First REAL day in Cambridge

[Note: This is the beginning of my sabbatical in Cambridge in 2011, the visit that yielded my books THE DISTRACTION ADDICTION and REST.]

I woke up some time before 6 this morning, roused myself out of bed after a while, and got my morning started.

The house I’ve rented is a century-old place, with singing pipes and radiators that deliver a certain amount of heat. It’s actually fairly cozy in some rooms, which is nice; the bathroom includes some fixtures– including a gravity toilet and a cast-iron water tank that would kill whoever it fell on– that I suspect are original, or if not are built to last the ages.

My street
my road, via flickr

Since I haven’t figured out the bus system, and wanted to get a sense of the area, I walked from the house to the lab. It’s a straight shot down a couple major roads, or at least as “straight” a shot as you get when you’re walking on roads that were originally carved by Roman oxen. (Though the twistiness of the roads might be psychological compensation for the fact that is so flat here– it introduces a measure of variety in an area that has little topological variability, and indeed hardly a difference between the day and night temperatures.)

I still needed to get a local cellphone, and start the process of getting my financial life in order here, but I wanted to be on time for my first day of work more, so I gave myself plenty of time. It takes about half an hour to walk here– a good way to get the morning started– so I had time to find the cafe. Natural law says that there had to be a cafe nearby, and indeed there was.

Another one of the labs
engineering building, via flickr

The Microsoft lab is mixed in with the Cambridge science center, and is in a complex with a bunch of physics labs, computer science, and the inevitable entrepreneurship center, which is where the coffee place is. It’s pleasant– super-modern and light– but it’s that kind of space that could be in Espoo, Finland; Natal, Brazil; Durham, North Carolina; or, well, either Cambridge– that sort of slightly anonymous research space that could be corporate, academic, and could be anywhere– and so in a weird way is kind of nowhere.

Cafe space
big coffee space, via flickr

So I’m not in the part of “Cambridge” that gets filmed, but the part where real people work and do research (to the extent that real people do research). But that’s fine with me.

The first day or so when I’m in a new place, as my body deals with jet lag and overdoses of caffeine, strange food, too little food, etc., I sometimes get these shocks of existential crisis: this overwhelming awareness that I’m thousands of miles away from everything I know and love, in a place that’s alien, and among people I don’t know. This can hit when I’m on a busy city street, or alone in a hotel room; I suspect it’s as much a physical or physiological thing as an emotional one. As I was walking to work, I had a bit of that feeling, lurking on the edge of my awareness.

J J Thomson Road
J J Thomson Ave, via flickr

But as I got closer to the lab, that started to fade; and it might sound absurd, but being in places named after people I’ve studied and read about was heartening, and made me feel a bit more at home. Being at the corner of J J Thomson (one of the founders of atomic physics) Avenue and Charles Babbage (needs no introduction) Road, and from there looking at the Bragg (X ray crystallography) Laboratory, and knowing that this is a place where lots of people I’ve written about did their work.

I may not know many living people here, but I know these people.

Charles Babbage Road
Charles Babbage road, via flickr

In a way it’s crazy, but that recognition makes the place feel less strange.

We tend to forget it in Silicon Valley, but some of the fundamental work in computer science was done here in Cambridge. Maybe leaving Palo Alto (Palo Alto!!!) to come here to work on contemplative computeing– to be in a place within whistling distance of Charles Babbage Road, in a place that’s been central to science for centuries– is not such a crazy thing after all.

Roger Needham Building
my workplace, via flickr

Having fortified myself with a double espresso, I then went off to the lab, to start my new life. The rest of the morning was spent doing orientation things– HR stuff, having the IT policies and networks explained, and setting up my computer (a very nice, fast desktop with two monitors). Since this a Real Corporate Lab, they don’t really let you use your own machines there, so my walk into the office will now be lighter.

After lunch I walked to the bank, and after a couple hours managed to set up a bank account. At least I have a number, and the woman who was helping me thought she had gotten far enough in the process before the system went down to invest confidence in the bank account number she gave me. From there, it was over to the cellphone store to get a SIM card, then back to the lab for a couple more hours.

From there, I walked back to the city centre. By that time it was dark, though by 5 pm it’s pretty much night.

On my way home
heading home, via flickr

I kind of had a craving for fish and chips, but decided it could wait another day. (Strangely, I’ve been able to find Indian, Chinese, lots of trendy Italian and French, and if I walked around enough could probably lay hands on a Scottish-Japanese sashimi haggis fusion place… but no fish and chips shops, where the meal is a race to finish before an increasingly soggy-from-oil-and-vinegar piece of newspaper falls completely apart.) Instead, I went to Sainsbury’s, a supermarket in town, and stocked up on essentials: bread, crackers, apples, cheese, rotisserie chicken, yogurt for breakfast…

After all that, I was feeling more like I’ve got a life here. Though I think I’ll call it an early night in my new home.

Lamp post
night light, via flickr

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