Dispatch from Oxford

I like the feeling of being in a different place, traveling and exploring where slight discomfort and the need to discover language, food, colloquialisms, and public transit, among other things, is a regular part of the experience.  These places don’t need to be physically far from home; plop me down in a small mountain town in Appalachia, for instance, and much of my criteria will be met.

I remember 10 years ago, during college, doing the whole backpack across Europe thing–without a phone, imagine that!–and making a stop in Florence, Italy.  Beautiful city.  But I remember hearing too much English and feeling like I was in an Americanized version of Italy, rather than in a more challenging or authentic locale.

Looking back, I probably judged Florence too quickly, and I didn’t give myself enough time to explore the place.

Now I find myself in Oxford, UK, finishing up a Master’s Degree through Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English.  I began this graduate school journey in 2007 in Asheville, North Carolina, and the program also enabled me to go to Santa Fe and the Green Mountains of Vermont (twice).  You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more rigorous, exciting graduate program.

Oxford is a bustling city, and I didn’t realize what a tourist destination it is.  I suppose having libraries and prestigious colleges that are hundreds of years old helps, in addition to stunning architecture and plenty of places where you can consume clotted cream.


I’ve got one outcome in mind for my travels and studies: degree completion.  Other than that, I don’t know what discoveries I’ll make.  I know I’ll miss my wife, and I hope I’ll feel rejuvenated for the following school year.  I’m glad to say I already feel like a traveler and student, and not a tourist, a distinction Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison made in a New York Times opinion piece from last year:

Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism.

Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge. Tourists may enjoy the visit only because it is short. The memory of it, the retelling, will always be better. Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined. We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.

I have no qualms with tourism–I’ve thoroughly relished being on a few family cruises, with every expedition, port call, and meal laid out for us.  But my most memorable trips have certainly fallen under the category of travel as defined above (Caitlin Kelly over at Broadside chimed in last year about lessons we learn when traveling alone after reading the same NY Times piece, and it’s worth a look).

I remember being alone in Madrid, haggling over a scalped ticket to a Real Madrid soccer match, then witnessing a sporting spectacle unlike any I’d seen in the states.

I remember riding in a mini-van with 15-or-so other passengers in Guatemala, piled on top of me and one another, riding up a treacherous dirt road to a mountain plateau where my buddy was stationed for the Peace Corps in a cinderblock hut.  I learned about altitude, humility, and hospitality on that trip.

There will undoubtedly be some “ah-ha” and poignant moments in Oxford, and I’m ready to face some disorientation and discovery in this place.  Wish me luck as I tackle some seriously dense course material regarding politics, religion, and literature during the Tudor era:).  

Do you consider yourself more of a tourist or a traveler?  What have been your most powerful travel experiences?  Have you ever traveled alone?


  1. Love that travel quote. It really does take courage to travel, to set off into the unknown countries that are both external and internal. I look back on my trips and think I was a traveller instead of a tourist, but it was mostly because I had the support of others to push me forward. Safety and comfort are so tempting in unfamiliar places sometimes.

    Hope you have a great time in Oxford!

  2. I had to, and take a test to prove my fluency, before going. I’m Canadian and had studied French since 4th grade all the way to 3rd yr of college, so that was a necessity for the fellowship. It was the best year of my life!

  3. Alright,
    You’ve convinced me to add Tuscany!
    So far, Oxford has been incredible…I’ve purchased a bus pass, have been walking miles and planning excursions to little villages in the vicinity.
    Do you have a threshold for amount of time you can travel by yourself for a week?
    I haven’t tried a week by myself since the lowlight of my backpacking trip in Europe during college…South of France into Italy by myself for too long.

  4. Sorry for the delayed response!
    I’m only in Oxford for a total of six weeks, which is the part-time, residential model of this Master’s program. Makes a grand way to spend the summer in between teaching.
    Oxford is spectacular!
    Did you speak any French upon arriving for your fellowship in Paris? What an amazing experience that must have been.

  5. Oxford is one of those storybook places! If you are bored on a rainy afternoon, tuck into The Eagle and Child Pub. It was my favorite. C.S. Lewis and other famous folks were patrons of this pub. It is really a magical place!

    On traveler vs tourism, I love to travel without a net. It is much more exciting and makes for better stories. As much as I love my husband, I actually enjoy traveling alone as a woman. I was inspired to do this years ago after reading this book: http://www.amazon.com/Travelers-Tales-A-Womans-World/dp/1885211066. I could write my own travel stories and probably should, but only tell the stories to those who have time to drink a glass of wine with me.

    Now I have children and I find traveling alone with children really opens up others around you. As an example, on my trip to Paris with my sons everyone was so friendly and helpful. It was a total different experience from touring Paris with my husband a couple of years earlier.

    I like you remember the days of travel before all of the electronic devices, but the world has changed and those devices are very helpful so I use them. I have to admit that sharing tidbits of my travels through social networking is much more fun than sending postcard (although I do both).

    Overall, I think traveling helps you become the person you are meant to be, it helps you to push your limits and explore your inner self. Traveling is one of my passions for many of the reasons you cited in your post!

    Thanks for inspiring me to reply! Enjoy Oxford, try to get to Cambridge, it is a very different campus experience.

  6. 1. You need to visit Tuscany in the off-season. NO ONE speaks English. Get lost on the roads, drink wine, enjoy the landscape.
    2. Don’t you just feel smarter walking those hallowed streets? I was in awe most of the time. So envious you get to spend time in those grand old libraries.
    3. Traveled alone many times. Drove cross country once by myself. Traveled from Barcelona to Bordeaux on a train. Was amazed at the kindness of strangers after hearing horror stories of American girls riding on European trains…alone.
    4. Keep the posts coming. Can’t wait to hear about being a student at Oxford.

  7. Soooooo envious. We’re planning a trip back to the UK in spring 2014, so maybe we’ll meet there then! I look forward on that trip to finally meeting 2 bloggers face to face, so perhaps you as well.

    My life-changer was my 8-month-long journalism fellowship in Paris when I was 25. Everything was new and unfamiliar and, not surprisingly, some of my most enduring and intimate friendships were born there — I recently caught up with the Irish woman I met then (1982-3) over lunch in NYC and my husband marveled at how easily we fell right back into chat and affection. I never saw the world the same way after that, for which I am deeply grateful.

    Have a phenomenal year. I so look forward to reading your posts and photos from there.

    Thank you for the link!

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