Experiences Abroad

Tradition! or things I only got to know about Cambridge by living here (end of year edition)

When I was first telling people that I’d be in Cambridge Spring 2019, people who didn’t really know Cambridge usually said, “oh, how nice” thinking of an old  village with beautiful sites and the university. People who did know the university told me it would be a great time, but most important was that I keep an open mind and embrace the opportunity to learn about its customs and traditions, even if I found them weird.

So here we are, 5 months later, and I’ve found a lot weird but mostly had a good time. I have decided that the danger of being in a place long enough is that you forget how to look at things with wonder, but thankfully I wasn’t here long enough for that to happen. I can still appreciate the way tourists scramble all over the sidewalk to get shots of the iconic architecture (even if they are sometimes too many and quite annoying), like the way the sun shines on the neo-gothic tower of the St. John’s chapel just so after a rain shower, or I smile at the cow that ambles over the field it shares with runners, revelers, picnickers and small children playing.

roses

and I can really appreciate the way the English roses bloom in June. I’ve never seen anything like it! And I thought Germany was a rose paradise

I also like learning new things about the colleges and the town every day, and I tried to take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. Most of the time, however, I was working (which is a very good thing! and I credit a productive atmosphere for that), and I have to say that I wasn’t nearly as productive with my own work these last five years as I have in the last 5 months.

I was here for the Lent and Easter terms, which are the second and third terms in the Cambridge trimester system. Each term is 8 weeks with a month or more between the terms for  study, internships, and vacation. Here’s a breakdown for the 2018/19 school year:

Michaelmas Start
Michaelmas End
Lent Start
Lent End
Easter Start
Easter End
2018/19 2 Oct 2018 30 Nov 2018 15 Jan 2019 15 Mar 2019 23 Apr 2019 14 Jun 2019

However, while supervisions (the tutor/fellow and a few students class sessions) occur year round, lectures only happen during the Michaelmas and Lent terms. Easter term is primarily for exam preparation (or revision, as they say here) and/or paper writing and/or dissertation writing (which is the same thing as a thesis [like an MA thesis]. I don’t know why the English switched these two terms around). However, since PhD students are just expected to get done what we need to get done by a certain date with our own schedule (or that of our supervisor), we don’t abide by the term schedule or really get breaks. This means that for us, the end of the term isn’t as special as for the undergrads or master’s students.

But let me tell you, while Cambridge students know how to work hard, they can also play hard.

Exhibit A: ‘trashing’

trashing by the lawyers

view from the graduate office at the newly minted law-examined

This tradition entails friends/fellow students spraying students coming out of their exams with champagne or other fizzy alcoholic (and sometimes non-alcoholic) beverages. Often glitter (or other sticking items) are tossed at the soaking student and it creates a mess that the poor custodial crew have to pressure-clean away (you can see them already set-up here). Let’s not forget also how it generates a lot of noise that the poor PhD students and those studying for other exams/writing papers have to live with as well. For these reasons, the university actually tried banning this practice, but it seems the students don’t mind a £ 175 fine in exchange for whatever joy they get out of this. And I do not begrudge them their fun, since the exams are difficult and the months preceding them are intense for the students. I swear, you could cut through the anxiety/stress atmosphere with a knife the week before exams started.

In order to wind-down after this period, a host of events are held for students, such as a wine-and-cheese night with the college’s Barbershop septet and their female counterparts, the Sirens novem.

As the term came to an end and most of my deadlines were met, I’ve had more time this past week to partake in the social and other events happening at Cambridge: the wine and cheese and listening thing, formals, May Bumps, and garden parties. I learned a few new things along the way that I wanted to share, as they may interest you or just come in handy during trivia pursuit someday.

As readers may recall, I visited a formal during my first weeks at Cambridge. It was the welcoming formal and included an aperitif aka pre-drinks, the meal with wine served, and post-drinks brandy, fruit, coffee and tea. Apparently, that was a special formal. Most formals are just fancy-set, served meals. If you want wine, you bring it yourself. You still dress up and wear your Harry Potter gown, but it is not compulsory and the whole affair is a bit more relaxed. Not knowing the thing about the wine caused me unwittingly to ask my neighbor to pass me their wine. Oops. Not that I’ll be in that situation again anytime soon, but it’s good to know.

Another fun thing to know is the history about May Balls. As with many other things in Cambridge (remember blazers?), this tradition also originated with rowing.

May Balls

The first May Ball ever held was actually a rowdy celebration in a bar after the first and third boats of Trinity’s rowing team won their races in the May Bumps (more about the May Bumps below). The next year, the boat team decided to rent a place to have a party, and it continued every year to turn in to the event known today as the May Ball, with the other colleges catching on and hosting their own balls with details that make them unique and the tickets for those college May Balls in demand.

With tickets costing anywhere from £85 to £320 for an individual, often having a compulsory +1 option, May Balls are fancy-dress parties held at over 10 of the colleges (some colleges will host one every two years) that are pretty exclusive affairs (yes, even more exclusive than Cambridge is in general) and involve night-long food and drink options–sometimes punt boats filled with ice and champagne– music performances by world class performers, fireworks, and even hot-air balloon rides. It’s a bit like prom, but much more elaborate and for adults.

preparations part ii

Here’s a view of the north bank of Trinity Hall’s gardens and the set-up for the 2019 May Ball

The balls operate a strict dress code. Magdalene and Peterhouse Colleges insist on white tie (basically what you would wear for a state dinner with the Queen), which is recommended but not required at Trinity, while all the others are only black tie. Asides from the cost of the ticket, I imagine the personal budget to attend a ball to be at least £300 pounds, if not more. Considering I debate if it’s worth getting the more expensive item on a dinner menu, hate having to get dressed up, and generally am not much of a party person anyway, it’s a good thing there are alternatives to these balls like June Events and Garden Parties. In fact, Fitzwilliam College’s Garden Party is free for students and I’m curious to see what is offered.

All these events (as the name of the June Events tells you) are all held in the middle of June. This is because colleges wait until after exams to host the parties. It used to be that the May Bumps and the subsequent May Balls were held in May, before exams, but clearly someone realized it was a terrible idea to have these kinds of events when students were losing their hair (and maybe minds) over exams. The name was retained even after the date move because, you know, tradition.

May Bumps

As for the history of May Bumps, it’s the pinnacle intercollegiate race at Cambridge. Most of the Cambridge colleges have at least one rowing team, if not three, and these rowers will race against each other in a series of four races called bumps during Bumps week, which is the week before May Week (for the reason explained above).

The basic gist is that boat teams are ranked within their divisions, and they need to prove that they can beat the team ahead of them in the division. This involves lining all the boats up against the bank of the river and firing a canon (literally- a lot of smoke is generated). The boats start off and the goal is to pull away from the team behind you and catch up to the one ahead of you. Boats aren’t actually supposed to bump, but come level enough with the boat in front of them for the cox (the person in the back of the boat directing their rowers, who can’t see anything because they are facing away from the direction they are going) to notice them and put up their arms.

The further details are a bit too complicated (and boring, even for me), but the fun part is that if a team bumped another boat, they have won their race and get to row down the rest of the stretch of the river with bits of shrubbery (bank grass) in their hair, like laurels, with everyone lined up along the banks applauding them, of course with those team supporters cheering the loudest.

If a team bumps on all four days of the races, they get an even greater honor: they row down the river with their flag. And they get blades. Literally, they get a rowing blade with their school’s colors and all the names of the team written on the blade. These are displayed in conspicuous spaces in the college (Fitzwilliam has theirs above the bar) and individuals can also buy a blade for something like £ 250. Still too much for me, but apparently it’s quite coveted.

Pimm's Party

Here’s the bank side of the viewing party, put on by the Fitzbillies, the Fitzwilliam Boating Society. Our mascot, obviously, is a billy goat.

Pimm's

Source

This was the first rowing event I attended. Throughout my time at Cambridge, I’ve seen the teams up at 6am, when I was out for my run, getting the boats in the water. I’ve raced a few along the bank, and a lot of my housemates are involved with the rowing teams- in fact, the men’s and former women’s captains are my neighbors, so I was bound to at least visit the May Bumps. And since it involved unlimited Pimm’s (a gin-based fruit cup that many consider a liqueur. One mixes it with soda water, orange and cucumber slices, and mint leaves. , I ended up having an even better time than expected.

The Sunday after Maybumps is also traditionally a cardboard regatta race. Here, students make boats out of cardboard and race them on the Cam along Jesus Green. It almost seemed like more people came out to watch this than Bumps. Of course, given the inevitable falling into water, that’s part of the entertainment. The name for this Sunday is a bit controversial: Suicide Sunday, based on the double marker of a) having survived exams without causing any self-harm and b) describing the very real danger of people succumbing to the anxiety of not knowing the results. I agree with those who want to call it something else, but unfortunately this is another tradition that sticks, even though one could very well get rid of it.

Still, the race was fun. One can tell that these students knew what they were doing. Some of these boats were legit with four (or more!) people in the boat!

suicide sunday cardboard regatta

As for the rest of my week here, I already mentioned the garden party. I still have one more academic obligation- a meeting with my supervisor, and ideally I’d get to copy the notes from the library books I still have in my possession. I want to visit the Fitzwilliam Museum, either St. Ives or Anglesey Abbey, and just enjoy the rest of my time here, but it will be a bit tight and I still have to pack and wrap-up selling my bike.

Oh well, more soon, probably, especially since I still have an 8-day trip through England with my parents to recap. Stay tuned!

Hope life is treating you well,

-Dorothea

p.s. if there’s something that you could do while at Cambridge, what do you think  that would be?

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Blackpool Marathon recap

After a week of talking to people who really didn’t want to know ALL the details about my latest marathon (you know how it is, once they ask, it’s kind of hard to stop adding things), I decided to take my Blackpool Marathon recap to the interwebs. I closed my running site months ago, but since this was my first destination race, and in England, it also fits in nicely here in my wandering blog. Now, I’d like to warn you that I wrote quite a bit for this recap and most of it is really just interesting to me. You may want to stop a few paragraphs from now, where I summarize my race, or skip ahead to the breakdown of the miles closer to the end.

As I showed in my last post, Blackpool is a town on the north-west side of English coastline, looking out over the Irish Sea. We got to see a lot of this sea while running, which I think was my favorite part of the race. That being said, being on the sea, it was also very windy [stress factor #1] which I didn’t really take seriously enough until it was facing me, or I was facing into it, so to speak.

IMG_3160

As far as marathons go, this was a slightly-better-than mediocre performance. I went in thinking I had a shot at 3:25 and I came out with 3:35:13, which I guess only looks sad to me because I had such a high goal to begin with. In retrospect, I think I wanted to show the Cambridge University Hounds and Hares that I could run a little closer to their level, impress them in some small way, but realistically, given some over-training symptoms the week before, some Achilles pain, and a bit of stress the week/day before the race, I probably should have aimed for the sub 3:30 and left it at that. Though, I also still think I may have had a chance at 3:25 if I had known the course a little better and started off more moderately.

Anyhoo, race preparation started Friday evening, as I had big travel plans and wasn’t planning on getting into Blackpool until around 9 PM on Saturday. Friday evening, after an important presentation for my PhD [stress factor #2], I packed everything I thought I would need. Thankfully, I have a lot of practice packing from traveling in general, and I’d been collecting all the things I needed for this marathon for about a week in the same drawer: bib belt, gels, socks, sports bra, two options for running tops, two pairs of shorts- one for during and one for post-race, and three 20 pence pieces- since those would be my access to toilets on-course. I’ll explain more about the amenities (or lack thereof) at this race later. The shoes [stress factor #3] were the most difficult part of the packing process as I’d only recently noticed that the shoes that I’d been using throughout the whole training cycle were hurting me- specifically the Achilles. So when packing on Friday, I had both my Dynaflyte-2s and Nimbus-19s, both from the ASICS Gel line, out ready to pack in their shoe bag. I ended up spontaneously going with the Nimbus-19s, which had seemed too rigid in previous runs in them, but had felt the most comfortable in the week leading up to this race.

After a short, but deep rest, I woke up early on the Saturday to get a quick run in. This turned into two quick runs when I realized after getting back to the house that I’d left my key inside. I then sort of half-sprinted over to the Porter’s Lodge to get a replacement, which was a pretty simple affair. I like to think that this last-minute running was part of my preparation for the race, and locking myself out once already a few months ago was preparation for locking myself out this time, as I would not have known what to do so swiftly otherwise. I’m lucky it all went so smoothly, given that at 6:10, when I was standing at the counter waiting for the paperwork for a replacement key to be filed, I had 40 minutes to get home, showered, on the bike and to the train station. I ended up making it to the station with just enough time to grab a coffee, and thus began my journey to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It was a pretty active day- but a super cool visit, as my post about that shows.

However, despite making it out of Newcastle alright, I was stuck in Preston for too long. It’s sort of ironically funny that after months of living in England and using the public transportation fairly frequently, the day before my marathon is when the (supposedly) notorious transportation quality made an appearance for the worse. This means that traveling to Newcastle, and then traveling to Blackpool wasn’t the most stressful part- it was having a train- and all the trains after that for the evening- fall out on the track from Preston to Blackpool and waiting around a chilly station for 1.5 hours [stress factor #4: even if I wouldn’t feel sick before the run, I was sure I’d contracted a virus that was activated by this cold, and it would start affecting me after the race with my weakened immune system]. And then sitting in the bus for an hour, worried for the first 15 minutes, until I could maneuver it elsewhere, that the heavy backpack on my lap was weakening my legs for the next day [stress factor #5]. And then arriving in the dark in an unknown city in continuing drizzle and cold gusts and having to find the hotel, which is really never any fun, even in the best of situations.

Still, as one fellow traveler mentioned in our conversations (standing around train stations can lead to a lot of sharing), perhaps being put through so much extra stress would make me more tried and then it would easier to fall asleep. I think that was partially true as I can’t really remember much after getting to the hotel.

The next morning, race morning at 6:30am to be precise, I was excited to find a hot water cooker in the room as well as multiple coffee options, including the one I’d brought with me, which was nice, since the breakfast room wouldn’t be open until 8:30. This meant I also had enough time to write in my journal, reflect on my goals for the race, eat a honey waffle and drink my two cups of coffee. I packed my race bag with a bottle of water, some Emergen-C, a change of clothes, watch, MP3 and headphones, my 3 x 20 cents, my 6 gels, and the bib belt. 15 minutes in the breakfast room added a banana and an apple, and I shared the room with a bowl of cocoa puffs and another cup of coffee, and a few people with hangovers, before I had to meander over to the race. I like to think that the stress of travel the night before was worth it for being less than 3/4s of a mile from the race start.

Now, a few details about this race: the Blackpool Marathon was part of the Blackpool Festival of Running that stretched out over the whole weekend, included a 2k, 5k, 10k, half and full marathon, and was hosted by the Flyde Coast Runners (more about the Flyde Coast in the last post). The shorter distances were done on Saturday and the half and full-marathons on the Sunday- which ended up being perfect as the weather was absolutely awful on Saturday and amazing on Sunday- except for the wind, of course. There were 494 people who finished the full and 753 who finished the half marathons, which means there were about 1,247+ people walking around the starting area- and it was surprisingly manageable. I was able to show up at around 9 AM and still pick up my number and shirt without trouble, drop-off (more like toss) my bag in the bag collection area, and even make it to the restroom multiple times. It reminded me why I really like smaller races.

IMG_3162

That being said, the only services offered on course were water-bottle aid stations and marshalling by the local police and volunteers. Everything else, including money for the toilets, I needed to provide for myself. Hence the running belt for the gels, which I didn’t actually have a chance to test before the race and while it was supposed to be meant for any gels, including Gus, I ended up losing 1 Gu in the first mile and another at mile 13 [stress factor #6]. I felt like I may need to go to the restroom for the first miles [stress factor #7], but that feeling went away by mile 8- whether starting dehydration or just going away, I don’t know. The good thing is, after realizing I’d lost a gel, I started looking for lost gels, and managed to scrounge three throughout the rest of the race- all taken before mile 22. I don’t know if that was the best judgement… but I decided I’d rather contract some weird disease from the ground than bonk during this race. Logic just doesn’t work during a marathon.

Blackpool Race Course

The course itself was great. Here’s an interactive map, for those who are especially curious. If it hadn’t been for the wind, it would have been a nice out-and back course done twice with doable mini-hills and a wonderful view of the coast. The sharp incline shortly before the finish was a bit of a bummer, but even that was easily overcome.

The half-marathoners and full marathoners started off at the same time heading in opposite directions, converging, and then diverging again. The split, however, was stress factor #8, as I forgot to check this the morning of the race and forgot where the split was supposed to occur… meaning I stressed about it for the entire first half of the race. The race website now says it in these words: “Please note: Just before 13 miles, marathon runners split away from half marathon runners. Marathon runners need to keep left to proceed onto the second lap. There are marshals and signs to assist you, but please make yourself aware of the split point before competing to avoid any confusion on the day.” I was so sure, though, that this was different last I checked. When I checked in the week before the race, it was more like: “there will be marshals, but it is the racer’s responsibility to know where to split off.” Though maybe I confused the split point snippet with this one: “YOU MUST ENSURE YOU ARE IN THE CORRECT START LANE – THIS IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY.” Either way, I was a bit (read: very) nervous that I would get it wrong.

Turns out, I could have just watched the mile-signs (no timers on course) and seen that the marathon signs (in red) were still steadily ticking towards 26 miles like they should. But for an anxious person like me, even the evidence doesn’t really serve to reassure me as much as someone with authority looking at my bib and making sure I was in the correct lane for my race, and telling me that better well get in it if I wanted to continue on the marathon course, gosh-darnnit.

If you got bored a while ago, you may want to restart here. I think I’ve set the scene for the race and all that remains is to quickly recap how the race went:

Mile 1-6 were with the wind, and I ticked down the miles pretty quickly with sub 7:45 mpms. For some reason, because of the wind-turbines being turned in the opposite direction of what I’m used to, I thought that I was running fast into a wind, and therefore wasn’t concerned until we reached the first turn-around and I remembered what running into the wind really feels like. I reached the first 10km at about 47:30, which I knew was too fast, but I was still delusional at that point. I think I took my first gel around mile 6.

Miles 6-13 I stopped being delusional, first with the wind being turned on and then around mile 9 when I started actually feeling tired- which in a 26.2-mile race is never a good point to feel tired [stress factor #8]. Yet the legs still had a good turn-over in them and it helped that around mile 10 we turned back around and had the tail-wind, but it was already a concern. As for turning back with the wind, I kid you not- it was as though someone had turned off the fan on a warm April day in south Florida; the sun, which had made an appearance shortly after 10 AM already, became too warm and the pace suddenly felt much easier. I took another gel at mile 11.5 or so with the next water bottle that crossed my path. I had skipped the first water station, but with the sun, it was starting to feel warm and the first station was the only one I skipped. Indeed, shortly before mile 13 for the half marathoners (but after mile 13 for the marathoners), the divergence point came and with that, back on the main promenade.

Miles 13-17 on the promenade were much less interesting the second time around with less support- a lot of it had been for the half-marathoners who were by now walking back to their homes/cars/hotels. One of these runners offered me his water, and I took the bottle without thinking about whether he was offering a sip or the whole rest of the bottle… The bottle incident at mile 14 or 15 were another sign that things were getting difficult- I’m normally super iffy on germs and who knows what kind of conditions that guy could have… but again, marathon logic. But just because there were no longer people really cheering, there were more than enough people walking along the course, enjoying the promenade and Pleasure Beach. To be honest, it was actually a little more demoralizing than running with no spectators at all would have been (and I’ve done those, too).I did the first half in 1:41:20, which incidentally is also 3rd place overall for women for that segment on Strava, and it’s, of course, a great time for a marathon.

Elevation_Half split_Blackpool

However, not something I could expect to repeat. I sort of managed to keep a steady pace before the turn-around back into the wind, picking up dropped two gels  (these made up for the two I’d lost up to that point), taking one of them at mile 14, because I was feeling tired and worried that I would run out of steam, which reflects a bit in the splits during this part; they were pretty varied: 7:45, 7:57, 7:36, 7:57, 8:01. These reflect that I already took my first walking break at mile 15.5, and another one at 16.8, which is even before we turned back into the wind.

Miles 17-23 were tough. We turned back into the wind close to mile 18 and I think I was so demoralized that I just took a walking break to get over the difficult stretch I knew was up ahead. Also, while I definitely had enough gels in my system at this point, I didn’t have enough fluid and this meant I started  cramping mile 20 or so, which is the first time I’ve cramped in a longer race. It was mostly the hamstrings- and they weren’t full-on cramps. They would just tighten, force me check my pace a bit, and then release. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the mini rolling hills appeared again. So yeah, fun stuff. Paces: 8:54, 9:08, 9:07, 9:16, 9:23.

Miles 22-26 were redeemed by the fact that we had a bit of a downhill, another flat stretch, and were out of the wind again. Also, it was almost the end. However, I knew that the last water stop was coming up close to mile 24 and had taken the last gel around mile 22… so I was yearning for some water and could easily have drunk the whole 500mL they gave us there. However, the easier conditions meant I could keep myself moving and even avoided walking anymore. The cramps had also subsided and the only thing hindering me were my slowly failing quads. Still, I was faster those last three miles than the three before that: 9:01, 8:47, 8:29.

Last 0.2 miles were me thinking “I’m so over this… just get me to the end.” Even though there was a little hill at mile 26, it was a nice little 8:28mpm pace… I’m also amazed at how much better I looked than I felt the last mile.

As I approached the finish line, I saw that I was at 3:35 something on the clock, so I just made it my mission to keep it under 3:36. That didn’t stop someone from sprinting past me those last meters (seriously?! How?)

So, at which point did I give up my 3:25 goal? Probably around mile 9 when I first started feeling tired. A little surer when I walked mile 14. Definitely when I had several 9+mpm after mile 19. I thought mile 19 I may still get sub 3:30, but unlike my last marathon where I had something to fight for the whole race, this time I think I let go of my focus on most of my time goals and it just became a matter of finishing as quickly as possible, regardless of the time. That is, I no loner had a specific time goal to meet, just whatever time I could manage after the cramps, walking breaks and tiredness.

The race in numbers
Date: 28 April 2019, 5 months and 1 week since the last marathon
Cost of race: £35 + travel/hotel money; savings: 60 pence on a toilet on the route
Hours of sleep the night before: 6:06
Temperature at race start/end: 10 degrees Celsius, overcast/12 degrees Celsius,  sunny
Gels consumed: 2 Gus and 5 Iso gels
Number of times I wondered if the turn-around should have happened by now: 5
10km: 47:30
Half-marathon time: 1:41:20
30km: 2:26:06 (PR!)
Official chip time: 3:35:13
Placing: 87/494 overall;  6th woman overall; 3rd woman age group 18-30

The experience after the race was really mellow. I thought there was a chance I could have placed in something, so I hung around, used the time to change, refuel with my protein bar, their mini Cadbury chocolate bar, my water, their water, and my banana. I walked a bit too, covering about 2 miles afterwards- anything to keep the legs moving.

Once 14:30 came around and the awards weren’t being done yet, I let go of my glimmer of hope and figured if I won anything, I’d hear about it later. I shuffled up the promenade in the trail of the families of a few marathoners and got a bit of fish n’chips and a coffee at the North Pier. Walked around a bit more, and then headed back to the hotel. I wasn’t quite sure how to get back, but thankfully I recognized things pretty quickly and found the B&B in time for a shower, nap, and then still found some energy to hunt down a beer and a real meal.

More about post-race in my other post, but after a poor night’s sleep and 5 hour journey, I finally made it back to Cambridge, slowly rode up the hill home, and was glad to just lounge about and do home office a few days.

I was so tired this past week- more tired I think than I’ve ever been except after an intense surgical procedure in the fifth grade involving arteries and skin grafts…, yeah. Possibly, this fatigue was the result of having been fatigued before the run and just wiping myself out on that course. It could also have been the combined efforts of travel and racing (I have so much more respect for people who do destination races). It could also have been the combination of PMS and post-marathon recovery, which reminds me that listening to the body as a woman means extra things to listen to. Finally, it could also just have been post-race blues from having not met my expectations for this race. Or maybe it was all four. However, ultimately, it was Marathon #7 and I did it! I’m also feeling much better as of publishing this post and looking forward to getting a bit faster in the shorter distances again.

Sorry about this ultra-long post. Again, I think it’s more for my benefit than any potential reader’s. I can recommend Blackpool as a PR course on a less windy day, and in general, despite so few perks, the Flyde Coast Runners put on a great event- and I love the medal and the shirt! It’s also my first, and maybe only marathon in England, so it will always have a special place in my heart.

medal Blackpool

you can see just a bit of the famous North Pier there. Also, quite surprisingly, I got sunburn in my face. That will teach me to put on sunscreen, no matter how overcast it is before a race!

p.s. As of this afternoon, right before this post was scheduled to be published, I received an email saying I was reimbursed for my ticket Newcastle to Blackpool, which means I’m 51 pounds richer and therefore can remember that part of the journey a tad more positively. Thank you Northern!

north of the south, continued: Blackpool

Mind you, traveling to Blackpool happened on the same day as my trip to Newcastle, so it was a long day. I describe the journey there in detail in my next post, but suffice to say- the transport system failed me for the first time since arriving in England and I arrived in Blackpool 2 hours later than planned, and I wasn’t very happy.

However, the following day’s marathon and a bit of sight-seeing made up for it.

By coming to Blackpool, I manage to become a bit acquainted with the Flyde Peninsula.

The Flyde is a coastal plain in western Lancashire and considered a peninsula, though it doesn’t completely look like one to me. However, the fact that it was on the Irish Sea was unmistakeable and I felt right at home with the seagulls and and beachside vibe, which included more B&Bs than hotels, which I quite enjoyed.

Blackpool is an interesting city. At its height during the 19th and first half of the 20th Century, it was a fashionable sea-resort to which wealthy Englishmen would travel to “take the cure.” Now it’s a popular tourist destination for its major attractions and promises of fun.

However, I have to say, being there in late April when the weather wasn’t that great was a little demoralizing. It was very empty and perhaps, dare I say it, a bit depressing. I wasn’t that surprised to learn in preparing for this post that Blackpool had the fourth highest rate of antidepressant prescription in England in the 2017 national health survey.

Still, I saw how people were having a lot of fun on the promenade as I was running along it during the marathon and saw Blackpool Tower, Madame Tussaud’s, the old-fashioned roller coaster in Pleasure Beach (no, not what you think- it’s an amusement park and actually the most popular in England) and post-marathon meal scrounging meant I got to see a little more of the area I was in, though it was admittedly far away from all the main sites. Perhaps quite alright though.

Immediately after the race I still managed to walk up and down the North Pier. According to all the information plaques along the walkway, the North Pier is one of three piers in Blackpool, but it was the first one and it’s also the longest. It credits theaters and bars to its attractions and while there wasn’t a lot going on at 14:00 on a Sunday, I could see how it would be busy and fun at another time of day and year.

Later, after a shower and a nap, I hung out in a popular local bar, Churchill’s and also did some karaoke, which is only the second time I’ve done it in public and first time without a support group, which tells you a little about my “idgaf” attitude post-marathon. It was a bar full of locales, though, and it was kind of nice to be part of a group enjoying a regular Sunday afternoon.

Then, in search of a proper meal (the fish and chips post-race having long been exhausted), I found this plaza and this beautiful church- St. John’s. The street leading out from the plaza looked pretty interesting as well, but I was done exploring.

The next morning, I did make it to the coast again for my streak mile, and while the first run the day after a marathon is never really any fun, the view was worth it now that the tide had come in.

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I was also rewarded with a full English breakfast after getting back to the B&B. But then I was off, headed back south again to London, and then Cambridge.

I obviously did not really get more than a bare impression of Blackpool and if I went again, I’d find a place to stay closer to Blackpool central station, which is closer to all the attractions like Pleasure Beach, Blackpool Tower, and the Zoo. The only reason I was near Blackpool North was to be close to the race venue (though, I was clearly in a strongly LGBTQ+ friendly sector, so that’s be an argument to return there). I’d also likely come in July or August.

Given that I was limited on time and energy, and it’s my own fault I came at the wrong time of year, I’m not disappointed at all.

Question: Have you ever visited somewhere in that place’s off-season and enjoyed it anyway? Or regretted it?

Don’t mention the war, er… BREXIT

There used to be only one topic in the UK whose mention would immediately raise the volume in the room and the blood pressures of all those present…

First of all, a disclaimer about my relationship to British politics. I’m currently living in England, but I don’t plan on staying and no one knows when I’ll be back for more than a visit (not saying it wouldn’t be cool, though). This is the first time I’ve lived somewhere where I have no citizenship rights (other than being a member of the EU- which is a bit ironic in this case) and therefore am less personally involved in the politics here. However, I’ve got ears and eyes and I’m not a stranger to heated arguments after an event or show with a few pints in the system, so I am involved in a small way. I still only have slightly-more-than-rudimentary knowledge about the whole constitutional monarchy thing and devolution. I also inevitably compare everything to what I already know in the US or Germany, so my knowledge is equalized, at best. Still, since I’m here and since it’s a major topic, I figured I’d finally address the elephant in the room.

Though, you know how you mean to do something for such a long time, and you finally get around to it and realize- oh, that moment has passed? For me that moment was writing about Brexit, but luckily there’s nothing more conveniently late to post about than Brexit.

Here we are, nearing 3 years after the original referendum David Cameron proposed to have the constituency vote whether the UK should leave the EU (23 June 2016) , and although the vote was in favor of “leave” 51.9% to 48.1%, the UK is still in the EU. As Daniel Dosenbier (ha ha, probably a pseudonym as I doubt anyone would really be called “canned beer”) put for the Urban Dictionary, Brexiting is like “saying goodbye to everyone at a party and then proceeding to stick around.”

Brexiting

Well, I was sure my moment had passed when Parliament made its decision on the 29th of March,  but since the next chaotic sessions are just around the corner as the 22rd of May approaches, I am technically now ahead of the game.

The 22nd of the month of May is when PM Theresa May (I’m sure I’m not the first to find the name a little confusing this month) wants another chance at getting her deal for Brexit to pass, because May 23rd is the date of the 2019 European Parliament elections (advertisement for it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3tErFvAgag; still haven’t decided how I feel about it– the ad, not the elections). Ideally, the British Parliament would pass the May’s deal, not take part in the EU elections, and leave, and life could move on. However, most likely, there will be no agreement, and the UK will either have to decide to leave without a deal by June 1st or vote in the elections and stay and see whether they can still get a deal by 31 October.

Here’s a rather nifty flow-chart put out in the article by Peter Barnes for the BBC explaining the possibilities.

Allowing what can really only be termed political shenanigans to get as far as they have is possibly just a matter of the possibilities defending  their so-called honor at this point. Or maybe it even has something to do with democracy and respecting the rights of the people. But really, all the politicians have to do it fess up, admit they made a mistake in organizing a referendum for which no plan was in place to carry out all possibilities of the vote, and then propose a new plan with a new referendum (which may be the post 23 May plan). Though who am I kidding? I write “all,” but it’s probably the last thing they would do.

Anyway, having a reelection doesn’t solve the situation that more than 6.7 million Britons have issue the EU, and these can range from conspiratorial fears about open borders to legitimate concerns of distribution of wealth and product management. After all, the UK’s entry into the European Economic Union (precursor to the EU) in 1973 resulted in thousands of changes to administrative tasks and realities for the British people’s everyday lives and economies, whether they are aware of it or not. One could say one of the failures of the EU was not being transparent enough about its role, allowing for the media to create narratives that the people believed instead of really understanding what their representatives were voting on for them in Brussels. Furthermore, there is a continuing reality that many people in the EU continue to consider their allegiance to their national-state before looking towards the EU.

I learned a little more about the situation when I visited a talk the night before the last Parliament vote was supposed to take place called “The Lessons of Brexit.” A new locale meant I got to know a new part of Cambridge and it would be good to get some more informed perspectives on the topic, since pub talk can really only get you so far before you’re repeating yourself or the other person.

Readers can actually watch the panel event themselves by clicking the link here or the video below, but my main takeaways were: Brexit has caused us to question democracy, even if it also helps show the strengths of having a democracy, and that maybe the British should pay a little more attention to the people who are unhappy and try and understand why they voted the way they did rather than writer them off as ignorant or ill-informed.

I found it interesting how a vote about staying in the EU could reveal so many other issues the UK has had since WWII, for one a deeply woven prejudice against working-class people in Britain, especially in Britain’s north. Everything that non-leave voters accuse “leave” voters for: narrow-mindedness, xenophobia, isolationist tendencies are traits the “cosmopolitan” (I put this in quotes, because it’s not the cosmopolitanism I believe in) bourgeois and academic class have accused the working class of having for years. Much of the peace Europe experienced since 1945 is because of the EU, and many of the benefits of what has become a welfare state are intertwined with EU policies, however the scales are bound to tip as the last of the generation who lived during the war and are still alive to talk of its lessons pass away.

I say don’t mention Brexit, because most people I talk to now are weary of it- I am too, but it’s a situation that involves questions that should not be ignored.

On a complete aside, but slightly related in this sort of moody post, in “Burnt Norton,” the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, I get a very strong time-machine vibe, and not just because Eliot goes on about the past and the future being present in the present.

I invite you to read these excerpted lines from 1936 and then tell me whether they seem eerily applicable to today’s mediated world. I think so, and I’m not all that surprised, since all media are just remediation anyway.

Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker [Flickr?]
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

Scarily appropriate, even today.

Finally, stay tuned! Like a boss, I’ve actually got two more posts lined up for this week. Hope you like them!

a(n) (unfair) comparison between Cambridge and Berlin (part 1)

Despite being  unqualified to comment on differences between Berlin and Cambridge, since I’ve only been here for a month, I figure that’s more than a lot of people, so I’m going to go ahead and do it. Also, it may seem unfair comparing a small university town in England to the capital of Germany- but there you go, those are already the first differences.

I was asked yesterday what my favorite part about Cambridge is and after thinking about it for a second answered: how close everything is.

Now, don’t get me wrong- the public transportation in Berlin is amazing and for every point of departure and destination, there are at least 3 options leaving within 5 minutes or so. However, the city is quite large and the commute times can be a bit rough. My brother had an hour long commute for a year and mine to the university are always at least 35 minutes (if the connections are all perfect). In comparison, almost everything within Cambridge is within 1.5 miles and a 10-minute bike ride. I go home a lot more in-between classes, library work, and evening work or activities, which is a nice lifestyle change.

Another thing I really like about Cambridge is how everything feels like it’s designed to take care of as much of the extras of adulting as possible. People who live on campus in the US know this feeling of having meals and some housekeeping taken care of, but in Berlin, this is not a thing. I can have amazing meals in the Mensa (cafeteria) during the day, but on days I don’t go to the office or classes, I’m on my own. Even though I like preparing my own meals, if I didn’t I would still be much better taken care of in Cambridge.

That being said, the prices here take some getting used to. Maybe it’s the conversion that’s just making me anxious,  but after coming from Berlin, I feel like I’m spending twice as much a week on groceries. Thank goodness for Aldi, because that at least balances out 12 pounds spent on the cheapest entree and a beer at any pub around.

At the same time, in Cambridge’s favor (and being a student here), I do appreciate the housekeeping. Initially I thought it would be weird to have someone come in my room once a week to clean- I mean, my mother taught me better! I can do it myself! But now I do appreciate it. I don’t have to think about it and can focus on work- which is the idea, of course. I also am grateful that the communal kitchens are cleaned, because from experience I know that the chore charts only work as long as EVERYONE follows it.

Alright, that last one wasn’t Cambridge proper, mostly just dorm life, but since the life here seems to revolve around students (and tourism), it’s not a far stretch. That’s something I miss about Berlin- the diversity of people and diversity of the things people do. It’s the center of political and cultural life in Germany, and since those are two of my priorities, I feel quite comfortable and always engage in a lot of intellectual conversation there. Here in Cambridge, a lot of people do things other than studenting- there are tons of music and sports groups- but it feels like everyone has to do everything so well and people take themselves too seriously. They tell themselves they don’t take it so seriously, and try to be tongue-in-cheek about it all, but then they do seem ind of disappointed if you didn’t take it seriously. Furthermore, Cambridge gets a lot of credit for being an intellectual hub, but it’s like they only know how to be intellectual in theory. They’re missing some of the practicality of life getting in your face that I’m so used to in Berlin. Still, it seems like Berlin is facing its own challenges with increasing hipsterfication and gentrification, so who knows how long it is before I’m complaining about this in Berlin as well. I will say that for its small size, Cambridge offers more than its share of theater and music.

Let’s see; I’ve covered food costs, student life, intellectual life- I guess what remains to comment on is the feel of the city and its architecture and green spaces.

I can say that right now I appreciate Cambridge and Berlin equally- Berlin has so much innovation in its architecture and the mix of old and new just hits me every time I see it, but there’s something ultra charming about the old English houses and I also just keep stopping and snapping a photo when I see a new angle on one of the old colleges, or go down some new cobbled street. I so often feel like I can’t take a breath that’s not imbued with history. And don’t get me started on the Cam River- how clean everything feels- or the pretty flowers that are appearing everywhere.

it’s beginning to look like Spring. back end of King’s

I guess, as a runner I’m also grateful for the proximity of Cambridge to seemingly endless fields. I say seemingly, because as I discovered during my first runs in Cambridge, there are a lot of private fields and, in general, just a lot of fences in Cambridge. Colleges are closed off from one another with them, streets often end in more fences. It’s a bit frustrating, since even though Berlin is a concrete jungle, I can just keep turning another corner and almost never end up in a dead-end. Furthermore, Berlin has the Grunewald and the Tierpark and various other green spaces. Cambridge’s green is around the city- still very green, but you have to find it first. And it’s not many trees- just a lot of open fields- which is lovely until you’re trying to get across in 25 mph winds.

But I’m not complaining. I’m quite happy here and I’m getting done what I came here to do, so that’s the most important part.

On that note, here’s the lecture hall photo I promised. It doesn’t seem as novel as it did the first time I saw and sat in it, but it’s still pretty cool.

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Cheers, – Dorothea

 

some London

Well, it’s been over a week since I ended the “week in the life” series and I thought I’d get back with a post much sooner, but now you get to read about three adventures scrunched into one.

But before I do that, let me start off with two notes:

  1. I’ve thought a lot these past days about my choice to come to Cambridge after just two years in Berlin. I have to admit, it’s hard again to be in a new place with new people having to meet with strangers every few days under the guise of networking and socializing. I get really anxious beforehand, get through it alright I guess, and then am anxious about it afterwards. I also wonder if there’s something about me that the first time I’m in the same city for more than a year since undergrad, I find a way to leave again. I know part of it is ambition and wanderlust and seeking out opportunities for academic growth and getting to know new things, but part of me thinks I’m constantly running away from something. I can remember very clearly in high school when my parents were thinking about moving three states north and I was actually excited about the possibility, because I thought it would give me a fresh start. What am I running away from? only I can answer that, and don’t worry, I know here and now is not the time.
  2. on that note, why is it so easy for me to go on for 20-30 minutes writing, but I sit in the same kitchen as a housemate who’s cooking  for the same amount of time and can’t exchange more than five sentences with him? I know it’s not just me, but seriously, I wish I could be as relaxed, cool, and charming as I am in writing (or how I like to believe I am in writing).

But enough of that. Let’s start with the journey to the town centre (don’t kid yourself, Cambridge, you say you have a city centre, but you’re really just a town) where I found the weekly market. It’s a great place with all the typical stalls plus delicious food booths (one offered everything made with Halloumi) in the grace of the Great St. Mary’s Church.

Cambridge City Centre Market

As one can see, the majesty of the buildings and spaces in Cambridge just keep one in awe. But then there are also the small things around town that also make me smile once in a while, like this statue/fountain type thing:

Cat and Mouse fountain

But I have to say, Cambridge very quickly can feel too small. I say it’s only a town in jest; it is a city, but it really does just feel like an overgrown village. A multitude of libraries, churches, and stores do not a city make. To be honest, I was even beginning to miss the sound of 18-wheelers rolling outside my window and so last Wednesday, taking advantage of a return ticket to London I had accidentally purchased on my arrival to Cambridge, I drove to London.

Beyond the fact that it’s just so cool to say “I went to London for a day-trip,” the city, its sights, food, and people, gave me a bit of sanity of which this ancient academic high-pressure-pot had threatened to relieve me.

I did some touristy walking:

And some research exploring:

And some fangirling:

I walked from London Bridge Station to Brick Lane, over Spitalfield, Shoreditch and Finsbury, and through Saint Pancras to King’s Cross. And I generally had a good time, rounded out by some draft Guinness across from the British Library, for which I’m now also a registered Reader. I came back to Cambridge, quite happy with my adventure and three days later made the same journey, though this time with the Hounds and Hares to make it to the Hyde Park relays.

Now let’s not kid ourselves, I was easily the slowest person in a Cambridge jersey, but it was a nice experience all the same. Plus, I got to see a little more of all the cool things just south of Hyde Park that I missed over the summer. 

And I got to see the Royal Albert Hall get dressed up for the 72nd British Academy Film Awards…

Preparing for the BAFTAs at Royal Albert Hall

And? Am I happy about returning to Cambridge at the end of such another day? Of course! Especially since it means I’ll be getting back to work 😉

 

A week in the life of a visiting Cambridge student: Tuesday and Wednesday

I really should have tried to post yesterday, because the Wednesday bit deserves its own post (I’m cheating by mentioning what I did last Wednesday, which marked my official matriculation to the University of Cambridge. Why I have to matriculate even though I’m only here for six months, beats me. But I rolled with it.)

But first, Tuesday:

woke up, fast forward through a few hours at the desk, fast forward lecture, fast forward more hours at another desk, fast forward to interval practice with the Hounds and Hares, where I got my pride handed to me on a platter to swallow, once again (and this was a taper workout, since the H & Hs are preparing for BUCS on Saturday). But it’s getting easier each time I go. My expectations now are way down, so after 2 sets of 3′, 2′, 1′, with 30 seconds between each rep and 3 minutes between the two sets, when I was in the middle, and not the end of the pack for the 200s (which goes to show, I’ve got the fitness, just not the speed over short distances), I felt pretty good. I also ran into the professor who is supervising my work while I’m here, and felt a bit guilty for not working until I realized- wait, he was in the gym, too.

But the life of a CU student isn’t all work and running. I happened to walk by the ADC Theatre during my first week and picked up their program list. I saw that the next play they were doing was the Michael Frayn adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Wild Honey, and so I went online, booked the ticket and forgot about it until Monday evening.

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my push pins just happened to be bees.

Wild Honey, also called Platonov after the title character, was Chekhov’s earliest known completed work and this production of the ADC was quite good, and I would have enjoyed it very much had it not decided to rain on my way over to the theater (which was only a mile away, but still) and gotten me soaked. After shivering through until the intermission, I conceded I should probably head home. Good thing too, because in those 1.5 hours the rain had turned into snow. Thankfully, I didn’t wake up with a cold this morning.

Wednesday:

My actual Wednesday today wasn’t exciting at all. As I mentioned, it sprinkled snow overnight, which made my morning run exciting (read: exhausting) and biking to get groceries a bit of an adventure. It also made for a nice view from my spot in the library.

But otherwise, it was a really quiet day. Not like last Wednesday where I was invited to both a Formal Dinner and a Ceilidh.

Random fact, but did you know that the word “blazer” actually originated in Cambridge? Once upon, the Lady Margaret Boat Club (ooh fun fact within a fact: rowing is one of the few sports at which Cambridge students compete at an elite level) had scarlet jackets that they referred to as blazers. Sports clubs in Cambridge continue to distribute blazers (usually blue) to the successful members of their teams.

I learned this when I was looking up the dress code for a Formal Dinner, and this is something I’ve been quite anxious about, already thinking about it in Berlin while packing. Turns out, there are varying degrees of “formal” at Cambridge, and a Formal Dinner is usually just “smart” (basically anything goes except jeans, sneakers, or flip flops) with the wearing of a gown.

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please excuse my very blase look and lame background. I didn’t think I’d share these with anyone except my parents and now I no longer have the gown (rented it), so this will have to do.

A gown, you ask? The men wear them too?

Yup. You didn’t hear the Hogwarts students complaining about their robes, did you? Except maybe Ron Weasley and his dress robes. The gowns are part of the academic dress of Cambridge University and there are a few rules as to who (with what academic degree) wears what gown. And they, for all their pomp and circumstance, are comfortable enough and make one feel wizardly and foolish at the same time. A few of my fellow students and I agreed that probably everyone realizes it’s a bit silly, especially for something like a dinner, so we’re all just participating in this joke of tradition. Or something.

The dinner itself was a three course meal with the three knives and two forks and two spoons and two glasses and just way too much going on. But it was a nice experience, and the professors I ended up sitting next to and across (apart from a debate that hovered dangerously around violent about Brexit) were pleasant and made sure I got up when I was supposed to and kindly looked past the fact that I managed to spill wine all over the crisp, white table cloth (in my defense, I was sitting where two tables were unevenly joined).

After successfully making it through dinner, and post-dinner drinks, there was the ceilidh.

Pronounced more like “kaley,” the ceilidh is another example of spelling not quite matching up with how it’s pronounced. Since being here, I’ve learned that in words that come from Scottish Gaelic,  an “mh” is more like a “w” or “v” sound while the “dh” is a “ch” or “gh” sound. That is why ceilidh is also written ceili and the name Niahm sounds like “Neve”. I still don’t know what to do with “bhfuil”, which is supposed to sound more like “well,” but it’s a good thing I’m not here to learn Gaelic.

Really, though, the ceilidh is a social event that can involve music, storytelling, singing, and dancing. Last Wednesday it was a dancing ceilidh organized and hosted by the MCR, which does this annually. MCR, which stands for “Middle Combination Room” is a collective name for graduate students, fourth-year undergraduates and postdocs at the college– basically a graduate student society. Imagine a barn dance or square dances or any other organized dancing event where someone at the front tells everyone what to do from traditional dances and then everyone just has fun, that’s what this was.

It was a lot of fun, and a pretty good way to end the week.

And thus endeth this mini-series in my life. Now I’ll return to my regularly scheduled programming of random posts and observations.