Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sailor's delight.

I almost never post twice in one day, but this sunset was too flippin' gorgeous to keep to myself. And you know what they say: red sky at night... good time to write?

An open letter.

Dear fear of failure and rejection,

Last night, while I was still feeling lonely, before I talked first to one friend and then to another (and before I had the utterly enviable pleasure of dancing with a gleeful four-month-old and her awesome father by way of the videochatting magic that is Skype), I read an exceptional set of instructions about how to bid farewell to old fears. And though I am about to go on another long walk through a countryside that (but for the sound of the M11, which will be omnipresent for this one) will indeed afford me bits of beauty and remind me that it's safe to be honest, I will not be alone on my walk, and I don't yet know my companion well enough to perform any visible rituals in his presence. And so, in the minutes before I depart, camera in hand, to see what there is to see between here and a neighboring village, I'm going to write you a break-up letter.

I don't know when you arrived to take up residence in every corner of my life. I know that it must have been before the very thought of getting a B+ in math on my first term's report card in sixth grade was enough to throw me into a panic. I suspect that it was even before I got detention for not having been able to finish my multiplication worksheet in fifth grade, just because my first-generation Bic mechanical pencil ran out of lead and it didn't occur to me to have a spare or to raise my hand and ask my teacher for a new pencil. Thus, it was definitely before an idiot 15-year-old football player came over to the house one Friday night, giddy at his team's having won a championship game, and wouldn't leave--until his parents called, near 1 a.m., to see if he was at our house, getting me in the most (and most self-abasing) trouble I'd been in for years, even though (I now see very clearly) I had not done a single thing wrong.

It must also have been long before the piano competition I flubbed in seventh grade, the first year I'd competed in the intermediate level of that particular contest; my teacher suggested a late-breaking change to my program, tacking on a tempestuous piece that, when performed correctly, was stormy and wonderful to be channeling--but, when performed incorrectly, was an utter disaster. Remember how the first piece went fine, and how the first performance of the potentially problematic piece also went fine? Remember, then, how two of us had to have a second-round sudden-death play-off--and how that time, the second piece refused to come through these fingers? Remember? Of course you do: it was one of the times that you fattened up, growing stronger on the belief that you were right. Because I let you.

I could keep listing: the times my social skills grades were Bs in elementary school because I couldn't hold myself back from talking with my classmates; the time that college boyfriend told me, right before breaking up with me, that no one asked me to social events because they knew I was anti-social and would say no. The time I didn't get the job. The time I felt as though I knew no one where I lived.

But I'm done. You've been wrong so many times in the past few years--and, in fact, throughout my life--that I'm done with you now. I know that you're coming around to pay a visit this weekend because I have important work to do tomorrow. I even know that you think you're coming around because you think you're making things easier for me, keeping me from falling on my face, bloodying my nose, scraping my knees, twisting my ankles, cracking my fingerbones, cudgelling my brains. But this is what I realized while I was reading that post last night: I don't have to hate you for having plagued me for three decades. I don't have to recoil against you in anger or in further fear. I can say thank you for what you've tried to do, for the ways you've tried, with decent intentions, to keep me from trying something frightening or from daring my heart and my mind again. I can also say that I'm grateful, to whatever powers oversee us, that you've somehow almost always failed in your interventions: I have, in fact, kept daring, started daring even more of late. And then, having made my peace, I can say goodbye to you.

Because, see, a wise woman told me something smarter than you, my old fear, you who wish you could call yourself my true familiar. "People who can risk rejection," she told me briskly one day on her office's ridiculous couch, "have more interesting lives than those who can't, or won't."

She was right.

So, thank you, fear of failure and rejection, for having tried to protect me, but I don't need you anymore. There's better beauty afoot, out there where you are not.

Dr. S

p.s. Actually, after a day of long walks and deep thought, I've decided that what I really meant to say earlier is fuck off. Now get the hell out of here.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Unexpected snails.

The undergraduates returned to Cambridge today, and so everyone in the whole world was shopping the downtown supermarket when my friend and I ventured in for the few items we needed for our respective suppers. "This is going to be a mess," he said as we made our way through the throngs to the store. "How much do you need to get?" "Not much," I replied. And it should have gone just fine. But I lost focus in the wine aisle, and our progressings through the store fell out of sync, and I couldn't get his attention when I reached the checkout lanes. And by the time I made it through my line, the prospect of meeting up again was utterly hopeless.

Fortunately, my second outing of the day was more fulfilling. Heading out to the Path that Simply Ends, near sundown, I thought I'd walk as far as I could, as fast as I could, just to burn off steam before dinner. But then I found the snails, there in the weeds, and they stopped me cold and sent me scurrying home for my camera.

And then, beyond the snails, there were the cattle. They stared me down. It was fantastic. (Seriously, dude, look at the steer in the middle of the back; the one in the front was taking his turn staring, but the one in the back looks as though something important--though possibly not something under his control--is about to happen. Those wide, crazy eyes!)

Friday, September 28, 2007

I start to miss the sun.

O for a boat to cross these streets, this city of slosh and sluice and slip. Leaves plaster the walk gold. My umbrella does not suffice. I pick over puddles, try not to topple on stones. I watch the birds flocking westward to a field. I choose the long way home because I am now one who can. I leave the camera home when I go out to buy a biography; later when I try to take pictures again, everything comes out unclear, awash. Fat moss slides greenly down my outside walls. I read and read before I walk; then I eat lunch. I walk and walk before I read; then I come home and cover myself with cookie crumbs at tea.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


One of the things my friend and I collect, on the occasions when we're out walking and not getting drenched, is varieties of children's bicycle seats in this town. Separately and together, we've seen covered buggies being towed behind cycles; add-on wheels and handlebars that basically make a miniature bike for a child behind his or her parent; fairly standard sit-behind-parent childseats; seats that put a child in front of his/her parents, at the handlebars, facing away from said parent; and seats that look just like a wicker bike basket, but for the fact that children sit in them (and have a little place for their feet to drop down in), facing their parents. Today, walking to town to look for a rain jacket (something that isn't going to bankrupt me after all, thanks to the discount outdoor gear store), I was passed by a mother and child on a bicycle (with standard ride-behind childseat), and the child was calling out, "Wheeeee!" Good times.

Sometimes, walking along, I'll see a cyclist approaching me, and I'll hear a little voice (obviously not hers) talking, but I won't see a child until after the cycle passes me. Those occasions still confuse me momentarily, even after this many weeks of living here.

On my way home from my walk, I was grateful for having upbraided myself as I left the flat. Just about to leave without my umbrella, I said to myself, "Were you not there when you got soaked two days ago?" I took the umbrella. When I was still a good way from home, it started to drizzle. Then, the skies opened. The sun hadn't gone away at all; it was just pouring. And you know what that means. Here's the University Library (aka the UL), in all its weather-granted finery.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

And more spells.

Today has been the England that I know: brightly, cheerily sunny and yet rainy, even when there are no rain clouds, per se, visible. When I took this picture, for instance, I was being rained upon. Lightly, to be sure, but rained upon nonetheless.

Fifteen minutes from now will see me kitted up for formal hall; twenty minutes from now will see me making strange conversation over drinks in a loud common room, waiting for the gong to ring at 8 p.m. so that we can begin strange conversation over food in a slightly less loud dining room. It's all lovely strange conversation. But it's strange. Wednesday dinners tire me out even before I start getting ready to leave for them.

Which I suspect I should do now.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Rainy spells.

My instinct was good: looking eastward from under the bookseller's tent, I could see the heavy grey clouds louring their way toward Cambridge. This would be a good afternoon to try out a café, I thought. Somehow that thought lost itself in the moments it took me to turn and find my friend. "Should we go?" is what I said aloud, and it wasn't even that I meant, any longer, to imply "go to a warm place where they'll serve me strong, milky coffee and you some rehabilitating herbal tea" instead of "go home to College." "Yes," he said, brow already furrowed. We bought our small paperbacks, packed them away where they'd be safe, and strode off. I had an umbrella packed into my camera bag. I am not the ill one, and I was the one who proposed the trip in the first place (in the high sunshine of early fall), and so I handed it over, demanded its use despite protestation. We strode and strode; I laughed to be so absurdly wet. "It's going to stop the moment we get home," I said.

And it did. Had we gone for hot drinks, we'd both have stayed dry. Sometimes my mind is mercurial at precisely the wrong moments.

My old waterproof is waterproof no more; that's why I didn't bring it along from home. But now I remember forcefully why I had no trouble finding an umbrella when I lived in Exeter: I didn't use one. I wore a waterproof hooded jacket; when it rained, I put up my hood and strode on. Such things are findable here, no doubt, but affordable? I have many doubts there.

This is how it is that I am slowly but surely assembling an entire life here.


Well, not quite an entire life. I'm missing some of my key characters. To wit, the one who showed up in my e-mailbox yesterday, courtesy of his very thoughtful steward:


But if you're reading these words because you know me, chances are excellent that I miss you even more than I miss the dragon.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What it's like here.

Things are growing in my brain, ways of being, ways of knowing who I am. I think that I am re-learning myself, those things that make my mind fizz, those things that dip me down. It's a strange thing to have this much time to spend with one's brain. Tomorrow I think I'll lace up my new Gore-Tex trainers--all-weather replacements for the old Nikes that came back out of my enormous backpack a few hours before I left home--and see how far I can walk. Maybe tomorrow I'll go west again, rather than into town.

Robert Browning knew some things, you know? Today, I'm finally getting a chance to read the nineteenth-century essays that are the background, the context and texture, of my work. In his "Introductory Essay" (to some letters of Shelley's that turned out not to be Shelley's at all), written in 1851 and published in 1852, Browning notes, "It is with this world, as starting point and basis alike, that we shall always have to concern ourselves: the world is not to be learned and thrown aside, but reverted to and relearned." Reading that just before lunch, all I could do was say, yes, yes, and where are my index cards?

Index cards were among the things I purchased during my afternoon's walk to town.

Somehow the ends of my days come earlier here than at home, and their beginnings come sooner, too. I am still no morning person. But I do find myself up and about by 8 most mornings, an unthinkable thing where I'm coming from. And five days out of seven, I'm waking up without my alarm.

No one can even imagine the things I'm coming to know.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fruits of the season.

Not three minutes after we step out of the windy, sunny afternoon and into the grocery store, the blueberries have caught my eye: 150 grams of Australian blueberries for only £2, and once again I realize just how much of my life here centers on small, exquisite, incredibly expensive things. I reach out for the punnet, just to get a better look, and I can see that these berries are flawless. He says, "what kinds of exotic fruits are there today?" "The blueberries," I say, "look at these." "Oh," he replies, "actually, if you want to get berries for later, we could have them with the pound cake." I slip the punnet into my shopping basket and choose one of strawberries, as well. The strawberries, at least, are £3 off, on sale: I will pay only £1.99 for 400 g, nearly a pound, long after what I thought was the end of the strawberry season.

When we return to the college, I say, "I'm just going to put these in a bowl with a bit of sugar." I am thinking, they will make their own juices for the few hours before dinner; we will have strawberries in sauce. He seems perplexed by the idea, but it's not even the most complicated recipe I could think up for macerated berries. It's just what one does, if one needs berries to be a topping.

I wash the berries in the colander I discovered only after I'd drained our pasta for last weekend's dinner. Blueberries first: and they are sugar; they are my summer come back; they are promise itself across my tongue. And now the improbably beautiful strawberries, not a fuzzed or fallen one in the bunch. They are so beyond what I know that I pack a tiny sampling: three strawberries, ten blueberries: into the single, strange glass ramekin that belongs to the flat, and I'm back out the door, tapping for my friend, who is surprised.

"Are these for tonight, or for afternoon delectation?" he says as he takes the ramekin. I laugh out loud at the idea of delivering 1.5 strawberries for each party to Sunday dinner. I leave him to taste them on his own; I know what he's in for.

After dinner we eat cake and sorbet and macerated berries and berries au naturel. And we gird up for tomorrow's work by starting to make plans for our next days off. And so I will go to sleep, belly full of sweetness, thinking of nearby cities full of medieval churches, of nearby beaches full of dunes and coves and saltmarshes and birds, of cathedrals and ancestral halls and pubs and piers, of train timetables and car hire. And I will wake up, flex my fingers, put them to these keys, and watch the words come to play.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Were this a contest, I might be winning.

The newly re-posting Four Inches of Ego has two whole exhibits of British signage and ways it might be translated. I had these on my mind when I set out on a walk late this afternoon, and sure enough, the first thing I saw was the most incredible sign I've ever encountered. Even though I was out for 2.5 hours and covered 6.5 miles (or so), I saw little that rivaled this one for sheer stagger value:

Click on the image to enlarge--and thus to witness someone's predictable but still amusing amendment to the sign's language.

Why 6.5 miles? you may wonder. Let's just say that I went out looking for something (something small, you know, like the first women's college at Cambridge) and underestimated how far away it was and how much I might need a map to get there. And then let's just say that I decided to turn my bewilderment into a chance to see more of the northwest side of my new home. And see it I did. But I will admit that, though I was never actually lost, it was something of a relief to get back to my usual bridge, in the calm of the falling day, and to see the river shining the evening sky back at me.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Back out in the world.

I saw my first in-theatre movie in Cambridge tonight, finally venturing out to see Atonement, about which I was so excited before I left that I was all, "I'm going to see it the first Friday night I'm there!" And then I arrived, and joined the cinema (because it seemed like something good to do), and proceeded to put off going to the show for two weeks.

My favorite Chicagoan friend and I used to talk about how we saw movies--because, as is the case with almost everything else in our lives, we have completely different relationships with cinema-going. I love to go to the movies alone. It's not a matter of principle: I also love going to movies with other people. But sometimes I really enjoy doing the whole process of movie-going by myself.

I suspect that my enjoyment may go up even more this year, since my local arthouse theatre is fully licensed, which means one can buy a glass of wine at the concession stand and carry it right into the theatre.

The movie itself was beautifully done, though I'm startled by the force of my reaction against it. To play out the nuances of that reaction, I'd probably need to reread the Ian McEwan novel that the film adapts, and it's not likely that I'll find or make time to do that anytime soon--not with the line-up of things I have ahead of me, like, you know, starting to write my own book (t-minus two days now...). For now, I'll simply say that when it opens near you, you may well want to see it, especially if you've read McEwan.

Today was another day of high winds, and as I walked to town--both times I walked to town--I realized something I did exactly right in my packing for this year: I brought my entire collection of scarves and shawls, even though it seemed almost excessive. I have already worn all of them but one. In weather like we've had this week--where it might be 68˚F but where the winds might be pushing 20 mph--something that can wrap around one's neck, many times if necessary, is the perfect layer. Especially for those of us still trying to capture and project just the right je ne sais quoi before the Long Vacation ends and everyone else returns to this university town.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A day inside.

Without much planning, I've ended up taking the day off from wandering about. I believe that today is thus the first full day I've passed in Cambridge without venturing out of the college. Partly, it's because there are all these small things to be done: an Autobiography to finish reading, a new keyboard (bringing my collection of ergonomics up to ... four? on two continents?) to install, new (college-owned) art to select and hang in the flat.

And birthday wishes to be doled out in greater dollops than I can handle on my own, which makes me glad that I'm not solely responsible for them.

About fourteen months ago, one of the students from my first summer group ended up stuck in my office during an awful storm. We had watched it rolling in from the west, but by the time we realized that leaving the office might be a good idea, it was too late to get out before the skies split. And so we sat around talking for another 45 minutes or so, until things calmed sufficiently for her to hurry off for dinner and for me to go make provisions for the class's evening session (in case the power came back on, which it did not). One thing this student told me during our long conversation was that her birthday is on September 20. "You're going to take me out for dinner on my birthday," she said. It wasn't a question; it was a declaration. And yet somehow it neither offended nor oppressed me. I assented. And on September 20, when she finished with her evening French class, we went out for dinner at a local steak place.

It's funny for me to think back on those early moments in a friendship that has only grown stronger over the ensuing year. One of the reasons I was so glad to get a job at Kenyon, back when I was on the market, was that I knew first-hand about the kinds of friendships the place fosters. When I was a student, the most important and lasting friendships I had were with my professors, whom I loved (and still love) like members of my family. But I didn't anticipate the depth of the joy I'd feel when I was on the other side of those professor/student friendships.

My Clevelander student has popped up in these writings from time to time this year: you know her as the person who masterminded my birthday surprise, then masterminded another surprise dinner in late August. She is a woman of formidable and ever-growing intensity and focus and generosity. She helped me move; she helped me deal with some unpleasant aftermaths; she went along when I sought out the disappeared cows; she saw me off to my seeing off to England. She is becoming quite an adept reader of poetry. She is devoted enough to Gerard Manley Hopkins that she has one of his lines tattooed on her left forearm. (I may well memorize another Hopkins poem, "Hurrahing in Harvest," in her honor this evening.)

And now she is nineteen, and all of us who know her are all the better for having her in our lives. Who knows where she'll start her next decade? Once she puts her mind to it, don't get in her way.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The bounce back.

Oh for a visit from friends: I spent the day with two übergorgeous northward-migrating people, talking and eating and wandering and talking and prowling--and then getting shut out of a college because we were too many and only one person (not me) had a university ID card. Alas. When I have an official university identity, my whole world may change.

In the meantime, I'll continue playing with changing my world one photograph at a time.

Inadvertently, I got married off to someone at the dinner table tonight. When I come to think about it, that's happened fairly frequently in my life, and almost always at meals.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fighting for the idyll.

What can I say about today? All was going along smoothly enough--a bit jauntily, even!--until I had to go out for my first doctor's appointment. It lasted ten minutes, and by its end, I'd basically been called a freeloader on the National Health Service because I will be taking subsidised prescription medicine while I live here. Knowing that I'd achieved what I set out to do (i.e., to get my prescriptions rewritten for this country) and that I'm not trying to be a freeloader and that my doctor was only partly right in her characterization of how my home health system works when she told her student observer, "If we were to go to the U.S., we wouldn't be able to get subsidised medicines, but Americans come here on madly expensive things and we just have to fill them" (given that anyone who'd constructed a year in the U.S. the way I've constructed a year here would, I imagine, also be entering some kind of insurance scheme)--knowing all these things, I tried to let everything else go as I took the long way home after accepting the print-out of my pharmacy script.

I revisited Newnham; I walked quietly in and stole around the grounds (and found the Eleanor Sidgwick memorial, where I imagined I was saying hello); I played with fat apertures at the college's gates. But I was still angry enough that when I was almost home, I decided to extend the walk even further and headed back out the funny footpath that terminates at the M11. Witnessing the evening rambles of cows and frolics of rabbits was a balm; being greeted by an excellent dog was another; reaching my home and feeling it to be my home was a third.

I'm not sure what that moment in the doctor's office was about, really; all I'd done was to ask how much prescriptions cost in the UK, and apparently I must have hit one of her nerves. Those of you who know me in non-electronic formats know that I've done a bit of wondering about the ethics of using another country's health system while not being required to pay taxes to that country, and I suspect that that set of wonderings laid me open to feeling the sting of truth in her words. It's true that someone in this country is going to help bankroll my health this year. It's also true that, with a lot of extra effort and some extra money, I could continue having my home pharmacy issue my refills and either send them directly to me or release them to someone who could send them to me. But I'm making a choice to have my medicine dispensed here--not because it's that much cheaper (because it's not; the prices of the drugs themselves are about even, as I told the doctor when she challenged me as to how much these medications would cost at home [where, I didn't explain to her in detail, they're also subsidised--by the medical insurance for which I'm still paying]), but because (today's unpleasantness notwithstanding) it's easier.

I'm just crossing my fingers that I won't need any further medical care before next August. And I'm still trying to let go of today's part of this process.

I do feel that I should make clear that my frustration today does not and should not constitute an indictment of the National Health Service or of nationalised health care per se. Even with its faults, I still suspect that nationalised health care is more humane, overall, than the system with which we live in the U.S. I'd like to think that I'd be willing to take an occasional tongue-lashing at home if that's what it cost (emotionally speaking) for more of my fellow citizens to be able to get any care.

By the end of the day, it did seem somewhat prescient of me to have gifted myself a new copy of Sebald's The Emigrants this afternoon.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Days of rest.

This morning, as I sat musing on a story I've been wanting to tell, it decided to become a poem, and it asked to be written down. For the first time since arriving here, and for only the second time since February, I opened my poetry notebook and watched my script shaping itself right off the tip of my pen's nib. Halfway through, I switched to the computer, rattled in what I'd already written, kept on until an endpoint had bloomed before me. It is work of which I am proud, because it is work that was unforced. My lines have lengthened again as my mind has calmed here; when I finished, it felt just like the snapshot I had captured and wanted to develop.

And so I slipped into the afternoon with something happily finished behind me, and the day has felt like a gift: time and space laid out before me, room to move around in my ideas, even some moments to finish small chores like washing my tea towels and polishing my clogs and boots. I continue reading a work that bored me to tears eight (can it be eight?) years ago, and while I still don't love it passionately, I am learning things from it now. Soon, I will be fed my hot dinner in hall--and though "individual nut roast" sounds dubious to me, the recipe I turn up through Google sounds tasty indeed. And then there will be time for more reading, possibly even just for fun.

Perhaps paradoxically, the weather has helped me cocoon a little bit today: our high temperatures today are ten degrees lower than yesterday, and for the first time since my arrival, it's not sunny. The trees are starting to tip with color. We're having fall weather, in other words, and it's not a bit unwelcome.

(By the way, make sure you enlarge today's top picture by clicking on it; otherwise, you'll miss the fun.)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Let's go out walking; I know where to meet.

In five minutes, we will depart for the next village down the Cam. My rural soul leaps up: I love that I live on the very edge of town and that I could reach field or fen with not much travel. But I haven't been in a wide-open yet since arriving, other than the day I started early and had no dog to take. I looked at my camera for awhile, deciding on the focal length I want for the afternoon: the 50mm lens offers its own constraints and challenges, forcing me to frame up a shot without being able to change its parameters. But the 28-105mm offers the possibility of macro shooting, and that's what I'm missing: the closeups of leaves and seeds and flowers, of water ripple and field fold. I don't know what we'll find on our way; part of me wants to go out without the camera altogether, out of some residual embarrassment at being a constantly photographing companion. But I will regret it if I go out without a mechanical eye: I know this with certainty.

Today is our last forecast day of good warmth for a little while; soon we begin dropping to the 40s at night and only coming up to the very low 60s in the day. And it's breezy, breezy enough to bring me the smells of my neighbors' breakfasts, breezy enough to make me doubt the wisdom of wearing my silver Birkenstocks on the walk, even though they're far and away my most foot-friendly shoes, seemingly the best candidates for six miles of walking. But perhaps my clogs would be smarter. Perhaps.

The 28-105 it is. And the clogs. With striped socks, bien sur. Don't leave home without them.


Where we went, and what we saw:

Read Rupert Brooke's poem about Grantchester to appreciate this one more.

And I did do it: I did eat blackberries from a hedge, though I was far less well equipped to reach the ripe ones than my friend, who is so very tall. As I suppose sometimes happens, the one I reached highest for was the least satisfying of all.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

And then on some other days.

On some other days, one finishes reading a novel, strolls into town to get ingredients for dinner, and feeds one's neighbor. And these days are excellent ones.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Adventures in communication.

This morning, an abbreviated version of my morning's work accomplished, I strolled to the city centre with my friend. We had a specific mission ahead of us: to purchase mobile phones and kit them out for international calling. I dislike tasks like this so much that even as we entered the city's market square, I could feel my apprehension rising. "Do you want me to do the talking?" he asked. No, no, I said, I can do it just fine (somehow it had been our plan that I would do the talking, perhaps because I had done the research). I just always expect something to go horribly wrong.

Nothing went horribly wrong; we just worked with a sales representative who was so new to his job that his nametag read "Visitor." The transaction took at least 30 minutes, I'd say, and for most of that time, we stood at the counter twiddling our thumbs and/or pointing out amusing things around the store. (Why, for instance, do our top-up cards say that they expire in 12/99? Are they actually good until the end of this century?) (Who thought it was a good idea to name a headset Smokin' Buds? Or, for that matter, to name the headset's company SkullCandy?) Finally, Visitor the Salesman said, "That will be £39.98, please," and we both just stood still on the other side of the counter, confused as to what was happening. I had priced these packages at something much more like £20; where had all this extra cost come from? Suddenly I realized the problem: he'd rung us up on a single bill, despite the fact that we'd given separate addresses within the college. This difficulty turned out to be an eminently surmountable one, as did the fact that my bank card is not of the "chip and pin" variety that has become ubiquitous here, apparently rendering old-school credit cards obsolete.

To reward ourselves for having taken the plunge into mobile phone use with our delightfully low-tech phones, we headed off for lunch and drinks at The Pickerel, a beautifully blue pub in a part of Cambridge I hadn't yet visited. And then to Magdalene College, across the road from the pub.

Magdalene has the distinction of having been home to Samuel Pepys (say: peeps), who is (in a way) one of the Cabinet's greatest heroes. Pepys took his degree from Magdalene in 1654. From 1660 to 1669, he kept an increasingly voluminous diary, which is now housed in a Library named for him at his old college. (I feel a bit like Luisa from The Fantasticks: "Every day something new happens to me!" It's difficult not to walk around here with an enormous dopey grin on one's face. And so I generally don't try very hard.)

Signs instructed us that the Pepys Library is now closed. And my guess is that not just anyone can go handling the diary's manuscripts even when it's open. But I now have one more place on the agenda for this year's Grand Tour of Rare and Astounding Things. And perhaps my doctorate and autobiography chops will come in handy when I turn up there again.

After we acquired stamps, we took a leisurely but stately stroll through my friend's own alma mater, another of Cambridge's very venerable colleges, and did so under the auspices of his status as an alumnus. Especially while I'm still finding my comfort as a member of this community, rather than as an outsider, it was exceptional indeed to be able to walk in blithe confidence past the "No Visitors Allowed" signs as we made our way back to our own lovely home.

Even if we don't have dahlias here.

* * *

How could I have forgotten to tell you that as we walked through town we saw a startlingly low-key run on a bank? Across the street from where we walked, a long, thick queue of people seemed to be waiting for something. "Is something happening with the coffee?" my friend asked, since they initially seemed to be queueing around Costa Coffee. But next door to Costa is Cambridge's branch of the bank Northern Rock, which (though we didn't know it at the moment) was having a cataclysmically bad day. Having gotten a bailout from the Bank of England (lender of last resort), the bank faced queues all over England today as worried people showed up to empty their accounts and put their money into other, safer-seeming banks. Northern Rock shares lost 30% of their value today. Now, I've learned that the bank was writing mortgages worth six times their holders' incomes, a figure that (given the costs of living here) makes me catch my breath. Everyone in the queue we saw seemed reasonably cheery about it, which almost made us think that we weren't seeing what we were in fact pretty sure we were seeing. But we were indeed seeing it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


In my college, we sign up for dinner by 2 p.m. on days we want to eat meals. (I have yet to eat lunch at my college; I know it's an entirely different crowd at lunchtime, so I'll have to check it out at some point.) There's a posted menu, so I consult it before I decide what to mark: H for "hot" or V for "vegetarian." I'm not a committed vegetarian. But I don't feel a great need to eat meat every day, or even many times a week, if there's a good vegetarian option on offer. Tonight's option was meant to be spinach frittata, which sounded delicious when I was signing up (after a heavy--but also delicious--beef dinner) on Tuesday.

But when I went in after the soup course to pick up my entree, Pat (who runs the kitchen with briskness and cheer) said, "He's getting yours right now." Trevor (who's the main chef on duty at night) was hard at work at a griddle at the back of the kitchen. After my dinner companions headed back to our table, I made conversation with Pat and Trevor while he continued doing whatever it was he was doing (I couldn't see). For one thing, I finally thought to ask Pat whether it's a problem that I'm sometimes a vegetarian and sometimes not. "I don't care," she said. "You can order whatever you want." "You can choose whatever you want," Trevor agreed. I told the story about getting stuck in the boot on Sunday, and Pat and I talked about the staggering array of brands at John Lewis (which, it turns out, is set to open a massive store in a new mall that will open in downtown Cambridge in about six weeks--who knew? it's all happening about half a block east of what have become my usual haunts and paths).

And then Trevor presented me with a gorgeous, fresh omelet made with fresh grilled vegetables.

As far as I can figure, I was the only person to put in for the vegetarian option, and so rather than make a whole frittata and have it go to waste, he just threw this omelet together when he saw me coming in to get my food.

Here is yet another of the many reasons I love my college. I know that this kind of attention is due in part to the fact that most people aren't here yet, and so I'm not expecting it to continue in quite this way, come October. But I love, beyond my expectation, how friendly everyone in this place has been. When I got locked out of the main college building last night in the aftermath of our Wednesday night Formal Hall fancy-dress dining event, it was actually the college president's wife who finally came to let me back in. It's just like that. People keep their eyes out for one another.

At dinner--before the omelet's grand revelation--I turned to my neighbor friend and said, "I could look this up, but I know you know the answer, so: what's the deal with the cows across the river from King's?"

"Well," he said, with a flourish that I have come to recognize as characteristic, "when Henry VI built the college in the fifteenth century, all of that land was commons, and people grazed their animals on it. And so he decreed that that part of the land would remain commons, and cows have grazed there ever since."

Yet another reason to love this place.

Tomorrow, if all goes well, I will acquire a mobile phone, which is such an expected part of one's personal arsenal here that I've actually been frowned on a couple of times (say, by my doctor's office) for not being able to provide a mobile number. If all goes very well, I may also ride out of the day on a bicycle rented for the year. I'm starting to feel a desire to get further afield faster than on foot.

It was this kind of day here today.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Locked in, locked out.

The first time I went to Oxford, back in 1996, I was stunned by how excluded I felt. (I know now that it was a sign of my incredible privilege that that was perhaps my first experience of feeling utterly locked out.) Here, all over town, little doors open up vistas into the most beautiful courtyards and gardens and quads and cloisters you can imagine, even more beautiful than Oxford's. And little signs just inside the doors tell you "No Entry. College Closed to Visitors." I feel less excluded this time, simply because one of these colleges is my own, and once I have a university ID card, more of them may be open to me. And by virtue of my research, Newnham College--the one with these patinaed gates--will (I hope) be open to me, at least within reasonable bounds, within a few weeks.

"I was so glad to register with the surgery," my neighbor-friend told me the other day, "because I'd only seen Newnham from the main road before, and from there, it's fairly unremarkable. But from Newnham Walk, it looks like heaven in there." I verified this the next day when I trotted down to the same surgery and registered myself with the National Health Service.

Newnham is important because it was the second Cambridge college founded for women, back in the 1870s, and it was the first one to be founded near the men's colleges. I stood and stared at the gates for a long time the other day, wondering whether they are, in fact, the same gates that were pulled down by male undergrads and alums on the second occasion (in the early 1920s) when there was a vote about whether or not to allow women to take degrees from Cambridge in addition to pursuing courses of study. Though the women (who weren't able to vote at all, not being Cambridge alums) were not granted the right to take degrees during that election, Cambridge men stormed the gates anyhow. In the 1890s, the first time the women weren't granted that privilege, the college was somehow able to protect its property, but the passage of 30 years had apparently emboldened the next generations of voters. (When the vote came up a third time, in the 1940s, women were granted the right to sit exams and earn degrees with no trouble at all. Go figure.)

I love the prevalence of sunflowers on the gates. Sunflowers were an incredibly important symbol in the American suffrage movement because Kansas passed a state referendum in 1867 to allow women to vote, and the Kansas state symbol was the sunflower. I don't know whether or not that's why these sunflowers are here, but I suspect it may well be.

When I stroll out into town, past the colleges with their open-but-closed gates and the hordes of people whizzing by knowingly on their bicycles (all with the most enormous bicycle baskets you can imagine), I've come to put a certain look on my face, a half-smile and a twinkle that belie any sense I might have of not completely belonging here. Cambridge was half the place that led Virginia Woolf to wonder, in A Room of One's Own (which she delivered here, at Newnham and Girton), whether it's worse to be locked in or locked out. I figure that I'm in the best of both worlds right about now. And will be even more so within a few months.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Today, I took an afternoon walk to the city centre and beyond, still in search of table lamps. On my outbound walk, I saw something I'd never seen before: a woman perched on a bicycle, just riding along while her male partner held both handlebars, pushing and steering. She was elegant and effortless (literally), sitting there with both feet on one side of the bike, almost as though she were riding it side-saddle. They carried on an earnest conversation as we passed one another. Because she didn't have to do any of the work of propelling the bike and thus only had to maintain her balance while she was pushed along (which couldn't have been that easy, to be sure, since she wasn't holding on to anything), she was completely focused on his face.

I finally found a good store for buying lamps and pretty much everything else, which was a relief. Now I can stop thinking about whether I'll ever find lamps that I like and can afford. Alas that one of the two I wanted had to be special-ordered, something I learned only after I'd spent some 30 minutes pairing bases and shades to make the small and lovely lamp I was able to bring home.

What I hadn't anticipated was how different light bulbs are here, and how relatively low the maximum wattage is in standard home lighting. Though the lampshade I selected is rated for a 100W bulb, the maximum for the lamp itself is 60W. In fact, I saw only one table lamp that could take even 100W, a bit of a shock for the woman who usually rocks a 150W reading lamp in home and office. (My solution here: burn more lamps at the same time, hoping for a cumulative effect. Hence the prolonged search for lighting. It's only partly about decor.) So, I went to the light bulb display, seeking a 60W bulb. I had to be sure to look for a golf ball type bulb. I also had to look for a bulb with a BC (or bayonet cap) base, as opposed to an ES (or Edison screw), so that I wouldn't have to make a return trip to exchange a £1.50 purchase. I know that at Lowes I regularly shop a whole aisle of bulbs, so it's not as though I'm saying that something about the English and their bulbs is particularly strange. It was just strange to me this afternoon, in a way that was unexpectedly staggering.

Walking home with one of my two lamps purchased and bagged, I came up behind yet another pair of people walking a bike. This time, a teenaged girl pushed another teenaged girl's bike, while that girl perched on the bike and told a story. Two sightings of this arrangement have left me wanting to hire a bike for the year (something I'm considering anyhow) just so that I can then find someone to push me around on it. I want to hear the kind of stories that get told during that kind of ride.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Where's your wife?

Oh, magpies. I had literally forgotten all about magpies. Somehow, I don't remember their having been around during any of my research trips; the last time I recall watching them was when I lived in Devon twelve years ago. As they've started flocking into my college's courtyard--perhaps because our resident children were in school today?--I've started seeing them again.

(See him? These are the chimneys at the top of the building I face when I sit at my desk.)

Last night after dinner, my new neighbor-friend and I swapped magpie lore. "When you see one magpie," I said to him, "aren't you supposed to get someone else to acknowledge having seen it, too, to be sure it's really there and that you're not mad?" He hadn't heard that one. "But," he said, "I do seem to remember that when you see an odd number of magpies, you're supposed to greet them by saying, 'Hello, Mr. Magpie! Where's your wife?'" But if you see an even number of magpies and you say that, then you're in for years of horrible luck."

Because I could only see one magpie in the yard from where I was sitting, I called out, "Hello, Mr. Magpie! Where's your wife?" Obligingly, he stood to verify that the magpie did exist and that I wasn't mad. But he couldn't see it. "Clearly, you're mad," he said. "It's not a problem," I replied. "We've known about this for years." He's now alerted me to even more magpie lore.

This morning, a single magpie once again walked into the yard. "Hello, Mr. Magpie!" I cried. "Where's your wife?" And then a second magpie walked out. Damn, I thought. Many years of bad luck, coming my way. But then there was a third magpie, and so all was well. And sure enough, when I checked my pigeonhole in college, there was a slip alerting me to the fact that I had "one parcel (large)" waiting for me at the porter's lodge--my $69 box! And so it is that tonight I will sleep under my beautiful mama's beautiful quilt. It has changed my entire space, as I knew it would--that's why I mailed it over.

On my way home from my second trip (this time, with phone number in hand) to the surgery where I am now a registered patient (and beneficiary of the National Health System), I saw my last magpie of the day, painted on a construction barrier.

Do you know Josh Rouse's "Sweetie"? You should.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Stuck in a boot.

At 3 p.m., I'd have sworn to you that I would be wearing a particular pair of half-zipped black leather boots for the rest of my life.

Continuing my weekend of getting to know my new town, I set out today to find the Grafton Centre, Cambridge's shopping mall. On my way there, I stopped in at Next, enticed by a window display of homewares (or, as they're called here, homewear). Suddenly I was being enticed on all sides by displays of relatively inexpensive clothing. And then there were the boots. I did not bring my heeled dress boots, figuring that I would hunt down a pair here. I found a pair in my size and proceeded to try them on--only to get the zipper stuck halfway down my calf.

Now, even by U.S. standards, I have a fairly wide calf. By British standards, I have an enormous calf. That hadn't seemed to be a massive problem as I was putting these boots on--though I suspect I wouldn't have wanted to wear them for long. But somehow, as I was unzipping them, part of the leather facing for the zipper got chewed into its teeth and refused to budge up or down. Embarrassedly, I spent probably ten minutes trying to gentle the facing back out of the zipper so that I could remove the boot and flee. Finally, I called in a salesgirl for help. She called in another salesgirl. I eventually pulled my foot out of the half-zipped boot, and the second salesgirl disappeared with it to find someone who could fix the zipper.

At this point, it crossed my mind that I should flee while no one was looking, just in case the "you break it, you buy it" rule were about to be invoked; the last thing I was interested in today was paying £55 for a pair of boots with a stuck zipper, particularly since the boots didn't fit all that well to begin with. But I stayed, hoping that everything would work out. And it did. Though I fancied the first salesgirl was eyeing me askance for the rest of the time I stayed in the shoe area, trying on flats and other non-zipping shoes.

I did eventually make it to the Grafton Centre, winding my way there through the city centre's strange, twisty streets and across one of its lush green spaces, Christ's Pieces--which is distinguished in part, in my mind, by the fact that its landscape design includes small decorative plots of corn surrounded by assorted flowers and greenery. Corn! As park decor! Indeed, even before I reached the mall, I suspected that the walks there and back would turn out to have been the best parts of the outing--not to denigrate the mall, where I finally purchased an umbrella and the cardigan I'm likely to be wearing day in and day out for the next two months at least. (Though I was reminded forcibly, once again, of how expensive almost every single thing is here. I want to buy a table lamp for my flat. Just a table lamp. Maybe two. This is the kind of thing I'd go down the road to Lowes for, if I were in Ohio. But here I am (I think) stuck with department stores, which means I'm looking at some fairly hefty prices. I may have found a good one today for £15. I may have to go back later in the week to check it out again. But everything else--most of it not very nice anyway--was pushing £30 or more. And, for those of you keeping score at home, the pound is running about $2.03 right now.)

The best things that happen to me here, so far, happen on walks, not at destinations. Today, just for instance, I saw the King's College cows again, grazing in their part of The Backs, across the Cam from their college. (See how big the cows are in that picture at the top of this writing? Click it and see. Those are punters going by on the river, just behind them. I'd guess the punters are about ten feet behind the cows.) And only moments later, I heard the distinctive cry of a baby bird and looked down to see a moorhen and its chick in the little stream beside me. Once again, I rued not having a stronger zoom lens.

But you can, I hope, see both the parent (at center) and the chick (climbing up behind the parent, working on eating in the reeds on the bank). There really are babies and young ones everywhere here.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Of all my fruitless searches.

There was a moment, at about 6 p.m., when I thought that I'd missed the grocery store's closing time and would actually be forced to eat in a restaurant because I had no food in the house. It's been a long time since I've felt that little sinking in the pit of my stomach--that feeling of having mismanaged things badly enough to leave myself with nothing to eat. Fortunately, even though the other shops were closing up, Sainsbury's was still open--and bustling.

Even more fortunately, they were selling umbrellas.

After having spent the morning and afternoon reading my very strange Thomas Hardy novel, I headed out in the late afternoon to acquire some more basics. A power strip. Ink (finally). Milk. A Handbook of British Birds (the better to identify the moorhens that run through The Backs, the green spaces and gardens that stretch along the west side of the Cam, across from the colleges on the river's east side). And an umbrella. Today, I even began my errands by searching for an umbrella, since I've managed to come home without one for two days in a row. Store after store, I searched high and low, finding only one place that carried them--and finding that place's selection damnably weak and overpriced. Finally, as I was about to give up and just buy some groceries, I rediscovered the umbrella display at the door of the grocery store.

Then things got weird. I know that I selected an umbrella. It cost £5. It was in my shopping basket. And yet somehow, when I got halfway home and realized that I hadn't put it in my grocery bag with my other items, I also realized that I hadn't seen it on the conveyor belt. Either it disappeared from my shopping basket--which would be downright bizarre--or I left it there when I put my things on the belt. Or, inexplicably, I never put it in there to begin with.

It was that kind of day here: there was some oversleeping and some disorientation (at one point, I woke up facing the wall and started to panic because I couldn't think of anywhere I should be waking up to utter blankness); there was a lot of reading; there was a lovely walk to town and a stroll through the local Arts and Crafts Market; and then there was a frustrating and frustrated search for a very basic item that, in my own country, I'd be able to locate with no difficulty. Because we have enormous stores that carry everything, instead of many specialized stores. I will be glad for the specialized stores during the majority of my stay here. Today, they just pissed me off.

On my walk home, listening to my bottle of rioja clinking against my bottle of olive oil, I stopped to watch the moorhens chasing each other. They have long legs and enormous feet, and when they run they resemble little children running headlong with their hands clasped behind their backs. In fact, they looked not unlike the child I saw racing his father to meet his laughing mother on the Garret Hostel Lane bridge this afternoon. What I hadn't anticipated about this year is how much proximity I would have with small children, or how much I would be gladdened by their being around--even when they're screaming, "Come here! Come here!" or "Shut up!" The college's children play all day long. I suspect that they, too, may be realizing that their summer is nearly over.

Tomorrow I will try again for an umbrella.

Friday, September 07, 2007

You're all right, my love.

Yesterday, as I was returning from the library, two workmen were dismantling something atop this building, at the corner of my street. When I stepped to one side to try and get out of their way, one of them said to me in the undertoned way I've experienced so many times in this country, "You're all right, my love."

Today has been a day for realizing just how much about England is very familiar to me, after twelve years of being here intermittently, and just how much about my sense of landscape aesthetics--of how to see a landscape at all--has grown out of my time here. I read Alain de Botton's marvelous The Art of Travel (2002) in the days leading up to my journey, and I finished it just before we began our descent into Gatwick. Near the end of his essay "On the Exotic," de Botton summarizes ninteenth-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert's idea that national identity should be assigned "not according to the country of a person's birth or ancestral origins, but instead according to the places to which he or she was attracted" (96). I can remember coming home from England in 1996 and feeling as though I'd been transplanted to some alien planet; I can remember coming back from visiting my brother in 1999 and feeling intensely doubtful (and not a little confused) when the passport control official in Philadelphia greeted me with a cheery, "Welcome home!"

England is not, and probably will never be, my actual home country. And in many ways, it's no better (or worse) than the U.S. It's different. But many of the ways in which it's different are very congenial to me. I love the pedestrian-oriented nature of much of this country. I love that it would actually be an enormous pain for me to have a car here, rather than the other way around, and yet that I can walk to everything I need (and probably to most, if not all, things I want). I love that there are buildings here that predate the eighteenth century--and that the city centre, at least, is densely built enough that it can't be modernized beyond recognition or individual identity. History is visible here in a way that it simply isn't in much of the U.S.

I love specific brands that I can get here. I love that I can get not only Nescafe Gold Blend in almost any size I want but also a grocery store knock-off of Gold Blend that's every bit as good and half the price. I love that English milk and yogurt don't upset my stomach, so that I don't have to pay triple the price for special milk just to be able to eat cereal. And I love that people will call you "love" pretty much everywhere: even though part of me feels as though it should perhaps bristle when I'm called "love" or "my love" by a random man on the sidewalk, more of me appreciates those little fillips of consideration.

For some reason, I awoke extraordinarily early today. When I realized by 7:15 that I was not going to fall asleep again, I also realized that I should take advantage of being awake for morning light, which I don't typically see. With my brief morning routine over, I headed out for a walk--and decided to explore the strange road/footpath that (according to Google Maps) disappears somewhere west of here.

No one was around when I set out. I walked westward past the rugby practice field that borders my college, then watched the asphalt path get choppier and choppier. In not much time, I reached a barbed wire fence that could have been with me in mid-Ohio.

And yet on the other side of the path was a mix of fruits familiar and strange. Another member of the college had alerted us to the presence of edible blackberries along that walk (though anyone who's seen The Good Girl is, I suspect, unlikely to be too cavalier about eating strange blackberries). But no one told me about whatever this fruit is:

After awhile, I reached a stile whose very presence seemed to portend glimpses of cows in the further field sometime this year, though there were no cows this morning:

And it was right about this time that I realized that though I could in fact see a continuation of my path, I didn't feel like walking any further without having alerted someone, somewhere, about where I was and what I was up to. I turned around and headed back toward the asphalt, there in the morning haze. By the time I reached my room, it was only 8:15 a.m., and I still seemed to be the only person awake (though I know that I wasn't; I'd actually seen some of our resident families eating breakfast in their flats' kitchens even before I set out).

Though I did get through some reading (and furniture rearrangement!) this morning and afternoon, my chief business involved getting to know the city centre (and chiefly its bookstores) more thoroughly. Strangely, bottles of black ink seem to be less common here than I'd have expected, and I'll be damned if I don't keep forgetting to buy an umbrella while I'm out shopping--an absence of mind that's going to come back to bite me soon if I'm not careful.

I've decided that one problem I'm experiencing with my pictures in the city centre and of the colleges is a direct result of my almost never having both hands free while I'm shooting. Tomorrow, I'm going to endeavor to perform only one task at a time: grocery shopping or taking pictures, for instance. And movie-going. And, possibly, dining out--because though my college's food is wonderful so far, the kitchen is closed on weekends.

It's feeling more and more like home already. I'm all right, my love.