Saturday, April 23, 2005

Oxford memories

Just in case you think my previous post is unkind to England, I thought I’d write about a side of Oxford that really doesn’t exist in Boulder. It is true that comfort and convenience are very important to Americans, but they are not such strong aesthetics in England, so it is a little unfair to compare the two of them on those terms. Previous posts, “Have a Great Day!” and "Bear with me a moment" show some of the contrast between the two places with what I hope is a more balanced perspective. If "Boulder moments" was a pro-Boulder post, here is a pro-Oxford post.

One of the things that Oxford has that is sorely lacking in Boulder is history. The depth of culture and infrastructure in Oxford is immense. This is both an asset and a burden. It is a wonderful cultural resource and the traditions of the past are beautiful and powerful, but it also makes it hard to change or strive for new ideals when there is so much depth already. A friend in Oxford recently emailed me that her son’s primary school is celebrating its anniversary this year---its 525th anniversary. It is hard for me to even imagine being in elementary school as part of a 525-year history. That really puts a child’s primary-school years in perspective. Years that seem earth shattering and of fundamental importance to your family are but a blip in the span of history. That alone tells you a lot about the contrast between Boulder and Oxford. Here, an “older house” is more than 20 years old. The oldest school in Boulder just had its 100th anniversary.

When we first moved to Oxford, we rented a house from the University sight unseen. I asked a few questions before we moved such as, “Is it a modern house or a historic house?” It seemed a simple question. In my experience a house was either modern, or, if it was old enough to no longer be modern, it was likely to be “historic.” I was a bit surprised when the answer came back, “Neither.”

In England, there is a whole range of houses that fall in between the “modern” and “historic” designations. If a house “needed modernization” that might mean it predated indoor plumbing or heating, but that house wouldn’t necessarily be historic, unless it was famous for something or had pedigree. A historic house that wasn’t famous for something, needed to be really, really old, centuries old, a mere hundred years is not enough.

The house we first lived in in Oxford was truly neither. Built in the 1930s in a Tudor-revival style, it might qualify as historic in America, but was just a plain old house in England. Plumbing and heating had been added after the house was built and there was a bathroom addition in the rear. We were charmed by the house, the large trees in the yard, and by our view of a thatched cottage across the street. That cottage was historic, as was the stone farmhouse up the lane.

Contrast that with our first University-rented place in Boulder where we had a third-floor, 1980s apartment in a development of other identical apartments near the intersection of two main roads and across the street from acres of parking lots and endless shopping opportunities in large, big-box chain stores. That is the American way. It was comfortable and convenient, but had no personality or charm.

I remember fondly my walk to the shops from our Oxford house. In England, every neighborhood has a small, compact row of shops with a grocer and pub and perhaps a pharmacy or a hardware store or butcher and post office. (Unfortunately these seem to be slowly dying out, but they are still in most neighborhoods in Oxford today.) These shops are small, human-scale places that are usually family-run and visited regularly by those who live in the area. I soon found out that, given the size of refrigerators (small, more on English refrigerators later) and the lack of closets, why a store was called a store. It was where you would store your stuff until you needed it. Large containers and any surplus was a bother. It was much more pleasant to walk down to the shops every day or so to pick up what you needed. You could pick up fresh milk and bread, chat with the shopkeepers, and meet people from the neighborhood. Yes, it took a lot of time, yes it was not the best selection or the best price, but you got some exercise, you met face to face with the people who lived near you, and you bought things in manageable quantities that you could carry.

And to be honest, I kind of enjoyed the kind of living in England that made you think more about how you used things. When we would turn on the hot water, the boiler in the kitchen would lurch into action, reminding us that hot water is not free. Driving was so unpleasant and parking so difficult, that we walked or rode our bikes instead. Closets were small so you had fewer clothes. But that was okay because the washing machines were also small so you washed more frequently. People did not have tumble dryers. There were clotheslines. In Boulder, with its dry, sunny climate, clotheslines are illegal, considered an eyesore. Things here are all so seemingly automatic and convenient that excess is the rule rather than the exception. Like I said, I’m finding it hard to get used to. Something about the struggle in England made me feel just a little more bothered but also a little bit more alive.

1 comment:

cda said...

I've been thinking about this post and "Boulder Moments" all day (I read them earlier but was unable to post for various reasons I don't understand). I think Boston is more like Oxford--more like England, really. And there's some good in that, but I've been craving some Boulder Moments that's for sure. You are inspiring me to write about Dorchester Disappointments! Nothing major, just when you want to connect with a community but find it's not really yours, not because it's France and you're an American expat, but because it's just not meeting you where you need to be met. Will write about it one day. Your posts always get me thinking.