A City Romance

Cambridge was my first love. And, like many love stories, this one begins as a teenage infatuation: I was 17 and I was going to the University of Cambridge’s International Shakespeare Summer School. I was excited and nervous and completely unprepared for the effect this trip would have on me.

I had been away to summer camps before—two weeks in Georgia, ten days in Maine, even a previous trip to the UK without my parents—but this was the first time I would be more or less living on my own for weeks at a time. Heady freedom for an adolescent, although admittedly with my lovely high school English teacher a stone’s throw away if needed.

So I attended my courses and gained an even greater appreciation for the works of Shakespeare; in my free time, I explored the city on foot. I admired the architecture and scenery, delighted in learning the secret nooks and crannies and shortcuts. I absorbed the history of the different colleges and landmarks through some type of osmosis. I felt an ownership and understanding of this place in a way I had never felt before, even in my hometown.

On another level, as someone who was inching closer to leaving home for University, this gave me the assurance that I was going to be fine. Even if my standard breakfast was a smartie cookie from the shop next door, I realised that I could take care of myself. Going away to college in a year’s time no longer felt daunting; instead, Cambridge had given me a taste of independence and I now wanted more … preferably in England.

So it is not an exaggeration to say that this trip shaped the course of my life. I had it bad for Cambridge and wanted to return as soon as I could. Yet, like many teenage romances, this one ended in heartbreak.

I was fortunate that my undergraduate college in the US had a strong study abroad programme. From the very start of my first year, I fully intended to take advantage of it and spend my junior year studying overseas, re-uniting with a city I continued to daydream about. However, reality intervened. Cambridge was not accepting study abroad students. The love affair was over.

I still returned to England though. And my heart healed quickly as I fell head over heels for a new paramour: Bristol. It was Bristol I would come back to in order to do an MA. It was Bristol I would stay in to complete a PhD, its landmarks serving as the focal point for my archaeological research. It was Bristol I would choose to get married in. Cambridge was like an ex I thought of fondly, but never got around to seeing again.

I did go through Cambridge on a trip for work last year, but it was a flying visit and all I could really see was the view from the taxi as it took me from my hotel to the labs. But this year I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the central part of town and, once my work for the day was done, I went wandering in the evening, much like I had done half a lifetime ago.

The city I had once known intimately now seemed unfamiliar. Time had managed to wipe away the mental map I used to carry, the nuggets of history I had gleaned, and the feeling that this place was mine. The city and its colleges were still beautiful, but the school girl crush felt well and truly over.

The second night I went out, however, a little of the old magic was back.  I just walked, letting my feet guide my way without any thought or plan. Soon I was in the market, where I had spent far too much time browsing the stalls and too much money buying books and clothing, not thinking about how I would get everything back to the US. I carried on and I was at King’s where, during the long summer days touts from local companies would advertise punting on the Cam, completing the picture of an English idyll with their straw boater hats. Then, before I knew it, I was in front of St. Catharine’s College, the place I called home for a glorious month. The shop next door still sold smartie cookies.

I felt closure.  Although nothing worked quite like I expected with Cambridge, the ripples that were started by a summer fling with this city have spread throughout the course of my life, and I am grateful for the twists and turns it has inspired.

 

Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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