On a Run

Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs

Gardening on Sunday led to sore hamstrings on Monday, which led me, in the evening, to consider attending a yoga class. But I dawdled, until I was running almost irrevocably late, and I thought maybe the best thing to do would be to run to the yoga class. So I stuffed some cash into my fleece pocket and laced up my shoes and started running. At two minutes to seven, I was there, or nearly there; I could have made it, I could have come in out of the cold and paid my five pounds and borrowed a mat and quietly tried to soothe my hamstrings and feel in touch with myself, or summon some hidden inner energy or whatever. But I was having such a nice time running that I just kept going.

It was cold but not too cold - not chest-achingly cold, just cold enough to make me feel like I had to keep going, or else. The sidewalks were wet, and the reflections of streetlights winked in shallow puddles. I was going at a really good pace, for me - down the Iffley Road and over Magdalen Bridge before I even knew it, and onto Longwall Street, and then Holywell, past the King's Arms, where a lone young man stood shivering outside with a cigarette, and up Parks Road, where it was dark and quiet. It was only here, on the edge of the night-black expanse of the University Parks, that I began to realise that my right hand, holding my phone, was numb from cold; I felt a twinge in my right calf; I slowed a little. Outside Keble, a boy and a girl and a bicycle stood. She was crying. He was holding the bicycle upright, saying very little.

***

I used to run quite a bit - never far, never seriously, but out of habit, and, to some extent, out of some fairly intense and persistent need: it felt like a regulating force, a way of maintaining congruity, balance, identity. One summer I worked down in Orange County. It was a hot summer, the sun trapped by chalk-white parking structures and grimy strip malls that all bled into one another, but I had a regular running route, along wide residential streets, across the train tracks, looping round the blessedly shaded center of old Orange. I suffered from bad anxiety that summer and sometimes, trying to ward off a nighttime panic attack, I would close my eyes and start to imagine the route; I would run it in my mind, and it would help. My first summer in Oxford it was a way to get to know the city, but it was also a way of maintaining a sense of other cities; sure it wasn't the Charles, but running along the Thames was not so different. They were still my feet carrying me down riverside paths, my eyes glancing up at other runners.

I run less now - a lot less, as in, hardly ever. Last night was the first time I'd run in - oh, six months, maybe, give or take. This is mainly because of aches and pains that weren't there five or six or ten years ago, and because as an activity necessary for the maintenance of my sanity, running has been supplanted by swimming. But every once in awhile the irrepressible urge takes me to run. And because I'm so used to walking places now, the first few minutes of a run always strike me as miraculous: how can I be moving this fast, on my own two feet? How can I feel so light and comfortable? The last few minutes always strike me as miraculous too: how can I have thought, not that long ago, that I could do this indefinitely? How can I have never noticed that part of myself, that particular complaining muscle?

***

On my way back home last night I paused in the center of town, under the Bridge of Sighs, to take a photo. I love this particular bit of Oxford and I love it perhaps best at night (but ask me tomorrow, I'll say something completely different), when people are only ever passing through, not loitering, when the shadows come alive. I've been thinking about this a lot lately - I've been thinking, having spent the last six years or so here, that thing that's great about living in Oxford is being on the outside, looking in. It's taken me awhile to come to this conclusion, but here's what I think now: better not to be one of the fresh-faced students, full of energy and desire to be elsewhere. Better not to be someone clinging on to a past, to glory days played out here. Better to be the person watching. What's special about this place is the energy that comes from all that hopefulness and angst. What's special is seeing it happen, being amongst it but not of it.

So I took my photo - not framed very carefully, because I was in a hurry to keep running. On the other side of the bridge a man was crouched with a bigger, more complex camera, setting up a far more elaborate, deliberate shot. And what does that shot look like? Are my feet, briefly planted, in it? (My own image, blurred and manipulated and Instagram-ed, isn't detailed enough to reveal the crouched photographer, though he is, in theory, somewhere there). Queen's Lane was full of cyclists, some of whom were whistling as they rode, perhaps as a way of asserting their presence before blind corners. The High Street was full of pedestrians, mostly alone, carrying backpacks and briefcases, on their way somewhere. Iffley Road was full of other runners, all of whom I was simultaneously in cahoots and in competition with.

On six years of being here

We moved from north Oxford to southern California in 1964 - when I was seven - and suddenly I noticed that living in the future tense could be as treacherous as living in the past; it was ideal so long as you were young and on the move, but it could be exasperating if ever you wanted to lay foundations underneath your feet. Small places were more conducive to enmities and smugness, I came to see, as soon as I was in the devouring open spaces of the Far West, but they were also home to idiosyncrasy, a sense of fun and to privacy.

- Pico Iyer

Six years ago, give or take a few days, I arrived in the UK after a red eye flight from Boston. In the departures lounge I'd watched people line up to board; towards the end of the line was a couple, youngish, holding hands, tall and tanned and athletic-looking, the sort of people you imagined went running along the river together every morning, and I surprised myself by feeling envious of them. I was six months single after two years of a college-intense relationship and, I'd thought, enjoying every minute of it, even the slightly abashed mornings-after, the avoiding of phone calls, the hoping for phone calls, the stumbling end-of-night kisses. But here was this couple, and I wanted to hold someone's hand. Maybe it was a reaction to leaving the city I thought I loved behind just as it was at its most glorious and carefree - the start of summer, the warmth not yet blossomed into unbearable heat, the bars full and spilling out onto the sidewalks at night. It occurred to me, too, that I would miss the friend I'd been casually sleeping with; in the next instant it occurred to me that maybe I didn't feel as casually as I was acting. So probably it was a good thing, flying off into the unknown: before I let the friendship dissolve or devolve or evolve, before my experience of being single turned messy, or messier, off I went.

When I arrived in London it was morning and raining. I hadn't been in England since I was twelve, visiting with my parents, and I was ill-prepared. I had no map. My shoes, brand new, purchased for a planned summer of unplanned backpacking around Europe, didn't fit properly, and rubbed blisters on my toes as I dragged my suitcase out of Paddington. Although I knew my hotel was nearby, I had no sense of how to get there. When I did get there - after about an hour of walking in grey, puddle-filled circles - the woman at the front desk told me there was a problem with the plumbing in my room and I could not check in. So I changed my shoes and sloshed down Oxford street and found my way, by memory or luck, to the British Museum.

And anyhow it all worked out in the end: the hotel gave me an enormous suite to compensate for any earlier inconvenience, and I slept heavily, and I threw the new shoes out, and the sun was shining the next day when my train pulled into Oxford.

The thing is, six years starts to feel like a significant amount of time. It's approaching a decade. To commit to anything for six years is to show a significant degree of passion, or doggedness, or, ideally, both. In six years your face changes; so does your body. You look demonstrably older. No one asks you for ID anymore, and you can no longer stay up all night drinking cheap cider and then wake up and go for a run and do it all over again the next night - or maybe it's just that you don't want to, which means that your demeanor, too, has changed. In six years people have come and gone, and you're someone who stayed, and this fact starts to define you.

The face of the city has changed, too. By dint of having known them for a long time now, you start to feel ownership of particular street corners and buildings. You like to say, well, I remember it before this place was here, I remember the way things were, I remember the unsavoury old carpet and the pool table and the jukebox - I'm not saying I feel nostalgic, I'm just saying I remember it. In six years two cohorts of undergraduates have done their degrees, been doused with eggs and champagne and shaving foam, gone away, got jobs. Countless barmen and women have become comfortingly familiar and then vanished. The things that haven't changed start to seem like the only things out of place: the café with the red sign, the summer-evening sound of church bells and ice cream trucks, the arrangement of furniture in your bedroom. The cherry trees and the ground elder have taken over the garden; the ivy has wrapped itself around the old Dutch bicycle that you used to ride everywhere; the landscape, the view from the study window, is simultaneously unrecognizable and unchanged.

Which isn't a problem: it's just time, doing its thing.

Haunts

I.

Here’s the thing: I’m a serial re-visitor. I like to chase my own tail.

I’ve made this list of all the places I want to see. I add to it all the time. But then instead of booking a flight to Cairo or wherever I suggest we go back to Fez, say, where we’d been three years earlier, on our first holiday together. We had a nice time then; we drank a lot of black coffee and walked round and round the medina until we’d earned the beginning of a sense of direction. At night, after a too-big meal and a final coffee, we’d climb to the rooftop of our cheap backpacker’s hotel and watch the lights glinting. We’d flick through the photos we’d taken on our digital cameras, reliving the frozen moments, assimilating them.

It was a good time to go on holiday: we had no shared past and no particular compulsion, yet, to speculate about the future. I remember that at the end of the trip, on the bus back from Luton, I made a list in a little leather notebook of all the things I needed to buy when I got back to Boston, things I needed to furnish the new studio apartment I was moving into. I had this excitement-tinged-with-sadness feeling, but I made the list anyway, and then fell asleep on his shoulder like we had been together for years and would always be together, like we weren't from opposite ends of the world. I think this is maybe what people mean when they talk about being present, about inhabiting the present. We were there and that was it: we were there, and still unbothered by the logistics of living, or living together, or making a living, or making a decision about our future. I had a semester left of college to complete, so life was full of invisible possibilities - I trusted implicitly that they were there, even if I couldn’t identify what they were.

You can’t return to that time; you can’t return to any time. But you can return to a place. So I return to places. So we go back to Fez, or New York, or the same village in Wales, over and over again. A poor sort of time-travelling, but there it is: it’s the best we’ve got.

In most cases I trick myself into believing that it’s because these are places that need revisiting - they’re complicated, demanding, worthy of a relationship. They’re marriage material, not one night stands. I say there’s too much to Fez to be found in a single visit; we need to go back, give it the time it deserves. Upon second visit I find that I am comfortable enough here, walking in my own footsteps; I am someplace familiar, deliberately seeking out familiar landmarks - squares, cafés, that restaurant we really liked. But this sense of familiarity is more disquieting than calming. At one point I find myself fighting a panic attack. I pretend it’s the heat, the travel, the heady smells, the crowded dusty streets, the donkeys pushing past, the chickens waiting patiently to be slain. We climb up out of the fray and sit on a low wall at the edge of the medina and I identify at last the strange feeling, the disquieting feeling: the feeling that I am haunting myself, following my own ghost, inhabiting the space she inhabited three years previous in an attempt to somehow be her again. It’s the feeling that I am jealous of myself as I was then: that I am both with myself and outside myself. I’m not unhappy now, in this present - far from it; I’m in love and it’s summer and things have turned out okay. But I know more about the me in that previous present: I know what happens to her, I know how she gets from there to here. Whereas I don’t know how I get from here, now, to there: I don’t even know where ‘there’ is.

So we sit on a wall and I feel simultaneously right and wrong. That evening we have a beer with a friend and watch the nightly migration of birds cloud the sky. Later in the week we take a taxi out of town and hike to a waterfall, where the air is clear and cool. And then we go home again. Three more years elapse. I consider another trip.

***

Notice that to write about this, I use the language of the supernatural. Familiar, as in the familiar spirit, assisting witches. Ghosts. Haunts. I do this instinctively but also knowingly. A few years ago, a friend sent me a link to a paper by Steven Connor. “As a term, ‘haunting’ has an almost disappointingly innocuous past,” Connor writes:

Well into the eighteenth century, a ‘haunt’ could be simply a place to which one had frequent recourse...As a noun, a ‘haunt’ signifies not exactly a home, but rather a sort of second home, a place to which one has periodic recourse from one’s regular home...Over the last couple of centuries, it seems to have become more common for places to be haunted than persons...A haunted place has become stuck in time, or time has been scored into it.

***

Oxford always seemed to me a haunt of long-dead phantoms, living off its past and alien to anyone with energy and a mind on the future; now I walk among its ghosts and see them as my own.

- Pico Iyer

We are always sharing space with ghosts. "All landscapes are haunted by ghosts,” the geographer Patricia Price writes. Sometimes the ghosts are versions of ourselves; sometimes the ghosts are people we never knew, people who never even existed except in the minds of others or the pages of books. When I moved to Oxford I finally read Jude the Obscure for the first time. I’d tried before and always abandoned it about two pages in, but now there was a shared geography, and certain passages and sentiments stayed with me, particularly as Autumn took the city in its wicked fist, shook the trees and turned the stone grey with worry. The city became Christminster, Hardy's University town - and I, I suddenly came to understand, had moved here, like Jude, to be close to something that I wasn’t quite a part of.

I took long walks after dark; I felt very Hardy indeed, walking in the cold abandoned nights: "There were poets abroad, of early date and of late, from the friend and eulogist of Shakespeare down to him who has recently passed into silence, and that musical one of the tribe who is still among us..." One night, on St. Giles, wide and empty, a woman with a black eye came lilting towards me, as if she was walking on a ship in stormy waters. We stood under a streetlamp while she asked for change and I refused to give her any. I don't know why I refused: I was broke too, but broke in a different way; I could have reached into my bag and discovered a few coins. But I walked on, I guess because sometimes the things we imagine we see somewhere seem more real than the things we actually see. I’m not proud of this, but it’s how I spent a lot of time feeling when I first moved here, I think: like if I tried hard enough I could make every ghost manifest itself, like I could literally build my own version of the city.

I stopped in a café for a glass of wine. It was warm and smelled of salt and onions inside. Jude Fawley had lived in Jericho, I remembered. I had read a lot - too much - about this city. I knew what fate awaited Fawley, as I knew what becomes of the sorry lovesick undergraduates in Zuleika Dobson’s Oxford. Through the fogged café windows I could just make out all the doomed heroes, phantom figures slouching home on twisted roads. I loved this place, but I never knew if I belonged to it or if it belonged to me; never knew if I haunted it or if it haunted me.

"We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places," writes Robert Macfarlane, "-- but we are far less good at saying what places make of us."

***

So I revisit places. At least once a month, maybe less in the winter, and often by accident, I find myself in Christ Church meadow, sitting on a particular bench near the bridge to the boathouses. I sat here the week I first arrived, nearly six years ago now. It was a hot, clear day, the start of summer, the VIIIs in full swing, the banks crowded by spectators. I wore a sleeveless dress and sucked on a zinc lozenge, trying to ward off a cold that was threatening to ruin my plans to meet my new almost-boyfriend for drinks later. And now, whenever I find myself nearby, I like to mark the spot, acknowledge the memory, so I pause midway through a run, or on a chilly January walk. I have no idea if the view has changed, if the trees nearby have grown, if the shape of the river has changed at all, if the path ringing the meadow is more worn than it once was. I don’t notice the surroundings at all: I only notice myself being there, again and again, year after year.

II.

We go to New York again and again, too. I didn’t like New York at first; it took me maybe a dozen visits to warm to it. This is another argument for revisiting: sometimes you have to give a place another chance, or another dozen chances. Sometimes the relationship needs to be nurtured, requires great patience.

We go back to the same Brooklyn bars, claim some kind of ownership. We feel the half-memories we made here (too much whiskey, popcorn strewn across the floor, frantic, heavy conversation with friends we only get to see once a year) bind us to the physical location in which they were made, even though the physical location, if it had the capacity to remember, would have long forgotten us by now. Do you know how many people come here every night? And you show up two times in as many years and think, “this is our place”! So fine: our place and everybody else’s. It belongs to us, and to the girls communing with the toilets, and to the dudes sliding off barstools, stumbling away, holding up the doorframe, dissolving into the shout-infused night. It’s ours, to share.

We go to Coney Island. I know: us and every other hip young thing with an SLR and a pair of Converse. The first time I visited it was April, and I was 12 years old. My mother and I had come from California via a hazy layover in Las Vegas. I think I must have slept, but when we arrived, I didn’t feel like I had slept; I wasn’t yet accustomed to the sensation of trans-continental travel, hadn’t learned how to overcome the particular weariness that follows a red eye flight. So when, in the early evening, after a day of aimless wandering, we took an F train to Coney Island, I fell asleep and woke up disconcerted, wondering if this was a thing you were allowed to do on subways. Did grown-ups fall asleep on the subway? Later, living in Boston, juggling schoolwork with jobs and internships and long nights of drinking, I would learn the art of sleeping gently between stops, slipping fully awake at just the right moment, disembarking like an automaton. But then it was a new sensation, and the time spent asleep gave Coney Island a kind of magical property: I couldn’t identify exactly how we’d gotten here, I didn’t know how long the journey had taken, I didn’t know, geographically, where we were in relation to where we had been. All I knew is that it was a place my mother had visited in her youth; she’d spoken often of it, of New York in general, and now here it was.

There are a few photographs of us on that evening, taken by a friend. We’re silhouettes against the backdrop of the sea. I’m wearing a leather jacket and a pair of ugly khaki cargo pants. I have a pimple on my cheek. What I remember is being cold and windswept and reluctantly having a ketchup-slathered hot dog from Nathan’s, hunger overriding my erroneous and newly developed adolescent desire to preserve the child’s waiflike figure I’d previously taken for granted.

***

Years later I came in December. We’d been out too late the night before and we sat mutely on the train, shifting through stations. The journey seemed to take forever, it seemed to take longer than the journey from England had taken. I observed a man across the aisle from me reading a book, the title of which was obscured by his gloved fingers. I looked out over the frosty rooftops. The air grew cold as the doors hissed open, then hot again as they steamed shut. And then we were there, at Stillwell Avenue, crossing the street. My partner had never been here before and, like I said, my memory of it was mostly not my own at all: the photographs, the stories my mother had told me, about being here as a teenager and being compelled to ride the Cyclone even though she hated it, telling her boyfriend after that he could ride it again, if he wanted, but it would have to be alone. Not my memories at all. My memory was of the limp hot dog, the wind and the cold, and here again was the cold, only ten, a hundred times more ferocious. My face went pink and hot and then numb. My fingers in their thick gloves were burning, then numb. Outside Nathan’s a wedding party posed for photos. The bride wore a long strapless white gown but stood stoically while the photographer, encased in a heavy duffel coat, attacked the scene from a dozen different angles.

We went along the boardwalk, taking our own photos. As I could no longer feel my fingers or my toes or my nose, it didn’t seem to matter if we stayed the whole afternoon. We passed one or two other people, drifting along, but they looked unconnected to the rest of the world, like maybe they were imagined figures. I took a photo of a plastic palm tree, planted in the sand near the ice-grey Atlantic. When the cold became unbearable we sought refuge in Nathan’s. We ate hot dogs with onions. Outside it grew dark and when we left, pulling our scarves up over our mouths to try to take some of the bitterness from the wind as it shot down our throats, the neon signs lit up and we took blurry photographs of the way they glowed.

***

We were back the following year. This time it was hot, 84 degrees at midday. I wore shorts and sandals and tried to take photos as we had before, but found that everything looked washed out, dull. Even though the weather was good and it was a weekend, the place was sparsely populated, mostly by shiny sun-bronzed old men on bicycles who had left their shirts at home. We watched some friends ride the Cyclone; I got a photograph as they came down one of the lesser slopes, hands in the hair, faces aghast or delighted or perhaps both. I stood at the frothing line of the Atlantic, watching two swimmers gliding up and down, completely parallel the shore, admiring their strokes.

Although it felt and looked like midsummer, it was nearly mid-October, and everything had been decorated with ghouls and goblins and giant spiders and bloodied zombies in anticipation of Halloween, of cold nights and warm scarves and the smell of rotting leaves and sickly sweet smoke machines. I posed for a photo in front of a zombie-like figure with blood down his shirt and at the corners of his mouth and his bloodshot, perfectly round eyes. My own eyes were shrouded by the Ray-Ban aviators I’d bought off eBay a year or two ago, when I had been working full time in an office and felt like I could finally afford to be frivolous (now: a full-time freelance writer with no clients and no projects; this trip felt like something I’d stolen, but it was the best we could do: meet my parents in the middle, spend a week in someone else’s Brooklyn Heights apartment, have beers on the rooftop looking out at the skyline, imagining that things would soon be different, easier, clearer). If you looked up you could see the shredded witch-figures hanging from lampposts. Everywhere was the eerie, the haunted, the haunting. A place to which one has periodic recourse from one’s regular home.

For lunch we went to Nathan’s and had lemonade and hot dogs outside in the sun.

Homelands

In a love affair, most seek an eternal homeland. Others, but very few, eternal voyaging. These latter are melancholics, for whom contact with mother earth is to be shunned. They seek the person who will keep far from them the homeland’s sadness. To that person, they remain faithful.

— Walter Benjamin, One Way Street

***

"Birds in flight, claims the architect Vincenzo Volentieri, are not between places, they carry their places with them. We never wonder where they live: they are at home in the sky, in flight. Flight is their way of being in the world." (Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage)

I first read this in flight: between England and California, via New York. I re-read it on the deck of my parents' house, resolutely bathing in the cold winter sunlight, the faint glitter of the Pacific to the south (not the west, as you might expect; this sliver of coastline is geographically contrary). There were probably birds passing overhead; somewhere, too, the rumble of a jet engine, the symbol of the ease with which we can now cross continents, slide through time zones, make new places for ourselves.

I read it and it first comforted, then worried me. What if home is just a memory that we carry with us? I wrote in the margins of the book. It seemed like a nice idea at the time - taking attachment to place, to land, soil, buildings, alleyways, something physical, and making it portable, memorializing it, putting it in a pocket. But memory doesn't always serve people very well, does it? Even now, retelling this story that is not even a story, I have falsified things - some deliberately, but others no doubt without realizing. I will never realize. What if home is just a memory that we carry with us? Well, then, home is more fragile than I ever imagined. Then we really do live, like our documents, the invisible archives of our digital existence, in the cloud(s).

***

"This profound attachment to the homeland appears to be a worldwide phenomenon. It is not limited to any particular culture and economy. It is known to literate and nonliterate peoples, hunter-gatherers, and sedentary farmers as well as city dwellers. The city or land is viewed as mother, and it nourishes; place is an archive of fond memories and splendid achievements that inspire the present; place is permanent and hence reassuring to man, who sees frailty in himself and chance and flux everywhere." (Yi - Fu Tuan, Space and Place).

***

A few months ago I went to a talk at the School of Geography and the Environment. I went as a member of the public - that is to say, in this case, as someone not affiliated with the University, an observer rather than a participant. I had emailed someone in the department the day before to ask if it would be okay for me to attend. I've lived here for five years and only now am I starting to feel comfortable enough to assume that I even have a right to ask these things - or maybe it's that only now am I starting to feel uncomfortable enough in my own city-skin to want to push the boundaries, expand my map. I think in some sense I was seeking validation - I mean that although I was and am intensely curious about the subject of the lecture, on both a personal and professional level, I also attended in order to remind myself that I belong here, if I allow myself to.

"In a place where everybody is known from birth to death, identity is pregiven," I read. "It is only the mobile strangers arriving en masse that provoke the need to be certain of who someone is."

***

Whenever I try to talk about my own homeland to people - about the USA as a whole, that is, the vast place to which, according to my passport, I belong, the place where I am a citizen - I discover that I don't have a vocabulary for it. This is just another way of saying I don't really know much about it. Some of it is memory again: how much do you tip a bartender for opening a bottle of beer at a dusty counter in some midtown dive? I can't remember, if I even ever knew. I'm useless when friends, visiting the country for the first time, want advice. I haven't even seen most of it. My mother, I believe, has been to all 48 states in the continental US. I've been to fewer than 20. I'm not from there, I can confidently say about most of the country I'm from.

But there's also a sense in which I have willingly closed myself off to understanding. I seek to embody the role of the outsider. At 17 I moved away from home, left California, the only place I had ever really known in the flesh. It wasn't because I was particularly excited about the university I'd chosen (in retrospect, I had much better options). It was because I was attached to the idea of Boston itself; it was because I wanted to be an outsider there. I wanted to know what it felt like to not be from somewhere.

***

And now I find that the borders of My City have shrunk. I have this view, this window, and my slice of City is just an overgrown garden that I rarely venture out into. The ground elder has spread. The cherry blossoms have fallen and the trees are big and green. Last weekend we walked into town. It was cold out, almost uncomfortably so, and worryingly empty: a lone violinist on Turl Street, persuading his instrument to sing Vivaldi, a few cyclists on tired-sounding steeds, shopkeepers with cigarettes, a family strolling through the pale light near the entrance to Exeter College. In the covered market, the shops were mostly shut. In Radcliffe Square, the tower of St. Mary's had been obscured by scaffolding; its spire was just visible, emerging as if from a winter cocoon.

We went to a few pubs we had not been to very recently: our old haunts. We spoke of people we used to know. It wasn't that some things seemed like a very long time ago, it was more that some things seemed like they had never belonged to us at all - these things had happened to people who looked like us and talked like us but were just impostors in a parallel universe. It's hard here to know if the ghosts are haunting us or if we, in our constant presents, are the ghosts, haunting our own pasts. Something about a small city invites this kind of thinking. The passage of time is what makes it three-dimensional; the history, even if it isn't our own history, the lives and deaths of fictional characters who have also crowded these pavements, are all as crucial to its makeup as stones or sewers.

***

Five years ago I arrived in Oxford for the first time. It was hot and I walked from the train station into town. I had no map but ended up by the river, at Christ Church meadow. This day is just like that day: no clouds, no threat of rain or evening chill. Coincidentally I find myself at the train station again, walking through town, in the vague direction of home. Now of course I don't need to ask for directions or pause every so often to get my bearings, but even the familiar can feel devastatingly unfamiliar when you feel weary or out of sorts, and there are days when I recognize almost nothing here.

As I walk, I listen to music. A woman is singing, "I build it up…I dream it up…I build it up…I dream it up…it's easy living inside my head, it's hard to live without pretend." We construct our own cities, write our own maps - we build them up, dream them up, often long before we've even visited. I remember crossing a bridge five years ago, looking down at the green ribbon of canal, the trees bent thirstily towards the water. Everything I knew about this place was fiction - either my own or someone else's, Waugh's or Beerbohm's, say - but already the fiction had begun to mix with experience. Here's a place where everything and nothing is always changing: it's known for being rigidly adherent to antiquated traditions, and yet there's this constant flow of people, arriving, leaving, all the time.

Downstairs in my study it is cool, as if it's trapped the chill of spring. In the late afternoon I walk to the pool, which, like the city, is empty - just a few other dogged swimmers crawling their way up and down the lanes. When I pause for breath at the wall and look to my left, out the great window at the side of the building, I can just see the tower of Magdalen College above the green of the trees. I feel slow. It seems to take me a long time to get from one end of the pool to the other. It seems to take me a long time to walk home.

Later, we listen to music in a room that smells like a church but isn't a church. The heat is heavy, almost foreign. "Home is only a feeling you get in your mind/From the people you love and you travel beside," the band sings. After the gig, we drink pints on the pavement as people pass by on bicycles, in sportscars. I say things I don't really mean, I guess to be contrary, but later I wish I could keep my mouth shut sometimes. As we cycle home the skirt of my dress gets caught in my bicycle but it's nice to have bare legs finally. In the morning, the way the heat smells and the still air feels and the birds sound remind me of waking on an island off the East African coast; the smell of the mosquito coil, burning in a tiled bathroom; the oppressive net, draped over our disheveled bed. The smell of cigarette smoke on a hot morning or a balmy evening always makes me think of other places, other climates, Paris or Fez on an aimless summer morning, café hopping, dropping cubes of sugar into mud-brown espresso.

***

If I acknowledge that it is five years sine I first arrived in Oxford I am also acknowledging that it is five years since I first met the person with whom I share my life now. I think of the film Away We Go, which is a film, in a sense, about finding or making a home - about having the freedom and the burden to choose a place. There's a scene, I think towards the end, when Burt and Verona, who are searching for somewhere to live before their baby is born, are talking about their situation. "No one is in love like us, right?" she says. "What are we gonna do?"

Cheri Lucas writes of a long-distance relationship: "In between these meetings, we've created a space for us, just us, online: a portal through which that flow sustains. A borderless space that transcends geography, that exists somewhere only we can access." That borderless space is the home, perhaps, even if you live in the same city, the same home; even if you live alone. It's the overlap of person and place. Mobility creates the illusion of rootlessness - as long as we are mobile, carrying our places with us, able to communicate via portable devices, it seems conceivable that we might float forever, that there might be no need for a sense of belonging to anything more tangible than an idea. But the truth is blurrier. We may carry our places with us, but our places carry us, too.

Sunday Rant: The Farmer's Market

Every Saturday we go to the farmer's market. No, that's not true. Every Saturday I go to the farmer's market. We used to go together, but I think he got annoyed with the conversations we would have when we got there. "Do you want a chicken?" he would say, as we waited in the queue to buy eggs. "I don't know," I would say. "Do you want a chicken?" "It's up to you!" he would say, trying either to be accommodating or infuriating, I'm not sure which. "It's up to you!" I would say back, because I am incapable of intelligent conversation pre-breakfast (and indeed sometimes post-breakfast, too). "I don't mind," he would say, so I would not buy the chicken because it seemed to make sense to mask ambivalence with frugality - we don't need meat to survive, we've already got bacon at home, etc etc etc.

But then, later, milling around near the vegetable stand, he would be at it again. "Do you want some celeriac?" he would say. "I don't really know what to do with celeriac," I would say. "There are lots of things you can do with celeriac." "Yes, but I don't really know what to do with celeriac."

I would think maybe that was it, the end of the conversation about what vegetables we did or didn't want in our house, the end of the string of humiliating admittances I would have to make about the gaps in my culinary knowledge ("You bought rhubarb?" "I thought it was celery!", etc). But a few minutes later, he'd say something like, "Is there anything else we need?" "I don't know," I would say, because I really didn't know: it's impossible to know precisely what kind of fruits or vegetables are necessary for the week ahead, especially when weeks are so unpredictable, and you can't even say for certain on which nights you'll be dining in and on which nights you'll be scoffing a quick sandwich from Sainsbury's (BLT, reduced to clear, 49p) before a gig you'd forgotten you were going to. "Well, is there anything else you want?" "I don't know. Is there anything else you want?" "It's up to you. Do you want some kale?" "I don't know. Do you want some kale? Obviously you do want some kale, since you brought it up. So just buy some fucking kale and stop asking me about the fucking kale."

At which point we'd not only not buy the kale but also forget to buy bread, and later I would regret that we hadn't bought a chicken but be annoyed at my impulsive decision to buy all of the broccoli in Oxford, now yellow and wilted and sitting in a tote bag on the kitchen table.

So anyway, as you can probably understand, I mostly go on my own nowadays.

I enjoy this. I like the ritual of it, and I like the bargaining power it gives me when I've come home with eggs and bacon and mushrooms and I get to say, "I brought home the bacon, you cook it!" And our local farmer's market is held in a primary school behind the Tesco Metro on the Cowley Road, so I like cutting through the Tesco on my way to the market, using it as a public footpath, buying nothing in a mute display of smugness. I like listening to music on the walk. I even like that I'm always, without fail, quite late, so I often miss out on all the desirable goods (asparagus during asparagus season, cream from the local dairy, bagels from the bagel lady), because when I do get my hands on one of these items, it feels like a real victory for laziness. Look, I slept till noon and I have asparagus pee!

But there are some times when the experience is trying. It all depends on my mood. Some Saturdays, it's like walking into a big warm fuzzy hug full of sunshine and cheese and dreadlocks. There are delightful youngsters smiling up at everyone, beautiful families pushing discreet prams, students stocking up on muddy potatoes, old eccentric women buying strawberries and garlic. Other days, though. Other days there are a bunch of kids screaming, and smug people who have successfully procreated pushing their prams over my unprotected toes, and students who still smell of last night's cheap booze, and old women who snarl like hyenas if they sense you might be eyeing up the same pumpkin.

In particular, I resent the queueing system, or lack thereof. For a society so preoccupied with queueing, Britain really can get it wrong sometimes. For example: people tend to queue for the bread in such a way that they block the queue for the eggs and cheese. Why? They could easily queue in such a way that they did not block the queue for the eggs and cheese, but the one or two times I've tried to impose some order, I've been skipped over and eventually reprimanded for not standing in the right place. At the vegetable stand, standard practice is to select a number. This is ostensibly to make queueing easier (there's much less stress if you know that, eventually, your number will be called, at which point it is your right to be served), but people don't seem to understand that there's no need to jostle or compete, and rather than stepping back to allow others to peruse the peppers, they hover near the tills, as if their constant presence can somehow change the order of numerals.

But the really annoying thing, the most annoying thing, is that it's impossible to stay annoyed. Just as soon as I've decided to be grumpy for the rest of the day because I've missed out on the last of the milk and I don't know where to stand so that I am actually in a queue for anything, let alone for what I actually want, the woman next to me, equally perplexed, laughs and asks if this is the queue for the eggs. Or the vegetable man smiles as he weighs my vegetables and helps me fill my bags. Or the guy at the bakery says, "see you next week", indicating that I've been taken for a local, that my regular presence has been noted. And I can't be grumpy anymore. I just can't. No matter how grumpy I was. No matter how many prams have trampled my toes. No matter how many people are holding the exact same Guardian Hay Festival tote bag (including me).

Is this a rant or an ode? I don't know anymore. Dear farmer's market: give me my grump back. Or don't. Whatever.

The Future of Memory, the Memory of Place

One night I went for a walk, to dislodge some words that had got stuck at the very back of my head, in the least accessible place. I took my camera and walked down the Iffley Road at sunset. It happened to be a very fine sunset, with pink bleeding into the horizon and gold clouds over the track where Roger Bannister ran his sub-4-minute mile. I took a few photos. I thought maybe it would help if I tried to look at the city, or even the world, from a photographer's point of view, but apart from the sunset I was having a hard time figuring out what to take a photo of. It didn't help that the city was basically empty; it made everything feel static. Very few people seemed to be out enjoying the dregs of summer as I was out enjoying the dregs of summer.

Anyone who was outside, though, was also taking photographs. I began to feel a kind of camaraderie. A camera-raderie, maybe. On Magdalen Bridge a girl on a pale blue Pashley paused to pull a camera from her handbag. In Radcliffe Square, the big Camera dwarfing my little camera, bells began to ring, and I stood taking pointless beautiful photographs, listening to the bells ringing. A family wandered past; I got their silhouettes in some of my shots. They were also taking photographs, naturally: they were tourists, or at least, I imagined they were tourists, because they looked tourist-like, whatever that meant. But I had to stop myself thinking like this when I saw that I could also seem to be a tourist, and in a way I still was a tourist, even after four years, and I would still be one after forty, too. The family skirted around me and went to stand for a long time outside All Souls, though there is nothing much to see there; I have often looked through the gates of All Souls and never seen a soul.

Some girls were taking photographs under the Bridge of Sighs. Three of them stood in a line and jumped up obediently as the fourth took a photo, and then they changed configuration, so the one taking the photo could also be in a photo. I thought it was funny, and a little sad, that no matter how many times they did this, one of them would still always be missing from the photograph.

I went down Queen's Lane, liking the sound of my rubber soles on the street, which was notable for being the only sound I could now hear. When I first started riding a bicycle in the city I had crashed twice in the same spot, trying to squeeze through a narrow gate. Now I had been cycling for years, and I had forgotten what it was like to walk here.

***

Outside the Grand Café, I considered the cocktail menu. I did not want a cocktail. I thought about having a glass of white wine, though I can never see the point of drinking a glass of wine you don't love unless you've got food to go with it. I wasn't at all sure they would have a white wine that I would love, particularly when I didn't even really feel like having white wine. In fact I didn't know if I wanted to go in at all. Nevertheless I went in, and ordered a Kir Royal, and sat in front of a big mirror, on a wicker chair, and read from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. A party in Venice, cocaine, champagne, sex. I read for the duration of my Kir Royal and then felt obliged either to order another or to leave, even though it was still practically empty, just a couple sitting by the window and a pair of girls at the bar. I might well have been on my own, I thought. I did sort of want another, I could have stayed in Venice for longer, but in the end I brought my empty glass to the bar and left.

***

I crossed the road thinking I might like to take a bus home, but I had just missed one and I did not immediately see another coming, so I put some music on and walked home, where I finished the Venice section of the book and moved on to the India section: not just a change of scenery, but also a shift in perspective, a change from "he" to "I". I read:

"Every atom of the air is saturated by history that isn't even history, myth, so a temple built today looks, overnight, as if it's been there since the dawn of time. Every morning is the dawn of time, I wrote in my notebook. Every day is the whole of time."

I made a note of it, because in a way it corresponded to a thought I'd been having, or trying to have, about memory and place. It made me think, in fact, of the epigraph to another Geoff Dyer book, The Missing of the Somme:

"Remember: the past won't fit into memory without something left over; it must have a future"

That was something by Joseph Brodsky. In Jeff in Venice, Dyer writes that "Jeff had never read Brodsky" - but of course Geoff must have, or must at least have read that particular bit of Brodsky and identified it as relevant. I guess sometimes it's better to have a quote without context; it's more malleable, it's why epigraphs work. I love epigraphs in books, but in fact I rarely read them; I always think the epigraph is a representation of the private relationship the author has with a text, and kind of irrelevant to the relationship that the reader will develop with that same text. It's like saying, "hey, in my head this complements what you're about to read. In your head it may have nothing to do with it. Whatever."

***

Maybe it's like writing about place: the place is actually irrelevant to everyone else. I used to like reading about Paris, before I had ever been to Paris, just to see the names of streets and squares that meant nothing to me. I don't think it much mattered that when I first read A Moveable Feast I didn't know where the Place Saint-Michel was, hadn't yet sat in a café there with my lover, both of us poor and a little hungry, sucking down café au laits in the late summer heat. But then I went through a phase of thinking that context was paramount, that to really read a book, it was essential to know the place it was about, to have a map of memories in your head (to "anchor you", I thought).

But then every time I read a book about Oxford and came upon a passage about the Radcliffe Camera or the High Street or the Grand Café or the Cowley Road I would have to go back through my own catalog of experiences, find a corresponding situation, consider the gap or overlap between one writer's view and my own. And that can be tiring.

***

Every day is the whole of time - the thought I had been trying to have was simply this: places trap memory by accumulating it. Like rain collecting in a bucket with infinite capacity. Like Tennyson - "I am a part of all that I have met." And part of a memory is also the future of that memory. Places are haunted by ghosts, but also by those who are still alive.

Before bed I wondered how much of our description of place has nothing to do with place, and everything to do with the "I" or the "he". I've never been to India, but I've been to a place where "every atom of the air is saturated by history that isn't even history, myth". But maybe I haven't; maybe that is just a state of mind, a state of mind you could be in wherever you were in the world.

Suburban walks

"Many animals, like human beings, live in environments of their own construction rather than simply in nature."- Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place

Lately I've been taking photos on my way home from the grocery store. Usually it's evening. Usually I've been to buy something very mundane - bread, butter, salad greens, sponges. I am wearing nothing special. The walk is nothing special: down wide streets lined with cars, shiny in the twilight, past smashed bottles, bent bicycle wheels, couples having arguments outside of houses, children running after balls or each other. I tread on cigarette butts, avoid dog shit, look up at the phone lines and the clouds crisscrossing the sky. There is nothing and everything beautiful about these walks, and when I take photos of things that I've been passing for years without noticing - a telephone box on the corner of a street, a sun setting over some terraced houses in a cul de sac - they seem to come out more surreal (or is it hyperreal?) even than they appear in the moment I take them. There is a release, a calm in knowing that this constructed landscape is beautiful, even if it sometimes appears not to be.

“Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.” - Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

I never saw myself living in the suburbs. I grew up somewhere rural. Suburbs had an ugly connotation. Now I forget that I live in suburbs, of a sort. But when I look at the photographs I see something unmistakably suburban about the place I live. I am reminded that it is independent of Oxford but at also a part of it; that it is its own place, too. In the photographs, devoid of context, of the evening sounds, it appears empty, disembodied. The roads seem to go nowhere, to end in buildings or sunsets. But there's a kind of dignity, too, and while I expect to feel alarmed or alienated, looking at these images, I never do.

Here's what spring looked like

It was springtime in Oxford and the cherry blossoms were blooming and there was something not quite right. This was supposed to be the buoyant time of year, but I kept waking up in the hot blue depths of the pre-dawn with no breath, my heart beating too fast. I remembered feeling like this once or twice before, or maybe it was more than that: I remembered feeling like this for weeks at a time, but I thought I had put all that behind me. So now I thought: am I dying? Well, maybe. But also maybe I have felt this way before and asked myself the same question, needlessly, and been okay, so maybe I will also be okay this time too. But then I thought: well, perhaps this time is different. I thought that perhaps in the morning, if I was not dead, I should make an appointment with the doctor. All those vertiginous nights and I had learned nothing! But in the end I never made an appointment with the doctor, not about that, anyway, and I kept waking up, which was, I eventually decided, a good sign.

When I began to examine my situation, I realised that at the heart of it was this: I could not decide anything, but I was running out of time. I was both very young and very old simultaneously: maybe the tightness in my chest was simply the weight, the vice-grip of missed opportunity. But also I looked around and everyone was older than me. My friends were all older than me. My boyfriend was older than me. We kept talking abstractly but also very seriously about babies, each of us trying to impart some sense of urgency to the other whilst also, at the same time, trying to make light of the situation, to stop the progress in case we had misunderstood each other. He was five years older than me: that was a lifetime, it was nothing. I was still young, to have children, but he was old, even though he was young too. I kept thinking about it this way: as if age somehow mattered.

Only of course it did matter. Age had always mattered. I had always been younger; I had been propelled forward, skipped a grade, left to flounder with my patchy understanding of long division and joined-up writing, encouraged to consider myself intellectually precocious even while I struggled with basic social interactions. But now I was reading articles in the newspaper about how fragile fertility really was, which did not help things, because I was already worried, again needlessly, again powerfully, about fertility. I wanted to go to the doctor and ask, but I did not know how to, and I did not want to have a conversation about how young I was, how much time I had left, because I was not young! I had so little time left!

***

His grandfather kept asking why we were not yet married. It had been four years and I suppose it was not an unreasonable question. We asked ourselves the same thing, too, and I could never find a satisfactory answer except that we weren't. It was very simple, really. We had lived together from the start and there had never been any doubt about the seriousness of our situation, of our strange devotion, and yet even when we did talk about getting married we talked about it as very young people are apt to do: as a thing for the future. And yet here we were four years later, the future was upon us! So we simply hadn't caught up with ourselves. But it was hard to say this to a 90-year old man who wanted to see his first grandson married. You see? Age did matter after all.

***

But the real issue was that I could not decide anything. For instance I could not decide if I wanted to commit to children. I mean, I did, really. I thought about my own parents, who had not the benefit, as we ourselves had, of all this time and youth. My mother was 36 when she had me, but this was not, I had begun to realize, really the conscious decision I had always imagined it to be: it was not necessarily about feminism, or about putting a career first, or even about indecision. It was on the other hand at least partly to do with the fact that she simply had not met my father sooner, and so had not the same luxury of time that we, theoretically, had.

But then again I thought about how little I had done so far and how much I did not want to feel useless. I thought about how unprepared we really were. Neither of us had any money to speak of or any prospect of earning very much money ever. We did not own a house and although we had a very understanding landlord in Ireland who did not charge us very much to live in a beautiful terraced house with a big garden in East Oxford down the road from our favourite pub we had very little stability, because while this arrangement might last forever, or at least for a long time, it might also not, and if it did not, I couldn't see what we'd do. We'd been utterly ruined by living in this beautiful house and I did not know where else in Oxford we could go and be happy as we were happy in this place, at home as we were at home here at home.

But then perhaps it would not matter: we had always said, for instance, how we wanted to move to the US at some point. I couldn't even decide about this, now: I was so happy in Oxford (even when I was desperately unhappy), I had such a sense of community (even when I felt lonely), I rode my bicycle through the city centre every single day and every single day I was overcome with this sensation that I belonged here: or at least, that I wanted to belong here. The beauty had not gotten old and familiarity had not ruined the novelty of finding myself here, of all places. So where else would we go, and why would we go there? But at the same time we liked the idea of being the sort of people who could get up and go, who could raise children in two countries, or three. And he was deliberately setting up a portable life: a career that allowed for flexibility.

***

This was another problem: careers. I had none. I did have a job, where I spent eight or nine hours every day, with people I liked very much, performing tasks I mostly had no passion for. But anyway a job is not a career, and the real problem is that I could not do the things I really wanted to do. I could not write, much, because I had no time and no energy and then whenever I did write it came out all jumbled and depressed, or else I worked on a novel that I could not decide what I felt about. In some ways I thought it was very good but there were also ways I suspected it was very bad, and I was afraid of finding out which bits were which, in case I had to confront the fact that I would have to do something very seriously different with it to make it readable. And of course I knew that even if it was readable, it wouldn't necessarily be what I wanted it to be, and even if it was what I wanted it to be, it wouldn't necessarily be published, let alone read. So it seemed a bit of a dead-end, or at least, not the best way to spend what precious time I had to myself.

***

With the rest of my hours I slept and swam. And I thought about how I wanted not to have to swim every evening with the rest of the weary workers: all of us slogging through our days, slapping our arms against the water, mouths moving open like fish lips as we rolled our heads to the side to receive air. I wanted to swim at midday, maybe. Or midmorning. Or mid-anything. Just anytime that was the time I chose and not the time that had been given to me.

So then I thought that if I felt that way about my time, perhaps children were not right, because the thing I knew, one of the very few things I knew, about children was that when you had them you had no control anymore over your time. You would be awoken again and again in the night and then for twenty years you would give yourself to something else. But then I thought that this was just what I needed: a real reason to not be selfish, not a fake reason, not a salary or a fear.

***

There were certain things I did know. I knew that I was in a holding pattern, I knew that something would have to give or be given, and soon. I knew, too, that in the end we would be alright, that it did not matter if we did not have a house or even if we were not married, and that since we did after all love each other there was no real reason to think that we would not find a way to support a family if we wanted to. I knew also that I did not want to raise a family on unhappiness, and the situation I had got myself into was an unhappy one, because it was not one in which I was doing something I wanted to do. I knew that I had to write something. I knew that I had to keep swimming, because it was the first thing I had found in a long time that gave me the peace of mind they say exercise is supposed to give you. I used run, but the problem with running was the impact: I got a bad knee from it (this was why I had started swimming in the first place), my side often hurt and I would have to cut the run short (later the doctor told me that this was because of my hip and too many years of running on hard surfaces). I had liked running, and I still liked it, but not in the same way. It left me tired, which is a good feeling to have but not always as good as feeling simply buoyant. I guess perhaps it was just that the act of floating seemed a small miracle. My own mother could not swim, and yet I had been given the ability to, I had had lessons and an upbringing by the beach. And my grandmother, now in her 80s, had been swimming practically her whole life and still did it regularly.

I even knew that all my obsessive worry was irrational, and that I was waking up in the middle of the night for nothing, and that I was very lucky in very many ways, and that I was thinking too hard about too many things that were too far in the future for me to have any control over. But even so I kept worrying and I kept waking up.

***

My thinking was very circular. I would think for a time - any time, in the middle of the night, or the middle of the day, halfway through a meeting, staring at a slide being projected onto the wall or at my desk looking out at the tennis courts and watching a pair of white-haired men send the ball back and forth on the grass courts. And then I would reach the place I had started: a question, a series of questions. I would find myself unable to understand if I knew what I wanted or only knew what I thought I wanted (or were these the same thing?), if I was able to move forward or not. So I would keep staring out the window. And meanwhile, all the while, time was passing me by, or I was moving with it, or anyway I was getting older, if imperceptibly.

Perhaps this is what they mean by growing up: the awareness not of mortality - nothing so grand - but simply of each moment. The ability to literally feel the length of a second or an hour, and to place that second or that hour in context, to know how much it means. But in any case I did not really want to be grown up: I only wanted to sleep through the night, I only wanted to find it not such an effort to smile at people or even at myself in the mirror. I wanted to cut my hair short, even though I worried I never would, in the same way I wanted to say, 'I want to start a family now, because why not?' even though I knew I would not say that, yet. I worried what would happen but also wanted to know what would happen if I did do these sorts of things.

I told myself that in a way, once before, I had done something like this: I had simply moved to Oxford, which went against logic, which was not the easy or even necessarily possible thing to do, and yet I had done it and it had been easy and we had made it possible. And it was the best thing I had done, it was one of the only things I could not convince myself, if I tried, to regret: no amount of convincing would make even my wretched anxious self think that that had been at all a bad idea, even if it had not always been good, even if I had not always been smart about it, even if we had struggled.

So I thought I should be comforted by that.

Spring

I am reclaiming the city. I know it's always like this in the spring anyway, or nearly always, but this year as with every year it feels different. It's fun to pretend that no one has ever felt quite like this before, felt quite so viscerally the symbolism of spring; everything laden, ripe, the trees with their plump blossoms, the limbs of the city swollen from all the promise of things to come. Everything seems simultaneously possible and unlikely. The sky is fickle and yet so self-assured; one day it is like summer, all hot and blue, and yet the next an autumnal cloud cover makes you rethink everything, so that you can never be sure whether you feel this way or that.

Mostly it's like being reacquainted with someone. The word "reclaim" implies ownership, which is maybe not the right sentiment, really, but this is how it feels: as if, in a very selfish way, I am taking something back, closing my fingers around it.

One evening I take a bus into town, quite impulsively, so that I can get a burrito and then wander around, down darkened streets, circle the Radcliffe Camera, where a lone man crouches low, takes a photograph. I pass, or am passed by, merry groups of Americans who are probably as young as or maybe even younger than I was when I first arrived; that is to say, quite young, quite impossibly young. I hate to think of myself as having been that young only because to do so makes me feel very old, even though I'm not at all old, even though I'm constantly feeling hopelessly young. The night falls in a very particular way. Cats dart across the streets of East Oxford and it doesn't matter who wins, the end of the boat race, when the crews slump forward with exhaustion and elation, always makes me cry.

2.

I remember this time last year; I walked up the Woodstock road one day, in a coat which was not really necessary, with everything blooming pink around me. I was going to a lot of open mic nights at the time, I think because they make me feel simultaneously a part of something and also like an onlooker, which is often how I try to be even though it's very hard to be both at once. One night, a few days after I had been refused a visa and then written a polite letter back and now was having just to simply sit and wait and wait and wait, there was a transition moment, a moment when things went from feeling truly awful to being bright and hopeful. It did not matter if I was refused a visa, I would go somewhere and write things. I would not starve because no one had ever let me starve before, least of all my own self.

Then after that I got the visa after all and a new job and still I had not finished my book, for which I kept setting arbitrary deadlines and then deliberately missing those arbitrary deadlines because, I suppose, I could not really imagine what would happen after the book, as if it defined me, or justified my being here, though of course it didn't, I had been here first, then the idea, and not the other way around. For awhile it was a great relief having a visa because I knew that I could stay, but after awhile the relief wears off, or becomes just a part of daily life. The fact of being here ceases to seem so miraculous. And then eventually there is the thought that it is after all only temporary, two more years, as if I am literally buying time (I guess I actually am literally buying time). And now a year later I know to start thinking again about it again.

3.

In the same way that I feel both old and not-old as I'm passed by younger youths, I start to feel that I've grown gradually more comfortable in the skin of responsibility, whilst simultaneously finding it itchy, a bad fit. We do things we've needed to do for years; we finally buy a bedside table and a real wicker laundry basket and a bread bin and are not so much alarmed by the prospect of having to call a plumber as vaguely inconvenienced. I attach much importance to the bedside table and the bread bin. It's very hard for me to see that we've grown up because it's happened so slowly and we've been so particularly stubborn about it, and because we're still not, after all that, really grown up at all, but there has been a shift, it's very hard not to notice that there has been a shift.

It's sort of an alarming prospect, this gradual change, the way it creeps up on you. Like, will we wake up suddenly, someday, to find that we have bought a house and paid off all our debts and have creaky knees, grey hair, grandchildren?

Maybe, probably, if we're lucky, I guess.

Sunday Rant: This Time of Year

Every year is the same and every year I think it is different. The blackened trees stand defenseless against a pale sky and the parks are wet and the fog at night lies heavy, suppresses my breathing. The streets are littered with the pieces of plastic and cardboard that the wind stole one rebellious morning and even the shop window displays are bleakly ambiguous: jewel coloured party dresses (for a spring wedding!), bare shoulders, boots, murky raincoats that can't decide whether to be warm or to be whimsical.

The whole world is brown and made of stone. One Saturday we decide to walk into town because it is sunny and warmer than usual, but there is a wind blowing, and if you sit outside for too long your fingertips start to go numb, so you have to keep moving: through the ceaseless throngs of tourists, the packs of Big Beautiful Blonde Undergraduates, the sporty types in shorts and college sweatshirts carrying lacrosse sticks or sacks of hockey gear. I start to hate them all. They look smug, though I only think they look smug because they look happy. The funny thing is that I probably look happy too, because I am happy, if I don't think about them; I am in town buying underwear which is something I have been needing to do for a long time, and later the Man and I will go and buy a toilet brush together, and some coathangers, just before nightfall, in the dewey evening, and it will be one of the most strangely intimate moments we have ever had. But right now, in town, watching the parade, I say to the Man: everybody else is dressed better than I am, and what I actually mean is, I'm cold, let's go into the Covered Market and buy some cheese. But that's the other trick of This Time of Year: the way it steals the words you want to say and makes you say something else entirely.

I always think that at This Time of Year it would be possible to think that no one really lives in Oxford, that it's just people passing through. Some of them, like the school group from Spain that cross the street as an unruly army, will be gone in a few days, while others, like the three friends meeting for a sandwich outside the Radcliffe Camera, will be gone in a few years. We don't even see anyone we know, which is unusual here, because everyone pretty much knows everyone else, in a roundabout sort of way. But everyone is in hiding, or, more likely, is too self-absorbed, too completely engrossed in the drama of early February, or is it mid February, or does it even matter, to notice each other. I know I am, but I can't really speak for anyone else.

On the Cowley Road, construction begins on a new supermarket, directly opposite the old supermarket. At night the darkness falls tantalisingly slowly, now, and students who have drunk too much in order to feel warm again are sick on the sidewalks. Even the pubs, which gave such comfort in the tilt towards winter, with their wood fires and warm glows and pints of bitter on a Saturday afternoon with a P.G. Wodehouse novel and the falling leaves outside, are now just loud and hot, the glow too bright, the fire a reminder of the cold, not an alleviator of it.

I wear torn tights and worn-out boots, not because that's all I have, but because that's all I have the energy to wear. In the mirror my face has become obscured by my hair, not because I have not brushed it but because I have brushed it in just such a way that it falls like a veil. The air inside is unbearably dry; my nose hurts - my nostrils hurt, my NOSTRILS! - and my lips crack. I stop shaving my legs because my razors are all too dull and because I have ceased to be able to remember what it's like to have bare legs, even though every night I go to sleep with bare legs, even though hardly a month ago I was in California walking on the beach in shorts and a bikini top. I force myself to forget my own proximity to these experiences for the sake of feeling grumpy.

Every year I think this is the first time in the History of EVERYTHING EVER that anyone has been miserable in late winter. Every year I think that only my body aches and only my mind is tormented by the breath of summer's memory in my ear as I sleep. Every year I think this is the first time I have felt this way, or else I think that I have not felt this way at all, that I've escaped! until one night I fall asleep realising that I have felt the same way I always feel at this stupid time of year - right before my birthday, right before the beginning of the period when you are allowed to start to Hope For Spring. Just maybe in different ways. And I start to be annoyed that I have framed even good things so negatively - I want to capture the sweetness of buying a toilet brush better, I want to say how beautiful and blue the sky was as we walked down Queen's Lane towards the bus stop and what a relief it was to be home in the late afternoon before the darkness had fallen and how we had a cup of tea and cleaned the fridge out and pulled chunks of ice away from the sides of the freezer and laughed. But even being annoyed about that is a form of negativity and I worry I've been poisoned by the hot dry inside air.

Is it spring yet?

7 Ways of Looking at Belonging

1. At a certain point it occurs to me that I am always looking for somewhere to live.

I don't need somewhere to live. I already have somewhere to live. I have a house, and a pub where people know me, and a corner shop where I buy cheese and sliced white bread and tinned soup for lazy meals. I have a history with my city, a relationship with it. I have a sense of belonging.

2. But when I visit other places, I don't want to see museums or monuments or the street where someone famous once stood naked on his head for twenty minutes or the spot where tourists always get their photographs taken. I used to think that this was because I was more sophisticated than that, or else that a sense of place is not in these things but in the way that people interact with pavements and cafés and in the architecture, the landscape, the things you can see sitting in a park or strolling down any arbitrary street.

Now I see that it is because what I like best when I visit a place is to wander aimlessly through neighborhoods in the evening, peering into the bright windows of other people's lives, trying to picture myself there. I never liked New York City until I discovered the parts of it that I could conceivably, without too great a leap of imagination, exist happily. Now I say I love New York City but it's really only because I can see myself living in Brooklyn and running in Prospect Park on the weekends and then having prolonged, bloody mary-fueled brunches. I don't necessarily want this life, I'm not seeking a change, but "home" seems to be the way, ultimately, that I relate to places.

3. Last year, on a flight to Kenya, I watched Sam Mendes' "Away We Go". And I guess I am doing exactly what Burt and Verona are doing, except without meaning to, and except without any need or even conscious desire to.

I guess maybe I don't know how to visit a place. Only how to react to it.

4. I'm in San Francisco. I'm never sure what my relationship with San Francisco is. I came here first with my parents when I was little and it was summer and unseasonably (everyone said) warm. We walked through Chinatown to the City Lights bookshop and yet I did not perceive how this place was much different from any other I had been. Still California, still home. Later I came back and bought a silk robe with an embroidered dragon from a Chinese lady and that night got food poisoning from a Vietnamese restaurant and a few weeks later became a vegetarian, for a bit. Later I came back and wandered around the SFMOMA taking photographs of the way the light - a hot springtime light, though the air itself was cool - came through the building fell in ordered lines on the floor. We spent a lot of time in a Yoko Ono exhibit. There was a telephone, painted white, and the placard said that once a day Yoko would call and speak to whoever happened to be standing there, whoever had the courage to answer when it rang. But Yoko did not call while we were there so instead we wrote wishes on little pieces of paper and hung them on a tree with tiny clothespins.

Now I do not know if the sum of these experiences equals a comfort and fluency with this place or not. Geographically I know nothing of the city; I feel adrift in each neighborhood, not able to picture how it connects to the next, not knowing where north or south is or what I would even do with this information if I had it. But I know that there is a patchy history, which must mean something.

5. We revisit City Lights. I put my hand on the spine of a book in the Architecture section. Someone says, "excuse me," pushes past, and it occurs to me - quite suddenly, in a way it has not really occurred to me before -that I am Californian, that I am not an outsider here in the way that I am an outsider at home, in Oxford.

I guess the paradox of this is, in a way, why I like to live abroad. Geoff Dyer writes about the same thing when he moves back to Oxford (of all places!) after a spell abroad: "Back in the land where I belonged, back among my own tribe," he writes, "I immediately missed not belonging, missed that strange home you can build out of homelessness...And at the same time, coexisting easily with the feeling it apparently contradicted, was the feeling that I did not belong here."

6. So do I belong here or not? Maybe every visit is simply a quest to answer that question. And maybe the answer is, at least metaphorically speaking, actually in the wallpaper:

"We are inconveniently vulnerable to the colour of our wallpaper," Alain de Botton writes in The Architecture of Happiness. He is writing about our houses, the structures that surround us, the buildings we love and abhor - but isn't this also true of places? We are as inconveniently vulnerable to the metaphorical color of the metaphorical wallpaper of our cities or towns or countrysides as we are to the actual color of the actual wallpaper in our bedrooms. Which in part explains a seemingly arbitrary whim to move to England, for instance, or a sense of belonging in an unfurnished Park Slope apartment overlooking a quiet street. "The tiniest details can unleash memories," de Botton writes. "The swollen-bellied 'B' or open-jawed 'G' of an Art Deco font is enough to inspire reveries of short-haired women with melon hats and posters advertising holidays in Palm Beach and Le Touquet." True too of the details in our surroundings. If "insofar as buildings speak to us, they also do so through quotation - that is, by referring to, and triggering memories of, the contexts in which we have previously seen them," then also this is the way that whole neighborhoods, whole cities, whole countries, speak to us. Through nostalgia, even if that nostalgia is not fully understood, even if we have never before visited somewhere and so - logically, though this has nothing much to do with logic any longer - cannot be nostalgic for it.

So am I actually asking myself, each time I visit a new place, each time I wonder if I could live here, do I feel nostalgic here?

7. Somewhere near Nob Hill, we sit in a café and watch people passing by. It is late afternoon. The sunlight is coming through the windows at such an angle that makes concentration on anything but idle speculation impossible.

A girl in a rust-coloured cape and a mustard beret walks past, carrying a bag of shopping. What if I was the girl in the rust-coloured cape and the mustard beret? Walking to my apartment on a sunday afternoon. Unpacking my groceries. Making a cup of tea and looking out of a narrow window to the street below, watering a house plant, stroking the head of a tabby cat, sitting on a red sofa and reading a book and chatting occasionally to the Man and feeling the weight of a sunday afternoon, the pressure to squeeze joy out of the last hours of the weekend. What if I was?

I guess this is the question I am asking of myself every time I go anywhere.

Late November

Gate All the leaves have fallen and the cold becomes profound. The newly-naked branches look raw and pink from exposure, like our cheeks. Will it snow? Everybody says excitedly. But of course it won't, not really, that's not the sort of place Oxford is, where you get the first snow and then it settles and stays for months. Yes, it snows, in little anxious flurries, the flakes get in our mouths, stick to our backs, and then it stops and we walk to the farmer's market to buy root vegetables and bacon.

We rocket towards the New Year. Time speeds up, or seems to speed up, but only in retrospect: we were there, now, suddenly!, we are here. There's a flurry of excitement around Thanksgiving (since I've been away, everyone in the USA seems to have met up and agreed to start calling it "American Thanksgiving") - people start to blog about how thankful they are, how they'll overeat, how important it is to be with family. I hate the way they say that word, as if I - or anyone else - might not know what it means on any of the other 364 days of the year. Then they excitedly go out and buy stuff, because that's the tradition. Everything's about tradition.

I think people think I'm a bit crass about Thanksgiving, that I'm denouncing my heritage or something. But the thing is, what I mostly remember is bad school lunches with too much chalky turkey, and top hats and shoe buckles made out of construction paper, or else red and yellow Indian headdresses clumsily coloured in. I never remember how they chose which of us would play the pilgrims and which of us would play the Native Americans. I think they did that thing that primary school teachers do, which is wave a hand and say, "and everyone on this side of the room, you're all piiiiiiilgrims!". Sometimes someone would bring a real turkey in and we would look dispassionately at it and it would look dispassionately at us and then someone would say hey, it's like a chicken, but bigger! I don't think anybody ever said, "you're about to eat one of these," but it was implicit, and also it was California, so there was a pretty good chance that half of us were vegetarians already.

And later, I remember not going home one Thanksgiving, because if you have ever tried to travel across the United States of America on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving you know that it is not an experience worth $500 and 12 hours of your life. So instead I drove from Boston to New York with my roommate at the time, a Catholic grad student from Westchester County. I read Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, studied old court cases for an upcoming American Government & Politics exam (the professor was notorious - "oh, you're taking a Mike Brown class?" people would say, but I had managed to make him like me by sitting up front in the lecture hall and staying awake). We had Thanksgiving lunch with her aunt, who lived an hour away in Connecticut. On the drive up I finished Decline and Fall. On the drive down I fell asleep. The next day we went to Gap and I bought a jumper and a pair of socks. We took the train to the city and tried to go ice skating in Bryant Park but decided the line was too long so instead we had pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks and looked at the trees and the strings of Christmas lights and later we went for pizza somewhere on the upper east side. One night we just drove aimlessly around, listening to Weezer, ending up in the Bronx, near Fordham University. It was a nice time but I fail to see how I'm meant to be sentimental about it. (The year after, my only concession to the holiday was to buy a pumpkin pie from Whole Foods. I ate it with a glass of vinegary red wine, sitting on the floor next to the heater, and then wrote a few thousand words of my thesis and watched Pirates of the Caribbean on my laptop.)

Anyway, at home we never ate turkey, but ham and salad and pumpkin pie. California is a hard place to be festive; it always shows holidays up, laughs and says, it's Thanksgiving? Okay. But look at the bright sky, feel the sun on your back. Go for a swim. Have lunch outside. Don't eat too much, you'll want to go for a long walk later. The hills are green.

Really it's just that I'm contrary and I don't want to be made to feel thankful. And I certainly don't want to take the Guardian's poll on whether I nabbed my Black Friday deals online or in-store this year. Here's what I did on Black Friday: I went to work. I bought a sandwich from the Moroccan deli down the road and everyone said, "ooh, isn't it cold today!" Later, I went home and we had a glass of wine and watched videos of cats crawling into boxes.

So maybe that's the thing. We're marooned in November, in our own present. It's impossible to look forward, equally impossible to feel any connection to even the recent past - was it last week I stayed in bed with a cold, the week before that we drove to the Isle of Wight? It may as well be last year, or someone else's memory.

Everybody's head is down and the trees are shivering. The leaves have formed a carpet over the garden pathway. A sleek black cat visits us nearly every night; we've called it Dobson, as in Zuleika, and don't know if it's male or female or if anybody owns it, but it seems to get enough food. Still, it likes to be scratched behind the ears and rubbed on the throat and to wrap itself around your legs.

I read: “Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.” But in this strange month it seems the other way round, that the entire world converges in a narrow gate.

Michaelmas

Magdalen College Cloisters We're no longer in between seasons. The weather has become fiercely autumnal, and from my study window I can watch the steady fall of leaves and feel simultaneously nostalgic for summer, when we sat outside eating roast chicken and salad, taking our jumpers off to reveal almost-brown shoulders, and happy to be here where the air is fresh and the pubs smell of wood fires.

I've taken up swimming. I use the university pool because it's so close to my house; I also like the feeling it gives me, like I'm an outsider who's made it inside, a spy, a double agent. I don't know what I look like to them - not obviously old enough to be out of education, not obviously young enough to be a bright-eyed, messy-haired fresher, either. One of my greatest conceits is that I imagine everyone is always looking at me all the time and trying to figure me out. I only think this because it is what I do to people. I'm dangerous to have around; I am constantly making up stories.

On a weekday evening I emerge from the pool and shower in the changing room, next to a small woman with pert breasts. I have never mastered the art of the changing room; I look around too much, my hair drips, I don't know how to change subtly behind a towel, I don't know anybody so I can't have a casual chat as I get dressed again.

Tonight a gaggle of students have gathered and are preparing for a nighttime workout; perhaps they're members of the swim team, for they speak in phrases like "stepping onto poolside", which makes it sound like they Know What They're Talking About.

They're recovering from a big night out. One of them, husky-voiced, tiny and blonde, is reliving her drunken antics; another of them, also tiny and blonde, has slept with a man called Joe.

"I thought everybody knew," she says, when the husky-voiced girl expresses her surprise. "But as they don't, can we just keep it between us?"

And then she says, "did you get with anybody?" and looks a bit crestfallen when the husky-voiced girl says no. Perhaps she wanted a comrade-in-arms. Sometimes long late nights with lots of friends can make you feel lonelier than ever, and she gives off an air of being isolated. Her action has given her something to hide; everybody else is open, unfettered.

One of their friends comes back into the room. "Getting all the gossip?" she says.

"Yeah, I am getting all the gossip," the husky-voiced girl says, but she doesn't mention Joe. A closely guarded secret is born.

This is probably how female friendships are broken, I think, but I don't know for sure.

When I leave, a tall boy holds the door for me. Perhaps he thinks he might later run into me, at a party, at his college. It's the start of term. People think lots of funny things at the start of term, myself included, although I'm not a student any longer, and I haven't been for some time.

More likely he doesn't think of me at all. I get on my bicycle, disobeying the signs that tell cyclists to dismount on the narrow path, because I've noticed that everyone disobeys, and I think it must be an unwritten rule. At home the Man has made a butternut squash risotto and turned the heating on. I have that happy sleepy feeling that comes after a swim and we drink the rest of the white wine with our dinner and go to bed early.

Sunday Rant: Transportation Woes

I'm not one of those people who thinks all cars should immediately be wiped off the face of the earth. I grew up in California. We don't really do not driving. I got my driver's license on my 16th birthday and spent the next two years commuting for 90 minutes a day in a little two-door Honda. So I totally understand the need for a car, especially if you have children, or a job in the middle of nowhere, or you want to be able to buy more than two bottles of wine at a time and don't have Schwarzenegger-strength arms. But here in Oxford, I don't drive. I'm lucky enough to live all of half a mile from my place of work, and about fifty yards from my local pub. Oxford is a small city. You can walk from one end to the other accidentally just by taking a casual evening stroll.

And it's great to feel smug! I just love being smug. I am smug all the time about something. Sometimes I'm smug about little things, like the fact that I eat a lot of salad. But mostly I am smug about the fact that I don't own a car. And therefore I AM HELPING TO SAVE THE PLANET. Or something.

Except that every time I have to go anywhere that isn't Oxford, I'm envious of all the folks who don't have to spend a day and their life savings to get places. A typical train journey to London, for instance, involves jamming yourself into a carriage so tightly packed that I'm pretty sure sardines would find it roomy and sitting miserably in the vestibule half-hoping that the man next to you downing cans of Carling might, after his fourth or fifth of the morning, offer you one. A typical train journey to anywhere else involves a £70 return fare to Wopping-Under-Bottom, which is nowhere near where you actually need to go but apparently the "most convenient station", followed by a 65 minute wait at the platform while Bob-the-only-taxi-driver-within-a 50-mile-radius finishes his cup of tea.

You probably think I'm being hyperbolic, but I'm not. I have honestly phoned a taxi driver who told me, extremely pleasantly, that he was happy to come pick me up from the village green, only the kettle had just boiled and he had some nice biscuits in the cupboard so I didn't mind waiting, did I?

No, I didn't mind waiting. Nor did I mind paying the equivalent of a year's tuition at Oxbridge for the pleasure of riding in the only taxi within a 50 mile radius, because I AM SMUG; I do not own a car.

So yes. I get why people have cars. I even keep thinking that when I'm grown-up enough (it'll happen any day now, honest), I'll probably buy one too, and then find something else to be smug about, like the fact that I feed my children eggs from our own chickens (regardless of the fact that I'm terrified of chickens - that's dedication to the cause!) and read them long articles from the Guardian weekend magazine at bedtime. Oh yes, people with cars can be righteous, too.

But, listen. I'm not grown-up enough to own a car, and I'm idealistic enough to still want to put up with the woes of public transport because I think it will actually make a difference. And if I am on my bicycle, and you are one of those angry, aggressive drivers who seems to resent the presence of anything else with wheels being in or around your space (your space being defined, of course, as everything in your line of sight - road, pavement, houses, trees, bike lanes), I'm going to blame the car. Because I'd like to assume that you are a nice person, even if you are not behaving like one.

It's like this one time that I was crossing the street, and a driver who I can only assume was on his way to save someone's life made a right turn after the light had turned red. He sped right through the pedestrian crossing, nearly knocking down a large, lumbering chap in the process. The large lumbering chap, surprised and, I assume, a little shaken, gave the car a hearty thump on its way past.

Maybe he shouldn't have done this - he hadn't been hit, after all, and it did reek of misguided aggression - but the driver definitely should not have done what he proceeded to do, which was to pull over, exit his vehicle, and knock the pedestrian over. There was a lot of swearing involved, and as a final gesture, he kicked the large man's glasses into the gutter before shrieking away in his little sedan. But I'm sure he's perfectly lovely most of the time.

Also. If you want to park IN MY FRONT GARDEN, feel free to try. I know the roads around here are pretty narrow and the fact that every terraced house seems to have a ratio of three cars to every one person makes it difficult to park (last year, the newly-arrived and adorably naive students next door had the audacity to leave a note on a car parked in front of their house: "Please Do Not Park Here It Is Our Space." Ah how we laughed. Ha! Hahahahaha!)

But please don't be surprised when I have to brush up against your parked car on my way to work in the morning. I know you find the very idea of a bicycle despicable, but consider for a moment the logistics of squeezing a heavy Dutch sit-up-and-beg past your vehicle when you've left half an inch between your tires and my front gate. It's science, people. It can't be done.

Of course, as I'm busy trying to actually get my bicycle onto the road, all the angry pedestrians in their early-morning hurries are glaring. Because, obviously, I have no right to stand on the pavement. Because I own, although I am not currently on, a bicycle. Those weird prams that seat eight children (because octuplets are so common?) are fine, but my God, what a crime it is to wheel a bicycle! Which would be fine if the drivers didn't mind sharing a little space on the road, but mostly there's just a general sense of angst. There's honking, and sighing, and yelling. Even cyclists don't like other cyclists - I've been yelled at as often by prim old ladies on Pashleys as I have by rahs in Land Rovers.

(And yes, I've done the yelling too. And yes, I hate myself for it. BUT AT LEAST I CAN FEEL SMUG ABOUT SOMETHING. Right?)

Why can't we all just get along? And go merrily on our ways?

Treasure Hunts, Forbidden Gardens

I. This weekend I went on a treasure hunt in the study. I looked at all the books which are not ours, which might be the landlady's, or a previous tenant's. All the stacks of paper on the shelves which I had never before dared to investigate. These things have always been here, they've been here longer than us, and in a way I thought of them as furniture, or perhaps walls - immobile, flat.

But they are not like that at all. This house is telling other people's stories all the time, if you listen. We need a box labelled "other people's memories" to put in an empty room. The house is like a womb for the enigmatic, the wisps and shards that get left behind when someone has lived somewhere and then moved on. These things mean nothing to me, but they mean something to someone who does not even know that they are here.

Things like this: two copies of the same photograph, found in a copy of Seven Types of Ambiguity. Four people at a table in a strange wilderness. One of them gesturing.

Or the lecture notes for a conference on "The United States in the 1980s: The Reagan Years" (this house has always been a haven for academics). On one of the sheets of paper, a shopping list of sorts. "Roses. Wrapping paper."

Reagan Years Brochure

The manuscript, with the letter tucked inside, sent to this address, dated 26/7/91. Whatever became of this woman, her book? I could look it up, but it seems more poignant not to. I like the open-ended nature of it this way; anyhow, reading her letter (such a transgression! and such a thrill to read something which was never, could never have been, intended for you), it strikes me that the act of writing the book was closure enough for this woman (it "has done so much good," she says in the letter), and it shouldn't matter what became of it, or her.

Letterhead

So I've lived here for nearly three years and all the time these little (things? clues? stories?) have been here, like hidden emeralds. This is the thing. Wherever you are, however long you've been there: there's always a journey you can take.

II.

Also there is Magdalen College. I have heard the bells ringing out and the choir singing from the tower on May Morning, but it is one of the Forbidden places in the city. Half of Oxford is Forbidden. That's the thrill and the tragedy of it. There is a whole city here which we never see; the city, of course, that's always been most written about, the city of college gardens and quadrangles, of cloistered walkways and great halls.

I've been in colleges before - a christening at Christ Church, for instance, or a dinner at New College during which I accidentally became so drunk (with wine, with admiration and fear) that I got lost on my way to the toilet and had to be retrieved by one of the kitchen staff who found me floundering in the larder. But it always amazes me that I can feel so intimate with this city and yet have seen so little of it. Flowers, Magdalen College

And so after years of cycling past its entrance, I finally saw the cloisters of Magdalen College, the quadrangle and the gardens, the gentle path alongside the river, the deer all asleep under a tree. The hall, dark and empty, its entrance roped off, looking grim without the cheer of loud, gowned students and serious-faced academics passing port at the high table. I leaned against a wall; a couple passed, she was saying, "...and if you were a local resident here..." and I don't know what the end of the sentence was, but I thought, that's just it! and then didn't know why I'd thought it. That's just what? I am a local resident here. And yet I'm as enchanted by this place as the tourists, with whom I stand in sunlit admiration, and a kind of solidarity, watching the stones turning golden.

Magdalen College

3 Representations of Time in Oxford

St. Mary's/All Souls I.

It's that time of year when the rose hips near our front gate reach ripeness. I know it also by the sudden quiet, like a vacuum, a pause, after the tourists, before the frenzy of term-time. A new set of students moves in on either side of us; we feel like the constants, the clear, steady lamp post amongst a blur of pedestrians in a time-lapse photograph. There's a softness in the light. I never know whether to be nostalgic or optimistic; all that summer (punting, picnicking, sweating in summer dresses) gone, all that autumn (wood fires, thick jumpers, ale in pub snugs, leaves like paper) still to come. And if we're not yet in either place, where exactly are we? Suspended in September. Both waiting and not-waiting for something we both want and don't want to come.

II.

Now is the time to appreciate the green of the trees: soon they will be the colour of fire and then they will be bald in preparation for frosts, for a heavy dousing or two of snowfall.

III.

But then in Oxford, it's always the end of an era, the start of another. It's a transient land. Nobody stays here or intends to stay here for long, so you can really only end up staying without meaning to.

Things change at a faster pace than they do elsewhere. Your friends from three years ago are not always people you know anything about now. It's like being dislocated in time and space every time you leave and come back again. Very briefly disjointed, disowned, expatriated from everything. London is not just another city but another time zone, no, another universe. The trains are like rocket ships out of this town.

So here I am in the stagnant and yet not stagnant waters. Floating with Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder, Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. The tension between what's preserved in aspic and what's not is always the most beautiful part. Time is so confused here. Jan Morris writes: "Summer is more summery here than anywhere else I know; not hotter, certainly not sunnier, but more like summers used to be, in everyone's childhood memories."

Tuesday Migrations

Oxford Street, Evening Sometimes it still seems strange to me that I live here. Take today for instance. Entering a shop on the Cowley Road. I've left my bike around the corner, outside the Hobgoblin. I've been sitting all day in an office feeling overheated, wilting (you never can tell what it's going to be like when you leave the house on an August morning), but now it's a glorious evening and I'm in shorts. There are friends, and parents of friends, which somehow makes things seem more real. There's music. And then a summer storm. A proper summer storm - thunder, lightening, a giddy downpour. I put my cardigan on. I watch the cars slopping down the street. The rain lets up and I go outside and cycle home and change into dry clothes, and now the clouds are breaking apart, crumbling under the weight of a purple sunset. So I take the glasses we've unofficially borrowed back to our local pub. Four pint glasses; not so bad. They're having a pub quiz. I don't stay for a drink. Instead I carry on down the street to another pub, where someone has left books on the geography of home and the poetics of space for me to borrow.

Speaking of home, on my way home, as I turn onto my street, I can hear the pub quiz questions. What is aurora borealis more commonly known as?

The northern lights. Just the other day I was talking to my parents, who live all the way in California. We were planning a pilgrimage to see the northern lights. Only planning in a vague sort of way - apparently they're going to be very good in 2012 - but still. Here they are again.

And then I come home, to this house. I feel I've been dipping in and out of other people's lives tonight. Or maybe they've been dipping in and out of mine. But that is the luxury we have here - to wave hello, to pop in at the pub not even for a pint but simply an exchange of friendly words.

I make dinner, I find an unopened bottle of wine in the kitchen. It turns out to be good for sipping, especially with a chunk of cheese. Later I climb the stairs to the bedroom. The man is away in Edinburgh for a week but it feels no less like our house. As if we've both installed ourselves here, wrapped ourselves up in the Oxford duvet. We know people! We know people's families! And still it feels funny, good-funny, that I am brushing my teeth over a sink in Oxford, opening the window to my bedroom, and discovering it's silent outside - too late for the usual closing-time rabble - early Wednesday morning, nobody coming or going.

I open one of the books to a random page. "But countless other images come to embellish the poetry of the house in the night," I read. And later on, a quote, translated from the French: "I shall see your houses like fire-flies in the hollow of the hills".

The Art of Being At Home

1.Summer Clouds, London Summer Tree, London

In the introduction to George Monbiot's No Man's Land, I read: "Humankind was born on the road. Our brains...are those of the migrant. The restlessness which, in one corrupted form or another, is felt by every human being on earth, is incurable."

We're far from Africa and we've lost our roots, but there's still an everyday restlessness, corrupted by centuries of evolution and years of education, skulking in the dark corners of our consciousness.

Friends of ours have just bought a boat to live on. They like the idea of portability; their boat gives physical form to an unspoken desire to periodically migrate. They can float up and down the Thames with their possessions and their love. It's more a metaphor than anything - in rainy England, confined by villages and narrow rivers, by family homes and local pubs, we're hardly the Turkana, traversing inhospitable desert lands, setting up temporary camp after temporary camp - but I'm not immune to the temptation of just...picking up. And going.

Why do I like the idea of a floating existence, the ability to suddenly pick up my life and simply shift it elsewhere? The reality of it - the friendships lying fallow, the swapping of time zones, the stress of every mundane detail - is not romantic, and an anxious person is not naturally suited to rootlessness. But still.

In 2007, during the floods, we helped a man called Rob prevent his houseboat from running adrift. It was my first summer here, I had just met the Man, and everything looked bright and strange. I was surprised by the power of the river, swollen and purple in its malleable banks, but I understood intuitively what it is to have one's home threatened by a force bigger than oneself. Years of fretting over the smell of fire in the California hills had taught me to respect the fragility of a man-made structure; I still had dreams (nightmares?) of choosing, methodically, ruthlessly, which possessions to flee with. That boat was Rob's home but it could as easily be carried away, or "dash'd all to pieces", as Shakespeare's Miranda put it, on the rocks.

Later, we sat in the boat and shared a bottle of wine. We felt a million miles away from Port Meadow, which glistened in the murky twilight, a galaxy away from Jericho with its cocktail bars and boutiques. Rob's self-sufficiency (he even had a set of solar panels on the roof) captivated us completely, and when we did eventually meander back into town, we sat in a hot pub stunned by the brightness of the lights and said very little.

A few weeks ago, a friend emailed me to say that, almost exactly three years on, Rob had passed away. This will go down in history as a hot summer, a happy time during which the sky burned blue and children ate ice cream and young people got slowly drunk on champagne as they punted down the Cherwell; no floods this year, no boats needing rescue. And when we next visit that spot on Port Meadow, what will we see? Not Rob's boat, moved a hundred times since we sat near the fire in its belly, hungry for warmth and company on a cool midsummer evening, now ownerless, adrift in spirit. No; the landscape changes constantly.

2. Road, Charlbury Bridleway, Great Tew

So you could say that maybe it is not as easy to be at home somewhere, anywhere, as it might seem.

We wander down long roads towards manor houses. I read that the English have this fixation on the home; and maybe these vast estates were built, I think, to allow their owners the illusion of wandering - a harrowing journey down a dark corridor, a flitting between huge empty rooms.

My home is more the man I live with than the walls around us; it's my books, not my post code. But for us, the constant movement of the summer has made me crave a period of stillness. The backstage passes, the train journeys, the forays into the exotic, the picnics and punting. It's been a kaleidoscope period, a beautiful whirlwind.

Now we're housesitting for friends on the edge of the Cotswolds. And what I feel here is maybe the opposite of Monbiot's corrupted restlessness. Late in the afternoon, after too many hours with my legs folded up against a wooden desk, I go for a walk with the tiny brown terrier who has attached himself to me like a miniature shadow, who follows me from room to room, who curls up at night beside us. The sky is full of puffy clouds, a grey mist on the horizon (I'm caught a mile from the house at the point at which it evolves into a downpour). I walk down bridleways, past fields of wheat edged with a lace of white flowers.

In the evening we go to the pub for our dinner, or else we roast a chicken and eat it sitting in the lounge watching an unexpectedly good film starring Helen Hunt and Colin Firth, with an appearance by Salman Rushdie as a obstetrician. We drive to the train station and back in a big green Land Rover; I feed the pigs in red wellies, denim shorts, one of the Man's old button-up shirts. I tell the dog not to pee on the poppies that grow in bunches by the fence, though I don't know why, as I've let him pee on every hedge between here and the next village.

A frail rain falls; the sun comes out.

Summer Things

Summer Rose The problem with Sundays is the inevitable slow march towards Monday. You can feel each moment sliding past like an adder at your ankles; dangerous, slimy, fickle. Hang the laundry to dry outside and already you are halfway through the day before you've even begun it (or so it feels). It always starts with such promise and then suddenly you find yourself deeply asleep on the couch while the sun beats down hot outside, too weary from the effort of trying to preserve each instant and enjoy it to stay awake any longer.

Today I find myself in just this position - prone, one arm flung across my forehead - when the Man walks in. I find myself shooting up through the black waters of sleep and am unexpectedly awake-but-not-awake. And in this tiny space - only a second, really, perhaps two - I find myself thinking how funny, or maybe how extraordinary, that there is another person who lives here (not just here in this house but here, in my life), who says as I sit up with my face creased and my eyes full of terror (the way I pop up like this reminds him of a meerkat, he sometimes tells me) not to worry.

Yesterday we did summer things. It was a sweet, slow day. We went to the farmer's market and bought eggs, a free range chicken, vegetables, an old copy of an early P.G. Wodehouse novel. We sat in the shade drinking homemade elderflower cordial and snacking on lemon cakes. Later we did the thing which we often do on Saturdays - we have brunch (salad, sausages, flatbread, orange juice, coffee) and read the Saturday Guardian (I read aloud Tim Dowling's column to him, he reads Lucy Mangen's to me). Then we went out into the garden and picked cherries and watered the potatoes and sat in the grass and I tried to do the crossword but gave up on it. We ate brownies and raspberries in a pool of sunshine.

We brought the cherries to the pub and I had more homemade elderflower cordial, this time paired with champagne, because, well, why not? On the way home we stopped by Sylvesters and impulsively bought lavender and rosemary to plant in the garden, and some ropes with which to hang the hammock. I had half a nap on the couch and we heated up some pizza before going into town as darkness settled to listen to some music. At midnight we sat upon the hammock, the two of us, limbs folded, watching the star-drenched sky until some neighbors called us over, so we brought red wine and glasses and climbed the fence and met them for the first time, and a few hours later we were in bed with the heat of the day still palpable in the walls of the house.