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‘Far from my home/ is the country I have reached.’ September 30, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in sraffies, university.
Tags: , , ,

Yes, I’m quoting Suibhne, and I make no apologies about it.  After all, that’s why I’m here.

I’ve recovered sufficiently from the long journey over here to finally post about my first impressions of Cambridge.

The flight over was horrendous, but I was expecting that. I was wedged between two other people, hemmed in by my numerous items of carry-on luggage (stored, overflowingly, under the seat in front of me). The food, as all plane food is, was disgusting. My feet, legs, hands and face swelled up. I slept for three hours of the 24. I then dragged my small suitcase, 28kg suitcase, laptop and overstuffed handbag from Terminal 4 to Terminal 2 at Heathrow, and boarded a bus that would take me to Cambridge. The weather was incredible, with a layer of mist covering the land until about 10am. Although I was very tired, it was too beautiful to sleep, although I felt my first pang of homesickness, when, thinking of telling my friends and family about the landscape, realised I had no words with which to describe it. I didn’t know the names of any of the vegetation. Even the grass looked foreign, lush, green and silky-looking, as opposed to the tough, scraggly brown stuff in Australia. I arrived at Cambridge at 11am. A woman (who must’ve been on my plane over, since she had also come from Australia) took pity on me, offering to share her taxi, and when it arrived at St. John’s refusing to accept payment for my half of the fare. A kindly porter offered me free biscuits. I must’ve looked really pathetic.

Another taxi took me to my house, which is very nice (although the bathrooms make me feel like throwing up. They have no windows or fans, and their heavy doors slam shut. This lack of ventilation makes for a rather steamy and mouldy environment.) Several of my housemates had moved in already, but the majority arrived just after me, so it was nice to come into a house with a whole lot of other newbies.

Although I was fainting with exhaustion, I forced myself to walk back into town, to familiarise myself with the layout of the streets and to shop at the (very expensive) supermarket. Then I staggered back home and went to sleep for four hours. In the evening I went downstairs and hung out with my housemates. They’re a good bunch – quite a few girls from America, an American guy, a South African guy, an English guy who’s been at Cambridge for five years now, and a Canadian girl who’s also a medievalist (although she’s studying 15th-century English literature). A few more people have since moved in, and I’m expecting the rest to arrive on Wednesday, the ‘official’ opening day of university.

Sunday was fabulous. The English guy graciously played host-with-local-knowledge, and took us all around town. First we wandered around St. John’s and some of the other colleges (Trinity, Clare and King’s). Then we went and heard the choir at King’s, which was an amazing experience. (I’m supposed to say that John’s choir is better, but I find the whole inter-college rivalry thing thoroughly ridiculous.) When we emerged from the chapel, my English housemate had hired a punt from St. John’s and was waiting for us on the river. Luckily it was a nice sunny day. We all had a turn punting. I was shockingly bad (yes, it did ‘keep steering to the left’), but it was still fun. After that we had a bit of a look around town, and I picked up a UK phone number and got some phone credit.

The next day, I began my ongoing struggle with St. John’s insane bureaucracy. I’m used to everything being centralised. When you sign up at Sydney Uni, everything is in one room. You collect your card, perhaps sit for your Access card photo, pick up a university-made yearly planner and confirm enrolment all at once. Sometimes you have to wait a while, but it’s a straightforward matter. A week later you find your timetable online, confirm your choices (or, if you’re like me, fiddle around with them to squash all your classes onto three days), print it out. Much later, you’re sent a bill for your semester’s fees, which you pay upfront if you want a discount, or defer, according to the HECS system.

Here, it’s insane. Everything is in a different place. No-one volunteers any information. I have even asked, ‘Is there anything more I need to collect, sign or whatever?’ and been told ‘No,’ simply because there was nothing more to be done in that specific room. Needless to say, my bemused housemates have been a godsend. Each of us seems to find out one piece of inside information, which we pool in the evenings, and then make use of the next day.

What more to be said?

Classes don’t start until next week, when there are also a lot of meet and greet events (including a formal dinner for all new St. John’s graduate students, where we wear academic robes and sit in the College’s Great Hall). I’m feeling a little apprehensive because it’s been a while since I’ve been a student. I need to get back into that academic frame of mind. Also, I kind of coasted along a lot at Sydney Uni, to be honest. It was possible to do well there without putting in a huge amount of effort. But judging by my housemates, everyone here is super-ambitious. Most of them have conferences lined up, which makes me feel like a huge, publication-less fraud. I freaked myself out sufficiently to do a bit of translation of the Tain, borrow a book that may be useful for my thesis, and also Branwen Uerch Llyr to see if my Welsh has faded from existence.

Things I love so far:
My housemates seem very nice, and there’s a lot of hanging around in common areas and socialising, which makes me confident we won’t turn into one of those ‘everyone sitting alone in their rooms’-type households.
Cambridge is really really beautiful, but in an awe-inspiring, daunting way. It’s a grand, bold, imposing beauty. I still feel like a bit of an upstart visitor, rather than a local.
The sraffies have been really wonderful. They’ve been posting supportive replies to my angst-ridden posts on the forum. The instant they found out my mobile number, they sent me welcome text messages. Barney’s arriving soon, and wants to meet up, which will be great. I’m lucky to have had such good, caring friends around when I moved to a new country.
The libraries. Oh, the libraries. Massive. The university library has a copy of every book ever published in the UK (I’d assume over the past hundred years or so, but I may be wrong). Even my college’s library has some good Irish texts. I haven’t even seen my departmental library, but I’m sure it’s good too.

Things I don’t like so much:
The feeling of anxiety and self-doubt that creeps up on me every so often when I worry that I’ll never be good enough, that I’ll fail and flee back to Australia with no more options.
The sense of entitlement that some (not all) longer-term students of this university seem to have, almost unconsciously. Let’s hope I don’t transform into one of them. If I keep feeling anxiety about my ability to cope here, I imagine such a transformation would be impossible. I hope.



1. Sibylle - September 30, 2008

Everyone’s pushing me, I’m *supposed to* go study in the UK for a year as well, and next year’s probably my last chance. I still don’t know if I want to do it. I wouldn’t want to share a room, a shower, or sleep on an used mattress or have to go socialize ’cause it’s the rule. I can’t see that many advantages either, so I need to think about it. A girl I know was supposed to go to the USA this year to study : school started September 3 for her and yesterday for our first class here in Paris, I saw her looking completely depressed. “What’s happened ? What aren’t you there ? What are you doing here ?” I asked. “Oh my god, it was awful” and she wouldn’t tell me what happened or anything. I mean, she paid two plane tickets and her visa, she went through I don’t know how many brochures and forms to fill, all this to come back here after barely a month. I don’t want to do that ! I want to be sure.
Anyway, I’ll be reading your posts with much interest. Good luck with everything ! 🙂

2. Catie - September 30, 2008

That sounds fantastic! Best of wishes. I reckon that if you coasted through without much effort here you’ll do fine there. You’re making me want to come and visit you, and see some of that misty and so very green countryside.
Enjoy, and its good to hear from you!

3. dolorosa12 - October 1, 2008

Aww, thanks! How are you going in the new job? Bec told me about it just before I left, and in the rush of things to do, I forgot to congratulate you.

Visit any time you want!

4. Peter - October 1, 2008

Actually the punting is better in Oxford 🙂 There’s more room on the water.

Anyway, welcome to England and your second winter in a row. It sounds to me as if you’re settling in just fine. Enjoy the strangeness now because later it’ll all become familiar and there’ll be a different kind of enjoyment there.

And next time you’re by Jesus Lock and Jesus Green, wave to the ghosts of Peter and FW. We moored up for a couple of days in the basin below Jesus lock once many years ago.

Sorry I’ve sent no texts and can’t come to visit…

5. dolorosa12 - October 1, 2008

Thanks for the welcome, Peter! And you’ve been very supportive on the forum and in chat (as have all the other sraffies), which for me matters even more.

6. Daniel - October 6, 2008

That’s awesome Ronni! Quite a saga to get there, and I can understand a lack of confidence in one’s abilities for anyone going to Cambridge! I would say I’m sure the others feel the same way.
Sounds like you’re in a great dorm/house so hopefully that can be a springboard to take over the rest of Cambridge! All the best with it all, and have a great time just getting involved with stuff! D

7. dolorosa12 - October 6, 2008

Yeah, it’s going well so far. Not that I’ve actually been to any actual classes yet…

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