Larks tongues in aspic
I’ve been in England for less than 24 hours but already it feels like it’s been quite a trip. There are certain activities where you feel like your brain is mapping and remapping itself to accommodate the situation. One of those activities is visiting places you’ve never been before. Another is visiting places you’ve been to as a child and are returning to as an adult. I am experiencing both of these at once, which is mean that I’ve fallen fully engaged into the place I’ve landed, trying to understand both my past and future.
On the one hand, I am comparing everything to my experience. My first views of Heathrow and the customs line remind me of the very first time I arrived in this country, just after my ninth birthday, not knowing when I’d return to the country of my birth. I remember at the time comparing the world I saw outside the window with the one I’d left behind. Trees, grass, the same. License plates, different. Voices, different. Pebbles, surprisingly different. And now I am comparing my current experience with that one. I hadn’t thought about the license plates until I landed and then, looking out the window of my Oxford-bound bus, there they were, and there I was, age 9, staring out my hotel room window, noticing exactly the same thing.
On the other hand, I’m learning a city entirely familiar to me from books and the stories of friends and yet, as far as I can recall, I have never been here before. I say as far as I can recall, because I noticed in town a sign for Blenheim Palace, which I remember quite vividly visiting as a child. When wandering an unknown place, I feel like I can feel my synapses firing, building internal maps so I can find my way back. I’m sure the kind of hyper-alertness required for this task is a skill evolved through years of prehistoric hunting and gathering. Right now my maps are still sketchy, filled with enormous holes. Later, I will try to fill some of them in.
When I arrived, my room was not yet ready, so I left my suitcase at the desk and took a walk, not towards town, which had been teeming with tourists when the bus from the airport drove through, but the other way. I wandered along a winding street past a sign that read “Dragon School” (who wouldn’t want to go to Dragon School?) and noticed, just past the soccer fields, a number of people turning into a tiny walled lane. I followed it and found this:
A tiny bar and teahouse, wooden steps down to a river and rows of wooden punts, some empty, others being packed with picnic lunches, some filled with people poling them off down the river. I stood and watched for a bit, then headed back to my hotel, where I had a lunch of lemon sole and salad in a sunny window with the company of a good book and the backdrop of happy conversations at other tables. By the time I got the check, though, I was literally falling asleep over my book. Happily, I was able to get into my room and rest. And although I desperately tried to keep myself awake (if you’ve ever been to Europe, you know that it is perilous to sleep too soon), I did doze of for about an hour, which gave me the energy to do some exploring.
I walked down toward Christ Church Cathedral, stopping to take pictures along the way. The students are on their way out — the term ended on Friday. But some remain and the streets are packed with tourists. I heard so many American accents as I walked that I began to feel I hadn’t really left. Once I caught sight of St. Michael’s church, though, I remembered. You don’t see too many 1000-year-old buildings in New York. By those standards, Christ Church, built in the early 16th century, is a positive youngster.
Still, there’s nothing like an Evensong service to remind you that you’re in England. I got a seat in the choir, just next to the boys, some of whom looked like they couldn’t have been much more than 7. Their voices were beautiful and a little sad, or maybe that was just because I was missing AJ. AJ could not, in any case, sing along anymore. He’d be relegated to the back row with the older boys whose voices have passed the breaking point.
They don’t allow photography inside the cathedral, which is a shame, because it is beautiful. I spotted the graves of John Locke and of John and Charles Wesley. And the place is like a museum of stained glass, some dating back to Medieval times. There are a couple of particularly beautiful Pre-Raphaelite windows, one by Edwin Burne-Jones dedicated to a saint I’d never heard of and can’t recall, the other to St. Cecilia.
On the way out of the cathedral, I heard footsteps behind me and stood aside as the choirboys, now in black robes and black velvet caps, walked in a tidy line around the fountain, down the path and out into the street back towards the cathedral school.
On the way home, I wandered in and out of intriguing sidestreets, of which there are many, rather than take the straight path, and stopped in at the Oxford University Parks and walked across a very green lawn to smell some flowers I couldn’t identify. It smells incredible everywhere here. Roses, mostly. But other things too, things for which I don’t know the name. And it sounds beautiful — church bells and choir boys and buskers singing Hallelujah in the street (not the cathedral version but the Leonard Cohen one). And everywhere the feel of old stones — the warm glowing ones in the walls of Christ Church, the cobblestones worn smooth and bent of position like crooked teeth.