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.
Sam and I, at the beginning of the evening
Collecting strawberries at the strawberries and Champagne reception
Last night was the first night of Pesach! I spent Wednesday scrubbing my kitchen and oven, and I gave away all my chametz, so I was very prepared. My synagogue held a first-night Seder, and of course I attended. My mom asked me to report back on what was different, but the answer is really: not much. We went through all the prescribed steps. We (well, the children) walked around the room to “cross the red sea”. We opened the door to call for Elijah. We even sang some songs in English (like the song about the four children to the tune of “Clementine”). The rabbi actually gave me a surprise solo—he asked me to sing “My Favorite Things” with the lyrics re-written for Pesach. It went over well.
In traditional fashion, I got pretty drunk on my four full glasses of wine. (I had a bottle to myself, and I finished it.) But I learned that I possess two very important life skills. First, I can still carry on decent conversations in English, German, Italian, and Spanish after a bottle of wine. (We have a very international community at Beth Shalom.) Second, even when I am drunk, I can remember and sing all of Chad Gadya without getting tongue-tied. No one else was singing Chad Gadya, so it ended up being a second, unsolicited solo, but at that point I was too tipsy to care.
Germany has a tradition (imitated worldwide) of Christmas markets. Every December, pretty much every “platz” in the city turns into a sea of wooden huts selling mulled wine, candles, scarves, jewelry, sweets, or other trinkets. Needless to say, my fellow Fulbrighters and I have been making a tour of the markets, large and small.
Drinking Feuerzangenbowle (mulled wine, with a sugar cube drenched in rum and lit on fire) with Sonja at the Tollwood Chirstmas market
I’m honestly not sure what these giant windmill-y things are, but all the Christmas markets have them in a vaguely central location. This one is at the Residenz
A sculpture made from recycled metal at the Tollwood Christmas market
“Poor Pig” sculpture at the Tollwood Christmas market. The mouth shot smoke
Rotkreuzplatz Christmas market
Medieval Christmas market at Odeonsplatz. I didn’t get a picture, but there were costumed actors walking around (including one carrying hooded falcons)
Medieval Christmas market at Odeonsplatz
Medieval Christmas market at Odeonsplatz. Stalls sold weapons and cloaks, as well as the usual jewelry, food, and drink
Medieval Christmas market at Odeonsplatz. The “apothecary” sold various sorts of liquor in small vials
Feuerzangenbowle came in an impressive ceramic flagon at the medieval Christmas markets. (It was on fire when I got it, really!) But not a flagon with a dragon, so I didn’t have to worry about the pellet with the poison
Degrees work strangely at Cambridge. I was approved for my M.Phil. in June, but I couldn’t actually graduate until October’s convocation. For most Americans, that would be kind of annoying, because it’s a long, expensive flight to England. But, of course, I didn’t move back to America, and it’s a short, cheap flight from Munich.
The Gates-Cambridge Scholars Alumni Reunion was the weekend before graduation, so I decided to attend that too and stay the week. It started with a presentation and workshop on foreign aid.
The most interesting and challenging part of the workshop was a role-playing activity where we had to negotiate aid amounts and distribution for a fictional, conflict-torn country. I was the UN official responsible for getting various NGOs, corporate interests, rebel groups, and government officials to agree to a plan. I determined that I am definitely not (yet) qualified for such a role in real life.