Monday, June 6, 2011

Our Story, Part X: An ocean between us

Read the other "Our Story" segments here.

England was such a sacred time in my life.  Although I had no intention of it being an "escape" when I scheduled my semester abroad many, many months earlier, the weeks leading up to my departure found me desperately thankful for a time to get away, leave the current world behind and seek out some new distractions in "The City of Dreaming Spires."  I was eager to explore the country I had heard so much about, and to throw myself into the study of "The Works of Jane Austen" and "Communication in Social Relationships" at Oxford.

View of Oxford from the New College bell tower.
Yeah, that's right.  I took two whole classes in England.  Granted, they were intensive courses and worth a whole semester of full-time credits.  They were also tutorial style, which meant once a week I'd sit down with my professor for an hour or so, one-on-one, and just talk about what I had read that week, the paper I'd written and the research I'd done.  The other 167 hours of the week were mine to spend however I wished.  And although a lot of that time was taken up by the ancient Bodleian Library, I still had plenty of hours leftover for fun and soaking up the surprisingly un-American English culture.

Outside the house where Jane Austen lived her final days.
There were trips to London, Chatsworth, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Stonehenge, Bath and other sites on the great island.  There was plenty to do nearby - museums, libraries, formal dinner (wearing robes!) at New College, shopping on cobblestoned streets, walking in the nearby Park Meadows, late night fish and chips runs, failing miserably at Wednesday night Pub Quiz, and meeting new people (mostly Americans :)). 

Big Ben, London

And there were the little things, the seemingly insignificant events that are still heavily pressed upon my mind - watching the crew team row down the Thames River early in the morning, drinking tea with a spot of milk in my don's kitchen while discussing how media has affected modern-day relationships, reading Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" in the meadow while the mist rises up off the canal, shopping at the weekly market, finding a good deal on bananas and coming home to find that all my flatmates had discovered the same deal. 

Park Meadows, Oxford.

But England wasn't all rainbows and unicorns.  Although beautiful in early Fall, towards the end it was a lot of dark, cold and rain.  The sun started setting before 4pm and didn't rise until around 8am.  My charming Oxford flat had a horrible heating system, which was not improved by the fact that the window above my bed was stuck open. 

Cool Oxford flat.

See the top window (decorated with paper snowflakes) that's stuck open a crack?  That's mine.
And the beds - they don't use top sheets over there.  Just a bottom sheet and a duvet.  I didn't realize how much I loved my top sheet until then. Regardless of the sheet situation, within a few weeks I was dreadfully homesick.  Although I didn't miss home as much as I just missed what was familiar.  I longed to talk to someone that knew a little more about me than what we had just discussed at the meet-and-greet the night before.  As much as I grew to love tea with a spot of milk, I was really missing my mom's famous iced tea.  Okay, I was missing American food in general.  Although we occasionally ate dinner at our school, most of our meals were on our own.  Which meant a lot of tuna, peanut butter and jelly, and beans on toast.  And tons and tons of tea and digestives.  Which may have been why, despite the fact that I didn't have a car and walked everywhere, I managed to put on an extra 15 pounds in my 3 months there.  But more than food and sunshine and top sheets, I really missed Jon.  My big plans to go away and get my mind off the broken heart I'd left behind totally backfired.  All I could think about was how much I was wished he was there to share it all with me. 

 Chatsworth, any "Pride and Prejudice" fans recognize this from the most recent movie version?
While I was busy exploring old England, Jon was having a very successful semester back home in New England.  He set a football record for the Academy, received his best GPA ever and was fully enjoying his final year as a cadet.  Clearly, he could get on fine without me.  And so, in the beginning, I tried to avoid him as much as possible.  I steered away from Instant Messenger, told him not to email me, and I didn't spend my calling card minutes on anyone but my parents.  Of course, he didn't exactly hold up his end of the deal.

Nose, broken.
A few weeks into my trip he started emailing me again, sending me pictures, saying he missed me ... just plain breakin' all the rules.  And not that there were any real rules to begin with but I had hoped to just make a clean break of it so I could sort through how I really felt, and what I was searching for, and what I was going to be when I grew up, and all those deep questions that I thought would magically be answered by a trip to the ancient homeland.  And in some ways I figured out what I was looking for, and I realized I couldn't find it anywhere else but back in New London, Connecticut.  But I didn't know what else to do but pray.

Winchester, shout-out to Sally, pictured center and avid blog reader!
By halfway through my trip I gave in and called the guy.  Partly because I missed him and partly because I'm a sentimental fool.  It was November 7, and just in case he was the one for me, I didn't want to let the opportunity pass me by.  We didn't have an anniversary, we didn't have a "day we met," but we did have a November 7.  He had hinted earlier in the week that he remembered, and I wanted to make sure he knew I hadn't forgotten.  It was the only time we talked on the phone those entire 14 weeks.  And I can't say I didn't love hearing his voice, ... or shed a few tears after I hung up the phone.

November 1, 20004
"I miss Jon.  I've been listening to "Phantom of the Opera" all day and drinking Dr. Pepper.  Today he asked me if I knew what was in 6 days.  November 7 - Oh I remember all right."


And while the emails started back up again so did the arguing and disagreements, but they were a little different this time around.  I had changed, Jon had changed.  And although neither of us was perfect and neither of us had suddenly become this new ideal person, we were learning to empathize better, to give in in a few areas, and to be a little less self-centered. I'm sure we noticed the subtle changes in ourselves and in one another, but given the very little, sporadic communication that fall we had no way of knowing where exactly the other stood.

November 23, 2004
"Apparently I have to break up with a boy several times before I know it's real ... Wrote Jon an extremely long email... Anyway, I can't tell how he feels now.  And I'm worried.  I just want to see him but now he probably doesn't want to see me.  I think I must have sounded extremely harsh in my email when all I really want is just to see him and have everything be alright..."

England me.
By the time I had finished my classes I was tired and restless, ready to escape the place I had escaped to.  But by then I was lacking funds and motivation to travel some place new.  Thankfully, I knew an English pastor and his family, old church friends that had moved back to England a few years before, and they offered to let me spend my final weeks in the UK with them.  I was so grateful for familiar faces.  For people that knew me, knew my past, and knew what I was going through without me even telling them (because we all know church is the original social network!)  It was such a special time for me.  Mrs. F. kept me well-fed (3 course meals for lunch!!) and the other F's kept me occupied.  There were church services, Christmas caroling, a weekly Children's Ministry, Saturday Morning Prayer, Bible Studies, visiting the sick ... After spending the past few months having to only take care of myself and my needs, I didn't realize how much I missed doing something purposeful with my life.  How much I missed thinking of others.  But as busy as it was, and as anxious as I was to get home and pick up my former life, for the first time in a long time I felt rested and peaceful.

December 14, 2004
"I don't know if it's because I'm at the F.'s or because I only have 6 days to go, but I'm really starting to get homesick.  I can't stop thinking about what I'm going to do when I get home.  And I really miss Jon.  I can't wait to see him!  Oh hurry up December!"
New College, Oxford.
On December 20 I climbed on a plane (my second flight ever) and was on my way home.  Home to my family who was eagerly waiting my arrival at the airport.  Home to my mom's iced tea and a little baggie of my favorite Amish-made hard pretzels waiting for me when I got off the plane.  Home to my old room, my little sports car that my brother had gladly kept in use for the past 3 months, and my cell phone (which he was also sorry to turn over).  December 20, Jon's birthday.  So, with the first free minute I got, like any good friend, I called to wish him a happy birthday.

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