In December 2006, I jumped into the River Cherwell, a river in Oxford, England, that crosses University Parks on the north side of town.
It was the end of our study abroad semester and a few friends and I had the wild idea to jump off a low bridge into the water on one of our last days of class. We were twenty years old and had survived a semester overseas away from our families and friends and everything familiar. We would honor the experience, cement it into our souls by plunging into the coldest water I have ever felt.
A group of our classmates had come with us to watch, skeptical we would follow through. When we did, they helped pull us out of the water and over the grassy edge. Shivering, we smiled proudly for the cameras.
About two years later I found myself back in Oxford, this time to do a master’s in English at a school called Oxford-Brookes University. I also found myself back along the river, this time at a pub that sat on the River Thames.
I was eating lunch with a group of English friends I knew from church. Well, they weren’t so much my friends as they were acquaintances who I hoped would turn into friends. I had been living in Oxford for only a few weeks and friends were something I needed desperately. This lunch, I thought, would solidify my place here.
That’s not exactly what happened.
Although I sat near them, I felt far from my lunch companions that day. First, there was the matter of my appearance. I wore clothes purchased from stores no one shopped in here. I had meticulously straightened my hair, which, I would learn, was not exactly the fashion for English girls.
Besides how I looked in comparison to the others, I also struggled with the conversation. Their accents muddled things, but so did words and phrases that were familiar to me yet had new definitions in this country. Words like fancy and pudding and pavement.
I thought life in England would be a simple transition from home. I had been there before, and, most importantly, I spoke the language. Or so I thought. In reality, no matter how similar a language seems on the page or sounds to the ear, what we actually speak is a language informed by our surroundings and upbringings. We speak our food, our weather, our societal habits and quirks. We speak what we were taught by our parents, political leaders, friends, pop-star idols, and grocery-store clerks. That’s what I spoke in Oxford, and it wasn’t translating well.
As the others talked, I looked at the brown water of the Thames. I didn’t know where that brave girl was from two years before who had jumped off a bridge in her swimsuit, breaking the cold surface of the river below. This time by the river felt different. I sat with strangers who were English and to whom the river was regular life. They didn’t need to jump into it to feel some sort of rush.
I sat in this loneliness in Oxford for a little while. I wandered the streets alone, hoping to find companionship with the city itself. I explored back alleyways and sat in cafes and coffee shops with my books. I studied in the school’s ancient library. I ran my hand along the city’s old, strong walls. Soon though, I knew that exploring Oxford on my own was not going to be enough to cure my loneliness. “We are born helpless,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.”
Friends were not going to come to me. Acceptance was not going to arrive on my doorstep. After a while when I finally woke up and realized I had made fifty acquaintances in Oxford and zero friends, I knew it was time to do something. A layer of safety and comfort needed to be shed. I needed to channel the girl who had jumped into the River Cherwell. So in a moment of courage, or desperation, I invited people from class over for dinner.
I didn’t know them well. We had had the occasional postclass chats and a couple of coffees together, but we had not been to each other’s homes. I invited Sophie and her boyfriend, who were from South Africa. I invited Ben, who was from England, and I invited Mac, who was from Philadelphia, the only other American in our class.
In my little Oxford kitchen, I had exactly five plates, five cups, five forks and five knives. I didn’t have much cooking ware, so Sophie brought a large pot and wooden spoon and ladle. She taught me how to cook curry, something I had only tried but never made myself. She chopped chicken and vegetables and showed me what curry powder she liked to use.
We ate in my living room with plates on our laps and talked and laughed for a long time. Mac brought chestnuts he had purchased from a street vendor, and we toasted them in a sauté pan to have for dessert, while Ben unwrapped Cadbury chocolate bars to break off and share. The chocolate melted slightly from the heat of the chestnuts.
Curry, chestnuts, chocolate. It was an odd meal, but in the middle of it, I started to feel like myself again. I felt all wrapped up in the smoky aroma of the chestnuts. I felt like I might survive this country after all, and that the people who appeared to be nothing like me were actually a lot like me, and I was a lot like them.
If you look at a map of Oxford, you will see that the River Cherwell eventually meets the River Thames. They come together and form one beautiful, long stream. This doesn’t surprise me at all.
1.C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012), 2.
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