I love how quiet most pubs are, in contrast to American bars, where you can’t sit anywhere and not face a bank of TVs showing nonstop sports, in addition to blaring, manic music.
Not that pubs can’t be noisy, especially toward the end of the night in a university town like Oxford. But it was a Wednesday afternoon and I had a quiet nook to myself. I pulled out a notebook and started making lists—things to buy, places to go, writing ideas. I listed all the writers associated with Oxford and who might have sat on this very bench before me: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Phillip Pullman, Thomas Hardy, William Golding, Aldous Huxley, TS Elliot, William Boyd, VS Naipaul, Dorothy Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, Lewis Carroll, and even Dr. Suess!
Maybe some of their collective genius juju would rub off on me.
My reverie was interrupted by a woman braying loudly in an American southern accent, “I’m afraid of the beef!” I glanced over and saw a woman of generous proportions and her husband, both wearing sweat pants and sweat shirts with sports logos. He was quite beefy but I assumed she wasn’t referring to him. He was peppering the bar maid with questions about the menu.
“Now, is that bawled, or frahhed? What kind of awwl is it frahhed in? Does it come with French fraaahs or puh-tay-ta chips?”
He was clueless about the growing irritation of the bar maid and the line of people queuing up behind them.
“I’m afraid of the beef!” his wife announced again, as if we hadn’t been able to hear her the first time.
What did she even mean? Naturally she supplied an explanation. “The beef hee-ah is so coarsely gray-ound! It’s very tough in England. Aahhm afraid I’ll break a tooth!”
Please, please, please, I said to myself, don’t make a comment about British teeth. Fortunately she didn’t, or I might have had to out myself as an American by intervening loudly and pushily.
They finally placed their orders and shambled away in their Nikes or whatever they were wearing. Have you ever noticed that a lot of people who wear “athletic shoes” are not athletic?
When I related this story at dinner, I was informed me that, to Brits, American ground beef has the texture of baby food.
Still at the Turf, watching the tide of people come and go at the bar.
Next up was a young Chinese woman. “I’rrll have a pint of Ord Rozzy Schrumpy,” she said. How brave she was to formulate that sentence, when you think about it. I know nothing about Chinese, but if it’s anything like Spanish, it has different sentence structures and verb tenses from English. And “Old Rosy Scrumpy” must sound even funnier to Chinese ears than it does to me, a native English speaker.
I finished my pint, then wove my way slowly through Oxford. There wasn’t enough time to visit any of the fabulous museums, like the Ashmolean or the Pitt Rivers, which is basically a collection of collections from dead people’s attics—people who had traveled the world and brought back plunder like shrunken heads, taxidermy dodo birds, and totem poles.
I hadn’t planned anything. I’d already taken hundreds of photos of the city so I walked for a block, sat on a bench and watched people, and repeated this for an hour.
Mainly what I observed is that people are oblivious. I have been in this state myself, so I know it when I see it. People are rushing around, trying to see everything on their tourist guide check list. They find something, snap photos, then consult a map for the next thing. They don’t get lost anymore thanks to GPS, so they never see anything by accident.
They don’t see—really see—the other human beings around them. Many people looked straight at me but didn’t really see me, seeing them, as they frantically pinged from one site to another.
It made me think of a line from a Hebrew prayer: “We walk sightless among miracles.”
At one point as I sat in front of the magnificent Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library—one of the oldest and largest libraries on earth—a van screeched to a halt at the curb. A dozen Spanish tourists jumped out, took photos, then jumped back in and the van tore off to the next photo opp.