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Boston Weather: 36.0°F | A Few Clouds

The CME Experience Sunny Prospect for the Weekend

By Matt Zedler

The coach is heading to London, slowly rolling in a queue of cars as the green English countryside slides by under the grey sky. So much for the Met office getting the weather forecast right, though it wouldn’t surprise me if the sun burned through the cloud cover within a few hours. Sudden changes in English weather are about as unexpected as the more gradual shifts that have occurred among the thirty-four MIT students participating in the Cambridge-MIT Exchange (CME) program this year. After living through the first two years of “hell” at MIT, coming to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom has given me an appreciation for the unique experiences and people I have encountered here, as well as an insight into what makes MIT the special place it is. In addition, looking back across the pond has given me a better understanding of global opinion about the US and world affairs.

In this series of columns, I am hoping to explain some of these insights more fully. Granted, some people at MIT may already be familiar with my “insights,” since approximately seven percent of undergraduates are international students, and a significant number of the rest are first or second generation who have been raised in a more international household. As a middle-class male from Virginia who had hardly been out of the state before MIT, the college experience has been a constant eye-opener, and this European sojourn has continued that learning experience.

This first article will be an introduction, serving to give a qualitative overview of Cambridge and the local social scene. It is a rather difficult task to paint an accurate picture of the multi-dimensional town, but perhaps by using broad brush strokes I can at least cover a small portion of that canvas. The namesake of Massachusetts’ technology and innovation powerhouse, the British Cambridge is a university town in the middle of pastureland. To be fair, there is a significant amount of business enterprise near the town (which derives its name from the days when it served as a crossing point over the creek-size River Cam), but you can literally pet a cow in the field behind King’s College in the town’s centre. The first thing one notices is the architecture and age of the place. Tourists cannot get over the beauty of King’s College chapel with its stained glass and white spires, or the gate at Trinity which dates from the 1500s. Of course, such things are not all that uncommon in Cambridge, considering the university was around for nearly five hundred years before the US formally existed. Newton, Maxwell, Darwin, Watson, Crick, Byron, Tennyson, and even the original John Harvard studied here.

The town has a central shopping area with a pleasant but overpriced (even by English standards) outdoor market as well as a modern shopping center. While most of the stores are pretty posh, there are a few reasonable ones, such as the Sainsbury’s supermarket which serves the same role as LaVerde’s for twenty thousand Cambridge students (without the open twenty-four hours bit).

For entertainment, the town is well-equipped with the usual British hot spots — pubs, clubs, and curry restaurants which I had the chance to explore during the fall term. There are enough pubs to keep all who choose to imbibe satiated, in close proximity so one can literally crawl between them after having overly indulged (hence the infamous “pub crawl”). Not being much of a drinker, especially when compared to many of my British counterparts, I thought the club scene might be a better choice for me. Granted, a commensurate amount of drinking is associated with an evening at Coco’s, Cindy’s, Soul Tree, or one of the lesser known dance halls, but I figured I could manage to avoid too much carnage. That conclusion was reached before I realized two things: as a tall white guy I have inherent problems with moving random body parts in any sort of rhythmic dance, and cheese (defined as “heavily commercial or popular music,” but really a unique brand of tacky British pop) is played consistently at almost all the clubs. That meant I was left with the curry restaurants. With India as a commonwealth country, England manages to do some pretty nice curries, ranging from mild kourmas to spicy madras dishes all served up piping hot with a large piece of na’an. Definitely done well, but at eight to ten pounds sterling (nearly $20) for a decent curry, I’ve been limited to just a few visits.

After a few weeks, it seemed as if I had exhausted my local entertainment options, but I still needed something to fill my time. To avoid spending all my time chilling with the cows behind King’s, I decided I should try to experience as many British things as possible, including people, education, sports, and low-cost flights to Europe. The first thing I discovered was that the English education system was quite different from what I was used to in the US. While MIT may be like drinking from a fire hose, Cambridge seems to be more sadistic – one slowly laps at a trickle of work all year then gets blown away by a geyser during the final exam term. More about that geyser next week.