Friday, April 13, 2007

Las Cam

Vegas, as regular readers of this blog no doubt know, is not a city that I have much love for. Every time I have been forced to travel there (once for a conference, once because it is the nearest airport to Death Valley, and once again because of Zion/Bryce) I could not wait to see the last of the city. Its not so much the celebration of crassness and the profileration of slot machines that gets to me, its those fake monstrosities on the Strip, from the Stratosphere to Mandalay Bay, lined up like in some freak show[1]. In my mind, there is no better way to insult a monument or a city than to put it on the Las Vegas Strip. But despite all this, I have to say that Vegas does have some redeeming features:

1. This gambling paradise in the desert stands today because a few people in the city by the lake decided to build one. It is no secret that, forced to look at new revenue streams a little further out of the cities, the Crime Syndicate and the Outfit built the Strip from scratch and me being a Chicagoan for life and all that, cannot bring myself to hate it.

2. The best of modern structural engineering in the New World, I am told, is at work today not in the new skyscrapers of NY or Chicago but in the casinos of Vegas. It might not be showcased but if you were to look beneath all the glitz, you will find it alright. Thanks to a dear friend from high school who works as a lead architect for one of these buildings, I was enlightened the last time I was there.

Why Vegas now? Because I spent a good part of last Friday in a city which reminded me of Vegas but with none of its redeeming features. Yes, on this side of the pond. The city, you ask? Two miles east of my seventh grade physics book in disguise. The city of Cambridge in Cambridgeshire, England[2].

I know. Everyone talks about there's never really a good time to visit this country. And its really not the weather they are talking about, its the people - crowds everywhere all the time. People like Theroux and Bryson made millions writing about it. But no, it wasn't really the crowds that got to me in Cambridge. (The crowds were a problem in Snowdonia but there's enough ways to get around it. Oh wait, that's another post.) On a sunny, midummer afternoon in the namesake city across the pond, hundreds of people can be seen milling around Harvard Square. But that doesn't make that place any less appealing. Nor do you look around and wonder how is it that this place is the greatest center of learning in the entire country.

The street markets of Cambridge make the city of Solvang in Santa Barbara wine county look like an original Danish town. The stores that line every narrow, cobblestone street that is there in the city center put the King of Prussia Mall to shame. The punter traffic in the Cam river makes the I-405/I-101 interchange look like a breeze. There actually seems to be a reason for that - there are more people in the streets of the city trying to get you to rent a punt than there are mobile postcard vendors in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal. But I hear you cry - the colleges, the colleges! That's what Cambridge is about. Old buildings that don't particularly look good, definitely do not look well maintained, yes, they aren't fake but look at how they treat them. Surrounded by all your favorite stores from King of Prussia and about hundred thousand tourists, and you get to pay an admission fee to enter the "sacred" grounds with these hundred thousand people. How cool! The admission fee totally depends on the college - you want to see Clare? Go right in. Kings? That's £4.50. Thanks. Lovely.

My best moment in Cambridge came when I was standing in front of Trinity College trying to understand why anyone in their right mind would consider living here for four years when I happened to overhear a conversation between father and daughter. Nice Jewish family, obviously from Brooklyn, NY. Father tells (about) ten year old daughter:

"This is where you will come to study. I know it"

"No. You want me to study here? Like in a zoo? No daddy"

Right on. So I walked back two miles to Bill's lab (yeah yeah seventh grade Physics text location) and found a comfortable couch in the lounge and spent the rest of the afternoon in the company of some very best young american novelists[3]. Grushin rocks. No, never liked Safran Foer too much. The wife neither. Yes, she's in there too.

Well, okay. If you insist. Here are some pictures:

[1] The essay I revisit whenever Vegas comes to mind has been quoted by Neha V recently in a slightly different context and you can read about it here.

[2] Well, not the entire city. Just the city centre which is probably the same size as the Strip. The rest of the "city" was as nice as any other English town in Fen country can be expected to be.

[3] Granta has to be the last good thing to come out of Cambridge. Needless to say.


Abi said...

Umm, I had a totally different experience when I was there eight years ago. I loved the place, the bustling centre, lush green lawns, second-hand book stores, the beer, a couple of lunches in one of the colleges (Darwin, I think), etc., etc..

Oh, they have some nice academic departments too!

In any case, I don't see in your pictures any of the dreadful crowds you keep referring to in your post!

So, what are you *really* (I mean REALLY) complaining about?

Veena said...

Abi: Yeah okay, I was a little meaner that I wanted to be and the Vegas comparison was a little extreme but it was all about expectations. You expect to see some nicer (original?) version of Harvard Sq and all you get is a tourist trap!

Agree about lush green lawns but this country is so green anyway no? The colleges which are away from the centre (also the lesser known) are quite nice but colleges like Kings and Trinity are really bigtime cons. There is a difference between "bustling generally" and "bustling with tourists" na? The problem is not so much that there are so many tourists, the problem is that the Cam package is entirely geared towards the tourists - all the boutique style stores and queues in front of Trinity like its Tirupathi or Vatican! And you mean no one stopped you every other minute to ask you if you would like to punt on the Cam? The world must have been very different eight years ago, eh?

Btw, this place which I claim was my seventh grade physics book in disguise - it was all very nice and they had a nanoscience lab that I took a picture of on your behalf!

Abi said...

... they had a nanoscience lab that I took a picture of on your behalf!

Thankooo! Do please post it.

On the other front, I guess eight years is a loooong time ...

Shripriya said...

I dunno Veena. The pictures look great to me. At least as nice as Harvard Yard that you seemed to have liked...