daily life personal essay

The town on top of the hill. (In the flattest party of the country.)

The snow has finally melted.

I hated the snow. I was complaining about it constantly for the last two weeks, moaning and making every possible excuse to stay indoors. But now that it’s melted, I already miss it.

I should have gotten a photograph. It was beautiful. The streets, covered in nearly a foot of snow. The open courtyard behind my building was filled with snow. The river and the pond in front were covered, and the roof of the cottage perfectly peaked in white. The tree branches were tipped with it. The fences were perfectly frosted. The field across the way was utterly white (the field that’s lined with trees, but in the summer had man-sized bales of hay tied up in it; the field where the rugby team practices and men on bicycles walk their dogs; the field where I always expect, any night, any time now, to see a horse-back rider come jumping across the fence dressed in red and  following his dogs). It was beautiful in the snow.

Not that Cambridge isn’t always beautiful.

It’s beautiful in the cobble-stoned streets and small quaint shops. It’s beautiful in the market-square (filled with stalls every day of the week) and it’s beautiful in the massive, ornate, intricate, facades of the old colleges in the center of the town, from whose towers kings whose names you should remember stare down at you, and from whose walls names you should be able to place shout at you from bronze plaques. Its beautiful despite being slightly drab – it is, after all, England in the winter – and, perhaps, too purposefully absent-minded to seem entirely genuine. Everything is slightly glazed over; we don’t take this for granted, precisely, but we have become accustomed, something is trying to say. (It’s that same something that has tuned your aesthetic sense to a key in which plush deep red carpets and dark wood-panelling and shelf after shelf of books and large knave-like windows no longer register as decadent; they seem entirely normal; so long as there’s a scratch or a bit of dust, you can write it off as routine.)

The best parts of Cambridge are behind closed walls, the private grounds of colleges, grass that can’t be walked on, bordered by hedges and trees that manage to be both perfectly trimmed and yet somehow forgotten.

In the evenings, when the antique-styled lamps on wrought-iron poles get turned on, when the last start to flicker in shop windows, then the sun is creeping down below those same ornate facades, the massive wooden gates that lead into courtyards you aren’t supposed to enter begin to creak shut – then students pop out in evening wear, in academic robes and tuxedos, and you really start to feel out of place.

There are twenty year old boys wearing top hats and you begin to wonder if, perhaps, somewhere down that last alley you somehow slipped into the Victorian Era. Evening in Cambridge tricks with your mind like that.

(It’s the robes* that really clinch it. Between the robes and the architecture, a friend of mine said that it looks like a Harry Potter convention. He’s not entirely wrong. And with the snow on the ground? You think you’re on set for A Christmas Carol.)

Of course, looks can be deceiving. It’s easy to forget that inside the buildings are state-of-the-art labs, in which extremely well-educated people are showing only highly-educated people to do state-of-the-art things to materials whose names which anyone outside of those rooms probably can’t pronounce correctly.

(But you try not to even think about those rooms because the rooms that you’re in are filled with enough words for you to worry about pronouncing correctly. You try to embrace that “taking it for granted” mindset because maybe, if you get good enough at it, it will counter-balance the “How did I get here and what do they expect me to do?” mindset. Myopia can be helpful in the same way that inertia is, when properly harnessed, right? You vaccillate between filling your calendar with some many evening talks and events and weekend seminars and workshops and sessions that you have to start colour-coding your calendar and, eventually, throwing out the calendar and giving up. You start over again every few months.)

My brother’s come to visit me in Cambridge a few times now. (I have a suspicion that he comes for my kitchen and my housemates’ company as much as my own, but I don’t really mind.) The time-before-last, he and an old friend of mine from high school showed up for Thanksgiving and stayed five nights. The three of us crammed in my tiny room (which stopped being a room and became a repository of suitcases and bedding), cooked ridiculous amounts of food, ate ridiculous amounts of food, stayed up until ridiculous hours of the night, and occasionally managed to wander through the town.

Afterwards, he told our mother that it was a fairy-tale land. My close-lipped brother – who speaks half a dozen languages but never uses more than half a dozen words to describe an experience (no matter how marvelous or harrowing), who says “fine” and can mean anything by it from horrendous to incredible, from whom getting a story is like pulling teeth, who has lived in Paris for nearly two years now but can’t be compelled to say anything more than that it’s “very French”, who studies at the Sorbonne itself and who himself is no stranger to some ornate facades carved from stone  – he said that Cambridge was a fairy-tale land.

He said that there I was in Cambridge living a fairy-tale life in a fairy-tale land. Actually, I’m sure he must have said academic. He said academic fairy-tale.

This last time he came to visit – for no particular reason or holiday at all, which is why I suspect the kitchen a nd my housemate’s conversation – I’d warned him that I had to work and he was welcome to come along to my lectures and regular things, but we wouldn’t be up to anything special. We went to an evening talk, he sat in on my lectures, we killed a bit more time in the coffee-shop than I would have most weeks, and we cooked significantly less ridiculous amounts of food than the first time he’d visited.

Sunday evening, the college bar was screening a Brazilian film about drug-trafficking and police brutality so we went along. Good film – bit intense for a Sunday night – but better than the time my brother had been visiting me, in Bristol, and he went out to see a film with my housemates (while I stayed in to work) and they managed to get themselves caught in a riot on the way home and got to watch some, albeit no way near as horrendous, police brutality first-hand. (The was the same trip in which we ended up at a party in a squat until dawn, an impromptu street party, and on someone’s roof playing guitar. I might be mixing up weekends, but then, that’s just Bristol.)

After the film, everyone stretched and reached for their coats. A little knot formed – people thanking the girl who’d suggested the film  – asking if the situation was still that bad – shaking their heads – exchanging opinions.

“But, I mean. Really though. What I don’t get – what I always think they must be exaggerating – what I don’t understand, is… Who buys drugs? I mean, outside of these areas, outside of the bad areas, the really bad areas, who buys drugs? How could you? Is it actually easy, anywhere? I’ve never seen it… I don’t know…”

At least, one girl said something to that effect.

And more surprising than what she said, is that no one disagreed. They all looked bemused. Confused. A bit perplexed. I did as well. We all sort of looked at each other and we all seemed to almost agree that it was beyond the range of visibility. I wouldn’t like to say that we were all entirely naive, or overly sheltered – I wouldn’t go so far – but in that moment, standing where we were standing, in that room, in that company, in the middle of the term, in Cambridge – it was all just so very far away.

My brother and I walked back to my building with a few housemates. Ahead of us, someone was singing and walking the edge of the planter. We all laughed. (As it turns out, the drunk-walking-home wasn’t even drunk. Just happy.) We thought on the film – the torture, the horror, the inevitability, the pain – took a deep breath, and thought on what we had to do tomorrow. It was all so very far away and in front of us, there was someone singing.

“This town,” my brother said later, “it’s the town on top of the hill.”

There are, of course, no hills in Cambridge – nor anywhere around Cambridge. Cambridge might, in fact, be the flattest place in all of England.

But I knew what he meant. Cambridge is a town on top of a hill.

* For the record, I don’t wear a robe. Unlike the old days, when everyone had to wear robes after 6pm, and unlike Oxford, where all students still have to take their final exams robes, most colleges at Cambridge require them only for weekly formal dinners and special occasions. But not my college.

I don’t live in a medieval fortress built to hide the luxury of the students’ lives from the townspeople, either – I live on the edge of town towards the countryside in one of the new, modern, informal and more egalitarian colleges where we are allowed to walk on the grass and are allowed to sit anywhere, next to anyone, regardless of their rank, in the eating hall because we don’t even have a high table and we’re encouraged to call everyone, staff and faculty included, by their first names. We’re graduate students only, don’t have historical architecture or chandeliers but we still have whiskey tastings and yoga classes and a private bar and film screenings on Sunday evenings and ok fine maybe it is still obscenely posh and I’ve just sort of become accustomed to it.

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