Bits of ordinary life from an extraordinary British town
On the corner of Longwall and High Street, the lights are still red. Layers of yellow and pink skies collapse into dusk. A racer bike brushes the curved sidewalk, spraying the rain in its wake and for a split second, I’m getting cold. Goosebumps all over, I watch the world go by; or at least, it seems that way, because my mind diverges, bounces off walls, searches for faces, triggered as Pavlov’s dog. By Oxford. I’m here once again – in my former home away from home, in this academic cove that for outsiders brands resumes, raises expectations, boosts first impressions and builds auras of ability. But to the one getting through the door, as intellectually equipping as it is for navigating the exterior, it proves equally infectious, putting a spell on those spending enough time here.
The front tire glides effortlessly, waving the water just an inch below my hopefully waterproof boots. The left hand break doesn’t work and stepping onto the flooded path is not an option. The rain has stopped for the first time in a while and I’m biking on the shortcut that connects Marston Road to South Parks, the path that crosses the Cherwell twice, then follows the University Parks hedgerow. It’s the first time in a while when my brain tunes itself into motion and wakes my body to its forgotten two-wheeled gravity center. Not a soul around and the field smells of salt; an occasional pair of ducks loudly flaps over the sedge. It takes about 10 minutes to cycle through, yet these 10 minutes seem to have forsaken Oxford completely. The meadow sponges off traffic echoes from Marston, one of the city’s eastern neighborhoods; the only signs of man’s deep control of the environment is the bulbous mosque of the still under construction Institute for Islamic Studies and the marshy sports ground shared by a bunch of colleges. Seems like an anonymous wilderness, that could be anywhere and everywhere, yet is all the more wild as it’s both a part of and an escape from Oxford. On weekdays, this is the quickest way for locals living close by to get to the city center; on weekends, rain or sun, the hurried working day cycles are replaced by roaming children and dogs that narrow down the path and sharpens cyclists’ navigation skills. For now, the sound of silence lingers still.
Biking here offers the best flashes of Oxford. Half a meter gaps open up between bollards at the end of Holywell Street; one usually passes through and carefully takes a moment to watch for cars going up and down the street neighboring Magdalen College. But add a gin tonic and you might find the openings not as generous; only the numbing benefits of over-partying in Maxwell’s, the bar where most parties end up eventually, might cushion your fall.
Oxford ranks second in the UK on the percentage of urban cycling population. Bike lanes here are part of the collective memory and every street has its tricks: Banbury Road is renowned for speeding buses, wheeling around the Radcliffe Camera always requires preserving your composure why your lower parts bounce at high intensity over the cobblestones; George Street is filled with passers-by oblivious to any traffic rule, while Woodstock Road is worth the risk of wearing your iPod headphones, as the straight line to high-end Summertown is simply dead-boring.
Yet there are those sheer moments of weightlessness. Overcome the peak of Magdalen Bridge and let your bike do most of the work, adjusting the grip on those handle bars weighed down by plastic shrieking Tesco bags, while you join the roundabout traffic by the Cape of Good Hope restaurant, where Cowley and Iffley roads meet. Welcome those cold November mornings when your woolly scarf filters your breath as you’re sliding down, Willie Coyote style, on St Aldates’ slope, passing by the Victorian-era City Hall, the Oxford Museum, too overshadowed by other city sights for visitors to actually get to see it, and break abruptly in front of Rudi, one of the porters at Christ Church College; under his black, solid bowler hat, he’ll be sporting a Charlie Chaplin moustache, geometrically groomed for Movember’s sake.
Just for a second or two everything went dark, as I sat there, cheek in my fist, looking out the window. As I open my eyes I see a blond guy, all hooded up in that familiar dark blue, fixing me in an annoyed way; he didn’t move an inch, but still, it felt like he was nodding in disapproval. But 10 minutes later, after I’m queen of focus once again, he’s the one asleep. Talking about library routine..
The lower hall of the Radcliffe Camera, called, with utter inspiration, the Lower Camera, goes round like slices of cake; most tables are T-shaped, trying to accommodate as many readers as possible. Empty at the break of day, with their polish warmed by the light falling from a short distance, the tables do a great job playing their sleek role in the rotonda dating back from 1749. As morning passes, they become intimate journals of the academic side of Oxford – all the fingers proficiently tapping keyboards, all the French manicures and rowing blisters, all that hesitation, day-dreaming and procrastination that comes with the student life, all those notes, highlighters and hand disinfectant threatening to spill over books and gadget wires that twirl around everywhere.
The most immediate victim of my library voyeurism is just the guy next to me, who silently agreed to share his laptop plug with me. If a list of the first things you notice about the person could illuminate a first impression, then he would definitely remain a mystery – his screen features bacteria moving around algorithmically, Michel Foucault’s „The History of Sexuality” on the table, one pocket calculator, equations worming on papers and an English thesaurus. You draw the conclusions.
I’ve never been able to spend an entire day in the library, despite what my imaginary, overly-ambitious alter ego had envisioned as a morally and academically rewarding experience. Nevertheless, getting a place in the RadCam is rewarding in itself and can overcompensate an underaccomplished to do list. At first sight, the details of a library day seem to belong to a gang of elitist semi-adults. But just go up the spiralling staircase, whose carpet covered metal will vibrate under your weight, go to the top floor and get your hands on that armchair by the window overlooking St. Mary’s Church. It is one of the very few. Feel its handles that put to shame any other chair in the entire building, spill your bag on the square-meter table that’s all to yourself. It’s no furniture paradise, but as the leather softly cracks, so does your stress as you sink into the generous comfort; you might also become very territorial, starting to signal every break you take with a „back soon” note.
Tourists visiting Oxford’s best libraries get a plethora of statistics, from the overwhelming number of books to the speed of adding new shelving and deposits to a jaw-dropping list of famous people who spent their young and old days here. Oxford also knows how to increase its aura of mystery by holding a tight grip on visitors, carefully shepherded not to obstruct the academic processes. But the inner world of a library revolves around a different set of references. Looking back, it’s still hard to peel the first impression of the library off the electrifying effect of a new home town. Its exquisite architecture, Corinthic columns, the windows that play with your eyesight, letting you see only a puzzle of the inside, they all become a background to lean on while you selfishly engage in cognitive affairs. On equal terms, the arched ceiling, the books – the old ones, spreading a tang of grassy-vanilla, and the new ones with their sharp smell of ink – are there for you to pause and rest your eyes on; and it might just be that those very moments of break, filled with utter beauty, make you grateful for being here.
Outside, people are making the most of the sun and have lunch on the sidewalk. One very self-aware tourist guide catwalks in his sturdy checkered suit as he preaches to this group just outside the entrance to the Vaults and Garden cafe, which shares a first floor with St. Mary’s Church. Most tours take place in a rather restricted area, with tourists from around the world swarming around Radcliffe Square, as their guides, be them professionals or students, do their routine. They remind me of Bill Leonard, a former entrepreneur born in London, who in 1992, became one of the few official Blue Guild Guides in Oxford. He admitted he started the job as he was fond of history and didn’t know much about the place, despite living here for many years. After more than 2 decades, he still wonders how he made it, but admits continuing for the sake of keeping him active. „Apart from that, it’s not a difficult job; nobody has died after being misinformed by a tour guide; otherwise, I would be a mass murderer.”
I get out of the RadCam, slalom the passersby on Brasenose Lane, then go right to Exeter College. It’s not 2 30 pm yet, the green light for visitors, but it’s my lunchtime and who knows when I’ll get my chance to bask in the sun again. I put on a confident strut, go through the door, around the grassy quod, pass two doors to the Fellows’ Garden, one of Oxford’s very best botanical miracles. It’s by far tinier than what Trinity College has to offer, and no, there’s no room for intimate cloisters as those in New College, but Exeter’s garden is luxuriant, as luxuriantly elegant can be under the skill of a dedicated gardener. Here the students play cricket, have picnics, but on their best outfits for summer balls, or simply use the garden to woo their first dates. The magic however, happens beyond the silver birches, passed the chestnuts and violets, up above the stony steps. Here you can take in the city’s core, without taking your distance; all that architecture is dubbed by noises from the street. Across, crockery jingles in Brasenose’s kitchen; a couple of kids stick their heads through the gate at All Souls’, that college closed to the public and to most students, but which teases you forever with a glimpse of the Codrington Library through its huge stained glass. As tour guides’ odes to Oxford rise towards the garden, here, on a bench, two Italian students seem to sprint through a conversation while sparingly chewing on their salami baguettes. I sit by them and it’s already 3 pm when I’m still scraping the salad box from the Alpha Bar, one the most reliable sources of salads in town. Red pesto lingers on the corner of box and the few pumpkin seeds left crunch up the broccoli; but my zen moment is over, as tourists crowd the garden. Unshaken, the Bodleian is still there.
It’s minutes before dawn and my breath comes out in short, toothpaste-minty gasps. The hill in South Parks is rolling into its milky greenery through the morning fog, while St. Clements, usually abused by the buses coming and going from London, is pausing. Only when I get to the end of the street does the outpour of youth coming out of Clemms, one of the few night clubs in town, tear apart the silence. Girls are hopelessly pulling up their tube dresses and smudge their mascara trying to readjust to the natural light. Some of them are walking around barefoot, giving me the chills, even through my elaborate layers of sweaters. As the bells are already singing, everybody speeds up to Magdalen Bridge and we dissolve into the crowd looking up from the base of Magdalen College.
The 500 year old tradition strikes again; every 1st of May, at 6 in the morning, a Latin song, Hymnus Eucharisticus, spreads from Oxford’s highest bell tower, in a harmony pinned down by the boys choir from Magdalen School. The tiny white-frocked youngsters are waving as people applaude; in-between a night of partying and balls and a day with street singing and dancing, this is the moment that’s shared by Oxford’s every generation, town and gown. Sure, the Thames Valley Police is on duty, following traces of alcohol and potential jumpers into the river, with just-in-case ambulances and guards patiently approaching party-people. A human humming replaces the music. A couple of hippies, all rainbowed in dusty-colors stop to scratch a shiny golden retriever. Two lovers are kissing in their wrinkly formal wear, some jolly old ladies are already fantasizing out-loud about breakfast. It might just be the only time of the year when restaurants and coffee places in town open outrageously early and serve champagne along refined pastries or traditional English breakfast. It is the first time that I’m actually awake to celebrate Labour Day, Oxford-style, when town and gown forget their divisions, and get infected with craziness. Later on, the streets will come to life with folk music, quirky costumes, and tomorrow, at least a dozen British newspapers will contemplate the odd tradition, stressing the number of scratches, head-jumps into the river or police statistics. But now I’m happy to replace all the jolly outburst with a rooftop breakfast, in the zinginess of supermarket strawberries and illegal movie streaming.
Article featured in National Geographic Traveler Romania, in the 2014 Summer issue.
(Top photo: Joseph Caruana)