I used to think of souvenirs as strictly gift shop purchases: postcards, calendars, pins, anything I Heart New York.
As I grew up, the souvenirs did too: they became things I could use, essentials made special because of where they were purchased, ‘made in Paris’ stated discreetly on the label.
They evolved again, as lists: obsessive lists of my favourite places around the world. More experiences, fewer things, but a collection nonetheless: the best coffee, the best galleries, the best kept secrets. Less space in my suitcase, but still space in my head, busying myself in tracking these places down.
Through all these evolutions, I spent a lot of time on holiday shopping, whether for things, at varying touristic degrees, or for places to claim. The goal was to bring something home, a trophy at the end of the trip. Why? So I could win at vacation!
How could I achieve, with no graded assignments? Without a goal, I got lost, so I made souvenirs the goal. I didn’t realise I was doing this, but it’s what happened.
I find holidays hard. Souvenirs were a fine distraction.
A way of turning a holiday into a task because my goodness, I am great at tasks! If holidays were more like work, I could master them too. I’d win at vacation. Consider this my Amazing Race application.
The souvenirs evolved again.
I rebranded holidays as a training ground for everyday life. It’s still shopping: a casual browse based on experiencing what’s in front of me. A shake up of scenery inspires a different way of doing things.
From Devon we borrowed Andy’s family’s tradition of ‘tea time’: pausing at 5 o’clock for a cuppa and cake before making dinner.
From Mary’s retreat in Tuscany I collected the habit of doing yoga in my day clothes.
In a supermarket in Sheffield, Jenny taught us how to shop for wine.
In a cottage on the Isle of Mull, we discovered the joy of just lying on the rug.
Rather satisfied with this evolution, I looked forward to habit-shopping my way through Oxford alumni weekend.
I was actually excited for this holiday, and proud of myself for it. Although… does alumni weekend count as a holiday?
I must back up for a moment and apologise, because the University doesn’t call it ‘alumni weekend’. The official term is ‘Meeting Minds’, because rather than a reunion, the weekend is dedicated to scholarly talks — an Oxonian’s idea of fun! It’s not about the people; it’s about the minds. I was delighted to discover one of the questions on the FAQs: ‘Is there any suggested reading for my sessions?’ The answer: ‘Yes!’ One lecturer listed six books for an hour-long session.
I was surprised by how my familiarity of the place sunk in as soon as I arrived.
I may have forgotten the names of things – mixing up St Clements and Little Clarendon, confusing Summertown with Summerhall and Somerville as always. I forgot the names of cafes, but I knew exactly where they were, and the shortcuts to get there. Most of all, I remembered why Oxford is important to me.
I lived there for three formative years, during my undergraduate degree. Retracing my steps is like retracing my habits too, stepping into a former version of my brain. A meeting of my own mind, I suppose. I often tell the story of how the city enchanted me – this beautiful place that inspired so many fantasy worlds. I forget to tell the part about how the university enchanted me too.
I’ve felt self-conscious about how often I bring up Oxford.
Sometimes I dodge the namedrop and just say ‘at university’. I fear the distraction of whatever connotation it may carry. That weekend, the Vice Chancellor asked, in her address to the alumni: Why is the word ‘elite’ used to praise athletes, but to criticise academic institutions?
I write about Oxford because it’s where I built the foundation of how I understand myself today. I learned so much working to get there, and so much when I arrived: about productivity and knowledge, but also about how to live. How to learn from striving, but also how to enjoy exactly where I am, when I’m living my dream on a daily basis. I had everything I wished for. At my peak of personal achievement, what was there to gain? I learned to seek something beyond just me.
Oxford has a reputation for pretension, but for me it’s the most humbling place I’ve been.
Alumni weekend reminded me what it’s like to learn in a place that puts ideas before egos. As a student I felt a refreshing understanding among us that we all deserved to be there. In Oxford, the air is thick with academia, an entire city’s worth of Ravenclaw common room. It put my personal education in perspective; I was one of many, chipping away at figuring out this world we live in. Even as undergraduates we were challenged to contribute to the knowledge base, not just memorise what was already available.
I learned to admit when I wasn’t familiar with a certain book – without apology – because at Oxford people appreciate just how many books there are, including the ones that don’t get as much attention as they deserve. I was never shamed for what I hadn’t read, except this one time my tutor was astounded I’d never seen Mad Men.
I hardly felt superior at one of the world’s most renowned and highly ranked universities.
I felt a sense of responsibility, a small fish in quite a prestigious pond, grateful to be given a chance, but never complacent. I just couldn’t argue with its medieval streets. Every crooked, cobblestoned step served as a reminder that so much came before me, and so much will come after. Oxford taught me that even when I feel like I have things figured out, there is more to learn.
That weekend, I rekindled my curiosity for knowledge, not as a hobby or even a habit, but as a way of life. Not just going through the motions, completing tasks, but advancing my thinking. No effort stars, no credit, just results.
Learning must be a part of my life, of all of our lives.
From climate change to communicating across generations, it is necessary to learn in order to understand how to face what matters. A heroine in training is never finished.
At the end of the weekend, my brain was not full, but ignited. Ready to keep up the momentum of learning. I was so drawn in by this reminder of values that I forgot all about silly souvenirs — for a moment. Then, I found myself in the Varsity Shop.
For the first time in a while I desired an actual, old school souvenir.
I fancied a crewneck from my college. A nice reminder of where I came from, a little piece of Oxford to wear as a reminder. After all, I’ve been looking for a cosy jumper to wear over my pajamas. But it didn’t fit. How’s this for irony: When I tried it on, my head was too big.
Some things never change at Oxford, and the jumpers are among them. I forgot – I’d tried on the same one as a student. They fit funny then and they fit funny now: baggy, with not enough give at the neck. A reminder in its imperfection that this is not the souvenir I came for. Not a sweatshirt stitched proudly with my college crest. Check your ego, Lady Leo.
So off we went to the train station, no souvenir to claim, but something to remember, a renewed fervour for knowledge. I can feel daunted when I share rooms with the people I think will save the planet. I can also step up and be one of them.
Until the next chapter,
P.P.S. Tomorrow, we begin a new theme in Everyday Wonderland, my weekly one-minute programme for finding magic where you already are. Read more and enrol at http://everydaywonder.land. This month’s theme is gather. I hope to see you there.