Walking the Streets of Oxford

eagle and childOn that bright July morning in Oxford, England, I stood on Woodstock Road in my pajamas as the bus, loaded with my fellow college students, pulled away from campus.

(For the record, I have not stood in public wearing pajamas since those madcap college days.)

There they were, most of my associates in this Oxford summer studies venture, headed for Cambridge on a chartered bus, leaving me far behind. My alarm hadn’t gone off, and I had woken confused, and then, still disoriented, I had scrambled downstairs to see if my clock was correct about it being the group’s designated departure time.

So there I was, with a day instantly devoid of all commitments. Thus I did what I did so many afternoons that summer; I walked the streets of Oxford, without any particular destination or goal in mind.

Okay, sometimes the Haagen-Dazs shop was a pre-planned midway point in my walks, as was the bakery with the chocolate chip scones and the convenience store that sold the cheapest Coke bottles in town. I have this thing about victuals.

But I’d leave my dorm at St. Anne’s College, a college within the University of Oxford system, intending to head over to an optional lecture or to the Bodleian Library for research, and instead I’d head south on Woodstock Road until it became St. Giles’, passing The Eagle and Child (the pub C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien frequented) on my way into the heart of the business district. Sometimes it would be overcast or raining, but often it was sunny, albeit a bit cooler than the July temperatures of my Midwestern youth. In my memories, the streets were usually filled with pedestrians bustling between buildings both ancient and contemporary.

Often, I’d wander for hours, never setting foot in a building. And sometimes a shop or a church or a park would catch my eye, and there I’d go. I’d linger over secondhand books in tiny bookstores or peek inside arched doorways of cathedrals or check the food markets for new kinds of biscuits (no, not the Southern kind and yes, more food obsessions). Once, I decided to shop for clothes, not because I was in short supply but because I wanted to have the experience of clothes shopping in England. I had to guess on sizes, not being familiar with the UK sizing charts. I brought umpteen skirts into the dressing room, determined to prevail, and eavesdropped on dressing room conversation while ascertaining my size.

The skirt I walked out with is long gone now, and I don’t remember my UK size anymore. But I remember the store, and the people around me, and the curtained dressing room, and the feeling of finding a skirt I liked an ocean away from anywhere I’d shopped before. I remember the feeling of going about my daily business in a place so different from the American Midwest. I remember how my mind often wandered with my feet into a land of what-ifs. And for maybe ten weeks, England wasn’t a country I was touring; it was where I was living my life.

I’ve never made it to Cambridge, even all these years later.

But, all these years later, after making peace with my loss, I’ve been stunned by this simple thought: All those things I gave up, all those things that would have sounded far more impressive in cocktail discourse, all those things that fit neatly on a travel list or even a bucket list in a way that “wandering the streets” cannot, all those things that do have great value, all would have only been gained at the expense of the hours I spent walking the streets of Oxford.

In the end, if I were able to redo what’s been done, to recalculate my steps using the wisdom I’ve gained in the interim, there’d be no need for pause.

I would not choose to lose what I once chose to gain.

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