Going Back

On my last day in Princeton in January, before a frantic dash through a foot of snow to finish packing, move a sofa to my friend’s room, and make the train in time for my red-eye to Heathrow, I invited all my friends to lunch in my favorite place in Princeton, the Rocky dining hall. It was the day after Dean’s Date, the day that all written work for the semester was due, and so the vast majority of my undergrad friends were running on one or maybe two nights without sleep. Some of them showed up only to say goodbye before crashing into bed (by which I was touched); others stayed, and our party spread over tables as I flitted about, chattering manically and making sure to see everyone. One of my friends asked me if I was sad to be leaving. I reflected for a minute, but gave a simple answer: “No.” I assured my friend I’d miss the people, but the place? Not so much. Princeton is a small campus, a small town, and after two and a half years in that little world I felt like I had it figured out. I was ready to move on to pastures new.

And so we slogged back and forth through the snow that day, my friends all performing small acts of heroism at one of the busiest times of the year to get me on my way, and a small party went down to the station to see me off on the 6:09 train. Until one brief visit to campus when I was in the New York/New Jersey area the other week, my last sight of Princeton was two of my best friends waving me goodbye from the platform, as the train chugged its familiar, ponderous way past parking lots and graduate-student apartments and the lake and the canal. No more than twelve hours later, in those startling shifts of time and place that long-distance flights thrust upon one, I was dragging three suitcases up Oxford High Street in the early-morning light, having gotten off the bus one stop too early and not knowing where to turn for Trinity College.

From here we have the pattern of quickly alternating comfort and alienation that regular readers of this blog in the past several months will have come to recognize: the reassuring sight of my exchange partner there to meet me at the porter’s lodge; the seeming crowds of otherworldly students talking about their drinking exploits and using the word “banter” one out of every five; the comforting consistency of tutors’ rooms and library reading rooms and the HQ shelves of the History Faculty Library; the terror of what I had gotten myself into that surfaced in the midst of tipsy disorientation when I was handed a glass of port after my first Trinity Guest Night, my first big Oxford dinner.

At the end of that first week, the port was the last straw: throwing away my resolution not to go on the identity parade at my new university, I begged a friend from America to go with me to the LGBTQ Society’s weekly drinks/social. A series of overtures of friendship, chance meetings, and kindred spirits later, I found myself in different mental spaces entirely: ready to work 8-10 hours a day on my JP over the Easter vacation; and ready to live a life of decadence the whirlwind last few weeks of Trinity term. The middle of June found me not only with a group of close friends whom I ate and drank and danced and laughed and talked about dead languages with, but with whom I also dined once on Trinity high table, passing the port afterwards in the SCR as if six months ago I hadn’t almost cried at the thought of a world where port is drunk. On one occasion, a friend and I dashed through the center of Oxford in a downpour from a lecture to a black-tie dinner, literally tying bow-tie and changing to heels en route. On another occasion, three of us went punting, and it was only when we were halfway up the High Street from Magdalen Bridge, giggling madly, our plastic cups of Pimms still in hand, that we realized how ridiculous we must have looked. On more than one occasion, I walked home to college late enough that a rosy-golden glow just starting to cast its aura over the gray sky. Those last weeks of Oxford were nothing like my life has ever been. And they were some of the happiest weeks of my life.

I left Oxford for the first time on the last day of Trinity term, my emotions and my sleep schedule frazzled after a good three weeks of burning always with this hard, gem-like flame, and when I got off the Eurostar and met a Princeton friend in Paris, I resolved to her my intention to hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life (or, you know, appropriately Hebraic words to that effect). I easily shocked my Princeton friends with stories of how much everyone drank in Oxford, and how I had spent my last few weeks there. It was a good reminder of how at odds I had felt with the culture when I first arrived, and how much had changed that the things I had been scared of in January were things I enjoyed doing with some really good friends in June. And I did reset my equilibrium by living more abstemiously for much of the summer: spending my life working and living for my work, seeing friends where I saw them, and relishing life as a grown-up historian, spending the summer steeped in research as grown-up historians do.

But Oxford is a Siren, and all summer she kept calling me. She called me as I read Symonds documents and thought, as I always do, about the Oxford of his day; she called me as I sought out pleasure reading like Maurice and Jude the Obscure and Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, that reminded me of her; and she called me most especially the two times I went back to visit, when my friends were happy to indulge me with all the things I love most in Oxford, and I could be excused—just as I was in the last three weeks of term—for thinking I had stepped into the Paradise of any one of a number of Oxford novels, the Paradise that in novels generally comes before the Fall.

But I forestalled the Fall by leaving, and my last full day in Oxford—either three weeks ago or a lifetime, I’m not so sure—we basked in the sun on the Trinity lawns, visited the Greek gallery of the Ashmolean with its pottery inscribed to beautiful boys, heard my last Christ Church evensong, and wound up at night on my friend’s sofa, watching the TV adaptation of one of the most deeply unsettling—and truest—Oxford stories of a Fall from Paradise, The Line of Beauty. I started reading The Line of Beauty last October, in Princeton, and put it aside because I wasn’t so into it. But I brought it along to Oxford, and I finished it over the Easter vacation, filled with passionate unease for a world of politics and poses and aestheticism that by that point I recognized. The protagonist of The Line of Beauty is a would-be academic seduced by a world of surfaces, and well: which of us isn’t? The novel reminds me how easily young love for a place, for an idea, for sun-drunk excursions on slow-moving rivers and the “delicate satisfaction” of “a most subtle and exquisite curve” (Symonds, not Hollinghurst!), can consume one. Though an unhappy note, it was not an unfitting one on which to end my sojourn.

But all seemed brighter and clearer and less bleak on the afternoon that I left Oxford for the last time (for now), and when I retraced my steps of seven months before from Trinity to the bus station, I had my friends to help me with my bags, to convince me that it was a good idea to stop at the pub on the way, and to toast my speedy return. The image of my friends waving me goodbye as the bus pulled out of the station was an uncanny doubling of the last time I’d left, really left, a university I loved. And just like before I bridged time and space and found myself with alarming speed back in New Jersey, jet-lagged and dazed, my body still burning with that ecstasy that my love affair with Oxford had caused me to maintain.

But I saw in New Jersey the friends who were there to wave goodbye in January, and we made one of our regular madcap road trips (Rhode trips!) to Rhode Island, and I came out here, to my parents in the wilds of British Columbia, far enough away that those weeks and those weekends of decadence seem like a hallucination. And yet I am hatching plans, and dreaming rose-colored dreams. The Fall from Paradise may loom, “et in Arcadia ego,” but I keep thinking of that ecstasy—and wanting it back.

And yet. The thing is, Princeton was home for years, and it is still home now. Today I sat down with my email inbox and my diary and wrote in my class schedule, my work schedule, my appointments, and all the events for freshmen I will have to attend in my new capacity as what we call a Residential College Adviser. Today I became involved in a few conversations on Facebook about a recent change in University policy, and reminded myself that Princeton policy is something I have a stake in, care about, and have helped to shape over the past few years. I remembered how, after a spate of culture shock and alienation in my first semester at Princeton, I found a niche, and I found some wonderful friends, and I made my mark on a school I once worried would swallow me whole. It seems, perhaps, that I was all-too-willing to submit to Oxford and let it have its way with me, let it swallow all it liked, and Line of Beauty-style consequences be damned.

After all, I think that what happened in Oxford is that I fell in love: an intensity of emotion and disregard for rationality that I have never experienced for an individual or indeed for any other place. And it is good, I think, for someone to be 21 and to know what it is like to fall in love, as well as good to know that moderation in all things is important and that self-bettering and the ability to do good come through many kinds of feelings and emotions.

I can’t wait to see what happens when, in one week’s time, I come back to Princeton after having done so much and learned so much and grown so much and felt so much. I can’t wait to write a thesis about places I have been and documents I have seen and mentalités I have known. I can’t wait to feed my advisees tea and cake and talk to them about ideas and maybe, if I’m lucky, light a spark of wanderlust in them that wasn’t there before. And most of all, I can’t wait to have my first meal in the place in Princeton where I had my last: the Rockefeller College dining hall, the only place in the world into which I have ever waltzed as if I owned it. Love affairs aside, the Rocky dining hall was where I gained my first sense of self-worth, purpose, and belonging. For that, it’s worth “going back to Old Nassau.”

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