Saturday, August 25, 2012

It Is Never The End

I cannot say that I am overly fond of goodbyes. It is more important, I think, to remember what was good, what made us laugh, what took us by surprise, than to dug ourselves in the realization that those times are gone.

That is not to say I'm not sad. It isn't everyday that you meet people like those who have grown dear to my heart over this short period of time. And it is enough of a burden on me just now that I'd rather not write about all my feelings just yet. I can, however, provide some pictures:

The back gate entrance to Trinity College. It is lovely.

King's College entrance at sunset

There are no words. Just a sigh of contentment.

A library - lovely books and that great musty page smell

My creative writing class! In the middle are Anne Rooney and Brian Keaney, two very lovely and helpful authors. I will not soon forget this class.

Mulberries we found while walking back from Grantchester! That's right - all the ripe ones were picked.

Bidding farewell to Cambridge is like hugging a new friend for the last time. You know you'd like to see it again, but you can't guarantee anything. No matter, though. The memories stay, the connection has been felt. We might be going our separate ways, but it means so little in the grand scheme of things. The world is small, and I will see you again.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Porter's Prophesy: A Poem by a Colleague

This weekend, we had a talent show. There were many fun, entertaining, and frankly surprising performances. I heard some people sing that I didn't expect to; there was harmonica beatboxing, stand-up comedy, and line-dancing. It was an altogether fun night. But one of the performers did a great job of summarizing what this program has been like for us. He's posted his slam poetry on his website, so please go visit it and read more of his stuff.

The background to this poem is that Cameron spoke to a few of the porters during his time here, and they said that they can generally tell within a week who's going to be successful at Cambridge and who isn't, so this is called Porter's Prophesy:

I enter the lodge head down, the porter looks up…frowns.
No need to say, I’m totally nude but for a towel anyway.
I can hear him rant,  ‘Prior, proper, preparation
prevents poor performance,’ but I can’t help but wonder,
beyond this blunder, Can he fortell or spell out my time
here, in Cambridgeshire?
‘Porter Prophet, Prophesy
oh please, on one of your rings of keys
you can appease, abate, my curiosity of late
to see what I’ll undertake and what’s at stake
these next eight weeks…
You have hundreds of keys, thousands, galore!
Can’t one unlock a crystal ball? That’s all
I ask – from your aged eye, can you spy
what is in store for me?’
He leans in close. Was I too verbose?
Look’s like he’ll beat me
with brass knuckles
and chuckle as I buckle. But wait–
He strokes his white whiskers…
‘I see…I see, a crown. Yes. A King.
A Pembroke King you shall be,
from module one to module three.
In college shall feel like royalty.
You have flown from afar.
and some customs you’ll find bazaar
on your cultural radar.
Baked beans for breakfast,
punting, here, is done on a punt
not on a football green–
in fact, football is soccer,
and don’t make a scene
getting run over on the wrong side of the road;
or a common mocker-ry
of the great English tradition of afternoon tea:
thou shalt remember: ‘Jab after cream.’
I see you spinning fast with a Scottish lass
twirlin’ fast in a keeley dance.
Are you wet from the sweat or the rain?
Unclear… and yet, I see,  I see
you will come to call Cambridge ‘Home.’
Yes, returning from highland heights,  and castle sights,
both fog, and bog, and green feilds with a lonely lamb
back home to the gentle river cam.’
He grows silent, my towel’s still wet and damp
Is that it!? A cultural summer camp?!?!
So I implore, ‘But Mister, what more’s in store?’
Again he strokes his white whiskers–’I see…I see–
Music will litter the streets with their beggin’ beats
and a home strung songs will carry you along
past Great St. Mary’s and the Market Square’s berries
and fruit stands. Oh how long can you stand
the spinoffs of ‘keep calm and carry on.’
On to your classes; don’t mind the masses
of tourists; every day you will hear a ‘tchau mi amici,’
‘Je t’aime,’ ‘felicitations amigo’  or ‘mutter mit arbieter,’
if not a  Chinese kid asking, ‘Take my photo please’
Remember, thou shalt honour your PKP parents,
don’t peg grinning Greg and carful Carlos
with his mutton chops – they call all the shots.
with the PA too, they know their job,
but Beware! Beware the mob!
Woe! Woe be unto you,
if you get stuck in that stretching queue,
at the CUS cafe, almost e-ver-y day
before and after lunch you want to punch the guy
that took your last grilled panini of the day–
probably from BYU anyway,
or Hong Kongo, or Cal-i-for-nia-ah.
Remember remember this hidden treasure/greatest pleasure
will endure as the cure for your thirst,
and I dirst not speak too loud for it’s frailty,
the secret is: Commensality
I think, That’s a fancy word but I have never heard
that term before or what it’s used for.
The Porter Prophet fortells and dispells my doubts:
‘It means to converse over a meal,
like: breakfast or supper, or upper-class
formal halls: with suits,
and bowties, and gowns and wine
you’ll think you’ve reached cloud nine to dine
and find new fast friends
that last long beyond the programme ends.
What’s more, I see I see…
Thou shalt respect those dastardly dons
even when their reading lists go on, and on.
Love words. love books, love the 24 hour libraries too.
Read ‘em, learn ‘em, love em all,
Thou shalt not forget that corpus clock
that ticks and tocks, hiccups, and locks
and eats every minute away of every day
Don’t let it rob a moment of  your 56 days
Love the classes and the grasses,
even if you cant walk on them.
Keep these words in faith without a lie,
and I can clearly prophesy:
that your heart will flicker hot with fire
whenever you remember Cambridgeshire

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Telescopes and Henry V

At about eight o'clock, Cambridge awakens to the sound of bells from churches which ring from across over thirty colleges. You can hardly escape it--and if you can, the glare of sunshine in your bedroom takes care of the rest of your chances of sleep. People begin to appear along the lonely streets, sweepers shuffling along the edges of the road. A lone runner passes, iPod plugged in. People begin to gather round the cafes, where the smell of caffeine and cocoa beans float in between the snatches of pasties at the marketplace. They don't say much, just move around each other, sluggish and quiet. A wind passes, sending morning chills through them. Footsteps, and a young man sniffs as he walks by. If people do talk, they gather in couples to do it, prearranged paths. So when I say "we woke up early to go to London," I mean that the city actively conspired to bring us to consciousness. The bus ride would take about two hours.

The best way to do it is in chronological order, but know that there is so much I just can't cover.

The bus dropped us off at the British Museum, a name which I have been told is simply code for "stuff the British stole." And certainly, for being a "British" museum, there were few to no British artifacts. We saw some from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand--Buddhas, statues to gods and spirits, guardians to temples that stared accusingly at me, teeth bared. We saw Egyptian mummies and their coffins, decorated and adorned. While this was fascinating, it was a temporary sensation. We had other things to do. My companions and I left quickly, headed for 221B Baker Street. 

A fire spirit

A painting of Venice by a Japanese artist - I love the style put in a European location

Tokyo burning in a great fire, with a spirit watching from above.

I took many pictures of the interior of the Sherlock Holmes Museum. The 1800s are fascinating. And who knows, I may need the information later, if I decide to give into the historical fiction push I've been feeling recently. The technology emerging at this era very quickly changed how we view the world, ourselves, and of course, the "not-ourselves," the Other. 

221B is a bit of a townhouse, all stacked up on itself with small rooms but many floors. Everything creaks and alerts you to the presence of the others milling about. Despite the fact that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are completely fictional characters, you do get the sense that someone could have lived in this flat. Watson had a room very much filled with the tools of his trade, and Sherlock's was... well, it was Sherlock's. Varied interests, messes everywhere. In the different rooms, they had allusions to different cases. I couldn't tell you which is my favorite, but a few of the top five or so were put together with artifacts, wax figures, and in one case, the head of a dog mounted on the wall.

Sherlock's book on beekeeping

The living space for the 221B boys

The victim of the Redheaded League, copying words from the dictionary in his finest handwriting.

We walked to Hyde Park, and Speaker's Corner. On Sundays, you can come and speak about whatever you want. Certain speakers had crowds of spectators and participants, and others none at all. There weren't any that particularly interested me, but that wasn't the point. The point was to stand in a crowd, and feel the blood rushing through their veins, to hear the intake of their breath. To be alive in a crowd of the living.

We sat at the edge of a river in the middle of the park, watching the geese and the swans. We shared knowledge and asked questions.The sun beat down on us gently, so we could watch the paddle boats on the water, and hear children feeding the birds, dogs occasionally chasing after them into the river.  I realized that the friends I've made on this program are people I want to keep, knowing full well it will be difficult as soon as we aren't in the same time zone. 

Next came the Science Museum. There was so much to see. On the first floor, steam-powered engines. Gift shop. Cafe. We saw an exhibit on what the internet sounds like. Words popped up on a series of small screens arranged in a square. The room was dark, and there were five speakers in front of and behind us, so every sound came from a certain angle. It had different movements, like a symphony. A program searched for "I like ____." It displayed the search results on the screen, and a computer program spoke the words out loud. It was beautiful and fascinating. The words were from live feeds, Facebook and such. 

Later, we saw the history of timepieces. There were such interesting ways of keeping track of our day. It began with sundials, progressing to hourglasses, and eventually compasses and pocketwatches, which were so expensive and difficult to produce that only the very well-to-do kept one in their vest pocket. But later on, I saw more modern Grandfather Clocks, wristwatches, and even a microwave. 

Time and the stars as interconnected.

Wall of telescopes

Display of hourglasses.

Ivory compass.

We saw energy, made gas, witnessed a hologram that would have made Houdini proud. There was a brief history of medicine. In the gift shop, I saw the name of a man we've read in my In Sickness and In Health class, Bynam. 

We left. Took the tube to the Globe. I thought of Kevin, a young man I met on my first day in London, who walked me past the Tate Modern and the Globe. Henry V was on that night. We stood for the whole show, and did so without lights or sound equipment. Period costumes and bodies reciting memorized falsities on a stage. They sang for us, more than once. I was surprised by complex harmonies and "Hey Ho, Nobody Home." The "once more into the breach dear friends" piece made me cry. Jamie Parker (who played the King) was as talented as he was lovely to look at. He brought the stage to a dead quiet when he spoke of St. Crispin. The play was funny, too. It made me think of a wars fought by the common man for the petty wishes of the mighty. It made me think of linguistic barriers, of leeks worn on hats, of gloves and challenges. Band of brothers. It was a great play, with a lot of music.

I love a city at night. lights come from all over. Offices, street lamps, houses, flats, businesses. And in London it is better than most. The Eye stares out over the tumultuous Thames, and lights reflect on the cold waves. Big Ben is a beacon over the city, a reminder that you are here, in this great and glorious city, won't let you forget for even an hour the history and grandeur of the ground you stand on.

Lights change from red to green. Headlights guide the way through darkened streets. The city refuses to relinquish its sovereignty over the sun--no, it isn't time to sleep yet! Eventually it will give in. Not like home, where neon doesn't surrender to the night until it flickers out in death, exhausted.

There are areas of darkness, too. Equally as beautiful as the lights. Walls of stone that refuse to be replaced by another pub. There is black, defined by shadows. it is a place you can explore, but only if you're prepared to meet the unknown head-on. Only if you can hold your head high against the muffled voices, the crunch of gravel a few steps too close. 

They love the shadows, the light that screams rebellion against the stars. The spice of success, art, royalty so rich it poisons. The rotting smell of murder and scandals, of tourists losing themselves in the mazes set up just for them.

Bikes, colleges, another Tesco. Lights all over. Churches, warehouses--the darkness between them, separating in a way the daylight never could. This is a world that believes it is fine, perfect, rubbish. Both proud and self-loathing. It is a city that hardly notices your presence, no matter who you are.

Memories of  good, strong harmonies, rounds and roars of the city give me chills. Or maybe that's just London, whispering her tempting offers in my ear, while I am helpless to avoid the call of the wind over the Thames, the spicy aroma of possibility, the inviting feel of London in my lungs.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Dublin: The One Detail

So the plan was this: after finals, we would pack, watch the Olympic Opening Ceremony, then grab the last train to London and get to the airport for Dublin.

I've mentioned I always miss my train when I buy the tickets in advance. At least this time it wasn't just me. There were four of us going: two California natives, and a friend from Hong Kong (one of whom we sadly had to leave behind at the very last minute). We took too long watching the opening ceremony and didn't have enough time to grab our suitcases and run to the train station. The train was just disappearing from sight as we approached, and the next one wouldn't leave for at least five hours... which would give us nowhere near enough time to catch our flights. So we pooled our money together, and got a cab at 11:30 pm, headed for London. It took two hours.

I didn't bring my laptop or my iPod, so all I had for that drive was my journal and my mind, still discordant from the day's events. Which began with my first honest "I'll-never-get-this-done" all-nighter. I was writing the proposal to a study which would examine linguistic profiling and attractiveness; it had to be about ten pages, sans bibliography, and I was scrambling to get it done. Just as the sun rose, I found my paltry revisions complete, and slept for an hour and a half. After a quick shower and breakfast, I attended my first Cambridge exam.

We sat in a long, quiet room on tables built for only two students at a time, but extending back about twenty tables. The test waited for us as we filed in silently, four different classes at a time. We started directly at 9:37, and weren't allowed to leave until the first half hour was through. It was quiet, and felt much more high-stress than perhaps it needed to be.

I rewarded myself afterward with my first Doctor Who episode since landing in the UK; there are some serials that are not available in the US, but I can easily find on Netflix here. I settled on The Planet of the Dead, which had a great premise but was executed like a first-year screenplay writer. What they tried to do was replicate the Smith and Jones episode, where Martha's character is replaced by some international thief, or something. It's hardly worth the time, honestly. On the bright side, I also watched the pilot episode to BBC's Life on Mars, which was heart-wrenching, mind-boggling, and beautiful.

The story revolves around Sam Tyler (played by John Simm, easily recognizable to any Whovian). He is a cop in 2006 who gets into an accident and finds himself in 1976. The show is in part a police procedural, detailing the differences in policies between the 70s and the early 2000s. But more than that, it makes commentary on how we define ourselves. Sam is a DCI in 2006, but is essentially just another cop. In 1976, what he considers to be the norm of policework is seen as a radical set of new ideas. Throughout the episode, though, we get the sense that he may actually be in a coma in 2006, with an overactive imagination whisking him away to 1976. At the end of the pilot, Sam is about to jump off a building, in the hopes that it will wake him from his coma and he can return to the present day. Another character, Annie, stops him at the last minute. She grabs for him, and he notices the grit on her hand. He thinks, "Why would my mind include that detail?" It strikes him as so authentic that decides not to jump as a result.

I left for lunch afterward, wondering what detail would convince me I was in the real world... and to be honest, there isn't much. I'm feeling privileged out here as a temporary student of Cambridge, validated in my interests (even the low-brow ones) and grateful to experience a study abroad program in this way.

I digress. Dublin.

We arrived at 7:45 in the morning, and after that all-nighter I mentioned, it was safe to say I hadn't gotten a whole REM cycle in about twenty four hours. But we only had a short time to explore the city, so no sleeping yet! After dropping off our suitcases and such at the Isaacs Hostel, we walked to Trinity College, Dublin and got a short tour before being let loose in the Old Library.

This is the College Green of Trinity College. On the left going on past the frame is the largest sample of an oak tree in the UK, apparently. It was given to the college by the United States. Trinity was founded with only four areas of study: medicine, theology, math, and arts, but now has many available majors. Our tour guide had a very good grasp of the college's history and included some great anecdotal stories.

We got to visit the Long Room of the Old Library, just after seeing the Book of Kells, neither of which I was allowed to photograph myself, but here are some sanctioned pictures:

This is the Chi Ro page (Chi Ro being a Latin form of Christ). The Book of Kells is not the only illuminated text of the New Testament, nor is it even the oldest. However, its story is quite remarkable, and deserves your research... or a single viewing of The Secret of Kells. Whichever.

This room here is one of the most beautiful libraries I've ever seen, known as the Long Room. I stayed in here as long as I possibly could, before my friends found me and dragged me away. 

After my companions convinced me to leave the gift shop (which, let me say, took just as long as the Long Room), we went in search of a fabled marketplace which was around the Temple Bar District. This is not only close to the college, but also within easy walking distance of our hostel, and  would have been a very easy walk, therefore, if not for one thing.

You see, Dublin's weather is a bit like a child just old enough to throw around words like, "Yes" and "No." So for about fifteen minutes, we would get hard, heavy rains and strong, cold winds that would leave us hiding beneath whatever cover we could find, which is where the below picture was taken.

And then, the rain would disappear, and we would have to scramble out of our sweatshirts and heavy raingear because the weather would get so warm so quickly. In the other half of Dublin's fantastic weather tantrums, only t-shirts and sunglasses are welcome. We thought the electric box below was appropriate, given that all the locals shook it off and said, "Yeah, it's always like this." 

At the end of the day, I did finally get some sleep. It felt glorious. I dreamt of villains and warm winds, parallels to events I could only begin to grasp, slipping rather quickly into that great minefield of forgotten dreams once I awoke.

We visited St. Patrick's Cathedral the next day.

I only have one picture here, because there is no way any number of them could give you any sense as to what it felt like to be inside this sacred space. It was cold within the stone walls, but also felt full somehow. It was potently filled with history and ritual and ardent worship. From the windows on the right of the picture, the sun streamed through the stained glass windows and parted into separate rays of brilliant light, to be covered up only moments later by the ever-present looming storm clouds. People milled about--photographers ignoring the sanctity of the chapel (separate from the church proper). They snapped photos of saints entombed and decaying beneath a stone replica of their image. They grabbed pictures of a huge display of flags, and of the pews where quiet prayers were whispered into the full, cold church. In the front of the chapel, the choir rehearsed, and they were nearing a point where entire songs could be sung without  breaks. I heard that perfect "Amen" chord just as I reached for a rosary to give to my mother.

We did quite a bit of exploring. Visited a flea market, and I found two books, only one of which I enjoyed. It was "The Devil's Ladder," by Graham Joyce, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting just a few weeks prior. Written for young adults, it is properly frightening and inspiring. I wish I had had it around when I was in middle school.

The next day, we got on the train to the Irish coast, to Howth. Debate reigns over how to pronounce this, but the two biggest contenders I've heard are "how + th" and "goat with an h." It was a lovely summer day. Clouds passed us overhead, as if waiting to drop their heavy loads on Dublin rather than spoil it for us. One of us had a bike, so she got to see the cliffs of Howth, but those of us without the cycle went and found this abbey:

After a long trip through dodgy alleyways, we found the entrance, and it was surprising to see what lay beyond the wall.

We walked among the gravestones, catching names and snippets of history that few can retell. The only sound was a seagull, aggressively attacking a tin can for whatever lay within. Our footsteps barely disturbed the gravel, and we felt both guilty for and obligated to photograph what we saw. Someone has to remember this place. After that investigation, we all met up for a luncheon, and then headed back to the coast.

At the end, we sat at the edge of the sea, and breathed in the salty ocean air, before getting on the train again.

We packed up the last of our things, and returned to the airport, landing in London late in the evening. It took us until nearly two in the morning to get back to Cambridge, but was well worth the hell it worked on my sleeping schedule. The land is enchanting in a way nothing else can be. When I returned, I thought back on all the events of the weekend, and wondered if somehow, the whole trip was that one detail, the thing that could remind me that the world is real, it is beautiful, and it is worth exploring.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Crown Jewels

It's surprising how much the time flies when you're traveling! So I promised last time that I would tell the tale of meeting up with my first roommate, Kit, and our adventures at the Tower of London.

Well, for starters, I should say that I am terrible at coordinating the national rail system. Every time I have purchased a ticket before the trip itself, I have missed said train. It's much better for me to just show up and hope I can buy a ticket there, honestly.

That being said, I of course missed my train. The next one didn't leave for another hour. I didn't have any way to let Kit know about this, because while I picked up an international phone, she did not. So I just sort of hoped that she would get to see it even if I was late.

As always, however, the English countryside made me contemplative. I realized that the American southwest has a beautiful countryside of its own. I never forgot this necessarily, but I sure was good at taking it for granted. It hit me that I miss the Sandias in New Mexico, all champagne-colored as the sun set in the west, the taste of green chili and the feeling of "home" that comes as naturally as breathing when I am in the desert.

Two hours late, I saw a familiar face pop up from the growing crowd of Central London.

Kit and I went to school together for only one semester, but it felt as if a lifetime of memories were packed into that time. She's just graduated with a degree in Awesome, and I think she might continue to get a Master's in "Be Jealous of Me." She is the first person that I have ever seen on more than one continent.

Turns out, her group was also two hours late. Serendipitous and unlikely as it was, I was really relieved to see her. We entered the Tower of London, a place filled with memories, histories, and stories.

These are the ravens of the Tower, who are kept here because it is said that if they ever leave, the Tower will fall. And we can't have that.

I can't share original pictures of the Crown Jewels, because it wasn't allowed. But this is a faraway and not-nearly-as-cool-as-the-real-thing picture:

It's amazing how dazzlingly bright those diamonds are. They sparkle with every color, blues and purples and greens and pinks. The setup was different than I expected, mostly because I expected what I saw in the BBC Sherlock show:

Instead, there were two moving walkways we could stand on to gaze at the power and wealth of a great and might monarchy. I went on both, and wanted to do it more than once. But Kit had other things she wanted to show us. So we also toured the Bloody Tower, the White Tower, and a few other colors of the British rainbow. It was fascinating to learn so much about English history all in one go. A bit overwhelming, to be honest. But it was a good tour.

(He's my favorite: a dragon made of weapons and coins)

Overall, it was an inspiring day. I feel as if this post doesn't do it justice. But it's been so long ago now. Soon, I'll let you know about my trip to Dublin!