Cambridge with a Mathematician.

I wrote a version of this in my journal on January 10 at the very beginning of our trip, and thought I’d share it:

Today was my first full day in the UK since our arrival yesterday morning in London’s Gatwick airport around 9:30 local time. Our hike though London from the airport to the King’s Cross railway station was brief, but eventful. Our 65lbs rolling suitcase, small rolling suitcase, two hikers’ backpacks, two small backpacks, guitar, and portfolio proved difficult up the several sets of starcases and a couple of escalators. Burr’s colleague Keith flew in around the same time and met up with us for the walk to the train station. We all broke our backs shuttling luggage up stairs with one person at the bottom, one at the top and one inbetween carrying bags from bottom to top (we rotated when possible).

Once in Cambridge we weighted down a cab with our stuff and quickly arrived at Churchill College where we are staying in the visiting scholar’s housing. Our flat is enormous, with three bedrooms, a bathroom with toilet and sink, and gargantuan livingroom, and large kitchen. We have a fenced in garden off both the front and back doors, and herbs in both those gardens and also along the walkway leading back to porter’s lodge and road. (In tonight’s dinner I used sprigs of rosemary in the potatoes and something that seemed sage-related on the chicken.)

Last night both Burr and I were pretty jetlagged and went to bed around 6 or 7pm (GMT). We woke up again at 1am, ate cereal, talked, and surfed the web aimlessly. I went back to bed around 2am. We both woke up again at noon on Wednesday (today); to say the least, our clocks are still off, but that’s to be expected.

This morning after breakfast I set out with the rather ambitious goal of procuring groceries and a library card, and visiting the Fitzwilliam (Art) Museum here at Cambridge. In the end I settled for just groceries, and an adventure with a Asian mathematician. (I later discovered online how one gets a library card at the public and university libraries.) The mathematician entered the picture when I stepped out of our garden and locked the gate; a woman was tying her scarf just down the path and smile at me kindly. I waved and she waited for me to catch up to where she was standing. We indroduced ourselves and both started walking together in the same direction, so we swapped information about our careers and how long we were here and what we planned to do. (For her own privacy I’ll call her Susan, which is not her real name.)

Susan appeared to be in her lat forties or early fifties and was here on a fellowship to promote women in the sciences. We talked about the Nobel prizes and her impressions about how formidable the US now was in the prizes and how she believed the US was now the leader in academic science.

It was funny to think about my place in the world as a US citizen at that moment, hearing the praises of my country from a woman who lived halfway across the globe. In the pre-WWII days art and science were lead by European countries, but the centers of both those things has now shifted (at least I know art has for certain, and she seemed to think science had as well). Though science lacks a definite center, the art world’s center was once Paris, and some may argue that it still is in a historical sense, but it is increasingly clear that New York is the center of contemporary art action.

Burrell's Walk
Susan and I wandered through cobbled paths and winding alleys, following her map to the center of Cambridge. It was a beautiful walk, even in January. There isn’t any snow, and last night’s rain swelled the small water channels that occasionally run along several of the paths. Old-growth shrubs, giant yews, willows and other trees arched over the paths creating a covering of sinewy, green tendrils and dark green foliage. Two swans swam by, several starlings and grebes (I later discovered these were Moorhens) pecked around in the bright green lawns between the University buildings. Along our way into the city we passed the buildings of Kings and Trinity Colleges (two of the most well-known of the Cambridge colleges).

Garrett Hostel Lane

A brief stop to discuss colleges: Neither Susan nor I was familiar with the British system of colleges within universities and both of us had been curious enough to ask around.
From these bits we each had, we pieced together what we knew about the colleges within Cambridge University. In fact, the coleges seem similar to the “houses” in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts school, with several exceptions. A student is accepted to a particular college (like a club or a “house”), but is taught generally by the University itself. A student lives in a particular college, takes meals there and is tutored there, but may have classes in all over the campus. While some colleges have a particular reputation for producing better students or students in a particular discipline, all students have the chance to be taught the same things, and the level of accomplishment of the students in each college changes from year to year. I am uncertain whether this creates a friendly bit of competition between the colleges, or not. (It seems likely that at does.)

Sundial from 1642

When Susan and I arrived in town it was an amazing sight, so tight, cobbled, patinaed and aged into a wonderful aesthetic atmosphere. Students in suits and skirts jogged by, amid other students wearing jeans and jumpers (sweaters), ladies in fashionable coats and scarves walked purposefully through the streets. Susan and I stopped for maps and brochures at the visitors’ information shop. I picked up a map for 1.30 pounds, along with information about the art museums, theatre and botanical gardens. As Susan and I parted ways for the day I stood on windy corner outside the information shop (Harry Potter fans, picture Diagon Alley). A grey haired man smoking a pipe and wearing a wool overcoat saw my map flapping in the wind and offered directions in a gruff but friendly British accent. (He seemed so stereotypic I could swear our meeting must have been staged.)

Soon, with new information, I was on my way to grocery across town, but two blocks later I passed a much closer one and stopped to fill my hiker’s backpack which I’d brought along for the cause. Inside I puttered away considering salad mixes in the first room before realizing the store was much larger than I thought. I rounded a corner by the produce to reveal the line of checkout counters and isles of selections (though much smaller than the American mega-marts). Students bustled up and down the isles with an array of items in their hand baskets. I selected a small bag of apples, potatoes, a bag of mixed greens, (I almost got leeks as well—they were so cheap!) decaf tea (I punted and just picked Tetleys—the choices were astounding, but I didn’t want to lose more time, and I’ll be back later.), carrots, Malties (a Chex-like cereal with a dancing cereal bit on the package), fresh chicken legs, milk, orange juice, and butter made from olive oil.

To my amazement the bill only came to around 14 pounds ($28). I gently arranged the items in my backpack and set off. I went in a few circles before finding my way back home, but noted a few places I’d like to go on later trips. On one of these circuits I found the town’s open-air market and picked up bread (Tin-pan whole meal I think it was called), which I’d forgotten to buy at the grocery. It gets dark incredibly early here so I knew I needed to be back by 3 or 4 for my landmarks to be visible. On the way home I discovered that walk went past the mother lode: The Cambridge University Library (like a Library of Congress for Britain). I drooled at the sight of so many books I the windows.

The Cambridge University Library Tower


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