An American at Oxford: A moment for Valentine’s Day

Castle Mill Stream, a backwater of the River Thames in West Oxford.  (Charli Rose / The DePaulia)
Castle Mill Stream, a backwater of the River Thames in West Oxford. (Charli Rose / The DePaulia)

The English fog and steady mist are a welcome retreat from the blizzards I ran through last winter in Chicago, but there are still challenges to face whilst running here nonetheless. The main one being the mere discovery of a route, but Oxford is nothing if not full of surprises, and turning down any random alleyway is sure to lead you through a secret passage and out the other end of a neighborhood, as was my experience this past weekend.

Crossing over the usual bridge that I run across, I noticed a small towpath peeking out from the other side. A stream ran on both sides and a sign told me I could continue where I was headed, end up at the train station and double-back; or I could follow this smaller path, approximately a foot across, muddy, complete with ducks hiding their faces from the rain and no definite ending point. I took it.

After a few moments of trotting along, I noticed there were long, wooden houseboats docked to my right, complete with cords running from them, plugged into power outlets on land. Smoke puffed out of the chimney-like pipes protruding from their roofs and a few of the decks even had potted plants and bicycles. I could smell breakfast cooking from inside these floating cottages and I found myself slowing to a walk alongside what I would later learn to be Castle Mill Stream.

(Charli Rose / The DePaulia)
(Charli Rose / The DePaulia)

I came to another bridge, sauntered over it, careful not to slip, and looked down into the water, feeling like Winnie the Pooh. I couldn’t see much in the distance due to the fog and the barren trees blocking the turn in the road, but right where the water opened up to reveal a larger quarry, two swans floated on the grey lake. They glided closer towards where I was running and I jogged over to where they were and nodded to the people tending to their boats, ignoring the swans they had most likely grown accustomed to encountering. I searched my mind for something I had learned about swans — were they mean, like geese? Did they get territorial? I couldn’t remember, but I walked slowly near them anyway. They were much larger than I had expected and they floated by solemnly, the black teardrop of fur from their eye to beak making it hard for me to distinguish where their eyes peered at me.

I watched them sail by, much less interested in my presence than I was in theirs, but perhaps they knew more than I thought they did. Perhaps they were aware of the cliché I was witnessing in the form of their heart-shaped necks on this Valentine’s Day week. Perhaps my noticing these swans is entirely coincidental, and in writing this, at the very least I am running the risk of sounding ‘tourist-y,’ and at the very worst, ignorant, declaring the streams of England as the fairytales we Americans typically imagine them to be. Regardless, I like to think that I would have noticed this pair and found them to be just as enchanting had it not been the week of Valentine’s Day.

I do not know where you find yourself in this post-Valentine’s haze. It could be amongst an excess of chocolates and candies — or candy wrappers; you could be trudging through, ready for the month to move on; or perhaps you find yourself as I do — far away from the person you want to spend all of your time with and not only on holidays. Maybe ‘far away’ for you means something different than it does for me.

Regardless of its impact, this week will involve your moving on and away from the pink smog that is American Valentine’s Day. These thoughts may come across as pedantic, naive and commonplace, but I would dare you to take notice of the sentiments for a short while longer. This is why we need poetry, heart-shaped candies, nights spent running through blizzards to warm homes and sunrises at the lake. These moments are not our own; their value is found rather in how and with whom we share them. It is why we need to take the towpath when the other route would have been easier. It is why we need swans drifting down canals.

So, don’t fight it too hard — and Happy Valentine’s Day.