Thursday, October 30, 2014

a longing for the picturesque

July 19th, 2014 | Cambridge, UK 
Light rain was falling when our train pulled in to the Cambridge station Saturday morning, and it was a welcome respite from the heat spell in London that week. I'd been up late the night before at a party on the Thames celebrating the end of mid-session exams and somehow managed to pull myself out of bed early that morning to take a day trip out to Cambridge. Like most of the weekend trips my friends and I ended up taking, we didn't have any set itinerary or definite plans: just maps on our smartphones and a few quid in our pockets. 

We wandered our way through the Fitzwilliam Museum that morning trying to find Scudamore's Punting, and afterwards had lunch (cream tea for me) at Fitzbillies before finally making it out to the riverfront. My friends and I opted to rent our own punt instead of taking the tour, and we spent the better part of our afternoon making our way up and then back down the River Cam. 

I luxuriated in being able to laze beneath my friend's daisy-print umbrella trying to block out the relentless rays of sunshine that had only just broken through the clouds a couple hours ago. If I closed my eyes, I could almost picture what it was like to be a student at one of the colleges we saw along the banks of the Cam river, reading beneath the willow trees on midsummer afternoons like this. Being at Cambridge reminded me of one of my favorite lines from Gattaca: "I never knew how far away I was from my goal than when I was standing right beside it."

I'll let you in on a little secret: studying at Cambridge was the dream I'd been nursing since my first month of college after speaking with a representative from Pembroke about a new semester-long exchange program at the study abroad fair. I longed for the neat lawns and great halls depicted in the flyer I took home with me that day and began to concoct a new series of daydreams. I knew I loved Berkeley, but the thought that I would be spending all four years here at such a large public university suddenly felt too restricting. I convinced myself that I needed more out of my undergraduate education: more precisely, I thought I needed that insubstantial, picturesque set of liberal arts college memories—the kind characters in novels reflect upon with nostalgia: the crunch of my boots on fresh snow walking across the quad, the intimate literature classes in rooms with thick windows and no more than a dozen students, the formals with white wine and dim lights. 

For a while last fall I really believed I would find a way to spend my spring semester junior year studying at Cambridge, and it was an ambition that constantly lingered in the back of my mind. The combination of desire for invented nostalgia and escaping myself was, in a sense, my subconscious way of coping with figuring out my first year of college. I let some far-flung fantasy to reinvent myself again in a different world and environment carry me away because old habits die hard: deep down, I still didn't feel like I belonged at Berkeley, so I told myself that running away to somewhere else, somewhere even farther than 800 miles from home, was the next best thing.

I decided I wanted to study abroad at the London School of Economics some time last December in part because I couldn't wait until junior year to get out. I wanted to find my place like Tiffany's where me and things belong together, but some time between the day I submitted my application to LSE and today, I realized that maybe I didn't have to fly halfway around the world to learn to love where I already was. 

A few weeks ago I finally looked up the price of the program at Cambridge I had my sights set on and saw that a single semester would cost more than an entire year of out-of-state tuition at Berkeley. It hit me hard: I'd been working towards this for so long I forgot that the odds of going back for that semester by the river were stacked against me. The dreams of studying a semester classics and modern western European history at an institution with one of the richest legacies and most renowned curriculum were shattered; that fairy tale was over, and I probably won't be crossing the pond again to study anytime soon.

When I look back at that day in Cambridge I think about how close I thought I'd been to where I thought I wanted to be, but maybe it didn't have to be bittersweet. The city was so lovely at sunset when my Californian friends and I wandered the streets on our way back to the train station; the pink warmth reflecting off of the clouds bathed the town in a rosy hue, and I was satisfied with just photographs and memories. 

xoxo, vivian

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