Dispatch from England - Part I

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Life at Churchill College, home of Cambridge's engineers and Americans.

Before I arrived in England, I had arranged the purchase of a bicycle from a student who was graduating. Feeling particularly savvy, I mentioned this to Churchill’s graduate student administrator as she led me to my new home at Churchill. “Good!” she replied. “A bike is a great way to get around Cambridge. Just be sure not to ride on the pavement.” I was immediately crestfallen, as I imagined the difficulty of navigating my bike along narrow patches of grass and stopping to walk it across streets and sidewalks. What a waste of nearly £100! She noticed my apparently very worried expression and asked what was the matter. I explained to her my shattered dreams of riding a bike to work each day and she laughed. As it turns out, “pavement” means “sidewalk” in British English. It was this moment I first appreciated that England was indeed a foreign country.

I live in college accommodations known as the “Pepperpots” – 10-bedroom homes with a shared kitchen, living room, and laundry facilities, so named for their alleged resemblance to a pepper shaker (falsely accused, in my opinion). In particular, I live in Pepperpot 63… if you ask the college. Or 40a Storey’s Way if you ask the postal service. Or Broer’s House if you ask the wealthy man who ostensibly paid for its construction. In typical Cambridge fashion, my house has three names, depending on the particularly bureaucracy involved. Whatever you choose to call them, the Pepperpots are undoubtedly among the most luxurious of Cambridge college housing. My room is large enough that, if it so pleased me, I could make snow angels on the floor and not injure myself. I have more storage space than I know what to do with, massive windows, a private heater, and my own bathroom (with a heated towel rack!). The only drawback of the latter is that I must clean it (eventually). Although the single washer and dryer we share among the ten of us tends to get backed up on weekends, the convenience of not needing to leave the house to do laundry is appreciated. The enormous kitchen and living room are wonderful for hosting dinners and parties. With two ovens, three fridges, six burners, and acres of counter space, it is quite possible for half of the house to make dinner simultaneously. Perhaps our best use of the space yet was to host about 25 people for a DIY pizza baking night, during which almost 40 pizzas were baked.

Such an event would not have been possible at most colleges. Churchill has the distinction of being one of the furthest colleges from downtown Cambridge. Although the 15-minute schlep (by Cambridge standards) to my office at the engineering department is a slight inconvenience, Churchill’s remote location gives it something most colleges seriously lack – space. Churchill’s vast sporting fields and tennis courts are a luxury other colleges can only dream of. Our distance from town also helps to deter the hordes of tourists that plague the other college grounds. (This is at least the PC explanation. I suspect that Churchill’s 1960s, Soviet factory-inspired architecture plays the primary role in repelling tourists.)

A major surprise for me about college life is how often I eat at the dining hall. Mind you, this is definitely not due to the quality of food. The English have yet to discover any spices beyond salt and pepper (and even these they seem reluctant to use), seemingly too preoccupied with inventing new ways to wrap sausages in bread (and oh how many ways they have found). The main draw of the college dining hall is the opportunity to meet other members of the college. Undergrads, grad students, faculty, and sometimes even staff gather thrice daily, sharing tables and good conversation.[1] I regularly dine with a linguist, several lawyers, a German scholar, the son of Nobel Prize winning physicist Ernest Walton, and a cadre of scientists and engineers that dominate the Churchill population.[2] This spontaneous interaction across disciplines and between students and faculty is one of the great benefits of the Cambridge college system.[3] In addition to being a convenient way to meet others outside your discipline, the dining hall is also surprisingly more economical than making dinner at home, at least for vegetarians. A large plateful of hot vegetables and cold selections from the salad bar runs between £2 and £3. Moreover, the salad bar always includes an array of protein options (beans and meat daily, hard boiled eggs and tuna often, and salmon all too infrequently).

Three times a week, the College also hosts a “formal hall.” This is essentially an opportunity to dress up in formal ware, pay three times as much for the same food that was served at the normal dinner, and be restricted to not leaving your seat for approximately two hours. Needless to say, I am not terribly enthusiastic about this tradition, however it is certainly worth indulging in on occasion and provides a reasonable excuse to meet friends for dinner.[4] Although I have not participated in it, attempting to attend one formal hall at every college (there are 31) is a popular Cambridge sport. (It is rumored that King’s is the toughest hall to bag, as their once-a-week formal halls consistently sell out in minutes.)

Another highlight of the Cambridge college system is the social life. The student body, especially the graduate student body, is among the most international groups I have been a part of. Among the ten people living in my house, for example, we have four Americans, a Greek, a Thai, three Chinese, and a Sudanese. This diversity has had three main effects on my life at Cambridge. First, on any given day, there is a significant probability that someone’s country is celebrating a holiday, providing ample excuses to throw a party or go out for drinks (I am writing this on a stomach still full from an “Australia Day” barbecue). Second, the diversity in our culinary backgrounds not only encourages us to collectively host several dinner parties per week, but the results are almost unerringly delicious. (To maintain standards, we of course do not allow the native British to host such things.) Third, I have found myself acting more obnoxiously American than I did when living in the States. While I am not quite ready to don cowboy boots and overalls, I do find myself talking about the joys of American national parks, highways, and football more often than I ever was tempted to do in the past.

Despite the diversity of the student body, Churchill is certainly guilty of hosting the largest contingent of Americans at Cambridge, likely due in part both to the Churchill Scholars program (and the requirement that all applicants specify Churchill as their preferred college) as well as Winston Churchill’s fame in the States. One entertaining manifestation of this infestation is that Churchill College is, to my knowledge, the only college which attempts to host an annual Thanksgiving dinner. I say “attempt” because our dinner was notably lacking in pumpkin pie, stuffing, and several other key components of Thanksgiving, but we could not help but be flattered at this gesture. (I cannot wait for the 4th of July this year.)

A final important staple of social life at the Colleges are the “common rooms”, including the “junior common room” (JCR) for undergrads, the “middle common room” (MCR) for graduate students, and the “senior common room” (SCR) for the imminently deceased (ok, for faculty). The Churchill MCR includes both a TV/game room, as well as a bar/lounge with beautiful views of the Churchill fields and unprofitable drink prices (e.g. £1.25 for a glass of wine). The bar is run by grad students on a volunteer basis and seems to be open most nights of the week. The MCR also hosts several parties (e.g. welcome, Christmas, Super Bowl), trips to London (e.g. British Museum, National Gallery), dinners, pub quizzes, pub crawls, and other events, all free or heavily subsidized. These events are yet another great excuse to meet people outside of your discipline.

One of the more disappointing features of Cambridge in general and Churchill in particular are the gyms (or lack thereof). Since the colleges operate as their own fiefdoms, there is no motivation to build a large, central university fitness center. Instead, each college operates its own woefully underequipped facility. Although Churchill’s is considered among the best, the existence of just one treadmill, one bench press, and no more than one of anything else leads to a complicated strategy game to find a time when no one else in the college wants to use the same equipment as you. I have shamefully stooped to spreading rumors that the gym is either closed or occupied for rugby practice during the time at which I want to use it.

This post is part one of a five-part series on my first four months in Cambridge adapted from a mid-year report I submitted to the Churchill Foundation - the sponsor whose generosity is allowing me to spend one year at the University of Cambridge. It was written in January 2012. You can read Part II here.

  1. Churchill is unique in this respect. At most colleges, faculty sit at their own “high table” to avoid the painful difficulties of communicating with non-Nobel Prize winners. 

  2. According to its charter, Churchill College is to maintain a population of about 70% scientists and engineers. While this can make for great discussion and easy communication of one’s own research, it has the inevitable effect of strongly skewing the (undergraduate) population towards the male end of the spectrum. 

  3. Its drawbacks include terrifyingly intricate bureaucracies, perpetual funding problems, and a notable lack of a respectable fitness center. But who’s counting? 

  4. My anti-formal hall stance has softened since I originally wrote this, particularly after attending formals at other colleges (Sidney Sussex and Queens) with large groups of friends. I am now pro-formal hall.