Today I went to church by myself. St. Aldates is enormous, old, and right across from Christ Church College. Here’s the fun, small-world connection of the trip thus far: Jaci, who gave me the aforementioned advice, studied abroad at Oxford five or six years ago. She attended St. Aldates Church while she was here. She now works as an editor at David C. Cook. I interned at David C. Cook this summer, which published an author named Simon Ponsonby. Simon is on staff at St. Aldates Church. Are you following me? Since Cook has a sector in England called Kingsway, a few of the American staff members have been to England and met up with Simon, who apparently gives the best Oxford tour in town. They gave me his contact information, we sent a few e-mails, and at 10:26 this morning I found myself following an elderly lady and her granddaughters into St. Aldates. While preserved on the outside, the inside has been restructured to suit a more modern service. Instead of a long, narrow sanctuary, the room has been turned ninety degrees for wider congregational seating. As I scanned the sanctuary looking for a place to sit, I noticed some students were sitting towards the back. Three girls sat next to each other, and since there was an empty seat on the aisle, I asked if I could sit down.
Service began right away, so I introduced myself to the girl next to me as the band members made their way to the stage. Her name was Geli (hard ‘g’, short for Angelica), and she’s a Theology fresher at Worcester College, next to the Ashmolean Museum.
The service itself was fantastic. I was familiar with all the music, and the energy was really high. Although it is a Church of England, the only thing I would consider liturgical was a community prayer before communion. But even then, the language of the Lord’s Prayer was modernized. I also noticed that the people in the room were widely varied—all ages, races, sizes.
At the greeting time, I met the two other girls with Geli—Sarah and Rosie. They’re also Theology freshers at Worcester. After the service, one of the ushers, a tall, cute old man in a green sweater, came and introduced himself to me. His name was Alfred. He asked me if I was new, where I was from, what college I was attending, etc. I believed him when he said he dearly hoped my year was blessed, and that I would learn a lot about my God while I was here. He also heartily recommended (complete with a thump on the arm) that I go punting soon, while the weather is nice. It’s people like that that add warmth to a church. Tri-Lakes Chapel attendees—I urge you to give it a try next week.
I also found Simon and introduced myself, to which he responded, “Melody Rowell! You’re a legend!”
Upon leaving the sanctuary, the British girls and I went upstairs for a newcomers’ reception-type-thing. An enthusiastic young guy gave us a brief rundown of all St. Aldates has to offer—a huge college group on Thursday nights (complete with food), pastorates (like Base Camps), evening services, etc. Geli then said she had to go meet her dad for lunch, and Rosie and Sarah asked if I’d like to go to lunch with them.
First, we had to find an ATM (or hole-in-the-wall, as they’re called here) because I was down to 80p. Naturally, my debit card was at home; I had taken it out on Friday in case I lost my bag in the club or something. I had food already bought at home, so I wasn’t too worried. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to go eat with them, though. But as we walked up the street, Rosie said she needed to run into Boots (a chain store really similar to Beauty Brands plus all the department store makeup counters). In there, Sarah explained the advantages of a Boots reward card (4p for every pound you spend!) and asked a couple of salesgirls if they had any I could sign up for. We then wandered to the back of the store, which randomly had a cooler of food. Another new lesson—Boots has a really cheap meal deal! You can get a sandwich, chips (or crisps, whatever) and a drink for four quid. While we were standing there, I saw a sandwich that was called “cheese and pickle,” which I had heard of but had yet to experience. I asked them what “pickle” was, since it isn’t actually a cucumber that’s been soaked in brine. They tried explaining it to me, but couldn’t, so Sarah said, “Do you just want to come ‘round to our place for lunch?”
So first we stopped at Sainsbury’s to buy pickle, Marmite, and some other groceries, and then we went to their college. It was really beautiful and really old, but the dorm area is new-ish and quite nice. The kitchen was also spacious and had a table, so we laid our groceries out and sat down. Three of their other classmates came in—Olivia, Joe, and another Sarah. Rosie introduced me and explained that I was about to try pickle and Marmite (not together. Never together.), and Joe held up his jar of organic peanut butter and asked if that was more in my comfort zone. He then explained that while they have it, not many people eat it, and they don’t have it in any of their sweets. I’m so glad I brought that big bag of Reese’s cups with me.
I made my sandwich: white bread with a thin layer of butter, pickle (which I still can’t describe to you—it’s a spread, though), cheese, and a couple slices of cucumber. It was GOOD. I liked pickle.
Then I tried Marmite. Again, no one could explain it to me, and the jar only said “100% Yeast Extract,” which is in no way appealing. Rosie and Sarah told me to smear only the tiniest bit on the bread, or I’d gag. Have you ever tried to put a little droplet of soy sauce on your rice or chicken, only to have the lid pop off and drench your food? The salty blast that is Marmite is comparable to that. I’ve tried it once; I don’t think I’ll ever need to again.
We sat around and talked for a long while, trying to explain our respective educational systems to each other, among other things. We did have an intense discussion on their perception of the differences between biscuits and cookies. Coming here, I was told all cookies are referred to as biscuits, so when someone used the word “cookie,” the surprise must have been evident on my face. Joe looked at me with compassion and said, “Cookies are a subset of biscuits.” I asked them what the difference was, and then tried to explain what a biscuit in America is. They had never heard of such a thing.
“So, it comes in a packet?”
“No, not really. You make it. When you’re making it up it’s similar to bread; it has a lot of flour.”
“Oh, so it’s like a small loaf of bread?”
“No, not really. It’s thicker.”
“Is it crunchy?”
“No… it’s soft and sometimes flaky.”
Befuddled, they just stared at me and I finally said I’d make some and invite them over. (Dad—can you e-mail me your Angel Biscuits recipe? And maybe a good recipe for sausage gravy? Thanks.)
After a couple of hours, they needed to study (or, “do some revision”) for a Greek placement test later in the evening. I told them my last name and they all said they’d friend me on Facebook. So, British friends!
-Bike-riding never ceases to fascinate me. I’ve seen people ride without using their hands before, and while that’s impressive and all, not until now have I seen a man ride his bike and eat his supper at the same time. In a bowl. With chopsticks.
-I am going to trademark the Oxford diet. It consists of walking miles and miles every day and always being hungry. Yesterday, as I was walking home, I thought to myself, “Oh, I didn’t have to walk much today. That was nice.” Then I realized that I still probably logged about four or five miles.
-The second best advice I got before coming was from Katie Adams, who is a legend in her own right. I bought PG Tips tea and Hob Nob cookies (or biscuits or whatever) my first day here and have been consuming them like it’s my job.
-I feel like I’m getting cheated when I pay for something with a bill and get a handful of change in return. In America I only view change as useful when it’s in quarters, and then only to buy a Diet Coke out of a machine. Here, one coin can be equivalent to USD$3.19. So getting a handful of two-pound coins really should make me a lot happier. Long live the Queen!
-Earlier I mentioned that I refuse to adapt to the British use of the word “toilet,” where we would normally say “bathroom” or “restroom.” I understand that it makes more sense, because when I ask for the bathroom or restroom I am neither bathing or resting. But I feel safe within the euphemisms of these words, because asking for the “toilet” just broadcasts to the world what it is that I need to do.
-The (presumably) homeless people here are so polite. They ask, “Might you spare some change?” And when you say you can’t, they say, “That’s all right, then. Have a lovely evening, and God bless you.” And I swear, the British accent makes everyone sound loads smarter than they probably are.