, and enjoy the stillness of the morning.
G&D’s equipped me with my favourite coffee, a lovely setting, and the perfect soundtrack. (It was always different, but timely. One morning, when I needed it the most, it was just Shrek on repeat).
I’d been clouding writing with misery, because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do.
When I started to do things how I wanted to, my quality of work and my quality of life improved.
I prefer to avoid the stench of stress-y air.
Sometimes I can’t control my environment. I couldn’t avoid visits to the window-less basement of the Bodleian due to book-borrowing policies. But I could bring the latest copy of Vogue to keep me company. I took breaks to flip through its glossy pages, bringing high fashion to my fluorescent-lit workspace.
These days, I set my weekly to-do lists by treating myself to a coffee at a cafe I’ve been meaning to try.
I take my notebook to the tops of crags to draft essays and read novels.
I bring my laptop to the bar of the Hard Rock Cafe to do admin among the tourists because why not?
I pour whisky for our monthly budget meeting – not to drown in sorrow, but to cheers our successes.
I designed my own study montage, and so can you.
You can dress up ambition however you like. Work is challenging enough on its own. No need for additional competition on who suffers the most. Let’s join Elle Woods, and bring fuzzy pens to lectures together. I’ve learned that if a method works for me, it’s acceptable.
During my master’s degree, a professor overhead my plans to transform my peer discussion group into ‘Oedipus champagne brunch’. By this point in my academic career, I was able to shrug off her disapproval and do it my way anyway. It was lovely, of course.