Oxford doesn’t feel like mine.
It’s a funny thing to say about a city, but it’s true. It should perhaps be the funnier thing that I assume it should feel like mine, but I do. It’s the city which engendered Alice and Éowyn and Lyra–especially Lyra, dear Lyra–so I thought I would find a measure of my childhood here. I don’t.
It’s a curious thing to say a city is yours, but I’ve always felt this way about New York and London. The moment I set foot in New York City at 18, I knew we had an understanding, the city and I. My feet knew its concrete, my eyes knew its grime-encrusted sksycrapers, and my heart was lost in its subway steam. London was a kindred spirit in another life, and it possesses a stubborn sort of quaintness that, bless its soul, tries really hard to also be relevant in a fast-changing world. London is always playing catch-up, and in so many ways, so am I. London embraced me at 20, and I trod upon its cobblestoned streets with familiarity.
I sit on Will and Lyra’s bench in the Botanic Gardens and send my love for them into the universe. Others too have left markers of their love in more tangible ways, carving “Will” and “Lyra” and hearts into the arms of the bench as though mourning a loss.
In the distance, bells toll with no rhyme or reason, out of sync like a few fussy old biddies trying to have a conversation, talking over each other in a rush to get her word in first. As I had hoped, this bench is empty, devoid of fans or the casual rester, and I feel a measure of peace. This, I think, this is mine, when nothing else in Oxford is.
When I recall that I very nearly came here as a student, I am somewhat relieved I decided to matriculate elsewhere. I would be a different person altogether now had I enrolled at St. Hilda’s. Oxford is English, and I would only be tolerated, never belonging, here. Oxford is English, with her gardens, her houses of river rock, her punters on the Isis, her grand old buildings of golden sandstone, her coffeehouses with cream tea, and her blue painted doors leading into alleyways unknown.
Oxford feels properly English where London felt rather British–British with its Indian takeaway, tepid pints of yeasty beer, its Georgian townhouses with red gravel walkways, and its sweaty, stinky, sewage-y Thames. For all my love of Alice, Éowyn, and Lyra, in Oxford I fear I will never be more than that Oriental Yank with a love of literature, an occasional houseguest to be respected but never accepted. I will never belong here.
But that’s allright too, I should think. Oxford belongs to Alice, Éowyn and Lyra, not me. She is a secret city, is Oxford, secret and old, like something I’ve imagined in a fairytale. Oxford is my kingdom of make-believe, and maybe my sense of displacement stems from a disbelief in its reality. She’s like that legendary figure I’d always heard of and idolized as a child–only to discover the living, breathing city behind the legend is somehow what I thought it to be. I can see what inspired my imagination, but it’s like a puzzle all joined up wrong somehow.
Still, I suppose displacement is a reason to keep travelling. The day nothing feels new is the day there is nothing left to live for. Losing idols is just another part of the growing up process; I can only hope this odyssey of the soul will prove what I am, not what I am not. But perhaps that’s all part of the process too.
The rest of my Oxford photos can be found here, along with some commentary.