It’s 8pm Saturday and I’m packing up. The taxi is ordered for the morning. I walked the route we’d take to the bus, and at a good clip, it has taken me three quarters of an hour. That would be silly in the dark, with all the possibilities of getting lost. I don’t think the guys will mind either. They’ve been troopers about walking around here.
We started into town after a quick breakfast this morning. The fellows walked a predictable route: I tried an unknown cross-street on my bike and ended up a long way away. One thing I love about cycling is that it usually doesn’t take much time to get places. However, by the time I found my way through morning rush hour to the Union, the guys are already there: I’ve been cycling steadily for 25 minutes and probably went four or five miles.
I don’t know why I am so directionally challenged in Cambridge (just like when we lived here). Nothing is on a north-south orientation, so one minute you are going in one direction, and the next you have taken a slight turn and wandered off to somewhere completely different. I know a few main roads as landmarks, and can find my way with those. Often I feel like I'm lost, very strange for a person who normally has a map and compass in her head. It’s not worrying at all – just odd.
“It seems like Oxford has more money,” Ned observes as we sit and wait for the morning’s announcements. At Oxford, a few alcohol companies bought drinks and Price-Waterhouse sponsored the event. Cambridge is quieter, classier, more sure of itself. And better organized! People adjust to Cambridge. People flow in and around the institutions here. Though there are three million visitors each year, it doesn’t feel like the tourist hive of Oxford.
The music is cranked up in the Union Chamber as the rounds are announced via PPT. One of the conveners is an Asian male whose head is shaved except for a 2” Mohawk. I thought that went “out” years ago, but at least he’s easy to spot.
Typically, teams and rooms are assigned first. Then the motion (the statement under debate) is given, with 15 minutes of preparation before the round begins. Each speaker has 7 minutes to speak. Then the judges send debaters out of the room and deliberate to assign ranking of team and grade each speaker.
Two rounds today were confusing to evaluate: sometimes the teams chased rabbit trails and made convoluted arguments unrelated to the motion. The chair judges marked all speaker scores low. “Half of them have to be below average after all, don’t they now?” (think a lilting Irish accent for that comment.) The chairs judges are excellent, experienced, and know exactly what they’re listening for. They grade according to whether the debate satisfies World Debate criteria.
My first group meets in the Kennedy Room. We have a bird’s eye view of the courtyard below with its paved walkways weaving through spaces between old brick and stone buildings. Small clumps of debaters prep their arguments below, talking passionately to prepare their case. Some stroll off to room assignments in other buildings. Some punctuate their points with finger jabs. A few must have headaches from last night’s drinking party, looking at their careful posture.
The Union building is tucked behind the oldest Christian worship place in Cambridge, the Round Church, one of only four round medieval churches in England. The small sign to one side of the church that points to the Union is easy to miss. Typically, one important building is hidden from the street by another historical landmark. I lock my cycle to the iron railing along the walkway each time I arrive.
The first debate considers the value of instant replays on international sports. This week the Irish were put out of the running for the World Cup by a Frenchman whose hand touched the winning ball as it went into the goal: the Irish are outraged. Without an instant replay, the ruling stood. France advances. Ireland stays home. Debaters either laugh or groan when the topic is announced. A young woman asks the air, “and this is worth debating?” I tell Ned why the topic came up so he and Tom are prepared for the discussion. (I keep up with the BBC news.)
The second debate is if the USA should pay war repatriations to Vietnam. No one argues with the South African who states that the USA acts only in its own interests in foreign policy and chooses whom to help, based on its own gain and political advantage. I shake my head at students’ simplistic and naive views and anti-Americanism, even among American debaters.
One gal goes into every empty room to turn off lights, explaining, "I'm so anxious about global warming. 90% of scientists agree that there may be 6o of temperature increase in the next years." I mention that the last article I read on climate was in a British science column. Scientists say if solar flares continue to decrease, we may be entering a mini-ice-age. Does that concern her? She goes blank and defaults to how no one is willing to sacrifice materialism for a good cause. Ok.
Sprinkled throughout the past two weekends of debates, various speakers have lauded Obama for beginning to undo "all the failed policies of Bush." Everyone nods in agreement. "Finally, an American president cares about the world beyond his country.” As I scribble notes to keep track of the points being made, I wonder if most adults would develop nervous twitches when listening to the wisdom of youth day in and day out.
We’re late getting out of the judging session so the NU team as gone off to lunch with money left over from yesterday. I buy myself an all-right Indian curry for lunch nearby. L8 sounds doable. The portion is small, and a lunch-sized plate of rice is an additional L2.50. By the time the waiter tacks on a service charge and I pay up, there’s no way I’m spending more money on food today! (One pound buys between $1.67 and $1.87US, depending where we buy pounds.)
I am tracking down B. Bittermints (candy) for Waldemar. After looking in shops all week, I finally find the last two packages at Tesco in the far east side of town. As I hop back on the bike, wind gusts lift my hair. Then I notice my hat is missing. After retracing the roads back to the restaurant, the waiter finds it had fallen out of my bag and is lying beside the table. Then it’s back up to the north-east corner of town to settle accounts at the guest house.
Shortly after, I’m out the door again. I am trying to find a shortcut to walk to the coach tomorrow morning. It will be dark. And the park trails go here and there without clear signposts: “city center” and “railway station” indicate general directions, not streets. On the bike, backtracking is efficient. I have to watch for cars in the roundabouts, but they are looking for bicycles, too. It is such a relief not to wear a helmet. There is nothing in my way as I look over my shoulder, no distracting cord binding my neck. I remember hating to wear helmets when we moved back to the States, but I’d forgotten why until this lovely week without one. I reacquaint myself with little neighborhoods and narrow lanes, but don't find a good route.
At 4.30pm, it's getting dark as I lock the bike to the bike rails at Tyndale and toss the key through the mailbox – someone will return it to the cycle shop on Monday.
On the way back to town, I go through Newnham College with its wonderful gardens. I slip through the back gates near Tyndale to stroll through the acres of courtyard, out past the porter’s fantastic entry, down a little lane, across the street to duck behind a hotel… and here is the path to town through the fens (grassy swampland). The sidewalks around the bus stops are plugged with people, who cheer loudly when a late bus arrives. It takes me 1.15 to walk from Tyndale to the Lantern House. I already miss my bike, wobbly handlebars, sturdy mountain bike frame, ringy bell, and all. And the most direct walk from coach stop to guest house takes 45 minutes. Too long.
The landlady is back with a new engagement ring on her finger. Her partner has proposed, and I’m the first person she’s told, besides her daughters. “Now that I’ve told one, I can tell everyone,” she beams. We’ll miss the celebration at breakfast tomorrow!
I eat leftovers in my room and organize for travels tomorrow. I slip a note under the door for the guys, telling them when the taxi will take us to the coach stop. Hopefully Tom can whittle the size of his cargo bag down to checked luggage, or we’ll be standing at the baggage claim after we arrive in Seattle.
I can’t wait to hear how the final debates went… there’s no way I can get to them and wake on time tomorrow. As it is, it may be 10pm when I crawl under the covers.
And two pairs of trousers and a top are missing. I probably left them in the room across the hall when they moved me yesterday. Hopefully those will turn up before I leave tomorrow.