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Observing Oxford: Pret

Kaya Gadhia watches us all from her seat in Cornmarket Street's 'charming' Pret.

I will preface this article with an acknowledgement of the fact that the staff of Pret-A-Manger on Cornmarket Street have probably seen me at my lowest of lows, and for that I can only apologise. In fact, the frequency with which I visit Pret – to the extent that I often find my tired, hungover, or delirious body walking there on autopilot as a weird sort of stress response – is what provoked me to write this column. I know I am not the only one who has naively fallen into the off-red and white chokehold of a Pret subscription, and I am not ashamed. As a student body we have become blinded by the promise of five free coffees a day, or the temptation of a lukewarm and consistently just little-bit-too-stale, almond croissant. 

The liminality of Pret, specifically Cornmarket Pret, with its lopsided floors, uneven tables and illogical seating arrangement holds a sentimental place in my heart. It is a hangout spot for every state of being. In the many hours I’ve spent and probably wasted there attempting to work but instead people watching, I’ve noticed a perfect balance between people who have their act together, directly offset by people who very much don’t. From potential couples awkwardly sharing a post-coital pain au chocolat only to go their separate ways and ignore each other on the street for the rest of their degree, to bleary eyed students at the end of an all-nighter, dry heaving into their caramel macchiatos, Pret is a place for everyone. And it is probably the best snapshot of student life at Oxford I can think of. 

In fact, I remember one occasion in Trinity of my first year, settling down to revise for my Prelims, only to find myself sat next to one of the most cliched and textbook break-ups I’ve ever seen. The pained words ‘Its’s not you, it’s me’, ‘I just value our friendship too much’ and ‘I just can’t commit to anything long term right now’ rung through the upper seating area. This ordeal was made infinitely better by the fact that it was literally 9 am on a Tuesday morning, and the (now ex) couple were very clearly in their clothes from the night before. I didn’t question it at the time, but now I wonder – why choose to break up with your girlfriend in Pret? And Cornmarket Pret of all places. 

Taking this episode as  inspiration, I decided to conduct my own social experiment. As will be the case for the next three instalments of this column, albeit in different locations, I planned to camp out in Pret for the day, and simply write about what I saw. On a selfish level I wanted to find a justification for the amount of time I have spent there, overheating and overcaffeinated. But it would also inspire a point of reflection. As students we spend the majority of our time chained to our books, deadlines, and essays that we often fail to look up and observe what is going on around us. It would almost feel like a luxury to actively take the time to step back from my own academic world, be present, and observe. 

Of course, my intentions were fool proof, however I slept through my alarm this morning, and everything fell apart. 

Shuffling past a sea of college puffer jackets at 10:30 holding £4 plastic pots of mango cubes, sandwiches drowning in mayonnaise, and unacceptably milky porridge, I made my way upstairs. As I was embarrassingly late for Pret standards, there was only one desk available, and I soon found out why. Oat milk mocha in one hand, my pride and ego resting in the other, I settled down to work only to realise that the reason the table was unoccupied was because it was broken, and it immediately lost balance and crashed sideways onto the floor. 

Judging by the reaction (read: smug smiles), of those around me I knew I was not the first to make that mistake, but it did initiate a head-hanging walk of shame straight down the stairs and all the way back to the safety of college. I would have attempted to return that afternoon, but I knew I had already seen enough, and the customers had probably already seen enough of me. There might be a life lesson in this, as not a single student told me about the desk induced peril I was about to endure, but I think that might be too cynical. Instead, I would encourage you to look up from time to time and observe what is going on around you as you might find humour in it, even if it is at my expense. 

Although I have suffered many times at the hand of a lack of ice in the summer, or the fact that big Pret doesn’t make smoothies out of principal, which I will never understand, I have certainly saved money. With gratitude to my uni friends and every member of my immediate family bar two or three non-communicative cousins I have rinsed them of their free trials. In my entire year and a half as a student here, I have yet to pay for a Pret coffee, and I never intend to. Faced with the sad reality that there are no more people I can persuade to give me their free trial, I am lost. Of course, it is better for my health, and the stability of my heart rate to reduce my caffeine intake, but part of me will miss showing up to a tutorial, wired to the point of shaking by a poor quality black americano. 

From study dates, to break ups, to Union hack coffees, Cornmarket Pret is a place for everyone. Its charming wonkiness welcomes you into its open arms when you need it the most, and for that we can only say thank you. 

Image Credit: Palickap, CC BY-SA 2.0

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