Gentle reader, it has been a week of ups and downs – literally and figuratively. First, let me tell you about my love-hate relationship with The Hill.
I have heard dozens of warnings about The Hill, on which the University of Kent is situated, resulting in a spectacular view of Canterbury. You would not want to walk up this hill, I was told. You must take the bus, I was advised. It only takes about 15 minutes. In my feeble head I managed to do the math. The walk up the hill takes only 30 minutes, so why bother taking the bus if it saves you only 15 minutes?
What else, I wondered, did the bus save you? I pictured a lovely day – not necessarily sunny but not raining – and an ambling, cathartic trek up The Hill. I could see on Google Maps that there were many options for walking The Hill, several of which take you through lush green fields or bridleways crowned with dense vines and shrubbery.
Sure, your legs would be tired at the top but it would be worth it!
Why, I now wonder, did no one tell me the real reason for taking the bus? The real hardship saved by taking public transit up The Hill?
The full nature of this real reason came crashing down on me like a salty tsunami last week as I sat at my carrel, with every inch of my skin gasping for breath. It had rained that morning and the air, when I walked out the door that morning, felt like a cozy blanket tucked beneath your chin. It was going to be a lovely day! I set out in a t-shirt and sweater, my rain coat tucked over my briefcase. I wore my thick leather boots, figuring the ground would be damp. All of which was fine, until I was about three-quarters of the way up The Hill. At which point all the humidity in the planet tried to force its way into my body while all the air inside my body tried to force its way out, through the impermeable seal of dampness. I wasn’t hot so much as swimming in my own juices. As I sat at my carrel, I counted the drips of sweat running down the small of my back.
Six, seven, eight.
Would it be possible, within the normal bounds of polite behavior, to remove the boots that were making my feet feel as if they’d been lost forever in a steam bath? Would my carrel mates mind?
Eleven, twelve, thirteen…
No, I decided, visions of Speedo man from the U of C grad commons floating into my head.
I will keep shoes on, come what may.
As drop fourteen trickled down my back, the real reason for taking the bus finally dawned on me. The Hill does not tire you because of its pitch or length. It sucks oxygen from your cells and force-feeds them with H2O until your eyeballs fill up with humidity, thinning and stretching until finally they pop like a balloon.
Why no one told me this remains a mystery. I can only guess that once you’ve lived here a while, you take this balloon-popping effect in stride. It goes without saying that sweating is unpleasant. You keep your balloon intact by not walking up The Hill.
Before the weather became so humid, I went with my flat mate and her friends to the Canterbury food and drink festival.
The entire city had squished itself into the lovely Dane John gardens (this is a bastardization of the Old French donjon, referring to a Norman castle founded by William the Conqueror) which features a “mound,” likely an ancient Roman burial mound from the 1st or 2nd century.
In this venerable location were packed stalls featuring everything from churros and chips to wine and jams to Pims and cheese. Also this:
Give me careless jam with sloe gin any day!
The gin jam was just one of many tasty food sensations… We inched our way past the stalls, reaching out as vendors distributed slivers of local brie, samples of gourmet oils, splashes of spicy dips. The samples were delicious, as was the curry I bought for lunch. I topped it off with a Pim’s cocktail and went waddling home.
On Sunday I cycled a pathway out to the coast called the Crab and Winkle Way. That’s right. Crab and Winkle.
Side bar: in my next life I’d like to come back as the official namer for British places please. Side bar side bar: I was walking along a nondescript suburban street the other day and saw this street sign:
Now, to me this sign belongs in a forest where people in jodhpurs are riding horses and chasing steeples. This sign might also belong in a war film:
Where the sweaty soldier shouts: “Fox down close! Fox down close!”
But I digress. Back to the Crab and Winkle Way. This is a pleasantly named, pleasantly flat cycle from the university to the beach town of Whitstable, and it’s named after one of the original rail lines of Kent.
I approached the excursion with caution, since I would be cycling alone through farmland, woodland and more. I asked my flat mate if I should be concerned about security, and she said, Absolutely, if you’re terrified by elderly people in tweed jackets. She was quite right; the main cause for alarm was the density of said elderly people, all of whom had at least three dogs (all of whom were either labs, long-tailed spaniels, pugs or Westies).
Still, you can’t be too careful. I was diligent in obeying all traffic signs. Such as this one.
I got off my bike, took a picture and laughed out loud. Then I saw this.
The picture is a bit blurry because the horse was yelling: Fox close down! Fox close down!
Clearly all signs must be obeyed.
It was a gorgeous cycle, very peaceful, through an ancient wood called The Blean, and then through farmers’ fields.
After about an hour and a quarter, I was cycling through the town of Whitstable, where Brits seem to come to get away from city life.
I found a pub at lunch time and had a cheddar and chutney sandwich, then headed back to Canterbury.
On Monday, I headed back up The Hill to my carrel in the sociology building, and began pounding out the old dissertation.
I had another chat with my guest supervisor, who continues to be generous and kind. I was to hand in my first submission to her, so she could offer feedback and see if her research group was interested in reading it too. I have more than 100 pages in the manuscript so I was not worried about finding about 50 that would give her an impression of the characters, storyline and theoretical undertones. I had a few chapters in mind, several of which I had already revised. As I sat in my carrel, waiting for the sweat to evaporate, I scanned the chapters.
Oh, the horror.
These chapters were, in a word, awful. They were also pedestrian, reductive and turgid. I could imagine my guest supervisor reading these pages of prose and thinking, Good lord, how much of this drivel will I have to read over the next three months? How can I tell this Canadian woman that she is not – and never will be – a writer of interesting words?
So I spent the day replenishing my sweat reserves and revising the chapters.
In the end I was not unhappy with the pages, but that’s the way it works, isn’t it? You read them right after you write them and you think, Yes. This is compelling. I’ve captured a certain atmosphere, I’ve said something interesting about life and human nature.
The next day you boot up your computer and you see yourself for what you really are: a bottom-dweller, slithering along on your belly through the sand, oblivious to the fishy fecal matter that’s been left there by other, higher beings, which is now sticking to your flesh in dark glutinous clumps.
But never mind. I know I am not the only one to experience this slithering sense of self-loathing. I simply rise from my carrel and head back down The Hill. There is the cathedral, bobbing in and out of view between clumps of maples. There is the densely clouded sky, with its promise of rain, or worse – humidity. And there is the trickle, running damply down my back as I make my way down The Hill.