Cambridge Recollections

December 24, 2008

On Monday December 15th 2008 I attended an interview at the University of Cambridge. This entry was written only hours upon my return, however not posted until now for reasons stemming from my poor conception of time—it is Christmas Eve already?

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The Sunday skies were clouded over, and though the temperature was too cold for me to appreciate, a light, misty rain fell. I was pacing around the house, worrying about everything and nothing, however Cambridge and the trip there in particular. I had packed my suitcase the day before, and though the items I had laid out—having deemed necessary to bring—did not appear to be unreasonable in number, they filled the suitcase to the brim. I have only travelled once before in my life, and fact is that despite me then being away for a week, I brought a lesser variety of items; it was mostly clothes. What I could come to need in Cambridge, I did not know; it was a completely new experience for me.

Eventually came the hour when I had to leave for the airport, and I left without much recollection of what I had actually done during the morning. Not that such a recollection is required, but it shows just how preoccupied my mind was at that time. To reach the airport from where I live takes about half an hour to forty minutes by car, and to me, that time just flew by. The volume of the radio was set quite high to make up for my silence, as I travelled with my father; all because my mind was blank, being filled with too many thoughts to recall even a single one. Indeed I experienced one of the greatest kinds of excitement, the anticipatory, humbling kind. Little me, frail and awkward Miss Josephine was on her way out into the world!

Such a mindset once more overcame me as I was seated in the airplane at Stockholm Arlanda, awaiting takeoff. I had zigzagged in-between people as excited as myself, but people with destinations different from mine. Indeed, I felt special at that moment, being the only one taking the afternoon flight to London Heathrow with the intent of continuing on to Cambridge. As I sat in the fairly, but not overly, comfortable economy seat of the S.A.S. airplane, I was struck by a wave of admiration over how fascinating life can be. What had started as a way to escape late last year’s intellectual distress had now become a real adventure! Words had been written and re-written, digital documents had been requested and returned, decisions and dates had been noted; all leading up to this. The flight came to symbolise this; that this was it.

It was already dark when the plane took off from Arlanda, and it was equally dark as it landed at Heathrow. The only difference I noted was that the Swedish airport was far more secluded than its English counterpart, all of this however only suggested by the orange glow of streetlights flashing closer and closer by as the plane’s altitude decreased. Upon landing I knew that I was in another country—one I had never been to before—and yet, it looked familiar. In the dark I imagine all airports look very much the same through the small windows of an airplane. Had I not spent two and a half hours suspended in the deep darkness which surrounded the plane’s lit interior I could easily have believed that I had only travelled from one part to another of the same airport; that minor were the differences.

Stockholm Arlanda Airports flight control tower at dusk. (I took this picture in may this year, having returned from a one-day visit to Drammen, Norway.

Stockholm Arlanda Airport's flight control tower at dusk. (I took this picture in may this year, having returned from a one-day visit to Drammen, Norway.

It was first when I boarded the Heathrow Express that I realised that there were differences. The loud, and yet surprisingly inaudible, mumbling of the masses at the airport had been replaced by a calmer atmosphere, one which allowed the conversations of my fellow travellers to be heard. Everyone spoke English, and the majority did so with a British accent. I found it greatly fascinating, how one can travel for a short while and find oneself in a different country. Though the airports looked the same, and both have express train-lines attached to them, the conversations overheard by me sounded different. In line with the honeymoon-phase of foreign travel I adored this audible change.

At Paddington station I changed from the Heathrow Express to the London Underground. As a Swede, it is no surprise that I have been told only one side of the story; that the Swedish system of public transportation is among the best in the world. I know too little to challenge such a notion, but I quickly came to the conclusion that the British system is not far behind.

I travelled with the London Underground from Paddington to King’s Cross where I changed for a train to Cambridge after having had a very small bit of fish and chips to eat.

It took just over an hour to reach Cambridge, and the journey was uninspiring as nothing was visible through the train’s windows but darkness, darkness however occasionally broken by the headlights of a car in the distance. Eventually Cambridge Station was reached, and as it was my first time in Cambridge—which also accounted for my father—a cab took us to the hotel, which turned out to be located little over half a kilometre (if even that) from the station. It was already quite late at the time, so taking a small tour around Cambridge was decided against, as I consider first tours of a city are better done in daylight, no matter how clouded over the skies may be.

Despite all I had experienced I went to bed—early for being me, but late for most reasonable people—upon arriving at the hotel. I could however, unsurprisingly, not sleep and I had several, instead of just one or two, reasons for being unable to fall asleep: the hotel room was too cold, and the bed was too hard; I was anxious, nervous and excited; a small bird insisted on chirping just outside the window, and a streetlight managed to shine me in the face despite the blinds being drawn. As dawn broke I fell asleep for an hour or two—I am not certain at what time the darkness grew lighter—but I nevertheless rose around eight o’clock.

I did not have much for breakfast, I was all too nervous to eat, but I never the less managed to convince myself to eat Scottish low-fat mandarin-flavoured yoghurt, a small serving of blackcurrant jam, cereal, and finish the meal with a cup of Earl Grey tea—my favourite kind of tea. It was after all an important day I had before me, and it was important to remain alert, no matter how little I wished to eat at the time. As I ate I considered how terribly unhealthy the foods were that stood before me, and how unhealthy my diet had been over the past couple of days, as well as how normal it had been. There is no doubt in my mind that one of the greatest dangers to the welfare of the human species is the food, but few listen to such notions. I have concluded that there may be two reasons for why that is, that either people do not wish to listen to a truly inconvenient truth, or that people cannot understand the arguments supporting the notion. Or, perhaps, it is a little bit of both. But, back on topic!

Following breakfast I headed to Emmanuel College an hour before I had to register there, in order to fill in my mental map of the area, which until then had remained completely blank. The hotel was located within walking distance of the college, and it took me no more than five minutes to get there on foot. Signs had been posted on the college grounds to guide nervous, prospective students through what at first appeared to be a large maze. Thanks to the signs I very soon reached the registration desk, and though I was there forty minutes before I was supposed to, I was able to register. Having registered, it was all a matter of waiting until the Thinking Skills Assessment-test was to begin.

Emmanuel College at sunset.

Emmanuel College at sunset.

A current undergraduate eventually arrived and brought about 20 nervous and equally excited prospective students, including me, to a computer room where the T.S.A.-test was to be taken on-line. As I sat down in front of a computer with log-in information in my hand, I did not feel very nervous. Thought I found this surprising, it was not unexpected, as I according to the sample T.S.A.-test, which I had taken a few times before, consistently scored higher than the average applicant to Cambridge. As the test began I felt a surge of nervousness, but it was gone as soon as I had answered the first few questions; I felt that I was doing all right. As the test ended I felt confident that I had scored within my expectations.—At least, that is what I hope!

After the test had ended I had one hour and a half to spend before I had to return to the registration desk to pick up the unseen reading. As my father had spent the last hour and a half exploring the city he now knew the streets adjacent to the college quite well, and we went to a coffee shop located by the Market Place where we had a little bit to eat. I say little, as we ordered ham-and-cheese sandwiches as we did not believe them to be as strange as turkey-and-cranberry sandwiches and the like, but we soon changed our minds upon finding both mustard and cheddar cheese in-between the bread halves. The ham was edible, however, which I appreciated (and especially so as I am a meat-eater!).

After having finished eating we continued to explore the city, and as I came across a wall of postcards in a small street close to the marketplace, I purchased the prettiest one, as well as a postage stamp. Thereafter, I wished to take a few pictures of Cambridge, but as I pulled the camera from my suitcase, I realised that it did not have any batteries, which was quite disappointing. My father, however, being very kind, offered to buy a few while I had the first interview, and so we returned to the college after having walked through the mall—whose name I have already forgotten.

The Christmas decorations at the mall were unlike the decorations so commonly seen in Sweden, a fact which both fascinated and amused me (as I am very easily amused!).

The Christmas decorations at the mall were unlike the decorations so commonly seen in Sweden, a fact which both fascinated and amused me (as I am very easily amused!).

While I waited for my name to be called, and for being given the unseen reading, I sat down with the postcard I had purchased, and started writing: “Dear Josephine...”Indeed, I am quite aware that I am not the sanest person to grace this world, but it is something I am proud over as I have never desired to be considered “normal”. Thus, I always send myself postcards when I am someplace from where I would like to receive one; I see them as souvenirs, of sorts, and they are perfect to add to my ever-thickening Moleskine notebooks in which I note many—if not most—of my conjured notions and strangely analytical observations.

Then—at long last!—my name was called and I was given a few papers; the unseen reading session was about to begin. Before I could start reading, however, I was taken to a quiet reading-room where a few other prospective students were seated. The text was not at all what I had expected it to be, but I never the less filled the margins with notes and observations; I always have so many, many things to say! Some twenty minutes thereafter an undergraduate student in a red coat entered the room and called my name, and I followed, being led to the first interview. While walking there, I took the chance to speak some English with the student guiding me across the maze-like college grounds, as it admittedly is quite rusty (I have not spoken English since early May, I believe). She told me I was doing quite well, but perhaps it was only to boost my confidence before the interview.

After we had entered a building constructed from red bricks—whatever difference that now makes—I only had to wait for a minute, if it was even that long, before one of the interviewing professors called my name and I entered the room. Thirty seconds thereafter I started to make a fool out of myself by at first getting my hair caught in my scarf as I was to place it and my coat on a chair in the room, and then going on with greeting the two professors—by then already seated—with a “Good morning” though it was already half past two in the afternoon. After those two mishaps I at least managed to avoid being awkward, and instead went on to being slow-witted and of limited mental capacities and intellect, which is not at all uncommon in the case of Miss Josephine, a.k.a. myself. One could quite truthfully say that I am a slow-thinking deep-thinker!

Originally, I had believed the interviews to be fairly simple—a true piece of cake—a conclusion I had drawn after having watched a few “mock-interviews” posted on Cambridge University’s website. I soon came to the insight that I had been wrong, the interview was nothing like I had imagined, and I very soon ceased focusing on the interviewers and their questions, and instead listened to a small voice which whispered in my ear: “You fail, Miss Josephine. You fail.” After the interview had come to an all too abrupt end—I would not have minded if it had lasted for ten minutes longer, for one more question to be asked so I could prove how intelligent and creative I actually am—I felt defeated. I have never been very good at reading the minds of people by simply looking at their faces, but I was quite convinced that the professors saw it as a relief once I exited the room. Indeed, I did very poorly.

I was picked up by the undergraduate student in the red coat, and taken back to the Common Room. On the way back the undergraduate student wondered how the interview had gone, and I told her that I believed I had done poorly. This, she told me, did not have to imply anything, as she claimed the professors interviewing her last year practically had to give her the answers, just as I felt that they had to give me the answers. I felt a little bit reassured by this, and I am very grateful to her for being so kind. Her name, I am afraid I did not catch. Once more, I had an hour and a half to spend before returning to the college, and I met up with my father. He had purchased a few batteries for me, and this lifted my spirits a little as it meant I could take a few pictures of Cambridge before it became too dark.

King’s College by King’s Parade was fun to take pictures of!

King’s College by King’s Parade was fun to take pictures of!

Those who know me also know that I have no sense of direction—whatsoever—but having studied a map of Cambridge, I think I walked down Sidney Street from Emmanuel College, past Christ’s College and then following Market Street past the Market Place. Outside Great St. Mary’s I took a picture of three red phone booths, because I am all too easily entertained by simple things. I then followed Market Street to the Senate House and followed King’s Parade towards King’s College, taking a picture of each of the buildings as I have never seen anything quite like them ever before. I then followed a path through King’s College’s yards, walking past Clare College and crossing two bridges over River Cam. I then followed a path beside Queen’s Road—picking up some genuine, reddish-brown Cambridge mud under my shoes—before starting to head back to Emmanuel College by following Silver Street, Pembroke Street and Corn Exchange Street before again walking through the mall where my father and I stopped for tea and a piece of chocolate cake at Starbuck’s before returning to Emmanuel.

Overlooking River Cam, having crossed King’s College’s grounds. The buildings belong to Clare College.

Overlooking River Cam, having crossed King’s College’s grounds. The buildings belong to Clare College.

I did not have to wait long in the Common Room until my name was called and an undergraduate student—without a red coat—followed me to the building where the second interview was to be held. I had to wait outside the room for a couple of minutes, trying to tell myself to calm down and that this interview in no way was more dangerous than the first—a reassurance which did not calm me at all. I was called into the room, and actually managed to not greet the two professors with a foolish “Good morning”. I found this to be a good start, as a “Good afternoon” was much better suited considering the darkening skies outside the window in the small room. After the interview was over, I felt that it had gone better than the first—or, at least, the professors did not roll their eyes at me, only sighing a little when I asked them to repeat the questions for the bazillionth time.

As soon as the second interview was over, and I felt a little bit as an intellectual mistake, I returned to the Common Room to meet up with my father. We then had to leave in a hurry in order to catch the train, and as the station was a fifteen minute walk away, we decided to take the bus there. It was a good idea, but unfortunately the bus was slowed down by the congested streets, which I suspect were more jammed than usual as there had been a traffic accident farther down the road. We made the station a minute too late, the train leaving the station as we stepped onto the platform, and had to wait a few minutes for the next one, which was much slower than the one we had hoped to catch.

Having ridden the train from Cambridge to King’s Cross, we then rode the London Underground to Paddington where we managed to catch the Heathrow Express a minute before it left station, meaning that we had caught up with time despite having had to take the later, slower train from Cambridge. Soon we were at the airport with two hours until the plane was scheduled to take off, and we therefore had time to have a bit to eat as no meal would be served on the plane. I had strawberry yoghurt, which I did not notice had been seasoned with “mixed seeds” (poppy, sunflower, pumpkin and sesame). Seeds and yoghurt—especially strawberry yoghurt—has to be one of the worst combinations ever, and it tasted accordingly. Having finished the little meal we toured the airport’s selection of shops which we exited without any purchases, except a book. I had read the first eight chapters of Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” on the plane to England, but I did not feel like finishing the book on the return trip, already having read it twice. And so I instead found Austen’s “Mansfield Park” to be much more appealing, and especially so for the mere £5.99 it cost me, as I am used to the Penguin Classics being much more expensive.

London Heathrow Airport—or at least part of it!

London Heathrow Airport—or at least part of it!

The plane took off a few minutes before it was scheduled to, and it was a quite uneventful flight despite some turbulence. The turbulence was mild, and I was silly enough to enjoy it as it made the flight a bit more exciting, as spending even an hour—little less two hours and a half—in an airplane is terribly boring—especially for restless me. As the plane landed I felt quite at ease, the stressor for the past month now having been left in the past, many miles away. I did not feel delighted—which I thought I would—but I did not hold myself in severe contempt either, which actually is quite a success as far as I am concerned. For once I was able to find content in the fact that I had done my best, and though not many hours had passed—only eight, and remember, I have no conception of time!—I was able to look back at the interviews and feel proud of myself. I had been there, I had answered the professors’ questions, and it was unlikely that I failed completely, no matter what I tried to convince myself of when exiting the interview room.

Heading home by car on streets glazed by a pouring rain, coloured golden by the streetlights’ orange glow, I gazed into the darkness surrounding the lit lane and hoped that the four professors of Cambridge had realised that I have potential I know myself having as being offered a place to study at the University of Cambridge is the opportunity of a lifetime, and one which I know I will make the most of, am I only given the chance. Though I may not become one of the famous people whom the university prides itself with having educated—one never knows, however!—but I will surely become something great and admirable. Of this, I have no doubt.

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Quite intriguingly, I have also noticed that I during my stay in the United Kingdom seem to have picked up bit of a British accent, which I of course find highly amusing. My native tongue being Swedish I have never had much of an accent to speak of, but the little accent I had was American. I have long claimed that I am a cultural chameleon, being able to adapt quickly to any environment I find myself in—of course this is a great exaggeration!—but my new accent only seems to support this. Once more, I feel compelled to mention it, I am very amused!