Living on the Cowley Road

When I found out I would be moving to Oxford, my mine immediately filled with images not unlike what you may be imagining when I say the words “moving to Oxford.” You know, things like this:

www.chch.ox.ac.uk

or maybe like this:

or, then again, maybe like this:

I knew intellectually that Oxford, like the rest of England, has (at least to a certain extent) left the nineteenth century behind, but there was nonetheless a part of my imagination that still assumed that Oxford would be filled mostly with posh white people and maybe some horses.

But this is, of course, most certainly not the case. Without a doubt, there is no shortage of posh white people, and though I haven’t seen them, the existence of a riding club suggests there are horses at least in the vicinity. The truth of Oxford in 2017, however, is far more excellent than the images offered my imagination by a lifetime of nostalgic media and romanticism.

As chronicled in a previous post, bringing the cats from California curtailed my housing options more than a little bit, and as a result, I have ended up living far from the yellow stone fortresses of dark wood-panelled learning that comprises the entirety of most American’s understanding of this city. The neighborhood I find myself in is named after the road that takes you out of Oxford and into nearby Cowley. Cowley Road is in East Oxford, and is by far the most interesting part of the city I have yet discovered.

Not only is it one of the most ethnically and economically diverse parts of Oxford, it is densely packed with a wide variety of markets, shops, places of worship (at least two churches and three mosques), venues, theaters, restaurants, and pubs. It’s amazing.

One one walk from my house into the city center, I counted the markets along the way. Not including a Tesco, a Sainsbury’s, and a tiny Co-Op market, Cowley road is home to at least two halal markets:

a self-identifying Oriental Food Store:

two Polish markets, a Lebanese market, a Moroccan market, a Korean and Japanese market, an Italian market and deli, an Indian and Pakistani grocery, and an English butcher’s shop:

I will clearly be cooking All the Food.

This is not the Oxford that people like me come to visit, and it’s a part of the city that many tourists probably never see. Which is a shame. Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, I have found myself more at home in Cowley Road, where I routinely overhear conversations in Arabic or Farsi or Mandarin than I often do in the city center where I have occasionally struggled to follow a conversation with someone from Manchester.

Cowley Road also shows up some of the reality of Oxford behind the curated beauty of the old colleges. It is an expensive and unequal city with tensions between town and gown and virtues that have nothing to do with the scholarship and research that go on in the labs and libraries. I have a lot to learn about the city in general and my neighborhood in particular, but I am currently grateful that my unthankful and always hungry cats brought me into a part of the city that I might not otherwise have had much call to visit.

Though I spend most of my time here dodging buses on my way up the Cowley Road to the library or my college, I look forward over the next three or four years to learning more about the life of a place that is not the Oxford I had imagined, but is the Oxford that I have found and have found to be at least as wonderful as the Hogwartsian splendor of Christ Church College’s Tom Tower and long-tabled dining hall and certainly tastier.

 

 

How to win friends and influence people (with cats)

It has been almost a month since I arrived in England.

There is much to say about how I got here and how things have gone since I did, but it’s more than one post can reasonably contain. So for now I will constrain myself to the part that seems most important, at least to the majority of people I meet: the cats.

Sometimes a cat is a burrito

When I decided to embark on a doctoral degree abroad, it seemed unthinkable from the beginning that Sam and Merry should stay in the US. And so, from the beginning of my planning, I have done my best to figure out how to bring them along.

Thankfully, the UK has a reasonably open policy to bringing pets into the country, at least when one is bringing them from the US. However, there are so many moving parts that impinge on the process, it seems useful to lay out the process in the way that I *ought* to have gone about it, rather than as I actually did. My method ended with the cats in England, but some weeks after me and at the end of a harrowing 24 hours of travel and weeks of long-distance negotiations and management with my long-suffering friend Ben who looked after them in the interim.

Step 1: Don’t fly on Sundays

By the wisdom of the Algorithms that determine arifares and rewards flight availabilities, it was determined that I should fly on the 27th of August. As it happens, the 27th was a Sunday. For a variety of reasons, I was not flying straight form the Bay Area (where I had lived for the past four years) to England, but rather travelling about the country for a month saying goodbye to friends and family and attending GenCon, an outstanding tabletop gaming convention in Indianapolis. The plan had been to leave the cats with my parents in San Diego before picking them up en route to San Francsico to take the decreed rewards flight to London Heathrow on the 27th.

A number of difficulties ensued. First, Sam is a big boy. A big, big boy. Unable to fly underseat on Southwest from SFO to San Diego by virtue of both his considerable height and girth (is 18 pounds too much cat?), the cats were left stranded in the Bay Area. The generosity of my friends Ben and Emily meant that the kitties could lodge with them for the month I was travelling, and then they could meet me at SFO in time to be bundled off to the animal cargo services to accompany me and my brother Louis to England.

All was set, and I was arranging matters with British Airways’ cargo service IAG, when the cargo representative mentioned in an offhand fashion that SFO doesn’t handle pets on Sundays.

What???

This information is posted nowhere on the internet that I could determine, whether on official pages or in forums for curious or disgruntled travelers. Known only to shipping agents like IAG, certain airports do not handle pets on Sundays for reasons known only to themselves and (perhaps) their most trusted and beloved family members.

This put a wrinkle in things, but not a disfiguring crease, as far as I could then tell. My flight being locked in by the Mysterious Oracles of the Algorithm, I prevailed upon Ben and Emily to look after the cats for a couple of more days before sending them on, on their own, to be collected by me a couple of days after arriving in Oxford.

Step 2: Don’t travel for a month, leaving your cats, before flying without them.

One of the conditions of the UK government’s scheme to ease the entry of pets into the country is to require that they receive a full checkup and vaccination check no more than ten (10) days before flying.

The incredibly generous Ben agreed to take the cats to the vet on my behalf, since I would be in Indianapolis and then San Diego during that vital span of days.

As it happens, the UK also requires a certified “pet passport” that, in the US case, involves having the vet’s report certified by an office of the US Department of Agriculture. And, depending on who you ask, this must be done no more than 48 hours before the poor beasties fly. When this new knowledge became clear, Ben once again agreed to ferry the documents to their requisite offices.

Step 3: Don’t let your cats’ vaccinations get out of date

When the appointed day arrived, ten days before flight, it was revealed that the cats’ rabies vaccine was out of date. Given that the island to which I was moving is more or less rabies-free, this was a rather glaring lapse and meant that their vaccine would need to be renewed, and more than that, that they would have to stay, rabies-free, in the US for a full 21 days after getting jabbed before entering the UK.

And so it was, nearly eight weeks after leaving them baffled and somewhat terrified in a congenial and loving house in Oakland, that I collected the poor blighters from Heathrow, almost three weeks after setting foot in-country myself.

Step 4: Don’t expect to live anywhere you like

UK landlords hate pets.

This is my only conclusion after searching the rental ads for weeks and weeks and finding, in the end, only one place within a reasonable distance of my college and department that would allow me to bring the cats.

There appears to be a widespread fear that pets will scratch, pee, and chew any rented property into an indistiguishable pulp if allopwed inside, and so the vast majority of landlords will not hear of it.

The only acceptable property I was able to find was not available for anothe rthree weeks after I had arranged for AirBnB interim housing, but thankfully it seems homey and meets most of my needs.

Step 5: Tell people about how cute your cats are

It may well turn out that their company might make not only my life, but that of many of my friends and classmates a sight better for all the trouble.

With the exception of one person who huffily asserted that pets are oppression, everyone I have met whom I have told about the cats has rather embarassedly inquired as to when and how they might come visit.

One dimension of the scarcity of pet-friendly rentals is the hunger of so many for the pets they have left behind somewhere in their past before coming to the pet-free zone that is Oxford.

In a city filled with bright people studying interesting things, I had not expected that two furry pains in my behind would prove to be the most interesting thing about me. Worth it, though.