Tourism and Ownership

So, last month, we visited Oxford, which was bittersweet. A high season Saturday meant the sidewalks were teeming as they never were during my Michaelmas term. And then there was the discomfort of change. I will never again be a student there.

Navigating the crowds of tourists, I was reminded that no matter how intensely grateful I am for these three sweet burdens of mine, they can be cumbersome, their weight making my back ache as I walked familiar streets and alleys.

Amid the crowds, I was reminded how Oxford must belong to all these people, even those who will experience it very differently than I did: seeking out the bars that stay open latest, or finding it dull compared to London, or in the end mostly remembering the quest for some tacky commemorative magnet. The city doesn’t belong simply to 2007 me, a mousy brunette scuttling in search of charity bookshops, thinking over That Hideous Strength, feeling both sublimely lucky and a bit of a fraud.

But not just belonging to me, ceding ownership of the place, means it can belong to them, too: Scout merrily coloring in the basement of the Ashmolean, Pippin unadvisedly climbing an ancient wall beside the pub, Roo inhaling one of the famous, doughy Ben’s Cookies at the Covered Market, so fast she gags. And there’s goodness there, too, in sharing it all with them.

We’ve been traveling for a few weeks now and I worry that tourism by its very nature is consumerist. Comedian Jim Gaffigan has an unsettling bit about vacation being just eating in another place, and the point has been driven home by the kids, constantly on reconnaissance for another snack, cannily reading moods before trying for souvenirs. But the mentality goes deeper, too. In vacationing, in touring, we hope to own a place. “I’ve done Cambridge, let’s do Bath,” you might say. Check it off. Pin it down.

When the truth is, of course, that any place is entirely uncontainable. A place can never be fully known or owned, but this is a kind of relief, because in that way, a place can never be entirely exhausted.

(Photos mostly, and appropriately, taken by one of our study abroad students, who now has his own Oxford memories.)

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