From Oxford to Iceland

Oxford street

Lost in Oxford

If you were to dig a hole through the world from New Zealand you would end up in England. I took a route more circuitous than subterranean—24 hours of flight and several weeks spent in Turkey, but I am now here in what was once called the "Mother Country," a day and a night in Oxford before returning home.

"Right, right and then left," my English host instructs me, directions to the nearest cash machine and shopping centre in suburban Cowley. "There's quite a big shopping centre there, and a co-op where you can get healthy food and snacks."

"Brilliant" I think to myself—healthy junk-food, the best of both worlds, and exactly what I am after. Extra layer of clothing donned, I depart into the biting chill, dark falling already at four in the afternoon.

The first right turn was simple enough, but with the next and then left I am pretty sure I am heading astray. In deference to my hosts' knowledge of these foreign streets, I persist on prescribed course despite misgivings, up suburban hillside, past Christmas decorated houses leaking steam and cheer two days past use-by date, a graveyard in between. And on towards a dead end.

Oxford PO Box

Street receiver

Retracing my steps past a faded red Royal Post Office street receiver, reminder of a former occupation and partially functional left knee, I reorder received directions as "right, left and then right" with success—bright green Barclay's cash machine in front of two level shopping complex around corner missed before.

It's refreshing how with a little attention to detail the smallest things can become an adventure in a new country. Here in Templars Square Shopping Centre ("mall" I would guess is a dreadful Americanisation that would never fly in these parts) I am surrounded by new stores, brands, sights and sounds, and more importantly, new people and their culture, breathing life into all.

"Ah, Woolworths," I say silently, "we have this particular store back home—I can safely avoid it here as well." Not exactly sure where the health-food store I seek will be, or even what it is called, I go to "Iceland" instead, a relatively small, apparently standard supermarket, but with extremely long queue at the checkout.

"Get another operator to a till! Come on man, they're out the back drinking tea... I saw them!"

Salty snacks finally chosen, I have just joined said queue when a fellow woman shopper makes her presence known vocally behind me. Several others in the queue turn and laugh at her outburst, but she is not appeased.

queue

Queuing

"That young one there, he's the worst. He just stands around staring, doing nothing."

She is referring to a young boy who can be barely more than fifteen, in my opinion coping quite well with a queue now extending well beyond frozen goods, not to mention her vitriol. Standing beside an assortment of candies and chocolates which the English do so well, I suspect that this lady needs more than boosted blood sugar to make her feel happier.

"Hurry up!" I've got places to go you know."

So do I, but I'm in no rush to get to them. My flight home to New Zealand is still a full day away, a thirty hour air-bourne marathon whose start I am delaying as long as possible. I turn away from angry shopper, staring with my ears instead of eyes, and have to laugh inwardly at the image of myself—a sworn non-drinker—now studiously pretending to study a wall to wall shelf of liquor. Another way of coping with inner pain for some, and preferable to venting it on others?

Grumpy Queue Lady is on a roll of sorts now. "We haven't got all day!" she exclaims, in what I'm guessing is a West Indies accent.

Actually I do have all day for once, and I offer gratitude to her for making my wait in this queue considerably more entertaining. It seems that all I've done since arriving in "Old Blighty" is queue—at check-in, security, boarding and then again inside the plane, but the novelty of this new land is such that I am enjoying every moment, even the mundane. I even enjoy the new voices with their accents, unheard of in my far away homeland except on television dramas.

The queue is moving faster now, apparent foil to simmering rage with a shopping basket behind me. She has been oddly quiet for a couple of minutes, and we finally inch forward to the very busy young checkout operator, former target of fire and brimstone. His name is "Cookie"—it says so on his shirt, and then again on the receipt I receive when I complete my purchase—a name so endearingly cute you would think he could disarm antagonism with name-badge alone.

I thank Cookie for serving me, and as I turn to bag my frozen mozzarella pizza and bag of crisps, hear him ask for a replacement at the till.

Cookie

Cookie

At first I am highly amused at the thought that the person who has spent the last ten minutes complaining to people and produce alike about being delayed will be delayed further— "O delicious karma!" —even more amused that it might be the checkout operators' quiet revenge.

And then it strikes me, Grumpy Shopper launching into what seems like a well practised tirade—she comes here all the time and does this. The checkout operator is not antagonising but deliberately avoiding her—he's probably even been told to by his supervisor after a previous scene. A few minutes before when another checkout operator did appear—supposedly from out the back drinking tea—splitting the second queue into two considerably shorter, strangely grumpy shopper chose to stay behind me in a line far longer. She deliberately chose anger and misery, maybe moving in the only direction she now knows.

I leave rather than loiter to hear an already active argument. I am intrigued by the study of unusual character but not callous enough to be immune to it's fallout. It saddens me that people can allow such a small thing ruin their day, and more than likely with this kind of disproportional anger, their entire lives. You could just say that Grumpy Queue Lady is only having a bad day, but the sad truth is that it is probably one of many—she is having a bad life.

I am reminded that I forget at times how far I have come since I began meditating, from where to where you could say. I float through most of the day like the sole cloud on an open sky, almost completely immune to the storms and turbulence that buffet so many others, once upon a time myself as well. While I hardly claim to have written the book on non-attachment, I realise with some small measure of pride, I may just finally have finished the first chapter.