FROM the moment I no longer had it, I knew I wanted it back. Like most graduates, I didn't appreciate college until after it was over. Now, two-and-a-half decades later, a part of me (the demanding and unrealistic part) wants to reclaim that wonderful undergraduate feeling of being on the edge of something big. Everyday realities, like raising children and planning for their college days, tend to interfere with my attempts to recapture the college feeling. Neverless, I have found a couple of avenues, both the same: Cambridge.
I have discovered that a visit to Cambridge, England, about 50 miles north of London, is a trip through both space and time. This is the university town after which so many American colleges are modeled.
A federation of 31 colleges, the oldest of which was founded in 1248, Cambridge University embodies the traditional English look: well-proportioned, handsome stone and brick buildings, large grassy quadrangles (called ``courts''), wrought-iron gates, cupolas, spires, and gargoyles. The classic backdrop for the study of the classics.
It's not just the physical sense of the school that makes me want to dive right back into studying. On campus there's evidence of so much scholarship. For instance, the roster of distinguished students who ``read'' here comprises the chiseled frieze of the Boston Public Library: Chaucer, Erasmus, Milton, Ben Johnson, Samuel Pepys, Dryden, Malthus, Darwin, Walpole, Chamberlain, Nehru....
I see the contributions as I tour the individual schools. For example, at Trinity, the largest of the colleges, I learned that Sir Christopher Wren (a graduate) designed the library; Sir Isaac Newton (a student) standing in the court, tapping his foot, measured the speed of sound; and Lord Byron (an underclassman) bathed in the center fountain, presumably awaiting poetic inspiration.
In hindsight, I see this as the college I should have attended. Who would not soak up a first-class (or do I mean upper-class?) education in these hallowed surroundings?
Woven around the school and its strong academic traditions and its wonderful architecture is a town and a setting on the River Cam that calls up images of 18th- and 19th-century England. Punters pole their flat-bottomed boats along the back of the colleges, past the misty banks of the river, under the varied footbridges. As a crossroads town, Cambridge became a market town. On a recent visit, I shopped the market fair. There, among the leeks, the shrimp, and the oversize garlic, I found a fur coat, one that had had many prior lives. I bought it for $20. Perhaps a student had sold it to buy books.
Closer to home, Cambridge, Mass., offers visitors and students an eclectic mix of offerings. Harvard, of course, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and all the other colleges and educational resources, lectures, courses, readings, and so on. The town provides an atmosphere that can only be called college-town-plus. Like its English counterpart, it has a buy-make-and-sell component grafted onto academia that says, ``Hey, don't take yourself too seriously. There's a real world out there, too, you know.''
It's urban, it's multicultural, and it's brash. Posters in the windows of thriving retail stores announce the impending overthrow of capitalism. At the Out-of-Town News and Ticket Agency, on Harvard Square, I can hear Italian, Yiddish, Japanese, and Russian spoken, as I watch shoppers buy their hometown newspapers.
In front of the Holyoke Center, young entrepreneurs hawk T-shirts, while across the street, Army generals emerge from Harvard Yard to grab a cab to the airport and back to Washington.
I take advantage of the most compelling of the university town's byproducts - its bookshops. I don't go for just the books, although of course I buy in abundance. I go for the caf'elike atmosphere and the spillover of information, mine for the taking: listings and overheard conversations.
This Cambridge has a river, too, another extender of the town. It enlarges the life of the residents. Its banks, not quite so manicured as the Cam's, are in use year round. Joggers, sunbathers, kite enthusiasts, all enjoy the traffic on the Charles. Sculls and sailboats, rowboats and powerboats, ply their way between freshly painted boathouses.
The French poet Paul Val'ery said that our most important sights are those that contradict our emotions. To that I add - some of our most important emotions move us to select our sights. In both the Cambridges I collect the contradictory images and opportunities that enlarge my life. That college feeling is mine for the taking.