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:
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.