Friday, January 8, 2010

Just came down from Oawxford, dahling

Steve here with one last post before we jump on the flight home. It's been an interesting exercise writing while traveling. I think both Sarah and I are finding we have to push ourselves to write, to look over our pictures for inspiration, and to keep up. As soon as we sit down to do it, it's quite enjoyable, but like any task that requires discipline, it can be slow-going at times. Fun though, and we are creating a bit of a living journal to look back on after our travels are complete. We've still got a couple more sites to write about, but they will have to be posted from back in the land of Vancouver.
But for now, I just wanted to write a bit about Oxford (the town and the university). We rented a tiny little car in London and headed out on the M40 towards our final destination, the Cotswalds. (Side note - bring a letter stating where you are staying, utility bill, and the dates from your hotel or people you are staying with when renting a car in a foreign country. It saves them putting a massive hold on your credit card...)  About 45 mins later, we wove through the windy streets of Oxford and after a scary wrong-way-down-a-one-way street and a face-off with a bus, we parked and wandered around. The building in the picture is Christ Church, which is the largest of the nearly 40 colleges that make up the whole of Oxford University. It was built in 1525 originally as a college for cardinals.  Fun fact: the Dean's daughter was named Alice and inspired one L. Carroll to write about her adventures down some sort of a rodent hole.  What looks like trees in front of the building are actually incredibly well maintained climbing vines (click on picture to enlarge.)
Strolling through the colleges, which are mainly intertwined into the streets of Oxford, I started thinking about my college experience. I started school at UC Santa Barbara, a very standard concrete and cinderblock institution on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. (I used to check the surf conditions by walking to the end of the hall of my dorm in the morning). Being right on the ocean was amazing but the concrete 1960s construction and massive student body gave the university the feel of a factory, pumping out degrees with not much care for each student. When I moved to Wesleyan University (Connecticut) for my junior and senior year, the difference was shocking. Wesleyan dates back to the 1800s, has very small class sizes, and a remarkable attention to individual student development. Critically for me, it also managed to maintain some of the mysterious college experience - that unknown quantity arising from secret societies, archaic school traditions, and collegetown lore. But then, stepping onto the ancient Oxford campus, with its darting passageways, hidden chapels (like the one on the left) and lofty spires, I realized the Wesleyan experience is in many ways the echo of this academic experience. Academia at that time was not something everyone did, it was a lofty pursuit in some ways but also one unrooted from the practical world.
Perhaps in response, academia wrapped itself in shrouds of mystery, myth, and traditions, which all combine to create a powerful sense of prestige and exclusivity. The inner courtyard feel is a great example. The picture on the right is of the square of the library, which is surrounded on four sides by towering walls and stained glass. There are heavy wooden doors scattered around the walls labeled with a specific area of study. Each discipline has a different door, which represents both the physical and metaphysical division between the outside world, and also between groups in the student body.
Darting through the colleges, there are twisting back corridors lined with cobblestones and just large enough for two people to pass shoulder to shoulder. The stones are decorated with intricate carvings and interwoven metalwork, the grass and trees are perfectly maintained, and each nook and cranny seems to hold a new surprise - a cafe, a chapel, or just another locked door into the deeper reaches of the university. I loved wandering around the university. It gave me a feeling I don't often experience - of yearning for a life unchosen. It would take years to even explore each college and many more to be invited into its traditions and secrets. But for now, its exciting enough for me to wander around and daydream about a different path from the thankfully happy one I find myself on. Traveling does that to you I suppose, and though it's bittersweet to envision another version of yourself, it also gives you a greater appreciation for the life you are living and have ahead of you to live and enjoy.
Ok, enough half-baked philosophy, time to jump on the plane and head back to Vancouver! More about the Cotswolds trip soon.


  1. Would love to visit Oxford and the Cotswalds! Thanks for sharing the pictures.

    Wanted to let you know this post is included in my edition of Carnival of Cities at

    Are you enjoying home? I am 8 months back in the States after a year in Spain. Re-entry takes some time...

  2. Hey Dee! Very excited to be highlighted on your Carnival of Cities. A year in Spain sounds pretty amazing. We are exciting to take the slow train up the Spanish coast. We're trying to decide whether to take the Mediterranean or Atlantic route. Thoughts?