Moving on and letting go

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference at Warwick University. It was generally good fun; I met lots of new people, I got drunk in the Warwick students’ union, I ate some great food and I got to feel like a proper grownup with an (admittedly small) expenses account. I was there for the induction to the graduate scheme I’m on, so it was mostly introductions and admin. Some of it was useful. Some of it, to be brutally honest, felt like a waste of time. But there was one talk that really, really struck a chord with me. The speaker was telling us about opening a new chapter in our lives. His basic premise was that you can love what you’re doing, you can be having the time of your life, but you can still miss what you’ve lost. You can live in the moment, you can love your moment, and yet you can still mourn what you’ve left behind.

I’m enjoying my life. I live in a beautiful part of London. I see my boyfriend regularly, and I’ve met up with old friends from Cambridge since being here. I’ve joined a new rowing club, and I’m already a cox for the top women’s squad. My work is interesting and varied, and I have colleagues who are helpful and friendly. I’ve started to make friends, some of whom I’ve trusted enough to confide my mental health struggles to. I still exercise here, and I love to run alongside the river, just as I did in Cambridge. And that, right there, is the crux of the issue.

Cambridge was, is, still is, the love of my life. I come from a small town. I grew up, with friends, but always feeling on the edge, never feeling accepted. I was bullied and lonely in that small town. The scars littering my body can attest to that. When I was a little girl, my mother told me that university was like Hogwarts for smart people. I clung to that. I clung to the idea that I could escape my conservative hometown, I could find somewhere where I would be happy and safe, and I wouldn’t be afraid anymore. I never imagined something as good as Cambridge.

It had its flaws; I’m not going to deny that. But to me, for the first time in my life, I felt completely at home. The cobbled streets felt like a dream, something I had imagined and woke to find was real. The towering spires of the colleges welcomed me, even as they intimidated me. I walked across the courts of St John’s, and felt, deeply, a sense of belonging. Over the vacations, I ached for those strong walls. I was homesick for the swooping arches, the regimented grass, the uneven wooden stairs of third court and the painted roses of second court. I longed for the beauty and the warmth and the comfort.

I built a life for myself. I met my boyfriend there, and some of my happiest memories with him take place within Cambridge. Running to his college in the rain, throwing paint at each other in Lent term, study breaks in the middle of exam term, late nights huddled under sheets. I met some of my closest friends there. I met my housemates from the last year, who are funny and smart and gorgeous. I miss them more than they can know. I miss coming home to them, the kitchen windows steamed up and every available chair crowded with friends and strangers alike. There was always someone new to meet, something new to do. But, at the end of the night, there were always people to sit quietly with, friends to hold your hand and tell you it would be ok. I miss that.

I see Cambridge everywhere I go. I see the college in the beauty of the council chamber. I see the river when I walk into town. But it is a pale imitation. The council cannot match the splendour of John’s. The river is so wide, bereft of the swoops and curves that taught me how to cox. I see the red oars of Kingston, and I feel longing for the red oars of Maggie. I see my boyfriend, at the weekends; when my work and his hospital rounds allow it. No more running to Fitz in the middle of the night, desperate to see him, thinking 15 minutes was too long to go before I could be with him. Now, it’s an hour and a half across London to be in his arms. Friends are scattered across the country; even some of the ones in London feel as thought they could be a thousand miles away. I saw two of my housemates last week, and I almost cried when I met them at Waterloo station. They felt like home.

This makes it sound like all I do is miss Cambridge, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Kingston is amazing. I love so much about it, and I’m doing so many amazing things that I never imagined when I was still a student. Every time I think about Cambridge, I try and remember that lecture at Warwick. I can be happy here, I can build a new life and live it to the full; but I can still look back and mourn.

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Food

“Doesn’t it look good?”

“Yes. You’re a great cook, Sarah. In fact, I’d call you a chef.”

They are simple words, and yet they meant the world to me. They came from my dad, upon seeing me take tonight’s dinner – of stuffed peppers and courgettes with homemade garlic bread – out of the oven. They meant a lot for two reasons. My dad and I have always had a strained relationship. Compliments or praise have always been rare and hard earned. I distinctly remember telling him my GCSE results, beaming with pride, and seeing him nod once and walk away. A-levels were better; and in fact, calling him to say that I’d secured my place at Cambridge was the first time I can remember him saying he was proud of me. As I get older, I’m working on mending my relationship with him. It’s a slow process, and a difficult one. Knowing that he enjoys the food I make means a lot to me.

But there is another reason why his words pleased me, and that’s because I love cooking. I love food. I love it the way that other people love their families, or their partners, or their sport. I wake up thinking about what I will cook later, and I fall asleep planning meals (last night, I fell asleep planning salads for an upcoming barbeque I’m catering.) When I was bullied at school, there were two things that never failed to comfort me when I got home: writing and cooking. Writing took over my nights. I would huddle in my room, pouring my soul on to the paper. It was something that the bullies couldn’t touch. I created my secret worlds, and I filled them with friends, with magic, with love. The rest of the time, I spent in the kitchen. I cooked my first full meal when I was eleven. It was pasta with tomato sauce, but I made the sauce from scratch. I spent hours peeling the skin from tomatoes, sautéing them with onion and garlic, adding a little wine, a pinch of oregano. It was average at best, but it sparked a passion in me that has yet to be rivalled.

My days are built around the food I eat. I plan my lunch as I eat breakfast (while reading a cooking book at the same time, of course.) I shape my social life around cooking for friends, cooking for my housemates, cooking for my boyfriend. At school, several days a week, I would bring in tins of cakes or cookies, and watch them disappear among my friends. Coming home from school, I would put music on in the kitchen and start baking again, the rhythm and process always managing to soothe me. At university, my final year, I finally got an oven. I had the pleasure of five housemates more than willing to consume what I was making, and I fell into the habit of baking around my work. I would spend a morning making a loaf of bread, working on my laptop around kneading, proving, shaping, baking. The week of Lent bumps, I baked every day, under strict instructions from our coach that my boys had recovery food. Oat cookies, fruit loaf, chocolate cupcakes (at the end of the week), the leftovers devoured by my housemates.

I love to cook. I love selecting the ingredients as I walk around the supermarket. I love weighing the courgettes in my hand, selecting the brightest tomatoes, the firmest carrots. I love hunting through the meat aisles, looking for anything discounted, anything I can freeze. My store cupboard is always full, of beans and pulses, herbs and spices, pasta and rice, cous cous and noodles. I love trying new recipes, new ideas. When I cook, it is chaotic, I take over the whole kitchen. I taste as I go along, a pinch of turmeric here, a cinnamon stick thrown into a beef casserole at the last minute, a grind of pepper into a risotto. I grow herbs in the garden (not in a pot – I can’t keep them alive for longer than a week in a pot) and I love to run my hands over them, inhaling their scent, deciding what to do with them.

Nothing excites me more than cooking new food. One of my friends is vegetarian, and I love looking for new recipes when I cook for her. It has led me to vegetable curries, stuffed peppers, vegetarian lasagnes and inventive stir fries. Another friend is a vegan, and it recently led to vegan brownies, soft and rich and crumbly. Last summer, I taught myself how to make a selection of Indian curries. I spent hours researching them online, reading as many recipes as possible, looking for the similarities, how I could make them the best possible. I tested and perfected them, one at a time, changing the levels of spice and chilli and fire. By the end of the summer, I could make nearly half a dozen different ones, all distinct, all (in my humble opinion) delicious.

When my dad ate the stuffed peppers, he didn’t say anything. But he smiled, and that’s enough for me.

Graduate job hunting

From the second year of university onwards, family gatherings become increasingly stressful. This is primarily because it is the time when relatives start to ask you “so what are you going to do with your life? Do you have an internship sorted? What are your plans for when you graduate?” Over the Christmas break, my grandmother and I had this conversation multiple times, which always went the same way:

Grandma: “So, what are you going to do when you graduate?” 

Me: “I’m not sure yet…”

Grandma: “Hahaha, very funny… what are you really going to do?”

Me: “…”

For some people, they know what they want to do when they graduate. For those doing degrees in medicine or similar subjects, the career path is at least partially decided. For those of us doing an arts degree, there isn’t really an obvious career path. People say “you could do anything!” But that is precisely the problem: I could do anything, and I have no idea where to even start looking.

I didn’t get an internship last year. This was mainly because most of the companies I applied to either rejected to me or ignored me. It was also because I fundamentally disagree with unpaid internships. I believe that they are un-meritocratic, giving opportunities predominantly to young people with wealthy parents. I have spent every holiday since I started Cambridge working two jobs; the money I earn goes directly to buying food and paying rent during term time. My parents could probably support me through an unpaid internship: but it would entail hardship and sacrifice on their part, something that I am reluctant to ask of them.

So, I went into applying for jobs without an internship, but with years of work experience, extra-curriculars, good grades, and a degree from Cambridge. Finding a job should be doable, right?

Wrong: graduate scheme after graduate scheme rejected me, most of them at the first hurdle. For some, I went through to the interview stage. Some of these went well; some went badly. Favourite questions I was asked include “when were you last drunk?”, “tell us about a recent mistake?” and “how will you revolutionise our company?” (The previous Saturday; I panicked and said “I don’t make mistakes” – I don’t think he was impressed; I have literally not even left university yet, cut a woman some slack.)

Along the way, I have navigated the bizarre rules that govern interview conduct: heels, but not too high, a dress, but not too revealing, makeup, but not too heavy. The words “networking lunch” appearing in emails has filled me with dread; I either want to stuff my face with food, or make small talk. Doing both at the same time is not my idea of fun.

In amongst this, there have been highlights. I have learned that I can, in fact, run rather fast in heels; as evidenced by the time my train was late and I sprinted past the houses of parliament to make it to my interview in time, desperately hoping that no one would mistake me for a security threat. I have learned that I am very good at directing a team to make paper handbags, and then taking charge of selling them to an imaginary vendor. I have learned how the buses run in Cambridge (in practise, not just how to get from a to b). I have learned that I can sit in a room of men (all trying to be the “alpha” of the group) and face them down. I feel like when I walk into interviews now, I stand taller, I talk more confidently. It has forced me to think about myself in a way that I haven’t had to do before: my strengths and my weaknesses. Someone is (hopefully) going to pay me enough to live on: I need to think what I can bring to an organisation to warrant that.

Today, I had my final interview for a grad scheme I am through to the final stage of. It was unlike any interview I had ever had. It was with the head of the organisation. He asked me what my personal values were. We debated the merits of different forms of equality. He asked me if Simone de Beauvoir was a hypocrite. We talked about my personal role models, what kind of leader I want to be, whose leadership I admire (my current female rowing captains.)

It was interesting, and intellectually stimulating, and it made me think. The office is based somewhere I want to live, with a river nearby where I can continue to cox. I want this job desperately. For the first time, I can see myself not as a student, but as a businesswoman. It’s a strange realisation, because I have been terrified of leaving Cambridge for so long. But I realise now that there is a whole world outside of the bubble. I have been happy here, and I will be happy in the future. Either way, I will be happy when I land a job and have to stop applying for graduate jobs.