OK folks, here it is, the actual, “Max is at Cambridge” fun stuff. It’s 11:30pm here as I start this, and according to my phone it’s 5:30 pm back in Kansas. I haven’t had a complete night’s sleep since I don’t remember when, what with last days of summer school and getting ready for my trip and all. I didn’t sleep at all Friday night, and you’d think I’d be ready to fall over from exhaustion, but I’m totally not. I took some notes on my iPhone while I was traveling to help me with my recollections for this blog. Enjoy.
My parents picked me up Saturday morning and we ate breakfast together before they dropped my off at Kansas City International. The adventure truly began when I got to the check-in and they didn’t have reservations on file for me. I really wasn’t worried, because for whatever reason they DID have a record that I had paid, so I just had to wait for them to sort it out on the telephone.
The flight to Chicago was very quick and smooth. Across the aisle there was a couple of kids, maybe one and three, but they were very cute and made no fuss the whole way. The weather was great, as well. The plane was also full of traveling airline pilots for some reason. The gate information was not on my paper tickets, and I had the smallest amount of trouble finding my connecting flight in Chicago. Sat around there for almost two hours reading a 40k novel after I made my last phone call to Ma.
One thing I noticed after finally getting over non-US territory was how very green Canada is. Lots of multi-colored farmland, but over the suburbs and even the city it was a very pleasant shade of healthy green. I noticed that the houses looked smaller and more crowded together than in US suburbs, and the highway signs all looked the same. When I got over Toronto I was surprised at how big the city is. Not just the city, but the downtown area with tall buildings. It didn’t really feel like a different country until I was stopped at customs. When asked I declared my nuts. My cereal bars, I mean. Apparently not what they meant, but whatever. It sounds stupid to say, but walking around the Toronto airport was very strange because of all the foreigners. I know, I know, right? But everybody just looked so different. It was subtle and stark at the same time. Hairstyle, clothes, the way they wore their clothes, even the way they walked. Looking at someone you just knew they weren’t American, well before hearing them speak. I changed all my cash into British Pounds here because I didn’t want to get stuck at Heathrow standing in some long line, and it turns out it was good that I did. The money-changer tried to get me to buy more cash off my card, telling me that what I had wasn’t enough to get a cab. I never told him where it was I was going, and he was probably right, but it was not my intention to get a cab. Cabs are expensive anywhere, and I knew that England has a great rail system so I just took what I asked for and toddled off. Toronto airport is not like KCI, or any other airport I’ve been to (including Heathrow now). In my area there was an actual cafe style restaurant out in the middle of the concourse, and like TWO fast food joints. The fast food joints had amazing queues, so I went for the cafe. Food was decent, but took forever to get to me. Afterward I spotted this strange thing:
No idea what it’s supposed to be, but there were two others similar right next to it. If anybody has a clue as to what this represents, please comment below. Also, there were these strange “Welcome to Canada!” dioramas in little plastic display stands here and there. But they were ridiculous, looking like somebody’s 3rd grade class made them. They were supposed to be representing all the wonders of Canada to incoming folk, but I hardly think that Canada’s natural beauty is done justice by a crumby pile of model train terrain adornment. Seriously.
Getting on the Air Canada flight to London was a zoo. Nobody seemed to understand, “form one line please”, and the civility level was just one notch above “about to lose my shit” from just about everybody. Everybody settled down once they were on the plane and had found their seats, though. The only screaming baby on the flight was on the other side of the plane and well behind me. I was sharing seats with an older, boozy, upper class English couple, who didn’t say much of anything to me the entire flight. Which was good, because they were sort of rude to anybody they did talk to. But the airplane had it arranged that we didn’t need to speak with one another, with these touch screen computers in the backs of every seat. I didn’t feel like buying headphones, so I just read my book, took a nap and played with this neat feature that used the GPS service to show you where on your route you were:
When I got to Heathrow I breezed through customs and baggage claim and then marched toward the Underground like I knew what I was doing. There was an army of touts trying to snag people for cab and bus rides or sell them stuff, but I drafted behind some locals and followed them to the station. Once I got to the station I realized that I had no idea at all what to do there, and let me tell you, the signage was not very informative. Confession time: I had no plan at all. I hadn’t even researched how to get to Cambridge from the airport. I just had this vague notion of Cambridge being in the metro area and probably a tube went there. The line for an actual ticket agent was a mile long, so I went to the automated ticket machines that I saw later are nearly everywhere you go near a rail. What I did was this: I looked at the big map, saw “Paddington Station”, remembered that it was a famous train station, and figured that it was probably a large, central place where I could find what I needed without the insane “just got off the airplane” crowds. I was partially right, in that it is a large, central place where I found what I needed.
But let me back up. My very first glimpse of England that wasn’t from a tiny plane window past two crotchety old people was not what I expected. I’m sitting on what I’d guess is an average subway car anywhere in the world, and when it comes out from underground what I see is these very shabby gardens and backyards. It looked like a gypsy colony, and I thought maybe it was just the location. Turns out these things are all over. In the car with me were a group of Australian girls who I guess were tourists, and every time the recording announced we were going to Cockfosters they giggled. The first local to get on the train was a man about my age (maybe a little younger), who was drunk at 6:30 on a Sunday morning…
So I get to Paddington, and I still have only the vaguest notion of what I’m doing. I’ve broken the strap on my luggage when it got caught in the gate, and one of the wheels has fallen off, and I’m getting irritable because I’m hungry. The only places that were open were a first class lounge and a McDonalds, so I settled for a cereal bar that Ma had stuck in my backpack. I did go near the McDonalds to try and use the WiFi (McDonalds all have WiFi, did you know?) but when I clicked on the “Free Trial” button all it did was reload the page. I bought an Atlas and discovered that Cambridge is nowhere in the London metro area, and neither was it near Oxford, where I had contemplated getting a train to because I knew the two schools were somehow related. Getting a cardinal direction from the atlas I joined a queue where a railroad agent seemed to have been trapped into answering peoples’ questions, and when I asked where I could find a train north he sent me to King’s Cross station, which meant getting back on the Underground. For whatever reason the really convenient lines were closed for the weekend, so I routed myself southeast and then back north, and I think I’ve got the Underground figured out now from that adventure. At King’s Cross I finally got outside and above ground, although the place felt really closed in. I stood in line for a ticket computer, listening to the American in front of me (East Coast accent) complaining loudly to no one in particular that he couldn’t figure out the machine. I had a look at it after he gave up in frustration and decided I didn’t know any more than he did, but I wasn’t going to tell everybody standing nearby. I just queued up for the ticket agent and paid about ₤19 for a ticket to Cambridge. They don’t put helpful things like what platform you need on the ticket, so I asked a rail agent when I forgot what the ticket man said and he pointed me in the right direction. Once I got to platform 8 there wasn’t any obvious indication which train was the right one, and I asked what I thought was a local who turned out to be a Spanish lady, who tried to help read my ticket but couldn’t, but who did suggest I go down the line and have a look at the front of the train. Turns out the direction I came from is basically the backside, and the front has a giant marquee with all kinds of useful information on it. Anyway, here are a couple of photos I took from the train:
The countryside between London and Cambridge looks a lot like Missouri, or maybe Illinois, oddly enough. Except when you pull up to the little towns and villages, which are all very English and painfully charming and all that. Well, not all of them. Some of them looked like places you might get stabbed on a Saturday night. I couldn’t get many pictures because a lot of scrub grows near the tracks, and it whizzing by the window ruined a lot of the pics I snapped.
So I get to Cambridge finally, which it turns out is the terminus for that line, and there is just a mad number of people milling about the platform. And everybody is pushing through this tiny little portal that goes to station street, which is like a branch street just for the station I guess, and the whole place felt like the front gate to Worlds of Fun. Which, as you all know, is the least pleasant part of the park, right? I got a map off a very bored woman sitting in a booth gossiping with a friend on the telephone, I think she was supposed to be selling bus tours but people were just coming up and asking for general info, and then the bus driver she pointed me at didn’t understand that I just wanted to know if his bus would take me anywhere near Trinity Hall. I think he thought I wanted him to just drive me there, which is kind of a funny idea. Finally I just got so pissed off that I started walking. I asked the booth lady to show me where I was on the map and point me in the right direction, and she seemed to think I was crazy. Maybe I was, because I ended up dragging a fifty pound suitcase from one end of Cambridge to the other, and in the process lost another wheel. Turns out the town center was closed down for a marathon, something about a run to fight breast cancer:
To the right of this picture was a Bobby, funny looking hat and everything, yelling at people to get the hell off their bikes and walk if they want to go past this point. Apparently the police here have a different attitude when dealing with the public. In the US a cop will beat you senseless and still call you “sir”, but here in England not so much with the polite formality in speech. The further I walked the older the buildings got, and soon I was walking through a postcard of chapels and colleges and secret looking lanes and whatnot. When the strap on my luggage finally broke off completely I was luckily no more than a block from Trinity Hall. It was weird, because everything here in the city center is so old that few buildings stand out, and the streets are narrow so you don’t get to look at something while you’re coming up on it. So I came out of this alley thing and was standing there trying to figure out where the college was when I saw a man in a suit standing near a door, and next to the door was a small sign saying “Trinity Hall”. The front of this place just blends seamlessly into its surroundings, and this door looked like dozens of store fronts I had already passed. I was called inside by the porter (the guy in the suit) and he gave me a room key and told me where to go. Coming out of the little porter’s office I see this:
Which looks much closer to my expectations of what a Cambridge college should look like. Trinity Hall is arranged rather like a fortress, with high, nondescript walls surrounding this kind of cool stuff. It’s also a very small college, much smaller than I expected. That’s the dining hall, those three windows just to the right of those central doors. The kitchen is across the breezeway, and you’re served in there and carry your tray into the dining hall. Through the breeze way is Latham Lawn, as seen here with my back to the River Cam and in the general direction of the Dining Hall:
The tourists on the punts are noisy, and the punters’ station is just on the other side of the building. You can look down on them and the tourists while they get in their boats from our bathroom window. This place, I really didn’t want to make this comparison, but it’s like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry first gets to Hogwarts. I mean, Hogwart’s was based on Oxford and Cambridge so I guess it fits, but the whole thing feels so unreal. And special. I feel really lucky and special to be here doing this.
Apparently I arrived hours before I was “supposed” to, so I racked out for a while. Going back to the Porters’ station I was informed that there would be a check-in orientation at 7pm, and then I ran into the student wrangler from KU. At 7pm I received said orientation, and then we all (there are 14 students in the program) walked down to a restaurant and ate a complimentary dinner on KU’s dime. I know one person from a class we took together before, and during the dinner I got to know a couple of the other students better. I think it’s going to be cool, as everyone seems to be level here.
Breakfast is tomorrow between 0815 and 0845, with class starting at 0900, and it’s now just past 0100 local time. As promised I am delivering the “surprise” in my very next blog post before I go to sleep, which is to pick back up on my new webcomic “Iron Lawyers of Mars”. I started the project but then it went on hiatus after my house got burglarized, but now it’s back!