This is an excerpt of Grace Carhart’s blog post “Homelessness – Thoughts on Oxford and the Return Home” written about her year in Oxford, England. To read the full post, follow this link: https://atruercolor.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/homelessness-thoughts-on-oxford-and-the-return-home/.
The bits of England that I have left are slowly dwindling. I have the last few swipes of an overpriced stick of deodorant, bought in blatant rebellion against the European monopoly of spray deodorant. I have a few digestive biscuits, kept in the fridge to prolong their life. I have a bottle of lotion that I, perhaps stupidly, packed and flew transatlantically because a year abroad in one of the world’s most expensive cities has left me absurdly frugal.
My actions, too, have quickly slipped into a pattern of American regression – after a few close calls, I have stopped trying to drive in the wrong lane of traffic. I switched the language on my computer back to American English, though “realise” and “neighbour” sometimes sidle their way into my handwritten notes. I’ve reacclimatized to massively oversized grocery stores, loaves of bread that are full of things like azodicarbonamide and monocalcium phosphate, rows and rows of bottled soda, cheap domestic beer, and (God help us) vodka bottled in plastic. 8 ½ by 11 paper still looks a bit fat to me, but then, everything in America is just a little on the side of uncomfortably big.
I have been watching the BBC television show Inspector Lewis lately, which, as notable in the many sweeping helicopter shots, is filmed in the beautiful city of Oxford. Each shot brings something painfully familiar into focus: a glimpse of the University Church, the colorful houses on Holywell Street, or the unpleasantly sticky tables at the Turf Tavern. It takes only an elegant camera angle and a bit of imagination to send me back to Oxford, cutting through the alley beside St Giles Church to get home, wondering what is behind the Gothic walls of All Souls, or wishing away my American accent at the queue in the pub.
This city inspires incredible nostalgia in me. I believe that Oxford is particularly good at this; it only takes a brief visit before the outsider feels drawn in, like they have become words on a page of a story that has been in the works for hundreds of years, penned by Romantic poets and rebellious atheists and pompous dons. This curious feeling of participating in some great novel is perhaps the most evident at night after a rain, when the pavement is just damp enough to reflect the yellow light of the lamps. In Oxford’s ancient crooked streets, this light diffuses any sense of normalcy, propelling passers-by into some eerie, clairvoyant realm where time is suspended indefinitely.
It is astonishing to me how my own memory has created this world. To be perfectly honest, most of my time in Oxford was spent in a painful, cramped position over some book in the Bodleian or hovering over my laptop, wishing the hours would move just a little more slowly so that I could cram in three or four hundred more words before my body defeated me and I had to sleep or eat. By my estimate, I spent about 5,040 hours in Oxford. Maybe 1,500 of those were spent sleeping, 32 in tutorials, 430 commuting by bicycle or on foot, and 75 or so in lectures. Over 2,500 of those hours were spent studying. Throw into that mix conversations about academics, which extended into church services and over pints at the pub, and the vast majority of my time in Oxford centered on and around essay writing.
I’m certainly not bitter – that was, after all, what I signed on to do. And I think that to truly participate in Oxford life, one must be involved in some form or fashion of academics. It is a city of otherworldly beauty, yes, but it is functional beauty, pulsing with students and tutors and researchers, everyone pursuing some line of study. This place attracts genius – and, tied closely to that brilliance, instability. I cried more in my two terms at Oxford than I ever did in school before, and my American college has been no cakewalk.
Living abroad taught me many lessons, but perhaps the most effective was humility. I met and worked with all manner of people, most of whom were much smarter than I am or will ever be. Despite this, (nearly) all of my tutors recognized the limits of their own knowledge; they admitted openly when we talked about a certain topic outside of their discipline, and sometimes they even credited me as explaining something in a way that they hadn’t thought of before. This attitude was so refreshing after years of American academic arrogance (ever taken a philosophy class?). It reminded me that I am not attending university to learn everything, or even to learn a little bit of everything. Rather, I am learning how to learn more effectively, and I am learning to see how interconnected everything is, how arbitrary the lines of academic disciplines are.
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I miss Oxford. I miss the heady perfume of damp soil and cigarette butts and rusting bicycles and medieval stone. I miss Europe, too – the loud and passionate Sicilians, the variegated Londoners, the hardworking Dutch. I wish that I had answers for this inescapable and indescribable continent, which seems to be just as broken and confused as America (though I guess that is no surprise). My heart aches for the rising divisions that I see with Britain’s decision to leave the EU and, in a greater scheme, among the polarized politics throughout Europe. There seems to be no relief to jumbled economics and governments, no relief for the poor and the weary. I sit, somewhat guiltily, writing this post in an air-conditioned coffee shop in suburban Chicago, removed from all of the unsustainable and inconsiderate practices that powered the airline that ferried me across the Atlantic, that produced the high fructose corn syrup in my bread, that ground out the metals to power the battery in my mobile phone – the same practices that are fueling the Western world. I am confronted at every angle with conflict: the external conflict of clashing political agendas on a global scale, and the insidious conflict of the high price we’ve all paid in order to have those [cushy, armchair] political agendas.
This doesn’t change. I can’t flee to England to be relived from the strains that I am placing on the world, nor can I hide in my home country to free up space in my lungs. I can attend as much schooling as I want, in Oxford or elsewhere, but I will always be a burden, somehow, to someone.
My humility is hard earned and, as I am coming to learn, paramount to my continued growth and to my finding of any part of a home. Every day is another day that I must face my own arrogance, my straight A’s, and blissful ignorance. Learning is not confined to any city, or any country, or any stage of life. There is never an excuse for bigotry or condescension, because we all have, in some way, burdened each other.
by Grace Carhart, class of ’17