Experiences Abroad

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

 

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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.

 

 

A week in the life of a visiting Cambridge student: Monday

Although, as I’ve mentioned, the week here doesn’t “officially” start until Thursday, it doesn’t make getting up Monday morning any easier. However, it helps to have the obligatory lecture to get one out and ready long before noon.

Today I visited a lecture on colonialism and anti-colonialism, a history with which I am fairly familiar, but can always use a brush-up, especially by scholars who have devoted much of their careers to researching and understanding the topic. It’s a bit surreal to talk about British imperialism and colonialism from within Britain, whereas I’ve always talked about it from an outsider’s perspective, either the U.S. or Germany. I also visited two talks in a research group I’m participating in (on Nationality Construction and Identity, I think you can kind of start to get an idea of what I’m interested in for my PhD). They were in Gonville and Caius College, and I’ll give you three guesses on how to pronounce Caius. Much to my surprise, this is the “Gonville and Keys” everyone was mentioning my first week here. Why “Caius” is pronounced like those things you use to get into your car or front door has to do with the vanities of an Englishman from the 17th century. It’s not a lot different than Hyacinth Bucket trying to get others to call her Mrs. Bouquet in Keeping up Appearances, mind you.

Name aside, the college is old- almost as old as Trinity. And maybe even more beautiful because of its relative smallness.

And today helped me begin to understand why Noël Coward sang “”Only Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Since being here, I’ve only properly seen the sun twice. One of those times was today- and oh, what a sight. It made me want to stand in its full strength and just let it warm me up- which, in 3 degrees Centigrade is quite a feat. It also made me want to take pictures of places I’ve been talking about:

The University Library, lengthwise and vertically to try and give an idea of how impressive this building is.

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The river Cam, with a few people getting punt rides (I’ve yet to go on one of those- or do rowing, for that matter)

and

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The back of Clare College

The crazy thing is, these sites are all within 5 minutes of one another.

For dinner I had reheated noodles with pesto and cheddar cheese, so that pretty much tells you how exciting the rest of my day was. I’ve been here for two weeks now! So, I think one can say I’ve pretty much moved in.

Side note: I will reply to the comments to yesterday’s and today’s posts tomorrow! I just wanted to get this post out on its proper day, but I really should be finishing something else first. Thanks for your replies, though! I do appreciate them.

A week in the life of a visiting Cambridge student: Sunday

CUHH

Cambridge loves its acronyms, and this one stands for the university-wide Cambridge (cross country) running club: The Hounds and Hares. I’d scoped out this group already in April last year when I found out I was coming to Cambridge, and one of the first things on my list since arriving was joining a group run. The captains of the men’s and women’s teams put out weekly running meet-ups and they were quite easy to email with, but the group is incredibly competitive. Last Sunday when I went to meet-up for the group run, I was left behind within the first mile, getting too lost to ever have a hope of catching up to the group. This Sunday, I came with a little more speed and gumption, and the course was more straight-forward along the Cam river, so I managed to not quite stay with the main group (who went out for 12 miles at 7mpm or faster), but I managed to stick to the smaller group that went 8 miles at a more reasonable pace after losing the main group (it was still around 7:40 mpm). Needless to say, being at the back-end of a pack of runners and still doing sub- 7mpm was a huge slice of humble pie. It was a definite character builder these past two weeks.

Brunch

Brunch is a staple of the weekends in all the colleges, but it’s also a post-run tradition- and a nice way to socialize with the others. Each week a different runner hosts it in a different college, and this week it happened to be Trinity which was… woah. It was a surprise. Already waiting for the others at the Great Gate of Trinity College was a treat.

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Quite the meeting place, huh? (Source)

Here’s a map of the grounds by David Logan from 1690:

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(Source) This will have to do until I make it over back again to take pictures.

But that didn’t even properly prepare me for the dining hall. The founder of Trinity College, Henry the VIII, presided over it and I was getting huge Hogwarts vibes. I could barely contain myself, but I of course had to act cool around the Trinity students and other runners.

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Dining hall during the day (Source)

Oh! And because some may find this interesting, brunch in Cambridge can have waffles and/or pancakes, but it also consists of black pudding, eggs, sausage, baked tomatoes, and baked beans. It initially sounds quite odd (and some of the things look a bit off-putting), but you can’t judge it until you’ve tried it! While I didn’t really like the black pudding, I liked the beans. That could become a good, hearty (farty) -ha ha, sorry!- staple.

Having a run at 10 and then brunch at noon means that I didn’t really get started with work until 2 PM, but the nice thing is, if I hadn’t done my shopping yesterday, I would have been able to today- but only until 5 PM. Unlike Germany, England has its stores open on Sundays, but unlike the US, these hours are fairly drastically shortened. On this note, a small comment on the service culture here, which includes all sorts of verbal niceties like “alright there, love?” “cheers.” I still haven’t figured out the appropriate response to “cheers,” so I’ve just been saying it back.

Chapel

 

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After a few hours of laundry and library (I KNOW; my life is so interesting!), I headed over to the College Chapel for an interdenominational church service. Considering that I’ve been baptized and gone through confirmation, my relationship with the Christian religion has been a bit shaky since high school. Part of it was convenience, and while I know that going to church should not necessarily be convenient, having a chapel on campus is really helpful and I think visiting the Sunday evening service could become a habit. I enjoy the singing of the hymns, listening to the sermon and the choir, the organ music, and the shared dinner together afterwards.

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If anything, it’s an hour of introspection and talking to myself, if not to God. Since my college is one of the newer ones, I also hope to make it over to King’s College or Trinity (*swoons*) for a service before leaving here.

A week in the life of a visiting Cambridge student: Saturday

So, like any college student, I like to go out on a Friday night and sleep in, at least a little, on Saturday mornings. However, a) I’m a PhD student, so these generalizations don’t really apply. And b) how can I sleep in when there’s a parkrun to go to?

parkrun

parkrun is a really cool event that was initiated by British-Zimbabwean-South African Paul Sinton-Hewitt in 2004 that has spread out from his little local park in London to 1400 locations world-wide. It’s a free 5k timed race that happens every Saturday and while there’s a lot of glory involved (speed, how many you’ve run, how many you’ve volunteered, etc.), it’s not about prizes or being the fastest. It’s meant to be an inclusive event, and I believe it rather is. While it arrived to the US in 2012, no one has tried it yet in the swampy parks of Florida or the finicky forests of Berlin, so I haven’t had the opportunity to join in on the fun-yet. Last week I jogged across the invisible starting line along with nearly 500 others for the first time and had a great time. This week the same. If I don’t get pulled away by other events on a Saturday, the parkrun is definitely going to be a staple.

Another thing to do on a Saturday is take care of some shopping. This can involve a venture into the almost scarily busy city center for groceries and other supplies. Coming from my own personal Hogwarts a mile away, I sometimes think of the center as Hogsmeade (and the associations are not just mine!). I can see the appeal of Cambridge city centre on a mild winter day. There are a lot of great stores, there’s the market, and there are the gorgeous buildings all around to look at. I was tempted to pull out my camera to take a few shots, but I have an annoying self-consciousness of looking like a tourist when in a new area, so now my blog will suffer for it. When I’m no longer such a dork, I’ll take some photos, I promise!

Speaking of groceries: the first weeks after being in a new place, I tend to go overboard with buying food, mainly because I haven’t figured out my go-to shopping list yet (you know, the standards that one needs to have in the cupboard/fridge to get through a week). Some things I have bought over the last week to keep me alive and running are:

Crumpets, scones, Nakd bars, Cadbury chocolates, and the aforementioned microwavable haggis (I cannot emphasize enough that it’s actually quite good. I think it’s the spices that transform it from a weird mix of sheep intestines and oatmeal to something I actually look forward to eating). I’ve heard the expressions “tea and crumpets” or “tea and biscuits” for ages, but I never actually new what a crumpet was. It’s a small griddle cake that tastes great toasted with cheese or almond butter. I’ve already gone through three bags of them, and I could probably live off those for the next five months. The scones are self-explanatory, though I think they’re probably much better in a café than pre-packaged in a grocery store, and the Cadbury chocolates are a treat that I, unfortunately have to keep as far away from me as possible, because they won’t last a day in my possession.

But the Nakd bars are actually a pleasant surprise, because they are a no-sugar added fruit/nut bar that I discovered in Germany, but never wanted to give my arm for, so I never got them after I found them at a health food exhibition once. Here they run for 50 pence, so it’s easy to stuff a bunch in my backpack to have as a sweet snack during the week.

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from eatnakd.com

Once the shopping was taken care of, I spent a very boring, but productive! afternoon/evening in the library. It is a super nice working space and the lighting is much better than in my room. Not the most amazing way to spend a Saturday, but with some plans over the coming weekends, it’s actually okay to have a quieter one getting things done.

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I’d never seen the desks on the stair-cases before. It’s really cool to ‘perch’ at the desk on top. And during the say, the view outside is nice too. 

Now comes the main question. How did you spend your Saturdays while in school? I’ll admit, it’s only the convenience of having a 24/7 library within 5 minutes walking distance that gets me in a library on Saturday. I never did that in Florida (except maybe while living on campus as an undergrad) or in Berlin.

Catching up (c’mon, keep up!)

Hello readers! I know that most of you who have been following my blog for a while have gotten used to the rather sporadic posting. I think, before disappearing, I’d settled with a comfortable post a month. However, to go four months without blogging? Well, I can’t really say that I’m consistent (except maybe in my inconstancy). But I have to say that when the summer semester started at the Freie Universität, I got sucked into three seminars, a colloquium, and actual writing for the dissertation. Then my parents arrived for their yearly vacation in Germany and all bets were on that I’d barely make it to WordPress.

It’s difficult to summarize all the things that happened and the things I did and the posts I could write. Here are a few titles and photos for those imaginary posts:

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  • “How medical operations are like races”. I drafted something about relationships of the doctor’s appointments, pre-surgery clearance, getting high off anesthesia and feeling like crap afterwards to the reality of running something like a marathon (spoiler: the recovery is rough for both, but gets easier the more you do it!) but that post will have to wait. This post would have been in conjunction with another post that I may actually get to post at some point about having a craniofacial birth defect.
  • “Jagdschloss Gelbensande, or how all of Europe’s royal houses converge in a tiny little hunting lodge in Mecklenburg Vorpommern”

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  • “Hamburg revisited” Three years after studying in Hamburg, I finally visited with all three of my family members and was able to show them the part of the campus I studied at as well as the Speicherstadt and part of the Hafen.

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  • “Salt Life Baltic Style”

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  • “Let’s go see the river Marlowe also flowed down”
  • “Hogwarts: in real life” (these last two titles would be for the posts where I talk about my conference trip to Cambridge with a little detour to London).
  • “Germany’s super summer and bike tours that go wrong”. Seriously. If you think it’s a bad idea to try to go out for a ride when the temps are above 30 degrees centigrade, you’re probably right. It doesn’t help getting lost or flat tires without repair kits on you, either.

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  • “Four reasons why living in a big city is not so great”. To include the noise, the smell, and close-contact with people who don’t know their limits on drugs or alcohol. Bascially a college campus on the weekend, but on a larger (maybe more dangerous) scale.
  • “Revisiting old haunts with new eyes”. Despite traveling to the Baltic coast every summer since I was 4, there’s always something new to experience or something old to experience in new ways.

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  • And finally, “running through (west) Berlin”. Stay-tuned, because I’ll actually be posting this one!

In summary, I had a good summer. Mostly work, but also a lot of play. Hope you did as well and good luck to those getting ready for new school years and semesters!!

Cheers,
Dorothea

p.s. While being a goof off the web, WordPress celebrated my four years of being on their site. Yay. Happy writing anniversary to me.