Saturday, July 21, 2012

A People Post

“Good things happen when you meet strangers.”
-          Yo-Yo Ma

I’m sitting in my usual spot at the library: in front of the enormous neo-gothic window with curvilinear tracery, at my deep-green desk with matching green chair, watching the birds dip and glide around the crockets of King’s College Chapel. The grass, with its tartan pattern of light and dark squares, is spread out below like a carpet. The breeze coming through the window is a little on the chilly side, but I leave it open anyway. And I watch the flashing reflections in the windows across the courtyard—the staff are getting ready for some gathering for the fellows, I presume. High table, perhaps? I can see their white shirts and black vests moving across the panes of glass, pushing a tray of drinks along the stones.

They are the men and women who keep things going, around here. They are the invisible hands which make my bed, and tidy the kitchen. They are the cooks who make me breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the servers who clean up my cups and plates when I am finished. They have the answers to all of my questions: where is the Keynes supervision room, what direction is portal B, how do I call a taxi, where can I find a bicycle for cheap? They make my life easy, so my mind is free. And this post is dedicated to them.

So let me introduce you:

First, there is Savio—head waiter, master of food. Have an allergy? Savio will take good care of you. Have a request for ranch at the salad bar? Savio will get it ordered, right away. We told him our favorite breakfast item was waffles with berry compote, and now we can have it every single day. He is a tall man with black, curly hair and a thick Spanish accent. He is always looking sharp in grey, black, and white. And at formal hall, when the drinks are finished, he bangs his gong once, claps his hands, and says, “Ladies and gentlemen… dinner is served!” –the dining hall transformed into Hogwarts, complete with candles down the length of our long wooden tables and portraits of old men on the walls.

Then, at the other end of the college, you’ll find the Pembroke café. A different experience altogether, you’ll see a pool table, brown leather couches, and a bar manned by a sassy English lady with short-cropped hair. She’ll have a joke with you, make a recommendation on the crisps, and let you pick your seat. I’ve slept on her couches—I doubt Savio would ever let me sleep in his dining hall.

At the back of the college, through portal U, you’ll find the IT guys, Nigel and Hans. They’re pretty helpful, if you can catch them. And they’re good for a laugh besides! I needed some assistance with my little laptop shortly after we arrived, and they fixed it up nicely. But while I was standing in their doorway, Nigel (a short Australian man with a floppy Mohawk, cut-off sleeves, and baggy grey jeans) announces: “F***! There’s our spider!” and proceeds to trap the enormous, hairy black thing on the floor using a plastic cup and a CD. Being very humane, he carried it outside instead of smashing it on the floor. But he carried the cup far enough that it wouldn’t come back. (It seems they’ve had this problem before).

As you leave the college, you’ll pass the porters’ lodge. No college could function without their porters—and I mean that. It would all fall apart. For the most part, they seem to be old, balding men in suits by the name of John. They check your badges when you come in the door, answer various and sundry questions, tackle you if one foot touches the grass, give you a spare key when you lock yourself out of your room with only a towel, and let you out of the big wooden door when you’ve stayed at the library till 2:00am, and the front doors are long locked. I’ve only done this once, but it was an adventure. I even got a little music trivia on the side! I was wearing my “Pink Floyd” t-shirt, and the porter who was unlocking the door announced: “Pink Floyd?! They’re Cambridge boys!”

And what would Cambridge be without its faculty and fellows?

Dr. Oldfield, who deserves a post all to himself, teaches Gothic Architecture. He “goes a little insane in the afternoons”—his words. Not mine. He is probably in his fifties, with a fantastic bushy moustache and a thinning head of hair. He sings songs about Davy Crocket, dances around in cathedrals with a finger on top of his head, and says things like: “Tomorrow, if I’m not in class, it’s because I’m in weekikay. Waykeyeki? Wickyway? I mean the beach. You know, Hawaii?” Remember this man—he will show up later, I guarantee it.

Peter is my professor for the Bloomsbury class, and he is one of the most adorable old men I’ve ever met. He is the head librarian at King’s, had drinks regularly with Dadie Rylands before he died, and tutored Zadie Smith. (If you don’t know who those people are, you should probably find out. Peter is amazing.)

Anne is my supervisor for creative writing, and we have excellent times together at our weekly meetings. She has long, frizzy reddish hair, and a thin face. I thought at first that she was one of those free-spirited gypsy types. But she really knows her stuff. We have the most fantastic discussions about writing, and intention, and form. And often we end up laughing pretty hard, in our supervision room above the porter's lodge. She’s an author of children’s fiction, and she told me about an argument that she and her daughter had years ago:

Daughter: “Why can’t you get a proper job?!”
Anne: “I have a proper job! What is it that you think I do all day?”
Daughter: “Tell lies about an imaginary bird!”
Anne: “… I tell the TRUTH about an imaginary bird!”

True that, Anne. I’m going to change my response to the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” To THAT!

Bryan, the other professor who helps with the creative writing supervisions, is sort of intense. I only see him during lectures, since Anne is my one-on-one supervisor… but he’s one of those people who thinks he knows everything—and actually might. That’s the scary thing.

Dr. Nubolt is dad’s supervisor, and I had the great pleasure of meeting him in Scotland. He was giving tours of the National Gallery, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, mostly because of his quirky personality and fantastic insights. He is such a typical artist: sketchbook in hand, broken glasses, tweed jacket, long legs, pointed nose, and the insisting remark, “Please, do not take photographs in my presence! I abhor the taking of photographs. Put your cameras away!”

Of course, if I went on to describe the vendors in the market—the pastry chef who hollers after a homeless man to say, “You alright, blu? I haven’t seen you in a while”; the woman who sells dresses from France and Italy on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; the man with the Belgian waffles, who calls Haven a V.I.P... If I were to describe the street musicians, one in a barrel, another with a long-nosed dog and a black rimmed hat; or the tourists who flood the streets at midday, snapping their pictures; or the men who sell magazines at their usual corners, shouting the same phrases again and again—I could go on forever. Or at least, for a very long time…

So I’m stopping here, I think. I hope that you’ve enjoyed getting a little glimpse of all the Cambridge characters I've met along the way. At this moment in life, they sort of make my world go round. Funny, how important people are. We just can’t live without them. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Photographic Memories

"I find Cambridge an asylum, in every sense of the word."
- A. E. Housman

Finally--a sunny day! It's been raining since we arrived. Notice the picturesque clouds, the lovely facade of this section of King's College, and the pattern in the grass! They mow over these enormous courtyards every day to keep them looking crisp and clean-cut. Fun fact: the stripes are caused by the grass laying in opposite directions! 

Speaking of the grass... you really can't walk on it! Only the fellows are permitted to do that, and just to make sure you get the message, they have these little signs all over the place! And I think they've done an excellent job of covering their bases with the whole "language barrier" thing. 'Aint nobody gonna get away with breaking THIS rule.

Below, we have a lovely view of the back of King's College. First is a picture of the Cam--the river from which the town's name was derived. Notice the punters--an activity I've not yet had the pleasure of, but am looking forward to! Below this, we see the backs of some of the college rooms.

And here is yours truly, at the gate of Pembroke college. Those big wooden doors close in the evenings, and there is a smaller door that is hidden in the left panel, through which you have to enter. (Not kidding). The porter's lodge is directly to the right, when you go through the doors. And the dining hall is straight ahead. This photo was taken right after I ate some delicious breakfast--hooray for waffles!

Below, you will see my favorite corner of Pembroke College. This is where the "smoking bench" incident occurred, and where the IT department (AKA Nigel and Hans) are located. Below this is a bicycle that I have been adoring within the gates of Little Saint Mary's Chapel--complete with weeds growing through the spokes, and a spider-web or two. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Collegiate Cambridge

“As Cambridge filled up with friends it acquired a magic quality. Body and spirit, reason and emotion, work and play, architecture and scenery, laughter and seriousness, life and art—these parts which are elsewhere contrasted were there fused into one.”
-E. M. Forster

It was at first intimidating—sitting at a table filled with peers from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Berkley. Within the last week, I have met students in every discipline: philosophy, finance, economics, mathematics, humanities, political science, neuroscience, engineering… and from many places in the world: Hong Kong, Egypt, Namibia, England, and cities from all across the good old US of A.  

At the long tables in the dining hall, over a fantastic meal, (tonight: a quiche made with goat cheese, leeks, and onions), we discuss ideas, theories, papers, and opinions. Every conversation is invigorating and intelligent. Every day, I learn something new.

But it didn’t take long for the intimidation to wear off, and to realize that college is college—whether it’s at BYU or Cambridge or Harvard or Yale. At the tail end of a Gothic Architecture lecture, (I did not initially intend for that to rhyme), a boy named Charles asked, “What is it like to go to BYU?” Brooke and I looked at each other, and said, “Honestly, it’s a lot like going here. Only, minus the drinking.”

Every formal hall is preceded by drinks on the lawn. While the other students drink wine, we drink orange juice. At dinner—you guessed it! Wine again. Guest lecturer? Wine. Clubbing? Wine. Any other excuse you could possibly imagine, which I have not listed here? Wine! I have to admit, I’ve never had so much orange juice in all my life. Honestly, I don’t know how they manage. As I’m typing this at 1am, a group of boys is singing as they pass beneath my window—on their way home from the pub, I assume. If only drunkenness inspired perfect pitch! Alas, I am left with their a-tonal rendition of a song that, I’m sure, must have had a melody once. But in that state, it’s no-where to be found.

Despite our BYU sobriety, we’ve had our fair share of fun.

Only last night, Thom punched a hole through Sydney’s window! Let me explain. It was not an entirely intentional offense; he only wanted to make her jump from her desk, where she was typing away on her laptop in such a very focused manner. Unfortunately, the glass here is rather old. (I guess you could say that, couldn’t you? Since we’re staying at a college that was founded in 1347AD.) At any rate, the glass could not quite withstand his enthusiasm.

After FHE, we played the Ebonics version of Bananagrams, including words like “dis-n-dat,” “forreeeal,” “po-po,” “fosho,” and “rdiclus”. One student of the college was too appalled by our rule-breaking to continue playing—perhaps he simply couldn’t think of words like “sup” instead of “perpendicular”. It takes a real champ to be successful at Ebonic-Bananagrams. And Austin nearly cried, he was laughing so hard. And it was sure a nice break for my brain, which at that point in the day was becoming a pile of mush.

There was a rather epic and fantastically sweaty mess of a dance-party in Edinburgh: the traditional Scottish Kayleigh (complete with Scottish band in kilts and beards, playing the drums, a fiddle, and an accordion). And after that adventure, Averill, Sydney, Annie, and I put our feet in the bathtub and talked for two hours about old loves and new loves and lost loves and unrequited loves and loves we didn’t want to requite. It was a regular sleepover—except for the sleeping part, when we disbanded and slept in our beds.

Somehow we jammed ten people into Garrett’s bedroom, (twice), in order to watch Gifted Hands and then The Man Who Knew Too Little. With the contribution of Matt’s pillows and blankets, an extra chair, and a highly developed tier system—we fit. Though, my feet were awfully close to Austin’s face, and I’m pretty sure the people at the periphery had a hard time seeing the 13” laptop screen that was propped up on the writing desk. Nobody complained. It was cold outside. And it was a surprisingly good time.

 Kelsey and I dance-partied on the bus-ride back from Scotland—which was complicated by the fact that we were sitting down, and by the tendency for the shared headphones to fall out of one or the other or both of our ears when we banged our heads up and down.

And we had a leisurely and entirely metaphorical discussion at a Market Vendor’s table about cheeseburgers. It turns out, they’ve got an awful lot in common with boys, and relationships in general. We discussed how hungry she was for that burger—how long she waited to find the perfect one… How deliciously good it looked! How perfect and succulent and hers for the taking! But then, how overwhelming it became when she got halfway through. It got a little too heavy, you know? It was just a little too much to handle, all at once. But could you really put it aside? Wait until later? Wrap it up, place it in the freezer, and hope it survives? It would never be the same cheeseburger again! Oh, the anxiety, the pressure, the agonizing feeling that you need to finish it! That you need to stick with it till the end! … Ah, yes. You see, this is the trouble with cheeseburgers.  
I think that has been my favorite thing of all. Talking. Just sitting and talking: in the café; on the street; in the garden; over breakfast; on the floor of an apartment hallway until 1:30am…

I guess my point is that, yes, this may be Cambridge. But it is still college. And in the end, we’re still kids. 

The Prelude

“I could not print Ground where the grass had yielded to the steps Of generations of illustrious men, Unmoved. I could not always lightly pass Through the same gateways, sleep where they had slept, Wake where they had waked, range that inclosure old, That garden of great intellects, undisturbed.”
-          The Prelude, William Wordsworth

I began The Prelude for the first time, last night, after it was given to me by Dr. Kerry—the rather warm and somewhat intimidating BYU professor, advisor, and friend, who is with us here at Cambridge. A small, blue book, embossed with gold foil lettering and the image of a boy with a flute, bookmarked at the section entitled “Residence at Cambridge,” The Prelude is Wordsworth’s history of his own growth as a poet. (All in verse, of course, because nobody would ever dream of writing something of such depth in prose.)

As I turned the crisp yellow pages, and reflected on the simple similarities between this favorite poet’s experience at Cambridge, and my own short stay, I was struck by how strange it is that I am walking the streets that Chaucer, Spencer, Milton, Wordsworth, Newton, Darwin, and a hundred other brilliant minds have walked. These walls are seeped in hundreds of years of history, thought, discovery—and absolutely buckets of chilly English rain.

This has been the nearest thing to paradise, for me. The food, the sights, the change of pace… this has all been rather lovely, of course. But to be able to sit on a bench for five or six hours at a time, in the middle of the day, writing, uninterrupted, surrounded by green grass and the smell of roses and the walls of Pembroke College—this is heaven for me.

I found the most fantastic little bench, at the far north-east corner of Pembroke, behind the café, hidden away from the main path and overhung with leaves and backed by hedges. I had been there for nearly an hour, when a man three times my size plopped down on the opposite end and began to smoke. I admit I was bewildered. There were plenty of empty benches in the vicinity, and I had no idea why this large, smoking man had chosen mine so particularly when he had such a wide variety of options. After twenty minutes, he threw his cigarette to one side, and walked off.

It was only after a friend and current student of Pemroke College approached and said, rather amusedly, “I don’t often see people with laptops on this particular bench,” that the puzzle of the smoking man was solved. As it happens, the exact spot where I was sitting constitutes the only corner of the college in which smoking is allowed! (Which also explained the multitude of cigarette butts to the left of the bench—I admit, my observational skills could use some serious sharpening, if I am going to be even marginally successful as a writer in this life.)

I want—so much—to write. As Bryan, one of my creative writing professors puts it, “Writing is more of an affliction, really. It’s like having eczema. It’s a kind of disease.” You can’t stop. And what’s more, you don’t want to.

I wonder, Wordsworth, how did your affliction change and grow and find itself scrawled upon a page? As I sit on my bed, with three notebooks, a laptop, and The Prelude strewn across the sheets, I can’t wait to find out. And I have a twinge of hope that perhaps I will follow you—perhaps I am living a prelude of my own, already, on these streets, which might someday be worth writing down.