When I think of Cambridge, I think of earnest young brains who are preparing themselves to lead the world in their various fields and fancies. I think of high-tech, bespectacled minds whose brain power is the stuff movies are made about. I think of rowers, racquetballers, and rugby players: fit, muscly types who have broken the three-minute mile a hundred times over. The last thing I think about is Harry Potter and quidditch.

Enjoying the unseasonable warmth of a 22-degree October Saturday in Cambridge a few weeks back, I was still fixating on my visit to Harvard and bemused by the fact that Cambridge is not in Boston – it is a separate city on the other side of the Charles River. With our bank-side view of the Head of the Charles Regatta, we were wandering up towards the starting line to see just how many boats were in the water when we came across a large group of 20-somethings engaged in what looked vaguely like it could be a team sport.

Quidditch in Boston

About half a dozen teams were taking part, judging by the different jerseys, and they all seemed to be taking their sport very seriously indeed. There were three hoops, one large one, offset by a smaller one on either side. There were a number balls that looked a little heavier than your average soccer ball. And everyone on the pitch had a stick between their legs – like, well, like a broomstick, without the brushy part.

Yep – they were playing quidditch. Does JK Rowling realise what she’s done? Her fictional sport has been lifted from the pages of her Harry Potter books and brought to life. More than 300 mixed-gender teams in over 20 countries around the world play this Contact sport – and that’s Contact with a capital C. They had a world championship earlier this year, in Canada, with seven countries competing. The USA took the gold; Australia, the silver, and Canada, the bronze. Mexico, Belgium, the UK, and France have to wait till next time to feature.

And Quidditch has rules!

A unique mix of elements from rugby, dodgeball, and tag, teams of seven  play with brooms between their legs at all times. Each team can have a maximum of four players who identify with the same gender, excluding the seeker. Note the word ‘gender’. This is important. It is not necessarily the same as ‘sex’.

Three chasers score goals worth 10 points each with a volleyball called the quaffle. They advance the ball down the field by running with it, passing it to teammates, or kicking it. Each team has a keeper who defends the goal hoops. Two beaters use dodgeballs called bludgers to disrupt the flow of the game by “knocking out” other players. Any player hit by a bludger is out of play until they touch their own goals. Each team also has a seeker who tries to catch the snitch. The snitch is a ball attached to the waistband of the snitch runner, a neutral athlete in a yellow uniform who uses any means to avoid capture. The snitch is worth 30 points and its capture ends the game. If the score is tied after the snitch catch, the game proceeds into overtime.

One hundred metres up the river, my jaw was still hanging open as I wondered, not for the first time, at the rather sheltered life I lead. Every day, it would seem, unearths something even weirder than what went before it. Quidditch anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

People wonder why so many smart people come out of Harvard. It’s not rocket science, says Edward de Bono, it’s because so many smart people go in! Duh. I have a thing for old and famous universities, one I’d perhaps never admit to in public. I’m strangely cowed by alpha-intellect and have been known to sit quietly over lunch with PhD’d acquaintances, too uncertain to open my mouth and contribute anything to the conversation, all the while wishing silently that they might start to talk about something normal, like the state of democracy in Hungary or Coronation Street. I don’t know why this is. I’m far from stupid and yet when I hear the words ‘he went to Yale’ or ‘she went to Harvard’, I seem to lose the power of speech or anything that approaches intelligent conversation.

Harvard MAHarvard, MA

I’d been to Harvard before – many years ago  – when I was in Cambridge for some meeting or other and I was duly impressed. I went again a few weeks ago and decided that I could spend an entire day, all 24 hours of it, in the Harvard bookstore. I was in heaven. I had forgotten that the campus is accessed by a number of gates, each one bearing the load of someone else’s wisdom. We found the gate that said: ENTER NOW TO GROW IN WISDOM.  We did and I, for one, am none the wiser – perhaps you have to enter repeatedly, unlike Johnston Gate which is closed most of the year. And for good reason – the Crimsons are a superstitious lot apparently because they believe that students should only pass through it twice – when they first arrive as Freshmen and when they graduate. Any other time and it’s bad luck. If it were down to being superstitious, I’d definitely be accepted.

Harvard MA

And then there are the lectures and the talks, each designed to make you think. Had I the money to do it all without the weighty responsibility of student loans, I might consider it, presupposing of course that they’d have me anyway. But something has been lost in the years since I was first there. The romantic notions I have of shaping the world over a few beers in a smokey student bar, when idealism  hasn’t yet turn to cynicism and hope is still winning its eternal fight with reality, are gone. Today, Harvard is a tobacco-free zone. Now, I’m not for a minute saying that all intelligent people smoke cigarettes or whacky baccy – but there is a certain O’Toolish charm about the gangly, corduroyed, loafered collegiate that I find particularly endearing (and yes, I know I’m nouning (?) that adjective; I mentioned that I wasn’t stupid, didn’t I 🙂 ).

Harvard inscription

When the great fathers decided that they could no longer leave the country’s future in the hands of the churches and founded the University back in the 1600s, I wonder if they could have envisaged the PRIMAL SCREAM that would be a mainstay of student life in the twenty-first century.

At the end of every semester, as the clock strikes midnight on the first day of finals, Harvard students strip down to their birthday suits and run laps around Harvard Yard, screaming as loud as they can to relieve that pre-exam tension.

The mind boggles. But hey, whatever floats your boat.

Boston Head of the Charles regatta

And speaking of boats, our weekend in Boston coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Head of the Charles Regatta. The world’s largest annual two-day regatta, it attracts about 11 000 competitors and 400 000 spectators. It was impressive to see the seniors in action – amazingly fit people who were within an oar’s ripple of inspiring me to do more exercise. I’ve always quite fancied rowing and once tried it in the gym. Mind you, the only way I could keep the rhythm was to incant the Hare Krishna chant and then pull in time. I wonder how that would look on my application form…

Harvard rowers on the CharlesHarvard rowing on the Charles

I’ve been to Boston a few times but I must have spent most of that time hanging out in pubs, as I have little recollection of doing anything touristy. One of my oldest mates, one of those who know me inside and out, and accept me and my myriad foibles and still love me anyway, has lived there for years and it’s where I gravitate to when I’m in need of a massive hug – he’s a massive guy.

Perhaps because I had the lovely GZs  with me, he felt the need to point out the touristy things we could do – and so we took ourselves off to the Boston Tea Party living history museum. I love amateur dramatics. I love a bit of acting. And when that acting is combined with historical fact, I’m in heaven.

Boston Tea Party guide

We got the full story in just under two hours and, had we so desired, we could have thrown some tea into the harbour. My history is nearly as bad as my geography so I learned a lot – and felt the stirring of what could only be called pride in the sisters when I heard of the part women played in the shenanigans.

Typically the ones who decided what was bought for the house and from whom, the women of the day made their presence felt through their purse strings. Impressive. It was the birth of the ‘no taxation without representation’ movement and its legacy is still felt today. The mystery that has surrounded Paul Revere and his midnight ride was unveiled and for a while I was back in the 1700s, living it all.

State House, Boston, MA USAState house, Boston, MA, hooker entrance

We were staying in the North End (where Mr Revere was born), where the price of a one-bedroom flat brought me out in a cold sweat. To have to pay $3000  a month in rent, what would I have to earn? We took a drive up Beacon Hill and saw the secret service agents outside John Carey’s house. The golden dome of the State Capitol was curious but not nearly as curious as the sign on the gate for the general hooker entrance. This made the case for my min-cap theory (use as few initial caps as possible) – had it read General Hooker entrance, I might have cottoned on to the fact that General Hooker was a person and not a classification of ladies of the night. And Joseph Hooker was indeed a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

The queues at the local Starbucks on Sunday were out the door – $50, $60 spent on coffees and croissants. Not a bad life, if you can afford it. And yes, I ignored my self-imposed boycott of the chain because I so desperately wanted a decent cup of coffee. Who’d have though such a thing was so hard to find in North America?

Boston skyline at nightBoston skyline by dayBoston archways

The Boston skyline is compact. The financial district is walkable, as is the city itself. The Big Dig, so prominent the last few times I’ve been there, had finally been dug and the parks that came in its wake are beautiful. The city is made for walking. The harbour is lovely with its restaurants peopled with style icons that for me are so American. It was like being in a sitcom. I’ve slept in beds that are older than the city and yet had to admire how it preserves its youthful age and simply builds around it.

We passed St Stephen’s, the last remaining church in Boston built by Charles Bulfinch. I’ve made a note that I need to go back when it’s open. We passed underneath the archway of the Boston Harbour Hotel and wondered fleetingly how much damage a night there would do to our wallets. I would love, just for a week, to have so much money that such things didn’t bother me. I would love, just for a week, to see what life might be like for those who call it their home. And yes, people do live in that hotel. Amazing.

I had forgotten how much I like the city, and yet I wonder how much of my liking of it has to do with the fact that it’s where MR calls home. Were I to live in America again, I could think of worse places to live. Mind you, I’d only be able to afford a shoebox.

 

There was a stage in my life when I would drive the length and breadth of Ireland to see a fortune teller. I was fascinated, obsessed even, with the future and what it held. Not known for my patience, I wanted to know today what I could expect tomorrow. I went to markets, caravans sites, suburban houses – and sat in line with scores of others curious to know what life had in store.

The same when I lived in the States. I remember once, in San Diego, going to see a fortune teller with two friends. We drew lots to see who’d go in first. I was in the middle. Both the others had readings they were happy with – but me? She refused to read me at all. In South Carolina, I saw a chap who predicted three outlandish things. I remember walking away chastising myself for wasting my money, resolving to give it all up. And then each of the three things came true. Can I remember his name or what city I was in? Nope!

Salem MA

I’d been looking forward to visiting Salem, MA. Of all the places we’d planned (or not planned) to visit on this trip, this was the one I most wanted to see. I’d been there years ago and wanted to revisit. It was here, in 1692, that about 150 people were accused of witchcraft and 19 were convicted and hanged for their sins. It was here that Mary Bradbury, on trial for witchery, uttered the words ‘wholly innocent’ a term still used today. The Salem Witch Trials are still frightening to read about – especially knowing that the essence of human nature has remained unchanged, and such things could likely happen again, if there was enough momentum and mass delusion.

Tarot reading in Salem MA

But I also wanted to have my fortune told. It’s been a while, you see, since I’ve been read – I think the last time money changed hands was in Tatabanya, here in Hungary,  some years ago when a gypsy woman told me I needed to get out of the convent  and start to be more feminine. Mind you, she was speaking in Hungarian and I was relying on a male friend of mine to translate. I have no doubts at all about his fluency in Hungarian; it was the missing female nuances that concerned me.

But it was pouring with rain that day in Salem. Torrential. We had made the mistake of heading to Salem NH and in the traffic that had ground to a crawl with the poor visibility, time wasn’t on our side. So by the time we got to Salem, MA, instead of having the afternoon, we had about 45 minutes. And did I mention it was pouring?

Salem, MA

I found the witches and wizards school (I kid you not) and found the famous FT that the likes of Charlie Sheen and such rely on, but she wasn’t there that day. The rates had gone up, too – $90 for 30 minutes. Was I really that interested?

It’s hard being a Catholic who cannot number patience among her (many?) virtues. Do I believe in a divine plan? In the gift of unanswered prayers? In the certainty that what is for me won’t pass me? Of course I do – without reserve. It’s just that I want it all to happen today or at least, to know by when I should expect it, so that I can decide what I want to do while I’m waiting.

Two weeks later though, I’m grateful that I didn’t get a reading. There’s lots of stuff up in the air right now, a lot of balls floating around taking their sweet time to land. And had I been told they might land in a certain way, I might be even more unbearable to live with (tolerance levels are at an all-time low as I’m punch-drunk with tiredness). There’s knowing and there’s knowing. And with knowing comes the need for decisions and decisiveness isn’t my forte, especially  if I’m given any time at all to think. Am best with empty-handed leaps of faith than planned, orchestrated design – so why then the fascination with fortune tellers? I tell you – at times I confuse myself.

Another friend of mine died last week. Unexpectedly. And with every one who passes, I’m reminded even more forcefully that time is of the essence – we never know the day or the hour and we shouldn’t waste what time we have. But then I remember that I can’t make the grass grow any quicker by pulling on it. The divine plan will unfold at its own pace – and while I might be chomping at the bit, I need to take a deep breath and hold fast to the faith.

Mind you, I couldn’t resist buying a spell-infused candle… which lands me front and centre of the pick-and-mix Catholic brigade. Ah, the confusion of it all. But still, I’m grateful that I can at times even amuse myself with my figaries.

 

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