As an American studying on exchange at Pembroke for the next two terms, I am slowly adjusting to life in Cambridge.
I expected my time here to be rather easy—the UK is just America with accents and rain, right? Unfortunately, in the past three weeks I’ve been here, I’ve experienced more culture shock than you’d think.
Almost everything is basically the same but then a little different; and that little difference is deceiving—often leaving me thinking I am much better off than I really am. From how I have to adjust my way of learning, to what time I need to eat or grocery shop, or whether it’s an aubergine or an eggplant, throughout any given day I have a running reel of commentary always reminding me just how American I am.
Here is the average day of me living life and being confused:
4:47 AM: Finish my first essay of term with only 4 hours to spare.
This will serve as precedent for the rest of the term. Each week the Cambridge supervision system and lack of contact hours will inevitably fail to persuade me to actually complete work more than 2 days ahead of deadlines. Normally for me, essays occur only several times a 14-week semester. Having only a week to read for, determine and develop a topic for, and actually write a single essay is a bit of a challenge. I have been trying to apply my normal strategy— thinking about the essay minimally daily over a multi-week period—with little success. The result has been very little essay preparation followed by a two day week of panic at the realisation that once again, the American way is pretty much the wrong way.
5:17 AM: Send essay in an email to my supervisor with an accompanying paragraph in which I attempt to apologise for the essay’s lacklustre quality.
9:00 AM: Re-awake and try to plan the day ahead.
As it turns out, I have no lectures and nothing to do except read in preparation for my next essay. My days would normally be filled with several hours of mandatory lectures and classes, followed by studying and work due the following day. I am at an absolute loss as what or how to be productive for 12+ straight hours with no structure.
11:07 AM: After a few hours of half-sleep, texting American friends (at 4 or 5 in the morning, they are likely still studying in our 24/7 library), I resolve to actually go out and enjoy the day.
11:42 AM: I step out the front door of the hostel and immediately realise my mistake. The skies are grey and small droplets ruin my expectation of a nice, sunny English day.
It’s unbelievable to me that Seasonal Affective Disorder isn’t more of a thing here. With only 8 or so hours of cloudy daylight, I’m nearly always confused as to what time it is, let alone what day of the week. I also find myself poorly dressed all the time—some days a coat is too much, other days a skirt too little, most days I alternate between sweating through layers and shivering in the wind. I’m actually not sure why a semi-intelligent person like myself cannot seem to grasp dressing for weather as a concept.
12:03 PM: Walk with much confusion to Fitzbillies. Order a scone and try to choose the right coins to pay both quickly and gracefully.
Despite being one of the earliest skills mastered as a child, I struggle greatly with the task of walking in Cambridge. Nobody seems to be able to tell me with confidence on what side of the sidewalk to walk on. Nobody seems to agree and I tend alternate between left and right reasonably confused.
I have never also, despite living in New York, been around so many tourists on a regular basis. Cambridge manages to be both sleepy & quaint and crowded & busy. It’s an odd combination that I have a hard time likening to anything yet encountered in the States.
Walking has, no joke, become one of my greatest sources of confusion. And, as I average three or four miles a day, I spend most of my time at a loss.
12:54 PM: Check my pidge (!) for mail, stroll over to the Pembroke library and sadly realise I must toss my fresh coffee in the bin outside.
My favourite British-isms include the ‘pidge’ and the presence & witty repartee of the porters. Major dislikes include my inability to sip coffee in the library.
7:12 PM: After an unproductive day in the library, I return to my hostel and try to interpret ‘smart dress’. I then walk back to college, gown in one hand, bottle of wine in the other.
It amazes me that formal hall both expects the height of fancy dress and etiquette, yet allows and invites its students to drink an entire bottle of wine. Classy debauchery as tradition is kind of amazing.
7:45 PM: Spend the first two courses guarding my glass from wandering pennies.
8:12 PM: Attempt to subtly pose for a photo while the waiters prepare to serve dessert. Unfortunately cringe in horror as the flash fires, and hide at the shame of so disturbing the hallowed Pembroke hall.
Formal hall has been my favourite part of Cambridge life so far. Despite happening nearly every night, it feels like such a special occasion and so uniquely Cambridge. Even so, despite all my efforts, not even formal hall goes as seamlessly as I planned. Like nearly everything else, it’s so new and it’s so different; inevitably I don’t quite get it right, and am left with some slightly embarrassing memories.
9:07 PM: Leave formal, be persuaded toward the JP, and finally toward Cindies.
The day ends as they often do, in the JP or the like, with a G&T in hand. Thankfully, this doesn’t feel quite so new and quite so different. After a long day of being unsure, Pembroke is still a remarkably easy place to be as I slowly, hopefully get a little less confused.) •
Virginia Gresham-Jacobs is a third year English student on an exchange from Barnard College, New York