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SOS: Your parents are coming to visit you at Cambridge

Panicking at the prospect of a surprise visit? Look no further.

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My heart quickened as I read the text message: ‘Arriving at the train station now’. A post bop headache was rearing its head, and it was no longer clear whether my turning stomach was due to one too many vodka cranberries or a case of extreme butterflies. It was time. Time to meet the parents.

From the inside, Cambridge grows to feel like a perfectly normal, functioning place full of high achievers who are also partial to a cheeky Sunday Life. Only when you begin to dissect its quirks with the attitude of an outsider do you realise just how bizarre it really is. Having had the pleasure of a visit from my beloved parents, I now know just how difficult it is to dig yourself out of the deep, deep hole that is explaining what a swap is to your bewildered, frowning father.

To save you the joys of a similar situation, I’ve compiled a guide to Cambridge quirks. Don’t say I’m not good to you. Cambridge, meet Parents. Parents, meet Cambridge.

Like any relationship, you’ll want to present your partner in the best light possible. I recommend a walk along King’s Parade or perhaps the Backs, and lunch on the river, to leave your parents in a daze of pride and awe at the historic surroundings you call home.

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Show them off in their best light

Again, like any relationship, it’s very likely that, before you know it, you’ve put your foot in it and mentioned a less than ideal moment in your relationship. Before you can reverse your faux-pas, you’ve got a protective family with a newfound mistrust for your significant other (bear with me with the lover analogy, the Cambridge relationship is complicated).

In all honesty, my mature advice is to avoid mention of swaps, drinking games and hung-over supervisions, but should you slip up (nobody is perfect), at least learn from my mistakes:


Ahh, the swap. I’m still not sure how to describe this one. My father’s main concern was what one actually swaps (let’s not go there), while my mother’s extremely perceptive response was to express her view that the swap originated from the inability of socially awkward Cambridge students to socialise without alcohol as a ‘social lubricant’. In her words, ‘sad…’

Here you encounter another sticky spot: how to explain the age-old game of fining, without backing yourself into a corner of raised eyebrows and ‘So, what have you been fined for?’ The idea of deliberately humiliating your friends whilst simultaneously giving them alcohol poisoning is admittedly quite bizarre, but nothing you can’t package as a well-meaning bit of fun. Come armed with a series of innocent fines as examples and you’ll emerge unscathed.

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The Cambridge experience


While your friends at other universities are subsisting on a diet of potato waffles and pesto pasta, here you are reviewing the three-course meal served to you in a candlelit hall. Once you mention the college port, you haven’t got a chance of avoiding accusations of obnoxiousness. Inevitably, you’ll show off a dashing picture of you in your gown, leading you to explain just how revolutionary the ‘soup sleeves’ really are, while your parents look on in stunned admiration at your new sophistication. There is now nothing weird to you about nipping to Sainsbury's in such a fancy get up (although you will be leaving with cheap bottle of wine in hand).

Omit references to stealing college silverware and the like if you want to maintain this façade. If you do find yourself accidentally talking about pennying, intersperse your explanation with periodic declarations of just how consensual it really is.

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Still friends, despite the pennying


It’s hard not to sound pretentious when the first text you send to your parents is ‘Meet at Plodge’, and you proceed to sprinkle your conversation with Cambridge specific vocab. ‘Slocal’, ‘Mainsbury’s’, 'Bops' and ‘Dangerspoons’ may make perfect sense to you, but pity the uninitiated and provide definitions as you go.

Work/life balance

Here’s your Oscar moment, your big acting break. Plaster a smile on your face and repeatedly reassure your parents that you’re ‘on top of work’, ‘it’s hard, but manageable’, and you’re having ‘just as much fun as your friends at Bristol’. Avoid letting on about essay crises and missed 9 AMs, and determinedly list your various extra-curricular pursuits as proof of your well-balanced lifestyle. Give Mum and Dad the satisfaction of believing you’re competently navigating adulthood, escort them to the train station, and make a speedy retreat to the library.

Once you’ve navigated the initial introductions, and your partner/Cambridge’s faults are out in the open, the relationship will surely be smooth from here on in. Before you know it, they’ll be part of the family (and your parents will probably like them more than you.)

Thank me later.