Campus Life vivian’s reflections

Visiting the Other Cambridge

the English counterpart is growing on me

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The New Court in St. John’s College, Cambridge University.
Vivian Hir–The Tech
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The River Cam on a cloudy day.
Vivian Hir–The Tech
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Trinity Street on January 5th, 2024.
Vivian Hir–The Tech

For the last few days of winter break before GTL Italy, I spent three nights alone in Cambridge, UK. Prior to Cambridge, my family was in London for vacation. My first day was uneventful as I arrived in the afternoon and took a 2-hour nap until 4:30 p.m. It was a rainy Thursday night and students were on break, which made the city feel empty and quiet. I wasn’t in the mood to walk around Cambridge, so I had a small meal at Caffe Nero and browsed through books at Waterstones until it closed at 7 p.m.  

It wasn’t until the second day that I started exploring Cambridge on foot. When it comes to traveling, I usually make itineraries so detailed that I mark down what to do for each hour. I like the certainty my plans provide me, giving my day structure. 

This time, however, I didn’t have the motivation to plan. Looking back, the way I planned things felt a bit overbearing at times, as if I had to control the course of my day and not let things veer off in another path. Instead, I decided to explore the city with no clear destination and let the windy streets of Cambridge take me to random places. 

Choosing spontaneity over structure ended up being a wonderful decision. I started the morning by walking along Hills Road, which reminded me of Mass Ave. Although there were many buses, I chose to walk because it would force me to slow down and observe my surroundings. After walking for about 25 minutes, I finally reached Market Square, a large plaza with outdoor stalls. 

I wasn’t sure where to go next, and my cluelessness caught the attention of the person at the information booth. Having someone welcome me to this unfamiliar place was pleasant, as my first night in Cambridge felt lonely. He introduced me to the various residential colleges that dotted the city, circling major ones and scribbling information for each on the map. Being an old-fashioned person, I used the paper map to guide me for the next two days, making sure that I visited the recommended places. 

I wasn’t able to enter all the main residential colleges because some were closed to tourists or were undergoing renovations, but I was happy that I got to visit St. John’s and walk past some colleges like Trinity and King’s. Similarly, I didn’t visit all the museums in Cambridge, but I did get to tour the magnificent Fitzwilliam Museum. 

Throughout my stay, I couldn’t help but compare the two Cambridges, taking mental notes of specific details I liked about this place. I found it amusing that both are famous college towns that share the same name while having significant differences in various aspects. Overall, exploring Cambridge was an enriching experience because of its unparalleled scholarly and historical atmosphere. 

Although Cambridge, MA is called the “Athens of America,” I must admit that the awe I felt in Cambridge, UK was on a completely different level. And I say this as an MIT student. Don’t get me wrong; I love where MIT is situated because of the Charles River, the diverse range of shops and restaurants in Central Square, and the high concentration of life science companies in Kendall Square. But there’s something about this 800-year-old city that immediately drew me in, from the college’s stunning architecture to the narrow, cobbled streets. 

Visiting Cambridge University has humbled my perception of MIT’s campus. Sure, we have the iconic dome on Killian Court and impressive glass buildings like the Media Lab, but we also have some buildings that aren’t aesthetically pleasing. I don’t think I need to explicitly name which buildings fall under this category. 

On the other hand, St. John’s College in Cambridge took my breath away for its majestic layout and spacious lawns. As I admired the New Court from a distance, I finally understood what my friend meant when he said, “I am in the wrong Cambridge.” I know this description is overused, but St. John’s was the closest thing to a real-life Hogwarts.

In regard to the other university in Cambridge, MA, I don’t need to elaborate. The red brick buildings have a quintessential New England feel, but they are nowhere as impressive as Cambridge’s. As for the yard, it is just a small green space dotted with buildings. In this respect, Cambridge University reduces Harvard and MIT to rubble. 

Besides the impressive campus, I loved wandering the streets and alleys of Cambridge, UK. Although Cambridge is an old city, the stores have a nice balance of contrasting themes: modern and old, international and local. I liked how charming and quaint the City Centre was on Friday, the streets empty and peaceful. Saturday was much more crowded, but it was delightful to hear people around me chattering in British accents; they added some level of culture and sophistication to the air. I enjoyed window shopping for hours on end, looking at the unique displays each store offered, my favorite ones being the bookstores that I spent hours inside. 

Even though Cambridge is a mid-size city, I appreciated that the River Cam and the numerous parks made it feel quite rustic. The river itself is small, but the vast meadows offer a picturesque view. I wanted to punt on the river, but unfortunately, I couldn’t due to water levels being too high. Nevertheless, I still had a great time exploring the river on my Saturday run. 

In summary, the coexistence of Cambridge’s intellectual environment and idyllic nature fascinated me. 

Perhaps I romanticize Cambridge too much as someone who only spent three nights there and has very little knowledge of the place. Also, I visited during winter break, which means that what I saw wasn’t an entirely accurate representation of the city. Despite this, I can’t resist the urge. Maybe I am an American who is simply obsessed with the UK. 

My article would be incomplete without mentioning that my idealized perception of Cambridge may have to do with the fact that exploring Cambridge helped me get through a tough time. While being thousands of miles away from friends and family may not sound ideal when it comes to recovering emotionally, I am glad it happened when I was alone in an unfamiliar but beautiful place. Wandering a place with no clear direction was what I needed the most at that time — distracting my mind from my circular thoughts and focusing on the joys the present offered.