Last weekend, I was a bad MML student. I went home. What’s worse, I couldn’t wait: I couldn’t think about anything else for two weeks beforehand, and I almost broke into a rousing chorus of Rule Britannia as the plane touched down at Heathrow. I don’t think I’ve looked forward to anything so much since Moving-In Day for my first term at Cambridge.
These introductory sentences are undoubtedly quite revelatory as far as is concerned the sort of person I am. Oxbridge-centric, I am unable to cope with life outside of The Bubble. The very act of alluding to the Oxbridge environment as if it were some vast protective soap sud, under the shelter of which one can reside and read books without the worry of such grown-up concerns as taxes or cooking, is telling in itself: suddenly my bubble now has burst, and I’ve found myself struggling to remain afloat in this new culture, so far removed from Chapel Choir, gowns and candlelit three-course dinners. The only feasible course of action for me, clearly, was to swan brainlessly, predictably, arrogantly back to that flat and windy cluster of colleges that I’ve come to call home, with the hope that people would be pleased to see me. Because of course, as an Oxbridge student, I know that I’ll never find another place of learning quite like the one I’ve temporarily forsaken.
I swung by London and home home before I descended on Cambridge (I know, my self-restraint is admirable). Four months doesn’t feel like that long a time, but it’s the longest I’ve ever been continually away from my family and as a result, Grantham was positively beautiful when I stepped off the train. It was as if the boredom, misery and discontent of an entire town had miraculously vanished to commemorate my return. I had the best two nights’ sleep in four months, probably due to my sleeping on something other than an air mattress, or else a bed so hard that it probably ought to join a gang. It’s as if it has some sort of small-mattress syndrome: four inches shorter than my previous one, it feels the need to compensate by being super tough. It’s such a shame that lad culture is so prevalent nowadays that even items of furniture can’t escape.
I’m sure that most beds haven’t really contemplated the insecure phallic pressure that is most probably not weighing them down, but still, wannabe Alpha-Bed at the ENS could learn a thing or two from my bed at home: sometimes, being as hard as nails can just make you into a bit of a pain in the neck, arse, and various body parts. My two nights at home cured four months of back pain that was starting to become debilitating.
I just lost track of where I was. Whoever lives downstairs from me is playing the most amazing classical guitar music. So far we’ve had Jeux interdits, the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and even The Entertainer. I feel very honoured, and also slightly insecure, given that if I can hear this person’s guitar music, they can probably hear me wailing S Club 7. Ah well – it at least makes a change from whoever hammers out the same offensively loud rendition of Chopin’s Polonaise No. 6 in the piano room at the bottom of my building. I hear it almost every day, and it makes me want to become the hulk and throw said piano and its torturer into the Sun!
Musical side-tracking aside, I had two wonderful nights’ sleep. Perhaps I am exaggerating the seemingly Elysian nature of my repose, but if this is the case it is indeed only because the rest of my forty-eight hours in Lincolnshire were so agreeable: it was crisp and cold, but not wet, I had tea and cake in some villagey tearooms (I honestly think the Cakehole in Barrowby is one of the things I miss most about the East Midlands), watched The Hobbit, squeezed in a curry and saw my family. God I miss them. Apologies for being soppy, but it’s not until you’re sat on the sofa at home with your Mum and Dad and brothers that you realise that a phone call doesn’t really cut the mustard. I suspect that this sentence must have been written by circa one billion Year-Abroad students already, but it’s probably because it’s true.
When the time came for me to head to Cambridge, I was of course excited but filled with a reasonable amount of sadness at the prospect of quitting my family again after such a short time. I was also quite sad that I’d managed to get on the train without packing my phone charger, but if I’d said that first you’d have got all righteous about me being so materialistic. Maybe I should have left it out. Whatever. The English countryside is beautiful: it’s not mountains or vast, shimmering lakes, but sometimes miles upon miles of black-soil fields, dykes and endless sky with iron clouds is surprisingly charming, especially when a just a few miles before, the scene viewed from the train window was one of gentle hills among which nestle huddles of pretty little cottages.
Cambridge hadn’t changed much. It was still wet and cold, as is its wont in November, but arriving essentially as a tourist (God forbid), I found myself looking at it differently. For example, I had no idea why it was suddenly Christmas: John Lewis had its dangly lights display, every shop was playing Christmas music, and I finished one evening of my stay there romping round a half-empty college bop, surrounded by freshers I didn’t know, drinking something called “Sex on the Sleigh” whilst bawling the Fairytale of New York. Apart from the butt-plug Christmas tree that emerged and promptly disappeared again in Paris, and Starbucks, who insist on throwing Gingerbread Latte all over you as soon as Hallowe’en is over, France, and more particularly Lyon at least, doesn’t seem to join Mary quite so zealously on the back of that commercial donkey that is Christmas in the UK. It is only now, as we stand on the threshold of December, that things are starting to look (tastefully) festive.
I don’t think I like Christmas that much anymore. I’m not particularly Christian, so I’ve never been drawn in by the religious aspect of this time of year (if indeed there is anything left of that), and I never know what I want from Santa, so presents aren’t a big motivator either. You’d think that I could at least look forward to spending time with my family for a few days of chilling out and eating too much, but apparently even that is off the cards now: my brother works at NEXT, and as such, he is required to work both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. Apparently it’s impossible to get leave over the Christmas period, and consequently he’ll be tied up at work when it would have been great to see him. Seemingly, people nowadays balk at the idea of having to wait any longer than twelve hours to rush into the shops in a flurry of disgusting ingratitude, returning all the things that they didn’t want. I don’t understand why they don’t all just ask for a stocking full of money! But then again, I suppose they would still be sat bored on Christmas day, that “happiest time of the year”, whiling away all those intolerable hours that they have to socialise and enjoy each other’s company (sounds horrible, doesn’t it), until the next day when they can go and manifest their self-centredness in material purchases.
Of course, I occasionally take presents back if they’re not what I want, or pass them on as a present to someone else, but I like to think that I don’t disrespect the person who took the time to buy me the gift in the first place enough to get rid of what they gave me as soon as the shops open again. People just want everything NOW, and it’s quite sad to watch. Writing the word Christmas makes me feel physically ill, and I can’t even talk about the “time of year” this time of year without feeling horribly cliché. Perhaps we should rename the whole concept of being disappointed with presents on the 25th December, because it isn’t Christmas any more. This isn’t me getting on my ecclesiastical high horse, because, as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t have strong Christian tendencies; I would just rather reduce the awkwardness I feel about commandeering a religious festival in the name of gratuitous present-buying. Maybe we could call it “Present Day,” in the same way that the 5th November is now often called “Fireworks Night.” It would still coincide with the first day of Christmas, but just would be separate, out of reverence and respect for something that was never meant to be about a living room full of wrapping paper.
I’m sure a lot of other people have had the same moan as me about this whole issue, but it is the fault of NEXT, then their customers, and then society. I’m going to form my own perfect society when I graduate. Yep, that’s right, I’m gonna take my knowledge of horny medieval nuns, my average-to-poor French skills and even worse Spanish, and abolish Christmas. Don’t even try to stop me.
When I wasn’t christmassing it up at Bar Extension, I managed to see a good deal of friends, and it was brilliant. I only regret that I hadn’t had more time to see more people. I had two lovely formal halls, and one of my friends was even kind enough to let me steal her room for the weekend. It was all too easy to forget that even though it was coming to the end of the Cambridge term, all my friends still had lots of work. At the ENS, I’m required to validate 30 credits’ worth of classes in the whole year (in comparison, normal students here have to validate 60), I have one class per day, and I can cheat the system. With my FLE (Français comme langue étrangère) classes, beginners’ Arabic and Latin, I already have 25 credits, and that’s only this semester. I’ve never had so little work to do, and I certainly don’t envy the days where I my weekly workload averaged out as 1 ½ essays, 2 translations, endless grammar exercises, 2 commentaries on either articles or film passages, and preparation of material for oral classes, plus singing in chapel services two nights per week and rehearsals for various shows. Thinking about that now, sat in France, where I can’t even motivate myself to write a four-page short story, has me on the edge of panicking. I can’t believe that I thought that that amount of work was normal for a university student. Perhaps it is, but it certainly is no wonder that institutions such as Cambridge have such poor records of mental health among their student bodies. I feel a bit naughty throwing in such a blasé, fleeting reference to something which is a really big problem, but I suppose in a way it is testament to the problem’s seriousness that it can even find its way into blog posts of students that are lucky enough to escape that environment for a year. Sure, we might all get dressed up and get drunk at lavish balls for one week at the end of exam term, but this is only provided that you can survive the ordeal that is the rest of the year. It is wonderful to be away from Cambridge in this respect, even though I miss my friends and, to a certain extent, the place. Since I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve ever felt guilty about not working hard every hour of the day. I’ve occasionally done all-nighters to get assignments done, but this is more because I find it easier to work for long periods alone without distraction to finish a job, rather than out of their necessity due to several simultaneous deadlines which I would not otherwise meet. I suppose I could resolve the problem of having no time to do my work by giving up certain extra-curricular activities, but I know that if I just had my degree and nothing else, I would go crazy.
Anyway, Monday arrived to mark the end of my brief sojourn back to the Motherland, and I must admit that when I had to catch the National Express to London Luton at eight in the morning, I was feeling quite low. Now that I’ve been back for a week, I realise that it wasn’t the prospect of coming back to my life in Lyon that made me sad, but more the leaving-behind of lots of other aspects of my life. I suppose I have always had a problem with attachment, given that I find it hard to even throw away shopping receipts, or exercise books from primary school, kidding myself that I might one day need them again. I guess this is something I’m going to have to learn to deal with if I don’t want to become a clinical hoarder, but I suppose it’s good that I’ve clocked it now, so I can be less hard on myself for being so pathetic when I feel homesick. I guess I’ll just have to keep having fun here, and it’ll soon resolve itself! Next weekend is the Fête des Lumières, one of the highlights of the year in Lyon. I’m guessing it’s about light and stuff, but I honestly don’t know much more than that. It’s supposed to be good, so undoubtedly I shall be mentioning it at some point soon.