I had forgotten how lovely Cambridge could be on clear winter nights. England, being very old and terribly British, has a way with chilly evenings that few other places I’ve been can match. It was the second week of January and I’d returned to my former stomping grounds to present some of my research to people wearing tweed and sporting hair that didn’t give a damn. I’d been awarded a travel grant that threw money my way, thereby both encouraging and enabling me to sally forth to wherever science people might gather. The stars aligned for me allowing a long-overdue return to England.
It had been six years since I’d last set foot in Cambridge and I was well aware of the fear that some people have regarding going back to a place and being disappointed, but I also returned with limited expectations. I knew that 1) Time had passed and 2) Things change, even in a place older than dirt. During the four years that I lived in England, I’d spent copious amounts of time in Cambridge with friends doing what young-ish military types do in foreign countries that boast excellent beer. I’d spent most of the second year preparing for war, part of the third in it, then more or less all of the last in libraries and book stores around the town trying to wrap my head around the existential crisis that I was lucky enough to be having in a place full of bookstores and libraries. 3) I wasn’t there for the sake of nostalgia.
And yet ….
First of all, London. I know how to get around, can still find my way through the city easily enough, and remember the places where the food and coffee don’t suck and won’t break you, monetarily or gastrointestinally. Knowing where to go and/or not to go is more or less the extent of the secret to navigating London. Or New York, I guess. Or Cleveland. Whatever. The point is that there’s nothing more comforting than de-planing from a long-ass flight and knowing exactly how to get out of a city that’s perpetually crowded with aggressive people, many of whom have probably been drinking hard cider.
Second, the trains from London rarely disappoint where eventual scenery is concerned. Of all the directional possibilities, straight north is arguably the least potentially breathtaking. There were any number of excellent reasons why East Anglia was and to a lesser extent remains pocked with airstrips. It is gloriously lacking in undulations and sports an abundance of fields begging to be landed on. Still, there’s a serene beauty to the rolling pastures that maybe can’t be appreciated without some time having accumulated between viewings. I can attest to the truth of this.
Third, Cambridge. The extent of what I can say about my three days walking streets that I’d frequented so long ago: My favorite sandwich shop closed and was replaced by a bakery in a town already overflowing with pastry shops. I actually walked up and down the alley three times just to make sure the new storefront was the same one that used to not suck. ‘Fuck,’ I muttered, putting emphasis on each of the four letters. This wasn’t progress. The university has been around since the early 1200s, but I travel halfway around the globe for the sake of science and I can’t even get a baguette stuffed with chicken tikka masala from a place that had been there six years earlier? ‘But what about all the history and the architecture?’, you ask. You don’t get it, man. Those sandwiches were magical.
Despite this crushing disappointment and after the successful enlightening of my wollen-suited colleagues, I did spend some time during the aforementioned lovely evenings walking hither and yon along The Backs, crossing the bridges into and out of the various colleges, and generally feeling like I was at Hogwart’s. Six years now seems like a lifetime ago and while I don’t spend much time thinking about it anymore, I was almost a completely different person then. The pubs we used to frequent are still there, of course, but going into them without the same company now seems pointless. I was surprised that there was a loneliness that permeated everything familiar. And maybe I shouldn’t have been. Having a history with a place can sometimes make it hard to have a present.
There’s a bridge across the River Cam that leads to the back of one of the colleges and off to the right is the rear of its associated library. In one of the windows, there sat a young guy hunched over a table full of open books. His head rested in his hands in a way that constitutes the universal sign of surrender to one’s realization of how much one doesn’t know. How lucky, I thought, to recognize one’s ignorance in a place designed to cure people of it.
Sir @ May 21, 2012