A Tourist in Oxford

Austere verticals on this unflinching facade stun the idle tourist.

I had a moment, by the open windows looking past two moldy chunks of parapet onto tall green-leaved trees, of perfect contentment. I wasn’t ecstatic but I felt no pain. I had two brand new books awaiting my perusal and a cup of tea on the windowsill.

How much did it cost to get me to “content”? Is such an experience repeatable? I doubt it. Emotions crop up when they feel like it, can’t be made to order. Anyway, if you factor in air fare and fees for the astrology course serving as pretext for my visit, my fleeting contentment is worth a good used car. Not a great used car.

There went the 9:45 pm bell riff from the iconic Magdalene College bell tower 50 meters distant. Quaint as hell. It’s hard to tell here what’s real and what’s simply quaint as hell. Except the architecture. Mind-blowing vistas of truly different shapes in truly different proportions make it clear as a bell I’ve entered a radically antique mental sphere.

The photo above might give you some idea what I mean although it can’t quite transport you to the spot. You can’t quite sense the impact of that formal facade. I gasped when I saw it. I’ve never seen a wall like it. It’s the bloody Bodleian Library I’ve heard about all my life without knowing why. I’m still not sure, except a brochure says Sir Thomas Bodley challenged “posterity to imitate these former good examples,” endowing the storehouse in 1598. In other words, 602 years ago. Wow. What else can an American say.

I was too late for a tour and anyway, I’m not sure I’d pay good money to be whisked through rooms I can’t loiter in. I’d much rather get a reader’s card and have a good look at what they’ve got, but that’s for another life, I suppose. How on earth could I ever manage to move to Oxford with a good enough excuse to handle priceless manuscripts?

Today, I preferred Blackwell’s 2-for-1 offer on Oxford paperbacks, selecting Ulysses by James Joyce and Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, two Dubliners, from the 20th and 18th century. I also raided Boots for toothpaste, body scrub, and waffle body buffer. Boots is a hoot. English shopkeepers, generally, are surreal. They have things going on in their minds you’d rather not know about, standards you yourself could never meet, the loss of which they’re struggling with. Something to do with Empire, I imagine.

I sensed this in Blackwell’s bookshop, when I asked if I could check my shoulder bag, which is de rigueur in the U.S. but apparently an imposition in Oxford. The woman behind the counter actually mumbled something about “having other things to do” than keep track of my bag. But she let me leave it, perhaps so she could continue aggrieved.

I did better with foreigners. A flashing Spanish beauty amidst garish Oxford souvenirs sold me a silly horizontally striped rugby shirt with a gaudy gold lame crest. I tried to explain to her what it meant to me, at age nine, to spend a year as a Spanish Catholic school girl, how different it was from my native Orange County. It came down to people’s ability to spontaneously sing and dance. She said she and a spanish co-worker laugh while they work and someone asked why they were so happy. They’re not happy, she insisted. They’re simply alive.

An Arab sold me two cheap Oxford t-shirts and asked me about my Wikileaks messenger bag. I told him Ecuador’d just granted Assange asylum. He was a bit distraught about the lack of “freedom” in England, which, he said, “is supposed to be so free”. He said he hoped things would change, and I said our having this conversation was proof that things are changing.

And then there was the fresh salad I bought at Pret, from a possibly Polish blonde with a gleam in her eye. And the phenomenal hot chocolate from Blackwell’s wee cafe, served up by another Spaniard. She took very seriously my questioning the ingredients of the mysterious powder that might become my hot chocolate. She also took seriously the application of fresh whipped cream, as the photo below attests. She says she’s annoyed to enjoy her job so much, as it’s not a very good job, which is why she’s studying environmental science, so she can save the world.

I was so moved by the experience I bought a cup and saucer for use in my rented room at Magdalen. It’s been accompanying this writing. Funny what contributes to contentment.

Not very vegan of me to worship this whipped cream.


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