Springtime comes in February for Oxford. Bluebells, snow drops, crocuses, and daffodils are disrupting the sombre charcoal tones of winter, lifting my spirit from lockdown doldrums to a hopeful (and often anxious) anticipation of the future.
With most of the libraries shut down for most of the term, I played church tourist and commenced a round of endless walks, reminding myself that I’m not alone here no matter how much it feels like it.
Since the government restrictions have circumscribed student life to the narrow circles of screen, park, and pew, I’ve tried to make the most of it. My first weekend back from London, I visited St Aloysius – a site on the top of my bucket list ever since I read its plaque: ‘Where Cardinal Newman preached, Gerald Manley Hopkins was a priest, and J.R.R. Tolkien worshipped.’
Though I expected a culture shock when I chose the Latin High Mass, still the grandeur of the ceremony flummoxed me. Besides the gold and genuflections, which the Pusey Chapel has somewhat accustomed me to, why the trio of priests with their flock of supporting functionaries? A sympathetic Catholic friend illuminated some of the spiritual significance and historical context for me later, impressing me with the breadth of liturgical tradition within the Christian church – and the limits on my knowledge of it!
Further excursions carried me to the University Church (directly across from my favorite library, the Radcliffe Camera) and St Mary Magdalen (at the crossroads en route to grocery shopping).
When it’s not Sunday morning, the cathedral of creation is always open to visitors – even in lockdown. Like everyone else in England, I’ve been haunting the parks to soak up some relief from the stay-at-home order. I console myself that the restrictions have focused my sights on the details – the nooks and crannies of Oxford that I might have otherwise left unexplored.
A lady from church blessed me with a break from the solitude: Kinga invited me to visit her in Charlbury! The prospect of peeking in at one of the little towns north of Oxford elated me, but it wasn’t to be. Relaxing my guard at the station, I boarded the wrong train – a fatal mistake on a Sunday, with its sparse timetable. Although the mix-up set us back two hours, we salvaged the fellowship by reconvening for a walk along Oxford’s rivers.
After plying me with a sandwich as welcome as manna to my empty belly, Kinga opened the treasure troves of her family history. Hailing from the community of Hungarians in Romania, her aristocratic grandmother married a handyman and would invite the servants to dine with them. She lived in fear during the communist rule, paying exorbitant rent to reside in her own property (a privileged fate compared to that of her friends, many of whom were turned out onto the streets). When the people revolted outside her front door, she opened up her home to tend to the wounded. Kinga capped these tales by lending me a book filled with many more: Comrade Baron – a journey through the vanishing world of the Transylvanian aristocracy by Jaap Scholten.
By now I had discovered that the disadvantage of life in a river valley is that you are perpetually walking up and down – no graceful loops like I imagined when I was scheming to craft the perfect route for myself and visitors. The indispensable Audrey (recently returned from the USA) came to my rescue, with tours of the luxurious Christ Church meadow and the delightfully twining Cuckoo Lane. ‘I enjoy life in Oxford so much more when you’re here!’ I told her.
Just when I was scraping for more reasons to give thanks for living in Oxford while under a stay-at-home order, the city delighted everyone with genuine snowfall. The people took to the streets; the line for pick-up from the bakery stretched down the sidewalk. I wondered if the cafe next door would take the hint and start stocking cupcakes.
When classes commenced, I recognized in our new coursework the ideas that had motivated me to apply to Oxford: translation, translingualism, transmediality – all ideas about transferring ideas from one mode to the next. The lectures fascinated me, particularly the reflections on multilingual authors. Abdelkebir Khatibi, a Moroccan literary critic, described translingualism as writing simultaneously in two languages, ‘one underneath the other.’ If I can unpack that idea in my thesis, I’ll have cause to celebrate.
Hooked by this new concept of translingualism, I rebooted my dissertation to compare poets rather than novels. Then, with some relief, I could farewell the stack of Spanish Equatorial Guinean novels that has been languishing on my windowsill since November.
In the meantime, I experimented with my own translation: from a Spanish poem by an Equatorial Guinean author into pseudo-latinate English. Trying for an ‘isomorphic transfer’ that preserved as many of the original sounds as possible, my work amounted to a quirky method with many self-indulgent flourishes, but my professor was pleased. Audrey tells me there might be further theory to chase down along these lines in the writings of Ezra Pound on melopoeia.
Before schoolwork intensified into the inferno of paper-writing, I carved out a weekend to catch up with my South African friends in London. Since the Oxford Tube has suspended their bus service, I invested in a ticket on the early train.
Anu graciously agreed to instruct me in the arts of Indian cuisine and cloth diapers. On Sunday we toured the remnants of Crystal Palace – including the stony descendants of some ancient reptiles.
In case you thought I was kidding about walking being the order of the day, here’s another: A friend from Pusey House ventured with me over the High Bridge in University Parks, meandering through the classic English hedgerows and talking of monasteries before we found our way back.
Finally, Audrey took me on a special treat: the requisite C.S. Lewis pilgrimage. First we visited a local market for provisions. The pie stall had sold out of pidgeon and Scotch eggs, to my sorrow. I consoled myself with a wheel of butter from the cheese man, who fed us samples of curling slivers while recommending sheep cheese to complement Audrey’s home-baked loaf of fig-and-nut bread.
Then it was time to buckle down to a month of essay writing, from which I’ve only now emerged – Lazarus-like – just in time for Easter.