A Term In Oxford: The City of Books, Essays, Rainy Days, and Old Buildings

I realize it’s been quite a long time since I’ve written a blog post, and the reason for that is a little complicated. To make the explanation simpler, though, I will say that it’s a combination of my ridiculously busy work-school-internship schedule and a few other excuses that I won’t bother you with.

You see, the truth is that I’ve missed this. I’ve missed blogging and talking about everything from weight loss to Oxford. I had a feeling that I would not have many chances to blog while I was studying in Oxford, so I had planned on writing something of a “hey, I’m back, want to hear all about Oxford?” post as soon as I came home in December. But each time I sat down, opened up my laptop, and tried to explain just what Oxford meant to me, I couldn’t find the words to explain it.

I’ve been home for almost three months now, and even though I don’t think I will ever be able to fully describe the experience that Oxford was, I think it’s time to give it a try.

When I got on my plane from Grand Rapids to London the images that overwhelmed my mind were in the shapes of books, essays, rainy days, and century-old buildings. Those images became reality in the almost four months I was there, but they transformed into something far different than my simple expectations.

I have a friend who always likes to point out that England is not a constant shade of grey and rain like most of us seem to imagine. Yes, it rained much more while I was there than it would have rained if I was home. But the funny thing is that the first few weeks we were in Oxford it was pleasantly warm, the sky was blue, and not a drop of rain escaped from the few clouds that did decide to make an appearance. The rain did come eventually, and sometimes that meant riding my bike into town half-blind from rain-smeared glasses because I was too lazy to put in my contacts. But there’s something about the rain that I have always loved, and the rain in Oxford was just as calming as the rain back home, leaving behind that lovely after-rain smell and the crisp air that follows.

There were also plenty of old buildings in Oxford, but I cannot begin to describe the feeling you get while walking into town past all of these amazing pieces of architecture. The first month felt like I was in a dream, walking past scenes out of old books and movies. You can’t help but feel the weight of the history of a city that is older than the country you were born in. But in the middle of all the history is something different: a mix of the old and the new. Traffic lights and shopping centers mix with cobblestone walkways and Medieval churches, reminding you at what point in history you are in now and from which point this place has grown from.

Yes, books were an integral part of my daily life in Oxford. If there was ever a book published it was there, buried somewhere under the miles of books that lined each rolling shelf of the more than 100 libraries scattered throughout the city. But as the term progressed I found that these books had become more than just tools for an assignment. I began to fall in love with words again, a love I had lost somewhere between high school book reports and badly written college textbooks. Each week was filled with a new set of texts to hold and explore, chewing on each word, image, and idea, digesting all that they had to say. The conversation of authors across time flooded our agendas and thoughts, seeping into topics over dinner and late-night conversations.

Essays felt neverending, but in the midst of the sleepless nights and the frustrating feedback from tutors, I found myself wanting to write more rather than less. By the end of the term I was writing more than twice as fast as I was when we had started this race to the end of 8th week. I was exhausted and my brain had taken in so much information I could almost hear it creak under the pressure, but all I could think about was how to keep writing and learning. Written word took on a new meaning, and after writing more than 40,000 words and over 100 pages (yes, I counted), I found that instead of being tired of writing I had a new and insatiable hunger for it.

But beyond these images and experiences of the atmosphere, the history, the books, and the words that I discovered in Oxford, there was one thing that I wasn’t expecting to find: community. While I was studying in Oxford I was part of a program called Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO). I lived in a house called the Vines, an old English manor that housed more than 30 other students. When I first stepped into this place that would be my home for the time I was there, I wasn’t expecting it to be more than a group of bookish people, much like myself, buried under mounds of books, coffee mugs, and essays without much time to build relationships.

I was wrong. What I found instead was that studying does not have to be something done by yourself in a quiet corner with a book and a laptop. It can be. But in Oxford, with this group of people, it wasn’t. I joined a food group with eight other people in the house because my roommate challenged me to step outside of my bubble of comfort, and I am so glad she did. I’ve tried to write this part of my story over and over, and I still can’t find the right formula of words to get it right. All I know is that in this group and with a few friends that I grew particularly close with I found something kind of amazing.

In this community I found a family. I found a place that became my home. A place where, for the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have to worry about being the nerdy book-lover who didn’t know how to talk to other people. I found people who I came to love as brothers and sisters. We loved each other not because we agreed on everything, but because we saw that we were all different but shared a passion for scholarship, asking hard questions, and talking of books, beauty, and life as often as we could. We spent almost four months of our lives together. We’ve seen each other at our best, and most definitely at our worst. We shared meals together. We laughed together. Cried together. Survived Oxford together.

Everyone tells you how amazing a semester abroad will be, and they’re right. They tell you how much you will grow and about all of the amazing sights you will see. But no one ever talks about goodbye. At the end of it all we all had to get on a plane and go back to the places we came from, the places we left before Oxford was home. The night before I came home was a night that I will never forget.

I had spent the entire day in London and was exhausted by the time I got back. My bags were already packed, my keys were turned in, and all that was left was a few hours to spend with my friends. I was already emotionally exhausted from a painfully difficult goodbye in London, but those last few hours were special. A bunch of us built a blanket fort in the living room (because we’re cool like that). We all huddled under our little fort and talked like nothing was changing for as long as we could. We listened to sad songs and cried together. I couldn’t image not living with these people. Saying goodbye hurt, and if I’m going to be honest, that hurt is still there. But it hurts because it mattered. It meant something.

I will never forget the people and places of England that I love so much. In four months I survived 16 substantial essays and too many all-nighters to count. I learned how to navigate the London Underground and National Rail services all by myself and I only got lost once. I made some of the greatest friends I have ever known. I got to travel around England. I learned how to be independent. For the first time I knew what it felt like to fall in love and to later have a broken heart. So much happened in those four months, and every single part of it, the good and the bad, has helped shape me into who I am now and who I want to become. Oxford was, without question, the best experience of my life. Not being there still hurts. But I am so glad that it happened.

2 thoughts on “A Term In Oxford: The City of Books, Essays, Rainy Days, and Old Buildings

  1. What wonderful wordmanship, Erica. You helped me, as much as is possible for someone who wasn’t there, to understand what Amy experienced during her time at Oxford and the sense of loss and deep connectedness to you all that she is experiencing upon her return. Thank-you.

    1. Thank you so much Mrs. Smith! Your kind words mean so much, and I am so glad that you liked the post. I am also glad that it helped you to get a better sense of what Amy experienced both in Oxford and after coming home. Thanks for raising such a wonderful daughter, I don’t know what I would do without her 🙂

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