Before Cambridge, I had never lived alone. I also had never lunched on my own. Admittedly, I was not entirely alone. Two months before, I had stumbled upon the opportunity to write poetry and prose at the intellectual home of John Milton, Lord Byron, and Lord Alfred Tennyson, among others. Unable to resist the temptation of summer discovery in England, I found myself passing three and a half weeks of July at a creative writing program at Peterhouse.
Along with 28 others, I dwelled in the newest dormitory on campus, which was located in the oldest constituent college of the university. We hobnobbed with the hundred other people in our summer program during our visits to the dining hall. Together we nibbled on dishes, which my colleagues described as mildly palatable, in a vast wooden room illuminated by midday light that shone through 700-year-old, scintillating cerulean and amber stained glass windows. We ate surrounded by history, but only for breakfast and dinner. Lunch was not provided, so every day at noon I ventured out into the clamorous cobblestone streets of Cambridge with my new friends.
As an only child, my parents never released me to wander my compact, bovine neighborhood in Southwest Portland, Oregon, alone. An adult family member had escorted me every time I left the house. There had always been someone who explored and made decisions for me. Now I roamed the sprawling, sinuous lanes of a medieval English town accompanied only by friends, who came from all corners of the globe. I scented freedom.
My usual lunch party consisted of a Russian-speaking Lisbonite, a chess-playing Gujarati, and a Chinese-American boy from Los Angeles. Sometimes an Israeli girl who lived in Tokyo would join us. They all seemed more accustomed to an independent lifestyle than I was.
Convening in front of the Peterhouse chapel, we strode through the tall, wrought-iron gates of the college and sallied forth onto King’s Parade, the beating heart of Cambridge. We crossed in front of jet-black 20th-century taxis that looked more like human-sized boxes on pairs of petite wheels than working carriages. We evaded ubiquitous throngs of Asian tourists that crammed all free spaces in the center of town.
We circumvented university student hawkers who hungrily strove to persuade passersby into going punting, a unique form of rowing on the river Cam. Dozens of them shouted their fares above the pervasive hubbub of Mandarin and the general tumult around King’s College, whose celebrated chapel attracts visitors in droves. We traversed the burnt umber and saffron-colored stalls of the Market Square every day, savoring the aromas of jars brimming with lemon-coriander and garlic-stuffed olives, freshly baked and sun-dried tomato focaccia bread, and golden-brown Spanish churros, whose crispiness was palpable in the sweet-smelling air.
Scottish, Turkish, and traditional English eateries saw us as regular customers. Following a delectable main course of fish-cake or seasoned lamb, we regularly engaged in half-hour discussions of Portuguese colonial history. Each of us was inspired by nearby chamomile tea and buttered scones, with our friend from Lisbon fervently gesticulating and furrowing his dark brows all the while.
However, independence brought aggravating experiences. We were frequently discriminated against in restaurants. Servers typically seated us, took our orders, and granted us our check last, seeing after the needs of older customers first, even if they had arrived later. On such ill-fated days we ended up dashing across half the town to reach our afternoon classes on time.
Splitting the bill was a delicate and sometimes bothersome task. More than once a companion offered to treat us to lunch. As well-mannered folk, we agreed only once. I learned to count and save money during the three weeks of my independent living. After every hearty meal, the lightning rate at which my allotted sum vanished stunned me. Coupled with refining my technique in choosing the most reasonably priced restaurant, I began to consider the importance of earning money and to devise various schemes to start going about it.
It was at Cambridge that I first had to explain my nationality to kids my age. My affinity for speaking Russian complicated that task. One way or another, I conveyed to everyone I met that I was well-versed in the language, hoping that they might be too. At home I spoke in Russian with my family and my parents’ friends, so I seized the opportunity to find a discourser my age. On the fifth day of the program I encountered Erik, a 13-year-old aspiring entomologist from Prague.
“Veliky cesky narod!” I exclaimed in broken Czech. Erik nodded proudly, agreeing on the glory of his homeland. He was a foot taller than me and clad in a drooping, coal-black waistcoat.
“You are from Russia, yes?” he inquired benevolently. I had told him I spoke Russian, a language similar to his.
“My parents were born there, but I’m not Russian.”
“Then who are you?” His thick glasses glinted in the shadowy, moonlit night. We stood before our dormitory, from which thundered laughter in an otherwise silent dusk. The lucid light emanating from the bright chamber reflected in his spacious lenses.
“I’m American,” I asserted.
“There’s no such thing as being ‘American.’”
“Because it doesn’t exist. You’re from the native country of your parents.” He glowered, I distinguished in the dark. I sensed his tone had soured and his speech had flared. Several soundless moments passed as I considered whether it was worth insisting upon my new-world identity.
“Fine,” I acquiesced. “Then I’m Ukrainian.” I had never uttered these words before in my life.
“That’s better.” He grinned. “We Slavs are a powerful people.” Ukrainians are a Slavic people like the Czechs and Russians. “We must stick together.”
“You know what,” I started, remembering that Chernivtsi, the birthplace of my parents, was a regional capital of the Kingdom of Romania prior to WWII. I was eligible to become a Romanian citizen. “I think I would rather be Romanian.”
“That’s also fine. Remember your country! Carry pride!” In the span of a minute, I had gone from being American to Ukrainian to Romanian. My grandfather, before I departed for Cambridge, had warned me of the possibility of experiencing an inexplicable anti-American sentiment among the people I would meet. I had not believed him, and so Erik from Prague opened my eyes.
On the last day, I left behind the museum where I had been living alone for a month. I had discovered many sublime things during my sojourn in England. Independent life had brought me tea-filled conversations with friends, colleagues from the U.S., Europe, and Asia who shared my interests, and adventures through medieval colleges, streets, and colorful markets. I had also been exposed to some of the grim realities of self-sufficiency, including the lingering burden of paying bills. At the same time, my revealing exchange with Erik introduced me to the peculiar behavior that I should be prepared to encounter in the future. All in all, I was transformed by my brief taste of university life.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.