City Pulse

By Lili Eros-Sarnyai

So after a month in Cambridge, I am finally beginning to adapt to the British, sorry, English way of life. This is a very important distinction to make and one that most of the English feel ever so strongly about. Nationalistic sentiments continue to run high and any perceived threat to these tends to induce a decidedly cold stare and/or a weary sigh at the ignorance of Americans, followed by a lengthy lecture on the achievements of the English. But back to my main point: I can feel myself becoming anglicized day by day as the memories of the noise and craziness of New York gradually fade, giving way to a heightened perception of the little curiosities that can only be found in the veritable bubble of academia and tradition that is Cambridge – more specifically, the University of Cambridge. The two mustn’t be confused, as any of the locals will tell you that the town is fantastic, if it weren’t for the students, and all the students claim that it’s a great place to be, if only the locals would wake up and realize, after 800 years, that it is a town for the students, run by the students, catering to the students.

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How can I tell that that I am no longer just an exotic import from the USA with no comprehension whatsoever of the “way we do things here?” Well, for a start, I have finally figured out that the “plodge” refers to the porters’ lodge, that is to say the quasi-security/information center of each college where we students go with all our woes from an enquiry about how to work the washing machines (insert token, turn handle and give the machine a decisive kick) to qualms about the heating (what heating? It’s not even below freezing yet! Besides, the central system is down…) to concerns over the “weekly” cleaning of our rooms (maybe the bedders* will get around to it next week…), the porters are the people to see. Acting as your surrogate parents/teachers/therapists, theirs is a multifaceted and central role. Offend a porter, and you have pretty much committed student suicide.

Indeed, so accustomed am I to the modus operandum that just within the space of the past week I have found myself on several occasions quietly congratulating my rapid adaptability; had any of these scenarios occurred but two weeks previously, I am pretty certain I would have cycled away on my cute but somewhat rusty vintage bike as fast as my platforms would allow. Let me give you an example: Just yesterday, I stood in the middle of what you should imagine as a well-kept field, referred to as “The Backs,” behind one of the oldest, most magnificent colleges, directing a photo shoot for the fashion pages of the university newspaper. This may not in itself be remarkable, but keep in mind that this was en pleine air, as they say, the temperature feeling more like December and the sky inevitably threatening rain. The model was wearing a vintage ball-gown, messy Converse, and more than what can be regarded as a healthy amount of jewelry – oh, and did I mention that she was surrounded by teddy bears and packets of instant noodles? Seriously, don’t even ask. It all becomes perfectly clear when you consider the shoot in its “revised fairy tale” context.

This being Cambridge, the whole endeavor was made all the more exciting by our heroic antics in attempting to avoid annoying the herd of cows territorially grazing around us, lazily eyeing us fashionistas as if to say “Students! What a crazy lot!” Naturally, our little mini-drama drew a whole crowd of tourists who had been marveling at the Neo-gothic splendor of the college, but who decided that photographs of apparently insane students would provide much better conversation starters back home. The way in which I remained utterly unperturbed, highly focused and inherently calm still astounds me – surely such nonchalance can only be possible due to a gradual development of English mannerisms…Is it possible that a self-confessed New Yorker can become an English rose in the mere space of a month? Well, only time will tell.

* Those lovely ladies who are responsible for something which might in some contexts be described as “cleaning our rooms” – that is, when they have caught up on all the hot college gossip and had their fill of tea and biscuits in the lounge.

Originally published November 2007
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