Missing Out on a Summer in Oxford

“My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs.”

C. S. Lewis

I have been lucky to call Oxford my home. This city has revived me in so many ways, and so many big changes have happened in my life since moving here. I have a new-found freedom, a fresh perspective on life and, like many others who have lived the Oxford experience, I have made so many amazing, lifelong friends that I will cherish forever. Oxford has made me feel so grateful for the blessings in my life, and that is what makes this place magical.

As a city, Oxford is buzzing; it feels like there never is a moment to catch your breath (in a good way). A normal Oxford day is always busy and packed with social events, talks to give or attend, research to plod on with, and lots of free wine, port and cheese. Conversations here are like none I had previously experienced in my life, covering topics like quantum physics, the plays of Simone de Beauvoir, Baroness Hale’s opinion on feminism, Kant’s philosophies or Jeff Koon’s balloon dog. Most conversations leave me thinking about something completely new. 

Here, normal life happens, but everything that you experience seems to happen through what I like to call “an Oxford lens.” Living in Oxford is an education in itself. That is not too unexpected for a city that holds the reputation that it does. Oxford is wonderful in part, because of the rich culture from centuries of tradition: the architecture; the inspiring scholars; and its vibrant and unique social scene. Think of the college formal dinners, guest nights, and Evensongs in illustrious chapels. It seems somewhat bizarre to be blessed with the opportunity to roam the same streets that Tolkien and C. S. Lewis once did.

And bizarre occurrences never cease to occur. Last year, I woke up at 5am on May 1st, threw on some clothes after my morning shower and headed out my front door into a sea of people, frantically texting my friends. When we finally managed to find one another, we shuffled along with the masses until we finally reached High Street. From here, we listened to the Magdalen choir who stood at the top of their college chapel and sang Evensong to the whole city as Extinction Rebellion protesters waved their flags. Then, we walked around the Radcliffe Camera to watch the Morris dancers keeping the tradition alive. That’s when I turned around and found a reminder of the bizarre existence that is Oxford life: I saw Ian McKellen roaming the streets in his pyjamas, enjoying the May morning beside me. Over-the-top is “normal” here which, as I am constantly reminded, is a relative term.

The effects of the pandemic almost seem somewhat amplified in this environment. The streets of Oxford are now deserted. Social distancing has made people more distant, and not just physically. Trinity term here is normally when all the greatest events of Oxford happen.  We’re missing out on the fancy, decadent balls; garden parties; and not to mention an excessive number of punting trips along the River Cherwell. Now, the moored punts are collecting cobwebs, the shop doors are closed and the familiar faces of strangers I long to converse with can only wave, friendly but distant, from inside their homes as I walk to collect my laundry. Lockdown has removed everything I love about Oxford.

However, like many, I have chosen to take this national halt as an opportunity to get in touch with friends abroad, or old friends I’d lost touch with. I have chosen to build a new but equally as enjoyable Oxford summer filled with sewing, drawing, singing, cooking or taking up some hobby I never thought I would have the time for. My garden is looking wonderful, filled with spider plants, Kalanchoe, Elephant’s tongue and edible plants like fresh mint, rosemary and lemon balm. I choose, daily, to make good memories worth cherishing, as it is far too easy in these times to focus on the negative. Each day I remind myself how lucky I am, to live this life, in this city.

You can find more of Irene’s writing on her blog: https://missireneyang.wordpress.com/