Trip Start Aug 24, 2012
Trip End Sep 19, 2012

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Harvard University Cambridge
Read my review - 4/5 stars

Flag of United States  , Massachusetts
Thursday, August 30, 2012

"So, instead of 'carrr', they say 'cahhh'. Instead of 'parrrk', they say 'pahhhk'. Instead of 'yarrrd', they say 'yahhhd'. And of course, instead of 'Harrrvarrrd', they say...?"

With that, Yedam gives us all an expectant look and raises her hands like an orchestra conductor.

"Hahhhvahhhd!" we drone in unison. Some of the American tourists have some difficulty with this pronunciation, but Shane and I get it spot on. Naturally - in this aspect the Bostonian accent is very similar to the Australian one.

"So we will often say jokingly; 'go pahhhk the cahhh in Hahhhvahhhd Yahhhd," Yedam explains, waggling her hands to keep us moving on our HAHVAHD Tour.

And so begins our delve into the history of the United States' oldest university.

Yedam is enthusiastic, engaging and highly energetic as she leads us around Harvard Yard, the original campus of this historic college, and I find myself engrossed in the stories and in her telling of them.

Harvard, founded in 1636, was named after John Harvard, the college's first benefactor. The college has educated many famous Americans, including JFK, Matt Damon, Conan O'Brien, and of course, Mark Zuckerberg.

As we follow Yedam, we learn about the famous Cambridge/Harvard rivalry - one chapter of which resulted in a teeny tiny guard hut being the most expensive building (per square foot) in the whole Yard. This was because at the time the Cambridge Historical Society still had jurisdiction over Harvard Yard. The Society refused countless development applications from the college, imposing multiple redesigns before settling on the style that stands today. The cost of these applications ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars, making the diminutive building more expensive per square foot than any of the other magnificent buildings in the Yard.

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library was a particular favourite of mine, and another story of an 'eccentric' woman with too much money (we seem to be encountering them a lot this visit). After Harry graduated from Harvard in 1908, this bibliophile spent some time in Europe, collecting rare books. According to Harvard legend, Harry managed to procure a first edition of the Gutenberg Bible, and wanted to return to America to play show and tell with his wealthy mother.

He boarded an ocean liner departing from Southhampton in April, 1912. Any guesses which liner that might have been?

Well, I guess right - when Yedam asks us what was the fastest way to travel from Europe to America in 1912, I shout out "the Titanic!"

Harry, being a first class passenger, should have had no trouble getting off the sinking ship, but the story goes that he was about to jump aboard a lifeboat when he remembered his beloved Gutenberg Bible back in his room. He raced back to retrieve the artifact, only to return to find all the lifeboats gone. He went down with the ship.

His grieving rich mother was distraught by her son's untimely death, and contacted Harvard to offer a donation of $2 million for the school to build a library in her bookworm son's honour. But she had three stipulations; first, that not one brick or stone on the exterior of the building be move or replaced. Second, that every Harvard student be made to pass a swimming test (completely disregarding the freezing altantic waters, and the whirlpool effect a sinking ship creates, she was convinced that her son might have survived had he learnt to swim). Lastly, that there be a room within the library that only two people may ever enter; the current head librarian, who must place a fresh flower each day in a vase in the room; and the spirit of her dead son, so he could use the library named after him!

The first and last are still followed to this day, but the second was repealed some years ago by a campaign run by a group of disabled Harvard students.

Shane's personal favourite story was that of Conan O'Brien (then president of the Harvard Lampoon) and the theft of the President's Chair from the Crimson (the Harvard newspaper and rival to the Lampoon). In a tale worthy of SNL, Conan managed to steal the chair, unwittingly dragging both Harvard and Cambridge police forces into the melee. The two forces, according to Yedam, we're convinced that the other force was impersonating police in an attempt to steal the chair, and so while they were busy trying to arrest each other, Conan and his cronies snuck in and made off with the chair.*

As our tour winds to a close with Yedam explaining the winter ritual of the 'Primal Scream'; a midnight event at the end of the study period before final exams where Harvard students gather in the Yard to scream and run about completely naked, I grin from ear to ear. Having a college student walk and talk us through the campus has really made our vicarious college experience much more enjoyable. And certainly the Harvard folks have been much more welcoming than the sneering loner at Stanford (although the friendly young lass who greeted us at the visitors centre there was nice enough to almost make up for World of Warcraft guy).

We trot across the road to purchase our necessary HAHVAHD t-shirts, and head back towards the dorm room where Mark Zuckerberg famously founded Facebook for more photos. By this time we've really worked up an appetite, so we seek out Veggie Planet; a local vegetarian haunt. Here Shane builds his own pizza and I have delicious roast veggies with feta cheese over brown rice. We choose to take our food back into the Yard, to eat like real college students.

It's move in week at Harvard, and the shady grassed area is rapidly filling up. Sophomores run screeching at each other, launching into excited hugs and much catching up after their summer vacations. A group of metrosexual guys sunbake unashamedly, well aware they are attracting everyone's attention (including mine).

And one girl sits slightly apart from her parents, determinedly ignoring them as they prattle in Chinese to each other. She is sunk down in her chair as far as she can, hiding her face behind her smartphone. A freshman, I'm guessing, about to move into one of the iconic red brick dorm rooms that populate Harvard Yard. It's clear from her body language that she would rather her parents leave her to make new friends, but who can blame them for hanging around - their daughter just got into Harvard!

But despite all this excitement, despite the history and the prestige, I remark to Shane as we hop back on the red line T (Boston's subway system) back towards the city, that I think if I were going to attend college in the US I would probably choose Stanford over Harvard.

Even with cranky WOW dude, something about that campus spoke to me in a way Harvard didn't. It might be the warm, dry climate - very like home. It might be that Stanford feels down to Earth in a way that Harvard can never be.

But I think it's really because I just love the architecture - those sandstone buildings, those bright red roofs, and even as an Atheist, Stanford's church brought a prickle to my eye.

Harvard might have been modeled on Oxford and Cambridge (the UK university, not the town that Harvard is in...confusing I know), but if one wanted that experience without actually going to Oxford, Sydney University is far closer to home. Stanford is unique in a way that Harvard can never be.

*Really not sure how much of this is true - same goes for the story of Harry Elkins Widener. This is as told on tour. Google results show slightly different versions of events... But hey, the HAHVAHD Tour versions are way more entertaining, so why let the truth get in the way?
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