Cambridge, England: Riding My Ex's Dinner Jacket Tails into the Fantasy University Experience I Never Had

Catching Feels in Cambridge: In which I finally get to live out my Hogwarts fantasy, pretended to be a perfect Asian tiger cub for a hot minute, and waltzed with the Rick Blaine to my Ilsa Lund* under the moonlight on the grounds of Trinity College. Romance isn’t dead - it’s just moved to Cambridge.

- 20 - 22 July 2019 -

*That is, if Ilsa were a bratty brunette of Malaysian-Chinese descent and if Rick - although still American and still jaded - is not nearly as bitter. The setting is Cambridgeshire in peacetime rather than Casablanca on the brink of war, but baby, between “Rick” and I, there always has been and there always will be a battle - of wits.

For the avoidance of doubt, allow me to point out what should, but may not, be obvious: I am far from the perfect, academic child that all Asian Tiger Parents yearn for. I’m no musical prodigy, although I did take piano lessons from ages 7 to 17 and can do a semi-decent Clayderman impression if you bribe me with bubble tea. Other Malaysian CRAs (Crazy Rich Asians) my age were studying law/medicine/business - in Melbourne for those with parents with separation anxiety, or at Oxbridge if they were exceptional. Myself, however, I inverted the “she’s studying in England, so she must be a top student” trope by spending my university days being compared to the subject of the angsty class-war anthem Common People - “She came from (Malaysia) she had a thirst for knowlege, she studied (Design) at St Martin’s College, that’s where I caught her eye”. 

I didn’t leave college with a MA, a MBA, or even a MRS (unlike some women, I didn’t go to university for the purpose of finding a husband). Heck, I didn’t even get a First - I only managed a 2:1. My daughter went to England and all she got me was this lousy BA (Hons) in Design. I was extremely lucky to have a unicorn for an Asian parent - a mother who peacefully accepted that her eldest child would go down the “creative route” (imagine those words said with an affectation of delicate horror). Mummy didn’t just tolerate my “artistic inclinations” (again, another gentle shudder) - she actually supported my eccentric endeavours and only twitched silently when I committed to the bohemian roleplay by living in various hovels across London’s East End. 

So, no - I had no regrets of not studying at Oxford and/or Cambridge. Not once did I wonder how student life would be different had I swapped the mean streets of London for the hallowed halls of the Home Counties. Until I got a Whatsapp message from an American ex-lover, who I shall henceforth refer to as "Rick" (as in Rick Blaine of Rick's CafĂ© AmĂ©ricain, Casablanca) - “Hey, kid* - do you want to come with me to my 10-year Cambridge class reunion?” 

*and yes - like the original Rick Blaine, "my Rick " also calls me "kid".

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

With those words, the sleeper agent in me was activated. “Sweetie darling, long time no hear, it’s been years. Why, yes,  I would like to accompany you to dinner at Trinity College. Black tie? I’ll dust off the heirloom jade, then. Could we afterward take a walking tour of the colleges and perhaps nab an official Cambridge University jacket?” Before I could even say “You can take the woman out of Asia but you can’t take the Asia out of the woman”, preparations were made. I rewatched The Theory of Everything to get myself in the mood for a weekend at Cambridge (bad move, I was sad for days). "Rick" made reservations at The Gonville, a chic boutique hotel on the Southern edge of Parker’s Piece. The Gonville is so centrally-located (a 5 minute hop, skip, and jump to the historic city centre) that we had no use for the hotel’s free bicycles nor the courtesy Bentley S1. All that was left to do was for Rick to fly in to England from USA and for me to not crash the car during the 60 mile drive from London to Cambridge. 

Spoiler: we made the 90-minute journey with nary a temper lost. It only took 7 years for some character development...

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

Rick was about to give me the “studying in England” experience I had sorely craved and missed.

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

I first met "Rick" in London while trying to hail down a black cab (those were pre-Uber days) outside the now-defunct Bodo's Schloss - an alpine lodge-themed nightclub on the corner of High Street Kensington. That sentence alone should tell you how long ago it was, but for those not in the know - it was 2012. I was 25, he was 35. He called me "kid" then, and he still calls me "kid" now - although his vocabulary has expanded to include a semi-ironic "darling" and if he's feeling generous, "babe". In the 7 years that we've known each other, Rick and I have had a few passionate but short-lived and volatile affairs, which I blame on our horoscopes. We are both Leos (uh-oh). I'm a Fire Tiger  and he's a Fire Dragon (oh dear). Incendiary does not even begin to describe us - Rick and I get on like a house on fire but unfortunately we burn down everything in our path. Both Western and Eastern astrology are opposed to our having a peaceful relationship. We were literally star-crossed lovers. 

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

Despite the fact that we are challenged both in the metaphysical and physical way (we live on different continents),  "Rick" and I remain close friends. It had been 2 years since we'd last seen each other. I was already tantalised with the prospect of a catch up in Cambridge when he sealed the deal with “you can live out all your Harry Potter fantasies” at the universities. Rick was referring to all the formal and frankly, odd traditions; but what he didn’t realise was that I saw my chance at redemption. 

You see, when I first arrived in England as a sheltered 19 year old I expected all of London to look like the magical world of Harry Potter. My first ever flat was in a cute red-brick building literally right beside the Royal Albert Hall. My reaction to living in South Kensington? Meh, it’s alright - a little underwhelming. Imagine my shock when I ventured outside of SW7. Where did all these modern monstrosities come from?! Where are the stone castles overrun with wild roses and ivy? The gothic architecture? The moving portraits and the poltergeists?! And then a cheeky housemate tipped me over the edge by making me watch, in her words - “a satire that paints an accurate portrait of the brave new world you’ve left Malaysia for" - Little Britain. I burst into tears. 

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

It has been 13 years but I can still taste the palpable disappointment of my expected surroundings vs the reality. And this was before all the University of The Arts London colleges were consolidated into a singular modern campus in King’s Cross. My class was among the last few batches to study at the Grade II listed Lethaby Building on Southampton Row, and even that building wasn’t “Hogwarts-y enough” for me. I know, I'm ridiculous. Sigh...

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

"You had me at 'Harry Potter fantasies'..." 

 I had always admired "Rick" for his worldliness and wit. Without going into any sensitive detail (we'll wait until I write an unauthorised biography which I'll then sell to Netflix), here was a man who had lived the equivalent of several lifetimes and had enough adventures to fill several tomes, yet emerged relatively unscathed - still skipping, singing, and spittin' ill sh*t on a daily basis. If there was anyone I could vicariously live out my unfulfilled "studying at Hogwarts" fantasies through, it would be Rick. I couldn't have asked for a better guide to university life at Cambridge. Rick took me for a long walk along the Backs - where the rear grounds of the prime schools (Trinity HallTrinityKing’sQueen'sSt Johns, and Clare) backed out to the impossibly picturesque River Cam. He showed me the best spots to watch tourists attempt to punt down the Cam (the most popular starting point is at The Anchor. We nabbed a prime outdoor seat and enjoyed the show over Pimm's and cheeseburgers), lose their poles (we counted 5 in one hour while having afternoon tea on the lawn at the DoubleTree Hilton), and fall off the stern and into the water (we witnessed one such mishap. It was glorious). 

Rick regaled anecdotes from the May Ball of his year - not so much the lavish, formal end-of-exam ball but rather the notorious afterparty carnage that always makes its way into the tabloids the following days. He told me that the Bridge of Sighs (above) was named for the sighs of students who cross the bridge to and from their exams. He led me through verdant paths shaded by willow trees, where we could hear couples giggling from behind the bushes. He brought me to King's College early in the morning so that I could have the chapel all to myself. He waited patiently while I mulled over a lovely duck-egg blue University of Cambridge jacket (I didn't buy it. I'm sure I'll regret it when autumn comes). Rick explained the difference between the gowns (the university population) and the towns (the local community). Rick insisted that the Reality Checkpoint was so-called because it was the last street lamp between the bars and the dorms, and therefore one's final chance to take a good, hard look at who you've picked up and are about to bring home for the night.

By day and from a tourist's perspective, the college city of Cambridge is already a world of its own.

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

And here I was, about to experience Cambridge like an insider - dining in Trinity College's hall, under the watchful eye of Henry VIII.  

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

If I hadn't quite grasped how momentous this alumni reunion was, it hit home the moment the dinner gong sounded, followed by the announcement that for just this one night, we were allowed to walk on the lawns. Gasp. One of the more famous college traditions is that it is strictly forbidden to lay so much as a toe on the grass - people have been banned for such transgressions. Joyous leaps, struts, and dances on the venerated lawns ensued. You could say that the entire class had waited a decade for this chance.

Moral of the story: date someone who studied at Cambridge. If you play the long game, you too might get to romp on the grass without putting in any of the hard work. Talk about riding Rick's coat dinner jacket tails...

The rest of the evening went by in a blur of marching waiters, glasses of port, and endless eyebrow-raising anecdotes about "Rick" from his classmates (most of which he didn't even bother to deny). Under the soaring ceilings of Trinity College's Hall, my thoughts had room to wander. Rick was the age I am now when he graduated from Cambridge (we both graduated from our respective universities in 2009, what a coincidence). I wonder - maybe I’m not too old to go back to school? I could do a Rick - go to Cambridge and collect another degree just because I can, although I doubt I am compelling enough to have scholarships thrown at me. Perhaps I could read Asian and Middle Eastern Studies...

Cambridge, England: A Romantic Weekend Rendezvous by Posh, Broke, & Bored

I had come with "Rick" to see Cambridge both through his eyes and also a Harry Potter-tinted lens. To catch a glimpse of what it would've been like to be the perfect Asian Tiger cub who studied in one of the world's most prestigious universities and to pretend that I had received my invitation to Hogwarts. I was simply here to role-play for a night - I didn't expect to literally see fireworks. We snuck off into dark, secluded, vine-covered courtyards for fresh air between courses. Afterward, surprised by the impromptu fireworks display, Rick and I danced (or rather, a champagne-soaked shuffle) on the grounds of Trinity while the explosives spelt out metaphors in the sky. We then set off for the afterparties on foot, the cobblestone streets devoid of tourists, filled instead with gowns sweeping merrily in search of more port. We paused to contemplate King's College bathed in moonlight, where, against the incomparably romantic gothic backdrop, he pulled me in for a lingering kiss. 

"Rick" had made me nostalgic for something I had never experienced - a stint at University of Cambridge. Quite the feat. But for that brief weekend in Cambridge; I felt all the romance, magic, and mystery I had hoped for my university experience. It had been 13 years in the making, and the long wait had only intensified the delayed gratification. The next day, Rick left for his corner of the world and we both went back to our own lives. But what about us? We never had Paris, but we'll always have Cambridge.


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