Friday, 1 May 2009


After nearly four months, it is official. I am in love.

I know I promised to tell you all about my travels during break, and I will. But first I must convey to you my new found infatuation with the wonderful place that is Oxford.

I am taking a tutorial on C.S. Lewis this term, and so far I am absolutely loving it. Before now, I had never read anything by Lewis except for snipits of "Narnia." I had little knowledge of his work as a theologian and really didn't know what to expect from my tutorial. I just knew he was "kind of a big deal" here, so what better place to learn about him?
I started out with "The Four Loves," paired with Plato's "Symposium," which was a great introduction to Lewis. From the first few pages of his theology of love, I knew I was going to enjoy reading the profound thoughts this man put down. I was right. This week, I was assigned "The Problem of Pain," "A Grief Observed," and Sheldon Vanauken's "A Severe Mercy" as supplementary material. Both of Lewis's works were, again, profound and thought-provoking. However, it was Vanauken's writing which has ignited this new passion I have for this little city.
"A Severe Mercy" is an autobiography or memoir of sorts, telling the story of Sheldon and his wife Davy. The two find themselves in Oxford for a brief period of time, where they find Christianity and develop a friendship with C.S. Lewis. Letters between Lewis and Vanauken are included in the book. As I read Vanauken's account of their time in Oxford, I could imagine exactly where he was and what he must have been seeing. He wrote of the High Street, and how it is quite possibly the most beautiful street in the world. I walk down the High nearly every day, and sometimes I forget to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of Magdalen College, the botanical gardens or the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. But when I take a moment to really look, to take it all in...he is absolutely right.
This morning I participated in the May Morning celebration and watched the Magdalen College Choir welcome spring from atop the bell tower at 6 a.m. Afterward, my housemates and I went to the Oxford Union for a breakfast of sausage rolls, bacon baps, and pastries. Vanauken and Davy had done this as well. He wrote, "On May Morning, not long after the light appeared in the east, we had sat in a punt under Magdalen Tower with friends, hearing first a belated nightingale and then, from the top of the tall tower, the pure voices of little boys singing their Latin madrigal. When they had done, the tower bells rang out t welcome the Maytime in, and we, with the great bells still ringing astern, went off down the river to eat the breakfast we had brought." His words played through my head as we walked down High Street with the sound of bells and bagpipes in the distance.
Among the lovely memories of Oxford he recorded, he speaks most fondly of his time in the little village of Binsey and conversations had at The Perch,"that other country pub...with its pleasant garden." The man had been right about so much thus far, I had a feeling he could also recommend a good pub. So when we got back from celebrating May Day, instead of going back to bed, as the rest of my housemates did, I looked up directions to The Perch, grabbed my copy of "A Severe Mercy," and headed for Binsey.
Three miles later, passed the train station, across the Thames, and down a narrow road with fields and crops growing on either side, I saw the thatched roof of The Perch sticking out between the trees. I walked in, feeling a little underdressed in my shorts and T-shirt amid wine glasses and cloth napkins on the tables, but the bartender was still happy to serve me a white coffee. I took my delicate cup of coffee and pitcher of milk out to the "pleasant garden" and found an iron table set for one. I sat in the garden for what must have been more than an hour and a half, reading about the very place I was sitting in, and falling more and more in love with Oxford with every page.
I also did my fair share of eavesdropping on the British patrons while I was there. A nearby conversation caught my attention when I heard a woman say people who live in middle America have no culture. Little did she know there was a middle American sitting at the next table. Then again, perhaps I have no culture. I suppose it is all relative.
After I felt I had worn out my welcome, I said goodbye to The Perch, certain to return again. I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to Binsey, though, so I meandered down a path which ran alongside the pub toward the river. There I found a little dock, on which I spent the rest of the afternoon reading and sunning my white, uncultured legs. Every once in a while a fishing or rowing boat would pass by, disturbing the otherwise calm waters. Also every once in a while a dog who had wandered from its owner came to say hello. Sometimes they had just come from a dip in the water. On these occasions I was happy to be wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
By the time I finished "A Severe Mercy," the wind had begun to pick up a little. I resisted the desire to take a nap right there on the dock (I've been awake since 4:30 a.m.) and headed back to city centre. I stopped at Blackwell's on the way home, where Vanauken bought his first works by Lewis, to look for my own copy of "A Severe Mercy," but I couldn't find it. I'll look again someday. I only had a couple of quid in my purse, so I probably couldn't have bought a copy today anyway.
I arrived at home excited to share my new little corner of Oxford with the rest of the house. I hope I next time I go, I can bring more middle Americans with me.
I came to Oxford nearly four months ago, and there are still so many places I haven't seen, food I haven't eaten, and experiences I haven't been a part of. Today I am thankful that not only have I fallen in love with Oxford, my eyes have been opened to appreciate her for what little time I have left with her.