Into the Blue: from Dublin to Duckponds (Emmanuel’s that is)

Elsa Maishman 23 September 2014

There's an email from August 2011 that Google's 'starred inbox' allows me to keep constantly in sight. The message, addressed to the other members of my family is entitled 'Am I crazy?' and details the Cambridge MML course that marks the first step of my journey into the blue. I keep it visible, just as I still have my offer letter beside my bed, no longer as a reminder of what I'm working for, but as a testament to what sheer determination can achieve.

I was originally advised to keep my ambitions a secret, as an application to Oxbridge was considered 'arrogant'. Some people seemed almost offended that I had the audacity to apply, as if an Irish University wasn't 'good enough' for me. When I began my campaign for Cambridge, even the Guidance Counsellor gloomily assured me that 'nobody gets in.' Based on the school's previous history, she was right. Nevertheless I was ambitious, and the Cambridge blue coloured my dreams for more than three years. By now the colleges and traditions feel almost familiar to me. Although Cambridge is a world away from my home in Dublin, it already feels like my world, and it seems more and more normal to talk of formal hall, gowns, may balls and weeks that begin on a Thursday.

A month working at the Edinburgh Fringe felt like the start of my transition 'into the blue'. For the first time in twelve years I returned to live in the UK, rediscovering a world of Sainsburys, ginger beer and punctual public transport. The trains were faster, supermarkets bigger and the police officers much less willing to stop for a chat. I took a day off work at the box office to be at my computer the second the Leaving Certificate results were released. To celebrate, I toured the shows coming from Cambridge – from the Footlights to the ADC – wondering which comedian could be a linguist, which actor might hail from Emma. The month felt like something of a warm-up, a chance to get ready for the move to Cambridge. I delighted in the preparations and opened a UK bank account, got a new sim card and joined the national organ donors list.

Despite more than a decade spent acquiring an 'Irish' accent, after two weeks surrounded by English colleagues, my lilt seemed to leave me, as strangers were startled to learn where I grew up. Come Fresher's week I'll be meeting crowds of new people, and yet I am still trying to formulate an answer to the standard conversation-opener of 'where are you from?'. This question caused two months of delay to my student loan application as they debated whether or not I'm a 'home' student. HSBC were similarly baffled and I'm still at a loss as to whether or not I count as an 'international fresher'.

I don't need the weather reports and visa advice that dominate the international freshers Facebook page, and yet there are black holes in my British cultural knowledge. Despite being technically English I still don't understand the school system, my geography is appalling and I am never more baffled than when people start using words like Brummie, Geordie or Scouser. On top of French and Spanish, at Cambridge I will also be learning a new sort of language, building on my repertoire of words such as 'trainers', 'uni', 'naughty' and 'loo'.

As a linguist I've always been interested in the links between language and national identity, and the importance we place on having somewhere to call home. I still don't know where I'm from, but as I head off into the blue – of Britain, of Cambridge, and of Emmanuel – at least, for now, I know where I'm going.