Sometimes a seemingly simple task, upon first encounter, can turn out perplexing to the unbeknownst traveler like me. It started with the entryway into a bus. It wasn’t that I didn’t realize the door would be on the ‘other side’ of the mammoth vehicle; it was more of an initial disoriented hesitation of making my way to the door on the left side of the bus rather than on the right side. Stepping onto the bus’s ledge, the professor leading our small group in Oxford, England, withdrew pound notes (that’s, or quid) from his pocket, requesting a month bus pass for the four students standing with him. Our primary mode of transportation, held in these pocket-sized paper rectangles, supplied me with month-long ‘research’ and observation into a city where it was noted how the Revolutionary War (that’s the War of Independence) was, comparatively, fairly recent history.
My most frequent bus route started at the Hamilton Road bus stop and ended in Oxford’s downtown, City Centre. Early on, even getting to the bus stop meant looking in a different direction along the road: I had to look to my right then look to my left. Apparently, accidents have occurred with U.S. tourists expecting cars to pass them on the right side of the road, left to right, rather than on the left side of the road like in the U.K., right to left.
On my first day, my roommate and I cautiously trekked out from our host family’s road, waiting for a break on both sides of the street to cross over to the correct bus stop. This meant it took us five minutes to walk a span of thirty feet. With a couple of more journeys across the street, venturing out on the road in which cars seemed to never stop became less intimidating. Besides, the mini cars that passed us on the roads seemed to be about half the size of any SUVs that I could imagine whizzing by my small body at home.
“You gettin’ on then?'” a man’s voice asked as I entered into the bus. “Um. Yes?” I slowly responded in a half-question. I hoped I didn’t sound confused about not knowing what the driver really asked me since I was already inside of the bus. It was only after I heard this phrase multiple times during my stay in the city that I realized that the driver did not ask about my physical entry into his bus. Instead, he asked me the equivalent of an American phrase which I picked up when people asked me the same question in stores and markets (that’s a “Hi, how’re you doing?” in the U.S.).
With every ride, my ability to stuff myself into a packed bus on rainy days improved. Every morning without fail, at 8:30 a.m. (that’s 0830), my roommate and I knew to cross Banbury Road, amble to the Hamilton Road stop, flash our red Oxford Bus Company cards, and stake out an empty seat before the next bus stop two minutes away. And each time we sat in red or blue bus during the day, our gaze turned outside to the snippets of society that we rode through – a window into a world that captivated all of our attention.
A twenty-minute drive to City Centre in between homes and university buildings showed a physical history etched with intricate architecture from before the United States even formed as a country. The gray (that’s grey) and tan stones traced the entire city from centuries long gone, but a city that remained so well-preserved with innumerable museums and academic edifices that we drove past everyday. Even from the outside, the arched cathedral ceilings of many churches turned solid constructions into an elegant grandeur. The “City of Dreaming Spires” rightly earned its historic name.
Riding in the brightly colored coaches shielded us from wind that crept through the fabrics of thin shirts and from the steady rain common in winter months. While bus engines revved and cars sloshed through the wet roads outside, indoor bus conversations revealed the lives of diverse peoples in a country of fifty million: students in crisp uniforms on their way to their A-level examinations; a group of Eastern Europeans preparing for a walking tour of the city; the smooth and rapid accents of Spanish mothers going into City Centre for a day of shopping; teenagers conversing loudly about schoolmates, drowning out cell phone conversations, children chatting with their mothers (that’s mums), and the creaking of the bus carrying this little world of its own.
Before arriving in the U.K., I considered that I might feel out of sync with the cultural nuances of a country that I had never visited before. While newness abound in living with a host family, tours of buildings and parks, and academic access into the many libraries of Oxford University colleges scattered around the city, the buses that crisscrossed these busy streets remained familiar in whichever one -regardless of driver – I stepped in.
Over time, I began to recognize some of these drivers and even some of the frequent passengers. Some students I expected to get on three stops down from Hamilton Road. I often spotted a man with his iPod studying in the community library or getting off the bus stop just after mine. One week, I counted how frequently I saw a librarian from the Bodleian Library’s admissions office ride at the same time as me. And so on.
Despite three and a half short weeks in Oxford and many hours logged inside the ubiquitous British bus, these buses allowed me to participate in society by carrying me into my own reflections of a country that offered more than I could ride through in a month. In the end, this unbeknownst traveler learned how to effortlessly board a bus but had a difficult time getting off and leaving for a flight back to the U.S. Who knew saying goodbye (that’s ‘Cheers’) to a box on wheels could be so difficult?