originally published January 19, 2022
Read Part II: Wales, York, Edinburgh
A slick black engine shot me from York to London in two, maybe three hours, followed by a more sedate connection to Oxford. I alighted on the first morning of the Awakening conference, the Canterbury Institute’s pilot program for high school students on the verge of university studies.
Canterbury boarded me at St Edmund’s, a college I had yet to explore, and engaged me for two days in such fabulous sessions as, “What is the purpose of a university education?” and “What is the meaning of life?” One-on-one tutorials in law and classics (the participants’ chosen areas of interest) gave the program its backbone. With only two students attended by about a dozen graduate students, I suspect the conference staff relished the event even more than our guests did.
Awakening rolled out intellectual and cultural treats like a candy factory conveyor belt. The organizer Magdalena had invited me to lecture on study skills – an excuse to indulge my fascination with the practice of productivity by distilling everything I had learned while fighting my way through masters research.
My dear friend Audrey presented the Ashmolean Museum as never seen before by highlighting four object lessons (pun intended). She chose one of the collection’s most famous artefacts from Britain itself (the Alfred Jewel) along with a foreign piece you might overlook (a sealed writing box), after beginning in a basement exhibit dedicated to the museum’s founder – tying it all together with the idea of appreciating and approaching our education with gratitude and perseverence.
In between, we dined at some of Oxford’s finest venues (including a return to No. 1 Ship Street, where my side of the table compared notes on our range of languages – we tallied over a dozen between four people).
The next day dawned a long-discussed trip to Winchester with friends from Keble College and OxPres church. By now travel fatigue was catching up to me, but I marshalled myself for a zigzagging route by train. Winchester Cathedral offered the main attraction, including the resting place of Jane Austen.
Urged by a warm invitation from an American couple, I found myself in Cambridge again for the weekend. Sarah and Clinton are from Michigan; we knew some of the same Hillsdale people! They treated me to delectable homecooked meals and a tour around the city.
My new friends introduced me to a a wonderfully welcoming bunch that I had technically first met via Zoom calls for the Trinity Forum (a Hillsdale-esque discussion group). We gathered over drinks at a pub on the River Cam. I haven’t acquired much taste for alcohol so essentially ordered dessert in the form of two inches of Bailey’s Irish Cream.
The COVID closure of King’s College had disappointed me most during my last visit – this time, Sarah snagged us tickets for the morning after church. We wandered amazed under the arches, washed in light filtered through a parade of stained glass.
Then Sarah accompanied me to the train station and even secured for me a discounted ticket with her rail card (an instrument of budget travel that I had embarrassingly neglected to acquire before embarking on a cross-country trip).
The train carried me southwest of London to Theale, to stay with another of my professor’s most generous friends. This quintessential small English town is one stop away from Reading (a name that perhaps resonates in my mind thanks to the Monopoly card). It boasts a walkable high street, an equally walkable route to the local stately home, and a lovely lake – a much-needed respite after a month on the road. The family, engaged elsewhere on a camping trip, allowed me the run of the place for a week, and I spent much of it horizontal, recovering my strength.
I eked out one day trip at Reading, browsing their local museum and wandering through the abbey ruins. The museum houses a Victorian-era reconstruction of the famous Norman tapestry depicting Harold’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings – courtesy of a sewing circle, whose intrepid leader determined that (since the original resides in Normandy) England should have her own!
I had intended to spend two months rambling around England, but then it dawned on me that if I instead went back to the USA for two weeks, I could clear my travel history and avoid a quarantine in Italy for my Rome conference. Suddenly I was booking myself a flight – and it became very necessary to see my friends in London one last time.
It was bittersweet to say good-bye to my home away from home, the family who hosted me for Christmas and brought that much-needed human contact into my life throughout the lockdowns – particularly since they are also moving! I had rested in their guest room upstairs for the last time.
Then it was back to Oxford one last time, where the inimitable Audrey hosted me while I sorted out my luggage and nasal swabs for the flight home. Most appropriately, Audrey made shepherd’s pie for my last night in England.
Still unsure whether I would return to Britain for the fall, or on a long-term post-graduation visa, I refrained from tearful farewells. I had run myself ragged hopping from train to bus and back every day and found myself more than ready to see my family again – for that brief interval before I hit the skies again, en route to Italy.
Trekking cross-country had schooled me in the practicalities of life on the road – including the delightful part that serendipity plays in a concert conducted by detailed plans but dominated by coincidence. The unmatched thrill of finding yourself unexpectedly and unintentionally in position to enjoy something you wouldn’t have dreamed of requesting for yourself (same-day tickets at the Globe! a private tour of the Dales!), more than balances out the gnawing frustration of missing a train, or confronting ‘closed’ and ‘fully booked’ signs… when I let it.
A month of solo travel taxed my reserves of endurance and ingenuity, but it also illuminated for me the intricacies of my desire for travel. This was a question I had been wanting to answer since my university days, when it first dawned on me that “travel” encompasses a spectrum of activities almost as varied as life itself. What particularly tickled my fancy, how to weigh the comforts of packaged tours against the efficiency of backpacking?
This trip convinced me that the art and practice of hospitality draws me almost as much as the reward of solving logistical problems: I revel in the challenge of reconciling itineraries, and I luxuriate in the welcome of a gracious household. Being blessed enough to stay as a guest while touring Europe brings further blessing in gratitude: What is there to complain about when you are sharing a family’s bread and sleeping in their bed? Every advantage is a gift; every drawback is incidental. I’m deeply thankful for everyone who unrolled an open road by welcoming me into their homes.
Part four brings us to Roma, the eternal city!