I arrived in London to discover that the London Underground was experiencing heavy delays and had shut down most lines due to a strike. There is a certain irony to leaving France, which is notorious for its near-constant state of unionized rebellion, to come to England and discovering upon arrival that the spirit of organized resistance has preceded you. I was only put out for a moment however, and made my way to the ticket counter in a determined fashion. It helped that, while on the train, I had gained an ally. A young Australian woman called Olivia sat right in front of me, and we decided to explore St. Pancras station together. New places are always less intimidating with a friend nearby.
The station itself wasn’t too hard to navigate. The signage was only moderately awful and the fact that it was all in English completely made up for anything else. We located the ticket counter and also two pianos, one of which was being played enthusiastically and well by a young man who was beatboxing along with his playing. Olivia and I parted ways, her to her new home in London, and I to the Victoria line, where I crammed myself into a train that could have rivaled the Green Line after a game at Fenway. I eventually made it off, located the bus to Oxford, and collapsed on the upper deck.
I spent most of the ride to Oxford gently massaging my left shoulder, which hurt abominably. I’ve been lucky about injuries on this trip. Nothing dire has happened to me yet, and the few bumps and bruises I have acquired healed up without any trouble. I got sick once in Israel, but I drank a lot of water and rested for two days and I was fine. Somehow, on the way from St. Pancras to Victoria, I did something terrible to my shoulder. I think the waist strap on my backpack must have loosened itself without me noticing, because my shoulder was in so much pain I could barely move it. An hour and a half of careful massage did almost nothing to relieve the cramped muscle, and I simply had to hope that a few days of relaxation would fix things.
Katherine met me at the bus station in Oxford, and after dropping off my stuff in her room we wandered about to get me something to eat, and then to go out to the pub with some of her friends. They met us at a cute little place called “Far From the Madding Crowd,” which made me very happy. I had a delicious cider and felt extremely English.
I noticed at some point that I was automatically tuning out side conversations. My brain, so long accustomed to understanding very little of the local language, assumed that anyone not talking directly to me was speaking a language I didn’t know. I haven’t been able to eavesdrop on conversations for four solid months. Even in France I had to concentrate in order to understand what was being said, so casual eavesdropping was impossible. In the pub everyone was speaking English, but my brain took a moment recognizing it. Highly disconcerting.
The next day, the 30th, Katherine took me on a little walking tour of Oxford. We walked through Worcester College and admired the beautiful, wisteria-covered buildings, saw a nesting swan, and manfully refrained from stealing the Provost’s boat. Well, I manfully refrained from doing this; I don’t believe Katherine was tempted. But it was such a sweet little rowboat and would have been great fun to mess about in!
We also visited the Bodleian Library, which has been a dream of mine for years. As a visitor I was only allowed in one room, but it was still amazing. The walls were lined with ancient books, and the ceiling was painted with alternating stars and books. There was an old tome chained to the wall as if it might make a bid for freedom someday. Downstairs we also saw the hall where the Hogwarts Infirmary was filmed, and several rare and beautiful books on display.
I assume the displayed books change periodically, so I’m putting it down to either a massive stroke of luck or fate that the books carefully placed under glass were copies of Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and a book of heraldry open to the page showing the devices of some of the most famous Knights of the Round Table. Dear readers, I won’t lie to you; I swooned a little. Okay, I swooned a lot. Gawain’s two-headed golden eagle on a purple field was right there in the book on the second line down, and I just… had a moment. Never mind that his shield was described as a gold pentacle on a red field in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, there he was, right next to Tristan.
After I was done feeling up the books with the power of my mind (I would never touch them without gloves and an archivist! Also they were under glass, alarmed, and there was CCTV everywhere, I never stood a chance) we wandered through the Botanical Garden. Spring is a good time to visit a Botanical Garden. The flowers were absolutely lovely, and I took a nap and wrote in my paper journal while Katherine went to class. I also tried to visualize Lyra’s Oxford, and what it might look like to sit there and watch as the world walls thinned while she and Will sat next to each other in their parallel universes. A rowdy group of punters in flat straw boaters interrupted my state of fantastical abstraction. The man punting was doing an impressively bad job of it, and I suspect the Thames may have gained an occupant somewhere down the line. I missed it however, as the Garden closed just then, and I was very politely kicked out.
That evening Katherine and I ate in formal hall, which was basically a scene out of Harry Potter. I was enchanted. All the students present wore funny black robes with different styles denoting what kind of student they were. Katherine’s grad student robe was mid-thigh length, open in the front, and had shoulder tentacles. Completely fantastic. If only pointed hats were required…
We went to bed relatively early, because the next morning we woke up at 0430 to go to the Magdalene Bridge (pronounced “maudlin”) and listen to a chorus sing from the Magdalene Tower for May Day! It was magical, and there was a guy dressed head to toe as the Green Man, complete with green hair, ivy-covered staff, and antlers. We also ran across some folk dancers on the way to breakfast, and I did hear Morris bells at one point. I assume the Morris teams danced successfully, because the sun came up! It was a grey morning, but the sun definitely rose. Thank you Morris dancers!
Because we were up so early, I took a nap while Katherine worked, and then we headed to the train for the start of our next adventure: the Lake District!