Monday, December 1, 2003

Being new (or, the upside of everything at the moment … )

Cambridge feels like the latest step in a process I’ve been undergoing for a while now: being new.

It works two ways. You are both new to a town, its people, haunts and hangouts, its mores. You have to make new friends, find a supermarket, buy a few items that in a previous existence landlords or housemates supplied.

But you also get to be new as well: each move I think, has made me more myself – stripped off another unneeded layer, shed a few outgrown skins, left a little more literal and metaphorical baggage behind each time. I am a much more confident and resilient person than I was three years ago. More assertive also. (Though in Cambridge some of this probably just comes from being a few years older than many of my fellow grads.)

When new in town, the easiest people to meet are always other out-of-towners, infants of the storm, blow-ins. As a Cambridge graduate student, that’s almost everyone you meet. Most grads are from somewhere else, almost all have done other things and been other people along the way.

An American with a Friar Tuck bonhomie studying divinity, drinking obscure boutique beers and telling tales of his days living and working in an art house coffee-shop and cinema.

A British soap actor in his fifties, rowing for the college, and studying Art History. I can see him on TV three Thursday nights running this month.

A Canadian PhD student studying a contemporary of Wordsworth, who has worked as a journalist and political staffer.

A Swiss-German insolvency lawyer here to upgrade his quals and sporting college scarf, Burberry overcoat and fine cord, tailored trousers.

A liltingly-accented, richly pragmatic and humorous Irish international relations student who’s studied in Dublin and Paris and worked in four countries.

A vet who wants to become an MBA; a lawyer training as a mathematician; central European men with perfect English public-school accents; Asian women who answer their mobiles in casually inflected French; a favourite porter who is a retired Detective Chief Inspector, and used to run a young offenders program; and an endless stream of fellow Aussie lawyers with their identikit CVs (a major university, a major law firm, and then one or more of: having worked for a judge, the attorney-general’s department, an international NGO or having done a UN internship).

We are all – less so the porter, and those who were undergrads here – new. For 750 years or more Cambridge has (with the exception of the odd revolt among the townsfolk) welcomed this seasonal human inflowing tide. The cultural processes that exist to gather us up, make a melting pot of these accidental communities, are vital living things, but terribly old and comfortably well worn.

Many turn to rowing as their way to become a part of Cambridge, for me it was debating and drama (a rediscovery of half-forgotten pieces of myself). But at the core of it all, is your College: your colours, your default friendship circle, your clan riven with all its little alliances, celebrations, tensions and reconciliations and joys.

At the end of an eight week term have I enjoyed it? Am I exhausted? Do I feel its been both years and no time at all? Do I feel I fit in? Do I feel I’ve changed? Am I still excited by it all?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and very much yes.

PS New Naylor went up late last week over here.

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