I’d been in Cambridge for less than a year when I was in a doctor’s office filling out a depression questionnaire. I didn’t score enough points to be officially declared depressed, but I was still miserable. The questionnaire asked if I had thoughts of dying. No. I didn’t want to die – I wanted to live, and Cambridge wouldn’t let me.
The doctor who gave me the questionnaire had a few minutes left to talk to me. He quickly got to the root of the problem, and came with a solution: Why didn’t I go to London more often?
Seen through tourist eyes, Cambridge is lovely. You can walk or cycle everywhere, there are cute little boats on a cute little river and lots of centuries-old buildings that each have at least one blue plaque marking yet another great historic event or person.
For students, it must also be idyllic. There you are, at one of the world’s top universities, in a college that undoubtedly ranks several great names among its graduates. You don’t even have to get out into the real world: food, a room and all your friends are there with you, behind high walls, safe from the outside world in your little bubble.
But being in Cambridge full-time, not as a tourist, and as someone who is not affiliated with the university was my own personal version of hell.
I like wandering city streets in the evening. I like not being the only one awake at 2 AM. I like finding unexpected street art. I like people watching. I like bohemian coffee places and alternative theatre projects. I like finding out about secret underground tunnels and other bits of local urban history. I like being able to choose every evening between multiple places to go, and the freedom to not choose any of them.
I moved to Cambridge because I found a job there. I’d spent the previous eight years in Toronto, where I once didn’t even notice that I hadn’t left the city for nine months, and where, on one jaded occasion, I stayed home instead of going to see Gene Wilder speak at the art cinema around the corner, because, whatever, I’d see him another time. I mean, come on, if I’d run out to see every legend of film every time they were in Toronto, I’d never be home.
Like all Torontonians I loved complaining about crowded subways and construction and long lines at the film festival and smog. Then I moved to Cambridge, where the annual film festival features films that I’ve already seen before, and where there isn’t even a subway to crowd.
In Cambridge, I often stayed home not out of choice but because I had nothing else to do. I refreshed Twitter a lot, to see what people were up to in other places. Everyone was having more fun than I was, or was staying home to recover from all the fun they had the rest of the week.
So I took the doctor’s advice, and went to London more often. Sometimes I only went for a few hours in the evening. I would have to start work at 8AM on those days, but the early morning cycle ride through muddy fields was worth it if I got to spend the evening in civilization.
“Why don’t you like Cambridge?!” says everyone who lives here voluntarily. It has all the shops you need, and it’s small enough to walk or cycle everywhere, and you can live in the countryside and still be close to Cambridge. But those are not things I really care about. In fact, the thought of the countryside as a place to live terrifies me to no end. I once cancelled a third or fourth date (and all subsequent ones) with an otherwise very nice guy simply because he owned a house in a village (not even in Cambridge itself) and I couldn’t let this get any more serious out of fear that I’d have to regularly go there, or worse, live there. On another occasion, in my first house in Cambridge, I woke up at about 3 AM and I heard nothing. No sound at all. No cars, no voices, no hums, no sirens. Nothing. It was scary. I’m sure some people find that wonderful, but I just don’t belong in a place that quiet.
Cambridge as a town has no character at all. The only character present is that of the university, and it completely overshadows any individual charm the tiny market town may have produced on its own. I’m used to cities being shaped by the people who live there, and Cambridge lacks that, because half of the population is only there for a few years, to study or to do a postdoc, and then they leave. They don’t take ownership of where they live. There are people who live in Cambridge permanently, and have nothing to do with academia, but they have little control over anything major in the area, because that’s all dominated by the university.
In Toronto I wrote for Spacing, a magazine about public space in urban areas, and I like spotting these kind of places when I travel. But Cambridge has very few public spaces, few areas that feel like they belong to the people of the town rather than just to tourists or the university or just the residents of a particular street. To be fair, there is an exception. The Mill Road area is cosmopolitan and has lots of independent shops and community spirit and an annual winter fair. But it’s just one neighbourhood and this hyperlocal community is separate from anything happening just a few hundred feet away in the centre of town, where the university’s walled colleges start. This “town-gown” divide is historic. Cambridge was founded by scholars who were driven out of Oxford by townsfolk, and the alienation between locals and students survived eight centuries.
Living in Cambridge is like living in the fictional village of Hogsmeade, which appears to only exist for the purpose of occasionally providing butter beer and candy to Hogwarts students, but has nothing of note to offer anyone else. Nobody at Hogwarts would ever consider that they lived in Hogsmeade even though they probably share a magical post code. They live at Hogwarts, no town given. Likewise, Cambridge students are at Cambridge (university), not in Cambridge (town).
I don’t think this alienation occurs in larger cities, where students are often involved in local community events, and I don’t think it’s as pervasive in college towns in other places. I was expecting Cambridge to have certain features, based on it being a university town, that it doesn’t have. It’s Victorian, not Bohemian. This summer I played violin in a sold-out London theatre performance (here on a “best theatre of 2012” list) where audience members walk through interactive scenes, because they were short on musician volunteers and I needed to get my dose of London to stay sane. When I later told Cambridge musicians about it, we decided that in Cambridge, there’d be an excess of musicians, but nobody would pay to attend such a nonconformist performance. When the Street Piano project surprisingly made a stop in Cambridge, I wandered over to see a scheduled performance at one of the pianos. It had rained the hours before, but it stopped well in time for the performance slot. Still, when I got to the piano, there was nobody there. No performer, no audience, no explanation. Just the piano, alone in a muddy park. Cambridge just doesn’t do alternative and interactive art projects, and I love that kind of thing.
I very easily feel at home in other cities. For several years I had a New York phone number, despite never having lived in the US. I’m also happy to try to fit in anywhere, but I’m years past the time it takes me to get used to a new place. It’s really not me, it’s Cambridge, and I’m tired of trying to adapt. I’m leaving.
In March I’m starting a new job in London. On my way to the job interview, I turned into a wrong side street and ran into a Banksy, just like that. This is the kind of thing that happens in cities, and this is exactly what I love about them! Wherever you go, there’s life, and art, and people, and activity. Around every corner is a surprise, not yet another imposing wall surrounding a forbidden college.
People who love small towns like Cambridge see big cities as crowded anonymous grey messy places. Which they are, but if you look at them like I do, you see people and stories in between all that, and that, to me, is life.
I’m not alone in seeing this. The sparks of life and the little peeks into people’s lives that you can spot in cities are the topic of several songs: Petula Clark’s Downtown; Joe Dassin’s Champs-Élysées; Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York; Good Morning Baltimore from the musical Hairspray; Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega and The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset – to name a few.
I’m trying not to set myself up for disappointment: London won’t be perfect. I won’t be invited to everyone’s dinners and parties just because I’ll live there. The noise and crowds will get annoying. I’ll probably get robbed once or twice. I’ll be just as susceptible to gloominess as before, but at least I’ll save myself an expensive train ticket to reach the restorative, meandering, people-watching city walk that never fails to cheer me up.
“When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry seems to help, I know” – Petula Clark