I found myself on a morning train to Oxford on a sunny Sunday morning, my trip to the UK nearly reaching its finale. Strangers sit across from each other, and have one of two options. Ignore each other entirely, or bridge the gap between each other for a moment. I began the train trip with the former in mind as two French ladies took the seats next to me and spoke to each other in French as I attempted to peck away on my iPad, doing my best to catch up on the writing.
I know exactly enough French to be distracted by their conversation, picking out little snippets here and there. Gossip. Comments about getting how someone had cut their hair, children, that kind of thing. One of the ladies kept glancing over towards me, noticing a glimmer of amusement or recognition on my face. Finally she said, “Do you speak French?” I answered “A little bit,” in French.
She threw up her hands and in a very English accent, she invited me into the conversation. Ignoring my seat partners had become the second option. For the duration of the trip, we became quick friends, learning more about each other. This wasn’t the first time this happened on the trip, nor was it the last. On the train, with two ladies who were friends from the years when they lived just outside Paris as girls, to now when they were also on their way to Oxford, they asked about life in America, some thoughts on politics, and all sorts of other subjects.
I haven’t met a stereotypical person yet in my travels. People are often shocked at how open these Parisian ladies were. I have found that if you go into a situation with an open disposition, friendly, and a good ear to listen, just about everyone is happy to reciprocate.
In Oxford, I stepped off the train and headed into town. It is possibly the ultimate college town, full of young people, tourists, an impressive bookstore called Blackwells, trendy taverns, museums, and a university that is older than the Aztec empire.
A lot of my visits began to get repetitive at this point. I will give you the nickel tour. Lots of walking on uneven pavements, really old buildings, lots of crowds, museums. All of them are worthwhile, however two things stuck out about Oxford to me. One was Oxford Castle/Gaol, and the motte and bailey hill with a cold draw well at the very top, which was a great vantage point of the town.
The other was the Bodleian Library. I am a bibliophile at heart and when I had the opportunity to visit the Bodleian Library, I leapt at the chance. Unfortunately, I have only pics of the chapel where six hundred plus years of students were grilled in their oral comps, Parliament was held during the English Civil War, and Harry Potter was shot in many scenes. The tour guide laughed at this in characteristic British sarchasm–which is dry to say the least–since we were about to enter a 900 year old library, and most people just cared about Harry Potter.
We locked away our backpacks, cell phones, and everything else before ascending the stairs, marked with a donor list of people running hundreds of years into the past, with English Kings, humanitarians, and other noteworthy people gracing the list. Among those was Lord Bodley, the namesake of the Library.
900 years ago, a collection of 200 books were given to the University. These books were all stolen or burned during the English Civil War for being papist documents. However, the building still housed tomes that were hundreds of years old. I can tell you that there are many memories I will savor, and one of my favorites has to be how it smells in the Bodleian Library. There is nothing else like it. Parchment and paper. Leather bound books, some of which are still chained to the shelves that hold them.
That collection has grown from 200 books to several million. Every book published in the UK is held in the library now, and an offsite storage warehouse holds most of these. Several hundred volumes relating to theology, history, and culture still reside in the Bodleian Library, where students can still peruse these volumes, but as it was even in Charles I time, they don’t ever leave the library.
And honestly, I can’t say as I blame them. What a wonderful place to wind up.
I visited the Ashmolean Museum as well as the Science Museum. The Indoor Market on a Sunday was pretty much vacant. It didn’t matter anyway. The Bodleian Library was the high point.
My departure was to be Tuesday Morning, which left only one full day of the UK left on my itinerary. Little did I know there was a freak blizzard about to roll up on North America.