Solace in Soup
I can picture the day perfectly, though I didn’t know I even remembered it until just now. It’s a strange sort of memory, though. I don’t see it through my own eyes, first hand, but as if I was an observer a few steps behind and to the left of myself. Even the feelings are foreign, second-hand.
I can see myself in my memory. I’m wearing the blue-striped rain-boots that I’ve learned to call “wellies”. Jessica, my roommate of two years, had sent them to me for Christmas before I left to brave the rainy weather of Oxford. I have on blue jeans, my usual fare, and a green long-sleeve, bought at Goodwill with Joanne (my other roommate) and Jessica, before I left. Around my neck is the bobbly scarf I knit on the flight over, and a black hat is on my head. Over it all, I’m wearing a gray pea-coat that goes down past my knees. The top and bottommost buttons are the only two left un-done. I’m carrying a faded pink-ish, orange-y umbrella with one broken prong, and my green backpack, purchased at Oxfam. In the backpack is my newly bought Loeb edition of Plato’s Symposium, still in its Blackwell’s bag.
I was walking down Broad Street, towards the City Centre, when a strange feeling swept over me. It was a feeling of aloneness, of isolation. An overwhelming desire to seek out company, companionship. It was a strange feeling to me, and it took me a moment to identify it. When I did, I so surprised that I commented out loud to the air, “Oh. I must be homesick. So this is what it’s like”. This was immediately followed by the thought that “Oh, this is homesickness” was probably not a normal response to the feeling. But I wasn’t sure how else to react. So I filed away the observation and continued my walk.
It was later the same day, and I was again on Broad Street, though walking in the other direction, back towards the flat I lived in that still didn’t quite feel like home. In fact, it would take an overnight trip away from Oxford before I could come to call my 6-month living location a home. But back to my story, I was walking down Broad Street. The same feeling of homesickness was there, but I feel I must try to explain this feeling. First, as I said before, I had the sense that I was observing someone with my feelings more than having them myself. But I also want to clarify that my homesickness wasn’t directed towards my home back in America, but towards any home in general. I felt homeless. Alone. And there was no where I could go where I could be rid of that feeling. So I kept walking.
I was walking down the alley way between Broad Street and High Street now, and as I write this it comes to me this must have been a Thursday, my usual day for my Formal Logic tutorial. But I was coming the wrong way to be leaving the tutorial, and if I had been going to it, I wouldn’t have stopped to do what I did. So this must have been the day my tutor cancelled, but my feet automatically started to take me to University College. Or perhaps the walk back to flat had been flooded that morning and so I was planning to take the long way around via High Street to avoid having to wade. I don’t remember. Isn’t that strange though? I can remember exactly what I was wearing, exactly what I was feeling, exactly where I was, but I cannot, for the life of me, remember why I was there.
But I was there, walking towards High Street. Alone. Homesick. And wet. And very cold. The weather! Oh, the weather. It had seemed so romantic when I’d first arrived. The quintessential English weather. The heavy gray clouds sitting on top of the famous dreaming spires. Breathtaking. But after two months of rain and cold and no sun, the romance had died, and while I didn’t know where my home was, I was pretty certain it was somewhere with sun. Cold, wet, and homesick, taking the long way back to my flat, fighting back tears whose source I didn’t quite know, with a broken umbrella. That was where I was.
The alley, which perhaps isn’t the best word for it, takes you past the Oxford Camera and St. Anne’s Cathedral. I’d walked it through it many time, and always saw the little restaurant at the base of St. Anne’s. I think it was called The Garden something. Organic food, or something like that. I had passed it many times without paying it much attention, but it caught my eye as I walked by this time. I was wet. And cold. And I’d be damned if I’d stay outside this weather any longer. So I went in.
Two months is long enough for the novelty of a new place to wear off, but not long enough for the culture to set in, and this wasn’t the kind of restaurant I was used to, and I wasn’t sure how it was supposed to work. I stood back, and watched a few people before getting in line. I wasn’t really hungry, and mostly had just wanted to be somewhere, anywhere other than outside. But I felt obligated to order. There weren’t many options. It was one of those places with a rotating menu, I think. I decided to get the soup. Potato and leek soup to be exact, whatever a leek was. I knew it was some kind of vegetable, but wasn’t sure beyond that. I managed to successfully order, pick up my bowl of soup and slice of bread, and stumbled through paying, still not familiar with the strange coins and brightly coloured bills.
Carefully balancing my soup, I found a small table, meant for two people, against the far wall of the restaurant. I set down my soup, slid my backpack off my shoulders, and un-buttoned my coat and draped it over my chair. Then I sat still for a moment, my hands cupped around my bowl and feeling dry and warm. Then I looked up. And suddenly, I felt more alone than ever. I was the only one sitting by myself, and all round me were voice speaking my language, but in a way so different from mine. I couldn’t even remember how I spoke, what the American accent sounded like.
Feeling conspicuous sitting by myself, I pulled the Symposium out of my bag and started to half-heartedly read it. But even in the words of my favourite philosopher I found little comfort. This wasn’t a work of his I had read before. And that was it, really. All of this lacked familiarity. If it had been familiar, it would have been ideal. The thought of sitting in a cozy restaurant on a cold, rainy day, reading Plato and eating soup was almost ideal. But I couldn’t understand the voices in this restaurant, didn’t know this work of Plato’s, and had a vague idea that I leek was some kind of vegetable. And it wasn’t familiar, or comfortable, or ideal, and I was this close to just getting up and walking out the door.
But, it was still cold and rainy out there. And I had my stupid bowl of leek soup and had paid for it with the silly coloured money, and I was going to eat it, so there. I took a bite. At first, all I noticed was that it was hot, and I relished the warmth that raced down my throat and spread out through my body. But then, I had another thought. I thought, “Hm. So this is leek soup. It’s not too bad.” And of course, I might not have read this dialogue before, but it was Plato. And it was warm and dry in here, and it’s not like I’ve never eaten alone before.
By the time my soup was gone I was, well, refreshed. There’s not really another word for it. I was still homesick, and I would be cold and wet by the time I made it back to my flat, but I knew I could make it now. And that was a nice feeling. As for potato and leek soup, well, it became a staple in my cupboard at the flat that later became my home. And Plato’s Symposium, well, if you have to ask, you must not know me very well. I don’t like to moralize, but sometimes I can’t help it. And if I had to find a moral for this story, it would be that some days call for a hug from a friend, some for a good book in bed, and some for a bowl of potato and leek soup.