Thursday, October 2, 2003

Cambridge: arriving with more whimper than bang
(travel blog from Doug)

So, I’m finally here. *gasp, pant* Arrived Monday, spent two days commuting to London to sight-see, and went to the first law orientation lecture this morning (though classes don’t start properly until the 9th).

There’s a goodly number of new graduate students wandering around with a “oh, wow” and “if I weren’t so overwhelmed right now, I’d probably be freaking out” sort of expression. Including me.

There’s a lot of administrative stuff to sort out before classes start. Not to mention sorting out the dynamics of living in a house with five other men (yes, a six boy, all-male house), with two bathrooms and three toilets.

But no-one wants that guff, they want narrative.

The baggage haul: escape from Paris
(or, “you’ll miss nothing if you skip this bit”)

So, my last day in Paris I’d built over an hour’s safety margin into my plan to get to out to Charles De Gaulle - and needed every minute of it. I just missed the 10.00 am transfer bus advertised by my hotel, and the next bus was at 10.30. (Proof you should make those connections by taxi, not metro.)

Still, my flight wasn’t until 12.25, plenty of time.

Wrong. I was on an Air France transfer bus, and British Airways (my Qantas partner) was their LAST drop-off. When I just made check-in, I simply couldn’t be bothered attempting to conceal the vast 38 kg extent of my luggage. I received a very sweet warning about “next time” from the charming French check-in attendant, who checked my bag and back-pack without blinking.

So much for all my scheming over hand luggage.

On arrival at Gatwick I whipped through immigration (after a slightly nerve-wracking three minute quiz) grabbed my bags and was told at the bus counter I could transfer to the 1 pm bus, leaving in 5 minutes. As this would get me into Cambridge at 5-ish not 6-ish, I seized the moment (and my bags) and ran for the bus.

Well, more scooted towards the bus with a fractious luggage trolley that constantly veered left, but whatever.

Cambridge, the Santa Porter and a towel

Four long hours later, I hit Cambridge, and managed to muddle my way down from the bus station, through the cobbled market square, to the Trinity Hall Porters lodge (at the end of a long alley beside the Senate House) and got some keys from a veritable English Santa Claus of a Porter.

My house, it turned out, was a fair bit out of the centre of town. I was solemnly advised by Mr Porter, on viewing my luggage, to catch a taxi.

A Cambridge black cab, with “hackney carriage” emblazoned on its side, got out to my house for £5 and – after struggling with a slightly stiff door key, I dumped my bags in my room and headed out to buy the vital thing I was missing – a towel.

Douglas Adams was right, a dude should know where his towel is. Had I had one with me, I would have been spared a good deal of drama.

Of towels, and keys

It was a half-hour walk into town and by 6 pm the only thing seemingly open was Marks and Spencers, which had a discount fluffy bath towel for £10. I grabbed it and some food, not realising the cheaper Sainsbury’s was open up the road.

After a 30 minute walk home, I could not get the front door key to work.

I was stupefied, towel-bearing and darkness was closing in. All hopes of hot bath or a soothing gin lay beyond the stubborn green door with its pretty stained glass panels. My previous experience of being locked out did not reassure me.

I went down to my major thoroughfare, Mill Road (a good place for cheap eats, pubs, bikes, wine, computers, pubs, and books – there may also be a pub or two) bought a chicken burger and the walked back to contemplate the door again.

It was still – despite both my efforts *and* the purchase of a chicken burger - locked.

No-one else was home. I did not have a number for the Porter’s lodge. I was facing another 30 minute walk into town.

My will snapped and I caught another cab.

“Can you drop me at the Senate House?” I asked.

“Where are you going, then?” asked the cabbie.

I explained my situation and said my landlord was Trinity Hall.

“I can drop you at Trinity Hall if you like,” replied the cabbie.

“Fine,” I said with faintly dubious gratitude. “If it’s possible.”

It is indeed, it seems, possible to hurtle a cab through a series of narrow cobbled alleys not seemingly wide enough to both park and open a door.

It can even be done without removing side-mirrors.

I was amazed, and happily parted with another £5 at the former coach-entrance to Trinity. (I later learned that busses are equally cavalier - or skilled – when I had to slowly back up against a wall to allow a bus to wiggle round a corner in the manner a large, blue, brick shaped cat might.)

The benevolent Santa Clause-like Porter swapped my door key, gave me the Lodge number and said to call if the changed key didn’t work on my return.

I caught another cab home (my legs still weak and aching from two weeks’ sight-seeing), and duly failed to open the door. After calls to the Porters from a phone booth, the college Director of Works was summoned. The sight of a large man struggling with my small key ensued.

He eventually won the battle and got me in

“It’s new, that’s what it is. Not your fault,” he grumbled.

Only in Cambridge could something’s failure to work be blamed on its being new (ie installed after Gladstone was Prime Minister).

I was then armed with a back-door key as an alternative, and promised that the front door lock would be changed in the morning.

I had a bath, a gin and tonic, and stepped out through the back door to walk down to the phone booth and call my parents. I put the key in the backdoor to lock it.

And there it jammed, in the lock.

I had gone from a house I could not open, to one I could not secure.

I trudged the block and a half to call the Porters, and assure them that tomorrow would be soon enough to call out the Director again to free the key I had wedged irretrievably into the lock.

But I called my parents first.

And sheepishly succeeded in un-jamming the lock again on my own on my return, though not without the sort of stupefied pride normally reserved for apprentices drawing swords from stones.

Not really such a bad moving to a new town story, what’s your worst?

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