London and Oxford are a mere metro, express metro, airplane, train, bus, bus, and bus ride away from Lyon, so of course I had to hop over there. The last time I was in London, it was about 87 degrees Fahrenheit, sunny, and miserable because I was wearing all the sweaters I had worn in forty degree Ireland. Yeah, poor me. At any rate, I wanted to give it all another shot.
In London, in 2011, I felt utterly ridiculous, and it wasn’t just the pile of sweaters or the broken luggage we had to cart around. I didn’t know what to do there, I didn’t know how to navigate a city properly, and I really just wanted to go “home.” At the time, that meant going back to my college where I would spend the summer under a different pile of clothing–this time an indentured servant costume, circa 1661. I would come to feel a sense of home there because of the others living in the dorm–my then-boyfriend, my future boyfriend, other friends, a herd of archeology students…
In London, in 2013, I had a devil of a time getting out of Gatwick and I didn’t have change to buy a bus ticket once I got into the city proper, so I ended up running blocks from the train station to where I was supposed to meet my friend. I spent a good part of Halloween evening literally running through London with my backpack buckled tightly and my leather jacket flapping open for a hint of ventilation as I become soaked with sweat. Then we met up, went to a party on a boat, made pizza with someone dressed up as the Spanish Inquisition, and called it a night. (Sadly, I have no photos from any of this, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.)
The next day I was headed to Oxford, where I was promptly met by another old friend (it seems that everyone I know is going to grad school abroad right now!). Back at his college, I was let into his room and told to make myself at home–he was off to do an erg set. [Editor’s note: this means using a rowing machine.]
Usually when people say “make yourself at home,” there follows a good thirty-minute period (at least) of awkwardly trying to arrange yourself, figure out where the various faucets are and whether certain doors will lock you out. And then you still don’t feel at home. You aren’t home, not even close. And that’s also kind of the point–you’re traveling, not house-hunting. But I am looking for “home.”
And in Oxford, something different happened.
I helped make caramel apples for a Boat Club fundraiser. I drank gin on my friend’s balcony while watching his college’s fireworks display. I borrowed his bike and squeaked into evensong at Christ Church Cathedral in time, then pedaled “home” furiously in the rain, trying to stay warm and make it back in time for Indian food.
As much as these experiences were fun, “fun” wasn’t the most enjoyable element of the equation. Finding myself surrounded by incredibly bright, kind, and interesting people in a very lovely town, left to my own devices for hours and then finding myself swallowed up into the social fabric of my friend’s life–that created the illusion, if only briefly, of “home.” The place itself is easy to fall in love with, but postcards could have much the same effect.
The photographs in this blog post are my attempt to help you, the reader, relate to my appreciation of this place–but what I’ve done is merely take a few pretty pictures. What I wish I had been able to photograph were the moments of understanding, the moments of compassion, the moments of joy in human company. As much as I start to sound like I live on a desert island, I had been thirsting for this kind of fellowship–the kind of interactions in which you can behave as your best self, and be accepted for that.
I spent basically three days in Oxford and took very few photos. I took none in London. This is like saying the heroine addict stuck to tea. Normally I would have hundreds of photos from a much shorter trip. It wasn’t that these places didn’t offer great views or pretty landmarks or whatever–clearly both cities have all of this, and more, in surplus–but I realized that taking photographs of these aspects of the cities wouldn’t capture what I really found and most valued during the trip.
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve taken photographs in four cities, I’ve noticed that the people usually aren’t there in the photographs. In these cities themselves, this is blatantly not a true representation of the scene, however. When I walk down streets in Lyon, I will rarely walk half a block without passing or being passed by a handful of fellow pedestrians. Oxford is loaded with tours and tourists, not to mention the students and professors and people who actually belong there.
I love taking photos of people. Basically every person makes an interesting subject if for no other reason than our shared humanity. But I also feel nervous taking shots of specific people. What if they’re in witness protection? What if they feel really bad about themselves that day? What if they think I’m photographing them out of some cruel instinct and not just simply curiosity? What if they believe cameras steal souls? So I end up aiming a little above their heads, shooting images of one gorgeous rooftop after another.
Consider the above image I took, only without the human figures. Even from a strictly aesthetic standpoint, sans people it would be a lesser photograph. With some observation of the people in this photograph, there is more to think about. How are these people related? Are they strangers? They’re not standing close together, so their relationships are ambiguous. The swans are not the only birds in the water, either, but we can also look at the way they interact with the little boy about to toss them bread and see that the swans and the ducks have specific relationships, too.
Making yourself at home requires not only a literal place, but, on a probably more important level, a sense of belonging. Belonging doesn’t happen because of cobblestones or tiny cars or an astounding love of fish and chips. Belonging happens because you find “your people.” As much as I railed against environmental organizations in my last post, I’m trying to counterbalance that by admitting that these huge groups may be a way to find your clan.
Most of all, if you have beliefs (and we all do), if you have ideas you are passionate about, if you like to think about and live in the world a certain way, you need to find people with whom you can share all of that.
And I think that–and only that?–is home.