When Wife and I decided to take the family circus on the road again, to the UK, we knew there were two cities we absolutely had to visit: Cardiff and Oxford. (London was a given so it was never even discussed, and we began our trip with a week-long stay there).
Cardiff, because Wife spent a semester there during her university days, and Oxford because that’s where I spent a few weeks in my teens, on a memorable language course. It was the first time I had traveled abroad on my own, and I’ve carried fond memories of the trip with me ever since.
If I close my eyes, I can see the Fergusons’ semi-detached house, and I remember how I sat watching Wimbledon and cricket with Jim, in complete silence, me on a small stool and Jim in his TV chair. I remember the kitchen where Joyce cooked me the same great English breakfast every day, even though I stopped eating the beans two days into my stay, and I also remember how proud she was when she told this Finnish teenager how she was going to get introduced to the Queen herself, even if the Finnish teenager possibly didn’t realize the importance of the event. (Except that maybe he did because he, too, still remembers it).
I remember my walk to the bus stop, and how I walked from downtown, past the park and kept on walking to get to our house. How we played football in the park, and how all the language course students had a get-together there and how we lost the orange carrying competition to the Italians, and how I threw the orange straight up and watched it land on an Italian head a few seconds later. I remember scoring a goal in the football game against them, too.
I remember the burger joint next to the Carfax tower, and the book store nearby, because that’s where I carried my money in exchange for Peanuts comics.
I remember the disco, down the other street because that’s where the Italian girl who had been hit by an orange a few days earlier taught me how to count to ten in Italian.
And I swear I could still find the exact spot where I mustered up the courage to speak English to an actual English stranger for the first time, trying to find the place I was trying to find the other students on our first day: Carfax. I took the bus down, as instructed by Jim, and then went looking for Carfax, but for some reason, couldn’t find it.
I approached an old lady – a safe choice – and having formulated the sentence in my head first, asked her politely, “Excuse me, where is Carfax?”
She looked at me, and said, very sweetly, “You’re in it, luv.”
The she pointed out the Carfax tower to me, 50 meters behind me.
Of all the towns in the world, Oxford has always had a special place in my heart, and I was excited to get back there and show all that to my family.
On our first evening in town, we took the bus from our apartment, down Iffley Road and straight to High Street, with me sitting by the window, craning my neck to see if I could spot the Fergusons’ house. Or the park. At each intersection, I – jokingly – let out an excited scream, and then a disappointed sigh. I say jokingly, because when we had been to Cardiff earlier on our trip, we (I) had teased Wife about her vague memories of the city, even though we had then found her apartment building and the Co-op she used to get groceries from.
But when we got to the colleges, I felt better again.
“These are the colleges,” I said.
The bus stopped at the end of High Street and I could see Carfax Tower in front of me, and I launched into a story about me and an old lady. And I pointed out the burger joint … except that it wasn’t there.
“I think that Lloyds Bank is where the burger place used to be. Or maybe the Pret A Manger…?” I said.
“The big flower thing is gone … and oh, this used to be a regular street with cars, not a pedestrian street like now,” I said, then took a selfie in front of the Carfax tower.
We walked around downtown Oxford, and I kept doubting my memory more and more. I didn’t remember the colleges, really, and I had never stepped inside Blackwell’s bookstore, which seems weird because, after all, I did spend all my money on those Peanuts comics and books, and apparently, it was a legendary book store.
That evening, I spent a good hour on Google Maps, studying Oxford, trying to figure out where the Fergusons’ house might have been.
The next day, we sat at Grand Café on Oxford’s High Street, sipping tea (I was sipping cappuccino), and eating small sandwiches and scones like the continental snobs we are and while I was increasingly frustrated with not finding the park – the real park – I also realized that afternoon tea was something the 15-year-old me would never have done, and never did.
But there we were, and I was pretty sure the coffee house hadn’t been there when I last visited the city. Then again, they did claim to be England’s oldest coffeeshop, dating back to 1650… But what do they know? I’m 99 percent sure it wasn’t there. (Also, I realized they advertise themselves as being “the site of the first coffee house in England” so you can draw your own conclusions).
After the tea, before we headed back to our apartment, I made the family walk down another street, just one more time. I didn’t tell them but I wanted to take one more look down the street, to see if I could find the place where the disco had been. But all I found was 13th century buildings, cathedrals, and churches. Hardly a place for a disco.
I gave up.
While my memories are still vivid – I can see the orange landing on her head – the events didn’t happen where I thought I remembered them happening. And of course the city had changed in 33 years. I also realized, thinking back at my memories that they were very different from the memories I carry with me from this trip. The 15-year-old me didn’t go sight seeing, didn’t visit the colleges, didn’t have afternoon tea (but did go punting once), and he didn’t eat nice dinners around town. My memories of a city that’s centuries old? A burger joint, a disco, a park, and a semi-detached house in the suburbs?
The 15-year-old’s world was different, much more self-centered, and much smaller.
The upside is that I now have two Oxfords. And I love both of them.