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Sunday, October 31, 2004

Oxford

I took a trip to Oxford yesterday. It was the first tourist activity I've done since I arrived in England. Except, of course, for the tourist activity I like the most: finding out what it's like to live in some place, especially what the people who live there are like. At the standard tourist spots, that is not what happens: they are filled with other tourists, not the residents. That bothered me when I stayed in old Quebec City: the entire old city area is a giant tourist attraction. After a few days, I realized I wasn't in a real city at all, but in something equivalent to Colonial Williamsburg on a larger scale.

The countryside the London-Oxford train passes through, once one gets perhaps 25 minutes out of London, is lovely. Autumn is fully setting in here, and the trees lining the green fields are muted tones of green and gold and brown, much quieter than a New England fall, but with their own charm. The English rivers are enchanting, full and slow and lazy, their banks studded with trees and shrubs.

Oxford itself is also very nice, filled with majestic old buildings. I walked down New Road, whose name probably means it was built only about five or six centuries ago -- New College was built in 1379. Crossing Hythe Street Bridge, I saw a sign that read, "Hump -- 75 Yards." I went there and waited for a while, but nothing happened.

I visited the Ashmolean, a wonderful museum. In the Ancient Egypt exhibit I pondered the explosion in human technical ability that started around 10,000 years ago. Egypt had been occupied by humans for roughly 1,000,000 years, over the first 990,000 of which the exhibit showed small changes in stone tool technology. Then, suddenly, there is pottery, farming, copper needles and fishhooks, and so on.

The night before my trip, I had wound up sleeping on a friend's couch, from where I went straight to Oxford. I hadn't planned to do so, and, therefore, I hadn't brought a change of clothes. By late afternoon my feet were feeling, shall we say, "not so fresh." I wanted to rinse them off, so I walked along a canal. A life preserver bobbed in the water, caught up in some branches. Someone throw it a human!

There I saw canal boats for the first time -- long, thin, low affairs, most of them emitting streams of smoke that smelled like a peat fire, but apparently were the result of burning some material that comes in plastic bags, which the boat owners stacked by the dozen across their roofs.

I finally found a place where I could reach the water with my feet, and rinsed them off. I walked barefoot back along the path. Two small, black birds -- ducks? -- with white heads fought the current to stare at me, perhaps hoping for food. As I took out my notebook to jot down their appearance, a couple strolled toward me up the walk. They gave me a very wide berth. Well, I suppose, standing on the asphalt path in dress slacks and a buttondown shirt, but barefeet, in 50 degree weather, my shoes, socks, and a notepad in one hand, while I scribbled on the pad with a pen held in the other, that I might have looked a wee bit odd.

I did not see Morse or Lewis during my stay.

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