Eurotrip Day 6: Colleges, colleagues, collegiality

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Our friend Hannah said her dad once gave her an important piece of advice: never make any important decisions or evaluate your life the second or third day after crossing time zones. This, my friends, is good advice. We reached our low point this morning. Chris and I were cranky, Christopher got far too little sleep and was crazy, and Therese was up every two hours the night before. There was a barfing at breakfast situation (at home, thankfully) and I reached the point of despairing whether we had done something cruel to our children by bringing them on this trip.

We had decided to do something fun for Christopher and go to the Pitt Rivers Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaurs, so we packed up, still in grumpy moods, and started walking. We would walk past University Parks on the way there so we took a detour around the paths and talked out the situation. We felt marginally better, but still physically incredibly jetlagged. The beauty of the parks could not be denied, though, and we even passed a swan family with their cygnets.

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If we ever catch the groundhog that ruined my spring peony plans, I want to cultivate an English garden in South Bend.

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Checking out the dinosaurs

We made it to the museum and Christopher zoomed around with me before taking a turn with Chris while I sat and nursed Therese. I felt truly terrible at this point, frankly, but our rough time with Christopher and the fact that we’re way under budget so far (yay) made me want to get him a little gift. Chris had the exact same thought and texted me almost at that moment. We let him pick out whatever he wanted, which ended up being three little wind-up dinosaurs. Christopher immediately perked up and we don’t know why we didn’t think of just buying him a small toy the first day we got here to have some little comforts.

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I don’t share all these gory details to sound ungrateful, but hopefully to give a glimpse beyond some pictures as to what traveling with young children is like. I think it’s absolutely worth it and I fully acknowledge that both of my kids have great temperaments for it, but it’s rough to deal with your own jetlag when you also have a three year-old who doesn’t know why he’s feeling strange.

Our next place to be was Brasenose College for lunch with Brian, but we had quite a bit of time before then, so we sought a remedy for my particular grumpiness with a strong coffee. We found ourselves at Vaults and Gardens, a coffee shop in the basement of University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Newman preached here once upon a time. I had a double Americano and started loving life again. Christopher played with his dinosaurs and Chris and I split a scone as the weather got warmer. Things seemed to be looking up.

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And indeed they were because Brian showed us a great time. He took us to his college, Brasenose, known for its historic royalist sympathies, for lunch where we caught up after not having seen each other since our John Jay commissioning, four years(!!) prior. He then took us on a whirlwind tour, being pressed for time by an afternoon class, of the Sheldonian, the theater where each Oxford class matriculates every year with a series of solemn Latin pronouncements. We saw the auditorium and then Brian took us up to the cupola which boasts an incredible view above Oxford. It’s truly worth a visit and the death march up the stairs.

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I love that the kids are looking at each other in this one ❤

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Seriously, this view.

Then he took us to Oriel College to see the Newman Oratory and window in the chapel. John Henry Newman was a fellow at Oriel for much of his time at Oxford and he used this small ante-chamber as an oratory. The college has fashioned it as an homage to him and it has his motto Cor ad cor loquitur – “Heart speaks unto heart” – painted over the chamber. It also has what I think is a rather strange stained glass window depicting Newman, University Church, and Littlemore. Brian had to dash off to class so we took a bit of time in the oratory and then wandered to High Street.

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Christopher was napping in the stroller, so we wandered through the Oxford Covered Market. I tried on a few dresses (too short, alas) and we indulged in a chocolate chip cookie from Ben’s Cookies (delicious). We found a bench to sit on on Cornmarket Street and started looking on the UK equivalent of Craigslist for a double stroller out of backaching desperation from carrying Therese.

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Christ Church

The rest of our day was set aside to hang out with Hannah. She met us on High Street and took us to Christ Church College. Christ Church is perhaps the most recognizable Oxford college. It was in Harry Potter and is currently constantly swarmed with tourists. It was also the college Chris would have been a member of had he chosen to go to Oxford instead of Yale for his master’s. We walked around the cathedral, which was another testament to the sheer amount of history the church in England has seen. It’s now the cathedral for the Anglican diocese. Quite frankly, visiting these chapels has been a bit odd. They look so much like Catholic churches – and many of them were once Catholic – but there is no flickering sanctuary lamp and no tabernacle.

Anyway, they were very kind to Christopher at the cathedral and gave him a little bag of activities. There was a bit of a scuffle when we had to return them, so we went out to the garden and marched over to Merton College.

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Tolkien was a fellow at Merton and Hannah wanted especially to show us a table in the garden where he was rumored to have written much of The Two Towers. At the right time of year, if you sit where he sat, you can see nothing other than two towers. The garden itself was lovely as all of these gardens are, but the flowers were especially fragrant. Merton was also T.S. Eliot’s college and Hannah reminded us of these lines from “Little Gidding,” one of the Four Quartets, when we were visiting the chapel:

A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

Perhaps this was the secluded chapel he was thinking of.

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After Merton, we took a break for tea at The Grand Cafe. It claims to be the oldest coffee house in England while the cafe across the street claims to be the oldest in Europe, so who knows. After our lovely tea and conversation, Hannah took us to the Rhodes House and did me the incredible favor of carrying Therese in the Ergo (she’s a natural). This felt like a special treat since it’s not every day you have a best friend who is a Rhodes scholar. We got to meet some of her colleagues and see a portrait of our illustrious president, Bill, and Christopher got to run around on the grass for a bit.

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Rhodes House

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By now, it was time for formal dinner at Hannah’s college, St. John’s. Formal dinner is just how it sounds: the students wear their gowns, the tables are lit with candles, and the fellows of the college sit at high table. A student got up and said a prayer in Latin and the first course was served. The first course was tasty bacon and asparagus, the main salmon with mashed potatoes and dessert was pineapple sorbet. Christopher surprised us all by demolishing his salmon. We couldn’t figure out if he actually liked it or he was so tired that he was just doing some automatic eating. He also made the funniest face upon his first bite of the sorbet. We think he was expecting vanilla ice cream.

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Hannah then took us on a tour of her college: the library with its incredibly old collection of books and perfectly musty smell, the gardens where we stopped to examine a snail crossing our path, and the revelation that no British undergrad will ever have a roommate at college. Boggles the mind. Hannah walked us all the way back to our flat, a perfect end to a day that improved immensely as it went on.

This time together has given us the itch to make regular friend reunions happen every year. Aristotle’s description of a friend as another self is certainly familiar with our dear college friends.

Today started off difficult, but ended sweetly. We’ve been reflecting on how our upcoming trip to Rome will leave us so vulnerable without a steady stream of friends to guide us. But I hope it will simply be a different type of discovery.

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