The Undefined: On Oxford


You can always go back. You can take the train — or the bus, if you have three hours to spare — from London to Queen’s Lane, marvel at the Radcliffe Camera, the spires of Magdalen College overlooking the city. You can walk down Christ Church Meadow and look up at the trees — bare in mid-winter or dotted with the first pale green buds of early spring. You can go to Gloucester Green and buy Sri Lankan food from a stall at the farmer’s market, try on handmade jewelry and contemplate the strawberries.

You can go to the Covered Market and page through novels with a warm coffee in hand — if you want to be cliche, make it “Babel” or “Brideshead” and take it to the deer park. You can stuff your hands into the pockets of your college puffer and pretend that this city is still yours, that it was ever yours to keep in the first place, that you still slot in as easily as you once did. 


You can’t go back. You take your father to Oxford in late December and you feel like a harried tourist the whole time. The rain doesn’t help things — the sky is a dull gray and every step you take only soaks your worn boots more. Your father doesn’t want to go to Gloucester Green. He doesn’t want to get hot chocolate and doesn’t want to stop in bookstores. He wants to get lunch, get your bags out of storage and head back to London before the sun sets.

You split a Domino’s pizza while sitting on a windowsill and wonder what makes the city feel so different already. If you went inside the Bodleian now, if you pulled out your laptop, would you belong again? Is it that you’re with your father and not with your friends, is it that the term has ended and all the Oxford students have already gone home, is it something within you, or is it just that your heart isn’t in it? 


When I was abroad, I only ever studied in the Radcliffe Camera once. Something about actually being inside — the round, high ceiling, the marble columns, the reverent silence — made it difficult to get any work done. Instead, my friends and I browsed Pinterest, sending each other Halloween costume inspiration and failing to muffle our giggles for an hour before we called it quits.

Then and now, the part of Oxford I find the most beautiful is the path by the River Thames, down St. Aldate’s and past the Head of the River pub. It winds by houses, boats and tall grass, and at night, the water glimmers with soft gold light. Strangely, inextricably — even in late fall, even as I shivered in my puffer jacket, even when the night was nearly silent — it reminded me of summer, laughter and chasing fireflies. More than anything, it seemed real. 


Truthfully, I spent most of my time in Oxford in cafes, pretending to get work done. I went to the Ashmolean once, Christ Church Meadow twice. By the middle of the term I’d tired of formal dinners — after the second hour in a drafty dining hall, I’d start fidgeting, scraping the last bits of mashed potato or parsnip off my plate for something to do. The Botanic Gardens tried to charge us fifteen pounds so I never went inside. 

But all of us adored the cafes — Society, New Grounds, Jericho. My friends and I passed countless afternoons there, taking up tables until the sun went down. Instead of writing great literature or punting down the Thames, I paged through bad horror novels and got very good at ordering middling matcha lattes.

To be honest, though, I like the coffee at Philz more. Very American of me — I take my coffee iced, with oat milk and flavored with honey. All espresso tastes the same to me, too hot and vaguely sour with a lingering sensation of ash. 


What was so magical about Oxford? Everyone who studies abroad thinks that they’ve had a life-altering experience, I’m sure. Everyone thinks they were the first one to discover that bar or coffee shop, the first one to fall in love with that kebab truck or that flower stall.

But that doesn’t make it any less magical. I look through photos from the fall and can immediately remember how I felt in that moment — what I was thinking about at that first formal dinner or on that trip to Port Meadow. 

Maybe it’s the way the city and the college seemed to live within each other, forming their own ecosystem where everything a student could need — everything I could need — existed within a single square mile. It made the world feel larger and smaller at the same time. 


When I got back from Oxford last quarter, I started going to Palo Alto more. I brought my laptop and books to Philz and did my readings there instead of in my dorm room or inside Green. I put on my headphones and made the walk down Campus Drive, listening to Vampire Weekend and looking up at the cloudless blue sky. I went with friends to SomiSomi and ordered the ube soft serve.

It wasn’t Oxford. It didn’t need to be.