First days in Oxford

I live in the corner room on the top floor of the North Wing of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.  I have a roommate.  We have two windows and a wardrobe; I have the lower bunk.  One of the windows slides open about six inches; the other looks out onto a spiral fire escape.  One morning last week I sat on the fire escape and read a book of short stories.  I should have brought a hot scone, just for the poetry of it.  And a cup of tea.  Next time.

The house sprawls.  It looks like it was put together by different people working independently—a tower of student rooms on one side, a library jutting out on the other, a sunk-level dining room blending into the back lawn.  Crooked staircases wind throughout the insides while curling fire escapes dangle from the outer brick.

It’s a twenty-minute meander to the city center, and I take my time.  The route to the grocery store takes me past The Eagle and Child, the pub frequented by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.  On my left I pass a hidey-hole of a bus stop shelter, a square cut into a wide brick wall about the size of a large closet.  I cross the street, looking right—left—right for cars.  I don’t quite remember which side of the road UK cars drive on, but I’m starting to forget which side of the road US cars take.  It’s not intuitive anymore.  I pass St. Mary Mags, the church I attended on my very first Sunday in Oxford.  Within five minutes of our entering the building, the priest managed to welcome each of us individually, seat us in the front row, introduce us to the congregation from the pulpit, and offer to buy us all pints at a pub after services.  I select my groceries and stroll home.

Home—I live here.  A place I’ve only ever read about.  I’m a little surprised every day.  During our first week, many of us attend Evensong service at Christ Church Cathedral, a soaring, solemn, joyful service in an ancient, breathtaking space.  As the choir begins, one of my new housemates whispers that maybe we can stay after the service and look around.

“Probably not,” I whisper back.  “The sign out front said ‘no visitors.’”

“We’re not visitors,” he replies.  I am amazed again.

Today we turned in our first essay.  A grueling, 2500-word mammoth to choose, research, and write intelligently in a week.  I don’t have the organizational skills or experience for this.  “Oxford: where your best is never good enough!” says our program advisor with an aristocratic snicker.  I write on the validity of modern interpretations of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich—and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.  My iTunes alternates between upbeat hipster songs to energize and focus me and the same choral song, over and over again, to steady me.  It rains through the night.  I finish my final footnote at 2:57 p.m.; submissions close at 3:00.  I sit back from my computer and start laughing.  This, too, is Oxford.  This is my life now.  I live here.

To celebrate our first essay, and also Abby’s birthday—22!, we took a tour of Merton College, ostensibly the oldest college in Oxford.  Tolkien taught here.  The agreeable guide takes us into the library, pointing out the architecture and explaining the medieval book exchange system.

“Are the floor tiles original?” someone in my tour group asks.

“No, they were added in the 15th century,” she replies.  “But they did come from a 11th-century monastery.”  Someone chokes on a laugh.  The unoriginal floor tiles are older than our entire country.

As we leave I fall in step with another housemate who lives on the floor below mine.  “We live here,” I say, and she laughs and puts her arm around my shoulder.  I’ve been repeating it all week.

Maybe, if I say it enough, it will finally sink in.

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