It’s cheaper to be a student

Anglotopia Day 15 – A college visit day

Back in the day, when I was a university student, I could get into the colleges for free because I looked like I could belong there. Now, as an adult, I had to pay to visit several of the more popular colleges.

If it was one place I had to visit, it was Christ Church. I still have my House scarf, and whenever the cold winter winds hit, it comes out of storage to keep me warm. I am proud of that scarf, of what it meant, and the memories I made there.

With my wallet £9 lighter now for admission – and let’s face it, too many £ coins in the wallet is way too heavy anyway – I was free to explore Christ Church college.img_6249

A visit to the dining hall – the model for the Hogwarts dining hall – is a must, especially if you want to test out how the portraits seem to have eyes that follow your every move. It’s a creepy optical illusion, needless to say. Against the one wall is also Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for the rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a large fireplace.

Then, of course, there was the dining hall stairs, used in filming some of the early Harry Potter movies, most prominently where Harry “sees” young Tom Riddle/Voldemort leaning against the lamppost.

The Cloisters walk was crowded with folks, but the cathedral less so. Check out some of the interesting gravestones in there (especially the very tall knight), and if possible, listen to a public concert or visit during Evensong. As in most cathedrals, the sound quality sends chills down your spine.

There is the magnificent Tom Quad, topped by Tom Tower, so named for the big-ass bell inside the dome called, easily enough, Great Tom. It was notably designed by Sir Christopher Wren of St. Paul’s Cathedral (London) fame. There is the Picture Gallery with some very famous works inside, and the smaller but grassy-island-dotted Peckwater Quad in the back. The library was off-limits to me now, but I remember the thick walls of books, the absolute silence of the place as we sat and studied. I was shushed once for asking for an eraser from a fellow student.

They take libraries seriously in Oxford. You can’t check a book out of the Bodleian. Doesn’t even matter who you are. You just can’t. That’s a hard “no.” So, it’s easy to see why people, myself included, spent hours there doing research for papers.

After Peckwater Quad, there is the quiet Canterbury Quad where the exit gate is located. In all, I probably walked around for just above an hour, wondering how I didn’t spend more time in this college when I had the opportunity to. Why I hadn’t explored more of Oxford during my free moments, or why I hadn’t gone beyond to other parts of England.

Funny, I lived in Oxford for four months, and I didn’t see nearly as much of it as I did this time around in three days. I want to blame it on my being a student back then and having to be a lot more serious than now, when I could be a quiet tourist. However, most of the reason lies in the fact that I was scared out of my wits to be adventurous and look beyond the routine I was comfortable with. To be honest, the thought of getting a bus, alone, and heading off somewhere was too much to bear.

After traveling solo several times now, I had to say – England was easy. I spoke the language, was understood (most of the time, anyway), signs were in English, and things were quite simple. No need for pointing, gesturing, and charades here. On my first trip overseas as a uni student, I didn’t have any confidence to go out and be a solo traveler. It took time and guts to develop. In my first year in Shanghai, I didn’t really go beyond the radius of my work, apartment, and the grocery store down the street – unless I was in the company of another person. The first time I took the Metro by myself – in April after my arrival the previous August – I was freaking out I’d mess up, get turned around, lost, die, get trampled (a very real fear for anyone who’s lived in Shanghai and traveled on the Metro at peak times), end up wandering to Mongolia – you name it.

Comfort zones are nice, and I knew I relied too much on them. When I thought of moving overseas, it was a “now or never” approach. I was hired in May, and I moved by August 1st. 13 1/2 hours later on an awful flight, I landed in Shanghai, put myself into my apartment, and when the door closed on me and the welcome people left, I sat around in the empty apartment and thought, “What the hell have I done?” I was alone, in China, freaked out out of my mind. I’m fairly certain the white walls and white furniture didn’t help either.

I remembered opening the roll of Oreos the welcoming committee had left for me in the apartment, sitting on the floor, and bawling because, holy shit, I couldn’t even process the choice I’d made. And I was twenty-seven when I did it – not some young kid, really. It was a monumental change, a shift in my thinking, in my confidence to use language to communicate well, and what it meant to be an American with a totally different mindset than the culture around me.

Five years later, five apartments later, 28 countries visited (trying for +30 by this summer), living in another part of the world from where I started, countless mishaps, misadventures, mistakes, and moments where, oh, my goodness, I can’t read a map to save my life, later, I’m still here to write about it. I wasn’t trampled to death on the Metro that day, I didn’t get lost, and I didn’t die in any other way, so I’d say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself … and spiders.

I can poke fun at my comfort zone self, and I have loads of work to do still in other aspects of my life, but I’m pretty damn proud of how I tossed the familiar and safe to the wind and went for it. I get told I’m brave a lot, but I don’t honestly see it as bravery. I just see it as another step toward sorting out who I am and doing what I’ve always wanted to do – see the world for myself, not just in books, movies, and magazines.

Seeing Oxford through new eyes and a new persona was really a wonderful thing. When you’re not afraid to push in a door and sit down by yourself, having a coffee alone, or depending on yourself, the world opens itself up in new ways. You get to have chats with some very interesting people, read that book you’ve been trying to read for ages, or sort out a new itinerary. It’s quite awesome. I love solo trip planning. I make the most of my time, for sure. That’s how you get to see four countries in a week and a half – a lot of walking and pre-planning.

I loved wandering around Oxford, not caring if I got lost, knowing that I could always find some way back.

And so, from Christ Church, I explored the flowery grounds of Magdalen College and a few other colleges which were open after examinations. Students slowly filtered out onto the streets after their exams, looking a bit dazed and worse for wear but nonetheless alive and happy to be finished.

From the top of the very, very old Carfax Tower (St. Martin’s Tower, 12th c.), I took in the city roofscape, running my eyes over the familiar spires and cathedral towers. The wind was sharp and cool, and despite the continual stream of visitors up there, I could be alone with the city.

It was my last full day to explore the city, as I was heading out to Bath the next day, and then on to London again to round out my whirlwind tour of the UK. I wanted to see as many green lawns, grand buildings, and jagged spires as possible as, who knows, it may take me another ten years or so to visit once more.



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