二 (of Cambridge, UK)

a love affair with cracked old books, lush green lawns and crumbly pastries.

From my shared bedroom in Cambridge, I glanced out sleepily through its charmingly antiquated dusty glass windows into the first incandescent rays of the morning sun. It was chilly spring morning in mid-March — the sun rises particularly early in the minutes surrounding six AM. The view would be familiar to me soon enough — I would wake up to it for two weeks. Taking in the comfortable silence of the empty lanes that lay in between the rows of shophouses and our warm bed and breakfasts, I sat up and went traipsing downstairs into the cozy dining room, where a wonderful British family set about serving our quintessentially English breakfast of toast, baked beans, eggs Benedict and steamy teas.

Hardly anyone can deny their fascination with the United Kingdom. From their peoples’ crisp British accents that rose exponentially in popularity after the broadcast of the television (or perhaps, more appropriately, telly) series Sherlock, to their almost endearing obsession with their teas and scones (which is, to my happiness, actually alive and real!), the UK was quickly marked up as one of my to-go places in the future. When I was given the opportunity to head to London and Cambridge for a half month study trip, I was elated. Not going to lie — I’ve romanticised the UK since I was a young girl delving into the realms of an Enid Blyton book, so naturally I wanted these idealistic fantasies to align itself with its version of reality.

The general itinerary went like this: two short days in London and the rest would be spent in Cambridge, the artsy city situated about three hours away from the UK’s capital. We all squealed when we drove past Baker Street, were awed by the majesty of Buckingham Palace. We quickly buzzed through the National Gallery and the British Museum — to my chagrin, for I found the airy space of every monument and painting absolutely fascinating. Did you know the Rosetta Stone, widely acclaimed to be the ultimate key in understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs has a permanent home in the British Museum? And that Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting Virgin on the Rocks can be found in the National Gallery? I’ve read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and loved it, so I was so excited to see one of its discussed paintings in the flesh. These museum visits were the high points of London… and of course, who could forget London’s famous shopping strip, Oxford Street, which was brimming with very well-dressed people hauling around various high street purchases.

However, I got to be more acquainted with Cambridge. I fell in love with its architecture — the beautiful elaborately designed colleges of Cambridge University, especially Trinity College, which we got to tour, was breathtaking. I was impressed was the ‘olde’ sweet shop that seemed to be taken right off my vivid imagination of Harry Potter’s Hogsmeade — from the huge jars of iridescent candy arranged in neat rows above the counter (appropriately tended by a red-cheeked plump lady with the sweetest Cockney accent) and macarons displayed temptingly on cake stands — I took home a bag, and then some, of these treats.

That couldn’t compare to the absolutely epiphanic feeling I got when I wandered along the back of town square with a cup of hot chocolate (so comforting in the chilly spring air!) and came across a book shop — ‘G. Davids’ it proclaimed wisely on its creaky hanging banner. I’ve always imagined a little bell ringing softly as one enters to reveal a bookish paradise (I guess, a result of reading aforementioned Enid Blyton) but never really got that experience in Singapore, so it was to my utmost happiness when I heard the foreign yet familiar sound as I pushed the heavy oak door open.

It was, simply put, a paradise for every book lover. No kidding, it was cramped shelf-to-shelf with very neatly organised and labelled books. The narrowness of the space and the shortness of the ceiling only served the encapsulate the almost archaic charm of this place, though. But what I loved the most was how friendly and open everyone was in the bookshop. Strangers were mingling, discussing their favourite book titles. I personally went up to the grey-haired lady at the cashier to ask about her most-adored poet (‘Robert Frost’, she said. ‘He’s just wonderful.’) and we had a fine talk about the books I studied in school. To date, it’s my favourite conversation I had in a foreign land.

The bulk of our days were spent in a cold ‘castle’, formally named Chesterton Towers, studying linguistics, which most of us enjoyed. Other visits to plays and neighbouring towns like Norwich were scattered here and there. Another memorable part of the trip was sitting outside in the cold with a few of my friends, staring up into the sky. The stars here were brighter, and generously so.

The last few days passed by in a bit of a blur. Soon, we were reluctantly stuffing our suitcases with very British things — clothes from Primark, packets of freshly ground coffees and teas from the Cambridge Market Square, jars of shortbread cookies. From the friendliness of strangers on the street, to the cobbled pathways that strangely made walking exciting, to the British food we had, the United Kingdom was honestly a dream. It’s rather weird because hardly anything resembles what you think it would be, but the UK fulfilled all that, and more. Sufficiently said, the day we left it started pouring heavily in Cambridge, a perfect outward manifestation of our gloom.

But I’ll be back soon, and I’ll ride a bicycle while I’m at it, I promise.

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