Friday, June 21, 2013

there's no jesus in jesus college

My in-laws arrived in London yesterday morning. They will be with us for a good part of the next week. I have been told that I cannot mock them in this blog. In response, I have explained that the blog wants what the blog wants, and if it wants mockery, it is hardly my place to deny it. In any event, I'll do my best to please my taskmaster.

I started college intending to spend a semester of my junior year at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My college (Pomona College) has a robust study abroad program but did not have at that time any program at Hebrew U. I nonetheless planned on going in the spring of 1991. Geopolitics foiled my plans, however, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq in August 1990, setting in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the Gulf War and, with it, Hussein's threats to launch a sea of missiles into Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Pomona, understandably, was not thrilled about the idea of sending one of its students into a war zone and therefore told me several months before I was to go that I had to pick another destination. I said that there was only one other place I would consider, the University of Cambridge, where Pomona had developed a formal program several years prior.

And so, in January 2011, as the coalition forces were preparing to undertake Operation Desert Storm, I was headed to Cambridge. I had heard great things about the program, which operated through Jesus College, one of the 31 residential colleges that make up Cambridge University. Students are admitted to individual colleges as well as the university and, live, eat and participate in many extracurricular activities through those colleges. Students are free to take lecture-based and supervisory-based (one to three students studying directly with a professor) classes at other colleges within the university.

Funny, I know, that me, a nice Jewish boy, would not only be going somewhere other than Hebrew University, but that he would be going to Jesus College of all places. I learned pretty quickly that the name was in no way reflective of the religious character of the school. Rather, like many of the colleges here, the name reflects the time at which it was founded (around 1500), when institutions were named after something royal, religious and, slightly later on, for people who gave a lot of money. In my experience, the students here were, if anything, less religious than those at Pomona. There truly was, as the students were fond of saying, no Jesus at Jesus College. (I will note though, when cheering for the college's athletic teams, "Go Jesus!" and "C'mon, Jesus!" spun off the tongue quite easily.

Jesus, for its part, stands out from many of of the other colleges by virtue of its large campus, complete with space for separate grounds for soccer/football, field hockey, tennis and rugby. (Pictured above is the second courtyard within the college. The large windows on the right are the dining hall which, according to my father-in-law, looked like the one from Hogwarts. On the other side of the courtyard is the college chapel, which dates back to the 13th century and served as a nunnery before the college acquired it.)

I will not bore you all with a full recounting of my experience at Jesus College, and will instead only say here that it was fantastic, academically and socially. Some aspects of college were the same here -- rigorous analysis, critical thinking, and thoughtful discussion -- but the social experience was entirely different. The formality of things -- particularly in the world's third-oldest university in a country known for its adherence to a class system -- was pretty shocking to a kid who had spent his whole life in Arizona and Southern California. I had some friends among the ten other Pomona students but spent the first several weeks trying to figure out how and where to fit in the broader Jesus College community.

Fortunately, fate intervened and provided the answer when, along with two of my Pomona friends, we decided to give rugby a go. One of the three of us had played before. The first XV (basically Jesus College's first intramural team) had an opening at second row (or lock, as they call it here) and a star was born. Okay. Not really. Like I said, I had never played before and I am not the kind of athlete who can excel on physical ability alone. Hardly. But I played hard and did my best to learn. More importantly, I made a good group of friends and was exposed to a whole side of the English university experience that I would never have had without rugby.

You will observe here a picture of me, Lauren and Owen, as we walk across the rugby pitch that sits at the back of the Jesus College grounds. I am walking away from them, ostensibly speaking to them but really speaking to no one in particular. I wanted them to see the rugby pitch where I played, where I made good friends, where I struggled, where I got kicked in the face and had someone splash some water from a bucket on my bloody nose, where I pushed myself to become more than I was, where I grew as a person. I know it is simply not possible -- at their age, or any age, really -- for them to understand what this place meant to me, but I was glad to show it to them nonetheless. (As I read this over I shudder to think how old I have become. Ugh.)

The rugby pitch behind us, we finished our walk-through of Jesus College and headed towards Trinity Street. The colleges along Trinity  -- St. John's, Trinity, King's, Gainville & Caius -- were all closed to the public. I'm not sure if this is because the term does not end until next week. Regardless, I am sorry I was not able to show my family the really spectacular courtyards and buildings of these esteemed learning institutions.

Shut out of the the colleges, we went to the the Backs, the area on the other side of the River Cam where there are incredible views of the backs of those colleges. The Cam is not so much a river as it is a canal on which there are two major activities -- rowing and punting. The former is done mostly by university students (including the author, along with seven others from the rugby team, in what has to be one of the greatest embarrassments ever to befall the river) the latter (as pictured here) by townspeople as part of the local tourist trade. Punting, by the way, is done by pushing the punting stick against the bottom of the river. I still don't quite understand the excitement of it all but I suppose it does not matter. Punting on the Cam has been here long before me and will be long afterwards.

We walked back through the town center and headed back to London, where we took my in-laws on their first Underground ride, as the six of us went back to their hotel. My in-laws took us to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Mayfair after which we headed our separate ways -- my in-laws to get some sleep, Keri and I to get the kids to bed and then to commence with our nightly watching of Downton Abbey (we just finished season one so don't spoil it for us).

It ended up being a long day -- a long way to go for a relatively short time. It was, as it always is, strange to be back in a place where you last were more than twenty years ago. I'm glad we did it, though, as it brought back so many good memories and gave me a chance to share with my children, in some way none of the three of us can understand quite yet, an important experience in my life.

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