I am back in Cambridge for the madness of "freshers' week" after a fun but soggy few days in the Lake District. A few thoughts before I return to the more mundane tasks of assembling my life:
The Scholars. I traveled with 100-odd Gates scholars, most of them freshly minted like me, but there was also a number of returning scholars doing multi-year degrees who served as our chaperones/tour guides. I referred to them as "the elders" until I realized that I am older than most of them; one, in fact, is younger than my youngest sibling! For those not familiar with the program, the Gates Cambridge Trust can theoretically support scholars from any country except the UK. Our group was roughly half Americans, but it included students from countries ranging from Canada to Zambia to Croatia to Malaysia.
Poets and opium-heads. Our Lake District amusements included orienteering in the rain, hiking in the rain, kayaking in the rain, visiting a gingerbread bakery in the rain, and touring the former home of the great poet William Wordsworth in the rain. Wordsworth's house began its life as a pub and hosted a number of colorful men of letters as long-term houseguests. Sir Walter Scott, who tried his best to be polite but could not abide by the Wordsworths' teetotaling and twice-daily consumption of porridge, would sneak out the window of the guest room each morning to get a proper English breakfast and a pint of beer before his hosts woke up. Another guest, Thomas de Quincey, penned Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, possibly launching the addiction-memoir genre that has more recently given us Augusten Burroughs and James Frey.
Encounters with bad British food, volume 1. On the way to the Lake District, we stopped at a park for a picnic lunch. We were each issued the kind of lunch you carried to school in 3rd grade: a sandwich, a bag of "crisps," a juice box, fruit, and some "biscuits," all in a brown paper bag. The first unusual thing I noticed about my tuna sandwich was that it had corn in it, which seemed odd but wasn't a dealbreaker. (The Subway chain has stores here, and it has corn in its lineup of vegetable toppings.) A few bites in, however, I noticed a taste that was vaguely familiar, mildly unpleasant, and definitely out of place. I puzzled aloud about the taste until a nearby scholar, an Irish woman, filled me in on the mystery ingredient: margarine. Tuna salad, white bread, corn, and margarine-- yuck. Fortunately, the names of the crisps and the biscuits provided some comic relief. The flavors of crisps included "Ready Salted" and "Prawn Cocktail," while my cookies carried the appetizing name of "Digestives."
The family name. Perhaps as some kind of karmic compensation for elementary school taunts about my last name, the Powers name won me an unprecedented degree of cachet with the Gates crowd. A few of the returning Gates scholars who organized the trip told me that they were eager to meet me because of my name. I accepted the compliment as graciously as I could, but mentioned that my name couldn't stand up to that of one of my Alaska friends, Dan Stellar. The name Daniel just sounds like a winner all around, and when combined with a last name that's a synonym for "awesome," it's pretty much impossible to compete.