“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.