In Oxford, almost every building has a story. A history rather—several centuries, I think, confer the right to be graced by this word. Almost like people, the buildings gaze down at you with eyes gentle and weary with age. Steeples tall enough to plunge through the sky, spiny turrets the color of coffee, dainty little shops from the 1900’s in pastel colors and painted doors, with the most fanciful little doorknobs in gold and bronze and red. When you stop to admire them, they greet you patiently, in a mellowed voice rich with years: Hello there. Hello visitor. Hello, old friend.
Walking home from the library, staggering under the weight of seven books to read, I still feel faintly woozy by the fact that I’m at Oxford University. It seems unreal. Even more than America, Oxford seemed so far away, when I dreamed at the distance of South Korea. The many nights I sat curled up in my apartment verandah in Seoul as a child, looking out the window into concrete apartments and more apartments, I knew so little about England it might as well have been a place in a fairytale. I only knew that it was the home of my closest childhood friends and cherished mentors—keen-eyed, tongue-in-cheek Miss Austen, earnest, lovely Frances Burney, the uproarious and avuncular Dickens—and to enter the country where they were born, or even where their books were published, was so far away an idea it could hardly have been called a dream. Yet dream I did, vaguely and wistfully, as heroines twirled in ball gowns and danced on the steps of Bath, fresh from the printers of Oxford University Press. When I found my way to Whitman College, where the school was so kind as to extend and expand its scholarship to a semester of study abroad, I found a small dream coming true ere I had ever articulated it completely. In this roundabout, unexpected way, through a liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington, I stepped, in a sense, into the heart of my childhood in Korea.
Orientation went by in a blur. One fact that had me reeling was the sheer size of Oxford University. I was accustomed to Whitman College, a campus that one may explore in fair detail from one end to the other in the space of an afternoon’s stroll; for Oxford, the town and the university are so integrated, it is difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. Indeed, it would be misleading to talk about the university’s campus—rather, it is a flock of many different smaller colleges, churches, institutions, and libraries, all grouped together beneath the wings of the university’s name. I seriously wonder whether I will be able to see even half of Oxford University before my two terms are over. After all, this is a “university” with its own map for the hundred libraries on its “campus”!
My first week passed all the more swiftly, and with more pain than pleasure, because of a difficult situation with my youngest sister’s host family in America. In staying up talking to my sisters in worry, phoning various acquaintances at unholy hours to figure out her housing, emailing my professors to search for resources, and reassuring my parents over the phone that yes, I was fine, and yes, my sisters would be fine, I found myself agitated and sleepless in a way that did little to break my jet lag. Perhaps due to the worry I felt, a few days into orientation I was seized with a fit of illness that kept me rather distracted and depressed. Yet neither family anxiety nor sickness could completely quell my excitement over arriving at Oxford, and thankfully, as both family situation and my health improved, my sense of gratitude also increased rapidly. I was able to go out on longer walks, shift cheerfully into the everyday pace of student life, and begin the morning with a fresh burst of motivation and a well-cooked, sunny-side-up egg and traditional Korean dwenjang soup to start my day.
When starting grows daunting, start small. I’ve started with Hertford College, the two retired, modest-looking, yet dignified brown buildings that constitute my home turf at Oxford. And within Hertford I’ve started with Simpkins, the skittish, snappy, yet inexpressibly adorable college cat. I saw one whisk of its puffy black tail and my heart was robbed. Stolen. Gone. Crouching down to stare into its lovely eyes, I spent a good half hour of my first week in England stroking its furry head and pouring out endearments to its indifferent ears in both Korean and English. When in doubt or anxiety, my first comfort will be to head to the porters’ lodge at Hertford College. There, Simpkins will be waiting, perfectly happy to ignore me.