‘Could you translate this passage, please?’

December 2001. Two things occupy most of my thoughts:

1) Sex
2) My upcoming Cambridge interview.

The first of those has been bothering me for a couple of years by this point, ever since I learned how to make myself come. My desk has a mini shelf just next to my bed, and for some reason, because it’s low down I pretend my mum can’t see it, or rather, I pretend she can’t see the teetering pile of books on it. The pile that started off as mainly Mills & Boon ‘Blaze’ but now contains a couple of Nancy Friday titles, too – Men in Love and Women on Top, to be precise, because these are the raciest things sold in WH Smith and even though Amazon exists now and they’ll accept my Visa Electron, my mum will ask what I ordered, and I’m not good at lying.

My sexual fantasies are more fluid at this point than they’ve ever been since, with no sexual experience at all to go on – even my first kiss isn’t until January 2002 – and as I read about other people’s kinks I mentally flit from sex with other women, to BDSM, to rape fantasy, to anal. Everything seems possible.

My path through life hasn’t been dictated by my parents. Ever since they took me to look at a private school and I kicked off at the mention of Wednesday afternoons being dedicated to sport, they’ve pretty much left me to my own devices when it comes to studying. I have one frustrating conversation with my mum, when I’m choosing my AS subjects, which goes something like this:

Me: ‘I want to do AS French.’

Her: ‘Are you sure? Why don’t you choose something you’re definitely good at, like Chemistry?’

Me: ‘I’m doing French.’

This conversation could have been motivated by numerous factors. My mum, also a French graduate, never used it once she left university, and therefore doubts its usefulness – I want to point out that she picked children over a career, but I don’t. It could be that I’ve been consistently good at most academic subjects, whereas languages, which require confidence to speak in front of the class, have never been my thing. It could be that she knows I have a hopeless crush on the A-Level French teacher. She’s right about that one – it *is* what’s motivating me. But it pays off. Towards the end of Year 12, I get called to see the Head of Sixth Form.

‘What degree are you thinking of applying for?’ he asks. He’s barely 30, and he looks about 15. I don’t believe for a minute that he knows where my strengths lie.

‘Er, French?’

‘Great,’ comes the response. ‘And have you thought about Oxbridge?’

I haven’t. Oxbridge is for people who’ve dreamt of it all their life. I have Durham in mind. But he talks me round, and I pick Cambridge. My memory is that this is because it’s only 20 miles away and it’s not worth going all the way to Oxford for interview when I’m clearly not going to get in, but this seems ridiculous, looking back.

I remember what I wore, even now. Black trousers, purple fitted jumper with a cute keyhole neckline. We’re specifically asked not to wear suits. I wait outside the interview room and when the candidate before me comes out, she immediately has to knock and go back in, because she’s forgotten her scarf.

Shit, I think, you’ve fucked it. I think they’re looking for perfection, not absent-minded scarf forgetters.

The interview is a disaster. It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious colleges in the university, chosen because my Latin teacher once had a drink with someone who supervises there once in a blue moon. I didn’t go to the open day. I have no idea if it’s right for me.

They’ve made us sit a written exam beforehand, and now I know I don’t stand a chance in hell. I’m interviewing for French and beginner’s Italian, because you have to read two languages, but naively, I’m not for a second expecting questions on the latter.

More fool me. The first thing they do is hand me an A4 piece of paper with an extract from an Italian novel.

‘Could you translate this passage, please?’

I stumble through it. Fuck knows how. I can guess maybe 20% of the words, but the grammar is a mystery. I can’t give them the perfection they’re looking for.

And I’m right about that, in the end. I’m not what *they’re* looking for, but a month later I’m interviewed by a different college where I’m asked bizarrely easy questions like ‘Do you like Rome?’ They make me an offer.

They’re not looking for perfection, I realise, looking back. They’re looking for a spark. Which is a lesson I still have to learn about sex.


7 thoughts on “‘Could you translate this passage, please?’

  1. Ah, the smut shelf. I have one of those – and contribute regularly to it, even now. It’s in our living room, up high enough, though, that small people cannot easily access its contents. Guests seem intrigued when they spot it. 🙂

    I don’t mind interviews, oddly enough. I think it’s because I go in with the mind set that I’m assessing them as much as they’re assessing me. The most important thing to me is ‘fit’ – and I can usually tell pretty quickly whether I’m going to gel with someone. In life and in work.

  2. Translate a novel passage for a beginner’s class? That’s … stupid! I’m annoyed on your behalf.

    However, I didn’t do languages in college because I swore I’d never sit another oral again… so I may not be the best (exam phobic) person to judge.

    • I think it is just designed to see how you cope under pressure – I panicked, convinced myself i’d failed and went for a large glass of wine between interviews. They correctly identified I’d fit in better in a more laid back college.

      I was equally paranoid about oral exams and speaking a foreign language in general. Now I think about it, maybe there was an oral aspect to the Oxford interview, which would explain why I picked Cambridge!

  3. It sounds like the second college was a lot better than the first, in the fact that they didn’t look for perfection, but for inspired students. And perfection… I don’t think it really exists. I’ll much rather go for imperfection and happiness. A much better combination 😉

    Rebel xox

  4. I was on course to go to Oxbridge until the age of about 16. Fairly bright although marred by bullying and the inflexibility of the National Curriculum, I finished my GCSEs with nothing below a B (although I cried for about three days) and chose subjects that I thought I’d do well in for A-Level.

    Depresson struck at the same time the new AS-Level system came in. Despite being told, by my mother mostly, that I would love the sixth form, it was one of the worst years I’ve ever had, and I ended up with mediocre AS-Levels (I cried for about three days then two). I worked a lot harder in year 13 and ended up, again, with average A2s.

    The upshot of this being that this boy who was once diagnosed as being in the top 2% of the country – at the age of four – ended up at a university which used to be a polytechnic. To be fair, it wasn’t a terrible university (and it was the only one out of all six that accepted me, so I didn’t have much of a choice!), but it certainly wasn’t right for me and the first two years were pretty appalling – my lifeline being events that happened outside of university, such as Woodcraft camp(s) and the band I was in – me stuck in my room, doing all my essays like a good little student, single, depressed, oh so very bored, suffering insomnia and IBS and, crucially, not being at Oxbridge, with the knowledge that future employers would take one look at my alma mater and laugh.

    I ot a 2:1 and cried for about three days. I wrote a sarcastic song about it once, which explains why my little soft rabbit is called Oxford, and rages at the AS system.

    However, those years of isolation at university did lead to a lare amount of sexual discovery which was completely unprescedented. I spent a lot of time learning about my own body: what worked and what didn’t, what I liked and didn’t like, what felt good and what didn’t. I’d had sex before (although didn’t have sex, not even once, through three years of university), but had never really thought about me much, concentrating almost entirely on her, and was still a little green when it came to sexual expression. Much as I didn’t enjoy uni, I did enjoy discovering who I was, who I wanted to be, and how I felt, by way of a glut of soft porn, a few erotic books, the first few sex blogs… and a lot of wanking.

    Maybe none of the universities I applied to saw a spark in me. I had to discover it myself first.

    TL;DR? I eventually, by a rather circuitous route, got a qualification from Cambridge, so that renders all of the above void.

  5. Pingback: On language learning and sex | Sex blog (of sorts)

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