Sunday, September 26, 2010

Enriching the tourist experience, one country at a time.

If you don't know me, or my friend Nicole, this paragraph is for you. If you know us, then feel free to skim. I feel the need to preface this blog about what Nicole and I did when she came back to Oxford with me with a little explanation about the sorts of things we like to do for fun. It's simple really; we play dress up. You heard me right. Two 23 year old graduate students with bright futures, college debt and semi-professional lives enjoy dressing up as fictional characters and parading around in public. Two Halloweens ago we took to Central Park in New York City as Giselle and Princess Leia. The semester after that we did an extensive Alice in Wonderland photo shoot in the Arboretum at WVU, complete with a few friends who played along
as cards. The last time we hung out in the States before I left, we dressed up and took fan pictures with Jackson Pearce's new book Sisters Red. So, what would you imagine to happen when Nicole visits Maria in Oxford, England, the exact place where Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland and where the real Alice, Alice Liddell, lived and played? You guessed it.

We did a lot of random sightseeing while Nicole was here in Oxford. I loved being back here, showing her around and actually knowing where I was and how to get around. I showed her all my favorite buildings and places, like Blackwells, the Radcliffe Camera and Exeter College (where Tolkien studied). It was great having someone to wander around with who still thinks this place is amazing. All the people I know here are over the fairytale feeling of being in Oxford since they have lived here for a while. I don't think I'll ever get over it. However the most noteworthy thing we did in Oxford by far was our adventure in Wonderland.

I'll admit, I was a little apprehensive. I knew this was going to happen for months. Ever since Nicole bought the ticket to come here, I knew we were going to go to Chrsitchurch College in costume. There was no way it was not happening. The entire week we had been talking about it, planning the best way to go about bringing our dresses to the city and where to change. It was Nicole's last full day that we found the time. I was getting cold feet, but seeing as the trip was all about Nicole, I couldn't back down.

I think this was the most publicly nerdy thing we've ever done. Usually we are in a rather unpopulated areas (like the Arboretum or Nicole's back yard), or it's Halloween and we have a concrete reason to be dressed up even if no one else is. This time we were just two random girls, dressed like Alice in Wonderland and a deck of cards, wandering around for no reason. And don't think there were not that many people around. I'm talking Oxford on a Saturday morning. This place is usually packed with tourists, much more on a gorgeous Saturday like the one we chose.

Our plan was simple: have breakfast at Café Loco which is directly across the street from Christchurch, quickly change in the bathroom, then dash across the street and go take a million pictures. The only reason we picked that café was because of its proximity to the college. Our first hint that the day was going to be a nerdy good time/success was right there while we ate croissants and drank orange juice. Café Loco was a Mad Hatter themed café with huge prints of original Mad Hatter artwork on the walls. It wasn't called Café Loco for nothing.

We changed in the bathroom, a tiny cramped space we both barely fit into. Once our bows were tied and tights in place we made a run for the door, managing to get only a few funny looks on our way out. Then the neatest thing happened.

The moment we were on the street, in the middle of Oxford, surrounded by tourists, my apprehension melted away. I suspect Nicole was never actually nervous about it; she lives for stuff like this. She was instantly in character, and I was instantly making fun of her and saying 'come on Alice! Cross the street already! Stop being a brat!' Once the dresses were on, we were on, and it was all uphill from there.

I was the head photographer for the shoot, so I carried the gear and had my big camera around my neck the entire time, instructing Nicole to 'spin!' here or 'look at me!' there. We made our way to the entrance and waited in line behind a huge tour group. When we went to the desk to buy our tickets (less than a week after that day, I got my Brookes ID. Now I can get in for free. Drat!) the one guy nudged his partner behind the desk. He looked up and said, nonchalantly as if he said it ever day, 'oh hello Alice.' Once inside the halls and on our way to the Tom Quad we followed behind the tour group, snapping pictures and smiling. That's when the questions started.

"Can I take your picture?" one older man asked Nicole, "my daughter loves Alice in Wonderland!" With a curtsey Nicole said "of course," held out her skirt and smiled for the camera. He was not the only one. Every place we stopped to take our own pictures, someone was asking to take hers. It was awesome. We truly felt we were enriching the tourist experience for everyone who happened to be touring Christchurch College that day. How often do you get to actually see Alice wandering around Wonderland? Two teen age girls we kept running into kept taking pictures of Nicole and giggling together. They looked so happy, like their birthday had come early or something. One older woman said to us, "OH my granddaughter's name is Alice and she thinks she is Alice in Wonderland! I have to take your picture for her."

People kept asking us why we were dressed up. What we were promoting or what we were selling. We had given this a lot of thought before we set out that day as to what to tell people when they asked. We had lots of answers. School project, art project (which is true, that's what Catfish is after all), complicated storybook characters come to life photo shoot, all sorts of reasons. At first we would just say it was a project, but by the end of the day we resorted to the truth. When we were circling back to Christchurch on Rose Lane we passed a big tour group. The tour guide shouted at us from the middle of the group, asking why we were dressed up. At the same time Nicole and I both said, "for fun." Everyone smiled and said "good for you," and took our picture. What's the moral of the story? Honesty is the best policy, even if it does make you look a little crazy.

I mentioned before that going to Christchurch in costume was the highlight of Nicole's time in Oxford. Well, our highlight has a highlight too. When we were in the cathedral, we were stopped by an adorable old woman who worked there. She asked why we were dressed up, and at that point we were still sticking with the art project answer. Then she asked something we were not expecting. "Have you seen where Alice really lived?" Our eyes got wide as we breathlessly said "no!" She smiled real big and turned around. Behind her was a tall red curtain attached to the wall that we had previously walked right by. She pulled back the curtain to reveal a big wooden door. Taking a huge key out of her pocket, she unlocked the door and opened it wide for us to look through. It was the door to Wonderland.

Behind the door was a pictorial garden in a courtyard behind a few buildings of the college. It had a cute little path going through it with flowers on either side, leading to a green door in the far wall. "that building is where Alice used to live," said our new best friend, pointing to the building to our left, "and that one is where Lewis Carroll used to teach," she continued pointing straight ahead of us. "That green door is the one the white rabbit ran through, and the tree there is where the Cheshire Cat sat. This is the garden where Alice used to play." I didn't even know what to say. I was too shocked to come up with something intelligent to say, so I just asked "can I take a picture?" She said yes and I spazed out for a moment, taking a million of the same picture, trying to reach out and claim a part of Wonderland to keep forever. We would have never even known that garden was back there if we had chickened out and not gone to Christchurch in our dresses. That door was not usually open to the public. "I thought you girls deserved to see it," our new friend told us as she closed the door and locked it again, draping the red curtain back into place to hide Wonderland once more from prying eyes.

The rest of our day was relaxing. We put on pretty dresses and took some more pictures in the city and ate gigantic ice cream Sundays for lunch. That evening back in Headington we went into town wearing WVU jerseys in honor of the football game happening that day that we couldn't watch and got massive amounts of fish and chips to pregame. Then we watched episodes of The Wild Thornberrys on youtube.

The next day I took Nicole and her suitcase full of costumes to GloucesterGreen to catch her bus to Heathrow.

I wish she could have stayed forever.

The end.


More of these pictures HERE.


Tanner said...

What you guys do is totally cool, it's fun. People cosplay and larp in public all the time. You're just more fun and adorable. "Normal dress" is little more than a costume for looking normal anyway.

DeeRoo said...

What a wonderful that my dress she is wearing in the first 2 photos? Why aren't there any of you? I mean you are the cards!!

Nice to see you are making the most of your stay in England!! We miss you!

Wendy said...

That is the most AWESOME story EVER!!! The little old lady who actually "took you into the story" was SO sweet... and magical!
Thank you for sharing. I LOVED it!!! (I'm glad magic still exists.)

Nicole said...

Omg way to almost make me cry! I wish I could've stayed too! I miss you and I want to come back!

Rafael's Mum said...

That's SO amazing!! To actually go into the garden and see the door etc etc... You are so lucky!! (well... you made your own luck partially but still). I got goosepimples when you got to the old lady opening the door bit! Thanks for the lovely post so we can experience it all with you!!

Kelsey Austin Threatte said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kelsey Austin Threatte said...


foo said...

This has got to be one of the best experiences I've ever read about. Excellent.

Jo said...

What a great day you had, and I am sure you gave as much pleasure to others. Good to see you enjoying your stay in England.

TLS237 said...

Hmm. Interesting. A locked door behind a curtain, (a woman with) a key, a view of a garden. Was there a little bottle or a piece of cake nearby?