Adventures in communication.

This morning, an abbreviated version of my morning's work accomplished, I strolled to the city centre with my friend. We had a specific mission ahead of us: to purchase mobile phones and kit them out for international calling. I dislike tasks like this so much that even as we entered the city's market square, I could feel my apprehension rising. "Do you want me to do the talking?" he asked. No, no, I said, I can do it just fine (somehow it had been our plan that I would do the talking, perhaps because I had done the research). I just always expect something to go horribly wrong.

Nothing went horribly wrong; we just worked with a sales representative who was so new to his job that his nametag read "Visitor." The transaction took at least 30 minutes, I'd say, and for most of that time, we stood at the counter twiddling our thumbs and/or pointing out amusing things around the store. (Why, for instance, do our top-up cards say that they expire in 12/99? Are they actually good until the end of this century?) (Who thought it was a good idea to name a headset Smokin' Buds? Or, for that matter, to name the headset's company SkullCandy?) Finally, Visitor the Salesman said, "That will be £39.98, please," and we both just stood still on the other side of the counter, confused as to what was happening. I had priced these packages at something much more like £20; where had all this extra cost come from? Suddenly I realized the problem: he'd rung us up on a single bill, despite the fact that we'd given separate addresses within the college. This difficulty turned out to be an eminently surmountable one, as did the fact that my bank card is not of the "chip and pin" variety that has become ubiquitous here, apparently rendering old-school credit cards obsolete.

To reward ourselves for having taken the plunge into mobile phone use with our delightfully low-tech phones, we headed off for lunch and drinks at The Pickerel, a beautifully blue pub in a part of Cambridge I hadn't yet visited. And then to Magdalene College, across the road from the pub.

Magdalene has the distinction of having been home to Samuel Pepys (say: peeps), who is (in a way) one of the Cabinet's greatest heroes. Pepys took his degree from Magdalene in 1654. From 1660 to 1669, he kept an increasingly voluminous diary, which is now housed in a Library named for him at his old college. (I feel a bit like Luisa from The Fantasticks: "Every day something new happens to me!" It's difficult not to walk around here with an enormous dopey grin on one's face. And so I generally don't try very hard.)

Signs instructed us that the Pepys Library is now closed. And my guess is that not just anyone can go handling the diary's manuscripts even when it's open. But I now have one more place on the agenda for this year's Grand Tour of Rare and Astounding Things. And perhaps my doctorate and autobiography chops will come in handy when I turn up there again.

After we acquired stamps, we took a leisurely but stately stroll through my friend's own alma mater, another of Cambridge's very venerable colleges, and did so under the auspices of his status as an alumnus. Especially while I'm still finding my comfort as a member of this community, rather than as an outsider, it was exceptional indeed to be able to walk in blithe confidence past the "No Visitors Allowed" signs as we made our way back to our own lovely home.

Even if we don't have dahlias here.

* * *

How could I have forgotten to tell you that as we walked through town we saw a startlingly low-key run on a bank? Across the street from where we walked, a long, thick queue of people seemed to be waiting for something. "Is something happening with the coffee?" my friend asked, since they initially seemed to be queueing around Costa Coffee. But next door to Costa is Cambridge's branch of the bank Northern Rock, which (though we didn't know it at the moment) was having a cataclysmically bad day. Having gotten a bailout from the Bank of England (lender of last resort), the bank faced queues all over England today as worried people showed up to empty their accounts and put their money into other, safer-seeming banks. Northern Rock shares lost 30% of their value today. Now, I've learned that the bank was writing mortgages worth six times their holders' incomes, a figure that (given the costs of living here) makes me catch my breath. Everyone in the queue we saw seemed reasonably cheery about it, which almost made us think that we weren't seeing what we were in fact pretty sure we were seeing. But we were indeed seeing it.