London, of course, isn’t all of England. Someone here likened it to New York, in that if you really wanted to see what America was like, you wouldn’t just go to Times Square and look around — there’s plenty more to it than that. So when a Tipoaa listener named Harvey kindly invited to drive me out of the city of London and up to Oxford, England, I gladly accepted.
I exited the stranger from AirBNB’s apartment on Thursday morning — he was nice and I appreciated the bed, given how exhausted I was, but the vibe I got from the place wasn’t great, so I quickly gave my goodbyes and went. I still had a few hours before Harvey and I were supposed to meet, so when the tube took me to Liverpool Street Station on the way out to Shepherd’s Bush, I decided to stop off and see if I could find some Internet to finish up some work on. I did — right in the middle of Liverpool Street Station (a bustling hub for all kinds of travelers, quite a few dogs, and a couple of crazy people), I sat with my laptop and did some writing. It was relaxing, in a way, to see all of that action pass by knowing I was about to escape to the quieter country.
Finally, we met up (at a Westfield mall, no less — Harvey told me it was one of the company’s first forays into England, and was even advertised as an “American-style” mall, which I guess it was), and I got my first taste of riding in a car on English roads. It’s a little nerve wracking, as you might imagine. The first day I was here, I learned not to walk too close to the roads in general — I’d walk on the left side of a road almost in the street, because in America, I could have looked down the road and seen that no one was coming at me. But then a car would come up from behind (because obviously in England, they drive on that side of the road), and nearly demolish me as it went by. In America, despite our bombastic nature, my experience is that motorists are generally forgiving of pedestrians. But the English have no such mercy.
And being in a car is a series of awkward, needless scares here, as if you’re trying to follow a dance that everyone but you knows how to do. The most frightening moments are right turns — your car screams out across the far side of an intersection, leaving you vulnerable, in my mind, to no less than four streams of traffic. But none of them advance on you, of course, because you’ve got the right of way, and you slide into the left side of the road again. Going straight on a normal road feels weird but not necessarily frightening, just like you’re traveling on a special ramp in a parking garage or airport.
The drive out to Oxford isn’t long, but I got a nice good look at the English countryside on the way. It’s, well, gloomy. That sounds like an insult, but it’s more appropriate than anything else — the clouds in the sky give a weird gray pallor to everything, and while the plants are indeed green, they’re sort of colorless as well. Harvey described England’s country as if the saturation had been turned down, the European continent as if it had been turned up, and America as if the brightness had been enhanced. I haven’t been to the continent yet (Tuesday), but I’d agree.
Oxford itself is a university town, in that it’s a town apparently made up of a bunch of universities. It’s also English, in that it was apparently designed over the years on a series of whims. Streets circle around and loop in undefinable ways as you walk them, and they come in all sorts of widths and sizes. There are shops characteristic of a college town, certainly — I saw a Games Workshop store, and even a Gap and a few drugstores, and we had lunch at a sort of asian fusion noodle bar chain called Wagamama (we meant to eat in what was supposed to be an excellent restaurant situated in an old church, but it was unfortunately closed for renovation). But there are also signs of Oxford’s long and distinguished history. We walked through a market in a giant old building, where vendors sold meat pies of all kinds and cuts I hadn’t ever seen before, and a little cake shop that made some just gorgeous creations.
The buildings were also spectacular. Just as I’d seen around London, there are buildings and areas out in the country that have just been sitting there for hundreds if not a couple of thousand years. History doesn’t disappear, it turns out — it just becomes the present. We stopped for a quick drink in a pub called the King’s Arms, a legendary place that was opened back in 1607, and didn’t serve women, says Wikipedia, until the 1970s. I tried to sit in there and imagine pints going out every day for the last couple hundred years, but it was just too much. Having finished most of my Young’s Double Chocolate Stout (one of the best beers I’ve had in England so far) probably didn’t help.
Afterwards, Harvey kindly took me to his family’s house — he’s a student at Nottingham who was home for Easter break. They live in what was formerly the stable house of a full English manor, right next to an old English chapel and a moss-covered graveyard. It was like something out of Downton Abbey or a fantasy setting (the gravestones in the church, especially, reminded me of what I’ve seen in Diablo), but of course it was just history, again, reminding us that it didn’t go anywhere. In the small village nearby (which I walked down a country lane to reach), there was a flower shop called The Blacksmith’s Daughter, likely built in the building that the blacksmith himself once lived and worked in.
We also walked out to the fields around the stable, where rabbits set up camp (an orange cat named Jack who lives with Harvey and his mom will often hunt them, with varying degrees of success), and a horse and a pony live on a small clearing. Out in the fields, where yellow flowers grew in wide swaths and England’s crops made their way up into the frosty spring air, there was definitely a certain peace, a quiet contrast to London’s frantic scurrying.
That night, his mother and he kindly laid out a dinner of Moroccan lamb with couscous for me, and in the morning they served a full breakfast, with bacon, black pudding (which I tried but didn’t quite take to), and sunny side up eggs and fried tomatoes. They were so gracious! I was so grateful. I could get used to this, an English country life.
Posted on Saturday, April 7th, 2012 at 4:40 am. Filed under general.