Despite being raised by a fiercely Anglophile mother, I had never been to Europe before turning 21. So I took things into my own hands. I went to London with my best friend Anna when we turned 22.
The dichotomy between the two of us would have been obvious to more well travelled people. Those people might have said traveling together could be a mistake. Anna had been working for three years; I was just out of college. She had tons of money; I had none. She wanted to visit London in a way I thought suited a more seasoned adult: stay in a nice hotel, go to chic restaurants, and shop at Harrod’s. I wanted to hang out in pubs like the Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis had spent their time talking about writing and difficult issues. I couldn't wait to look for flea markets. The thought of renting bikes and scooting in and out of King’s College thrilled me. We fought about anything we disagreed on before we started finding things to argue about that didn't matter, like the kinds of jam that should be at the breakfast table or why fish and chips is better than sushi.
The second morning, I curtly explained that I was spending one day by myself. I navigated myself over to the train station. It was a gorgeous crisp day, perfect for a train ride through the city and out to Oxford. The train ride felt otherworldly. I had ridden trains before, but this felt different. Everything was new. Everyone seemed to be riding along in my dream. When I stepped off the train and started to walk through the city, I was surprised to find myself crying. At one point I stopped and looked around, taking it all in. the beautiful old buildings. The perfect narrow streets lined with shops that looked like the Christmas village my mother puts up each December. Why hadn't anyone told me?
Finding Oxford, England on my own was like finding a photo in the attic of an old, unknown family member and thinking it was a picture of yourself because you recognized it so intimately. I knew this place. I loved this place. I wandered in and out of stores like Harry Potter in Diagon Alley. It was magic for me. It was a place I understood after years of feeling like I never fit in. Over here was the plaid scarf I had always loved but didn't know how to find. Over there was that book I had read about by Robertson Davies. Also, everyone looked familiar to me. I imagined drinking cup after cup of tea with them planning what we were going to knit.
Then, I saw someone out of the corner of my eye who looked too familiar. This one I really knew. Anna had followed me there because she felt badly that she had made me do things I really didn’t want to do. We joined up and made peace. I even showed her some of the treasures I had found and, because she is a true friend, she admired them with the kind of gusto I had wanted them admired.
Later, after a cup of tea that I memorized so I could reenact the experience back home, we went into a used bookstore where I was hit by more nostalgia and longing I hadn't expected in a place I'd never been. The smell stopped me in my tracks. It was paper, and mold, and clean, and rich, and musty. I felt this kind of joy that seemed irrational. I wanted to hug the books in that store. As I looked around, I thought of my apartment at home and wondered if I could line it with books and have teeny tiny vases of flowers all over my old wooden tables and on the window sills. I wanted a fat cat like the bookstore cat, even though I am deathly allergic. I loved it there.
I hadn't yet bought anything in London nor any place else for that matter. It was there in that bookstore, though, that I found a slim green book called The Poet at the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes. It asked me to take it home. It was just one euro which I handed over in exchange. As we walked out onto the streets of Oxford, Anna remarked that she had spent over $1500 since we had arrived in London. "In other news," she said, "My Trip to London and how to spend only1euro plus food by Kimberley." We laughed.
We moved on to the Eagle and Child where we ordered pints and sat at an old table. I loved it there too despite the table of people who referred to us as "those Americans over there" when asking the waitress what we had ordered. I talked with Anna about what life would be like if I lived there, but I knew it was just a visit and within days we were headed home.
Now, when I look at my slim green volume by Oliver Wendell Holmes sitting on my living room bookshelf, I remember that trip when I found myself in the attic of Oxford.