January 3, 2006

11: Arrival

I arrived in Oxford in the dark, around 11:15 on Saturday night, on The Airline Coach straight from Heathrow. I looked through the windows for signs of romance and spires, but the city felt heavy and dark. The streets teemed with college students in going-out attire, and I—in my jeans and hiking shoes, with my overstuffed day pack and eau de travel—felt at once like a nerd, the girl who doesn’t have plans on a Saturday night. I wonder how Jane felt at seven, on her first foray away from family, a child here in the midst of the bustle of college life.

When the cab dropped me at 54 Banbury Road and I found the front door, there was a note giving a number to call, only my cell phone didn’t work because it was a UK phone and I couldn’t charge it until I got into my room on the other side of the dark, heavy door. The streets here outside the city center were nearly deserted. Verging on panic, I managed to borrow a mobile from a couple walking by, only to get no answer. Finally Dan, the summer school assistant, answered my exasperated knock to find me frustrated and travel-weary and nearly incapable of conversation.

My room was in the back on the second floor (or the first floor, the Brits would say – up one flight of stairs from ground level). Under flourescent light in the dark of night is the worst time to be introduced to a room like this. It is spartan, but not in the quaint old-English-hall way I expected—more in an old-70s-furniture-and-dirty-orange-ish-brown-carpet way. The walls are institutional cream. The blue blanket on the bed is dirty and upon closer inspection it looks like someone’s been sick on the middle of the box spring and it was never cleaned up. Perhaps the room is 12x12, with a window next to the bed through which tonight I can only make out a large tree, the fire escape, and some kind of path. There’s a desk on the other side of the window, a sink in the corner, and a small wardrobe. The toilet is down the hall, out in the main stairwell, but there are two showers on our side of the hall, which is better than I expected.

There is a fear hovering in my mind that I am all alone in the dark in a dirty, small British dorm room with no air conditioning, in a town full of hip college students of whom I am not one. I resolve to embrace said dirty dorm room and make it my own. My Austen books go on the shelves by the door, my red dress and sweater and gore-tex jacket and striped sleeveless shirt in the wardrobe, my bathroom stuff on the shelf over the sink. I pin up my map and a note from Bev and Jordan and Sandy on the bulletin board over the desk and open one of their cards (from Sandy, a picture of a guy carrying a huge orange tree through customs, with a note inside that says, “Bring me something” to which she’s added, “like a guy from Oxford,” which makes me laugh) and put it on the table by the bed.

Finally, sometime after 1:00 AM, I turn out the light. I leave the window open but there’s no screen and my foggy brain is thinking, what would happen if a bird flew in and can snakes crawl up to the second floor?

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