The Adventure of Becca and Claire: Oxford

2 May

It was so great to have Becca come visit me during 7th week in Hilary! It not only provided me with the joy of her bubbly presence, but it also provided me with a great excuse for being a tourist in England, which is something I’ve tried expressly hard NOT to do in order to blend in at the university…(lest they discover I’m actually a crazy American. Shhh.)

It was Becca’s first trip to England, so the first night she was here we sat down in my room and crafted our British to-do list. It was lengthy, but in the end it didn’t prove too ambitious; by the end of the week we completed almost all of the tourist attractions we put on the list (i.e. Christchurch, Stone Henge, Big Ben, Tower of London, etc.)

With Becca here, I finally stopped to explore parts of Oxford that I had neglected to see since my arrival in January.

The Ashmolean is like a miniature British Museum: it houses artifacts from prehistoric times, Babylonian and Turkish Empires, Greek and Roman sculptures. It’s very neat, organized, and almost sterile when compared to the funky, eclecticism of the Pitt Rivers Museum on the other side of town.

From the Ashmolean we crossed the street over to the swanky Randolph Hotel and managed to sneak a peek at a few of their fancy ballrooms. I hear that having tea at the Randolph is a very posh (and very expensive) affair. Although I’ve never dined there myself, I figured I was probably as close as I was ever going to get to the experience, so I happily watched a couple of wealthy old ladies having their tea instead.

On our way to Oxford’s library conglomerate on Broad Street, we stepped into the famous Blackwell’s bookhouse to take a peek at the massive Norrington Room. The Norrington Room houses more books than any other single room in the UK. Becca wasn’t as fascinated with the Norrington Room as much as she was with the Children’s section, where she found a 3-for-2 sale on Little Miss books… So three books later, (Little Miss Princess, Little Miss Wise, and Little Miss Giggles to be exact,) we went to go see a slightly posher variety of books in the Bodleian.

Unfortunately, only under very rare if any, circumstances do they let guests into the Radcliffe Camera and the reading rooms of the Old Bodleian. But with just an appointment, an ID check, and an official visitor’s pass, you CAN bring a guest into the antechamber of the old Duke Humphries Reading Room. We opted for this option, since it was pretty much the only one available and would at least give Becca the opportunity to see the Bodleian and say she went in. We went to the main library office and requested permission for a guest pass and were instructed to come back the next day for a 12:15 appointment, to not be late, and to spend no more than 15 minutes total in the library itself…and to not carry any pens or any bags or any electronic devices on our person whilst in the library. Wow, I thought, our Dept. of Homeland Security should start hanging out with these Oxford librarians. So after taking all the exorbitant security measures we went up to the Duke Humphries; we saw the shelves of old books, marveled at the Medieval architecture, said “Cool,” and then five minutes later went back to the college for lunch.

Note: I did manage to sneak Becca into the Lower Reading Rooms in the Bod so she could see more of the library and really make full use of that hard-won visitor’s pass. Technically, you’re not supposed to do that, but we were still in and out in less than 15 minutes so nobody was the wiser. But just in case any of the Oxford librarians come to hunt me down, consider this small statement of defiance off the record.

We wound our way through the old streets of the city center and to the grounds of Christchurch College. Once inside the college we luckily ran into a tour group, to whom we latched on like lost little barnacles for the remainder of the tour. We managed to gather some free historical information and see the cathedral’s ornate interior. We also made our way to the stately dining hall, famous for the inspiration it gave to the Harry Potter movies. We ventured out to the grounds and I showed Becca the banks of the Thames where we have our rowing practices. We went down to the river again on Thursday to watch part of the Torpids Regatta and chase some swans.

I had always wanted to attend ‘Evensong’ at Christchurch because it was a quintessential Oxford experience, famous for its beautiful music. At certain times during the week a boys choir sings the psalms, and this music, (as the name Evensong suggests,) directs the entire service. There wasn’t a typical boys choir on the Wednesday evening we went, but a choir with men who sang like boys. The most amazing thing was watching the counter-tenor who stood across the aisle from us and could reach high notes I’ve never even come close enough to wave at. It was beautiful…and it was weird. I think Becca had the same reaction because I noticed she stared at him with her eyebrows raised. At one point in the service she turned to me with a look genuine concern upon her face that seemed to say, Is he ok? and I nodded some kind of reassurance that he was hired to sing that way and had somehow been mysteriously been blessed with a voice that would make most girls jealous.

Once we got past this crazy body-voice discrepancy, we calmly sat through the rest of the service and tried to be on our best behavior. I found the experience less disturbing if I closed my eyes and just listened to the beautiful music alone.

In the completely selfless effort to fulfill my role as tour guide, I took Becca to the other notable places in Oxford, like G&D’s Ice-Cream Parlor on Little Clarendon Street, as well as Moo-Moo’s Milkshakes and Whittard Tea in the Covered Market. After all, you can’t say you’ve had an authentic British experience until you’ve tried a Nutella milkshake, right?

Speaking of food and such, after all that we saw in Oxford, Becca still firmly concluded that her favorite place in Oxford was the Regent’s Park Dining Hall. I even offered to take her around to different cafes and restaurants in town, but she said no – she just couldn’t get enough of that Regent’s Park food! Can’t argue with free hot meals, I guess. In the end, it proved a wise decision because she met more of my college friends that way and she probably saved us both a bit of money too.

My housemate David hung out with us a lot too and even helped to play tour guide when I was writing essays in the library. He gave us his own tour of some of the colleges and the old city center and later in the week invited us to dinner with his friend at Oriel College. So Thursday night was probably the most stereotypically Oxonian night we had the whole week: We got all dressed up and went to hear David’s friend and fellow theology student, Andrew, preach at Oriel College Chapel. After chapel the three of us went to Oriel’s old, oak dining hall for a formal 3-course dinner of bread, salad with goat cheese, duck, vegetables, potatoes, some sort of fruit torte and of course the obligatory bottle of red wine. Very posh. While at dinner we talked with Andrew and some of his other master’s student friends (most of whom were American, ironically) and even met one guy who was ecstatic for just receiving the news of his acceptance into Princeton! So it was a merry meal to be sure, completed by shared champagne from the future Princeton scholar. After dinner we hung out in Oriel’s MCR. Becca and I talked over tea while the boys played chess and Mr. Princeton messaged everyone in his contacts about his latest triumph. I’m sorry, but does it get more Oxonian than that?

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