from the colonies

A quick post from Cambridge (Massachusetts, need you ask).

I am back in the life I might have had. Sunny New England Spring. Vibrant but easy city. More bookstores and toy stores and restaurants than you would ever know what to do with.

What strikes me in Cambridge is the curious mix of brilliance and frivolity. If you sit in a cafe and half-listen to the conversations around you, you could easily assume that you were surrounded by very immature, superficial twenty-somethings. And then, you listen more carefully, and realize that between the ‘like’s’ and ‘so I said’s’ they are stringing together sentences on literary theory, particle physics and obscure philosophy. Note, that’s an ‘and’ not an ‘or’. The divide between arts and science is practically non-existent. People specialize, but they can converse in both.

The academic culture here seems to move seamlessly in and out of popular culture. There is no shift of tone, no code-switching, no self -consciousness. I suppose it is what comes of gathering such a high proportion of the world’s brightest and best in one small place.

The same lack of self-consciousness was evident as we sat in an old hotel bar late in the evening (we didn’t have the Veuve Clicquot, but the fact that we could have will give you a sense of it). We were in the sort of clothes you would expect. The table next to us were in stripey legged track suits, and the table beyond were in black tie. And it was all OK.

There are so many things that America gets criticized for — and often justly so. But there is good here too.

5 thoughts on “from the colonies

  1. Oh dear. I should never try typing on someone else’s laptop with no spell check while someone is talking to me and a loud DIY programme is jabbering in the background. For those of you who saw the earlier version, I do hope you had a good laugh.

  2. Oh! This post makes me homesick . . . thankfully it’s only two months (ish) until my trip to Seattle! (Perhaps not quite on par with Cambridge in terms of coffee shop conversation, but def so with bookstores, restaurants and clothing diversity).

  3. Just to redress the balance, I feel the need to point out that we all feel this way about our own places! By the time I’d spent a month in the US I was longing for the accents of home, and the food – and especially the coffee!

  4. It’s not about better/worse. When I am in the States there is much I miss of Britain. But those of us who choose to live in a foreign country usually have very mixed feelings towards our home country, and it’s important sometimes to name the good in the things you have chosen to walk away from.

    Ten years ago, I’d have written about the very same hotel bar in terms of how uncouth it all was. And that would have been true too.

  5. I’ve never been to America – though I long to go. But I do have American friends, both those based U.K.side and in America. I note some common threads, which I assume their culture has imparted, and they include a huge positivity about the world. They are ready to embrace it, (sometimes, I feel, even mug it) but certainly very ready to name the good points of others.

    I have similar ambivalence about England, though it is more like Scottish culture than American is, I think. I long for things about England, sometimes – I don’t consistently long for England.

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