May 23, 2009

I fell in love with Cambridge....

This remarkable city with its centuries old churches, cathedrals, colleges, homes, and traditions, seems vibrant and cold at the same time... very, very old, yet modern.... crowded and noisey, and yet spacious and serene. It is a city of enticing contrasts.

It is also a city frustratingly difficult in which to find one's way, with it's winding, narrow streets, round-abouts, and cars parked either direction on both sides; motorcyclists who can pass anyone, anywhere at anytime, and double-decker busses that seem intent on hunting down pedestrians, rather than transporting them. Driving on the "wrong" side of the street is bewildering, if not dangerous. And bicyclists darting in and out of traffic add to the dangerous bewilderment.

It is a city of varied ethnicities. Our bed and breakfast host, Gregor, is from Krakow, Poland. Alex, who guided our punt down the River Cam, is originally from Ireland and graduated from Cambridge. The young man who prepared my sandwich at Subway is from Romania. We also met an exceedingly friendly lady from Australia, and children touring from France, who delighted in practicing, "Hello; how are you?" "How are you?" I responded to one particularly adorable middle school girl; she giggled as she replied, "I am French!"

It is also a city of British. The electrician, who fixed the broken heating system at our B&B, has lived in Cambridge all his life. To him, this gorgeous city is just home. He was a bit rough around the edges, but most of the British we met were polite and only slightly reserved in their friendliness. I would actually say they were "warm." They preferred to be addressed, rather than just spoken to, i.e., it was best to say "Excuse me," instead of just talking at them.

All around us, the British were speaking an English different from my own, in accent, and in specific words: what we call drug store is "the chemist," and our doctor's office is "surgery." (This one really threw me: when Brett developed a chest cold, our host suggested we take him to "surgery, just down the road," and brought his own supply of medicine for his "chesty cough." Surgery sounded a little radical to me, until we figured out it was simply the doctor's office.) Other British-isms include: "pop out," when someone steps out of the building for a moment or two; "mind the step" or "mind your head" mean to watch where you're going. A carry out box is a "take away box." They go on "holiday," not vacation, and drive on the "motorway," not the "highway." I would love to live in Cambridge for a year just to enjoy their version of English.

This is a city steeped in religiosity, with colleges named Jesus, Trinity, Christ, St. John's, and Magdalene. Jesus also has his own lane and a lock; Trinity has its own lane and street; and Magdalene has a bridge and street! There are numerous churches: Church of St. Mary the Less, Great St. Mary's Church, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and All Saints Church (these saints also have their own gardens and passage). Oh, yes, and St. Peter has his own terrace. It seems sac-religious rather than truly spiritual. We attended church Sunday morning at St. John's Chapel, a beautiful cathedral complete with angels disguised as a boys' choir. We knelt, sat, stood, read, sang, and listened, trying to follow the liturgy and traditions. All the while, God seemed very far away, and I was tempted to ask out loud, "Are You here?" I reminded myself that my feelings do not define reality; God was, indeed present.

I love this city, with its unique street names: King, Castle, Bridge and Market,as well as Trumpington, Bath, Lambourn Close, Mill and Shelford Road (where we stayed). I loved shopping with pounds and pence and fivers. I absolutely loved snuggling under my own duvet at night, and having hot hard-boiled eggs for breakfast, along with toast, and of course, tea! I loved watching old men and old women riding bicycles with their baskets filled with treasures, as well as university students hurrying to formal dinner in their robes. Most of all, I loved punting down the River Cam.

And so, I fell in love with this city of contrasts, this ancient, modern, peculiar, stunningly beautiful, eclectic, religious, secular city.

Visiting Brett's Cambridge

Seeing Cambridge through Brett's eyes was truly a gift. He plans to defend his dissertation in September, receiving his doctorate in linguistics. It seems surreal. He lived there two years; our trip lasted only 5 days. He showed us everything special to him, and I took pictures of all that and more. A few times, he gently said, "Mom, put your camera away; you can't take pictures here." The university has rules about photographs and who can be in certain places, and even about who can walk on which grassy areas.
I sensed the whole time that I could easily live there, and live just to take pictures! I felt overwhelmed by the creative possibilities. So little time; so many photographs! I actually felt greedy; I wanted to capture it all and hold the beauty tightly. I learned something about grasping and about letting go; about coveting and conversely, being content. The beauty of this very old city has already been well documented, but I wanted to capture it, just for the sheer joy of doing so. Our camera served me well, and I did, indeed capture some of the beauty of Cambridge. Mission accomplished. Some photos turned out well; a few had to be discarded; and some are quite remarkable in capturing what really was visible.... these I consider my "accidental photography." I wonder if heaven will feel overwhelming in its beauty and scope; I wonder if we will patiently explore or greedily try to soak it all in at once. And I wonder what will take the place of my camera in heaven?

Cambridge and Heaven

Our brief time in Cambridge gave me a glimpse into Heaven. Cambridge has a beauty that is overwhelming, and I couldn't help but wonder if Heaven will be even more overwhelming in its beauty. But then, perhaps we won't overwhelmed at all, because that carries with it a sense of frustration.... and I really can't imagine being frustrated by anything in Heaven.

There are gates everywhere in Cambridge; visitors and tourists are not allowed beyond these gates without being with the right person. When we first arrived at King's College, Brett told the porter (guard) at the gate, that he wanted to see his advisor, a professor in that college. He showed him his Cambridge identification, and the porter allowed us in. I was struck by the fact that we didn't get in on our own merit, but on Brett's. It also intrigued me that Brett was only allowed in because he knew the name of his advisor and asked to see him. If we had gone without Brett, we would have been turned away. And if Brett had simply asked to get in as a student of Trinity, not King's College, he also would have been turned away. When we get to heaven, I wonder if we will stand at the gate and ask to see Jesus. Actually, I wonder if it will be Jesus, Himself, who will meet us and welcome us in.

The pleasure visiting Cambridge brought me is almost indescribable, although I have tried. I carry in my mind images and experiences that were worth every penny (pound) we spent. And I suspect I shall happily think about this trip for the rest of my life. Yet, as lasting as these memories will be, they are just part of my very temporal life on this earth. There is, I believe, a greater purpose, and I am reminded of John Piper's words, "This, then, is the point of all pleasure.... Pleasure says, 'God is like this, only better; do not make an idol of me; I simply point.'" And so, my experience of Cambridge was not an end in itself, but a means to an end; it points me to God, the Giver of all that is good on this earth, and the One who invites me to experience Him forever.... now THAT will be Heaven.