“I will NEVER forget this week. Every moment was so…” insert tears, “so special. Like, we cannot forget. We’ll need a reunion. And if Todd doesn’t text you, I’ll…I’lll….ohmygosh, this week. So incredible.” More tears.
The two girls on the bus from Oxford to Heathrow Airport in London were a tad emotional. I’m fairly sure their mascara is still all over the seats. They were Americans who had spent the last week in Oxford, mission work I think. And obviously, it had been:
I wasn’t trying to overhear their conversation, but when two girls are sobbing their eyes out in the seat in front of you…common decency demands some attention, right? Plus, they were really funny. It was the best week of their lives, nothing would ever compare, what would they do now? How could life ever be the same?
The 4 am bus is an interesting place. You don’t take it unless absolutely necessary. The silence was the strangest part of the walk from my flat to the bus stop. Oxford is a bustling city. Tourists jostle with students. Carolers, street performers, and tour guides strive to outdo one another for attention. Even late at night, lines of scantily clothed and fairly drunk pub and club-goers keep the place hopping.
But not at 4am.
At 4 am the train rumbling by does not offer background noise, but a strange interruption. At 4 am no friendly janitor cleans the local daycare and offers a sense of security despite the late night. At 4 am the shuffling shadows outside of the hostels offer no reassurance. It’s kind of creepy.
At 4 am the businessman climbs aboard the bus and settles down without a word. The tourists stress over ticket prices and double check that their bags are properly stowed. Some chatter nervously. Others immediately fall asleep. Families wave farewell and disappear into the darkness. Oxford slowly fades.
And that is goodbye. Not with tears or exclamations, but a quiet unrest in the early morning before dawn. I don’t feel the surge of emotion of my near neighbors. This is goodbye, but I have been whispering ‘adieu’ on every street for the past two days.
The bus makes good time; we’re at the airport by 5:30. Baggage check doesn’t open till 6 am. My passport doesn’t want to scan, but there are no attendants around to ask for help: a final testament to British customer service. When they do start trickling in, they glare at the line of waiting passengers balefully. The coffee has clearly not kicked in. Anyway, they get their revenge. Its 6:20 by the time they start checking suitcases.
4 hours until my flight.
Security is the next hurdle. I set off the metal detector. The invasive pat down following still fails to finds the watch I absentmindedly slipped in my pocket. Whoops.
However, the excitement has only begun. My carryon gets flagged. The TSA agent motions me over. Any reason why my backpack scanned for trace explosives? No? She starts removing items…a hairbrush. An i-pod…
My underlined, pocket size copy of The Koran. The War Against Jihadism. Machiavelli’s The Prince. A whole semesters worth of ideological and political books from my tutorials and the Summit Oxford readings.
This puts a new angle on things. The agent waves over her boss. You can tell she is the boss because her heels are higher. And her badge says so. Did I understand what was happening? Every item needed to be scanned. Nothing registered for trace explosives. Eventually, they take down my passport information and send me through. I wonder if they’ll notify my plane, or better yet Chicago. Will I be on the record as a potential terrorist? That might make this flight more exciting.
My plane is on time but there is no boarding gate. I am still 3 hours early. The airport is beginning to fill up. I’ve brought books. First is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Apparently it was made into a movie with Amy Adams in 2008. I have no idea if it is anything like the book. Written in 1938, the plot follows Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a down and out governess suddenly swept up into a world of glamour, night clubs, and parties for a day when her application as a nursery worker gets mixed up with a request for a personal maid. A fun story, slightly ridiculous, and very fluffy but it passes the time quickly.
By the time I board my plane, I’ve started my second book, The Lost World by Sir Arthur Con Doyle. “Before Jurassic Park….dinosaurs existed in The Lost World.” A romping adventure story with danger, dinosaurs, and dreams of glory. Description got a little tedious at times, and the terminology a little old fashion, but overall worth it. Similar to something by Jules Verne.
My flight was relatively calm. The in-flight movies were Now You See Me which had a good twist but was otherwise so-so and Jack The Giant Slayer which was painful. There were some TV shows I forgot immediately. The girl sitting next to me was my age visiting the US from Switzerland. She had graduated from high school in Minnesota and mostly tried (and failed) to sleep during the flight. Every time she started dozing the flight attendants walked around and woke her up asking for her drink order. As the plane came down for a landing, America’s Top Chef started playing. By this point the volume was off so we bonded over trying to follow what was happening in the show based on the judges’ expressions. It wasn’t pretty for the filet mignon. Someone got voted off, but as everyone was hugging and crying we couldn’t tell who. I think it was the chef who stayed a perpetual shade of deep red.
Our fellow passengers were slightly less noisy than the flight over, but a few made for some excellent people watching. The woman in front of me ordered a glass of wine every time the attendant came by for drinks. I’m amazed she could stand by the end. The man two seats behind me was a former US Army ranger involved in a noisy conversation with an American English teacher who worked in the Middle East. She liked making loud comments like, “Well, Jordan is SO beautiful but dangerous. Not that I was afraid…” Finally, my personal favorites were the two middle aged women with spray-on tans (no-one gets that tan in England…or that orange) who loudly complained when “Section A was seated before Section D.” They were both wearing ripped jean mini-skirts and t-shirts that weren’t designed to be one-shoulder, but had become so. Mainly because the poor shirts kept getting yanked down.
Customs was a breeze. Apparently, they missed the memo about me being a potential terrorist. Signe and my Mom met me outside of security.
Initially, the weirdest thing about coming home wasn’t the snow. I was prepared for snow. It wasn’t seeing my Mom again; I couldn’t wait to hug her. It was my cell phone. Or more precisely, the texts on it.
When I came back from my first semester at college, I half expected everyone to be struck by how different I looked. Taller, maybe, or bolder. Something to show how much I had matured over the past months. I knew how much I’d changed, how could others miss it?
This time around, though, it was me who missed it. I knew I would change. Everyone told me what a fabulous experience it would be, how I would grow. And I knew I had…in some areas. Intellectually I was stronger, more confident in my ability to reason and debate. But the texts from three and a half months ago surprised me the most…they were nothing special. Goodbyes, mostly. Bored, nervous, jumpy texts.
Yet they revealed a whole different mindset.
In three and a half months, I tackled a new country. Toured London and Bath on my own. Bought my own groceries, cooked my own meals, made friends. I joined a church family. I showed “particular aptitude” for political theory. I stretched my reading ability and discovered it could go farther. I survived computer crashes, getting my debit card eaten, even sleeping on a mattress for several weeks (minus the bed frame). Not only did I gain confidence intellectually, but in everyday life experience. I learned to say ‘trousers’ and ‘chips’ and ‘term’. At 18, I moved to Tennessee knowing almost no one. Now, at 20, I tackled Oxford.
You don’t think in those terms when dealing with everyday life. Where to buy postcards? What bus to catch? Did I buy minutes for my phone this month? Then you’re home…and Mom is grocery shopping and cooking, there are enough blankets and none of them are moldy, the fire alarm doesn’t go off when you make toast. And there are the texts. Texts that can’t begin to understand what a few months will do.
I guess that’s why I didn’t – and don’t – feel the need to bawl about my “incredible” semester like the girls on the bus. For me, studying in Oxford wasn’t one passionate, emotional week of intense experiences. It was days of waking up and drinking coffee and hoping the hot water would last another day. Some moments were incredible, like seeing Les Mis in London or the unveiling of the C.S. Lewis memorial stone. Others were quieter and more repetitive. And, with all due respect to those same girls, I think my experience will last longer because it went deeper. I’ve been in their position, swearing eternal allegiance and perfect memory. Turns out, neither really last. But habits, emotions, day to day experiences change us. And that’s coming home for me. Different but better. I love being home, I love seeing my family, but I’m looking forward to going back to school. I am looking forward to writing papers and reading books. I’ve seen what I can do…and I look forward to going farther.