Recently, Jen took her first ever trip outside the United States. Please enjoy Part Two of this multi-part series chronicling her tale abroad, along with the requisite musings. Part One can be found here.
Note: The internet is full of posts by smart, photogenic people taking meticulously staged selfies at famous landmarks, so this travelogue is restricted to actual personal thoughts, including things I found fascinating and/or hilarious. This entry contains baby snatching, naked arthouse mannequins, and a brief moment of uncontrollable public sobbing. Off we go!
Thursday I bid adieu to London and my Airbnb, and headed to Marylebone train station. After walking probably 30 miles the previous few days, I was looking forward to a train ride.
Along the way, I people watched.
Observing morning commuters is wonderful. Just folks captured in between here and there, carrying their office shoes in backpacks, having a quick smoke, listening to earbuds or making calls. Breakfast places were full of business people in gray wool coats and scarves, enjoying their morning drinks (American-style coffee is called ‘filtered’ and everyone prefers espresso-based drinks). Students, construction workers (‘builders’), parents with kids (Holy Hot Dads in Moto Jackets – I was not prepared), musicians with big shapely travel cases (hard to disguise a cello or a French horn), and of course other tourists crowded the sidewalks.
For late October, everything was still very green. Cold crisp air and bright blue skies the whole morning, with only a sense of autumnal change.
Oxford was exactly what I pictured it to be: lots of little narrow streets and old stone buildings under three stories, shaded by gigantic oak trees. The word ‘quaint’ occurred to me. Being a Floridian, I am easily entertained since there’s not much architecture in Florida over 200 years old. Simple things like uneven cobble stones or covered bridges thrill me.
DWA: Driving While American
After leaving the train I walked about a mile to a nearby Hertz because I was feeling myself and pretty sure I could manage the whole ‘left side’ thing without causing any devastation. Plus, my next stay after Oxford was going to be in Penzance, Cornwall, and it would have been an 8-hour train journey.
Plus plus, I wanted to get around without worrying about schedules and stations and my luggage and whatnot. So…car rental!
While filling out the paperwork, I got the impression that the attendant was very, very concerned to be signing a car over to me. VERY. She also had trouble understanding my accent (I think she was German), so I spoke very slowly and carefully. I wondered if they’d had bad experiences with U.S. tourists, a suspicion which would later prove correct. Again, I resolved to NOT BE an Ugly American and to represent my country as full of people who are at least capable of following basic traffic laws and behaving in a sensible manner. Automotively, if not politically. So once all the forms were stamped, she handed over the keys with a trembling hand and saw me out to watch me drive away.
Baby Steps to Behind the Wheel
LET ME TELL YOU.
I’m so, so glad I started out in Oxford, with the tiny streets, light traffic, and slow speed zones. LIFESAVING. It basically acted as the intro level in a video game where you learn how to move, interact with your environment, and open your inventory without blowing yourself up or killing all the nearby friendly NPCs.
I approached driving in England as if I were learning how to drive all over again, except without the following stressors:
- An elderly relative shouting instructions at me
- A headful of hormones, as I learned to drive when I was 15
- 4 lanes of traffic
- A steering pump that would drain so I’d have to send my dad’s decrepit S-10 into a powerslide around corners, lest the engine die
- Floridians, who as motorists make the denizens of Fury Road look positively sedate
I had time, I had my own intelligence, I had insurance, and best of all, I had the power of saying ‘I AM SORRY’ and really, really meaning it if mistakes were made.
Except for a tendency to hesitate too long at roundabouts (the jokes are all accurate, THEY ARE A THING), I did very well. I did drive down a bus lane once at some point, which I was ticketed for once back in the states, but I consider one mistake without any damage or injuries a win.
Finding A New Home
I spent less than 24 hours in Oxford, but I wish wish wish I had spent more.
For one thing, my Airbnb was basically out of a dream.
It was run by a family who lived over the high-end vintage clothing shop they owned. There was a giant fancy ballgown in the window – the kind some great lady probably wore to some Guilded Age fete in the 1920s. You entered via a little door off the side of the shop window, and headed up some narrow wooden steps to a landing with bathrooms, a sort of breakfast bar area, the kitchen (which wasn’t open to guests but I was cool with that) and a sitting room. The sitting room had a giant red marble fireplace, loads of books, incredibly comfy couches, and a view of the roundabout below.
But best of all was my room!
It was cozy, the bed was soft, there was a wardrobe that I’m pretty sure led to Narnia, and the heater kept the room toasty. I spent about twenty blissful minutes gazing wistfully out of the window into someone’s backyard, just happy to be there. But then I noticed I was really, really hungry.
Oxford University and Subtle Baby Snatching
First, I found Oxford University. I found it 4 times in fact, because I kept missing the damn turn on the roundabout. I finally found a parking space near a conspicuous restaurant, paid my couple of pounds, and went in search of food.
Threading my way through the crowds reminded me that yes, Oxford is indeed one of the oldest and most prestigious universities on the planet. It’s humbling to visit its stones, especially for a country mouse like me. There are people working their way through incredibly rigorous programs of study (and also folks whose parents just had money, but still), whose lives will have no resemblance to mine. I wondered what shapes their experiences would take, and if there would be any similarity between theirs and a Florida girl whose ancestors were moonshiners.
I wandered into the Bodleian a bit, but didn’t spend a lot of time there. I had a ticket for the main exhibit, but alas, had arrived too late to get into the queueueueueu for it. But that was all right, because I had something else in mind.
After loading up on souvenirs for myself and the folks back home, I headed back to my car to begin Project Partytree, a secret mission I had set for myself way, way back in February.
Some Light Public Sobbing
Upon returning to the car, I set my GPS coordinates to Wolvercote Cemetery and started driving. I drove for less than twenty minutes. I probably could have walked, to be honest. I parked at a school and hoped the car wouldn’t be noticed.
Passing through the headstones, I read names of people I could never meet. I could only know them through the words chosen for them by others – Mathematician, Grandmother, Wife, Father, Friend, Artist, Resting, or Missed. Their time had ceased before mine, and there is no overlap beyond those words.
And finally, toward the back, I found the one I had come for.
There were no lights shining on the grave. No guard ropes or a building to house it, and there’s no one around. If you didn’t already know where one of the fathers of modern fantasy was buried, you’d just think from the gifts left on the grave that these people had a large family who misses them very much.
And it’s true.
I am unashamed to say I fell to my knees and cried quite a bit. Probably for lots of reasons (jet lag, blood sugar irregularities, sleep deprivation, PMS), but most of all because I was proud of myself for coming so far, for seeing this monument to someone I hold in such high esteem. For seeing the last place where they will ever be. Yes, there are some problematic aspects to his writing, but I’m not here for that right now and its beyond the scope of this blog post.
I was tempted to read some of the cards, but didn’t. It felt like peeping. So I set about my business – I got a crayon and some paper out of my bag, art supplies I had brought all the way across the ocean. I wanted a grave rubbing– partly for myself, but mostly for Achariya, who is an honest-to-God Tolkien scholar. She could give Colbert a run for his money.
[Author’s Note: I learned some time after that grave rubbings are illegal in some places. Usually there will be a sign, but since this was not a local landmark (SOMEHOW) there was no sign forbidding it. But frequent grave rubbings can damage stonework and thus do we wear history down over generations. I honestly don’t know if I’d do it again but the rubbing I made has brought joy to several friends, so it might have been worth the risk.]
I worked fast and was intensely paranoid that some docent would appear and chase me out of the cemetery. I finished my rubbing, creased it carefully, and put it back into the Ziploc I used to transport the paper. After a little more sobbing and thanking Mr. Tolkien, I got up to go.
Project Partytree was a success.
Steak, Ale, and Naked Mannequins
After Project Partytree, I went back to my Airbnb. My host recommended a local place to eat (Cafe Coco I think it was called) so I got cleaned up and headed out for dinner.
My steak and ale was supreme. Also, there some shoestring fries and a fantastic salad. By now it was in the 30s Fahrenheit and dark, so I headed back to my room to get ready for the next leg of the journey: Cornwall.
So that was Oxford! I barely scratched the surface and would happily spend a week there in a heartbeat.
Please join me for the next leg: Cornwall! There were terrifying staircases, clotted cream on scones, a tiny castle on an island, and the End of the World!
Have a lovely day, and thanks so much for reading!