Cambridge is a city that wakes up slowly.
The River Cam flows languidly below Magdalene Bridge as I set off for a grocery run at 8am, an hour before my lectures begin. I wave to friendly faces as I mount my bike and cycle off towards Sainsbury’s. It’s open and welcoming, and I stroll through the store, picking up some food for lunch and dinner. Then it’s back to the dorms. I check the clock. 8:45am, fifteen minutes until lecture videos are uploaded.
However, my day instantly picks up its pace at 9am, once I’m seated at my desk. There’s an annotated copy of The Canterbury Tales, a Medieval English text, lying open in front of me. I’m taking notes lecture after lecture. I have a supervision that’s scheduled for 2pm. My supervisor challenges a loophole that she’s found in my essay, which I try my best to rationalise and defend. When I’m back in my room I write out a comprehensive to-do list, with pages of reading to do, as well as plans and mind maps to tackle.
It seems straightforward in theory, but life at Cambridge took a while to get used to. The Cambridge 8-week term means that I’ve got a limited amount of time to spend. Every week, I’m dealing with new topics and handing in a few essays on each. I’m presenting my thoughts during supervisions, where the questions I receive can be intimidating. I’m not the most well-versed in the details of British history, and contextualising my arguments can be hard when my research isn’t thorough enough. Before term started, I read a Facebook post reminding me that Cambridge students dedicate around 40 hours per week to studying during term, and even more when exam season rolls around. I thought it was a hyperbolic statement – it was not.
All of this is rewarding, though. The essays that I churn out frantically lead me down interesting paths of research. I spent hours reading about apophatic theology because one of my readings mentioned this concept. People have likened Cambridge supervisions to thesis defenses, which is a fair comparison, but the process of arguing for and then rethinking your ideas gives rise to new and thought-provoking realisations. Once I took three days to outline an essay plan that I thought was perfect, then spent double that amount of time rewriting it with the opposite stance after receiving advice from my supervisor. Working hand in hand with experienced professionals in the field that you barely started skimming the surface of is intimidating, but I soon came to learn that they treat us as equals, as fellow academics with the same thirst for knowledge.
The environment at Cambridge helps me learn and grow as well. The Pepys Library at Magdalene, my college, houses Samuel Pepys’ original diaries written during the Great Fire of London. Just stepping into the library and being surrounded by the musty smell of old books, and studying at a spacious wooden desk while ensconced in old texts, inspires a scholarly drive in me. The amount of manuscripts and reference material at the English Faculty Library is massive. There’s a room solely reserved for texts about Shakespeare, and it is a maze that one can get lost in for a full day. The abundance of small family-run cafes scattered along the streets means that I can easily grab a mocha and power through my work with an extra caffeine buzz.
When I start feeling a little lost and overwhelmed by my work, I turn to the city of Cambridge, taking refuge in how time moves more gradually when I go towards the quiet expanse of sprawling architecture. Touring the city is a tranquil, yet immersive journey. The backs of Cambridge are spectacular for morning walks, with acres of open fields and picturesque side lanes branching off into the distance. Of course, it’s also a must to visit the heart of Cambridge – the market square, lined with food stalls selling snacks like Belgian waffles and Thai tea, as well as scores of local handicrafts stores. After finishing a particularly complicated reading, I celebrate with a pick-me-up from Jack’s Gelato, our favourite stop for sweet treats. It’s the tiny indulgences like these that stick with me, those sights and tastes that are so uniquely Cantabrigian (and yes, that is the official term for all things Cambridge).
So the pace of life at Cambridge is not all hectic. It fluctuates between hours of rushing to complete hundred-page readings, and hours of mahjong under the gazebos at First Court. It’s a combination of writing five different essay drafts on a dreary Monday, and taking a Saturday off to cycle through rural Cambridge with your best friend. It’s both the panic of being asked a challenging question in a group lesson while your professor looks at you expectantly, and the euphoria of having a candlelit formal dinner at a Harry Potter-esque dining table for the first time in your life.
My nights at Cambridge are quiet affairs. When I haven’t signed up for formals, I cook dinner with my friends, laughing as we pour way too much teriyaki sauce on pieces of seared salmon. I flip through pages of modern poetry while a soft breeze blows in from the window. Sometimes we impulsively brave the cold and go up Castle Mound. The moniker is accurate: it’s a small sloped hill overlooking the city where we watch sunrises and sunsets together.
The view of Cambridge is stunning from above. I sip from the bottles of apple cider that my friends and I brought, listening to mellow guitar music stream through portable speakers.
I watch Cambridge go to sleep. The city lights glow warmly back at me.
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By Bernice Chan