This afternoon (*) I took the tube to Oxford. Those who know London a bit might be surprised to hear that. Oxford is an hour and a half from London, and there is no tunnel connecting the two cities, no tube through which the cognominal trains could run. The Oxford Tube is no underground. It is instead a frequent bus service without a schedule but short waits and quick trips. No reservation is needed and the fare doesn’t change by the hour.
In front of the Shepherd's Bush Hilton, which trades under a different name because Shepherd's Bush was too far from fashionable when the hotel was built there, I waited for the bus, and before I could finish even one page in the book I was carrying to help pass time, it arrived. I hopped on, paid a modest amount and was on my way.
I finished my book (and will hopefully find time sometime for a few paragraphs on the brilliant Buddha of Suburbia), tested the wireless, spooked a friend on Skype but found myself abandoned by all the others, and had an assessment of the political situation in Germany (one week away from a general election) nearly put me to sleep. It seemed that years ago, when I still paid for them, the articles in the Economist were much more exciting. When I happened to stroll across Economist Plaza earlier in the day, it occurred to me that the magazine is in danger of following the lead of its headquarters, modest 1970s office towers that look shabby and neglected despite the optimistic red color scheme.
There are surely 1970s office towers in Oxford. Such atrocities are universal. But what I saw after climbing down from the top deck of the bus was a narrow cobbled street lined with quaint limestone buildings, little, cute and eternal. Oxford is pretty, but it's also small and small-townish. It's in a different country from London, and orienting myself was difficult at first. I went into three different wrong directions before figuring out where to go to find the college I was staying at.
The college, named after St. Catherine, is not what one associates with Oxford. It dates from the 1960s. As most buildings were erected just before the millennium, the visual impact was not as dire as it could have been, but there was no ivy, no warmth, no stones or curves. Concrete and some glass were resolutely stacked at right angles. Inside, clinical austerity dominated, with the white of the cinderblock walls brutally magnified by dozens of violent halogen lights.
I entered my room and instantly time-traveled to an unspecified parallel past. In college I lived in a much warmer place and in graduate school in one much crummier, but this was clearly a dorm room. I felt transported back to the days when accommodation was so temporary that any sort of personal touch would have been wasted. White walls with no pictures but hollow echoes, empty cupboards, and a desk with a lamp as its only decoration.
In my weaker moments, I think back fondly of my student days. With no responsibilities and no structure, the days were shaped by my scientific curiosity and my social desires. Life was good, but it was also just a precursor to something better, something longer lasting and more gratifying. Despite graduating more than four years ago, I'm still transitioning. The workshop here in Oxford is designed to give me a better idea of my options based on my talents and my work style preferences. I want to find my destination in life, something infinitely more difficult than picking a stop on the tube map.
(*) It's Tuesday now. As my little Eee doesn’t know yet how to connect to WPA2-Enterprise-encrypted wireless networks, I couldn’t publish this post when I wrote it. But the story, which unfolded on Sunday, still holds.