bike riding

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

American pragmatism and opportunism are what happens when you take the sensibilities of the -English, used to taming their lands over millennia and their people over centuries, and throwing them into wilderness and self-governance. At least, that’s one way of summarizing it if one wants to generalize two completely heterogenous groups. But the point is, although the US and the English speak the same language, they are not the same people (and the fact that it’s the same language is also debatable).

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road on the way to King’s College, Cambridge

So, some things I’ve noticed, since being here for a week, range from the very obvious (driving on the left side of the road!) to the subtler and more unique to Cambridge.

Since these first weeks of being here are all so unique and there’s a lot to comment on, I’m going to break it down into daily observations.

Thursday:

The Cambridge University week begins on Thursdays. It’s how they set up their timetables and my guess is that it has something to do with Maundy Thursday in the Christian tradition and the Last Supper. It’s not a off-the-wall guess, seeing as the terms are named after Christian periods: Michaelmas, Lent, and Easter, but I could also be totally wrong.

There are lectures to visit all week, usually in the mornings, and there was one I wanted to visit today on “the creation of Britain and the appearance of “others.” My main take-away: the Brits were interested in religion more than blood-line when it comes to “othering,” though conflating skin color with virtue was starting to happen in the early medieval era. Unlike lectures in the US or Germany, which usually run 80-90 minutes, these are 50-minute lectures and involve, as it seems in the English faculty, a list of quotes that the lecturer incorporates into a general talk about a specific concept. My lecture today had the lecturer incorporate some questions to his students that even I, as the most senior in there, didn’t quite know how to answer.  But it was over quite quickly and I can understand now that this is just the impetus for students to go off and write their weekly essay for their tutor.

So, the afternoons in Cambridge seem blocked off for reading, writing, or for graduate seminars, for which I’m thankfully not signed up for this term. I used some of this “free” afternoon to get my bike looked at.

bike shops in cambridge

For a town as small as Cambridge, there is an unusually high number of bike shops. They range from high-end, bike sport enthusiast shops to the more expensive bike department store type place. And then there are a lot of second-hand bike shops that trade heavily in student bicycles. I had opted to find mine online, on a local Craig’s List type service, but I got my helmet, bike lock, and lights from a second-hand shop. The bike I bought shortly after arriving in Cambridge was put together by a guy who takes second-hand parts and builds his bikes from scratch and I have to say, it’s probably the best deal on a good bike I’ve ever gotten (other than a slight mismatch of the rear-quick release, which he sorted for me today). The frame and tyres (I like how the English write it this way) are excellent quality and I may even attempt a bike tour on them before leaving.

Since the bike fix went so quickly, I had time to meet with a PhD student I’d gotten in contact with while still in Berlin, since we are interested in similar topics. We met in the Buttery, which is a university-run café/cafeteria that can be found on all the college campuses and serves warm paninis (if you get them in time!).

I rounded out the afternoon with a visit to the University Library, which is an impressive building not far from the English and Modern and Medieval Languages Faculties. It’s hard to describe the library. One can tell it was built in the 1930s, but it smells of books and manuscripts much older than that. I really like walking up its narrow staircases and between the rows of books. It feels cozier than most libraries I’ve been to, and I’ve figured out the book-order system they have, which, although they have an online catalogue and requesting system, is still quaintly paper-bound in the physical room of the main reading room, which looks like those libraries you see in movies.

Finally, before heading home to do more work there, I stopped by Aldi. I love getting my groceries at Aldi in Germany, and it’s quite cool that it’s also in several locations in the US now, but it’s really good to have in Cambridge where the pound outweighs my other familiar currencies and I feel like I’m going broke, even though I know it’s just a side-effect of starting somewhere new on a mere 23 kilo of suitcase filler.

And now here I am, sitting in my room in a graduate dorm, having eaten my share of veggies and microwavable haggis (going to have to find the real thing at some point), and trying to figure out how I’m going to read all those books I’ve checked out in the past few days before they’re due back to the library.

Commuting in German

Life in Hamburg is pretty sweet. I’ve paid my rent for the month. Have groceries (of course, this makes it on top of my list of things going well! The convenience of being able to go to the kitchen and grab something to eat? So underrated). Classes have started up again and I’m generally in good health (sigh, sans foot issues). So what’s there to write about, in the new year of studying abroad?

Since it’s pretty easy to talk about things I do on a daily basis, I’ll share some tips I’ve learned about commuting in Hamburg. One can drive, use public transportation, or ride a bike. Since I don’t have a car, I’ll focus on the latter two options.

Public Transportation in Hamburg (S-Bahn, Bus, U-Bahn…Straßenbahn [those still exist?])

The S-Bahn and U-Bahn systems are really quite similar. Similar enough to not spend time describing both individually. The main difference is that the U-Bahn is designed to be underground (hence, untergrund Bahn) and the S-Bahn (Schnellbahn) is often designed to get you further distances slightly more quickly than the U-Bahn. I live half a mile from an s-Bahn station, which is pretty good considering that some people live up to two miles from a station even if they’re in the city.  My university is five sub-way stops and one change away from where I live, so I’d say I’m in an excellent location!

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common S-Bahn sign

Hamburg U-Bahn S-Bahn map

said colorful lines

My first experience with the S-Bahn was on my first trip from the university to my dorm on the first night. Since I’ve been in other major German cities and in the world, I know the standard layout of a subway system: there’s stops connected by railway lines and these lines, while not always overlapping or allowing for a three stop missed stop (i.e. woops, I should have gotten off three stops ago), will get you where you need to go. There’s usually a network, represented with colored lines on a background and a lot of foreign sounding names. There are copies of this network in nice large, I don’t need my reading glasses print at every station.

So as I mentioned before, I took on this network at 7 PM  on my first day in Hamburg after not having slept for 40 hours. But I knew which stop I was heading towards and the name of the line that would get me there. There are signs at the front and back of each entrance to the  platform showing the line that come and go at the platform, what stops are on those lines, and how long it will take to get from the current location to that stop. I relied on these signs to makes sure I was about to step in the right train. I still find these very helpful when I am unsure if I am heading in the right direction (which happens a lot). 

There’s also a sign overhead saying the final destination of the Bahn that is coming and how soon it will be there.

These tools are enough to help most people navigate around the city if they know the name of the stop they want to get to. For those hopelessly lost, there’s info-call boxes at every station as well. And finally, if one can stand the embarrassment, there’s almost always a Hamburger who is more than happy to help, or throw a few words at you over their shoulder while they run to catch the next train.  

A few things I learned as I used the system more is that some lines run at certain times while other don’t. Just like I only later discovered that at some stops, trains will coordinate their rides by waiting for another train to come in or, rather than having the opposite track be for the train going in the opposite direction from whence you just came, there will be connecting lines just across the track. This is especially convenient if you happen to be changing trains. I also realized that trains come at scheduled times (no randomness here!) throughout the day and I can avoid the feeling of a missed train if I time my exit from my dorm properly.

As I mentioned before, the U-bahn is similar in theory to the S-Bahn. A bus is a bus pretty much anywhere you go, except in Hamburg, they aren’t associated with the similar stigma there is in the US. They are just as clean and well organized (with electronic signs at stops telling you when the next buses are arriving) as all other public transportation in Hamburg (and Germany) and it really is a shame that the US never caught on to this trend of public transportation properly. There’s a lot of catching up to do!

hvv.de is a nifty site that allows to me to put a stop name or an address and it will give me the names and times of the quickest and least complicated routes, whether it be bus, trail, U-bahn, s-bahn, or tram (which is nothing like the old-school tram image I had in my head. It’s just an electric vehicle that goes on the street).

Bike 

Oh no. I spent so much time on public transportation, I’ve run out of steam (and you’ve probably run out of patience). But I’ll comment all the same about all the reasons it’s great to bike to commute in Hamburg:

  1. Bike lanes are for bikes only. And they’re most usually off the street.
  2. Bike riders often have their own crossing lights. These lights come equipped with a yellow, start-up light that tells you when the light is about to turn green and you better get those feet on the pedals, because the little kid behind you is going to run you over.
  3. You don’t have to wear a helmet (on second thought, that’s a negative aspect about riding in Hamburg, people here should take their brain bucket more seriously. I wear mine with pride).
  4. It’s absolutely normal to ride through the city dressed in a suit.
  5. It’s law to have functioning lights for nighttime riding. Most bikes have it and you can see other riders at all times- and be seen by cars.
  6. The weather here is often fine enough to ride. And even if it’s raining, there’s a lot of fashionable rain pants/jackets to wear over clothes to protect them.
  7. Cars here must yield to bike riders and are usually well-behaved enough to do so.

Need I say more? Bike riding in Hamburg is much more convenient and normal than it is in Florida or many places in the US. Plus, it’s a way to get out some much needed energy when, say, you can’t run.

So, tell me, how would you chose to commute?