After eight hours in the air half asleep and half awake, dawn peeked in the half-opened eye of the airplane window. Morning seemed a little early. We were flying ahead in time toward London, and the brain that has never done that before has a tough time grasping the concept.
Soaring above Ireland there was not a glimpse of the emerald land below. Clouds obscured the island, which by report of the digital map on the back of the airplane seat in front of me, was still officially down there. Somewhere.
Minutes later the clouds parted and there, for the first time in my life, was the sight of the English countryside.
I don’t know what I expected, but it was everything I hoped for and more. The first sweep of spring was evident in the patchwork landscape. As we sunk lower toward the earth, English rowhouses and hedgerows became evident. All the literature of youth came to play in my mind. A.A. Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh and Christopher Robin for whom I was partially named.
The Wind in the Willows with those strangely stubborn and troublesome frogs and badgers.
The Chronicles of Narnia and C.S. Lewis were borne where we were headed, to Oxford, where my companion’s daughter had studied (English) for four months during the second half of junior year at Elmhurst College (IL.)
We’d soon dine at the Eagle and Child pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien once shared pints and foodstuffs. But first we checked into the Head of the River inn and pub, nestled tight on the Thames, with a bridge right next door to prove it.
That afternoon wandering round Oxford and several of the many college campuses the age and connection of the place began to sink in. But first there was a layer of modernity to paw through. “This is where they filmed a lot of the Harry Potter movies,” Sarah said, pointing to one of the many block stone buildings with archways and gargoyles and spires. That afternoon Sue would purchase a beautiful little print of the Oxford spires in a downtown store. “It’s like a synopsis of the place,” she mused.
And what a beautiful city it is. Crawling with pleasant people on a Friday in April. Rife with buses going to and from London and other destinations. Oxford fairly sang with delight in the sunshine.
That evening Sarah joined her friends for a last night saying goodbye as schoolmates at Oxford. What bittersweet glory youth can be. She had made friends, she said, but it took a while for them to find each other. Then they traveled to Venice together, sharing even more European light and youth, and finding their way onto a gondola at 40% off because river traffic was slow. “And he sang to us,” she said. Three American girls; one blonde, one redhead and one brunette. The picture was almost too perfect. Almost.
So Sue and I dined at a pub called Chequers named after the checkerboard pattern used by Roman auditors to tally bills.
At dawn we rose from hard sleep to plough under the jet lag and put on our running shoes. The sun was bright and temps were in the low 40s. The Eastern breeze from the continent kept us honestly cool, and our pace was slow and forthright. We took the path up the Thames and past the boathouses where rowers of many ages, both men and women, had pulled out single, doubles, fours and eights to work the surface of the blustery Thames.
There aren’t all that many places in the world with this much tradition and picturesque charm. We ran on the gravelly path up around the Christ Church campus and circled back. Countless English birds were singing in the trees. My birder’s eye and ear were challenged to separate these songs and these species. But a Great Tit flitted in the lower branches and was unavoidably identifiable. Along the canal a Moorhen strutted, and Sue chirped, “It looks like a hen.”
Indeed. We continued our run through delightful shade and sun, the wind tapping a beat on our cold ears. Back to the Head of the River we trotted to head back up the tow path to add in the next 3.5 miles. “Joe gave me seven to do,” she said, for she’s following a program wonderfully prescribed by her capable coach Joe LoPresto of Experience Triathlon. So we ran together on the asphalt towpath. Every fifteen feet was another bird singing its tiny guts out as if they all wanted me to stop and learn what they were.
Later we paused to study a Robin (not the American kind) atop a small flowering tree. It sang sweetly and Sue and I stared intently at its quivering orange throat. We were both dizzy from stopping our run so fast. The world seemed to swirl for a moment as a spate of kayakers when churning past. This was England, for God’s sake.
My ancestors are English and Scottish. Around town in Oxford I saw dozens of people that could be my relatives. It made me wonder what it must be like for other people to return to the country of their origins. We are all one people, the human race, and yet these races and histories and flavors of human existence all do matter.
So whether it was the birds singing or the English countryside so familiar from the literature of my youth or my feet covering ground that looked and felt like home, there was magic in the air for me. It had been a long time since that feeling came home to roost. It’s almost as if the birds had sung the place into existence. We wake to dream and we dream to wake.
It might have just been jet lag. But I say whatever it takes to dig back in time or live in the moment. It’s worth the trip.