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Notes from Oxford: Part Three

Jun 27, 2017 04:06PM ● By Victoria Pipas
I did not think that any life choice could be a bigger challenge or change than studying abroad in England for the year, but I was wrong. Leaving to return home has proved a greater challenge. The effect of an imminent departure from a place is that every experience is heightened, every relationship is intensified, and every detail is brought into sharp relief. The last term of my time in Oxford was so intense because it was tinted with its own finality. Halfway through Trinity, with one month done and only one remaining, I wrote, “I can’t get over how bittersweet the time here is. Every day simply gets better and better.” Maybe the consciousness of a limit to my time compelled me to throw myself into experiences fearlessly and with more passion than usual. But if so, I don’t want to lose that passion because it allowed me to feel more deeply and live more fully than I have ever done in my life.

The time since my last note from Oxford has included a long vacation (or rather, holiday), during which time my American friend Charlotte visited me and we set out to walk (at least the end of) the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury. We calculated walking distances, reserved an Airbnb, packed loads of snacks, and set out on our journey from south of London.

We soon realized, however, that the Pilgrim’s Way as Chaucer’s characters would have walked it in the late 14th century no longer exists as a dirt path for travelers by foot. Instead, that exact route has now become highways and byways accessible only to cars. I had also failed to obtain a map before our walk (rookie mistake), but luckily we found ourselves beside the North Downs Way, a system of walking paths that effectively runs parallel to the original Pilgrim’s Way. We set out on this path, occasionally taking bigger roads to connect our route and end up in the desired town for our Airbnb that night. Besides a general misunderstanding of the physicality of the Pilgrim’s Way, our “pilgrimage” was a success, leading us safely to Canterbury Cathedral with only a few blisters, miscalculations, and lost items along the way.

My next adventure took me to Córdoba, Spain, to visit Middlebury friends Eileen and Julia, the latter having roped me into signing up for the Madrid Half Marathon. As soon as I arrived in the south of Spain, we set off for a weekend trip to lovely Granada, which borders the snow-studded mountains of the Sierra Nevada region. We toured the Alhambra Palace complex with its beautifully adorned muqarnas engravings. Having studied the Nasrid Dynasty’s Courtyard of the Lions in art history, I was enthralled to walk through it.

The following week in Spain exploring Córdoba and Madrid ,was filled with prime museum time, loads of tapas and sangria, long walks through flowery courtyards, and incredible art.

As much as I loved Spain, I was happy to return to the UK, which by now felt like home. Trinity term brought a season of “trashings,” i.e., the Oxford tradition of dousing students who have just finished their last exam with a combination of shaving cream, silly string, confetti, powdered paint, and cheap champagne, and then leading them to jump into a river. Although I was never on the receiving end of one of these trashings, I did get to trash several sets of finalists as they exited the exam halls.

Another highlight of this term was studying Shakespeare and taking two trips to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace and home for much of his life. In this course and in all that I have studied this year, the study of English texts has been made tangible in a way that I had never experienced before. Seeing Antony and Cleopatra performed by the modern Royal Shakespeare Company, visiting the school Shakespeare attended in his youth, and walking through the gardens of his wife’s family home both surreal and very real. I even got to see Shakespeare’s grave and stick my head in the baptismal font where he was baptized. These experiences reminded me that even the great men and women writers whose works I read were once students coming of age.

At the beginning of this year, I knew that my time at Oxford would be memorable because of the literary footprints that I could trace so closely in the streets and libraries there. From the first term, I was drawn into the intensive academic system, as well as into the history and feeling of the place. By my second term, I was eager to broaden my experiences and sample the wide scope of extracurricular offering that this fantastic university has to offer. I found myself playing a megalomaniac chef in an original, student-written and directed production at Lincoln. I went on more trips across the countryside with the Oxford Walking Club, I joined the University Choir, and I attended as many special events and lectures as I could.

But by the third term, I realized that study abroad is a great synecdoche for life. You can collect as many experiences, photos, miles, top scores, and club memberships as you want. But they are nothing if they are not earned alongside people you love. And in fact, when surrounded by those people, the awards and accolades fade into nothing. In one journal from Oxford, I wrote, “I’m done collecting.” And I am. I’m done collecting awards. I’m done counting numbers. I’m done ticking off days. And I’m done avoiding vulnerable relationships. Returning home to the places I lived before Oxford, I am determined not to stagnate or regress in my personal development. Trinity term was the best time of my life so far, not because I achieved the unachievable but rather because I grew into myself, surrounded by people I love. This was a term of social engagement, not just in individually oriented pursuits, but more importantly, in experiences that brought me closer together with others. I’m fortunate to have always had close-knit groups of family and friends, but for the first time in my life, I realized that no matter where I go, I will weave social networks together and embed myself in systems of people with whom I want to be connected. This fact is one that I will take back to Middlebury with me for the beginning of my senior year. And I know that, very soon, I will return to the beautiful place that is Oxford.

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