When I take a picture of the city it disappears
The England trip was lovely I worked a lot but I walked everywhere and saw a lot of things. I fell in love with Oxford, which I don’t think I’d ever been to before, at least not so far as I can remember. London’s lost a little of the magic for me — more on that in a minute — but it’s still a beautiful place.
My hotel in Oxford was a bit of a walk from town, but was lovely. I was on the ground floor with a door off a little courtyard, so I could hear a fountain running at night.
I walked and walked. I wore out my feet. On Monday, I went to the Toy Factory’s Mother House in a building that was built in the early 18th century — “The new building” someone told me later in my visit, as he pointed to the old building, designed by the same architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. And then I met one of my favorite toymakers in his “rooms” — a combination between a faculty office, a small apartment and a castle. It had a stone fireplace that I could have stood up in, no problem. But we had stuff to do, o I didn’t get to try. But I got the tour of Hogwarts, where he teaches — no really, some of Harry Potter was filmed there — and to see where Alice Liddell used to play from Lewis Carroll’s former office, an 18th century library, a portrait of the founder, King Henry VIII. After my meetings, I took a walk down to the Thames and watched some boats go by, then walked along a wooded path that followed a tributary full of students punting drunkenly (it was the day after exams ended) and running into each other occasionally, past children playing cricket, past a botanic garden, through some medieval streets, and back to my hotel, collecting some groceries along the way.
On Tuesday, I went to visit an editor in his home full of musical instruments of all kinds (see previous entry). He also gave me a tour of his own side of the university and took me into the Bodlean Library, past where the tourists get to go. And I had a Pimms Cup by the Thames with a grad school friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years or so, followed by dinner.
On Wednesday, I spent most of the day at the Mother House, which involved a lot of running around up and down stairs through offices and odd little corridors, and once, when the fire alarm went off, out into the cobblestoned street, where I stood next to the tallest employee, a man who had to be nearly seven feet tall in heels, makeup, and an beautiful flowered dress. After the meetings, I headed to the train station where I stood in line behind a tall, thin man in a three-piece dark grey pin-striped suit, his bowler hat tucked into the crook of his umbrella. After I stood in the wrong place, entirely forgetting that there were classes and had to sprint for the car I’d paid for. After an hour of riding past sheep and suburbs, the grimy city buildings grew up and suddenly, there I was in Paddington Station. After doing a lap or two, I finally landed on the correct tube line to my hotel in a part of the city known as Pimlico, near Westminster Abbey and Parliament. My train was late and my detour around the station meant I was too, so I felt lucky when, after dropping my bags in my room overlooking a quiet square, I found a taxi waiting in front of the hotel. The ride to dinner, with another old friend, took me past the front gates of Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, and other familiar sights. Dinner was delicious and the company was even better. Finally back at my hotel, I slept like the proverbial log.
Thursday morning, I walked a couple of miles along the Thames to King’s College where I met with several people and got a good deal of work done. This was the main reason for my trip. Once the meetings ended, instead of heading back again, I went in search of the apartment I’d live in as a child, strolling through Regent’s Park, which I’d once known so well. It was a beautiful day and many people were out in the park. Several groups were playing what looked like the cricket equivalent of whiffle ball. I saw another group farther along doing what I thought was the same thing, but when I got closer, I saw that they’d laid out a make-shift baseball field with bags and sweaters marking the corners. But they were swinging the bat down low like a cricket bat. And when one woman paused at third, the rest of her team started yelling at her, “Run to fourth base! Run to fourth base!”
There’s something simultaneously reassuring and unsettling about going back to a place you once knew very well. It’s a very different kind of experience than seeing something for the first time. Thus was London a very different experience from Oxford. I was constantly on the lookout for things to compare to the London in my head. My apartment building was the weirdest of all, because I knew the smallest details and noted the changes — how the garden is locked. How there’s a door where there didn’t used to be one. And I remembered things I hadn’t thought of in years. How the neighbors’ dachsunds used to hurl themselves at the window when we came home from school. How the balcony down the row had a chow that had no visible eyes but which would turn its head slowly and watch as you walked past. How once, when my brother and I were in the garden, someone was painting.
Instead of going back through the scenic park, I cut through mews behind the building and out onto the high street, which was much less glamorous looking. The greengrocers is gone. So is the grocers where the elderly shopkeepers used to grab boxes from the high shelves with a giant claw and give us extra pieces of candy for our pennies. It’s now a souless minimart with a glass front. Near the tube station, I stumbled into a courtyard between several office buildings that didn’t use to be there. It was full of rows of colorful lawnchairs filled with people watching the World Cup on a giant inflatable television. I sat and watched for a while. Sometimes, when you’re traveling by yourself, it’s nice to be somewhere where there are a lot of people having fun. And then I took my tired feet back to the hotel where I collapsed, headed out for groceries for dinner, and collapsed again.
I spent Friday at a conference King’s discussing philosophy with some people I knew, some people I’d never met, and others that I’d emailed but never met in person. The day went fast. And then I was packing.
It was a good trip all around. I saw some good movies on the plane (American Hustle, Her, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and an old favorite, All the President’s Men) and some entertaining British television (a show called William and Mary about two single parents, one an undertaker, the other a midwife, who fall in love; and a positively hilarious German overdubbing of the original Star Trek). I had a full week of a room of my own, which, I must say, I kind of squandered. I left the country for the first time since my honeymoon. It was full of win.
And now that I’m back, I’ve got some new perspectives on things. It has helped to have a change of scene. And now I’m plotting a vacation for August, as yet unbooked, but we’re having fun looking at cottages by lakes and oceans. Sometimes the planning is the best part.