Posts Tagged ‘UK’

(image from surprisedbyoxford.com)

I’m a voracious reader of travel memoir, but I’ve come across very few memoirs set in Oxford, where I once lived and which still has my heart. (Which makes it an even better idea for me to write an Oxford travel memoir one day.) So, when I read about Surprised by Oxford on Sarah’s blog, I wasted not a moment in ordering it.

The cover – a view of the front quad of Oriel College, where author Carolyn Weber studied – made me catch my breath. I know those spires, rising so elegant and clean against that blue sky. I’ve got a photo, somewhere, of that same quad (though I’ve never actually made it inside Oriel yet). Even the title evokes the life of another Oxford friend: C.S. Lewis, who called his memoir Surprised by Joy – which I think Caro was, too.

Caro’s story differs from mine in several important ways: she is Canadian, I am American; she studied at Oriel while I earned my master’s from Oxford Brookes; she parted ways with the fiance she’d left behind at Christmastime, whereas I did marry the man who’d waited so patiently for me back in Texas. Most importantly, Caro came to Oxford as an agnostic, and I was already a Christian when I came.

But the places she lived and studied and ate – Blackwells Bookshop, the Bodleian Library, Jamal’s Indian restaurant in Jericho), even the streets – were all intimately familiar to me. I couldn’t turn a page without feeling a ping of recognition – high tea at the Randolph! May Morning at Magdalen Tower! Turn Again Lane down by St Ebbe’s Street! If there had been a map included with the book, it would have closely resembled my own internal one of Oxford. And although my faith story looks quite different than hers in some respects, the ping of recognition also extended to her journey toward God.

Caro is a scholar, a lover of literature and poetry – and she quotes liberally from the greats, including Donne, Wordsworth and so many others, as she struggles to make sense of this new faith which calls to her. She’s also, like me, a woman and a feminist struggling with what has long been a male-dominated institution (at least in the Protestant West), and a curious mind with a lot of questions. Most importantly, she is utterly, disarmingly honest about her questions and doubts and fears. (She also has a wonderful sense of humor, even slipping in the occasional pun for some comic relief.)

I read her story over several days, sinking deeply into it the way you sink into a long talk with a good friend. (The way, indeed, I used to sink into talks with Jacque or Lizzie or Nicky or Jo, when I lived in Oxford.) I pondered Caro’s questions along with her, rooted for her budding love story, and delighted in every single allusion to a familiar street or shop or building in this city I love. Short of hopping a plane back to Oxford, it was the best (beautifully written) way to assuage the longing for the place I still call home.

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When I posted recently about my trip to Ireland four years ago, I promised you a post about the Aran Islands, those three tiny specks of land floating off the western coast of Ireland. I find it a bit ironic that I came to Ireland only to travel to the very edge of it – but the edge can sometimes be a charming place. And this edge was a place of rest, and quiet, and utterly beautiful peace.

We’d found a hostel on Inishmor, the largest of the islands, at the top of a hill (tough to ride up on a bike, but exhilarating to coast down). This view from the front steps exemplified our views all weekend – sea and sky, a few charming buildings, and so much green:

Of course, there were also many stone walls, which crisscross the islands like veins. They were built hundreds of years ago, and they stretch all the way up the hill to Dun Aengus, a spectacular ruined fort (worth far more than the 2 euros we paid to see it):

The cliffs at Dun Aengus are high, with no guardrails or barriers – and when we arrived at the top, we snickered at the other tourists crawling on their stomachs to the very edge of the cliffs – how dangerous! And how silly! But (you can probably guess), after walking over to the edge and nearly being knocked flat by the wind, we dropped to our bellies and peered down over the cliffs, and the wind whipped up to literally snatch our breath away:

Not a swim I’m anxious to take, but an absolutely stunning view.

Since we were out on the fringes of civilization, with limited options for entertainment or distraction, the whole weekend felt wrapped in a kind of simple, peaceful quiet. We rented bikes and cycled all over Inishmor, coasting down hills just for the fun of it, and stopping to pick blackberries along the roadside:

That evening, we ate dinner at Joe Watty’s (the only pub around, I think), and were nearly done when a trio of men came in carrying some musical instruments. They settled themselves in a corner and launched into a set of traditional Irish music, complete with haunting penny whistle – and we sat and listened, spellbound. Colton said later that he felt like Bilbo, listening to the Elves’ music in the hall at Rivendell. Then we walked back up the hill in a light, misty rain. Perfection.

This photo, taken by Colton, sums up the weekend for me: the sunny weather with a hint of chill, the vivid green crisscrossed with gray stones, the wide blue sky and expansive sunshine, and the joy.

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Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
One of Dame Agatha’s most famous, of course – and the first mystery I’d read featuring Hercule Poirot, the little Belgian with the curled moustaches and the sharp brain. Quite an ingenious solution to a seemingly impossible murder story. (And quite amazing how Poirot always knows – or guesses – when people are lying to him.)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick
A truly extraordinary novel in words and pictures – part graphic novel, part children’s book. Beautifully written, and set in my beloved Paris (though Hugo’s Paris is quite different than mine). My favorite lines: “You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”

Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan
I’d head a lot of buzz about this book – it was a big summer hit, and an online kerfuffle about its cover image resulted in a sweet love story. But I didn’t finish it. I wanted to like the Kelleher women, and I wanted to care whether they all could stop griping and just enjoy each other’s company for once, but I found them all rather irritating – and found their dislike of each other unutterably sad.

Essays of E.B. White, E.B. White
I am a longtime fan of White’s children’s books (who doesn’t love Charlotte, Wilbur, Stuart and Louis?), but hadn’t read many of his essays before. I loved every one of these gems, though – White writes with humor, wisdom and a keen observer’s eye about American life in the middle of the last century. I particularly loved his paean to New York and his musings on farm life in Maine.

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, Judith Jones
I knew Jones only as the editor who championed Julia Child – and came up with the title for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But in this lovely, lyrical memoir, I discovered a woman brave enough to move to Paris and carve out a life for herself – and fearless enough to try any food once. I loved reading about her relationship with her husband, Evan, and her connections to so many culinary giants – Julia, James Beard, Marion Cunningham and many more.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg
A childhood favorite (read to me in sixth grade) and bought at the Strand during my weekend in New York with Allison. I read it on the bus ride home for the first time in 16 years, enjoying it even more because I’ve been to the Met now. (And appreciating some nuances of the story I didn’t quite catch as a 12-year-old. This is the magic of rereading.)

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, Trenton Lee Stewart
Fast-paced, compelling and often very funny – this is the second installment in Stewart’s series about the adventures of four unusually bright, quirky children. (A bit like Harry Potter, but lighter, and with logic and puzzles instead of magic.) I enjoyed it, and can’t wait to read the third.

Freud’s Couch, Scott’s Buttocks, Bronte’s Grave, Simon Goldhill
A wryly funny, deeply thoughtful meditation on literary pilgrimage – Goldhill visits five writers’ houses-turned-museums, wondering what compels us to make the trek to Wordsworth’s cottage and Bronte’s moors (among other locales). He’s a bit of a skeptic, so he skewers the myth of the literary pilgrimage rather than having any great epiphanies himself – but the journey is highly entertaining and thought-provoking. (To review for the Shelf.)

Heist Society, Ally Carter
I love Carter’s Gallagher Girls series (about teenage spies-in-training), and thoroughly enjoyed this story about a 15-year-old art thief, who plans a heist with a bunch of her friends to save her father’s neck (he’s also an art thief). Fast-paced, witty and full of fun characters (including a handsome love interest). I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

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I wrote a post recently about how my body and my soul – quite apart from my conscious brain – sometimes remind me where I was, and what I was doing, at this time four years ago when I was living in Oxford. (This happens occasionally with other experiences – every May I get nostalgic for the two weeks I once spent writing at Camp Blue Haven in the mountains of New Mexico, often before I’ve quite registered the date on the calendar.)

Each September, my thoughts turn briefly back to a weekend spent in Wales, with a fun-loving crew of American students. But then, a week or two later, they turn to a quiet few days spent in Ireland, with a boy who is my cousin in reality if not in name. (Our grandparents, and our dads, have been best friends for forty-odd years.)

Colton’s semester abroad in Galway coincided with the first semester of my year in Oxford, and I’d long wanted to visit the Emerald Isle, so I hopped on a plane in mid-September to spend a long weekend with him. (This trip confused my English housemates; one of them asked bluntly, “But – isn’t Ireland quite similar to Britain?”)

Maybe it is, but my experience of Ireland was perhaps different from most people’s. For one thing, I spent hardly any time in Dublin (a fact I’d like to remedy some day), and I didn’t really meet any Irish people – Colton and I kept mostly to ourselves. That first night, when I arrived tired from a flight bookended by two long bus rides, we ate spaghetti with salami and Parmesan, in the university apartment Colton shared with three other guys. And I’m no drinker, so I didn’t go to Ireland for the booze (though Colton let me try a sip of his Guinness, and his roommates urged me to try mead) – instead, I ordered a cup of tea at every pub we went to.

We spent one day simply walking around Galway, taking photos of red leaves and stone churches:

And later, we went on a long walk down by the river, where, as Colton said, the dryads live:

On our stroll down the River Corrib, we spotted a ruined castle on the opposite bank (Castle Menlo, though we didn’t know it then). “I really want to go over to the other side and find that castle,” Colton commented. We looked at each other, and ten seconds later we had turned around, heading across a bridge and down the other riverbank, determined to find the castle (which eventually proved to be in the middle of somebody’s cow pasture. Only in Ireland):

We climbed around on the ruin – there were, blessedly, no barriers blocking our way or signs telling us not to – and snapped pictures of the ivy-covered buildings and walls. Eventually, we sat in one of the windows and watched the sun setting over the river, not needing to talk much, just soaking in the beauty and the green leaves all around us and the mellow, golden sunset light.

Every September, when the winds turn crisp and the grass and trees seem to glow brilliantly green before they begin to turn yellow and red, and when I start craving Yorkshire or Earl Grey tea with milk in the mornings instead of summer fruit teas, I think back to that weekend in Ireland, and I remember the light glowing on the stones of the castle and the sun sparkling on the river, and the long, quiet walks and talks with a friend I’ve known literally all my life.

The second part of our trip took us to the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland – but those deserve their own post, which I’ll share soon.

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a week out of time

It’s been a strange week and a half. Back to the grind of papers, choir rehearsals, plowing through several books a week and typing up ACU Today EXperiences. (That’s alumni news, for you non-ACU readers.) Oxford felt like a week out of time. I didn’t do homework. I didn’t stress about being anywhere exactly on time. I didn’t worry about bills or housecleaning or commitments or even the way my hair looked. Instead, I walked several miles a day. I browsed in bookshops for hours. I sat and drank tea and listened to Fernando Ortega with Jacque and Janine. I took a bitterly cold walk across a meadow with four people I love. I had lunch with one of my favourite pastors in the world. I drank in the centuries-old, history-steeped, yet ever-changing air of my favourite place on earth.

Still don’t know what I’m up to after graduation. (My newly resurrected dream is to go back and work at St. Aldate’s Church for a year.) It’s frightening, and more than a little unnerving (especially as I get asked about it several times a day). I know there’s something out there for me to do. Just don’t know what it is yet.

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I am in heaven. HEAVEN. No, really I’m in Oxford, which is about equivalent for me. Today I walked round City Centre and browsed in shops for hours, eating a chicken pesto panini (toasted) on the run. And topped it off with a warm chocolate chip cookie from Ben’s Cookies, where they charge you by the weight of the cookie…mmmm.

Cole and Dawne are in from London, where they’ve been since Wednesday, and running off to the grocery store or some such. Jacque and I are soon off to have dinner with some of her friends…home-cooked, though certainly not American food. Should be fun. 🙂

I’ve been to St. Aldate’s, and shopping on the High, and to On the Hoof for lunch, and to Cowley for a church meeting (hOME, which used to be part of St. Aldate’s)…and I have a long list of things to do and see (and a few items to buy) yet. And I could write for hours and hours and hours…but I’ll have to do it later. Cheers!

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back to Oxford

I’m going to Oxford tomorrow!! I literally can’t believe it – feels like I should have been anticipating for much longer than this. I tried not to think about it all the time before Sing Song and Lectureship – and then my life exploded for three weeks – and after that, when I turned around, it was almost here.

Hundreds of ACU students have been through the Study Abroad program in Oxford since its inception. Some become more attached to Oxford than others – and a few of us become what my dad lovingly calls “obsessed.” It’s true. I felt like my heart was being yanked out when I left Oxford two springs ago – and though I’ve slowly healed and come to terms with it, I have always longed to go back.

So back I go, to a city that has been the same for hundreds of years and yet is always changing. I’ll go back to the same houses, with a new set of people in them; the same church, with a very different staff; the same narrow streets and green, flourishing gardens and quaint little shops, with the old and the new sandwiched in side by side. And I am coming back different. I am not the same Katie who left England on May 17 two years ago. I’m so excited to see what this trip will bring – lots of fun and nostalgia, I am sure, but also some important time alone and some wonderful new memories, and new discoveries on every level.

My plane leaves DFW in 29 hours. Ready or not, here I come…

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