If there was one place I knew I would visit during my semester abroad in France, it was Cambridge. It wasn’t really a question. I had to do it.
Back in 2007, when I was 11 years old, my dad took a sabbatical and brought us (the whole family) with him to Cambridge, the famous English university town located a few dozen kilometers north of London. For me, it felt akin to what any kid experiences when moving cities (albeit this was temporary): a new setting, a new school, and new friends. I quickly discovered that the compact size of the city also gave me a newfound sense of freedom. In 20 minutes on my bike, I could get nearly anywhere. I got candies at the market, collected English Premier League soccer stickers, and tried to adjust to wearing a school uniform for the first time. In fact, I also made regular entries in my dad’s travel journal on this same website. Now that I mention it, maybe it’s best just to let an 11-year-old Jason’s MyTripJournal entry explain what Cambridge felt like in comparison to my Indiana home:
“Though the house is small, the stuff here is charming and means a lot to me. My school here has plenty of subjects I don't learn at home and football is a great sport that dominates here. Still, you know (well actually you don't know), you can't stay in one place too long when you know eventually you're going back home.”
Although my younger self may have been incorrect in his assumption that most people don’t know what it’s like to live somewhere temporarily (isn’t everything temporary in some way?), I think I at least spoke from the heart in giving my affection to Cambridge. It’s a place that’s had a profound effect on my youth, and one that I needed to go back to while I was here.
For the first weekend of my winter break at the beginning of March, I made it a priority to visit Cambridge. Although I was caught in a quite rare deluge of snow that swept across Europe, I was able to make it from London-Luton airport to Parker’s Piece, before finally meeting up with Kane, an old friend who I’ve kept in touch with since those younger days who now goes to university in Brighton. Kane and I spent the next few days together, touring the city and visiting my old haunts. We went to the market, the colleges, the museum, and of course a soccer game.
Over those few days, I really had a chance to ask myself about what memory contains and how we shape it. I had only been back to Cambridge once since living there - for a few days in 2010 - and everything I saw when I visited this time harkened back to a very different period of my life. I’m sure that most of what I retain from Cambridge is romanticized - although I remember being homesick quite often when I lived there, in the years since I’ve reflected on it as a special opportunity that stands out in my life. Incredibly, though, much of what I saw during my trip didn’t seem somehow less glamorous than I’d imagined, but instead stood exactly how I’d remembered it, as if the buildings and the bridges and the River Cam had all been patiently waiting these past 10 years for me to return. The market consisted of the same clustered rows of stands, and I bought a pack of lemon sherbets from the same candy vendor from all those years ago. I went back and I visited Clare Hall, where once I lived, and found the same row of apartments with the same reddish-colored paint and the same car park and the same courtyard and the same statue outside. I walked back on my old route to school, and as I crossed the river I encountered that same view that once greeted me every day. I even went back into the WHSmith to buy a packet of soccer stickers, just as I once did obsessively.
Every now and again, I’d come across some detail, some bump in the road, that I hadn’t thought about in years. It was a bit of a surreal experience, to be back in a place that’s seemed to me for a long time like a distant dream slowly moving further away from the present. For a moment, at least, I felt like I had entered into a former reality. In the end, though, my experience may also be a reflection of Cambridge itself, a historic city where time’s ever-beating heart runs just a little bit slower. I thought I would find a changed city; instead, I found the change in myself.