I was just as excited as my husband, Lindon, was when he was accepted to Oxford University to do a doctorate in applied maths. Oxford is one of the best and most recognised universities in the world, an Oxford DPhil is the sort of qualification that sets you up for life, and its super-competitive to get into. It was a really great accomplishment for him and the kind of opportunity one packs up their life and moves for.
But it was also a huge opportunity for me. Packing up and moving my life was fairly easy because of my unusual flexibility in my work and study life. More to the point, it has been a long-term ambition of mine to live overseas, at least for a few years. I’ve always been intrigued by the UK and by Europe more generally and I’ve learned a lot in my first year here. I feel like I’ve moved abroad as much for me as for him.
But even in this ideal, close to compromise-free scenario (which I imagine barely happens to begin with), there are still challenges. I’ve not read much about those before leaving and I certainly didn’t anticipate the extent of one difficulty: how to be yourself when you’ve moved for someone else.
It’s weird to live in the centre of Oxford but not go to Oxford as a student. Nobody is haughty about it, I’ve certainly never felt lesser as a result, but my experiences here have involved standing apart. Sometimes I feel myself to be a witness to life here rather than in it. The general intimidating sense you get here at key points of the year – graduation and matriculation ceremonies with the huge crowds of students in ridiculous, traditional garb (as an example) – has made me feel that what makes life special here is off-limits to me.
Or in some cases, literally behind a wall:
There are groups specifically for people like me, partners of Oxonians. I don’t want to elaborate too much on them, because they are filled with lovely people but I am critical of the purpose and design of the groups to an irrational extent. I’m critical because, at least for me, they reinforce, rather than remove, that feeling that my life here is dedicated to someone else and not part of my own. They introduce themselves to each other by talking about their husbands’ affiliations (it is usually women talking to women, this is the seemingly inevitable gender dynamic of such a group). Of course, they lead their own lives as well, to varying degrees, but the conversations (common topics include babies and baking) are chilling to me. It’s not because there’s anything inherently wrong with domesticity, but because I want a different sort of life here. I’m worried about falling into a trap, of being a lady of leisure, faculty wife. Realistically, because I am the sort of person I am, I have little risk of becoming that person. But I’m so afraid of a subsumed identity that I am repulsed (again, I want to reiterate, this is irrational and despite the fact that the people are sincerely lovely).
As a response to my fears and across many conversations, Lindon and I have had to make purposeful decisions about both integrating our lives together and equally here in Oxford. It means that he introduces me to people he knows, it means that if the conversations we have with his classmates dips too far into obscure maths, he’s taken on the responsibility to change the topic of conversation so that I don’t die of boredom during social occasions. It means that I’ve made my own friends too. I generously share these friends with Lindon, but they’re mine first.
I look for ways where I can personally benefit from being here. The most important, as it turns out, is my own card for the Bodleian library – which houses a copy of every book that has been published in England. Because I’m also a student (just not an Oxford student), I benefit from attending public lectures, from the relative ease in which I can find a wifi connection throughout the town, from that Oxford-y learning feeling and the high-ceiling spaces that smell of books.
I started an initiative to tell radio stories about Oxford. Helping others gain broadcasting skills makes me feel like I’ve made some personal investment into the community here. The local focus of the show also helps me get to know the city on my own terms and gives me the unique opportunity to talk to a range of students, curators, academics, and many others on what makes Oxford so unique and interesting. Similarly, I signed up to regularly review local theatre shows so that I get free tickets to Oxford’s cultural life. Because of our commitment to integrate both our lives into Oxford, Lindon isn’t the means through which I know the city. I am.
I also travel out of Oxford quite often by myself. This is to acknowledge the fact that just because Lindon’s tethered here during term time, doesn’t mean I have to be. In the last year I spent dozens of days wandering London’s bustling and beautiful streets, I spent a week covering youth issues at the EU Parliament in Strasbourg, I undertook research for my thesis in Brussels, I attended a conference in Cleveland and made a big trip through small- and large-town America out of it, and I spent two weeks searching for Aurora Borealis and reindeer in Tromsø.
If you move abroad for someone else, I’ve found, it’s a challenge to make sure that your life does not become wholly about them. Over the first year in muddling through, I’ve come to cultivate my own, unique relationship with Oxford. I am not subsumed here because Lindon and I decided that I wouldn’t be.