Travelling Semi-Alone, Part One

Day one: Board your flight. Contemplate the fact that you are precariously poised 30,000 feet above certain death in a giant airborne metal box with a certain morbid glee. Contemplate the complimentary gin and tonics. When you’re finished, maybe ask the motherly stewardess (those red suits and matching pumps are so awesome) for another. Have a very nice flight.

Day two but not really because you went back in time over the Atlantic: Touch down in Heathrow. Find out why Audrey Hepburn always did her jet-setting in those trim suitcoats that seem cut entirely from one piece of cloth: namely, the sensible layering of blouse, cardigan, and scarf that grandma swore would ward off  pneumonia on the plane has dislodged, shifted, and wrinkled to such an extent that as you wait in line to go through customs, you wonder if it is actually, willfully attempting to strangle you. Scout out the territory. You are supposed to meet your host at Boots, at 7:30? Or was it 8:30? Get a cup of coffee, and when she names the price just sort of helplessly shove all your undifferentiated coinage at her. Even more hysterical energy. Realize your phone is dead and doesn’t make UK calls anyway. Sit down on your suitcase in front of Boots, unsure if this is the right Boots, the right time, if you will ever see your host or family again. Know that you look like a vagrant. Own it. Revel in it. Just as you are getting kind of excited about the prospect of traipsing around England on your own and sleeping in bus terminals, you see your host walking towards you and fling your arms around his neck. Ok, so maybe you weren’t that excited.

Day two again: Wake up, recovering from jet lag, in a room with a window seat overlooking the green of Christchurch college. Everything is green or stone. People down below keep walking around in something that looks like black tie. Apparently they must wear this to take exams? What is this place? The stairways in the college are twisty and given to nooks and skylight and doors in odd places. When you get outside,  past the heavy wooden gates bolted with metal who knows how many hundred years old, everything is golden stone, towers and spires sailing off against a very blue sky. You are surprised how blue it is, because this is England after all.

The streets and lanes are cobbled; it is a little city, and red buses and crowds of scurrying people traverse its roads. The stores are full of strange wares, the pubs serving strange foods everwhere. One street is somehow always filled with diaphanous bubbles, and always all that golden stone. It is a goblin market. Go through what seems like a thousand secret gardens with tiger lilies and lavender and flowers you don’t don’t know waving around in windy sunshowers, because it is England after all, and the weather does that. Go through what seems like a million college chapels occasionally austerely but mostly extravagantly beautiful, and filled with carved stone and wood and reliquaries. Later you will mainly remember something dim and glimmer of gold and dark red. At dinner that night with your hosts’ friends, a nice English man will ask if you’ve seen Oxford, and might he show you around the next day? You will, of course, say yes.

Day three: Drink tea in a squashy armchair at the top of a college, in a large open room filled with light and clinking china. Respond to his question about Dickens, but absently because you are listening to the conversation of two tweedy Oxford dons two squashy armchairs away. Keep reminding yourself that you are here. You must be a little fierce if it is to properly sink in.

Your date-cum-tour guide seems, you’re not sure why, to have escaped from James Herriot’s village–he is not from Yorkshire, but something about his square  face and slow, thoughtful kindness.  He takes you through more stone archways and past deer parks (with deer!) and along the little river,  but your real attention is on the pub at the end of the tour–the pub where the Inklings apparently met, but you don’t even think about that, because you aren’t really thinking at all–you are just noticing how low the ceilings are, how so much dark wood and small space can allow the sunlight to gleam  and dimple around the table and the foam on the Guinness. There are so many different kinds of light here. It is a very good pint.

Day four: Leave for Cambridge, which is just like Oxford, except different. It is a little town, not a little city, and completely flat except for one very steep hill which you will climb and descend exactly a half million times. The houses are small, with sharp slanting roofs roofs, and interspersed with the shops and pubs. The restaurants all seem incredibly delicious, but your impressions will probably be colored by that fact that you are subsisting on breakfast and a pint a day. It’s quieter here, and the sky seems wider and pink and gray, and there is one moment stooping under the low frame into the pub and staying suspended, as you cross the threshold, between the street folded up in the pink warm dusk and the cool chinking, murmuring interior that is your whole summer.

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2 thoughts on “Travelling Semi-Alone, Part One

  1. Every word is simply pulling at my heart strings. I went to Oxford exactly once, last winter, and it is as magical as you describe. I sat in an armchair at the top of a college, and it felt like a middle earth.

  2. Pingback: Travelling Semi-Alone, Part Two « Babes in Babylon

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