Our First Month in Cambridge

Our First Month in Cambridge
28 September 2003

Hello all!

We have survived our first month in Cambridge. Despite countless warnings to the contrary, England is not a 3rd world country...yet. The plumbing is legendary, and has well earned that reputation. But by far our biggest troubles (and they are small on the grand scale of things) have been with the phone service (and the Brits are very sympathetic about that) and a cheap catalog store called Argos (like Sears used to be - but not as good as Sears, even now).

We arrived (28 August) without incident at Heathrow and were picked up by a large van with a friendly driver who drove us straight to our new house. It was well worth the £££, as we had 8 large suitcases, 4 rollerbags (albeit, 2 of them were the kids'), three backpacks (again, 2 of them, kids'), a laptop bag, and four tired Americans. The house is lovely, although not as furnished as we had expected. "Furnished" in English parlance means anything from feeling like you're imposing on some old relatives who have filled every available corner with ugly knick-knacks on baroque furniture you're scared to touch, to a cot and an old towel. This was pretty much in the middle of that range. Apparently, "letting" (leasing) houses as "furnished" gives the landlord some kind of tax break, so it had a bare minimum of Ikea-level stuff. At any rate, we had packed sheets and towels with us (very wisely) so we could get some sleep that night. None of us had slept much on the flight.

The Adventure Begins at SFO In search of coffee/hot cocoa

The kids immediately found playmates on our street, which is quiet enough to play on, especially compared to Santa Fe Ave. All the other kids have bikes and scooters and such, so the pressure is on to equip. Rowyn has now ridden a trainer bike, and this week we should be outfitting both girls with new bikes. Naomi has been practicing on her friend's scooter. And yes, to those who are dying to know, they are picking up English accents: more slowly than we thought they would, but it's even funnier when they "try" to speak "English."

The school is fine so far. Rowyn was very disappointed (as were we all!) to find out that she was to start school a week after Naomi and then not even full time for a week after that. But she's taken to it all well. They have to wear uniforms, by which they really mean strict guidelines about color (grey, black, white, blue), which I (Alan) had failed to notice in April (maybe the year 5 students I met were slacking off). So we scrambled the first few days to stock up. Now the kids wear "school clothes" and change into "play clothes" when they get home. Our "Culture Shock" guide (thanks, Andy!) points out that this uniform thing may be why the English still dress up for work so much. I know I (Alan) feel awkward in a t-shirt and shorts sometimes just shopping at the corner store. Which is why I wear my Hawaiian shirt or my fez and Hell's Pirates Boat(bowl)ing shirt. Much fancier.

Grinning English Schoolgirls

Both kids are learning to read. Actually, Naomi is reading now, even books to herself. It's been great watching that look on her face as she realizes her new found ability. The kids now have library cards and we've started checking things out (including DVDs!). We are doing without TV for now, but we think we'll succumb fairly soon. Major indicator here is that we already bought a 6 speaker surround-sound stereo which plays DVDs and CDs, so it's only a matter of time. The English are mad about the "Simpsons" and "Will and Grace", so their taste can't be all bad.

So far we are doing well without a car! We live very close to the kids' school (due to a deliberate choice of house), and Alan commutes to work on a bike. Just under ten minutes!!! Whee!!! (My commute to Davis was 1.5 hours each way). Getting around Cambridge by bus has been fairly painless. The city center (centre) is pedestrianized, so a car wouldn't help much anyway. We'll rent one once in a while for longer outings. Speaking of which...

Market Square: note lack of cars. St Mary's church is
in the background (official church of the university)

We are not quite as tall as the
Norman Norwich Keep (photo:Naomi)
Norwich Cathedral; even fancier inside Medieval Round Church in Cambridge
after Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre

Our first few weeks here we spent doing a lot of touristy things around Cambridge: walking through the old Medieval town, taking the double-decker tour bus around town, doing a "chauffeured" punt ride on the River Cam. We've also already taken one short train ride up to Norwich ("nor-itch") for a day with a cathedral and a castle in the mix. The following weekend was a three day weekend for the kids' school, so we headed off to Great Yarmouth on the east coast which sells itself as a resort area with sandy beaches and loads of things for the kids to do.

Punts for hire just off Magdalene Bridge The Bridge of Sighs patterned after Venice's; here, the
condemned cross the river to exams instead of the executioner's
block...wait, is that so different?

There are plenty of playgrounds throughout town, although the one near us is still the best one we've found. There's a really cool wire contraption with a tire suspended from it. You start up on one platform, get a good jump on the tire, and slide across 20 yards or so to a 2nd platform. Naomi and Rowyn are too light to get enough momentum, so we have to help them a bit.

And even more important, we've found a pub nearby that we all like. The Carlton Arms was (apparently) a "ruff pub", but the new owners kicked out the ruffians, and have done up the non-smoking side really nicely into quite a lounge with comfy couches and old board games for the kids. Not quite as kid friendly as Kensington Circus Pub back home, but pretty close. More importantly, they've also reinstituted real cask ales, and even had a mini beer festival with loads to try from all over (burp). And the food is good, too. The girls like fish 'n' chips and bangers 'n' mash, though baked beans aren't quite a hit yet. Anyway, as Rowyn says, "It's a winner."

Things we miss terribly (or how to be homesick by bitching about the place you're in):

(1) coffee. You can find espresso in town at a few good places (and a few awful ones), but just to give you an idea, some of the locals are very excited that Starbucks opened up on the Market Square. Blech. And we haven't found any decent coffee to drink at home at any of the markets. We'll keep you updated if the situation changes, but the going rate for staying with us is one pound of Peet's coffee ground for presspot - Ethiopian Fancy, Garuda or (if staying two weeks) Arabian Mocha Java. [Update - the coffee mart in the square serves one of the best capps in town; and we have a grinder, so bring whole beans when you visit!]

(2) dryers. The English are way too in love with their tiny "airing cupboards" which leave your towels stiff as a board and rough as sandpaper; you can't fit much in them (apparently the English don't wash sheets much?), and if you're lucky, things might dry overnight. We've ordered a dryer - but wait, it gets better - we ordered the very special kind with its own condenser ("oooooh.... aaaaaah"). Well, you try knocking a vent hole in a brick wall.

(3) washing machines. Oh, yes, they have them here. Front loaders only which hold about of what a typical American machine holds; and a normal wash is two hours (!?#@). Luckily, there's a eco-setting which finishes in one hour ("oooooh... aaaaah"). D does loads (no pun intended) of laundry all week. No wonder many English wives don't work outside the home.

(4) toilets. No, of course they have them here. But they all work the same way: oddly. They make a lot of noise and use far too much water (see Utility Bills below) Our landlord converted the garage and put on an addition which includes a downstairs bathroom (giving us a lot more room than the average English terrace house). However, he scrimped by not putting in a proper subfloor, so the drains are not up to code. This means that behind the downstairs toilet is a lovely device called a "saniflush" which makes a nasty grinding noise when you use the loo, wash your hands or take a shower. Yes, you guessed it, it's a garbage disposal on steroids. Pray for us, please that it never explodes or backs up.

(5) We were warned that utility prices were higher here, but then again, we did come from California, so there wasn't as much sticker shock...in fact, gas and electricity are cheaper. But the water! In a country where the rain is legendary, why the (%$&#*) is the water about $70 a month? We're even stuck out here in the bloody Fens, where they've spent hundreds of years erecting all kinds of washes and drains to get the water out! Part of the problem must be that the water isn't metered (except for a very few modern houses). We figure this excessive cost is something to do with subsidizing something, but we can't figure out what.

(6) Of course, we miss our friends and family. It will take some time to make good friends here. A few people at work whom I (Alan) already knew have helped tremendously in making me feel welcome, but they didn't/don't know Debbie or the kids that well. We just got back from the local equivalent of a PTA meeting. That broke some ice, especially since you were welcome to bring your own alcohol. Can you imagine that in an American school, even in the evening?

(7) Debbie's career network. There's a lot of amateur theater here that will probably be grateful if Debbie works for them, but much of it is student related and the rehearsal periods are very long (November audition for April production, for example).

We've found a lot of things we didn't necessarily expect: good sourdough bread is brought up from France every Tuesday to the (very, very good) Cambridge Cheese Shop in town. It's pricey, but reminds us a lot of Grace/Acme type breads. Nothing quite like Semifreddis, though...sigh...[Update - the bread guy in the market moved in about a year ago and makes a wide variety of very good breads including nearly black German rye, good soft Polish rye, and pain à l'ancienne which is very much like Acme/Grace; his prices are still pretty high]

We've even found ingredients for Mexican (well, Tex-Mex) type foods, but the shelf life of the tortillas is a little disturbing (many months). California wine is available, but that's just silly. It's more expensive here and we are looking forward (hic) to educating our palates on European wines. Not English ones, though. A lot of South African wine is here, which I hadn't even thought about...ah, the work ahead of us.

The weather has been pretty damn nice, actually. Lots of sunny days and only a few rainy ones so far. It's coming; it's coming.

We'll do our best to send somewhat regular updates, however, as we settle in more to the work/school routine, there won't be as much to report!

That's all for now (really!).


Alan, Debbie, Naomi, & Rowyn