“Can I help?”: A Sojourn in Cambridge

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A late welcome from the banks (and BoGs) of the Cam

It is a Sunday morning here in Cambridge, with an absurdly forceful wind whipping through town, ripping off tree branches, launching horizontal raindrops at pedestrians at relativistic speeds and making cyclists ride at oblique angles just to maintain balance. It’s been nearly three weeks since I arrived here, having left on a Sunday afternoon to arrive at the Monday morning opening ceremonies of my course with 150lb of luggage in tow. Just days before, I had been told by the course assistant director that “There’s no reason for you to show up before October 5”, only to be informed the next day that orientation begins October 7. As it turns out there were many reasons to be present before the 5th — somewhat symbolic of the slapdash nature of this course, as it is the first time it’s being done. More on that later.

It is just after brunch at the Caius College (pronounced “keys”) dining hall, which comprised two fried eggs, a croissant, a bowl of yoghurt, a glass of Minute Maid orange juice, canned pear tomatoes and beans, and a raft of bacon and sausage and hash browns which I dodged — all notable because they form the essence of the Full English Breakfast experience.

I’m sitting here in the computer room, in the basement of the Caius College Library, right next to the Senate House. The latter is a rectangular building in the grand neoclassical style, where the Praelectors of the various colleges lead their graduating gowned flocks to receive their degrees, each college marching in the order of their founding (Caius is fourth, after Peterhouse, Clare College and Pembroke College). But, pray tell, where is the Senate House — or, more specifically, what street is it on? The answer can initiate you into the some of the folly and madness that is Cambridge (and, ultimately, England).

You see, the Senate House is technically on King’s Parade (not King’s Parade Street — just King’s Parade), on what I consider as the main Cambridge U drag. Except that the northern edge of it starts being called Trinity St. But the southern edge becomes Trumpington St. What you start to notice is that over the course of 500 yards, this street changes names 4 times: St John’s St, Trinity St, King’s Parade, Trumpington St, Trumpington Rd (see http://www.cam.ac.uk/map/v3/drawmap.cgi?…), and it’s not the only street that does this. So, even armed with an address such as ‘6 Trumpington St’, you can have a hell of a time finding a place, because you are never really sure which street you’re standing on unless you already know the town well. Add to that the capricious nature of numbering houses (sometimes alternating even and odd on opposite street sides, sometimes not) and the sporadic presence of street signs, and every new address becomes a new adventure.

But these names are old, old, and going against 750 years of history remains a losing proposition around these parts. And, until the 19th century, the Colleges had hegemony over the town, to the extent of setting prices for such things as bread and ale. So the little stretch of street in front of Trinity College will be called Trinity Street, and 50 meters up, in front of St John’s College it’s St John’s St, hallelujah and amen.
And to put in perspective how old Cambridge is, just think of this: when Sir Isaac Newton, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematicks, was writing his Principia Mathematica, Cambridge was already older than Harvard is now.

Keep that bike off the pavement, mate

In the battle against archaic addressing, your best weapon (save memorizing the damn map — oops, I mean memorising) is speed. And that is achieved through the humble bicycle. Even beyond the spire- and cornice-lined streets, it’s the preponderance of bicycles that struck me most upon first arriving here. Every bicycle rack, street sign, and building wall is festooned with metal and rubber, spoke and mudguard, three or four deep. There being at least three times as many cycles here as there are things to fasten them to, most of the two-wheeled conveyances are freestanding, leaning against a wall (which, by the way, would NEVER happen in Boston — the bikes would simply vanish).

Almost all streets are marked with cycle paths, even one-way ones having a little bike lane going the opposite way. And, at the top of every hour, as lectures let out, a stream of pedalers floods every street even more than before. Students, professors, fellows, rich people, poor people — everyone cycles. Those who have children of their own wear helmets; the rest (85+%) meander blissfully bareheaded. In sheer volume, Amsterdam ain’t got nothin’ on this town when it comes to bikes (NB: I have since been to Amsterdam, and I sit corrected. Still — whole lotta bikes.)

And so, wishing to be part of the wheeled and mobile masses, on my second day here, I set out on a bike hunt. You will be shocked to find that I
bought the first bike that I found at the first bike shop that I visited (those who know me well realize the improbability of such an event). There
it was: a Trek 700 hybrid, fully tricked out in the Cambridge Urban Geriatric package — mud guards front and back, front and back lights (required), rear rack (for passengers), chain guard (to save your trouser cuffs — key!) and the all-important front basket. An older gentleman had customized his bike for commuting, found that his knees couldn’t take the strain, and returned it less than a week after its purchase.

I immediately recognized how much time and money I’d have to spend to get a bare-bones bike to have all these accoutrements, and how I could never get them for a mere £150 ($230 or so, and rising). So, relinquishing my penchant for rock-devouring aluminum moutain bikes or speedy racing bikes, I plunked down on the spot for this incredibly practical instrument, and have enjoyed many a ride with nary a pant rip, chain-oil smudge or a wet rear, even in driving rain.

Now you would certainly be looked at askance if you were to tell an English person that your last bike used to rip into your pants. Or that you like to ride on the pavement. Because ‘pants’ around these parts means ‘underwear’, and ‘pavement’ means sidewalk. So you can imagine my mild bewilderment when, on my first day on my trusty steel steed, I was told that riding on the pavement was strictly forbidden. And when you say something is ‘pants’, that means it’s no good. (On the other hand, if something is ‘the dog’s bollocks’, then it’s grrreat — ‘brilliant’, in
fact.)

Now some of these differences aren’t strictly deadly, e.g. ‘tap’ for faucet and ‘post’ for ‘mail’, ‘lorry’ and ‘lift’ for truck and elevator. But, as a driver and cyclist, you can get into real trouble if you don’t know ‘give way’ means ‘yield’ and if you have no idea what a ‘rising bollard’ is.

Ahh, the rising bollard. See, there are certain zones of the city which are closed to all traffic, except for buses and taxis, at certain times of day. The borders to these zones are marked by ‘Caution: rising bollards’ signs, and woe betide he who obliviously or willfully drives onto the division zone, because from the very heart of Mother Earth majestically rises a ‘bollard’ — a metal column or pylon 3 feet high – impaling the car smack on its engine or transmission, instantly destroying it. Now the car-cass (ha) has to be towed, and the shame-faced driver has no choice but to pay something like a £1000 fine. Wild stuff.

And so the real shock of the new hit me as soon as I started cycling. ‘Stay on the left side, because it’s the right side’, my initial mantra, proved less helpful than it sounded. So I just decided to follow the direction cars were parked. That was a bad idea, because cars park facing either direction, on both sides of the road. OK, follow other cyclists and drivers then. Turnabouts (rotaries) go clockwise, not anticlockwise (counterclockwise) as I learned the hard way, and right turns are the dangerous ones, as oncoming headlights remind me time and time again which country I’m in.

One thing that I have yet to get over is the momentary horror of passing a car on the left, looking inside and seeing a small child in the driver’s seat (eek!) or, even worse, NOBODY in the driver’s seat (double eek!). Two and some decades of conditioning is hard to live down in two and some weeks.

Gonville and Caius is the baius knaius

Let’s get back to the initial story of my arrival here. Now, on that very Monday, I actually did not have a full acceptance from Cambridge University — or, more specifically, the Board of Graduate Studies. This latter institution is responsible for handling the affairs of graduate students here, and they do a magnificent job of devouring, swamp-like, any correspondence, email or phone call that comes their way without actually responding, and of generally doing business at the speed of a rapidly advancing glacier. Hence, my affectionate title for them, ‘The BoGS’ (which, in local parlance means, perhaps even more appropriately, ‘the toilets’).

Anyway — for whatever reason, even though the Bioscience Enterprise Programme, my course of study, had accepted me in early June, these swamp dwellers had not (long and complicated story which I hope you will never hear), so on Monday morning, I was homeless and addressless. Luckily, through the intercession of Dr Joe Herbert, the course director, on Tuesday evening I had been accepted at Gonville & Caius College, one of my top 3 choices, and the next week received an actual letter from the BoGS welcoming me to Cambridge. The amusing part of the story is how, fast on the heels of my acceptance to Caius College, I received my first letter from them the next day (even though I had no address) — the bill for the term’s charges. They can be on the ball when they really want to, you see.

Gonville & Caius was founded twice — once by Mr Gonville in 1348, and the second time by (you guessed it) Dr Caius. Now, for whatever reason, his name is pronounced ‘keys’ — some latinization of ‘Keyes’, which was fashionable in his day. But this gives our college double Cambridge snob status. First, because only yahoos from the outside even mention the ‘Gonville’ part; and second, because of the way ‘Caius’ is pronounced. Magdalene College has the trick pronunciation (’maudlin’) and Peterhouse the trick name (not ‘Peterhouse College’; just Peterhouse), but Caius got both. Of course this is also great fun to play with, as you can send a message to your fellow Caian (’kee-an’) saying ‘plaius excuse my snaius’ with a knowing chortle, har.

Since the original Dr Caius, this place has been a haven for medical students (aka ‘medics’) and natural scientists (’natskis’). Lots of the streets and buildings are named after famous alumni: Harvey Court and Harvey Road are tributes to old William, the Western discoverer of pulmonary circulation c. 1628 (Ibn an-Nafis, the Arab physiologist, did it first c. 1250). Glisson Road, where I live, is named after Dr Glisson, discoverer of the eponymous capsule of fibrous tissue encasing the plumbing that goes into the liver.

On my second day in Cambridge, as I was exiting the College one evening, I had a near run-in with one of the more famous living Caians. First I thought it was a handicapped student, but then I realized that I had narrowly avoided collision with none other than the current Lucasian Professor of Mathematicks, Stephen Hawking.

When Jesus, Christ, Corpus Christi and Trinity sit to dine

There are 32 Colleges at Cambridge, and the students harbor the same fierce and irrational loyalties towards them as we all do to arbitrary elements of identity like country, religion and name. Some are more hoity-toity than others (Trinity being the ne plus ultra); some are more liberal (Kings). All are absolutely enamored of their rules and traditions. One of the surviving traditions is that of Formal Hall.

Dinner is served in two seatings: 6.20 and 7.15. At the second seating, all students are required to wear their academic gowns before sitting down at the long benches of Caius Dining Hall, listening to a Latin benediction, and sharing a three-course meal which ranges between being repulsive to marginally edible. The ploy for getting the students to show up in spite of the shoddy cuisine is to mandate the pre-purchase of 16 meal tickets, at £4.50 each (about $7), which is certainly much easier than providing good food. One saving grace is that we are allowed to bring our own wine to the table and share with whomever we want, with a loosely enforced limit of one bottle per person. If you just asked yourself, “Wait a second there — shouldn’t one bottle per Homo sapiens be enough?”, read on.

As it turns out, drinking in general and wine in particular provide a cornerstone — nay, THE cornerstone of Cambridge life. When I first read The Double Helix at the tender age of 15, what struck me most was how much of business, even of Watson & Crick magnitude, was conducted at pubs, over beer. Every College has its own pub, open to everyone, with absurdly cut-rate drink prices (pint of cider £1; pint of beer £1.50; shot of tequila £1.40 — dangerous!). Every Wednesday we have after-dinner port at 8pm, which goes on and on and on. And regularly there are fancy dinners (the last of which was the Graduate Matriculation Dinner) where we sit with the Fellows of the College, eat from a menu written entirely in French (of course ‘pommes de terre’ taste better than potatoes!) and have 4 different courses of wine, capped off by your choice of port or claret, passed around in a crystal decanter, around in a crystal decanter, around in a (burp) crysal descanter, roight.

Unfortunately, these occasions are the only time when we dine with the Fellows. The professors and such always eat at the High Table, which is not open to students, graduate or non, and this hierarchical arrangement echoes itself throughout English social structure. My hopes for having regular chats with Prof Hawking have thus been temporarily dashed.

Of course, no account of a sojourn in England is complete without some mention of how unlike (and, by implication, inferior to) America it is. None of you know me as a cheerleader of things American, but I cannot help but notice some peculiarities of life here. The most amusing is easily the hot & cold faucet arrangement: in every sink, they are separated by 2 feet of space, such that thou shalt scald thine hands or
freeze them, but though shalt never wash them under a temperate stream of water. Seeing as how some of the tubs and showers actually have the technological wonder of the mixer tap incorporated, I am dumbfounded as to why sinks should be so deprived.

There is also a strange fondness for rules and an unabashed willingness to enforce them, even to perfect strangers. In my 12 years of cycling nearly every day in the States, people reminded or reprimanded me only a handful of times for my kamikaze tendencies, even in the most flagrant case. But here, somebody says something nearly every time. The most surreal incident was when I was locking my bike, and a friend that I had not seen in 3yrs called my name, prompting me to exclaim ‘Holy fucking cow!’, to which a grey head stuck itself out of a Caius College office window and said, emphatically, ‘No. NO.’ This lifetime had not prepared me for that.

At risk of flagrant generalization, what epitomizes my experience here is the phrase with which shopkeepers greet you: “May I help?” For some time, I have found the absence of ‘you’ at the end of that query to be particularly jarring, and my over-philosophized explanation is thus: they don’t really much care about ‘you’ here, as evidenced by the absence of customer service and the presence of the National Health Service. Collectively, people matter (hence, rules and the penchant for them); individually, not so much. Here, rules are rigid physical things that you run into, as if hitting a wall; not at all nice and bendy like back there, and not at all guidelines for when common sense fails. And saying ‘Can I help’ instead of ‘Can I help you’ conveys the same amount of warmth and sincerity as saying ‘I love’ instead of ‘I love you’.

Hey, America may not be so great, but at least sometimes they fake it well when it counts. (NB: My English friends have since brought to my attention that they feel exactly the same way about American rules, especially when it comes to bars and carrying ID. Acknowledged.)

Of course, you’re all more than welcome — nay, encouraged — to visit. There’s really no place like Cambridge (except for Oxford), and it’s quite fun for a quick swing-through.

 

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1 Comment »

  1. Lockney

    August 22, 2006 @ 2:48 pm

    1

    Your site is realy very interesting.

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