Early Thanksgiving

15Oct06

Unlike Halloween, Thanksgiving hasn’t really made its way over the Atlantic as an imported holiday. Apparently this makes it quite a bit of an expatriate event, one manifestation requiring the Westpoint Marshall scholars to pick up some canned pumpkin pie mix from the US Airbase here. In the meanwhile, however, it’s been pointed out that many of my posts have been about some of the difficulties of adjusting to Cambridge (focusing on the slower pace of my program and a recent prolonged Internet outage). This is a bit of an incomplete picture of my time here, notably leaving out the things that I find absolutely delightful.

As such, I’m including a brief “top ten” list of the things that I am most thankful for as an expatriate student. (In no particular order.)

  1. My window-couch. I’ve mentioned in the past that the undergraduate rooms are a bit nicer than the graduate rooms (especially for external grads), but I failed to mention my window-couch… for lack of the appropriate term. I have a bed-length (but much skinnier) sofa built into the ledge of my windows that give me a wonderful view of the trees surrounding Burrell’s Field. It receives the warm light of the morning and afternoon and is an absolutely wonderful place to read. I feel very scholarly sitting with a cosmology book (or three) and pausing occasionally to sip some tea (Assam is very good, as are the Twinnings herbal teas) and stare out at the green space around me. Today I noticed a cat from a neighboring building spying on me, but I didn’t mind its voyeurism. I really, really like the couch… I hope to find a place with a similar arrangement in a bay window in Berkeley. I suspect my productivity has increased by a factor of 2 or 3 because of it.
  2. Green, green, green. I’ve recently started running again and have had the opportunity to see the surrounding areas around Cambridge.  Bill Bryson once said that England is so green that you’d suspect their primary export is chlorophyll, and I heartily agree. Below is a photo taken near the Cavendish physics department. It might as well be a Windows wallpaper.
  3. Formal Hall. It seems a little silly (Harry Potter-esque) in the states that one would have to dress up in academic gown to have dinner. However, I’ve found the Trinity BA Dinners to be very enjoyable. The regulars from my staircase always make a big deal about getting dressed up for the event; though this is partly because it’s still very novel. One does, however, feel very ‘posh’ walking down to hall with one’s gown flowing behind you. And hey, even when the food isn’t up to par, the company is always top notch.

    (This is a rogue, contraband photo… I have no idea where it came from…)
  4. Receptions. Preceeding and following every BA dinner is a reception where BAs and their guests sip port and sherry while chatting with one another. This, again, is one of those things that seem silly to Americans, but it’s a great way to keep social even when you’re a geeky Part III maths student. There’s also something to being all dressed up and drinking fancy wine (or orange juice) that flavors the conversation in a way that one wouldn’t find at the pub.
  5. College Life. The divide between the University, its departments, and the colleges is a uniquely Oxbridge (and Durham) feature. Despite being different, one quickly learns how to play to the positives of this system. It’s easy to make friends within one’s college, which provides postgraduates with a social atmosphere and events in a way that a university-wide graduate society would be unable to. Further, it allows students like me to participate in intramural sports like basketball. (Sorry to everyone who thought I would get into rowing!)
  6. CMS. As much as I occasionally get fruastrated at the pace of courses in Part III, the Centre for Mathematical Sciences is absolutely gorgeous. really does follow function as the building and its many meeting rooms actually do encourage interaction between its inhabitants. And lunch is cheap.
  7. People. I’ve made some very cool friends here (both between the Marshall and with Cambridge students). Today I was especially impressed with the “EZ” (i.e. beginners) running group of the Cambridge Hare & Hounds Society (cross country). Runners tend to be a happy bunch since they’re often on endorphin-highs, but today’s 9 mile jog was especially nice and social. I wonder if it was characteristically American for me to go for a round of high-fives after the run? (The others seemed a bit surprised and amused.) But really–I feel very lucky to get to know the people here. People half-joked that as a Trinity student I’d be rubbing elbows with future world leaders and future Fields medalists. This may be true, but what I really treasure are the new friends from all over the world; being able to chatter about ‘football,’ talk about faraway places, and to hang out with some genuinely people.
  8. CUP Bookstore. Ok, compared to the saccharin of the above item it’s a little geeky to talk about the Cambridge University Press bookstore… but the place is awesome. This, however, is coming from someone who would drive all the way to Caltech from West LA to spend time in their bookstore. In addition to publishing some very high quality physics and mathematics texts (as well as some very interesting non-science books), Cambridge students get 20% off. (Bye, bye stipend.)
  9. Stationary. Yeah, here’s another geeky one. I came to Cambridge with several reams of engineering paper from Stanford and a small stack of Spanish notebooks–the things that I’ve come to know and love for doing physics. However, I must say that I’ve been very impressed by A4 paper and lever arch binders. Sure, A4 is a little big for American folders–but at the end of the day it’s more space to write. It also folds in half into a more natural shape. Two hole punches are kind of a neat novelty, but their effectiveness shows in British (and I guess everywhere-outside-of-North-America) binders, which are cheaper and higher-quality than their American counterparts. You just have to see them to know what I mean.
  10. Time. At the end of the day my program and the Marshall scholarship as a whole provides me with one very precious commodity: time. With my classes over by noon every day, I have plenty of time to read up on any topic I fancy. This is something I often caught myself wishing I could do in undergraduate, where the hustle and bustle of 10 week quarters with continous assessment didn’t provide much breathing room to learn tangential topics. On a bigger scale, the two years in the UK provides me with time to hone my background in particle physics in a way that I would not have been able to if I jumped directly into a PhD program. I have yet to see if this will have an effect on the length of my PhD program, but I suspect it will help in the quality of whatever amount of time it takes.

Anyway, that’s my happy Sunday reflection. I’m very fortunate to be here and hope to be able to make good on the investment that has been put into this opportunity.




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