Parent's Visit

Parent’s Visit, Days 1 and 2: Cambridge

My parents had arrived the night before from Australia, and their experience thus far of England and Cambridge was a disorientated mess of dark streets, the Darwin porter’s lodge and their college room. Now it was time for them to begin exploring.

Lacking an alternative communications mechanism, we arranged to meet the old fashioned way: set a time and be there. So in the morning, we met in the college gardens, to which their room overlooked. For me, the gardens are now a mundane thing that I walk through most days, but for them it was a fascinating new world of plants and buildings, so we had to go and explore a little (including out to the two islands).

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We had breakfast in the college dining halls. Being the end of term, the dining hall would be closing for Christmas very soon and I wanted to give them as much experience of that as I could. In the end, I think I overwhelmed them a little with all of the options they could have and the procedure that must be followed in order to end up with one’s breakfast.

We would spend the entire day in Cambridge. For the average tourist, there are many things to see in the city, but naturally family wants to get an appreciation for where you spend most of your time. So I showed them around the familiar locales, starting with the rest of the college and my dormitory, watching them marvel at my new lifestyle.

Next, we took a trip into town with the aim to wander a bit. The first cultural experience was to visit the post office; a friend of Dad had given us some cards to post, so we had to buy and figure out English stamps. We also visited the bank to exchange some money. From there, we meandered our way through the market square, around the frontages of the old central colleges and into some of the more unique or unusual shops that I like around Cambridge. Being near to Christmas, we also stopped to listen to some of the choristers around too.

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Of the old colleges, the one we did go inside was King’s, particularly to see the chapel. Here, we made full use of my status as a member of the university to waive the tourist admission fee, and wandered through the ancient building. Despite it’s history, the thing that most amazed Dad was the high vaulted ceiling.

Our next activity was probably the most quintessential Cambridge tourist experience: punting. Being winter, the Darwin College punts were locked away in storage, so we had to hire a punt from one of the companies on Silver Street. We went downstream, as I tried to recount the several dubious stories that the commercial punt guides tell to all of the tourists about each of the colleges. We shared around the punting pole. Dad got the hang of it quickly, but during the change-over with Mum, we careered into a willow tree, and she couldn’t quite get the hang of steering. On the way back upstream, I mistimed a push near a bridge, and couldn’t get the top of the pole low enough to avoid losing it as we floated underneath. We managed to recover it, and nobody fell in.

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After a quick look around the nearby Gates Scholar’s room, we went out for coffee and hot chocolate. The early sunset combined with jet lag really took my parents by surprise, and it was with tired eyes that we went out one of the nearby pubs for dinner. Still, we had one more engagement to come: I had booked tickets to a recital of Handel’s Messiah in St John’s College. Now it may seem cruel given their jet lag, but it was something they had agreed to before they left. We walked in, ticketless. I had ordered the tickets to arrive in the post, but they hadn’t arrived in time. The organisation of the troupe in managing everyone to their seats and checking tickets was poor. In the end, we took our seats at the front of the antechamber; a fair way from the action, but being music, seeing isn’t everything. A couple of other Gates Scholars were in attendance too, they were seated a little way behind us. The combination of their weariness, soft music and the dimly lit room meant that we all, myself included, struggled through it. As ever the Hallelujah chorus was magnificent, reverberating around the chapel in a mystical way.

The next day, we set out to see some of the other parts of my life in Cambridge. This meant walking out to the Cavendish Laboratory (we didn’t have enough bikes for all three of us). Along the way, I pointed out various places I occasionally spent time, much to their delight. I showed them around to my office, but being a Sunday, that meant I had to find a door that had card access (the Cavendish is notoriously bad for after-hours access). They were fascinated to see where I worked, and browsed some of the notes and things I had lying around. We left via the Cavendish “museum” (a hallway of historical physics equipment) and headed back to the College.

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Being Sunday, I couldn’t help but take them to Darwin College’s Sunday Roast, the last for the year. On the menu was roast pork and roast turkey, which differs markedly from our typical Australian Sunday roasts of either beef, lamb or chicken. Another point of cultural difference was to point out the existence and correct manner of eating Yorkshire puddings (i.e. smother in gravy).

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That afternoon, we went out to the Fitzwilliam museum. I had not been before, so this was a new experience as well. Inside was a massive collection of art and historical artefacts. Most of the art was typical of old European art: portraits of historical figures, depictions of historical events or portrayals of the story of Jesus Christ. The exhibition that most caught our attention was the armoury. Here were stories beyond the romanticised depictions of the key figures of history.

That evening, we returned to my room to help my parents plan where they would go over the upcoming days. Not planning before a holiday isn’t something I’m that used to, but by the end of the evening, we had a plan of action.


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