Its late November now and been a while (some say too long) since I updated the world on my adventures by the riiver Cam and my more occasional adventures by the river Thames. Suffice it to say I have been busy. Some people asked a while ago if I was ever going to find time for class with all the dinners and sports. Let’s just say aforementioned lack of activity is deeply connected to finding my classes and a good deal of their written work.
But as my catch up posts will show the work is not the whole story. Instead, the whole story includes a number of outrageous dinners, some rowing, a massive erg competition and a lot of basketball. All of which is presented with wondrous respect.
Yesterday, Thanksgiving, the American contingent at Selwyn hosted a spectacular dinner with copious amounts of wine and some incredible food. It was championed and made possible by Welyn’s unflagging dedication.
Today, I am on an early (8 am) train to London for a Wikipedia conference at the British Museum. Which something only a nerd could get excited about. A nerd like me.
It is the Fifth of November and my Oxford Dictionary of Sociology is dog-earred to “cultural relativism.” Perhaps I should add that I am in the United Kingdom. In Cambridge specifically. Studying, if you must know.
The connection between these two statements, if you had not surmised, is great. It is within one frame that I approach the other, and it is not necessarily the order or dynamic you may guess. To be sure, “cultural relativism” could be helpful to think through what this whole Guy Fawkes-British Monarchy-Terrorism and the State complex, but that might be too easy.
No, let’s invert the expectation. What does Cultural Relativism mean when framed by the Fifth of November?
People keep saying it to me. “Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November. Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot.” But what do you do when you can’t “remember” it, because you’ve never known it. You’ve no idea what you’re somehow already supposed to know.
Where I come from, the Fifth of November would be written the fifth of November, or just November 5th. And it certainly wouldn’t be included in a common piece of poetry. A ditty, as it were.
(Incidentally, do you need to know where I come from? Are you wondering about it? Does it matter so long as I imply, as I have, that I it’s not here?)
The point is, around here, the Fifth of November is the Fifth of November. And that’s charged with a certain significance that is even evidenced in someone (from here) forgetting that it is the Fifth of November.
Because whenever someone does that, they are often forced to exclaim “I forgot it was the Fifth of November!” or “How could I have forgotten the Fifth of November?”
Both statements are ironic given the mantra of the day.
I recently peeked into the stunning chapel at King’s College for an “Evensong” service. The celebrated boys choir was unfortunately off for the afternoon, but a bunch of talent men gave it their best shot.
I’d been hanging around King’s to sketch a few postcards to send back towards the US of A. But when the bell tolled, I followed the advice of John Donne and assumed it tolled for me…
Take a listen:
Is at once very present and vaguely invisible. First, it needs to be said, Christmas decorations are already up in city centre Cambridge. Second, pumpkins are much smaller in the UK. Third, people in Cambridge loving dressing up in “fancy dress” (costumes) anyway, so they don’t really need this holiday as much as Americans do.
There is also no trick or treating. Which is sad.
But armed with a vibrant cohort of Americans abroad at Selwyn, the “Brown Hostel” (my home) insisted on having a truly epic party to mark All Hallow’s Eve.
And I decided to go as the tooth fairy, after making sure that England has the tooth fairy (you can’t be too careful with cultural gaps…)
I don’t want to blow this out of proportion, but I managed to score a goal for Selwyn on Sunday’s terrific outing against local rivals St. John’s. And it felt greattttttt.
We were already up 5-0 when York secured a corner kick from the left side. Don’t start discounting this goal before I score because you think the score is absurd. This was a dramatic improvement from our 6-3 LOSS to the Cambridge Korean Society last week. We were playing great. And we were finishing our opportunities, returning me to telling you about my goal.
I’ve made it a habit to set up on the back post so that if anything interesting gets played high over the crowd I just sweep in it. I almost scored last week on a similar set-play, but the ball was just a little high. And because I am playing center midfield, the goal scoring chances are not exactly never-ending.
Anyway, the ball comes in from the left. It’s wonderfully struck. Our center forward Richard gets a head on it, but he can’t steer towards goal. Instead, it bounces up and continues moving left to right across the goal mouth right to … me.
It was not the prettiest goal in the world, but IT COUNTED. With a safe, controlled volley I redirected the ball on goal and it one-hopped over the goal line.
Inward jubilation raged as I tried to make it look like I’d done it before.
In reality, the last time I scored in a legitimate 11-a-side match had to be middle school. In Winthrop, Massachusetts like, ten years ago.
No matter, I am back on the scorer’s list and this time its in a new country for a old college at Cambridge. Let’s hope this becomes a habit.
By any other name, it would be “crew” “rowing” or “boating.” It goes almost without saying that the Brits love their rowing, and Cambridge is a hallowed site for waking up early, pulling out a shell, and stroking down the river (roughly) towards London.
I went out for my first row two weeks ago on a warm Sunday. They asked all of the interested MCR (grad students) who have never rowed before to consider coming out for the MCR Novice boat. Our first training session was at 6:45 on a Friday morning. They showed us the whole “this is how you CORRECTLY row a boat.” The emphasis of course is on a form that puts your legs NOT your arms into the power position.
And then, on this past Sunday, we were out for our first session as team “Maverick.” It’s eight MCR men from Israel, Germany, the US, and the UK with a Austrian cox who studies Japan. And though it is ice cold out there in the midnight air, I must off to bed to get ready for this week’s session bright and early at 6:45.
Saturday turned out to be a practical litany of excitement and adventure. The day started with a Hurling Tournament (yes, Irish hurling at Cambridge) in which I suited up for the blues and played Imperial and Oxford in two abbreviated matches. Playing Oxford, it should be said, is considered the most prestigious thing a Cambridge sportsmen could ever do, and technically qualifies the player for “Varsity Blue.” But I fear that gaelic games are not included in the “full blue” category of Cambridge Athletics. So the glory is more personal that universal.
Then it was off to a Football (soccer) where Selwyn suited up against the Korean Society, and lost a disgraceful 6-3. I actually thought we showed promise in the second half, but it wasn’t meant to be.
A shower and a quick dinner later, and I was out with friends at an Oktoberfest gathering, and then a pizza place, and then a pub by the river, and finally a house party near Christ’s Piece. Which turned out to easily be one of the most hip, creative, and indie (read: hipster) affairs I have been to since arriving on the island. This was largely because of an unknown house band that played in the living room, and inspired me to make this hasty recording.
She was dressed like Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus. She came in ten minutes late explaining “now we ALL know where the seminar room is…” She never looked at her notes, or paused uncertain of what to say. She was the most interesting person in Cambridge. With some qualifiers.
As I wrap up my first week of “classes” (more accurately lectures, seminars, and meetings with professors) I will hazard a few observations.
- No one will tell you where you need to be, so you better ask
- The lectures are compulsory, which is different that mandatory. According to one professor, it means “absolutely highly recommended.”
- In all seriousness, the only requirements for degree completion is receiving passing marks on four papers + the dissertation.
- Sociologists may be the most mutinous, divisive people known to academia. Each lecturer contradicts the previous one and insists on the authenticity and indispensability of his/her views.
- Sociology is non-paradigmatic, but it may be personally-dogmatic.
- The first few weeks of classes in the M. Phil program at Cambridge are about establishing “methods” for research and analysis. The “substantive” modules (where we learn content other than form) will be forthcoming.
- My Ms. Frizzle doppelganger is a Anthropologist
Ms. Friz studied “Social Anthropology” right here on the River Cam. She referred to her social circle (friends + colleagues) as her “cohort” so many times that I could not discern whether it was a sort of technical term for them or an established, widely known nickname. She was lecturing us on Ethnography, literally “people-writing,” but perhaps more appropriately, about how a “social” scientist can use observation, participation, and conversation with a people to empirically learn things about them.
Ms. Friz had been interested as a student in meditation. So when the time came for her to do fieldwork, she went to Asia and joined a Buddhist nunnery for two years. As a nun. To learn from the inside. It wasn’t required, but it represented the sort of deep, pervasive ethnography that was desirable for her research.
And, in addition, absolutely blew me away.
Our hour and a half session passed quickly, as this exciting course proved gripping and fascinating. At the end, Ms. Friz told us we needed to do a “participant observation” of our own, by taking a few hours in a pub or supermarket and “interview” people about their experiences there. It’s very intimidating. But then I remembered that Ms. Friz had become a nun in Asia for her research, and my assignment suddenly seemed quite do-able.
A brief, kinda moody (that’s what unaccompanied piano music does) reflection on dressing formally, taking the College’s 2010 Matriculation photograph, and attending the first MCR dinner mentioned previously.
This past Saturday marked the first MCR (grad student) Formal Dinner. Formal dress was required, as was a good attitude and a bottle of wine purchased at the College Bar.
I went with a five pound Sauvignon Blanc called Poco Mas. It was a “little more” expensive than the rest, hence the name.
The MCR Formals mark a real step up from the general formal dinners because there is some high quality alcohol casually provided. The evening starts with Sherry or Champagne in a reception room. Then, at the banging of a gong, you file into the dining hall and get going on the wine. Friendly service staff then wheels through the hall bearing appetizers (a beet risotto) main courses (pheasant?????!) and desserts (a blackberry mess, see above). All the while, you are meant to be highly socialable. Or, as I like to call it, keeping your open hand in front of you, with a big smile. “Hi, I’m Zack.”
I met two engineers and two vets. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these men were not the most remarkable and compelling conversationalists. I compared the vets to All Creatures Great and Small however, and they seemed to like that.
The evening caps off with some college port. I mean quite literally port that the college “makes” for just these occasions. I think you also could get coffee if you were paying attention, but given the drinking thats already gone down, that’s a hard thing to manage.
Decked out in slick suits and gowns, the Formal ends when the head server snuffs out the candles and tells you quite strongly to leave. Which we do, eventually, but retiring down to the college bar to (insanely) keep drinking. It will later become clear to several members of the dinner/dinner party/dinner party-in-exile-at-the-bar, that this will be the last thing they remember from the rest of the evening.
In their memory, or lack thereof, I now conclude this narrative recollection.