Thursday, November 12, 2009

UK1: Touchdown

Five of us are on our way to England for two weekends of international debate tournaments. The first stop will be Oxford, and the second Cambridge.

The students, their coach and professor, and I have agreed to meet at 6am to leave for the airport. Tom, one of the students, is 25 minutes late and nowhere in sight. At 6.25, we take the shuttle van up to his apartment. He is just emerging onto the sidewalk as we drive up. He jogs back down to the meeting place where he has parked his car and loaded his suitcase. There is no explanation for lateness, and I am immediately on guard. We have both tight and flexible schedules on this trip. “You’ll have to watch him continually,” says Zeb, who is also on the trip. “He’s not that aware of things sometimes.”

We stand in the long security lines at Seattle airport. After we’re through, a few students grab a bite of breakfast. Our four-hour flight to Chicago will have drinks but no food. People balance coffee cups and breakfasts on their carry-ons as we board. Our latecomer also presents us with another snag. The zipper breaks on Tom’s backpack on the way in, so he rushes off to buy another one in the airport. He schleps along another supposed carry-on so big that the flight attendants must send it through as regular luggage.

Three of us sit in one exit row: the other two are behind us in another exit row. “Yes,” we say we are all willing and able to help passengers out the emergency exit should that be required. The flight is uneventful, the “Chicago-style” pizza the men order at O’Hare Airport is unmemorable (as are my wok-ed veges), and there are no hitches in getting to London. Some of us snooze, one sleeps deeply – sadly not me, in spite of an “8 hour sleep” pill. Two people share five center seats across the aisle, but they sit upright all the way to London, armrests down. I envy their potential space, but not their lack of travel-savvy.

Fortunately Tom’s bag arrives safely. We are so far behind the queue that nearly everyone has gone through—there is hardly a line. Immigration and customs let us into England without a fuss, so we head for the bus station. We catch the direct Oxford bus, which tours through drizzly hills and foggy vales before dropping us about a mile from the hotel. “Roundabout, second left, lovely, should have no troubles finding it,” and the bus driver leaves us and our luggage on the curb.

The men are not used to physical exercise, and walking is an effort for them. They sigh and mutter tiredly as we pull the suitcases past Magdalene Church (pronounced Mod-a-lynn) and the Oxford Rugby grounds. A sign announces the start of rugby classes for gifted youngsters, aged 8-14. What a prestigious club that would be!

It’s about 10.30am when Heather House comes into view. The landlady is chatty and takes us next door to the men’s flat. It is a tidy, unremarkable-looking house, with a beer bottle lying beside recycling bins off the sidewalk. “Won’t be any of that with our students,” we assure her. Insdie is a lounge and full kitchen with dishwasher and laundry washer/dryer, 2 bedrooms, and 2 baths. The fellow who takes the most effort in his appearance snags the bedroom with a blow-dryer in the drawer.

The initial plan is to shower, rest, have lunch, do some shopping, and register for debates, coming home for a nap if needed before the evening events. Despite a big lunch in Chicago and two meals on the airplane, the guys are too hungry to wait. Zeb has an organizing nature and asks if we can eat, then come back to shower. “It would work better if we didn’t walk to town and back to the hotel. We’d have to walk in later anyway, which takes a half hour.”

I don’t care much about what we do when. The goal is to get them food, shelter, on time to their assigned task – debate – with minimal stress. We walk a half-mile to shop at Tesco for basic food and shampoo (oh, the drama over choosing an acceptable hair gel). They are sleepy and lethargic and they’re not eager to carry the purchases. I probably would have heard no objection if I had carried them all myself, but it’s their food and toiletries, so I leave it in the buggy for them.

We pop up the street for donars (a Middle-East dish of lamb sliced into thin strips and laid into homemade naan bread), fish and chips (“It isn’t England without fish and chips!”- Ben), and my vegetarian kabab (deep-fried veges in the homemade bread). After the meal is cooked, the chef calls us to the cases at the front of the store, customizing our choices with sauces and sliced salads and vegetables. Absolutely delicious. I eat half mine and bring it home. The guys polish off their food. We pop into Boots drugstore – yay a hot water bottle for me, a few more beauty aids for the guys. They are reluctant to walk back to the hotel. Their feet hurt. I have to wait a few minutes on the corner for them to catch up. They want to clean up and rest before heading for town. To give them time to explore a bit on their own, we agree to meet at the Oxford Union at 4.30 to register before the 5pm deadline.

After a sound nap, I walk into town. It takes a half hour at a good clip – but the students are nowhere in sight. I wait a half hour at the Union before heading into the rain and wind to stand on a corner for another half hour. I’m hoping they’re not lost. The students have my phone and were going to top up my SIM card, but they haven’t been in the Virgin Mobile shop on the nearest corner. The staff is efficient, helpful, and friendly. They even call the hotel. Yes, the guys have called to see if I was there. No, the landlady didn’t think to ask for their number.

I stand in the cold, watching the people stream by at the end of a school and work day. Laughter, friends, young families, busy professors. When I am sure I won’t miss them because they aren’t coming, I head back to the Union, hoping they have arrived.

And they have, by a different way, minutes after I left. They haven’t topped up the phone, so I ask them to please stay in the Union while I do it. (Why were they late? They got distracted comparing prices for umbrellas.) The Virgin Mobile employees make short work of connecting me. The fellows’ feet are sore: two sit in the library, two relax in the entry. And I go to a nearby bookstore to browse the incredible selections and withdraw money to pay for dinner.

We have a 6.30 appointment in the Union to head out for dinner in the “Harry Potter” hall at Christ Church. Except that there is a change of plan and we will eat in their regular dining hall with students instead. In typical British fashion, the group is actually ready to head out the door by 7.15, following two students through Cornmarket Road’s pedestrian mall to Christ Church like a herd of cats on a long string. The porter stops us at the gate to call the dining hall, then waves us into the large courtyard. The profiles of the walls with student rooms above, classrooms below, are etched in stone shadows against the sky.

The dining hall matron was expecting twelve, not thirty-five people. “We booked thirty-five last week, in plenty of time,” the young debate student says politely. When someone asks what is going on, she turns to them with a smile and replies diplomatically, “They said we shall be in shortly. Not to worry.” A mere 20 minutes later we are seated in a fabulous space. One of the students can hardly eat: he is so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the life-size portraits on the walls, the dark wood beams that tower 40 feet above young people dressed in suits and formal wear, their faces glowing in light from the brass lamps on the thick oak plank tables.

The meal is a tortellini appetizer followed by salmon, tiny roasted potatoes, root vegetables in sauce, and a wonderful chocolate dessert. I eat mostly vegan – a zippy cold vinegar potato salad to start, roasted pepper with some mushrooms and eggplant as the entrĂ©e, and then I cheat with the best chocolate mousse I can remember. (By dessert, I’m tired of reminding the servers to bring a vegan option.)

The Union hosts a debate every Thursday. Today the topic is “The house says Britain should return to Christian values.” The Christians - a bishop, a member of parliament, a journalist, and an award-winning Oxford debate student, are polite and don’t push very hard. The opposition, well-known atheists and humanists, stereotype Christians as bigots who hate homosexuals, are war-mongers, and out of touch with the freedoms of real life. They shrug aside the House’s comments that the very freedoms we enjoy this night – including the privilege of debating – are possible because of Christianity’s value of every person. The Christians point out there is no freedom in atheistic states like Stalinist Russia, North Korea, or Cuba. The opposition waves it off to slam them with the ills of abortion (women will get slaughtered if we return to narrow-minded Christian values, they say). It is an eye-opening look at the closed thinking produced by rewriting history with a secular worldview. We are done by 11pm, but the students still want to go to the international debater’s reception and aftermath.

I drift through crowds of young people on the sidewalks. Many are dressed in pyjama style costumes, some skipping along in pink and leopard print tights – only undergraduates can think they are cool by looking this strange. I catch the bus home – it could be dangerous to be out in this neighborhood alone late at night, said the landlady earlier. “Oxford has changed, and for the worse,” confirming the arguments made by the House during the debate. The bus stops across the street from the hotel, and I am ready to hop in the shower by 11.30, bed by 12, writing until 1.30. I catch up on work until 2.15. My alarm is set for 8am.

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