I passed the science buildings and Kebel College, walked by Wadham College and crossed Broad Street onto Catte, in the heart of the city center. There are thirty-six colleges in Oxford, and college buildings, chapels, and quads are spread throughout the city, a jumble of imposing buildings, interspersed with more commerce than I imagined. Broad Street and High Street and Cornmarket are lined with shops—sandwich places, mobile phone stores, American fast food places (argh… must Oxford have a Burger King and Pizza Hut?), bookstores, tourist shops.
In college I visited Cambridge once with my parents. I had been studying in a little beach town on Spain’s Atlantic coast—a difficult trip where eight of us stayed with an American family whose marriage seemed to be breaking (or already broken) and whose house was torn apart, mid-remodeling. I remember a half-finished stairway to the second floor, sheetrock and nails and plaster and an open roof, the husband sleeping on a mattress in the mess, our teacher slouching along with his Mexican accent and getting angry with me for drinking tinto de verano. (Our Baptist credo precluded any kind of alcohol.)
I had yet to master the art of bathing suits that looked good on me, or style in general, and spent four weeks with the awkwardness of trying to not be awkward in a foreign country, compounding my sweet-smart, somewhat-unsophisticated-and-insecure persona. I was cowed at the prospect of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. So when my parents met me in Madrid for a short European tour, I was thrilled to see them and alternately moody and mean.
I hold a little-visited string of wonderful memories and embarrassing moments from that trip in my mind. We rode a gondola over gorgeous Barcelona’s evening lights, sat in a street café drinking red wine in pain after walking around literally all of Paris (my mother was most in awe at the self-cleaning bathrooms at Arc de Triomphe), struggled to find a tiny fishing village in Scotland someone on the plane had recommended to me, only to find it, well, tiny. I was embarrassed at the time because of my parents’ solid American tourist mentality. They did not even attempt to be good Europeans, I thought. They wanted fat-free creamer for their coffee and real American ham instead of jamon serrano and generally talked loudly and shared food in restaurants in distinctly American ways. But looking back I am embarrassed for myself, my little aggressions, my lack of grace.
In the middle of that trip we visited Cambridge. It was cool and quiet, and somehow comforting. Gorgeous college buildings and chapels were softened with mist. We watched punters on the River Cam and had tea in a cozy shop—small tables, ham and cheese sandwiches with butter and grated cheese (or was that in Edinburgh…?). My parents waited what must have been an incredibly long time for me to pick out perfect matching Cambridge sweatshirts for me and my friend Shelley back home. All in all, it was lovely. I was charmed. And I expected Oxford to be the same.
If possible, I was disappointed with Oxford’s contrasting noise, dirt, and general commotion.
At the center of Oxford I passed the Bridge of Sighs, the copy of a Venetian bridge which looks incredibly romantic in pictures but really just connects one college building to another. The Bodleian Library, founded in the 1300’s—one of the world’s largest—was next, although I didn’t investigate beyond walking by the tower entrance. After that the round Radcliffe Camera with its domed top, which I found charming but couldn’t help wondering what inspired them to make it round. I eyed the café behind the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, one of the prettiest spots in town, and then made my way down to get a look at the Thames.
On my way down St. Aldates, I wandered through a bit of meadow by Christ Church Cathedral and began to be enthralled. Christ Church College is the largest in Oxford, founded by Wolsey in 1525 as an ecclisiastical college. The main quad is more than twice the size of most, with (of course) carefully manicured lawns with paths leading to a central fountain. The small cathedral sits opposite the quad entrance toward the right, and when you view the cathedral from the meadow to the south, where it’s surrounded by open space, it feels both quaint and significant. There’s a perfect spot for pictures by the meadow gate, where you can get flowers and college and cathedral in one shot.
I found the punts on the Thames, by a great little pub called Head of the River, with picnic tables right down to the water, and wandered back through town north on Aldates and Cornmarket and Giles. I passed the martyr’s memorial to Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer, an ornate tower in the middle of Magdalen Street—sort of a steeple without a church. I stuck my head in The Eagle and Child pub where Lewis and Tolkein and their Inklings met, passed St. John’s College where the Austens studied and walked back to Banbury Road.