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Drinking in Cambridge

By Kevin R. Lang


Just before I left Cambridge, my friends put together a scrapbook for me that highlighted some of my misadventures in Corpus Christi. While scouring MIT webspace, they stumbled across a column I wrote for The Tech about a month after arriving on campus. Their favorite line? “I have never consumed any alcohol, and I don't plan to start any time soon.” They got a good laugh over that one.

“Soon” turned out to be two years later, when I discovered alcohol roughly a week after arriving in England. Of course I’d had a beer here and there before then, but the night of my 20th birthday was the first time I ever got drunk. At first, I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but when I realized what I’d done by drinking an entire bottle of cheap wine with dinner, I ran around saying, “Hey, I think I’m drunk!” to everyone I met.

A new perspective on intoxication

While at MIT, I attempted to avoid situations where I might encounter alcohol. What could have possibly happened to change my attitude so quickly? Maybe it was the fact that I could actually purchase and consume legally in England. Perhaps it was the thousands of other students doing likewise. Or maybe I finally had time to go out, drink, and then recover the next morning without five problem sets hanging over me.

I learned how to drink in Cambridge, and got a feeling for my limits. I acquired a taste for fine English beer, served warm and flat; none of this cold, over-carbonated American lager for yours truly. I can’t exactly call myself a vinophile, but I do enjoy a glass of wine with a nice dinner.

Cambridge students drink heavily, even by English standards. A recent English equivalent of the traditional “party school survey” put Cambridge at number one. Still, this is not a campus of alcoholics. Drinking is always social - parties, pubs, and clubs. College life provides many opportunities for social drinking. Formal halls, the suit-and-tie, college gown, four-course dinners held every night in Cambridge colleges, are always accompanied by roughly one bottle of wine per person. Even faculty and administrators will sponsor cocktail hours.

Overdoing it over and over again

I don’t try to deny the fact or the quantity of my consumption in Cambridge. I drank often, and I often drank too much. One pint would turn into three, a glass of wine would turn into a bottle, a single would turn into a double, and before I knew it I was dancing in my bathrobe to N*SYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me”. Actually, the N*SYNC thing happened more than I care to admit, once even on video. Even now, people who have only heard about it request a performance.

I had fun going out with my friends, having a few, having a few more, having a few too many, dancing all night, stumbling home arm-in-arm, and waking up the next day talking about all the stupid things we did the night before. “Hey, Kevin, remember those girls in the club last night?” “Yeah, dude, I remember.” “You were so drunk!” “Yeah, dude, I know.”

What MIT needs to learn

Cambridge has never had a Scott Krueger, at least not within the span of institutional memory. Hospitalizations? Maybe, but I never heard of any. English students know how to take care of their friends, and more importantly, they do. No one would ever be dropped off anonymously at the hospital in Cambridge.

On the one occasion when I drank a truly dangerous amount of alcohol, my friends were there to take care of me, just as I was for them.

Perhaps it’s just cultural; if you start drinking at 14 in England, that’s considered a sheltered childhood. In fact, parents can buy children of any age a pint of beer with lunch in the pub, which is never far from home. I think it’s a law in England, maybe even a royal decree or something, that one can never be more than a five minute walk from a pub. Pub life and everything associated with it is a major part of English culture.

A new scene on both sides

Interestingly enough, MIT has changed almost as much as I have since freshman year. Alcohol was not easy to find on campus that year, and I had very little exposure to drinking in my dorm. Already this year, though, I can see how alcohol has crept back into the dorms, and students are drinking more openly than in past years. Parties are no longer hidden behind close doors. However, this is a very dry campus in comparison to Cambridge.

MIT students who elect to spend a year in Cambridge through CMI should be aware of what’s waiting for them at the college bars. You will be exposed to levels of alcoholic consumption far exceeding those at MIT, but you will never, ever be pressured or forced to drink. Many students in Cambridge never drink, but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying the pubs and clubs in town.

Cambridge students who come to MIT, however, are in for a bit of a shock. Many CMI students are over 21, but those who are underage will find themselves unable to legally partake in something that is a way of life in England. Maybe in a year’s time, someone will be writing a story for The Cambridge Student about how they learned how to stay sober at MIT.

This is the last in a series of Reporter’s Notebooks on the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI).