May Week in Cambridge

May Week is a University of Cambridge tradition—a week of mad revelry that happens, as you definitely would not expect, in June. The highlights of the week are May Balls, elaborate and elegant all-night parties hosted by the colleges. Larger colleges throw balls every year, but the smaller colleges take turns. This year, my alma mater (Corpus Christi College) hosted. Additionally, two white tie balls were held. (Most are black tie.) Since neither of those things happened last year when I was a student at Cambridge, I had to return this year to take part! My week involved very little sleep but lots of alcohol and lots of fun.

I arrived in England on Monday afternoon to the news that a friend had an extra formal hall ticket at Christ’s College that evening. So I dashed to the college, luggage in tow (thank goodness for porters!), and arrived just in time for sherry, good food, half a bottle of wine, and port. Since I don’t drink much in Munich, that was quite the boozy start to my week. In other words, it was good training for what was to come! After a day of meeting up with friends who still live in Cambridge, the real partying started Tuesday night with the St. John’s College May Ball. All sorts of rumors circulate about this party: Time once ranked it the seventh-best party in the world. They keep a reserve fund to buy extra fireworks at the last minute so they can be sure to top Trinity College’s display. I have no clue whether either of those rumors is true, but it was certainly a perfectly elegant evening. We went from bumper cars to swing boats and from pop-rock to beautifully sung opera. I was well-fed with crepes, cheeses, scones, macarons, and pizza. Particular highlights included the fireworks display and the tea bar.

Next up: Magdalene College. I had a dining ticket for this white tie affair, so the party started early with an oysters-and-Champagne reception, then a delicious five-course meal. The Champagne continued to flow all night (with the bottles sabred open, of course), so I treated myself to Bellinis and Kir Royales between punting on the river and trips down the helter-skelter. The comedy acts weren’t to my taste, but the illusionist was impressive. The Fratellis played—while the band name didn’t mean anything to me, I recognized and danced to one song. (Duh-da-da duh-da-da duh-da-da-da-da-da-da!) I got some waltzing and ceilidhing in, too, with another Munich-dwelling Cambridge alum who had also returned for the occasion. After the survivors’ photo at 6am, I stumbled home to catch a few hours of sleep before a Champagne breakfast. Held in the gardens of St. John’s and organized by the beagling society, this (supposedly) exclusive event involved yet more drinking, nibbling on salmon sandwiches, and meeting some very posh-seeming students (as well as some more down-to-earth fellow Gates-Cambridge scholars).

I spent Thursday in London re-connecting with my opera singer friend Charlie and with some very kind Brits I had met at balls in Vienna. (We had a lovely dinner at the Royal Society of Medicine—not that I’d been short on wine or fancy dinners in the days leading up to that!) I stayed the night at Charlie’s place, but on Friday it was back to Cambridge for the final May Ball of the week, at my home college of Corpus Christi. My friend Rowena kindly let me third-wheel with her and her boyfriend, and we did the party right. We sampled kangaroo meat, went on the swing boats more times than I could possibly count, scribbled in coloring books, and jumped up and down for a while at the silent disco. But most importantly, we staked out a spot in the space-limited Master’s Garden. The queues were short there, and they had Aromi pizza and gelato, Champagne, and amazing cocktails. (The gingerbread one tasted just like liquid gingerbread!) We stayed all the way until the 6am finish, fueled by the never-ending supply of freshly fried donuts and the early-morning appearance of giant platters of smoked salmon.

What do you do after partying yourself into the ground for a week? Go to a spa, of course! So I caught a train Saturday morning to Bath Spa. But that’s a trip for another blog post.

Thanks to the amazing Johannes Hjorth for so many great photos. Check out his blog here.