Monthly Archives: June 2005

The Real Deal

Yesterday was the concert for which we’d trekked all this way in the first place. We arrived at the former monastery, whose main gate’s keystone is carved with the date of its construction, 1848. We first helped out with some more piano-moving, then prepped for singing.

Performances are always hard to describe, and this one was no exception. The best I can do is to note that it was constructed as a progression from classical to jazz to modern, involving piano, clarinet, and ourselves. We sing something like an equal mix of jazz and pop, and so our songs were divided into two sets of 5, performed at the appropriate point in the program. The audience was completely unfamiliar with a cappella, and, like just about everyone I’ve met in Europe, thought that my vocal percussion was a wonderful novelty. In conclusion: it was good.

Perhaps the most surprising thing was that the pianist who played through most of the concert grew up in Westport and went to Staples. She even remembered Orphenians, my high school singing group. She had been there within the past school year, as had just about every other American I’ve met here. It is amazing. Westport is way more cosmopolitan and international than I had realized.

Yesterday evening, after gorging ourselves on leftovers from the party, we came back and had a discussion that eventually degraded into a heated argument. Chris, Adam, and I had a nice chat before going to sleep, pretty late.

This morning we were woken up early due to a scheduling snafu with a dentist’s appointment. We spent the day shopping in the Cannes shops and relaxing on its beaches (which are what I would call semi-topless beaches…). It was a great day.

Tomorrow: home.

France

I had planned to pack all day following Pembroke, once I woke up (at 11 AM). Instead, I spent most of the day dealing with other details of my departure, particularly closing bank accounts, paying off debts, and returning borrowed items. Along the way I dropped in at Haibo’s room, and she invited me to join her and her friends for a night of open-air Shakespeare.

I had mostly finished packing by the time I arrived at Queen’s College on bicycle. We had reserved tickets for the play, which turned out be Much Ado About Nothing, and picked them up in a nearby court, which turned out to be a scene straight out of the 1600s. I am absolutely serious when I say that, were it not for the folding chairs on risers as seating for the play, it would have been absolutely impossible to tell that the Queen was not named Elizabeth *. Claudio, in some sense the main character of the story, was played by my good friend Chris. The production was in most aspects a copy of the excellent movie version by Kenneth Branaugh, though the songs were original and acceptably good. Overall it was excellent, benefitting hugely from good use of the courtyard itself.

We watched the play seated on blankets on the grass just a few feet from the actors, munching on fresh peapods and the like. Afterward I bid Chris goodbye, then headed off for dinner with the group of watchers. Along the way I mentioned to Haibo that I intended to sell my bicycle, and within ten minutes I had sold it for £20 to one of her friends, using half of it to settle a debt with her. I used the rest of it to buy a calzone from a Cambridge restaurant, and we all walked up to The Mound to eat our dinners.

The Mound, of which I had not heard previously, is technically known as Castle Mound, and appears to have been an artificial fortification about 2000 years ago. Today, at the top of a winding concrete staircase, it is the best view in Cambridge. We reached the top just in time to savor the last few rays of sunset, and as darkness fell we ate and held perhaps the best Cambridge conversation I have had: civilized, thoughtful, youthful, wonderful. It reminded me that a good conversation is both rare and tangible.

We talked until about midnight, then walked back. Haibo came back to my room to pick up some parts associated with my bicycle for her friend. Also, there was another problem. One of my borrowed items was a cell phone from a CME student going the other way in September. He had told me to return it to his friend at Trinity. I had brought it down to Queen’s but forgotten the charger, and no longer had a bike on which to return it. Haibo agreed to make the handoff for me. Making it an exchange between two intermediaries, neither with any interest in the phone.

I tried to locate my friend Tom, whom I can safely name my best friend in Cambridge, and with whom I have spent most of the year, but I could not. Haibo, who is probably my closest friend, stayed and helped me finish off my packing. Unfortunately, as I packed up the final 10% of my belongings, it became clear that about 7% was left over, and would not fit no matter how much we squished. In the end, it was only through Haibo’s help repacking that everything was made to fit into my two suitcases by 2:30 AM, she stayed to savor our last few minutes, leaving shortly after 3. I took a shower, moved my 5 bags down my three flights of stairs, returned my room key, and made it New Hall exactly on time for our 4:05 cab to Stansted.

The cab turned out to be something of its own problem, as it was definitely not large enough for our bags, mostly because I had all of my worldly belongings with me, and in the end we carried some of it on our laps. At the airport I dropped off my bag in “left luggage”, where they were happy to keep it until Tuesday for an exorbitant but inevitable £25. We made the plane uneventfully, and I slept for perhaps an hour before we landed and were picked up by Liisa.

Liisa drove us, in her great old Mercedes, over tremendously picturesque hills back to her house, again without incident despite driving along two-way roads much narrower than twice the width of the car. We rolled up to her green-painted wrought-iron gates, opened them, and drove through. With a tremendous bang.

It turned out that with the weight of five people and all their baggage, we had lowered the car so far that the muffler had hit the post where the gate locks to the driveway, and it soon became apparent that the muffler had completely fallen off. We unloaded anyway and began trying to acclimate.

The house is not a house. It’s a villa. It has high ceilings, marble floors, paintings on the walls, terraces, a swimming pool, a fishpond, gardens… It’s not a huge place, but it’s got class like nobody’s business. It’s also not very stately, with comfort always preferred to appearances. As a result, there are cinderblocks here and there, and there is no vantage from which the house can be appreciated as a whole. We spent most of the day swimming in the pool, the girls sunbathing, with a break for lunch (cold cuts and fresh French breads). We cleaned up for dinner, when four other older international couples arrived and Liisa’s mother served a five-course dinner out under a canopy, each course better than the last, finishing with truly unbeatable desserts. The five Cadenzans present sang two light songs in thanks for dinner.

I went to sleep at about midnight, before the guests had even left. I had been nodding off whenever not standing (or swimming) all day, and had had 6 hours of sleep in the preceding 61 hours by the time I went to sleep. I didn’t wake up until 12:30 PM the next day.

Today, as a result, has been rather short, but there was time to stop by, after another impossibly scenic drive through the clifflike hills, past Roman aqueducts and a rail bridge demolitioned to prevent the Nazis from using it, at the local candy factory. The factory’s specialty is candies and jams made from flower petals, but I instead bought a can of the local extremely bitter marmalade, for my father who loves the amazing but likely inferior British variety.

After the factory we drove directly to the house where we will be singing tomorrow. The house was built centuries ago as a monastery, but has been converted into a mansion, and the grounds have been landscaped as you might imagine, given that it contains a mosaicked swimming pool, a separate pool house, a piano from the 1800s, and one of the very first pianofortes every made. We spent a few hours there, moving pianos and umbrellas, then testing different locations as performance spots, settling on a terrace 8 feet above the guests.

We came back for dinner, which was sausages made specially by the local butcher at Liisa’s request. They were excellent, definitely on my list of top scrumptious dinners.

Tonight the rest of Cadenza’s France contingent arrived, and we attempted to learn “Goodnight, Sweetheart” in time for tomorrow. As I type we are watching “Miss Congeniality” on Liisa’s TV.

Can you imagine a better way to spend two days?

*: well, that and the perfectly flat glass in the windows, but that’s pretty subtle, and even an Elizabethan might not have noticed immediately.

Pembroke Event

Last night was the June Event at Pembroke College. I was stewarding, though I wasn’t 100% clear on what that would entail, and so was required to arrive at 8:30, an hour before guests would be allowed in. I made sure to leave college early enough to stop off at Sainsbury’s and buy myself a year’s supply of Vegemite and Marmite.

When I arrived there was much confusion among the staff, putting finishing touches on the ball, and it was some time before we were given our T-shirts (free to keep), radios, flashlights, and abacuses. Yes, abacuses. The job of a Steward varies, including preventing guests from placing drinks on the piano and making sure people in lines stay orderly, but my job was to count the number of people in a room to make sure it doesn’t exceed fire code. I can thus tell you that counting huge fluxes of people with nothing but an abacus is seriously difficult, especially when drunk people think its funny to push beads around on the abacus, and that there were a maximum of 128 people in the Casino room at Pembroke, which also housed various bands and a cocktail bar.

At 11:30, after two hours, I was relieved of my post and set free to walk around the ball with a friend from CME who was also working there that night. We changed into formal clothes and wandered around until our next shift. I could not describe to you everything we did, but here’s a sampling:

  • Got ice cream cones from a stand
  • Got fajitas from a booth
  • Watched a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream under a huge tree in the middle of a lawn
    • Left because only the front few rows could hear them over the band in the hall
  • Ate fresh donuts dipped in cinnamon and sugar
  • Listened to a band in the hall
    • Couldn’t understand them but danced anyway
  • Dipped marshmallows and strawberries in the chocolate fountain
  • Ate pizza
  • Danced
  • Jumped around in an inflatable “bouncy castle
  • Ate dried fruits and cheese and crackers

Some things we didn’t do but could have are:

  • Drink alcohol
      Stewards aren’t allowed to drink if they’re going to be working again
  • Drink energy drinks like Red Bull
      Might have been a good idea
  • Ride the mechanical bull
  • Strap in to the bungee run
  • Play in the casino

What I’m trying to convey here is the breadth of options we had for our four hours off. At 3:30 AM we came back on duty, guarding the main hall where rock&roll cover bands were playing. My job was still nominally to keep track of the number of people in the hall, but by the time we arrived the counters had completely lost track, we were too tired to try to keep count, and the people were clearly not being a fire hazard. We waited around doing nothing, drinking deluxe fruit juices until 5:15 or so when the ball ended. At that point I headed back to the changin room, grabbed all my belongings and walked back to Fitz. I arrived at exactly 6 AM, walked back to my room, and slept for 5 hours.

I have not packed at all, and I am leaving tomorrow morning. I need to empty my bank account, pay off my debts, and return borrowed items. I will have to shut down this computer fairly soon, but I do hope to keep updating this weblog when I get home. It has served me well in keeping in touch with my folks at home, and now I can use it to communicate with my friends in Cambridge.

My address when I return home will be http://www.mit.edu/~bens/ . If you’re already reading that page, then you need not change anything.

Next stop: France!

Punt!

Over the past few days my friends and I began to organize a punting expedition, and I managed to put together a group of six for this afternoon. Our meeting ended up slightly panicked, as I had to go sign my contract for the Pembroke June Event, and nobody knew exactly how many people were coming or where we were meeting.

We walked down to Sainsbury’s to buy snacks and champagne, then rented a punt from Scudamore’s at the student rate of £7 an hour and set off.

Punting is a strange activity, not easily described without pictures, so I will refer you to the Wikipedia article on the subject. In any event, it is a great deal of fun, though the pole did get stuck in the mud at one point, jutting out from the water at an angle and requiring me to paddle us backwards so the punter could wrench it free. I had a chance to do a fair bit of punting and nobody fell in. I can now wear my “We Punt” shirt with pride.

Tomorrow night is the Pembroke June Event, and I’m thinking I should sleep in in preparation, since I’ll be up past dawn.

A walk

I was still hungry after dinner, and as night fell I went out for a walk, in search of a snack. I wandered down toward the center of Cambridge, checking every store along the way. None were open, and as I walked the purpose of the trip began to shift, until it was much more about soaking up a last few drops of my environment before I leave Friday morning than about finding food. I did eventually locate a Subway that would be open for another fifteen minutes, where I bought three excellent cookies for a pound before heading back. On the way back I saw the grand finale of Trinity’s May Ball fireworks reflected in a store window.

I’m going to miss Cambridge, even though I’ve spent most of the year ranting about what a terrible place it is to get an education. What’s the opposite of “the grass is always greener…”?

Last performance

Today was Cadenza’s final performance. We sang at the Chaplaincy garden party for a local church, hosted at what turned out to be a Dominican priory. We were completely unprofessional, with no silence between songs, a million notes played before each song starts, and an instant round of audible self-criticism after every song. The audiences was appreciative nonetheless, and when we’d finished one of the nuns politely asked me how I made “such unusual noises”, i.e. vocal percussion.

We walked from the party to a local Italian restaurant for dinner, where I had completely unsatisfying bland pasta (it looked great on the menu).

Sunday, sunday, sunday

Yesterday was Suicide Sunday. Tom had mentioned the night before that he’d heard about a Magdalene garden party, supposedly somewhere near the Trinity Hall Fields, and in the morning we went off in search of it.

There was nothing even remotely like a garden party going on in the area, and so we walked back, confused and disappointed. We called the Magdalene porters’ lodge to see if they knew where it was, and they directed us to the Trinity Old Fields. As ‘old’ and ‘hall’ sound almost identical in British, I do believe that I have located the source of the confusion. So we walked down to the Trinity Old Fields, where there was a small mob showing or buying tickets (£10 each), most in the face-paint or garish tie of a drinking society.

Inside the fence was a party, covering perhaps an acre of open playing field. It was already madness when we arrived at 11:30 AM, and it would be mayhem by the time we left two hours later. I have been told that there were over 2000 partygoers. The entrance was a row of folding tables serving as a bar, with scattered boxes of snacks and a few huge tubs of punch. I grabbed a bottle of “lemonade” (i.e. off-brand diet sprite) and we started to wander the field. At one edge was an incredibly long line for an ice cream stand, and along the back was a string of shade tents, each crowded with people. We sat down at the edge of one such patch of shade filled with Fitz people, listening to the drummers in the middle of the field and speculating on the purpose of a few conspicuous items.

There were three especially puzzling items in the field. The first was a pair of seats, hooked up to an elaborate wooden structure with funnels and tubes, and a bucket nearby. The purpose of this contraption quickly became clear: two people would sit down, one in each chair, and place the tubes in their mouths. The funnels would be filled with alcohol from the bucket, and the chairs tilted back suddenly. The chair backs were connected to the funnels by a pulley system, so tilting them back raised the funnels and filled the tubes, which both contestants attempted to drain as quickly as possible. The clear tubes allowed the operator to judge the winner of each race.

A second contraption was built like a tripod, with four tubes connected to a single bucket suspended above the drinkers. I am still not clear as to the purpose of this device, but it seems to be the collaborative counterpoint to a competitive drinking race. The third construction was initially the most confusing: a large wading pool, with what appeared to be a makeshift lifeguard platform nearby. Half an hour after our arrival, the pool was filled with about four inches of “jelly”, i.e. Jell-O, and we followed the crowd that surrounded the pool.

As it turned out, the pool was the stage for an event known as “jelly wrestling”, which appears to be a rough equivalent of the American Mud Wrestling tradition. Both events function similarly, with two or more volunteer girls in string bikinis rolling around in filth to the enjoyment of onlookers. However the English seem to have taken this one step further, and the goal of jelly wrestling appears to be to remove your opponent’s clothes, with standard wrestling techniques being merely a means to that end.

I have great difficulty judging drunkenness, but I am assured by friends much better versed in Cambridge culture than I that these girls are usually completely smashed, which might explain why:

  • They were generally unsuccessful, with rounds being terminated by a judge (seated on the aforementioned lifeguard-looking tower) with all contestants still clothed.
  • They appeared quite blank, when I would have expected more enthusiasm (since they had volunteered for it in the first place, and perhaps even prepared in advance by wearing bathing suits).

Tom and I left the party at 1:30 for lunch, after which I dashed off to sing at the Cambridge Channel Challenge (CCC) garden party.

The CCC is a leukemia fundraiser, in which (this morning) six crew raced across the English Channel. Their garden party was part of the fundraiser, as well as a chance for their celebrity guest, a man who had rowed across the Atlantic and Pacific solo, to tell some incredible tales. The party was the picture of genteel relaxation, with a bar serving Pimm’s (a popular alcoholic punch) and orange juice, well-dressed guests chatting politely in the shade, and of course, Cadenza singing a few songs for entertainment. We left the party at about 4:30, when I called up Haibo. We went for dinner at Caffe Uno, then watched a movie Sherry had lent to me.

Today I’m returning the backpack I borrowed for the hitchhike to Morocco, then performing at another garden party with Cadenza, then going to for dinner with the vouchers we were given in payment for yesterday’s garden party.

So many happenings

Last night was the boat club dinner. It was definitely fun, but there isn’t much to say about it, really.

Today I’m going to the Wyverns garden party, then performing at the Cambridge Channel Challenge charity fundraiser in St. John’s. I suspect the Wyverns are an a cappella group from Magdalene, but that’s just a hunch. The Cambridge Channel Challenge is a Cambridge vs. Oxford rowing eights race across the English Channel, and is a fundraiser for leukemia research.

I keep forgetting to mention that I spent most of the day Friday in a recording studio. Cadenza was helping to shake down a new studio, and in the process get free recordings out. It’s probably good that it was free, as the system really was pretty experimental, and at one point a computer crash erased 20 minutes of work, which we then had to rerecord. Eventually, I should get some recordings out that I can post up here for you to find out what I sound like.

More Bump!

We bumped the crew in front of us, for a total gain of two spaces this year. Today was incredibly warm and sunny, and I put on plenty of sunscreen before we set out for the race. The number of people we rowed by on the way down was extraordinary, amounting to a solid wall of humanity covering a substantial fraction of the racecourse, all celebrating one of England’s three days of summer per year by wearing as little clothing as legal.

The race itself was pretty quick; in fact, we bumped Trinity Hall III before we came into view of Billy Field where our college’s students and alumni watch the race, so they never got to see us race. We tried to slow down a little to prolong it, but gambles like that are very difficult to make in Bumps.

After the race I cycled through the masses to Billy Field to hang out with students and watch the races, then biked back to college, showered, and will be heading off to Boat Club Dinner in just a few minutes. Despite having applied sunscreen twice, I still feel burnt, probably because I sweated it right off. In a summer boat race, sunburn is unavoidable.

More bumps news

We rowed over yesterday. The crew two in front of us was much slower than the crew one in front of us, so that pair bumped and moved off to the side before we had a chance to catch them. We were faster than the next crew ahead of them, but not enough faster to close such a large gap. We were also faster than the crew behind us. Thus, we rowed the entire course without incident.

It’s been quite hot and humid here. I can’t give exact numbers, and I’m sure it will be far worse in Boston, but last night I slept well with just myself and the sheets. Unfortunately, English windows don’t have bug screens, so leaving one’s window open and the light on at night is problematic