When I first came to Oxford, it was the clearest, bluest, most beautiful early-summer day you can imagine. I walked from Jericho to the center of town, meandered my way up and down the High, turned at St. Aldates, and found myself, quite by accident, at Christ Church meadow, where everyone had come out to read under cover of glorious sunlight.
Not because it was beautiful (though it was), or because I had some idea, before I’d even come, that I should like it here (for I did), but because despite all the worries I had, and have, and always will have (they are many), I took a big sigh in that moment, let my shoulders relax (they had been stiff with adventurer’s apprehensions), and said “I like it here, and I am utterly, and completely, content”; because of all this did I decide that this would be A Major Place in My Life.
A few days prior I had sat cross-legged on my bed, clawing at my own skin, singing a terrified refrain: what am I doing? what am I doing? To escape the throes of banality, I was heading off literally into the unknown: not the carefree Eurotrip of student lore, but a three-month vacation with a vague starting point, an even vaguer ending point, and a whole lot of soul searching to be done in between. Because as a child I had been convinced that I would live, someday, in England—indeed, the logistics of this never once crossed my mind; nor did any flicker of doubt that it would actually happen—I chose Oxford as my jumping-off point. I thought: if I study abroad (even for just six weeks), it shall give me an excuse to be there; which is something, if you’re me, that’s always necessary.
So I came into London on a dreary morning; too proud to take a taxi, I dragged myself half across town searching for my hotel. I was following a printed-out map with no street names (this is not an attempt to be overly symbolic–I really was; but since it’s the truth, I’ll also accept it as a very nice metaphor). It started to rain, but I went on, without an umbrella, in ballet flats and soggy jeans, because I had something to prove. I did find the hotel, a good hour later. I think it was about fifteen feet away from where I’d started out. I was wet and weary. “Can I check in?” I said. “Normally, yes,” the concierge assured me. “But today, we’re having problems with some of our rooms. We will have to put you in a hotel across the street. Come back in the evening.”
It wasn’t even noon yet, so I left my bags and plunged into London. I needed food. I needed a beer, to quiet my nerves, which were starting to cause my whole body to shake. I had been to London only once before, with my parents, eight years previous. I had loved England–really, truly loved it. I felt almost relieved to be back, except that what I wanted more than anything was a shower and a nap, two things I couldn’t, at the moment, have. So I decided to walk to the British Museum—I think I wanted to ground myself in things that had been on this earth for infinitely longer than I myself had been.
I found my way to Marble Arch, then went down Oxford Street, where I discovered the horror that is Primark (and an H & M on every corner, I kid you not). All the way down Oxford St. to Bloomsbury. There’s a Starbucks across the street from the British Museum, did you know? I went inside the museum, and fought through hordes to see the Rosetta Stone; I went downstairs to the Muslim Art section, which was deserted and full of beautiful blue-green bowls. I started to become dizzy with the force of everything, so I came out, and walked all the way back to my hotel. I bought myself dinner at a little convenience shop down the street: cheese, crackers, chocolate, juice, and a small bottle of wine that I chose for its name alone: Oxford Landing.
They gave me a beautiful suite around the corner from Paddington Station, with the most comfortable hotel bed I can ever remember having. But they could have given me a pillow made of rocks and a cot made of nettles, and I would have slept. I didn’t even eat all my crackers before I was asleep.
And the next day I went to Paddington Station and I asked the ticket agent for a ticket on the next train to Oxford, and my whole body quivered with the thrill of saying those words. “I need a ticket for the next train to Oxford,” I said. And the ticket agent said, “Alright,” and gave me my ticket, for a small fee, and then there I was, on a train, going very fast, it seemed, through city and country.
At Oxford, I came tumbling off the train, followed by a veritable menagerie of luggage (can you have such a thing?–my bags were so unruly, I think that you can) and stood blinking in the sunshine, without any idea where to go. I asked a cab driver to take me to my destination. “Weee-eell,” he mused. “I could do that. But it isn’t very far, you know.”
He gave me directions; I said to myself, “hell, you’re young, you’re sprightly, you can handle a walk,” so I walked.
The further I walked, the more I started to think: “I’m going to like it here.” I went across the little bridge; I found George Street and went up it to Cornmarket; realized I’d gone too far and turned back around. London had been all grandeur; tall buildings, imposing structures, clusters of the ultra-hip or ultra-modern slouching down broad avenues. But this, I thought—this was someplace I could breathe.
Within a few weeks of my arrival, the weather turned from fair to foul, as if it wanted to test my allegiance. I donned scarves and leggings and opened up my big red umbrella and let the heavens, which had been so kind to me before, pour rain on me all the way from Jericho to the King’s Arms, where I would sit in the smoky haze and warm myself with cider. But the ground itself could have frozen mid-June, and I wouldn’t have cared. Whatever it was I went looking for that May (I still don’t know) I found, I think, on my first day there.
NOTE: The title of this post comes, appropriately enough, from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night.