One does like to keep an open mind when visiting a new place. That is why one is often quick to proclaim, “I have no expectations,” upon arrival. But this is hardly convincing. It would be more accurate to say that one does not know one’s own expectations until one is forced to realise how different the reality is from those expectations.I was consciously aware of my vision of Oxford as a place of learning, and this image remains unaltered. It was only when the bus was careening along the High Street toward the main bus station, with the backdrop of magnificent college domes and cathedral spires obliterated by the mob spilling off the sidewalk onto the asphalt for lack of space, that I realised I had expected the entire city to be like a hushed open-air library with pensive scholars strolling between parks and museums as much as between book stacks, and virtually empty of tourists.
Wordsworth may be partially to blame. I recalled his words as I watched the crowds on the High as one observes a train wreck – gape mouthed and unable to turn my eyes from the horrifying scene:
Yet, O ye spires of Oxford! domes and towers!
Gardens and groves! your presence overpowers
The soberness of reason; till, in sooth,
Transformed, and rushing on a bold exchange,
I slight my own beloved Cam, to range
Where silver Isis leads my stripling feet;
Pace the long avenues or glide adown
The stream-like windings of that glorious street,
An eager novice, robed in fluttering gown (Oxford, May 30, 1820, 6-14)
That same street was currently winding about as fluidly as a backed up sewer, and only a snail could glide adown it, if mounted onto the edge of the pavement and overhanging the asphalt.
It is embarrassing to have caught myself in such a misconception, especially considering the reaction from my own family when I informed them, almost a year earlier, of my planned studies this week. My partner immediately decided he would come too, uninvited, and spend his days admiring the various styles of architecture throughout the city. When my parents heard that “we” were going to Oxford, they directly booked their flights and a room in the same college and promised not to interrupt my academic pursuits. My aunt also thought this was an irresistible idea, and her and her husband booked themselves on the same flight as my parents. So I had the foreknowledge of Oxford’s charm on anyone that hears its name, but had failed to apply this information to my vision of the place.
On the other hand, Keble College, my home for the week, exceeded my expectations. The pristine red brick buildings decorated with high towers and stone engravings, arranged around a lawn as immaculate as a golf course fairway is actually a relatively new addition to Oxford, founded in 1870. This college was intended to “promote plain living and doctrines of the Church of England,” (English, 2014, p. 61) but this is poorly promoted by such grandeur, though the high-ceilinged dining hall decorated with tall stained-glass windows and polished wood floors does bring to mind a cathedral.
I quickly reconciled myself to the groups of tourists obstructing the streets, though I found that waking early was all that was necessary to escape them. I look forward each day after breakfast to a peaceful stroll, when I can watch the shop openers place their signboards out front and the delivery trucks make their rounds, and where I can pause, free of concern of blocking the passage of a walking tour, to snap a photo.
I always follow up with a cappuccino before making my way to Rewley House for my first session of the day. I have tried a different café each morning, though each has been equally inadequate. The coffee is made with either poorly roasted beans, or too few beans, or too much water passing through them, and the cappucini have consistently tasted like hot water with foam. I was reminded just how dire the situation was again today. I went into a place called Taylor’s, which presented itself as an Oxford institution by wrapping its building in an Oxford blue banner and claiming to be “Oxford’s gourmet sandwich & deli co.” I ordered a regular cappuccino from the young man behind the counter, then asked if he could make it strong.
“What do you mean by strong?”
I had no idea how to answer that. Was he asking me to define the word strong? But then, I understood.
“Ah, you only have one type of roast then?”
“Yeah, there’s just the one.”
I was surprised, having only two minutes earlier perused the large selection of bags of coffee beans available for purchase.
He continued, “If you want a strong coffee, I can make you a flat white. That’s the strongest.”
He was likely an Oxford student, possibly even a graduate. And yet, he thought a strong coffee depended solely on the amount of milk in it.
“Thank you,” I said, “I’ll just take the cappuccino.”
“Right, with chocolate, yeah?”
“No, certainly not.”
I recall reading in his autobiography that the Dalai Lama only drinks hot water, and to emulate any one of his characteristics cannot be doing harm.
I am not so sure the same can be said for the toilet paper in this town. Each sheet is as thin as Bible paper and as rough as the pages of parchment in the ancient volumes that line the shelves of the Bodleian Libraries. Two of these sheets are stuck together to create the equivalent of half-ply toilet paper. They also have the magical quality of disintegrating when any moisture is applied to them. Amazingly, any shredded remains that may manage to survive in the toilet will stay there, stubbornly, in defiance of numerous attempts to flush them away. I suspect they are too light to sink into the plumbing, even with the help of pressure from the flusher.
Despite these setbacks, I have managed to find a few treasured places and moments. The variety of tourists provides free entertainment sitting outside, observing unnoticed. I enjoy hearing a conversation already well underway, excited or content, in a language I don’t understand, and guessing what the topic could be, or using the few words or gestures I might comprehend to fill in the gaps where I don’t.
One of Oxford’s oddities is also one of its charms: the constantly changing resident population comes from all over the country and the world, and locals in the service industry have been nearly impossible to find. Yet I have only had polite and friendly service wherever I go, and even a few curious people marvelling at my own bric-à-brac dialect of English. The students I get to work with every day are enthusiastic, and many are returning learners who have already discovered a few secrets they are willing to share with newbies like me. Without John’s eager promotion, I probably wouldn’t be returning to Blackwell’s on a daily basis, each time negotiating with myself which books I should really be purchasing and how I will fit them in my single piece of hand luggage that I brought. This bookshop resembles a maze, with rows of shelves lining the walls and crisscrossing the floor, rambling vertically over disconnected flights of stairs, and even with a lower level beneath the city. It is a wonderful sensation to look up from a shelf-grazing session and feel lost amongst countless books.
After overhearing a few students talk about the Bodleian, I was convinced I had better make use of my student library card and go past the tour groups into the dark recesses where I could take in the soothing scent of dust clinging to medieval animal skin while sitting in perpetual silence.
The continuing education department organises daily activities for us. My favourite so far was the walk to the Perch, an old country inn in the village of Binsey with a secluded garden overhung with willow and fruit trees and dotted with picnic tables. The path goes through Port Meadow, a flood plain where horses and cattle graze serenely and feign disregard in the passing people, before meeting the main channel of the Thames, which meanders placidly between foliage-thick trees. We crossed this narrow section via the narrow, arched Rainbow Bridge. Upon arriving at the pub, we combined a couple of the unoccupied picnic tables and enjoyed a pint and excellent conversation together, while hunched under umbrellas as the rain passed over us. In the tranquil setting, with a content group from all parts of the globe in a variety of occupations, the bustle of Oxford was momentarily forgotten and I was left to reflect on the journey I had taken over the past two years to be there, in that moment, cold pint glass in hand and steady smile on my face.
Dalai Lama, His Holiness the (1990) Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Harper Collins.
English, E. (2014) The Victorian Traveller’s Guide to Oxford. In Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, pp. 65.
Wordsworth, W. (1879) Oxford, May 30, 1820. In Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes., ed. H.W. Longfellow, England.