Oxford becomes a different city when you’re no longer prancing around its streets donning a white bowtie or an inflated sense of intellectual purpose.
I drop a “cheers, mate” to the Tesco cashier as I hand her three pounds to cover for my bottle of value-brand red wine. On my accelerated walk to the place I call home, I notice not the castles or the city’s Gothic architecture but, instead, the ordinariness of those around me: an older woman fumbles with her umbrella as the wind flips it inside-out. A young man at a bus stop waves his hand furiously at the oncoming double-decker as if the driver might otherwise decide, “ah, fuck it, I’ll skip this stop today.” A mid-aged couple wearing matching grey sweatpants cuts me off as they wheel a noisy stroller into The Four Candles.
Back at my temporary home, I dump a blob of dated, half-thawed soup from a freezer bag into the cabinet’s last clean bowl. The texture of the soup resembles a murky combination of mashed potatoes and toothpaste, neither of which, I’m quite certain, was used in making it. To even it out, I mix in two scoops of the leftover white rice that I boiled last night and give it all a hearty stir, waking the last few frozen chunks of potato-like substance from its multi-month slumber.
The frozen soup was one of many edible gifts from two good friends who pawned off their entire pantry prior to relocating to London. The white rice was also once theirs, as was the collection of assorted herbs and spices that I dabble on top to add a dash of tolerance to this makeshift dinner.
Very little in this apartment is actually mine. The flat itself belongs to my best Oxford friend, Max, a German-bred computer scientist (and footballer, naturally) who uses his Ph.D. funding to build autonomous robots — or at least that’s my understanding of his work. His couch has served as my bed for the last month, an arrangement that will last several weeks more until the Belgian government determines that I, as a white American male with no criminal history, an Oxford degree, and a desire to conduct research on child poverty, will do more good than bad if they decide to let me into their country (acknowledged: privilege, etc.).
All I own here are my electronics and the 50 lb. suitcase full of clothes that British Airways deemed me worthy of carrying across the Atlantic Ocean. German Max has saved me; his spare couch is my portal to the continent. Without it, without him, this story goes unwritten. Perhaps it ends back in Missouri or D.C. or Boston, all wonderful places but all places that reeked of complacency and finality and surrender during my two-month, post-Oxford return to God’s country.
For too many reasons, I wasn’t ready to move back home.
At 25, I’m too old to pretend like I don’t have to worry about money and careers and certainties, but still young enough to get away with hopping continents to try once more to make sense of the many contradictions of adulthood: career versus life, ambition versus joy, status versus love.
My return wasn’t necessarily hatched on a whim, but it also wasn’t done with more than a half-baked idea of what I’d do when I landed. My British visa expires on January 31st; my flight brought me to London on November 13th. I was unemployed with a slim wallet, but I had a couch in Oxford, someone to see elsewhere on the continent, and a few job prospects that could, if all worked out, allow me to legally stay in Europe. I would find a way to make it all work – that is the only thing of which I was fully sure when I touched down at Heathrow.
I bite into my soup, appreciating the texture of the rice as the liquidy glop between it fulfils its role of curiously flavouring the night’s sustenance. The soup tastes as if it probably would have been good when it was first made some three months back. For now, I rely on a swig of discounted red wine to wash it down peacefully. I take a deep breath and, then, another bite.
The Frozen Soup Era might be miserable if I were blind to my near future. Soon, I’ll have an income again. Soon, I’ll have my own flat, my own bed, my own white rice, my own soup to make. Soon, I’ll be a legal resident in a country of continental Europe. Soon, I can drink Belgian beer and practice my Dutch (ok, Flemish) and be closer to the primary reason for my return.
I’ve never been to Antwerp, the city to which I’ll move when the Belgian Embassy returns my passport with their stamp of approval. It sounds random, and in some sense it is – I thought I was done with committing myself to cities that I had never visited after Perth or Oxford. It is Antwerp, though, that I’ll call home for the next three years as I conduct research with the Herman Deleeck Centrum voor Sociaal Beleid, or Centre for Social Policy.
I could be neither luckier nor happier with my arrangement in Antwerp. I will build off the policy research I’ve been working on the past year alongside a handful of academics whose work has inspired my own. I’ll publish, contribute to European Commission reports, and earn an income, plus a doctoral degree, along the way.
The frightening realization, perhaps, is where such work is designed to lead: a career in Europe. You don’t complete a Ph.D. analysing European policy trends and expect to land an academic post at Georgetown or Harvard or Mizzou. Somehow, I’m at peace with this – partly because I’m happy out here, and partly because I’ve become capable of scrapping together solutions to my geographical hesitancies. If I feel I need to return and make a career in the States, then I’ll find a way to do so.
There are costs, of course, to uprooting your life and moving to new countries on short notice. Tonight, my dinner consists of leftover soup that had been frozen in a bag for three months. In six days, I’ll spend Christmas without family for the first time. Next month, I’ll move to a country in which the only human I currently know is the director of my new research centre.
The rewards, though, are more numerous. Atop the list: I’m happy. It’s simple, sure, but to find the noun-version of the adjective in its genuine form has not always been so easy. But I feel it right now; I’m genuinely happy. This, as I’m learning, is more important than the other ideas, emotions, and ambitions that I once prioritized.
I forego the dishwasher and clean my soup bowl by hand, a habit that has stuck with me after a year of living with only a partially-functional kitchen. Outside, the wind becomes audibly heavy. Rain thumps the window like bugs on an interstate windshield.
I picture the old woman fumbling with her umbrella again, wondering if she’s still roaming the streets and trying, frantically, to straighten her anti-precipitation device. In this new Oxford, the one in which I live during this post-student, pre-Belgium purgatory, these are the concerns that occupy my mind. Ordinary, simple, and mundane, each of which I’m learning to appreciate.
I scan the kitchen and conduct an eyeballed inventory check: maybe four scoops of rice, a jug of glühwein, half a bottle of red, peanut butter, bread, coffee, mixed vegetables, and three more bags of frozen soup. This will get me to Christmas Eve, at which point I’ll treat myself with a Tesco visit.
After Christmas comes the New Year, and the New Year brings Belgium. Until then, I’ll be patient, I’ll practice my Dutch, and I’ll eat my soup.