Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
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Friday, July 16, 2010

Discovering Cambridge

I have to admit, I was determined to not like least, not as much as I liked Oxford. Partially because I wanted to prove RFS wrong, and partially because--well, come on, it's Oxford.

Anyway, I failed. I really, really like the town, and I wish I'd had more time there. I don't think that I could say that I like it more--it's not easy to say based on half a day wandering around.

Anyway, I started my whirlwind tour of Cambridge at the Marketplace for lunch before a walking tour. We poked our heads into a college or two and saw some interesting side streets, but by far the best part was the chapel at King's College. It's enormous and absolutely glorious with stained glass windows and an organ with golden pipes. The tour ended there, so after gaping a bit more, I continued up the street and looked into Trinity and St. John's colleges as well.

Now, for those who are unfamiliar, I shall do my best to explain the college system, which may be a waste of time, because my grip on it is somewhat tenuous. As I understand it, the university is composed of different colleges--31 of them, in Cambridge's case--to which the students (and professors?) belong. The students live, eat, and study in their college; the colleges are interdisciplinary, although in Oxford, which has a similar system, some colleges may prefer a certain academic area or level of study over another. In Cambridge, you apply to a college, and if you're accepted, you join the college and therefore the university. In Oxford, you apply to the university itself, and if you're accepted, you're guaranteed a place in a college.

Anyway. Many of these colleges are old and gorgeous; they look more like palaces than dorms to me. I can't imagine living in a place like that: carved archways, manicured courtyards, Gothic's fantastic but, it seems to me, just a bit intimidating.

At the northern end of the town, I stopped to have cream tea and then meandered back down. I got sidetracked for a bit in the public library, which is in a shopping mall, by Richard Hammond's autobiography, which I have been looking for everywhere. Unfortunately, I couldn't take it with me, but I did take a break to read the first few chapters. (Sorry about more Top Gear stuff, but Hammond's also a presenter; during a test run of a rocket-powered car, his tire blew and the car rolled, giving him brain damage. The book's about his experience and recovery. Sounds interesting, eh?) Through some partly aimless and partly intentional wandering, I ended up in a sun-drenched little park in a bend in the river, watching the amateur punters run into each other as a dignified swan and a fluffy grey cygnet glided rather more gracefully by.

Now, at the top of the town, I stopped to have a chat with a young man who was trying to sell punting tours. Although I'd not been very interested at the time, he'd given me a voucher for a few pounds off and planted the idea in my head, and now, at the other end of town, I decided to give it a shot. I presented my voucher for the tour but asked if I could please not go on my own, feeling that would be awkward both for me and for the poor punter. The cashier assured me that there was a group of four also waiting to go, but apparently, after about two minutes, they'd had enough of that, and they paid extra to go right away. Leaving me on my own. Oh boy.

The poor guy who got stuck with me was a good sport about it, though, despite almost being pushed in the river by his sister, who was sitting at a nearby pub, and having to punt me up and down the river. I guess it's his job, but still. It was very nice, gliding across the smooth water under willow trees, with sloped grassy banks and impressive College buildings on the shores. My guide told me all about the kings and queens who'd supported these colleges and the history behind the various bridges, as well as telling me about about himself and letting me babble in return. All told, a lovely way to spend 45 minutes of your life.

We eventually drifted back to our starting point, having gone up the river, turned round, and come back, and my guide suggested that I eat dinner at the aforementioned pub on the riverside. I poked my head in, but I was hesitant to simply sit down at a table, being unfamiliar with local custom. Plucking up my courage, I made my way to my guide's sister, who was still sitting by the river with a friend, and asked if she could enlighten me as to the proper mode of conduct in a pub. In response, Simbie (as her name turned out to be) and her friend Megan kindly invited me to sit with them, coached me on what and how to order, and engaged me in a wonderful chat. I can't imagine a better way to have spent that evening than sitting by the river in the gathering twilight, eating a beef pie and drinking Pimm's, discussing the Britishness of it all with three (another friend, Tristan, had joined us by this time as well) wonderful Brits.

Eventually, though, it got late, and my new friends had to leave to get the train. I stayed to finish my pie, and very shortly, two men who had been standing nearby asked to join me. They chatted to each other for a bit, then politely turned to ask about me. I was a bit taken aback at first, but they were quite friendly; we shared stories about Bath, where they used to work. I hadn't even checked into my hostel yet, so I finally took my leave, but not before they gave me a business card with their names, e-mails, and numbers, imploring me to ring them up sometime if I was in the area again. Laughing, I made my way back to the hostel and finally crashed, somewhat heavy-hearted.

For the the next day, I'd have to be leaving England. And since I've found so much here that I love and enjoy, it's very sad to go.

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