20 June 2009

quintessential cambridge experience #4: may week

The pinnacle of the social year at Cambridge is May Week-- which, as you should expect by now, is not in May and lasts considerably longer than a week. I've discussed the Cambridge institution of May Balls before, but here's a quick refresher, which I have lazily copied from my February 15 blog entry and pasted here:

"If you thought formal hall sounded decadent, you ain't seen nothing yet. May Balls are all-night parties put on by most of the colleges... and they are nothing if not celebrations of excess. Think of them as a cross between prom and Project Graduation, marinated in booze. Ticket prices vary widely, but a middle-of-the-road May Ball starts around £100 (about $145). The more prestigious balls are very hard to get into; the ball at St. John's College once made a Time magazine list of the 10 best parties in the world."

I attended two May Balls this year, one at my own Emmanuel College and the other at Jesus College, which I chose because lots of my Development Studies classmates are there. The timing was less than ideal, as they fell on back-to-back nights, but I know many May Ball warriors with far more exacting schedules than mine. To get a sense of what's involved in one of these bacchanals, pour yourself a glass of champagne and enjoy this photographic tour of the Emma May Ball, with the appoximate time each picture was taken.

7:45 pm: Dinner. Many balls offer "dining tickets," which allow you to start off your evening with a multi-course meal a la Formal Hall, for about £30 extra. Despite the general consensus that dining tickets are not worth it, given the copious quantities of food at no extra charge for the rest of the night, I decided to indulge just for the Emma ball.

11:oo pm: Texas hold 'em. Casino games are a May Ball staple. There's no real money at stake; instead, everyone gets an allotment of chips at the door, and those who are successful at poker, routlette or blackjack can cash in their chips for chances to win prizes like plasma TVs or plane tickets. Our poker game coincided with a port tasting in the same room, and James (to my right in this picture) was close enough to the port table that he could refill our glasses simply by swiveling around, not even needing to stand up. Needless to say, the decline in my poker performance was steep and severe-- no plasma screen TV for me!

12:30 am: Cornershop. Any May Ball worth its salt has a main stage with bands playing throughout the night, plus performances elsewhere on the college grounds by comedians, hypnotists, a cappella groups, and dancers. As I discovered at Williams and in Anchorage, these smallish venues tend to bring in bands that are either struggling to make it or washed up. Headlining the Emma ball was a British-Indian group called Cornershop, who are well past their prime and still coasting on the strength of their 1997 hit "Brimful of Asha." These one-hit wonders made the mistake of not saving their one hit for the end of their set, so shortly after the "Asha" was empty, the tent where they were playing nearly was too.

1:15 am: Dodge 'ems. Another essential part of the May Ball experience is carnival games and rides, which range from bumper cars (called dodge 'ems in Britain) to strength tests to ferris wheels. I had a car to myself, and after a full-speed collision with a car containing two of my friends, my butt got enough air that even the dodge 'em guy looked impressed. During the round after us, a piece of the ceiling came off and landed on some poor fellow's head, bringing back memories of that awful Boston tunnel accident. Fortunately this guy was fine- he needed some help out of the car, but I'm pretty sure it was because was blotto before he got in, not because of a concussion.

2:30 am: Hookah. The Ball brought in our friendly neighborhood purveyors of hookah and created a magical little space to chill under the branches of an ancient tree. For the uninitiated, a hookah (often used interchangeably with shisha) is a Middle Eastern water pipe used to smoke flavored tobacco. You can't see most of the pipe in this picture, but Ev (on the left) has the stem in his hand, and in the foreground you can see the blocks of charcoal that heat up the tobacco. At this point in the night, having somewhere to sit and relax was crucial, and I think the key to a successful May Ball is having lots of activities for different energy levels.

4:00 am: Silent Disco. I can't say I fully understand the appeal of Silent Disco, but apparently it's all the rage in Europe. Instead of grooving to the tunes supplied by a DJ, you get a personal set of headphones, which provide a small selection of channels with different types of dance music. When a particularly catchy song played on one of the channels, I would lift my headphones for a moment and could hear scattered people singing along amidst the sound of shuffling bodies and shoes.

5:50 am: Assembling for the "Survivors' Picture." Every May Ball has a "Survivors' Picture" for those who make it all the way to the end. There is also usually some modest breakfast food; Emma had gooey chocolate croissants from the Italian cafe across the street. After the picture was taken I walked home, slept for a few hours, and got ready to do it all again the following night at Jesus College's May Ball. What a life!

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