Wednesday, May 27, 2009
I graduated from college five years ago this week. It’s hard to believe. I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. Thankfully, I had another chance to experience college, see my friends, and walk the grounds of my alma mater this weekend.
On Friday afternoon I headed out to New England for my five year reunion at Brown. I arrived in Boston in the early evening and took the train from South Station to Providence. Having never taken a train in the U.S. before, it was a somewhat strange experience.
As I waited in the station for the platform number to appear on the board, I looked around and saw American restaurants, heard American accents (of the awful valley girl variety; I never realized until now how bad that accent is), and saw American cities up on the board. New York, Providence, and Wooster took the place of Oxford, Cambridge, and Slough. It was very strange.
My train arrived around 7:30pm and after getting ready at my hotel (no dorms for this lady; there’s a reason I don’t wear shower shoes anymore!), I went up to College Hill with a friend to attend Campus Dance, Brown’s annual Friday night reunion party on the green.
The weather was gorgeous—a balmy 88 degrees—and the night was perfect for catching up with old friends. The whole green was lit with lanterns while the bands played music all night long. Alumni of all ages shared small reunions of their own while graduates-to-be partied on the dance floor (some a little too hard—there was a kid who looked like he was about 12 years old carted out on a stretcher after having too much to drink).
After Campus Dance we had our obligatory walk up Thayer Street, the main hangout for Brown students when they’re not on campus. I ducked into Viva, the perennial International bar/club with an Estonian friend, to say hi to friends from Finland to France to Colombia.
A bit later we were back on Thayer walking up to East Side Pockets to get some late night falafel. Too bad we weren’t the only ones with that idea. Half our class and most of several others were already crammed into the tiny falafel place. Rather than wait an hour for a pita, we headed back to the hotel.
Four hours later I was up and ready to go back to campus. This time it was for a more sober occasion: the memorial service for classmates that have passed away since graduation. Since I knew one of the people who died, I was asked to be a candle lighter for the service.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t told until after I got there that the friend was technically class of 2005 and so wasn’t being honored in this year’s ceremony. I felt somewhat shambolic lighting a candle for five other people I had never met, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.
After the service I went back to the hotel and met up with my boyfriend, who had just flown in. He and I went back to campus with my friend to check out the tail end of the class breakfast, which consisted of two rather lonely muffins and not much else. The meal was redeemed by the fact that two of my college roommates and a bunch of our friends were there, so we sat down to talk with them for awhile before our stomachs told us we needed to get some more food.
Back on Meeting Street, we were searching for breakfast. We tried Meeting Street Cafe, but the line was out the door. On Thayer Street we ran into a friend from my class that I only recently met through friends in London. He was in search of pizza, so we joined him and had two huge slices for brunch. Running into a friend on the street and having time to stop and get a meal with him made me miss college. The things I took for granted!
After brunch we headed up to the field behind the athletic center. Funny, because I never even knew there was a field behind the athletic center. The field was the location of our class photo, after which we spent the afternoon catching up with a lot of friends and dancing to the music of Dave Binder, a musician that always played at our Spring Weekend concerts.
My boyfriend, who had never seen Dave Binder, couldn’t stand what he thought were the childish songs and hand motions that we were all so excited about. I guess if you don’t have memories of doing the Hokey Pokey and singing the Green Alligator song while slightly tipsy (or more than slightly, in some people’s cases), it’s just not the same when you come back five years later.
We got a tiny nap in before meeting friends for drinks and dinner at Kartabar on Thayer Street, and then headed to Mo-Champ, an unfortunate freshman dorm, to pre-party with some friends before going out. It was strange to be back in the dorms again, and all the laughter and good conversation made me miss college despite the prison-like cinder blocks and metal-framed beds.
After the pre-party was the class party, which was mysteriously held in the Ratty, our aptly named dining hall. For the next few hours we caught up with friends and roommates, teammates and classmates until they finally kicked us all out at the end of the night.
Sunday morning was graduation. I met some friends at their dorm beforehand and then got in line with the rest of our class to march down the green, through the Van Wickle Gates (you’re only allowed to walk through twice as an undergrad—once as an entering freshman and once as a graduating senior—but apparently you can walk through as many times as you like once you’re done), and down the hill.
On our way down we were surrounded by cheering alums from the class of 1935 onwards, all of whom had returned for their reunions. Once we got to the end, we lined the street to cheer for the classes below us and the graduating class. At the end, the alumni came back through the crazy “inverted sock” and walked back up college hill to campus. The whole thing took seemingly forever, and while I had a great time, my hands still hurt from all the clapping and my voice hasn’t fully come back yet.
We got coffee with some friends after the procession, then I took my boyfriend on a quick tour of campus before heading to the hotel to check out. On the way, we walked down Benefit Street, Providence’s oldest thoroughfare. I was surprised at how beautiful it was. All of the old wooden buildings were so uniquely New England, and the leafy trees and spring flowers almost made me forget that most of my time at Brown took place during the cold part of the year.
As we walked, we took a turn through downtown Providence, which I must say has done well for itself since I left. There were new buildings where fallow ground once lay. The old Biltmore Hotel was still there, and our former mayor, who just got out of prison for the second time, might be living in the penthouse again. The mall was there in all its behemoth glory, and the river was recovering from the previous night’s Waterfire festival.
But the real surprise was in the smaller streets around town. The old buildings that could have belonged to 17th century Paris or early 20th century Chicago somehow seemed brighter, bigger. There were funky design studios and furniture shops where empty storefronts once stood. The streets were free of trash. Maybe old Providence wasn’t so bad after all.
We didn’t have time to find out for sure, because we were back at our hotel and in the car on our way to New Haven before we could dig any deeper. My cousin was graduating from Yale the next day, so we went down for the evening to see her and my aunt and uncle, who were in town from Seattle. Good timing.
I had never been to Yale before, and from all the bad things everyone says about New Haven, I didn’t have very high expectations. Fortunately, I got to be pleasantly surprised. My cousin, who has great taste, lives in a gorgeous old apartment with its own antique fireplace.
She took us all on a walk through campus, which was really pretty (but Brown is still prettier!), and we ended up in the Art and Architecture building. There was a student show going on that showcased the work of all of the architecture and design students, and my cousin’s work was on display. We spent an hour walking around and exploring the projects and posters that the students had made, and even ran into my Architectural History professor from Brown.
My aunt and uncle cooked us an amazing dinner back at my cousin’s apartment and we stayed there talking until late at night. At some point my boyfriend, who was gracious enough to do all the driving on the trip, gently reminded me of the time. We said our good-byes and got back on the highway for Boston.
The next morning was a sunny one. We woke up late, enjoying the one day of our trip that we could sleep in. Strolling out into Copley Place, we headed up to Newbury Street in search of brunch. We found a restaurant with outdoor seating and I ate six or seven (lost count after awhile) giant slices of French toast while my boyfriend enjoyed Eggs Benedict. It was 85 degrees. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. It was perfect.
From Newbury Street we walked to Boston Common where I wanted to see ducklings a la the famous children’s story. Sadly, there was nary a duckling to see, only some swans nesting on what were presumably future cygnets. Not quite ducklings, but it would have to do.
Leaving the beautiful park behind, we wandered down a street full of shops and crossed a bridge to Cambridge. My boyfriend, a true computer scientist, wanted to show me around MIT. Although to be honest, I suggested we go there anyway because I wanted to see the MIT chapel, a Modernist building that was supposed to be a great example of the style.
But first we had to stop at the Frank Gehry building. Like an awkwardly assembled children’s toy, the building looked as if it was going to collapse at any moment (and in fact it is having some structural issues that the university isn’t too happy with Mr. Gehry about). Nonetheless, it was up there with the Guggenheim Bilbao as one of the most fascinating pieces of architecture I’ve seen.
My boyfriend and I decided to sneak inside (well, we didn’t really sneak. The doors were open. But we felt much more adventurous pretending we were sneaking) to get a look at the interior. Aside from a lack of right angles, it was similar to many college buildings with its array of eateries in the basement, labs upstairs, and giant open spaces in between.
Once we had had our fill of the Gehry building, we headed to the chapel. A stark contrast with its uber-Contemporary neighbor, the chapel was all Modernist reduction. A cylinder with a pointy metal spike (cross?) on top and curving walls inside, it was nonetheless impressive in its simplicity. The only part I didn’t like was the rectangular entry way that jutted awkwardly off the side as if put there as an afterthought.
Continuing our inadvertent New England college tour, we couldn’t resist a trip to Harvard, the mother of all Ivy League schools. We took a taxi to what I’ve been told is called the Pit but seemed like a regular street full of bars and restaurants. From there we walked onto campus and took a nap on the green. As giant tour groups full of wide-eyed prospective freshmen passed by, I couldn’t help but think back to my own first years at Brown and marvel at how long it’s been.
As my plane landed at Heathrow at 6:40 the next morning, I was jet lagged and wishing I could skip work like people used to skip class in college. As I dragged myself through the pouring London rain to get to the office, I realized once again how much I took those four years for granted. At least I can go back every five years and experience a little piece of that time all over again!