First days in Cambridge


This is more or less the view that greeted me when my taxi pulled up to the Porter’s Lodge at Churchill College (you may not be able to read the sign in the photo). After a long day and night of traveling (highlight: nobody next to me on the plane to London, so I got to stretch out a bit; lowlight: the line for students to get their visas processed at Heathrow took 1.5 hours. Seriously.), it was nice to feel like I was almost there. The porter who handed me my key was very nice, and marked the way to my room at a graduate “hostel”nearly 1 km away. I took some photos before I unpacked (though after I made the bed):





At this point I was quite hungry, so I walked along a major road into the town center, until I found a Sainsbury’s (a UK grocery chain) by observing people walking in the opposite direction as I was while carrying orange plastic grocery bags and reasoning that I must be going the right way. I probably walked 8 or 10 km that night, partly due to some wrong turns.

I couldn’t drag myself out of bed before 9 am the next morning, partly due to jet lag and partly because it felt very cold. I think the nights here will feel chillier than expected because it’s generally quite humid. However, it turned out to be a pretty nice day. After meeting the graduate administrator and getting my welcome packet of forms to fill in (including the one that would allow me to use the wired internet connection in my room; there’s no wireless in the older graduate hostels), I decided to find the corner shop alluded to in the MCR* Fresher’s** Guide, and it turned out to be (a) much closer than Sainsbury’s and (b) host to all sorts of awesome ingredients. Along with a whole wall of spices and spice mixes for Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese food, they also had some components for African food (there’s cassava flour and corn dough in the picture below). I bought a chickpea salad and an orange and ate them for lunch outside the shop.


Next, I headed into the city center with the aim of setting up a bank account (to avoid ATM fees). I heard that HSBC had a good online interface for transferring money from international accounts to your local account, so I went there with my letter from the graduate office proving my residence at the College. Unfortunately, I had to make an appointment for next Thursday to actually set up an account…so I’m considering taking my business elsewhere, if I hear from other students that other banks are more convenient.


That picture above is pretty representative of central Cambridge: small, quaint shops, mixed architecture, lots of tourists. I haven’t taken any pictures of the really spectacular colleges yet, except the one below:


I was looking into the sun, so the picture sucks, but the big imposing building is King’s College, founded in 1441. I was a bit more excited, from a practical perspective, at least, about finding the market square:


…because that’s probably where I’ll find a bike. Cambridge is not a terribly large town, but bikes are absolutely essential for students at the university, and particularly those at the “Hill Colleges” like Churchill (one of my housemates explained to me at Hall*** today that Churchill in on a hill. I don’t feel that there’s enough elevation change to qualify), which are several miles away from the town center and at least a mile from a grocery store. Students at older colleges that have sites in the city center find bikes useful to get to their college’s sporting grounds, which are far from their college sites (Churchill College’s sporting grounds are right next to the college).

Later in the day, I went for a run that took me through some farmers’ fields and eventually into a patch of stinging nettles, which grazed my leg while I bent to look at the map nailed to a nearby fence running under one of those stereotypically English hedges separating two fields. I had intended to run to either the nearby town of Coton or a hill that is supposed to have a good view of Cambridge, but ended up sort of splitting the difference and zig-zagging around some completely ordinary, already-harvested fields. I decided, somewhat disappointedly, that both would have to wait for another day. As I stood back up, some prickles caught in my hair; there were blackberries growing in the hedge, hanging directly over the nettle patch. I enjoyed a few before I headed back.

These first few days have been amazingly busy in some ways and yet somehow…unproductive. I feel like I’m caught between thinking like a tourist (which makes me take various routes between my house and the city center and wander around more than strictly necessary) and a work-oriented student (which made me very worried when I didn’t have internet access and hadn’t heard anything from my supervisor or his group). Both of the full days I’ve been here, I’ve gotten up later than I’m used to  (thanks jet lag) and done much less than I wanted to.

Here's the Bracken Library, where I spent several hours this morning looking up which bike shops in Cambridge might have something in my price range and where those places are. Also, I kind of got sucked into catching up on the news from the last 4 days.
Here’s the Bracken Library, where I spent several hours this morning looking up which bike shops in Cambridge might have something in my price range and where those places are. Also, I kind of got sucked into catching up on the news from the last 4 days.

That paragraph comes across as way more negative than I intended it to, so let me be clear: this is a really cool place, and I’m glad I’m here. My guess is that it feels a little weird because I arrived nearly 3 weeks before the start of “Full Term,” so there aren’t many students around and I’ve been given nothing to do yet beyond the boring practicalities of figuring out internet, unpacking, getting things for my room, and just generally smoothing the way for when I have actual work, and that entails quite a bit of alone time. I think a big part of the issue is not having a bike, which has forced me to spend a lot of time walking into and around town and not very much time meeting people or doing things that feel more useful. It could partly be the weather (mostly cold and grey) and near-total lack of elevation changes, which contribute to a slight illusion of “I’m not getting anywhere!” I also essentially gave myself a couple of days off of fellowship applications and reading papers because I (probably correctly) assumed that I would be too tired and brain-dead to focus on anything difficult. I’m hoping to get a bit of work done on fellowship applications tonight, just so I can feel  like I accomplished something. [Yesterday evening, I made the mistake of starting a good book on my Kindle, and the suspense + jet lag kept me awake until 2 am. For anyone not trying to sleep, Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is pretty good.]

Punting on the River Cam near Trinity Hall.
Punting on the River Cam near Trinity Hall.

Closing on a positive note: I’ve met and talked a bit with a few of my housemates now, mostly today at breakfast and this evening at dinner in the Hall. They all seem quite nice, and the fact that Churchill College primarily has students focused on sciences and math helps create common ground. I’m excited for Fresher’s Week (coming up soon) so that I can meet many more people in my college, and for the term to begin so that I can sink my teeth into some new physics. There have been a few nettles accompanying my first few days here, but I’m basically standing in a blackberry patch.


*MCR = Middle Combination Room, the collective term for and society of postgraduate students.

** Fresher = first-year of any kind (i.e. undergraduate or postgraduate)

***Hall = the dining hall where lunch and dinner are served. Also refers to meals eaten in the Hall.


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