My brother travels outside of the continental U.S. quite a bit, and every once in a while he mentions something along the lines of, “It might be good if you go see that place soon, before the tourism footprint destroys what’s there – or they close it to keep the place preserved.” These conversations were regarding various places in South America, India and few other destinations. Based upon my experience here, however, I would say they hold true for areas within the UK as well.
As I’ve walked around Oxford on my daily strolls, I sometimes hesitate as I begin to take a stair case or a step into a building. When I look down to place my foot in a solid position, I consistently notice that there is a sagging dip in the stone or concrete. This isn’t a design flaw and the steps aren’t sinking…they’re worn down from millions of other footsteps walking in the same place, day after day.
The sidewalks of High Street in Oxford are so crowded that it seems like you are occasionally swimming upstream to go somewhere when all others you meet are headed in the opposite direction. It was this way in London as well. And in Bristol. And in Bath. And at Stonehenge.
I think there are a combination of factors in play: it’s summer, it’s “backpacking season,” it’s sporting event season (World Cup, Tour de France, Wimbledon), etc. However, the locals say that it’s like this most all the time. Everywhere you turn, individuals, couples, families, groups of students…are all weilding their cameras, taking the same pictures of the same places. They get the shot ready…wait for one, two, ten or twenty people to walk by, and then…”click!” They get it, right before a tour bus drives in front of their view….or not. I’m sure there are many a shot that end up looking sometime like this (the side of a tour bus):
Here is a little movie of a street entertainer who was in a public square in Bath. I don’t know if you can tell, but there’s quite a crowd. That crowd was there before the entertainer started, and remained after he was done….
This particular day in Bath, I had just about had it with crowds as it was the day after I was kept up until 3:30 a.m. with the noise on the street below my window in Oxford. I went into the Abbey there in search of a bit of peace and quiet. The line to see the Roman Baths was going to require a one hour and forty-five minute wait, so I thought, “Hang the baths – we’ve got two hours so I’m going to try and find some peace.” As I walked into the Abbey, I was met with a full choir of local women singing a concert. Normally, I would have enjoyed this little surprise. At that point, however, I was thinking, “Quiet! Everyone just go home, already!” Here’s a peak at the choir and the inside of the Abbey:
I watched them perform one song and then looked around for the exit. As I was headed out of the Abbey, I noticed a small chapel area. These are common in the Abbeys around here – the one in York had a chapel, a prayer area, a reading area…several places to have quiet time. A sign on the entrance to the chapel said, “Quiet please. We ask that you respect those who have stopped to pray.”
Ha! I thought, “Okay – I’ll go in the chapel, pray, and enjoy the quiet.” This is what my face looked like with two hours of sleep after a long day while attempting to pray in the chapel…
I was sitting there in the corner, with my head leaning back against the wall, eyes closed and hands folded in prayer. The women were singing pretty loudly. I concentrated harder. The next thing I hear is:
I got up, left the chapel and tried my best to take in the beauty of Bath and the interesting architecture, Masonic mysteries, the beautiful bridges, etc. Flash forward two days…
Tonight I was sitting at dinner with other students and I heard them complaining about the mounds of people in Oxford, and how they were having to give directions to “the tourists” all the time. I thought it was funny because we’re students, but we’re also tourists. I’ve felt the same way, and I wrestled for a bit with conflicting emotions thinking, “People here are thinking the same thing I’m complaining about others.”
My brother is right. We “tourists” have to do the Earth right and try to avoid impressing upon her face footprints that are irreparable. So, what have I done to find a peaceful place where I CAN hear my prayers in my mind as I send them to God? I decided to go on a search tonight for that elusive prize.
I walked out of the college stopping at our Brasenose Chapel. I peeked in, but the large brass birds of prey looking down on those entering gave me the creeps. I walked outside the college and for a moment saw a beautiful light in the sky just over St. Mary’s Cathedral.
It disappeared quickly, however, and the noises of those on the street at night took over.
As I went back inside and headed toward my dorm room, I saw two students whom I’ve befriended on the trip. One was having a discussion about being a ‘big believer in meritocracy…if people are nice to him, he’s nice to people…’ Another had broken her toe and was going to the doctor’s office tomorrow. I traded one a ten pound note for ten pounds in change, went to get a bottle of water out of the machine and returned to my room.
I think for me, I’m going to find my quiet when I get back home. However, I noticed that in the short time the two students and I had our short discussion, I had relaxed.
I guess, sometimes, it takes interacting with people to find “a point of stillness in the heart of the city.”