Never would I have guessed that my past six months would be spent on my family’s farm in the USA! When I concluded my Peace Corps service, I was making plans to return to South Africa as an independent volunteer in a couple of weeks… or a month or two… and then maybe for the summer… or even just for a quick visit?
Instead, South Africa’s borders have yet to reopen for international travel, and I grudgingly submitted to a time of restoration and fellowship, reconnecting with my loved ones while future opportunities unfolded.
Given the international travel climate today, I can only be thankful that I landed without incident last Wednesday in the United Kingdom: newly “enroled” for graduate studies at the University of Oxford.
My last few weeks overflowed with love and blessings, as I dashed around the continental USA, visiting friends. It renewed my spirit and re-oriented my mind towards graduate studies to discourse on politics, faith, and beautiful ideas with so many good people. I ranged from North Carolina, to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington, D.C., Virginia…and Texas!
I owe this last adventure to my scramble to secure a student visa: The U.S. immigration services had sunk into so deep a backlog from the shutdown earlier this year that I couldn’t find a timely appointment anywhere within driving distance. The Lord providentially provided, with an opening in southern Texas… which just happens to be where one of my John Jay class was born, raised, and currently resides. With his help, I pushed my application through early enough that the visa arrived before my departing flight with a few days to spare.
For the week leading up to my flight, my family treated me to a succession of homemade feasts, from grilled New York strip to baked salmon introduced by a smorgasboard of juicy caprese ingredients, delicately ripened avocado, and salty cheeses.
Flying on a Portuguese airline engrossed me in a stream of susurrant, Spanish-like speech and text. I captured at least one phrase to stache in my toolkit: “obrigado/a,” for “thank you”! Meanwhile, the brief layover in Lisbon captured me: The Iberian peninsula has always marked a glaring omission on my list of places-to-visit, but this glimpse of undulating mountains sealed the deal. Some day I’m determined to return, for longer than 90 minutes this time.
The pros and cons of pandemic-related restrictions on the airplane more or less balanced out: Enduring a face mask for 8+ hours spurred me to milk my mealtime for as long a stretch of relief as possible, but spacing out passengers afforded some welcome extra leg room. I don’t know what happened to “social distancing” on the quick flight from Lisbon to London, though – every seat was full!
After landing at Heathrow, I leapfrogged unsupervised from terminal to bus to taxi… reflecting that the British system of self-enforced isolation must operate on the basis of scout’s honor and cooperative citizenry. The drive to Oxford flashed by. I was fighting to absorb as much of the English landscape as possible from the bus window, but I must have succumbed to nodding off in spite of myself.
When we rolled into Oxford just before dinner time, some aspects startled me by recalling South Africa! Their former colonial overlords also drive on the other side of the road, of course, but the prevalence of cyclists, and especially the school children walking in their uniforms, also struck me as incredibly familiar.
Other aspects didn’t:
I cannot believe that I actually get to live here. Naming myself a denizen of Oxford feels very different from dropping by for a 48 hour visit…or volunteering with Peace Corps. By some trick of the mind, my subsconscious self was gearing up for another stint without wifi or indoor plumbing. Throwing in the meals delivered to my door by the friendly and punctual housekeeping staff, I seesaw between jokes about solitary confinement and feeling like a queen.
Under stern instructions not to leave my room unless incited by an emergency, I am devoting my time to catching up on all the reading, artwork, and correspondence that I neglected in the rush to move countries.
As if I could get any more excited about my course in Comparative Literature and Critical Translation, the reading list for our first seminar features the Divine Comedy. I’ve been drooling over the facing translations that let me imagine my Italian is much more sophisticated than it is: Virgil’s “parola ornata” … the she-wolf that “dopo ’l pasto ha più fame che pria” … and Beatrice’s “amor mi mosse”… all rekindle distant recollections of my first Great Books class at Hillsdale, when Dr. Smith introduced me to these verses.
Somewhere, barely a mile from here, stands a ‘half-ruined Norman castle’… and in fewer than 14 days, I’ll be free to explore it!