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In 2007 and 2008, I had the opportunity to spend a year in Cambridge earning my MPhil in Materials. I loved my time there. I made great friends, learned a lot, and came to love a place in a very short time.
This weekend, I had a chance to come back for a whirlwind 24 hours (I write this from a Eurostar train that just emerged from the Chunnel at Calais), and it reminded me how much I love the place.
I arrived on the King’s Lynn express train, passing all the stops that were so familiar: Hitchin, Letchworth Garden City, etc, finally finding my way to Cambridge Station. It was a sunny day and warm. But it had the coolness of an English summer. As soon as my feet hit the pavement, I felt transported back all those years to when I called Cambridge home. I was meeting my former research advisor for coffee at 11, and I only had 30 minutes to make it from the train station to the city center. On the walk to meet her, I had a new bounce in my step. God, I missed this place. Seeing all the old pubs, walking across parks and seeing all the changes that have come to the town in the 5 years since I last visited was incredible. It all made me want to return.
I arrived 1 minute late for coffee — acceptable, I guess — and sat to have a talk with my advisor. We covered all sorts of topics — career, science, scientific publishing, education — but what struck me was her willingness to sit with me after being out of touch for so long. It was one more reminder of the wonderful experience that I had in Cambridge. We parted ways kindly, with promises to better stay in touch in this five years than the last, promises I fully intend to keep.
After coffee, I went and found my hotel where Bryce, my cofounder and not-unexpectedly close friend in business school, was to meet me. He showed up and we had a beer at a pub and caught up (note: whenever Bryce and I “have a beer”, it almost always means that I am having a beer and he is drinking something remarkably healthier). We walked around Cambridge a bit, and he commented several times that my enthusiasm for the place was not so subtle.
We returned to another pub to meet a labmate of mine, Kevin Musselman, from my MPhil days and his wife (and baby). We sat on the river and enjoyed yet another real ale as the tourists swarmed around trying to figure out what this whole “punting” thing is and whether they should accept the relentless advances of the punt tour guides (advice: do the real tour at least once, it’s fun and a great way to hear some mostly true stories).
After a lovely hour with Kevin and Katie, Bryce and I headed across town and up Castle Hill — the only hill in Cambridge, where I lived — to my old local pub: the Castle Inn. It has a ridiculously good burger, and though I don’t eat much meat these days, a burger that good demands that I throw my eating habits to the wind. Bryce, burger connessieur, agreed.
The details of the rest of the trip are more of the same: up early to go punting from my college, Trinity Hall; giving Bryce a tour of Trinity Hall, Trinity, and King’s; coffee with a college-mate that I just randomly ran into on Hall grounds on Saturday; visiting my old department; beer at The Eagle, where Watson and Crick went to celebrate that they figured out the structure of DNA.
The whole time I was in Cambridge, I was happy. Perhaps it was because I lived the a great life there — interesting scientific research, a great group of friends, rowing, dining and drinking, and just generally enjoying a historic and fun culture. I think my friend, though, made my experience. Just being there brought back the memories of those people. It will not be 5 more years before I visit again. It will certainly not be 5 more years before I make real effort to see those people again.
Tonight, I return to Belgium. I am content. I love that place. Will I live there again one day? Only time will tell. Will I always feel as at home there as I did this weekend? I certainly hope so.