The Smell of Oxford

A memoir by editor and writer, Tope Owolabi, published exclusively on The Book Banque.

 

T

he smell of a city, with its hint of nostalgia, lingers in my nostrils like a spirit long after I have left. A distinct reminder of history and culture, one may call it, or of daily hustle or, simply, a peculiar habit. Ibadan, the city in which I was born and raised, smells of rust and burning refuse. Takoradi, where my father lived in the 60’s before I followed in his steps in 2013, arouses one with a heady smell of crayfish and palm oil. A smell like over-perfumed damp feet, conjures images of Dubai and Abuja for me. Two cities where I feel like something is always being covered up. In my hardest times, I find comfort in the once familiar, recollecting the smell and its memories, which inadvertently encourages me to visit again.

With Oxford, the city I am about to bid goodbye, I am unable to conduct this olfactory experiment. Unable to categorise the city into pungent or pleasant, treasured or woody. This, a year after the city greets me at the door with history and enchantment. I arrive here through Heathrow from Lagos. The vibrant pulse of London envelopes me from within the airport. Uber drivers who will not wait, people running as though they are being chased, and a distinctive, caustic smell of stale tobacco and rain. With a blue backpack behind me and my toddler asleep in my arms, I scoot into a waiting minivan, part eager and part anxious to begin life in my fifth city in five years. I mentally pat myself on the back for having done a fine job of hopping from city to city like a nomad.

Soon, I am sharing space in the back of the van with my then two-year-old and four stacked suitcases, four more in the car boot as we speed off the M40 under a light drizzle. I notice broken wheelers and zippers on one of the suitcases, the sides smeared with dirt as if someone dragged it in mud, as if to ensure that a slice of the chaos and disregard of Lagos arrives with me. One hour later, we crawl into an orderly city with hints of an approaching autumn. Leaves have fallen, but not too many. They are yet to be wet nuisances on the floor causing a safety hazard. Red and black berry bushes encroach the sidewalks and smashed apples litter the floor. They look like they were half eaten and angrily discarded.

The road narrows and we join Monday morning rush hour traffic. All the cars are in one fine line, orderly, like soldier ants. The sight would be an anomaly in Lagos, Nigeria. As we approach the nearly thousand-year-old university town, the driver rolls down the window to let the crisp air of Stephen Hawking’s birthplace in. I inhale Oxford; it smells of nothing.


Barbecues and welcome to the city party invites come through faster than I can unpack, but I attend. The parties are strangely all without music. I find this odd yet deeply satisfying. I meet too many people whose faces I struggle to remember. Because my brain has let me down one too many times with regards to remembering people’s names, I save their details on my phone with something remarkable they did or had, like Viri BigSmiler, Efrida ChunkyBraids and Mio d’Tacos. By the end of September, I have met and shook hands with more than hundred people and explained to at least thirty of them that I am not quite seeking asylum in this gorgeous city. I am in Oxford only because my egghead of a partner is getting an MBA. Information that somehow translates to an assumption that he is white. I find it weird that there is no initial assumption that I could be black British. From the tone of such questions as “Why are you here?” I get the sense that they cannot imagine Oxford as home for me.

In the first few days, I attempt to gauge the pulse of the city. I observe an intentional restraint the locals exude. It is obvious in their deliberate patience by the pedestrian light as they wait until it turns green, even when there are no oncoming vehicles. The quietness that broods over the city excites my naturally introverted self. I imagine long, lonely walks on my new quiet street. Soon, I find to my dismay, that my assessment of the city is premature. When the undergrads, the real movers and shakers of the town arrive a few weeks later for a new school year, everything is suddenly rubble and chaos. We are no longer three people eating quietly and watching the Worcester Street intersection from inside Nando’s; we become eleven waiting to get a seat and eight more leaving in frustration. The city becomes packed and everyone is in a hurry, impatiently pressing the pedestrian cross button five, six, seven times, as if that would speed up the appearance of the green man.

Everything I have known about Oxford in three weeks changes, including the weather, which switches up slightly in October. Rain falls without any warning signs, then packs up just as suddenly as it began, as if there is someplace else urgent it needs to be. Umbrellas begin to make an appearance in stores, jackets and thermals too. Winter is coming. They all scream 50% off. I buy a lightweight, long-sleeve running jacket in preparation for the Oxford half marathon in October. What better way to integrate into my new town for the next year than run its streets and feel the tar against my feet?


Friends. One of my new year resolutions is to make more friends. No matter that I am adopting the resolution at nearly the end of the year, I choose MF and SN, deliberately. At a welcome event, we begin our bond over the ludicrousness of an American man who is certain he has come to Oxford from the farthest point. SN has flown with her husband nearly sixteen hours from Jakarta to Oxford. There are New Zealanders and Singaporeans in our midst yawning and noticeably still struggling with jet lag, but Captain America thinks he has come the farthest from JFK. Eight hours away JFK. We laugh a gentle, united laugh at the arrogance in his ignorance. In addition to his idealistic folly, he does not know where Lagos is. We translate this to mean that he very likely voted Trump. And, in true millennial style, we cancel Captain America, all three of us, and a friendliance is formed.

Friendships matter to me. It is why I have chosen these ones carefully. That friends - and to speak generally, humans - can hurt and destroy is a triggering and tragic idea for me. Unfortunately, there are no songs recorded to deal with the trauma of betrayal or loss of a friendship. There are no poems to help you find closure when ties are severed between friends. For the crippling fear and powerlessness that a loss of friendship can cause, I find that I much rather prefer to be alone than carry the fear of a potential shattering. I like to think that, over the years, I have done a fairly decent job of selecting friends. Perhaps, it is my mother’s prayers that are still availing. I am not unmindful though that as tightly a safe space you create, with human beings, there is a propensity to break rather than to bind. That humans will be humans in their failings. Yet, when friendships go sour, it is still friends who will be the cloth on your back. The baby will not be thrown away with the bath water.


As winter begins in full force and everyone hides indoor behind layers of clothing for warmth, the brutality of the cold forces me to observe, for the first time, the homelessness situation that plagues the city of Oxford just as it does every other city across the United Kingdom. It is a wonder that when I lived in London in 2014, the homeless were barely noticeable to me. I am ashamed that it is during this brutally cold season that my attention is drawn to them. There is a general unwillingness in people to give to them, hiding behind comments like, “They will only use the money to buy weed, anyway, or alcohol.”

When I first arrive Oxford, a crippling fear of being inadequate engulfs me for a long time. A feeling of not being nearly enough, almost there but not quite, aided by the impressive but equally intimidating ancient architecture that stood unmatched, even to those in the capital city of London. I figure that to work in Oxford would mean you may have attended Oxford University. To attend Oxford University would mean that you were top of your class. I was not. There is fear that this city will consume me before I dare to get my foot in the door. This city where even the homeless are smart enough to solve Sudoku and crossword puzzles in newspapers, read literature I considered boring and undecipherable back in school, and pop into random book clubs - dirtied fingers laced around paper coffee cups - to discuss plot, setting, dialogue, and how the story arc worked or did not, with a dexterity I have mostly paid to learn.

In these low moments, it is in the comfort of friendship that I am able to survive. Oddly, I find myself looking to the friendship fostered amongst the homeless, and the loyalty of it has stopped me in my tracks, literally, too many times. Mindlessly, over bottles of freely gotten cheap wine and packed creamy doughnuts that add on calories just by looking, friendships are formed. Bonds are tightened over calculation and recalculation of living costs on smart phones they own, the breakdown on worn-out newspaper for passersby to see if interested. In my time in the city, I would be fascinated and blown away by BI, who told me every single day we saw in front of the Oxfordshire County Library that I had the most beautiful spectacles in the whole world.

“The whole world, really? I would ask, smiling.

“Yes, my friend, the entire, whole, fucking world,” he would say emphatically with a half wink.

And G, who wrote poetry delicately with salt on the side pavement, ironically about love and family and friendship. G helped out in the Wednesday Gloucester Green Farmers Market to get a few coins and possibly food handed down to him. In July, when I said my usual “See you next Wednesday” as he handed me my produce in a blue plastic carrier bag, he said to me, “No, my love, I am going on holiday to Miami.” I am not certain if he was being serious or sarcastic, but I never saw him again.

I would be enthralled by their phenomenal personalities, and eventually come round to seeing them in the eyes of every other homeless person who sat legs crossed at the knee, on a pile of cardboard paper, a used paper coffee cup in front of them for coin collection. Looking over their shoulder from behind, a pair of eyes with the spark nearly gone but with the love still intact, their most treasured possession on earth comforts them. Pets - mostly dogs of a chunky, hairy breed. I wonder about these giant dogs that need to eat perhaps twice as much as their owners. I struggle to reconcile owning and caring for a dog when you have not eaten. I realise soon that, mostly, the homeless keep their pets for the comfort of loyalty, even safety. The stark difference in the extent of it visible in human friendships leave me powerless, scared even.

Humans love with conditions. There are no ways to rationalise the deep horrors of humans to their fellow humans that does not end in: ‘selfishness’. Over the course of my year here, I have heard the homeless say how much of a lifeline their pets are, or how “dog is man’s best friend”. I have often wondered about the depths of betrayal and selfishness to which humans have plunged such that we are unable to give and receive loyalty and support from fellow humans. How badly our hearts have been wounded and our minds unable to connect with a specie an exact replica of us, choosing instead to receive it from pets on the clear basis that their loyalty is by far a better deal.

In my exasperation over this rarity of basic human decency, it occurs to me that back home in my country, though in a slightly different context, the quality of human life is an illusion, and cattle is currently more valuable than the lives of innocent humans, anyway.


Over the months, as I make memories, I re-learn that there is as much beauty in implausible friendships as there is in the plausible ones we often nurture by phone calls and hangouts. That, if the intent of our daily actions are based on love - undiluted and unselfish love that does not humiliate or discredit another person in the process - then this collective energy will reproduce itself enough to ease the turmoil the world is currently in. I learn this in the gentle but reassuring smile of R, sitting across me on a train, her age close to my father’s. I guess. Her voice quietens me. Forces me to be slow to speak but listen intently. It is subtle and somewhat familiar. It quietly reaffirms my invaluable work as a mother. I try to hold a decent conversation about our shared love of literature, and coincidentally our recent move to Oxford, while also ensuring my now three-year-old does not crawl under people’s seats or into another carriage.

We would later become friends. Books plus the continuous struggle to get parenting right would become revisiting topics for us. She would tell me about her now-married son who is expecting a baby but who does not speak to her and with whom she has not had a relationship in years. In her eyes, I see both the pain of the situation and the strength to respect it. I only meet her up in her home once after that eventful train ride, but when I tick off the most courageous steps I took in my year at Oxford, finding the rumpled little piece of paper where she scrawled her email and phone number and sending a text message to let her know that it was indeed lovely to meet her, makes the list. That magical moment of doing the exact opposite of what is usual for my introverted self remains one of my favourite things about being in Oxford.

My other friendships require some effort. Celebration of our pets and kids and new jobs or new purchases over scones and tea. Coffee meetups to exchange small talk and important info, such as how bank-breaking it is to fly with your dogs or how there is a three-for-the-price-of-two sale on salmon in M&S.

MF and I begin a Friday morning coffee ritual at Barefoot Ox. I am a 'once in a blue moon' coffee drinker. She tells me it is because what I have had prior is junk coffee, the McDonalds equivalent of coffee. She shows me her best coffee place in the city. She thinks their coffee is great; I think their cakes are lovely. I still do not drink coffee and she does not eat cake, but it is a perfect cosy café to nurture friendship. Relaxed enough for our similar banter about the lousiness of both the Nigerian and Egyptian government and equally as sacred to unpack personal struggles when the coffee or hot chocolate, in my case, has settled. Her nearly ten-year struggle with infertility, the overwhelming feeling of incompetence I struggle with trying to raise a child, and both our questions around women being able to have it all.

We conclude that living the best version of yourself at whatever point of the journey you are at is what is important. Every week, I pause to soak in the generous luck I am afforded with this friendship, where vulnerability and strength explain themselves to me in a way I have never quite known, and only faith reassures any hopelessness. I learn that hope does not mean that what we want will necessarily happen tomorrow. It, however, has power to ensure that our basic survival instinct to anticipate, to expect earnestly, and to create tomorrows that we cannot yet see, does not die.

Once, I find myself in an unusual conflict and at a loss whether to ever introduce MF to another friend I have made who has unequivocally let me know that she wants nothing to do with children ever. I debate if it will cause friction. If this major difference in opinion would find a meeting point somewhere. If this yearning for something on one hand and the dismissal of it on the other will intersect and cause a commotion at the centre. Though there does not end up being that crossover moment where I introduce them, mostly due to MF’s work schedule, I leave Oxford certain that I made two exceptional friends who would have been compassionate enough to understand the legitimacy of each other’s journey. Who at the centre of their different views to life would have had respect as an anchor.


In the first week of December, there is snow in the forecast. Everyone is thrilled. We are like children waiting to open gifts on Christmas morning. It has not snowed in the UK in seven years. In the year I had my daughter, it came close by a frost full. Gathered round a big table in J’s apartment in Abingdon, at what is supposed to be a potluck, I introduce the four friends I have made since I arrived to the legend that is Jollof rice (the Nigerian version) as we have a 'waiting for the snow' party.

We have dinner and make Christmas wreaths from scratch with hangers and pine cones, holly bush, yarn and everything else foraged by J and MD days before. For a minute, I feel like I am in an episode of The Real Housewives of some city, without all the ratchetings. It is the weirdest, most diverse friendship I have ever formed, making it easily susceptible to disaster, but there is a truthfulness about it that I love. We sit around with home-made mulled wine in our mugs, waiting patiently for snow. Our eyes are earnest, as if the experience of snow will somehow seal our time in Oxford as valid.

MB, born and raised in New Jersey, informs us you can always tell when it will snow by what the air feels like. We send her out through the backdoor to inhale the air. She returns to say there is a brittleness to the air and so, yes, it will snow. It does not snow that night. But by morning, it does. The flakes are light and so do not settle much, but we take it with both hands. MB’s prediction is spot on and we all send photos of our transformed front yards to our telegram group like excited little children. That weekend, it snows properly - eighteen inches or more of it - and we are delightfully trapped indoors. White blankets the city to the bridges and the parks and the train tracks. The Oxford portion of the Thames freezes up and nowhere is accessible. The noise of children sledging and adults reliving their childhood with snow fights fills the air from block to block. It is a happy time. A perfect one. It seems as though all homes agree in a secret meeting to a pumpkin recipe, the aroma coming through kitchen windows and drafts. The city is infused with the smell of mulled wine and minced pie and Christmas is indeed the most wonderful time of the year. I tell myself that if I remember nothing of Oxford, I will remember this magical and enchanting time.


Three months later, just as the city begins shedding off winter weight like a bug going through reverse metamorphosis, and flowers are beginning to bloom, I sink slowly into a depression. There is colour and sunshine everywhere, still, I am unable to go through a photosynthesis. I struggle with my work. I struggle to be a parent. I struggle for my life. I feel my body collapsing into itself, piece by piece, my mind forcefully ejecting everything that Oxford has been about. As if to, in some way, ensure that I never return to it and, if I ever did, it would be to a void. Everything changes and despite having lived in many cities, my life plays out to me as before Oxford and after it.

I grieve a loss. A loss of faith and friendship. A loss of life as I used to know it. I grieve to the point of devastation, where everything halts abruptly - eating, sleeping, running, writing, being. Everything that my life circles around, including my proclaimed love for reading, a deeply intimate experience that I have cultivated since childhood and isolated even from every other thing that forms a critical part of my human experience. To be handicapped by this powerlessness in my mental state while living in the historic and academic atmosphere of a city like Oxford, traversing across the exact same spots where some of the world’s greatest and brightest minds have gone before me, is the biggest atrocity of my time in the city.

I come out of that depressive bout wondering – What could possibly top that?

Worse, I am unable to receive comfort, even from my sacred groove of friends. I learn that our friends are our very backbone when we experience the hardest time, but some things are so difficult you cannot tell a friend for fear that even they will crumble and be unable to hold you up.

Oxford feels like a lie, the entirety of it. I want to pinpoint the exact moment it began to feel so. I replay it all, in slow motion. It is like watching the replay of the reason a false red card was awarded in a football match, very keenly, over and again. You want to see the exact moment, the exact push, the exact jerk, the exact whatever that made the referee blow his whistle. You do not. And even if you do, you cannot undo the already blown whistle. You are left with a reaction you have no control over. One minute, your life is a perfect, untainted blanket of snow, the next, it becomes a dirty, slippery, dangerous slush. I feel hopelessness like a burning sensation, the smell of it gagging my throat like a noose.

My days became a fiesta of recalling pain from a deep and sorrowful vault of memory, a rumble of emotions rising up from deep inside me. Shame, bitterness, anger, disappointment, regret, more shame, all causing a storm spiralling into my throat. Not until I open my mouth to let the storm out as hot tears streaming all over my face do I feel a semblance of sanity, only to have to go through it all again.

I am exhausted.

To say my life fell into shambles is to understate the degree of chaos erupting inside. Yet, the thing about the show called life is that it must go on, with or without you. And here is another thing about the process of grieving any loss. It does not move you away from it. You may feel yourself navigating away from the pain when, suddenly, you feel like you have been flung right back into its hands again but, eventually, you give yourself permission to make a choice. Your choice. The choice of celebrating your victorious come through on the other side of pain, never forgetting exactly what it was like but knowing it now from a place of succour and even compassion.

I give myself the permission to see and receive the nod and smile from the elderly couple who walk their dog past us as I go to drop off my daughter at nursery. Our commute overlapping very often implied that if we met them as we descended the bridge into Walton Street, our pace was good enough to get to school in good time. If we met them before ascending the bridge, however, then we needed to speed up because, for sure, we were running late. They had a level of discipline I aspired to. Discipline enough to stick to the same time every morning for their walk. It made me look forward to this sweet spot in my day that involved exchanging no words. Albeit unintentionally, I find myself fighting to leave home in time. It required no effort to exude love in such a different way, and the idea of a pure and delicate thing formed without dilution is a magical thing I will treasure from my time here.

I take a break from the city and from the life that I used to know. I take on yoga - inhaling progress with each warrior pose, exhaling pain with each downward dog. I resume working and reading. I begin a short course in writing, struggling through each class but clinging onto it for dear life.


By May, there is an overwhelming number of summer and end-of-school-year activities in my inbox, making me angsty. But, when I am able to call my daughter’s ballet school owner to order over a dissatisfactory, nearly racist comment, very gently, without going off on her, I figure the coast is starting to get clear. That the turmoil in my head recognises a lighthouse in sight. Summer is the lighthouse. Although it arrives with unbearable heat – sticky hands and smelly bodies to show for it – there is the incredible luck of being able to have ice cream on a cone, lying in the warm grass under the shade of an oak tree. Ice cream makes everything better. There is no lie in this. The wholeness of dime bar crunch vanilla and the contrast of a refreshing mint chocolate chip flavour. Barbecue smoke rises to the heavens and the rivers are full of shirtless bodies and shrieking girls.

It occurs to me how peculiar of Oxford to reveal itself to me in calculated phases of roughly three months each, like going through a semester per time, so I can possibly take it all in, gently. The good, the ugly, the pleasant. By August, when I begin the painful chore of packing up, for the first time, I have no anxiety about the next city. When, occasionally, a painful remembrance of how tough it can get crashes over me like sudden waves of sea water, I remind myself that no matter the city, you still have to wait till tomorrow to find out what tomorrow will bring.

I wait.

"

ABOUT TOPE

Tope is an editor and a writer whose work explores the delicateness of love and effects of loss on people. In 2015, she was one of the 25 selected to participate in the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop. A literature enthusiast and collector of books, she runs a book club for kids age 3-6 in her spare time.

Image: Haneefah Adam for The Book Banque.

This memoir may not be republished, modified nor stored in a retrivial system without prior written permission from the author, Tope Owolabi, or The Book Banque. All rights reserved.