I am not quite sure what it is, but I get asked for directions often in Cambridge. Perhaps because I look deceptively trustworthy, with a rapidly developing winter beard and “space-cadet” jacket complete with nerdy flag patch (my dad’s boss was a space tourist), or maybe because I still retain the very American habit of smiling for no apparent reason and looking people in the eye when they approach me, usually looking quite confused; for whatever reason, however, I get queried every few days.
“Where am I?” or “Where is such-and-such?” or “Where is the river?” are common questions. Since my college’s neighborhood (Newnham) is on the western edge of town, it tends to collect lost fellow foreigners, or, what is more amusing, lost British tourists.
“Ah, well, you’re near Wolfson College,” I’ll usually begin, as that’s all I really know. This usually elicits an even more confused look. I go to one of the “lesser” colleges (as a taxi driver once reminded me), as I sometimes forget.
“Well, OK, you’re on the west side of the city,” I’ll quickly add. This brings some relief to face of the poor person I am attempting to help.
“Yes, but how do I reach (fill-in-the-blank) road?” they’ll ask again.
“Hmmm…” not wanting to admit that I don’t know where I am half the time, I’ll ask them a question, typically out of slight desperation, but with a firm and commanding voice as I stroke my nascent chin hair: “Ah … is it near anything? A notable landmark, perchance?” (OK, so I may not say “perchance,” but I am definitely thinking it).
Well, of course it’s near something, as you might imagine, namely, the something they want to find, which they remind me, sometimes looking over to their fellow passengers or driver in suspicious annoyance, if they’re in a car (as if to ask, “does this dumb American know where the hell he even is?”).
Seeing this sudden twinge of skepticism, I will typically hasten to add something like, “ah, yes, but of course, that road …” at which their countenances brighten (truthfully, I sometimes do know roughly where they want to go).
“Take two lefts and a right, at the moss-covered pub,” I’ll declare, pointing with a manly karate-chop with confidence, half-blinking, in the direction, more or less, of where they are trying to get (or “two rights and a left, at the fork in the road” but never “three lefts,” or “three rights,” as they’d know I was making it up for sure then).
At this point, they’ll toodle off, probably satisfied that they know more about where they are than I do, but perhaps, every once and a while, really knowing a bit more about where they want to go. I suspect that I have inadvertently caused more harm than good, and gotten people more lost than last year’s misplaced Easter eggs. But such are the nature of accidental adventures.
To borrow shamelessly from G.K. Chesterton, “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” As I’ve experienced them myself, in places as varied as parking lots, ferries, airports and English alleys, yes, he’s right. And as a certain Hobbit put it: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
Speaking of being swept, before work on Wednesday afternoon, I spontaneously opted to play the part of a tourist myself, and trekked out to the Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s College, and then the Wren Library at Trinity College, to look for a bit of “Pooh.”
There are signs warning tourists to stay away, unless you’ve paid an entrance fee. As a student, of course, you don’t have to worry about such things, but the best way to avoid being stopped by the vigilant porters (or, rather, the porter’s adjuncts, manning booths like unarmed guards, who invariably ask for your ID, to make sure you’re not a visitor who hasn’t coughed up the fee), is to look exasperated while muttering into a book as you march into the entrance to the college in question.
I managed to do so without fanfare on two occasions on that particular afternoon, with my pantomime aided by an increasing fever brought on by a head cold (probably my own fault, for stumbling around in the rain).
Anyway, I located the famous bridge, so named after an even more famous bridge of the same name in Venice, took the appropriately cheesy tourista shots, and sighed quickly on it (oh, the wonderful literalism of sighing on a sighing bridge: how often to you get to do that? perhaps not the best logic, I’ll admit, to inspire yourself to do things, but even still). The original bridge was supposedly the last thing that prisoners saw before they went to jail (or, more melodramatically, were executed, or so Byron thought when he imagined the sad name in his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (published in the 1810s) from the fourth canto:
“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, thron’d on her hundred isles!”
Ah, alas, no one is executed in Cambridge these days, except for those who dare to walk on the grass uninvited, or worse yet, those who don’t vacate the tea room in the library on time … I’m just kidding, of course … I hope.
I next meandered back to Trinity, where hapless half-lost grad student that I am, I had failed to find the Wren Library earlier. The Wren contains lots of old and priceless things, including copies of old bits of the Bible and Shakespeare, and notes from Milton and Newton (along with some of the latter’s hair and walking-stick collection … oh yes, this is Cambridge, they like old things here); the reason they have lots of these things to begin with is because some of these men went to Trinity (though not the Bard).
Despite my addled mind, I did finally manage to find the library. There were only a few minutes left until it closed (it only being open from 12-2 each day), so I had to move quickly to find what I was looking for: their manuscript copy of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh,” which is quite unique to the library.
I found it and even managed to snap a slightly illegal photo of the document(s) in question before leaving. By this point, I was verging on the delirious, and thus retreated, not wanting to experience any truly inconvenient inconveniences (I wouldn’t want to test my theory of the Bridge of Sighs being only a symbolic last sight, and not a literal site of execution for grass-walkers, tea-room loiterers or Pooh photographers …). I hope to keep you posted, as it were, on these sorts of adventures as they develop; in the meantime, have a good weekend, and good night from England.