Layamon’s Brut

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.