Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Saturday in Cambridge

I have moments when I still can't believe that we live in Cambridge. Some things have grown familiar - the sounds of fire engines and cicadas on summer evenings, the sight of electricity wires drooping across the roads, the damp fresh water smell of the river Charles... but other things still stop us dead in our tracks and make us say, 'Wow! We're living in America.'

Today was typical of our lives here, but totally alien to the lives that we were living in Newcastle only a year ago.

Breakfast was pancakes with maple syrup and apple sauce made from apples we collected from an orchard last weekend (we have a freezer filled with bags of apple sauce and bags of tomato sauce and now understand why a New England friend recommended that we canned the tomatoes instead). Then we strolled down to Harvard Square. Iola has made friends with one of the local eccentrics who begs outside our church. This morning she and Bobbie chatted about her birthday (which isn't until March but was at the front of her mind) and then he serenaded her with a Rod Stewart song. She loves music, and sat herself down at his feet and stared up with puppy-dog eyes while he crooned, 'Have I told you lately that I love you...'

We walked through Harvard, over the river, and arrived at the Harvard Stadium for the first football game of the season. I've never seen an American football game before, but my experience of watching basketball and (ice) hockey and softball has proved to me that you don't need to know much about a sport to enjoy the event. The Harvard stadium, built in 1903, is the oldest continuously used football stadium in the US. Like much of the early 1900s Harvard architecture, it looks like it belongs elsewhere - imagine the Colosseum popped up on top of huge ranks of concrete steps. It can hold more than 50,000 people (note: this is for college football, not the professional league) so it looked relatively empty with only 5,000 people in the audience. That's 5,000 people for a college football game on a Saturday afternoon - more than my parents' home town's football team gets for most of its games - and the stadium looked almost empty.

Maya plays the trumpet in a local band, so she struck up a conversation with one of the musicians in the marching band. Music is important here. Every sports game we have attended, even the women's basketball match which only had a dozen people in the audience, has a band in attendance who play prior to the event, during any pauses that occur in the game (quite a lot in football), and then march loudly and ceremoniously through Harvard following the match.

The guys warming up on the pitch were enormous - imagine Nathan crossed with an American refrigerator - and there were hundreds of them. As sports go, football is fairly slow and very labor intensive. Two teams of eleven players come onto the pitch. Everyone cheers. A player from one team kicks the ball as hard as they can to the other side of the pitch where a player from the other team tries to catch it. Then both teams come off the pitch. Everyone cheers. Then all the players from both teams are replaced with other members of their team. The 'offensive' team try to get the ball from where it has landed to the other end of the pitch by moving it 10 yards at a time while the opposing 'defensive' team try to sit on them. If, after four attempts, the offensive team haven't managed to move the ball 10 yards, then everyone comes off the pitch. Everyone cheers. Then a whole set of new players come on as the defensive team swap and play their offensive players, and the offensive team switch to their defensive players. There might be more to it than that brief summary.... Meanwhile, in the serried concrete ranks of the Colosseum, children run frenziedly around hoping that the ball will be kicked into the seating area; people watch and eat bbq; a crowd of gymnasts and cheerleaders entertain the people on the Harvard side of the stadium and keep their backs turned resolutely against the poor few who have traveled from San Diego for this game, and, throughout it all, the band plays on.

We realized that the game had nearly finished because San Diego's quarterback had started to plead with his coach each time he was sent back on. He'd had a bad game, but it didn't seem to matter how much he limped, his coach kept forcing him back out onto the astro-turf, with a smile and a pat on the back, so that the Harvard team could knock him over once more. The quarterback's obvious fear didn't impress the rest of his team members: by the end of the game, each time the quarter back threw the ball at his team mates, they ignored him and deliberately looked the other way. As game strategies go, this doesn't seem to be the best route to winning a game: Harvard won by a huge amount.

Our experiences of American sport have been relaxing, enjoyable, and governed by the good manners which are rife in this area of New England. I have never heard anyone boo or swear or cuss a player or a coach. The crowd fall silent as soon as the play commences and watch attentively. At the end of the match, all the players shake hands and then the crowd files out. There were about 10 policemen in attendance for a crowd of 5000. Even the visitors from San Diego were smiling.

We walked back over the River Charles (the Harvard stadiums are all on the Boston side of the river) and then found an Americana music festival taking place in Harvard Square. Nathan and I settled down to listen to the music while the girls were entertained with sack races and chalking on the sidewalks. It's heading towards the end of summer here, but it's still warm enough to sit outside in t-shirts.

Finally we headed home by walking up through Harvard. There were buskers on nearly every corner, but we were music-ed out from the festival and kept walking, stopping only so that Iola could pet every dog that we passed. We took a short cut through Radcliffe Quad where new students were out in their deck chairs working away on their laptops and then we paused for a while to chat with neighbors, before chivying the girls up our stairs for a quick tea, hot bath and bedtime story.

Saturday evening is just beginning and I'm on-line. There's a Harvard vs. Yale football game coming up in a few weeks time and I want to make sure that I get hold of some tickets...