Emotions · Personal History · Reflections

Week 18: Living in La La Land

I’m not sure on the best way to approach writing about my eighteenth week in Cambridge. Everything about it was so deeply emotionally charged, and in the past I have found sharing my thoughts and feelings with even my closest friends an immensely difficult endeavour. The thought of writing them down, publicly, is a daunting prospect. For various reasons, I’ve never been all that comfortable discussing my intimate personal life. Yet I feel as though it is best to be honest with one’s feelings, especially to the expected audience of this blog. Hence, this post is going to be a little more personal and a little longer. than I have written in the past and will do so again for quite some time.

On Friday afternoon, I left my office early. As was probably evident from my previous post, it had been a tough week at the office, and I wanted to escape from it. For the last 24 hours, I had been eagerly following flightradar as Qantas Flight 9 manoeuvred the intense London air traffic to land at Heathrow. For the next 10 days, I would be playing host to a friend from home: Brittany. By way of context for those not following from Adelaide, I have known Brittany since 2013, when she first started university, and we became very close friends in early 2014. She’s a biologist from the year below me, we had been going out from late 2014 onward. The thought of my departure to Cambridge had been an elephant in the room in our relationship pretty much from the start, but came to the fore since I began applying and was eventually accepted in late 2015 and early 2016. It is worth pointing out here, that she independently harboured desired to study her PhD at Cambridge, but the year of separation between us combined with self-doubt about her abilities meant that there was no certainty of the future of our relationship. It ended amicably, she saw me off at the airport when I left to come here. We agreed that we would no longer be in a relationship, but we committed to at least seeing each other should she ever come to Cambridge and to communicating with each other in the intervening period.

Much happened over the following months. Personally, I got swept up in the thrills of being in a new place. To me, everything was different. Everything was new, and I got swept up in it all. Pining for Brittany was indistinguishable from pining for home; such were they intertwined. We both handled our respective losses in different ways. She had an honours project to complete, but after that was spent more time developing other relationships and friendships. Through this time, she was applying to multiple laboratories in Cambridge as part of her plans for her future. She received an offer for interviews from the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), the Sanger Institute and the Department of Genetics. In particular, the interview for EBI required her presence in person, and so they flew her from Australia to Cambridge for their three day process. The other two could have been done from home, but they were in the same week so she may as well have done them in person.

Back to the present, and I had arranged to meet her at a coffee shop in the city centre. I had a seminar to attend late on Friday afternoon so I wasn’t sure if I would be home when she arrived. But work had become tedious, so I left early to meet her; she indicated that she would probably arrive sooner than I had anticipated. I ordered a drink and some cake and did a little blogging about Mallorca until I saw her car pull up outside. I put away my laptop and met and embraced her in the front of the café. It was a strange merging of the life that I had known for the past four months and the life I had known for the two years prior to that. Pleasantries began with discussion of the quality of the travel, as they tend to always do, as we walked to my accommodation together. She would be staying with me for the first couple of nights of her visit. I invited her to settle in, as I had to go briefly back to DAMTP to the seminar there. I returned an hour later to find her settled in to working on a project she’s been developing over the last many months. We shared a dinner in college together, before returning to my room to hang out and catch up on the things we had missed. It took quite some used to not behaving as though we were in a relationship. It was something I hadn’t had to confront to this point, but things felt strangely amiss. Like there was something not sitting right. I was forced to resign to just getting used to it. For Brittany, it was an early night: a combination of jet lag and the early sunsets that England provides. I stayed up a fair bit later, the early bedtime not suiting my body clock.

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On Saturday morning, I had to referee a soccer game between Robinson and Jesus colleges. Since I also had a game in the following day as well, Brittany and I negotiated that she would attend the second but not the first. So I went alone, to a rather uneventful game, and returned at around lunchtime. We spent the rest of the day and much of the next catching up and wandering around Cambridge. We went into town and through a number of the more interesting shops along King’s Parade. In particular, the Museums shop and the University Press captured Brittany’s attention, and she planned to come back later to pick up her souvenirs and gifts. We also brought back all of the ingredients to make ourselves some shepherd’s pie to share for the next two nights.

On Saturday evening, we went to King’s College Chapel to hear Mahler’s Symphony Number 3. Going to classical music concerts was something we had always done together back in Adelaide, so I was feeling a strong degree of nostalgia. But the symphony didn’t seem to click for Brittany. We walked home, and I could feel that things weren’t quite right.

Sunday was a relaxing start, eventually culminating in Sunday roast at the college. I was supposed to have a football game at Jesus college, but by the time we had ridden there, we discovered that the game had been called off due to a sodden pitch. We had nothing to do but ride home again. We ended up staying in for much of the day, tuning into A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix. Again, due to her jet lag, she went to sleep early, whilst I stayed up, trying somewhat unsuccessfully to cope with the seemingly large differences between us that I hadn’t been expecting. I took to some cathartic writing, releasing my emotions onto the written page. After some many pages of notes, I too went to bed.

Brittany’s first set of interviews were on Monday morning, at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, 10 miles south of Cambridge. They had organised a bus leaving from Hills Road, so we walked out there together. I headed back to the department and didn’t see her again until late in the evening; her day concluded with a dinner at Queen’s College. She told me that her day went well, and was amazed at the sheer amount of facilities they had there. Her interviews had gone well, but she was focusing still on the several to come later in the week.

Her second interview was on Tuesday morning, at the Department of Genetics. Unlike the other two, this was not a specialised program, and only had an informal interview. Her day finished early, so I came back to meet her for lunch. I briefly went back to the office, but soon returned. We hung out more, but at this point of the week I was feeling the most distant from her. Both of us had changed since we last knew each other. There were quirks and traits she’d developed that took some quite some getting used to, and vice versa. The differences stood out in contrast to the person I had gotten to know so well, so as the evenings went on I churned out more and more pages of emotion-filled writing.

Brittany left for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to check into a hotel for her interviews with EBI. On Wednesday, she had to pass a test to confirm her continuation to the following days of interviews. I didn’t see her all evening as she went out with the other applicants to a local bar. Thursday was more interviews at EBI, but in the middle of the day, she got some incredible news. She received an email from the Sanger institute telling her she had a funded place in their program; the one she interviewed for on Monday. This was exciting news, and I visited her at her hotel briefly to share in it with her. After all of the hard work she had put in to getting this far she could somewhat relax. Now, the pressure was off for the rest of the week.

She went to a dinner at Jesus College that night, while I went to a CUSPE on advising policy makers as an academic. It was a panel discussion with academics from different fields and governmental experience, and as always provided some slightly depressing food for thought about how possible it is to really make an impact with one’s work.

Friday was Brittany’s final day at EBI, and the first I saw of her was in the evening, where I had arranged for the both of us to go to a formal at Darwin; Brittany’s third for the week. Unfortunately, the food was disappointing compared to the usual formal food at Darwin, even if the dessert was somewhat redeeming. She went back to the hotel for her final night, and I went home alone.

With Brittany’s return to Cambridge now assured, she no longer felt the pressing need to do some of the more tourist type activities on the final weekend of her visit. Instead, we went out shopping for gifts from the Museums shop, as she had flagged she wanted to do earlier in the week. We returned home, piled up with gifts, and tried to pack them into her bag. We ate out for dinner, going to one of several burger restaurants in the centre of town. But our quintessential Cambridge experience for the night was to attend the bop at Darwin. For those unaware of the nomenclature, a bop is essentially a house-party at a college bar. The premise was the unveiling of the theme for the Darwin May Ball, but we mostly just sat on the sofa in conversation.

Eventually, Sunday came around again. We met with Paul, Krittika and Matt at the Darwin plodge (more Cambridge terminology here – short for porter’s lodge, the front entrance to every college) to head up to Darwin’s Sunday Roast. We sat in the dining hall, looking out over the college garden, trying to explain the nature, purpose and method of eating a Yorkshire pudding.

When discussing what to do with the afternoon, Brittany and I had the idea to go to the cinema, because why not? I wanted to see La La Land, and though Brittany had already seen it, she was keen to go again. There was a screening in 20 minutes, so we rode out to the cinema, but I had to take a bike without mudguards which resulted in a rather muddy jacket as a result.

I have many things to say about the film, especially the cinematography, music, costuming and lighting. But the most poignant part was the storytelling. Without trying to spoil too much for anyone who has not seen the film, the last half of the film felt like I was watching a giant mirror into the relationship I had had with Brittany. Scene after scene, I could perfectly map to moments of my own past. At first, I was just drawn in by the characters and directing, noting a few similarities here and there. But then they just kept coming, charting almost exactly the same course that we had followed. This made me quite emotional, and I could pick the exact scene where the story caught up to my own life. Of course, one can draw parallels from many similar films to many similar relationships, but I’ve never had it quite as close as this film. Given that premise, the ending absolutely destroyed me. For people who have seen the film, they will know how heartbreaking yet powerful the ending is. At this point, I wasn’t just empathising with the main character, I was the main character, and each scene just cut deeper. It was the most emotional I have ever been whilst watching a film, nothing else really comes close. Even thinking about it now is hard.

Film over and thoughts somewhat processed, we went out for our final evening together in Cambridge, a delicious dinner at the Thai restaurant just outside my front door. We then retired to packing everything up and spent our last night together quietly at home. The next morning, after breakfast, we went to the front of the college where a car was waiting to take Brittany to the airport. We waved goodbye, the last we’ll see each other for many months to come. It’s easier than not knowing whether you’ll see someone ever again, but harder if you are being the one left behind.

At the moment, I feel much like the main characters of La La Land: pulled apart through a mutual desire to follow our own dreams and have set ourselves up well to do so. But in the pursuit of those dreams, we’ve been pulled apart and now have new commitments in our lives. Of course, we remain excellent friends, but our respective paths now proceed independently. I have no idea whether where our friendship will go, and which if any of the posited endings to the film it will eventually follow (I’m a scientist, just because a model fits the data does not mean you can extrapolate beyond the extrema). Because she’s now got a place her in Cambridge, we have again committed to seeing each other again, and it will be nice to have a cycle buddy again. My attitude is that should both of us find ourselves uncommitted when she comes here, and should any strong mutual feeling re-emerge, then we may try and redevelop what we had before. But should that not happen, I still hope to count on her as a trusted friend and confidante. The future is unknowable, and I will not let it distract me from the present.

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