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?