This past summer I left my beloved state and visited a foreign land. The primary purpose was to take courses with a group of students from the University of Oklahoma School of Law in Oxford. However, I combined other parts of the trip with my regular marital policy work at OSU, and took a few days vacation to visit distant relatives I had never met. The trip was one of the best experiences of my life and greatly nurtured the Explorer within me. I’ve been working on cleaning up all the photograph links that somehow deteriorated during our move to the new site. During this process, I decided to put this guidepost up so if anyone would ever like to revisit the journey through my “40 Days in the UK,” they could do it all from one location.
Day 40 was 30 hours long. At least it felt as if there had been 24 hours + the 6 hours time difference between Oklahoma and England. And that’s putting things mildly.
On Sunday morning I left a city 75 minutes northeast of London and by Sunday evening landed on a very familiar Will Rogers World airport tarmac, right in the heart of Oklahoma. The time in-between those two events is a bit of a blur. Here are a few things I remember…
As I sit and write this entry my shoulders tell me this:
1) Suitcase = 61 pounds. The service person at the desk “…let it slide. After all, it’s not THAT much over 50 pounds.” [Really? Cool!]
2) Laptop = 6 pounds. I know. Please, no lectures. I realize there are sleaker models.
3) New bag = 7 pounds, crammed full. If the top had included a magnet clasp, the prospect of carrying that much clutter scooped in the last minute from my dorm room vanity would have been dismal. A zipper top is a thing of beauty.
4) Casebook, statues and handbook = 9 pounds, stacked neatly in a paper bag with handles. In the morning the bag had gleamed in its spotless, wrinkle free state. In the evening, the bag was hardly recognizable. Smudges, rips, one handle barely fastened. However, I got my books back. Good thing – they were 300 dollars. Young parents attending college must weigh this decision frequently: “Books? Or that child we wanted to have?”
Total poundage drug through three airports? 83 pounds. Sometimes at a dead run. Other times as a slow crawl. Never gracefully.
And as I wrote those words, “dead run” another thing came to mind. The magical beauty of an Express Connection bright orange sticker.
This little adhesive label allows the bearer to bypass thousands of people standing in line to get through customs and check-in counters because you happen to have been on a plane that arrived dangerously near the departure time of your connecting flight. Amazing – – leave one plane, go through customs, retrieve 61 pound suitcase, re-check it into another counter, ride the train to a different terminal, run like anything (with no regard for how you look to others at this point), and get to the connecting flight with 11 minutes to spare. Never mind that it needed repairs and didn’t leave for another hour or more. The magic of the orange badge had already been experienced.
When I got home and started emptying 83 pounds onto the middle of the living room floor, a small white card fluttered down from my laptop bag and underneath the coffee table. I stooped to pick it up, flipped it over, and saw that it was Brasenose College Library Card.
I’m not a big “souvenir” person. I don’t appreciate clutter for all the nostalgia it might contain, and I don’t do scrapbooks. For those of you who know Kelsey Sweger, she can attest to the fact that after a four-hour tutelage (and she IS a scrapbooking master), I have given up the notion of ever embracing the hobby. As I instinctively raised my arm to toss it into the trash pile, however, I hesitated.
I couldn’t do it. Maybe I’ll keep it. I guess I can have two souvenirs…my handbag AND my Library Card. And my memories. And this travel journal I’ve been keeping for 40 days.
Yep, that should do it. I completed my 40th day by sitting in the living room, way past my bedtime, talking to my husband, daughters and their boyfriends. I passed out travel gifts, listened to their stories about “how to jailbreak the iPhone 4,” what the girls did in Ecuador, and how Mick managed three yards at once while two sets of neighbors and I were gone. It was a perfect finish to my 40th day.
But as I composed this post one day past day 40, I didn’t have closure. One more thing needed to be done.
I lifted the top of my flatbed scanner, took the Library Card, and walked across my office floor. I looked around and decided it needed to be protected. Lifting the glass front to my antique 4-stack barrister shelves, I put it on the top row in the center, leaning against the back of the shelf.
I closed the lid and I was done. Tomorrow I return to work with my handbag in tow.
My fingers found the light switch as I continued to study the placement of the card on the shelf. “Well Done,” I thought to myself. And I turned off the light.
I am, to this day, a “Frasier” fan. The affected antics of two psychiatrist brothers raving about their less-than-stellar chocolate shavings atop their cappuccino cracks me up. The show’s writers blended a well-developed group of characters and scripting with the perfect mix of snobbery, culture, uncomfortable situations and physical comedy.
Take, for example, the ongoing desires of Niles and Frasier to become “Corkmaster” of their wine-tasting club. Watching their over-the-top “sniff, swirl, sip, swish and swallow” routine always sent me into helpless giggles (while wrestling with an uncomfortable anxiety – could they really be that ridiculous?).
So…I was watching a British couple decked out in their after-five attire walk down the sidewalk last night, her white feathered headband bobbing to and fro, and I thought of Frasier, Niles and their perpetual “dressing up” for occasions…and then the aforementioned wine-tasting episode as I noticed the couple was entering a posh hotel – a massive picture window view of diners eating and drinking inside. “Yes,” I thought. “There is my Day 39 inspiration. Perfect.”
Sniff – When I arrived in England I was completely disoriented. I had to breathe in the culture and test the question of whether or not to embrace my new adventure. The aroma of London was promising enough, so I raised the glass of my 40 Day Trek to chin level and pressed on.
Swirl – The nice thing about swirling your drink is that you are in control of the velocity, therefore having some influence of the blending process as you prepare for partaking. I took my time, met with those who were important to me, my research and my energies, and agreed that this was a good thing. Not too much, not too little; a manageable schedule with appropriate velocity. I swirled, ramping up my culture intake, and went on to Oxford.
Sip – A gentle taste of things to come was helped immensely by the staff at Oxford. “Here, my love, let me take your bags.” “There you are now, dear, new fresh towels.” “Oh no, you can’t find the bus in that direction. You’d best turn ‘round and head the opposite way. That’s right. All better now.” Sip too hard, your wine goes straight to your windpipe. Sip too softly, and you annoy those around you with a horrible noise [aka – too many questions of too many people]. Read the Law Conference Manual, ask for directions occasionally, go to class, take advantage of what’s around you…and your drink is appropriately consumed. Nice. Very nice.
Swish – The purpose of swishing is so that you leave no cultural taste-bud unstimulated. You fill every nook and cranny within your head, in this case, with aromatic information of the grape, vintage and year you’ve chosen to drink. “Oxford, Summer, 2010,”she requested, “One bottle please.” Included in this swishing were day trips, special lectures, events, studying, cramming and taking exams. The final and most intense swish was accomplished through my Family Law final – a culmination of excellent lectures, incredible reading load, and an exhaustively complex three hour test that took us through marriage, divorce, child custody, international jurisdiction and the utilization of the Hague Treaty on child abduction. Wait for it……[*gulp*].
Swallow – on the evening of Day 39 the wine trickled down my gullet as I walked the streets of Oxford one final time. I had three things to accomplish on the journey. 1) Purchase a souvenir handbag for myself I have been eying the entire stay; 2) Pay a visit to an establishment rumored to serve the best baked-when-ordered scones and tea in town. The spread did indeed live up to the recommendations; and, 3) say goodbye to Oxford. As I walked down Queen’s Lane that last evening, the warm afterburn of my drink in my throat turned to emotion-filled pressure…the kind you feel before a cry begins. I was going to miss this place. I’m glad I came. And, I was glad to be going home.
Breathe – On the first breath taken after a drink, the “finish” is revealed. Rustic flavors of ancient walls and scholars, berries from the bushes, cherries from the trees, and apples from the garden of knowledge filled my head and sinuses. The finish was a good one; in the economy of payoffs vs. investment, I deemed my drink a winner. I am the Corkmaster of my own journey, so the Frasiers can continue to argue all they wish. I’ll be enjoying my wine for years to come.
Analyze – This category is still a work in progress. As the information from my 40 days in the UK settles, gets categorized and utilized as needed, I may think about it differently than I do now. Right now, my analysis is that I’m terribly grateful to my family and my place of employment for supporting my decision to come.
As I ended my evening walk, I metaphorically put the cork back into my bottle for safe keeping. It was time to pack, time to rest, and time to think about returning home.
Oxford, Summer, 2010.
An excellent wine, a bountiful year, and if I were placing the value for the market listing, I would put “Sorry – unavailable. Upon examination, owner renders a ‘priceless’ judgment and refuses to sell.”
The gardens are nice. University Park is a wonderful treat. But walking along the curving way of Queen’s Lane in the evening on a cool night is the best. The BEST walk, in my opinion, in all of Oxford.
No cars. One or perhaps two rare bicycles. Three or perhaps four people…no more.
High walls, ancient rock, carved gargoyles and mountings. Long shadows, leaded glass, and cobblestones beneath your feet.
The Lane is fairly long for a street in the city, and walking around each corner reminds me of the feeling I first got when walking through a labyrinth made of turf and small shrubs.
Socrates described a labyrinth in this way:
“Then it seemed like falling into a labyrinth: we thought we were at the finish, but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first.”
However, at the end of my Queen’s Lane labyrinth, I usually find that which I was seeking…a quiet stroll in a foreign land, before I head back to my books then my bed.
On “Day 34” I laid out my case for categorical identification of people I’ve spied on the sidewalks of Oxford. It’s rather like bird watching, only with human beings.
Since then, I’ve become a local hero. Well, actually I was just validated by the bartender at the college pub plus one other person…but it was a wholehearted validation, to be sure.
Well, they listened to my theory for about five minutes and then put in their own two cents for about 55 minutes. But I think they agreed with me. Yeah, I’m pretty sure they did.
I had just finished my EU Law final. The professor says, “Hey lets go grab a drink before I go to Brussels.” So we go downstairs and start making small talk. The entire rest of the class has had hours of pub time with this guy, but since I don’t frequent the pub I’m not exactly sure what to do.
The bartender chimed in with some banter and helped out a bit. I asked the prof how many students he teaches each year. And then – not knowing what else to talk about – I just sort of blurted out my tourist identification theory. One hour later, the bartender and the professor were still talking about their own categories and having a jolly old time.
So, I suppose the moral of this little intro is that there is an audience for just about any type of writing. And, I know at least two people now who have spent years of personal energy also fighting the mobs on the sidewalks. Therefore, since I’ve now been personally fortified let’s finished this thing out, shall we?
We’re on category nine. BTW – my brained is conditioned for life on the phrase “number 9.” The Beatles and the 1970s backmasking scares have been imprinted my psyche for evermore.
9. I threw this one in here because I’m still a “Friends” fan. In honor of Joey’s famous not-so-manly man bag, here are the “Man Bag Dudes.” The big guys wear larger ones, the small guys wear smaller ones. But most all the tourists, the male students and any dude with a Euro look falls into the “Man Bag Dude” category.
I actually think they are really practical, and can’t see how you would get around town much without them. But I tell you true – there aren’t many back in Oklahoma.
10. This next category earns the “Most Annoying Thing on the Sidewalk” award. I’ve been a member myself, and I’ve struggled to get around them while NOT a member. It’s the “General Tourist Group” category. I could write an entire post on the behaviors indicative of this phenomenon. But I won’t. I want to stay in a happy mood today.
11. Next on the list is the “Women-Wearing-Hijabs Group.” I’m adding this category because it is a distinction I don’t see much in Oklahoma, even at our universities. If you look at demographics from various geography websites, you’ll see that Oklahoma has such a negligible Muslim population it is listed as 0%. In the UK, there are 2.4 million persons of the Muslim faith. So, I thought my friends back home might be interested in seeing that pink must be the “in” color this year!
12. This next category (see above) is another power group. I call them a power group because they stick together so tightly that you just have to sort of flatten your back against the wall and let them walk on by. These are the “female student groups.” Generally entrenched in a deep conversation, they represent a populous force in the sidewalk. As genteel as the business crowd is, these are the opposite. Spot them early, and look for exits in case of emergency.
13. I’ve already written about the Oxford cyclists. So I’ll just reiterate that they are many. They are legion. They are everywhere.
14. We’re getting close to concluding. However, there are two other groups I feel are noteworthy. In our EU class there has been a good deal of discussion about the still-ingrained class system within the UK. My bartender conversation I mentioned earlier also included a discussion about what we in the U.S. call the “transitional year” – – or the first year at a university. Like it or not, Oxford encompasses a student body who represent an enormous amount of wealth. The joked that the students learn one thing during their transitional year: “Okay – you’re rich, but so is everyone else…so get over yourself!” Along this line, I’ve noticed a sub-group around the streets that I’m classifying as the “Eurocratic Student Couples.” It’s interesting in that those who seem the most richly dressed and stay to themselves are frequently “coupled up.” I’m not sure why…but it is a distinction that I’m calling valid until proven incorrect.
15. I’m going to wrap up my groups with an outlier. In research, an “outlier” is something that doesn’t fall within the larger groups of data. There are a few around, but not many. In general, they are the individual older male tourist, or perhaps professorial, sidewalk folks. There is a female counterpart, but they are even more rare. This last photo is of an outlier gentleman I first saw during the pouring rain on Day 24.
I have to tell you that he got my attention because he was so incredibly kind. He smiled at every person in the room, tipped his hat as he did, opened doors for people, waved at people…he eked warmth. I later saw him in the post office, and then again once walking into a clothing store. If I see him again, I’ll just introduce myself and tell him he made it into my blog. Who knows…maybe HE has his OWN categories of those he meets on the streets. I can tell you one thing, though – I’ll bet he’s nicer to them than I.
As I end my Day 35 post, I am realizing I have a new goal. Next time I walk out onto the busy sidewalks of Oxford, I’ll try and put my invisible touristy-professory hat on and be nicer to those I meet.
After all, I think being an outlier is a really good thing.
(Note: December 8, 2010 – when we transferred sites, several of our photograph links got broken. I lost the photo of this man, unfortunately, so I don’t think I’ll replace it with something else. I’ll just sit with the memory of him. RDK)
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