Dispatch from England - Part III

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Life in Cambridge, the 700-year old university that doesn't look a day over 600.

A few months before I moved to Cambridge, I was traveling to London for an interview with a PhD program and used the opportunity to scope out the housing situation in Cambridge and meet with my advisor. After I spent the day with my research group, I decided I would spend the evening preparing for my interview. Since my hotel did not have wifi, I ventured into town to look for a café to work in for the evening. To my horror, every single café I encountered closed by 6 or 7pm. Dejected by this unexpected internet famine, I wandered back to my hotel and read a book.

Cambridge is a much smaller and quieter town than I expected. Besides the early café closings, most stores close by 5 or 6pm and bars and pubs close by 11pm. Ethiopian, Israeli, and many other ethnic cuisines are nonexistent, while those cuisines that are represented (e.g. Indian, Chinese, Thai, British) are not represented particularly well. While I initially thought that I would revel in the quaintness of Cambridge, I found it almost unbearable after a month and arranged for twice a week visits to a research institute in London. More recently, however, this aspect of Cambridge has been growing on me, especially as I have made friends and figured how to find the activities and stores I need access to.

Another feature of Cambridge that gradually swooned me is the atmospheric setting it is known for. Riding my bike home through dark and fog, past the ominously lit facades of several hundred year old colleges to the sound of church bells only gets better each day.

An annoying and unexpected drawback of Cambridge’s ambience is the hordes of tourists that pour into the city every day. While we are lucky enough at Churchill not to have tourists peeking in our windows, it is impossible to avoid them. In particular, it is quite difficult to avoid them when riding down the street on a bike. Apparently foreign to the concept of roads, they wander on and off the streets with not so much as a glance over their shoulders. I make a sport of trying to ride as close to them as possible without hitting anyone. My hope is that, over time, this may help educate them about the dangers of the road and that my humble self may play a small role in making Cambridge a better, safer place.

Besides the colleges, another major target for the tourists is the market square. Because of this, I was initially hesitant to venture there myself, expecting overpriced, inferior quality goods. However, when I finally did muster the misanthropic courage to brave the crowds, I found that the market was one of the best places to go for fresh-baked bread, soaps and shampoos, bike repairs, and many other edibles and non-. I now drop by at least once a week.

Despite the hordes of tourists, Cambridge is still dominated by students, faculty, and other university personnel. The snippets of conversations at pubs and restaurants that I overhear are among the most intelligent conversations I have ever overheard in public. I once sat on a train to London on which two men in front of me were chatting across the aisle about how to design some new genetics experiment. In most parts of the US, I am impressed if the people sitting in front of me on a train manage to speak in complete sentences.

With the positive benefits of an old, prestigious university come the negative, including bureaucracy. And given 800 years, Cambridge has perfected the stereotypical enormous, multi- layered, and inefficient bureaucracy. It took me three days to get internet access at my college and another two weeks to get wifi access to the three (!) different networks in my department. Getting my university card activated for department access took another several days,[1] and woe be it to he or she who attempts to arrive in Cambridge before his or her official start date. I moved in three weeks early to get settled and my arrival at the department inflicted mass panic and, I kid you not, meetings about how in the future to handle such situations. It was as if no human being in the 800-year history of Cambridge had ever arrived before the term began.

Despite its impenetrable bureaucracy, there are things that the University does well and one of them is student clubs. With two wine tasting societies, two math clubs, a tea club, a sci-fi club, a dozen or so dance clubs, another dozen or so science clubs, a club for just about every ethnicity represented at Cambridge, a cheese tasting club, multiple clubs for any sport you can name, and half a dozen outdoors groups, you would have to be comatose not to find a group of like-minded people. The standard way to get acquainted with your options is to attend the “Freshers’ Fair” in early October, during which pretty much every club sets up a booth over two floors of a nearby gym (Kelsey Kerridge), as well as a large park across the street.

The existence of half a dozen outdoors groups was one of the biggest surprises for me. Located in the flattest part of one of the flattest countries, Cambridge actually has far more outdoors clubs than my previous university (USC), which was nestled among the mountainous paradise of Los Angeles. There is the Hillwalking Club,[2] the Mountaineering Club, the Rambling Club, the Caving Club, the Orienteering Club, the Scout and Guide Club, and the Rock-Climbing and Trekking Society, among others I am likely missing. In case it is not eminently obvious, the Hillwalking Club goes on biweekly weekend hiking trips, the Mountaineering Club climbs mountains, the Rambling Club goes for day/half-day walks near Cambridge, the Caving Club organizes weekend caving trips, the Orienteering Club competes in orienteering competitions (races with compasses), the Scout and Guide Club is involved with the British co-ed equivalent of Boy Scouts, and the Rock-Climbing and Trekking Society climbs a few days a week at a local climbing wall, as well as climbing outdoors every weekend.

My only (very positive) experience so far was with the Hillwalking Club. While only one of their trips has coincided with a weekend I have been free, that weekend was my most enjoyable in the UK. For ~£30, their trips include transportation, accommodations in a bunkhouse (which includes a kitchen, living room, and beds), and excellent company. The trip I went on was to Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales, though other common targets include the Lake District, Peak District, and Snowdonia, all of which require about 3-4 hours of driving. Trips depart early Friday evenings, conveniently from the Churchill Porters’ Lodge,[3] and return late Sunday, employing a combination of cars and mini-buses. Friday is spent driving, unpacking, and hanging out in the bunkhouse, while Saturday and Sunday are spent hillwalking during the day and hanging out or driving back to Cambridge in the evening. While I was convinced that I liked the club on the first day (it is made up of scientifically literate outdoors enthusiasts – an easy sell), my first experience with hiking in the UK was unconvincing to say the least. After a muddy scramble to our first “summit” (elevation gain ~100m), I realized that I had made a big mistake in not bringing waterproof boots. This notion was reinforced as the fog closed in around us, the wind and rain were unleashed with hurricane force, and the temperature flirted with freezing. The ultimate summit we reached that day featured us huddled together trying to stay warm and peering off into the thick fog, imagining the views one might enjoy on a fictitious clear day in Wales. As I lost all feeling in my body and was repeatedly blown over only to fall into a muddy puddle, my inner monologue consisted only of repeatedly wondering whether this was the most miserable day of my life. I concluded that it was. All of this changed, however, when we finally, after ~7 hours, returned to the bunkhouse and I discovered what turned about to be the greatest shower stall in which I have ever had the pleasure of shivering. I nearly cried with joy. The rest of the evening[4. And there is plenty of evening when the sun sets at 4pm.] was spent gorging on all sorts of food, mulled wine, hot tea, and biscuits. Although most folks had arranged in advance to collectively cook a pesto spaghetti, I had chosen to go solo due to a staunchly anti-pasta philosophy. My own dinner consisted of falafel, beets, and peanut butter and banana sandwiches. After dinner, we spent several hours chatting and playing music. Although I was tempted not to don my soggy boots and return to the harsh Welsh weather the following day, the surprising sight of sunshine changed my mind. Fortunately, the nice weather held for the day, and we enjoyed a beautiful hike past several waterfalls and through the classic rolling meadows of the British countryside. Although we still found ourselves knee deep in a bog, praying that our boots would not be sucked into the earth, by the end of the afternoon, that day of hiking prevented me from leaving Wales with nothing but spite. I look forward to more hikes with the Hillwalking Club, though perhaps after the purchasing of waterproof boots and the arrival of warmer weather.

A final note on life in Cambridge for vegetarians – I am sorry. Cambridge is not particularly accommodating. There exists just one vegetarian restaurant in Cambridge, the Rainbow Café. Although almost every restaurant will offer vegetarian options, they will not necessarily be impressive (by British standards, baked potatoes qualify as vegetarian “entrées”). Often the best bet for vegetarians is an Indian, Thai, or Chinese restaurant, though there are a few British/European restaurants that do cater particularly well to vegetarians (Zizzi and All Bar One being among them). The most economical options for vegetarians, however, are the college dining halls or cooking for one’s self. As for the colleges, I believe all serve vegetarian entrées and offer a salad bar on a daily basis. As for cooking, the major grocery stores do reasonably well at catering to vegetarians. Sainsbury’s and Tesco in particular sell tofu and plenty of vegetarian proteins and ready-made dishes. If ever there is something you cannot find there, Revital on Bridge Street, Arjuna Wholefoods on Mill Road, and the several Asian and Middle Eastern grocery stores also on Mill Road are all great options for vegetarians.

This post is part three 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 IV here.

  1. The person who was supposed to be responsible for this had the incredible habit of working only in 30-minute increments, inevitably at times when no one wanted to drop by. 

  2. “Hillwalking” is British English for “hiking.” The latter term they find mildly offensive, as they believe it sounds like one is bragging, an activity the modest British dare not be associated with. 

  3. Yet another benefit of Churchill’s position on the edge of town is that it is the most convenient college from which to access the highway out of Cambridge.