Last word from England – “serendipity”

King's at dusk on my last day

I’m home again!

Being of a nostalgic, sentimental inclination, as many of you know, I promise much more in the way of reflective thoughts on my last few crazy days in the UK, when, by the grace of God, I finished my Mphil, said goodbye to good friends, and ended on a very good note indeed. I am blessed, and grateful.

For now, however, I present my final word for The Cambridge Student, for the paper’s May Week issue, which you can find in PDF form here (on p. 16, in its old spot on the left-hand side), or below. I have to thank my forebearing and good-humoured editors, James Burton, and Anna Croall, for letting me repeatedly write such etymological speculations , especially with my Americanized spelling and silly questions.

The word itself is one I had meant to explore last fall (or, rather, autumn, as they call it over there), but had only got around to at nearly the last day I was in England. I hope to keep writing in this space, and either find a new home for my column, while reposting it here, or perhaps writing it just for this blog, if I cannot do that. I will keep you posted, however, as it were. Thanks for reading, during my year away!

But enough preambling:

“Have you ever “found” something when you were not really looking for it? Or met someone, perhaps an old friend, who you did not expect to see?

Such glad happenings are examples of “serendipity,” which the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) defines as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident [or] the fact or an instance of such a discovery.”

This nuanced word contains the idea of finding something you were not even searching for, or had given up on searching for, having lost it once before, and not knowing when you would see it again, if ever.

“Finding” anything without looking for it has a sort of fairy-tale quality. This is quite appropriate, considering that the OED credits the writer and antiquarian Horace Walpole (1717-1797) with finding it without really looking for it, in an ancient Indian fairy story, “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Incidentally, and not surprisingly, the word draws its origins from “Serendip,” an old name for Sri Lanka.

In it, three princes are sent by their father on a far journey to test their wisdom and fitness to rule. Along their way, they have many adventures, as princes in fairy tales are required to do.

In a letter to a diplomat-friend in 1754, Walpole describes “serendipity,” in its first recorded usage in English: “as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of,” such as how they could tell an awful lot about a camel (what it had for breakfast, what it was carrying, and other camel-related information) just by the way it had walked in the sand, judging by its tracks.

This “accidental sagacity,” as Walpole puts it, is worthy of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown or Lord Peter Wimsey. “For you must observe,” continues Walpole, “that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description.”

Indeed – finding what one is looking for can happen anytime – finding what you are not looking for, or have given up on finding again, now that is serendipity, or, perhaps, Providence.

I myself hope to be more of a “serendipitist,” and develop a keener sense of suspecting serendipity, and hope you do, too, now that term is finished and the summer well-nigh upon us. My MPhil also being done, this columnist will be heading home, back to Seattle in the United States, and to, he prays, more serendipity.

He is grateful to his friends back home and new friends here for letting him humor them with his etymologies, and wishes to thank his readers, for, well, reading. If you have any final word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to Until we meet again, take care!”


Visiting Oxford, and/or Other Places

a side-walk-footpath of a road in Oxford

I know I should be frantically freaking out at the moment, what with writing up coming to a frenzied conclusion, but by way of taking another “break,” it is high time that I toss up another post, to keep my mind from sputtering to a halt … .

A couple of weekends ago, I managed to get over to the Other Place, as we call it in Cambridge. I went by bus, and stowed by bike in its belly, as it were, for the longish trip (it is much closer to the west of England than Cambridge).

Now, I’d be warned about this particular bus trip.

“It’s rather a long one,” my English friends told me. “And there’s something on the order of 70 roundabouts along the way.” I wasn’t sure why it’d take so long, or why roundabouts in such numbers were such a bad thing. After all, back in the day, there had been a direct train that must have been delightfully convenient, and so how bad could a bus be? And crossing through roundabouts on one’s bike, while thrilling, certainly wasn’t arduous. I had yet again underestimated British understatement.

As Lewis says, the universe rings true whenever you fairly test it, and so I had to experience this journey for myself. It felt more like 70,000 roundabouts, each one plastering me to the window as I attempted to read (speaking of Lewis) Surprised by Joy (and quite a good read it is, if somewhat intense and convicting). ‘Surprised by Roundabouts,’ was more like it. Slightly dizzy, several hours later, however, I eventually hopped off the bus with my bike and found I was in a bustling city full of history, bigger than Cambridge, and even a tad older and majestic, i.e. in Oxford.

My first stop was a pub.

the pub of humility

Not because I had to get my pint or perish, per se, but because I am a nerd, or a geek, or perhaps both. My visit was to be a sort of Protestant pilgrimage (though, actually, perhaps, a merely Christian one) to see and be immersed in all things Lewis for a day. The pub in question being the Eagle and Child (the “Bird and the Baby”), where the Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien’s informal writing group, had once met around lunchtime on Mondays or Tuesdays (they also met in Lewis’ rooms in Magdalen College on Thursday evenings) for nearly 30 years, from about 1933 through to the start of the 1960s, to read and discuss their various writings projects. Tolkien reflected on their name, as “a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with vague or half-informed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.” Other Inklings included such towering twentieth-century literary figures as Charles Williams, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield and such “honorary” members (though there were hardly any rules) as Dorothy L. Sayers W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot (the latter three more indirectly associated).

For a wannabe’ historian, and under-informed and somewhat under-read Inkling fan (not to mention an American abroad, and thus prone to silly sentimentalizing), to be in the very same “Rabbit Room” that people I had long read and admired and hope to read and admire for a long time to come, was … strangely surreal.

And so I ordered a club sandwich.  Munching away, with an odd mix of pop music playing in the background, I felt a keen sort of pride, as I sipped on my lemonade (hey, it was a hot day, though by “lemonade” they really mean what we might call lemon-lime soda back home). Every few moments, an (American) tourist would stop and take a photo of the mantle, which had a signed note of thanks and health-wishing from the Inklings to the former owners of the pub.

“Is that where …?” and then a “Yes, dear, that’s where they met…” “… that’s SO cool,” would be followed by the click and whir of a digital camera.

My immediate seat-mates were British, a young couple with their in-laws, and I overheard them asking who the fifth most famous-est Inkling could be (rather like the fifth Beetle).

Very smugly, I must confess, and feeling like no mere tourist, I turned and declared, “you must be referring to Hugo Dyson,” to which unsolicited counsel my mess-mates were suitably impressed and thanked me.

They asked me where I was from, clearly coming across as a Man of the World (a very bad sort of man to be). “Cambridge,” I whispered, for even in my pride I knew that I was among rivals, who we had just trounced in the annual rowing regatta between the two universities.

“A spy?!” they whispered back, in a bit of wry teasing.

“Well, in a way,” managed to mutter back. As it turns out, the young fellow (who appeared to be the son-in-law of the older couple) had a very distant ancestor (though not so very distant for them) who had been a printer in eighteenth-century London, one of the sorts of figures I ostensibly study.

could I be? why yes, I am, a cheesy American

Anyway, I finished my lunch and marched outside (after getting the obligatory photograph, and saying a serene ‘fare-thee-well’ to my new British acquaintances), squinting in the sunlight. I came up to my bike, and to my great and utterly enforced humility, found I couldn’t quite find my bike lock’s key.

So there I was, my bicycle securely locked to a post, in Oxford, outside of Lewis’ pub, in the sun. I feared I’d have to leave “Everest” (my bike’s provisional name) behind forever, and then explain to Werner, the generous friend who had given me the bike in the first place, why, exactly, I had had to abandon it.

Saying a quick prayer, in a bit of desperation, I stuck my pen cap in the lock, hoping against hope that it would somehow cause the pins to release and thus free my bike.

“Pop!” and off it came. Now, I wasn’t sure if was more relieved that such a desperate trick actually worked, or if I was grateful that God was merciful to his smuggish servant,  or if my bike lock was about as secure as some pirate refuge in the Caribbean.

As it was, and as usual, I was late.

I had scheduled a tour of the Kilns, Lewis’ home (so named because there was once a working brick kiln nearby) for 2 o’clock. It was about 10 ’til 2 by the time I got my bike lock off, and before I managed to peel away into the Saturday milieu that was Oxford. I pedaled out of town confidently, assured that I knew where I was going.

I didn’t. Not a bit, as it turns out. I got very lost. Nearly two hours later, and after consulting a gardener (a smiling Dave, who said he liked Americans so much that he had married one, and was married still) and a burly bartender for directions, I was still hopelessly turned around, circling a pleasant suburb over and over again. If they could remake Groundhog Day and set it in a single afternoon in England, that would have drawn a similar sense of wondering ennui.

Along my turned-around way, I got shouted at by a gaggle of English school girls. “Don’t go that way!” they ordered, “Get off your bike now!” (I was going down a one-way road).  A bit peeved, and sun-addled, and grumpy, I shouted back, “thank you!” but obeyed As it turned out, moments later, a car passed by. Chagrined, I was even more chagrined to find myself standing over Lewis’ grave moments later, having found even that more or less by accident (thinking by now that my entire day might be a sort of living lesson in humility).

Resolving to give my quest one final try, however, I consulted my second bartender of the day (having by now realized that I had no idea where I was, my maps being hopelessly vague, and having also realized that I had failed to put in a destination address before printing off my original directions): “how do you get to CS Lewis’ house?” I asked, plaintively, having given up all pretense of being anything other than what I was, a lost American, with a tie, beard, and a book bag, all bedraggled.

Lewis’ house was just across the byway.

yep, that's where our man Jack once lived

Ugh. Thoroughly humbled, I finally made it, and had a very pleasant tour of his home and the grounds. Yes, he was a real person, and yes, he really lived there, and yes, I am a dweeb. But that’s OK. I even made it back into town with enough time for evensong at Magdalen, a brief skip down Addison’s Walk (where Tolkien and Dyson helped explain to Lewis, one August night in 1931, how myth and legend supported the Christian story of Christ as a real man in history).

I even managed to squeeze in a quick dash past the Bodleian Library before regaining the bus for the Roundabout Return Rattle, and the trip back to my little Pigeon Hole of a room at Wolfson. Having been nearly run over, turned around until I was sweaty and exasperated, and repeatedly put in my place by Providence, I can safely say (in retrospect), that I had experienced a series of marked inconveniences, I hope, however, now rightly considered, i.e. as an Adventure. It is hard to believe that the end of my beginning in grad school is just a couple of weeks away, and that I am nearly home again.

But I will miss England, and its people, and I pray that such (mis)adventures will have tempered me, in spite of myself, when and whilst looking back on this time away.

getting to know England, in time to leave it

it's pretty dang pretty in the spring here

Having been back to Cambridge for a month now (eek!), I’ve done what lazy bloggers tend to do when they get distracted with life-things … not post. First, my apologies! True, I have been rather preoccupied with the writing-up of my MPhil dissertation (the ostensible reason I’ve been here all along, or so I’m told), but even still, much has happened that I should have kept you posted (so to speak) about, including my decision to continue graduate school back at the University of Washington this fall (back to my old department; my program here was just for this school year), barring something unexpected. Deciding to do so was the definition of a difficult decision, I must confess, and I am trying to be all right with it now, but, indeed, I must trust that God will walk with me in it.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to savor what’ s left of my time in England, or, rather, Britain. Not being an especially perceptive person, I’ve finally -truly- realized that this place is very much like its people: “reserved, [but] not unfriendly,” as Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain (issued to our boys – and gals – heading over to fight Hitler’s Germany side-by-side with our old Allies, and advising us Yanks on how to behave properly).

Like some of my good English friends (not necessarily the wild and woolly British ones), it took a while – in my case, two terms – to get to know them, and vice versa, but in time, I have come to very much like and respect, and even to love, parts of this country and its ethos, and it has returned the favor. Not as much as my own nation,  but far more than when I began. I have been tempered by my (mis)adventures here, I hope, and feel calmer, and steadier, about being in what really is a foreign land (but still oddly and paradoxically familiar, probably because so much of our history and culture are shared, well, somewhat shared). Before, my affection for England was theoretical – it came from books, mostly, and the love of those who wrote those books (esp. the Inklings and their ilk).

“Well, of course I like England,” I always thought. And I did. But it was quite another thing to make what was a bigger leap than I thought and live here, and experience England and her people first hand.  Not that I am some sort of expert now, mind you. But I can now say that yes, I will miss this place, thanks to my friends here, and the hard-won lessons realized here, about what I value in life, about the need to rely on the Lord daily, in a real way.

I will want to come back, someday soon, to Cambridge, but also Britain and Europe. I feel bad for having felt so bad, at the beginning (I was a sissy, really), and for not reserving judgment, on how life was progressing away from home, in my Pigeon Hole here at Wolfson. I am glad, however, that I reserved enough (just barely enough! I should have reserved more, I think) to finally realize these things, and ere the End to boot.

I’m not done yet, of course. With a month or so to go, I still have quite a bit of work to do, and not much time to do it in (but that’s part of the fun!). I still want to see a few more things, and spend more time with my friends on this side of the Pond before heading back.  I will not have a full perspective on this adventure until I’m done, of course, but I want to get a head start, and tell my story well to anyone who asks (and do a better job than saying, “It’s very English,” to anyone who asks, “how was England?”).

In the meantime, I hope to put a few more anecdotes about the silliness of life as an anxious American abroad, and a word or two more (there is just one issue remaining for the year for The Cambridge Student). Stay tuned!

Quoting from Instructions for American Servicemen by way of conclusion:

“The best way to get on it Britain is very much the same as the best way to get on in America. The same sort of courtesy and decency and friendliness that go over big in America will go over big in Britain. The British have seen a good many Americans and they like Americans. They will like your frankness as long as it is friendly. They will expect you to be generous. They are not given to back-slapping and they are shy about showing their affections. But once they get to like you they make the best friends in the world.”

Being gregarious

any gregarious folks out there? Howdy! anyone? looking down Sidney Street in Cambridge

I’ve been told that Americans are actually far from rude while abroad.

Well, what with our being loud and demanding good service all the time, we might come off that way, and so yes, we might be “rude” in that sense; I hope, however, that we are more classy than that, and stand up for ourselves in a charming sort of way.

Anyway,  I’ve read and observed that my countrymen are perceived as silly and bumbling, well-meaning and trying ever-so-hard to please, more Twain’s Innocents Abroad than The World’s Big Sister, which the sophisticated (and wryly world-wise) Brits find endearing.

I’ve been told, in fact, that if you (and by “you” I mean me, still quite the novice liver-abroader) are so thoughtless as to propose – on the spot – to your new English buddy that you should have an impromptu social call right then and there (“hey, Chester, how about we get some grub right now?!”), instead of recoiling in unfamiliar horror at the sheer impropriety of it all, the obliging Englishman will sometimes just make an exception for his obviously clueless American friend (not that this has happened to me … more than a few times).

Now, we’re not entirely exempt from all the various forms of etiquette one must try, at least, to observe in a foreign country (for make no mistake, England, as charming as it can be, is far from Kansas).

But I sense that we get a certain amount of “oh,-he’s-just-a-silly-American” grace.

I try not to use this leeway for mischief – never mind, I do. It’s great fun to “randomly” (ha! used my own word for this week!) start talking about the weather with a complete and total stranger.

“Fine day, isn’t it?” you say to someone next to you in a queue (pick a queue, any queue will do!).

“Oh, well, yes, I suppose it is …” your unfortunately placed neighbor will reply (even as he thinks, “why is this bloody weird Yank talking to me?!”).

“How are you doing?” I’ll ask.

“Ah, fine, thank you …” while he’s really thinking … “come on, silly queue, move faster, please!”

I don’t like to go too far beyond that, because the extreme social forwardness I’ve just displayed won’t get me much further. Sometimes, however, I’ll run into someone from Scotland or Ireland, and find I am soon hearing all about someone’s grandchildren or the weather in Dublin or Glasgow.

Aussies and Kiwi’s also tend to return any gregariousness shown them, to almost American proportions, often throwing in an odd joke or two, usually involving some “random” (ha! did it again) animal only found Down Under. I mustn’t forget our Canadian brethren either, who admit to being far more North American than English, especially while in England. Indeed, it seems that all our fellow colonists (past and present) enjoy the goofy, perpetually proper propensities of our English hosts, perhaps painfully (all right, I’ll stop with the alliteration).

But to conclude with an anecdote, while walking through St. John’s College the other day (it was snowing, if I recall, and rather medieval looking, more so than normal, particularly near its old gate), I overheard an older American couple talking excitedly.

“Is this where they filmed Harry Potter?” I heard the lady ask.

“I don’t know, dear, let me ask …” replied the dutiful husband.

I could imagine the eyes beginning to role around me.

“Silly Americans!” they all thought.

And I am one of them. Oh my.

Being asked if I am an American …

find the American!

It is strange that such a simple question can make your heart jump into your throat.

“Are you an American?” people will ask, as soon as you open your mouth, or just act in your typically overly gregarious American way, which sometimes involves using your hands to eat, looking people in the eye, laughing out loud, or just smiling because you want to (from what I can tell, the far more reserved Brits usually don’t do these sorts of things, not normally).

“Why, yes,” you reply, with perhaps too much obvious pride, and in my case, maybe slowing down your syllables so much that you’d make John Wayne grimace.

“That I am, ma’aaam,” (or “sir,”), adding, “I am an Am-er-ic-an.”

Now, I feel like a fairly patriotic fellow. I do love my country, very much, and its people, despite our flaws, because of what we stand for, and what we represent. We can do better, of course, and should. To barrow shamelessly from G.K. Chesterton, ‘”My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.'” Chesterton also talks about how a love of one’s home and country, put in a proper perspective, can help you to learn and look forward to Heaven.

“How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” asks C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves. “Once you have realized that the Frenchman like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs – why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everything else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.”

Though I know very little, and perceive even less, I do sense that people the world over, even in England, do look to us for leadership (no pressure!). All my American friends in Cambridge have stories of being grilled about our foreign policy, even here, by our closest friends and allies.

But to continue.

“I could tell,” whoever asked you if you’re from America, usually says, “because of your accent” (not adding, “and because you’re loud and silly and are smiling like a nutter”); this is quickly followed by, “Where in the States [they like putting it this way] are you from?”

“Seattle, Washington!” I’ll announce, with pride.

Sometimes, just for a moment, there’ s a bit of confusion … perhaps surprisingly, not everyone knows exactly where Seattle is, and the mention of “Washington” makes even the more geographically astute pause.

“You mean Washington state?” they’ll ask, for clarification.

“That’s the one!” you’ll add, still beaming with more than your fair share of pride (“I got asked if I was an American!” you think, ” and how cool is that?”).

Ah, but sometimes I am forced to add, “it’s near Vancouver,” or “just across from British Columbia, where we use the names of Indian chiefs and tribes,  as well as dead English sea captains, to name our cities and mountains.”

I mean this is as a sort of joke, but I usually get a thoughtful nod of the head (“what did he say about dead sea captains?”).

ah, there's one of those American-types!

It’s not just British people who ask if you’re an American, but people from all over the world, including lots of students from Asia, but it’s especially fun, I think, to be asked by someone who is quite English.

We were, after all, their colony not too long ago (certainly not by their standards of history), but instead of being their sons or daughters, we are now their “cousins.” It really does feel like we are part of some kind of extended family, complete with eye-rolling at the others’ behavior.

My friend Neil, for example, bemoans my habit of resorting to folksy Americanisms.

At a meeting the other day, I was about to cheer our little editorial board for a journal project we’re working on with some Davy-Crockett-esque phrase: “Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead …” and my fellow American (well, half-Danish, but still mostly American) friend Christian hopped in, “when your backs against …”

“Ah!” Neil sighs, in his Glasgowian-Scots brogue.  “There you Americans go again, with your folksy backwoods sayings …”.

You smile: “he said ‘you Americans’! how often does that happen?” you wonder … .

P.S. I must include a shout-out to my grandma for her box full of snacks she sent all the way from Florida; thanks grandma!

The English, their Scaffolding and a resolution

As I have been a bit remiss in getting posts up this week, and before I have a longer meditation on meandering out to the World War Two memorial at Madingley, I wanted to put up a quick reflection on … scaffolding.

scaffolding along King's Parade

Yes, scaffolding. The British seem to love it, as it’s all over the place in Cambridge. Now, it might just be because the buildings tend to be a bit on the older side (OK, very, very old indeed, which is cool, of course, for someone who fancies himself a historian, even if he is in many ways just a wannabe’ one, or at least a fledgling in the historical trade); older buildings tend to fall apart, of course, but from what I can tell, it sometimes seems like they throw scaffolding up just because there’s some excuse to do so … come to think of it, I’ve never seen any sort of crane about town, which might explain why methodical and very orderly metal-and-wood carapaces tend to sprout up all the time, all over the place.

it's practically ubiquitous! (I've been wanting to say that in a caption)

Along King’s Parade near the city centre (yes, “centre” with an “r” before the “e”), for example, scaffolding has lined the row of shops facing King’s College since the beginning of Michaelmas (autumn, or what we Americans call “fall”) term. I can’t quite tell why, but it’s still there, looking very official, and thus very English. Walking past it any number of times, I’ve theorized (and they would spell that with an “s,” as in “theorise”) that there must be something wrong with the roofs, or gutters, or something up high, and therefore requiring layers upon layers of orderly scaffolding right along the road. Back home, scaffolding seems to go up at construction sites and therefore away from the sidewalk, but here it’s very much part of the path. You are expected to saunter right through it. Just don’t stumble and shove the pylons too hard … .

I’m sure there’s quite a few good reasons for this affection (or what C.S. Lewis might call storge, pronounced with two syllables and a distinct “g”) for scaffolding, but I do suspect it’s very English in the sense that one schedules (“shed-ules,” yes, they really do say it that way, and declare, “you must be from the States!” if you pronounce the “sched”) scaffolding periodically.

It’s true that many of the buildings here predate our country’s independence from its motherland (notice that we’re now “cousins,” and no longer children). But many of them only do so because they’ve been rebuilt and remodeled and just generally redone dozens of times. So a “part” of a building might date from the Middle Ages, but big chunks might have been renovated by a king or queen a century or so after that, and then the south or north or east wing or floor or foundation or something like that was replaced by one of Cromwell‘s comrades (his head is here, by the way; I shall find it and blog about it soon, I promise), and then finally redone “recently” in the 19th century.

inside the grounds of Trinity College

Many of the “new” Georgian wings of buildings are really what we would consider old, in that regard. Some of my local friends roll their eyes with stories of dumb Americans (being one, I have empathy) who ask the perturbed porters if a truly medieval portion of their colleges is “prewar,” or it dates from “Queen Elizabeth’s time,” to which the porters will gruffly reply, “sir, this is from before the colonies became states and left us.”

But for all of its sometime silliness, I have been continually humbled by the history here, and feel calmer in Cambridge this quarter, realizing that my time here is rather limited, really, and therefore resolving to make the most of it.

I have been trying to explore the city and its surrounding environs more thoroughly this term, but I also want to venture a bit further afield, if possible, and get over to Oxford sometime later this month to see where the Inklings spent some of their time, at Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College (without the “e”) and the Eagle and Child (pub); I also want to get down to London at least a couple of times before I go home for the longish break (very much a working break, I assure you, from March 12 to about April 19).

To that end I’ve managed to procure a student “rail card.” All this is very new to me, as it’s my first time overseas, and so I am learning the hard way more often that not, but I am learning, a lot, all the time, which I suppose is the point of this self-reflecting exercise. Next term, however, I’d love to get up north, to Scotland, and maybe even over to Normandy, if at all possible, but I’ll save the fun stuff for later, once I get more done on my paper, Lord willing.

I sometimes remember that’s why I’m here (at least in theory): “oh yes, that paper … hmm … well, I guess i should work on that a bit more, I suppose …” .

English warnings, an introduction to polite absurdity, and two Scotsmen

from a table in the library

It is a quiet night in Cambridge, as most nights are here, and all through the college, not a grad student is stirring, except me, of course.

Some of my precious chocolate pudding sent from home is chilling, literally, on my angled window sill as I type this; I’ll soon eat it to ease a sore throat. As the minifridge ordered long, long ago has yet to arrive (more on bemusing, bungling British bureaucracy later), I’ve found that my “chilling sill” is a rather nice place to cool things such as soda and pudding.

I figure it’s OK, as there are no explicitly polite warnings about it … yes, warnings. It seems like the English are very polite when it comes to warnings. All the colleges have little signs, some in multiple languages, warning you off the grass. Only the dons and a select other few can walk on the lawns, which are laying mostly fallow this time of year, but which are otherwise kept more manicured than a typical American golf course.

they really do mean it, really

Even my more laid-back graduate college, being one of the “lesser ones,” according to my taxi driver (who quickly apologized, explaining that Wolfson is simply new, and “new” as in not hundreds of years old and founded by a king, queen or other member of the royal family) still forbids you from alighting on the grassy realms carefully maintained by our head gardener (oh yes, we have a whole team; it’s a very serious business here, you know, gardening).

Some warnings are apologetic. “Sorry,” the intercom in the University Library cheerfully announces in the late afternoons (if I recall correctly), “but the tea room will be closing in 20 minutes.” Other warnings beg your pardon, as in, “sorry, but there is no such machine,” as the electronic letters on the device in the laundry room scroll apologetically. In the U.S., the same machine would probably just say “error” when you punched in the wrong number. Even the buses say, “Sorry … not in service.”

Even the homeless people, and I do always feel for them, as it is very cold outside, tend to be impeccably polite when you say “no-thank-you” to their requests for “spare pence.” One said to me the other day, “no worries, sir, have a good day.” Another not-quite homeless man, selling magazines (like the Real Change salesmen in Seattle), when I told him sorry, that I’d rather not have one, told me not to feel sorry, but  “be happy.” But the subject of the legendary penchant for extreme English politeness  is worthy of another post unto itself (or many posts), for some other time soon, though it will probably pop up as a recurrent theme.

this one's a bit more insistent

Back to apologies. If you added the words, “… or you will be shot” to most of them, it would sound quite natural. “Please do not take photographs on the college grounds … or you will be shot.” Or “please form orderly queues … or you will be shot,” and so on. People would obey them no less promptly, for following decorum and not making a fuss are an important thing in England, from what I can tell. Warnings are not really so much passive-aggressive, as they might be back home, just well regarded.

To put it another way, Cambridge is a silly place, or, as my friend Neil always says upon experiencing the latest silly English custom (as they are just as new to him as they are to me most of the time), “this would have never happened at Edinburgh.” Neil went to the university there, and is an introspective Scot who stands a head taller than me, adding to the gravity of his practical pronouncements. We share an affinity for the 18th century, and for American history, which Neil is studying here in our program.

I’ll close with a wee bit of a note about another Scotsman I met.

Last Thursday I was reading in my room, as I am wont to do. I had not seen anyone yet that day besides myself (which is becoming less common, actually, which I don’t mind at all, as God provides opportunities to get out and see friends, or at least colleagues when I can’t meet friends, more often this term). But it was a very slow day, last week, and grey too. I was feeling somewhat mellow, and more lost of Serious Thought that even Neil can summon at his most pensive.


A grandfatherly workman from Glasgow in Scotland named Harry was painting the doors on my floor.

“I’ll be done in a jiffy,” he says, after I let him in. “You can stay if you’d like.”

I told him I would like to, if he didn’t mind, and kept reading. He didn’t mind at all, he said. He painted in silence; I read some more. But after I while I realized that it’s not too often that you have a gray-haired Glosgowian painting your door, so I figured it’d be fun to try to get to know him a bit better.

A Korean war veteran, Harry had been married for 37 years to a wife some 7 years younger than he, a lady he met in Cambridge in the 1950s coming up from working in London, or what they call the City. He has two sons, one of whom works for a bank in the city, and a granddaughter. They visited Disney World with her last year, and Harry was impressed by the wide streets and open spaces in Florida. I learned that His father was gone for six years during the Second World War, fighting the Nazi’s from North Africa Africa to Italy’s Monte Cassino; his family didn’t see him during all that time.

Harry told me this while painting contentedly, with a soft “aye” thrown in every now and then in assent (being a budding historian, I loved talking to a man closer to the history I study; he was a patient listener, and also had some good advice).  When he had finished, he called me “lad” when I thanked him for doing such a good job on my door (“you’re welcome, lad,” says he). As we said goodbye, I told him I hoped to see him around the college, and he said he hoped the same. A kind man, that Harry.

I’ll try to post a few more times this week, albeit perhaps a little shorter. The word for this week should be “knackered,” incidentally, so look for that Thursday. Good night, and God-speed from England.