May Ball

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?