Letters from the dorm: Isabel Lai gives US visitor a memorable tour

By Isabel Lai, Durham University
By Isabel Lai, Durham University |

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Prebends Bridge in Durham.

This Easter holiday I chose to stay in Durham to study. Occasionally, I get to take a break and conduct campus tours. I enjoy showing prospective students around the city, answering their questions about university life, academic work, the collegiate system, nightlife and extracurricular activities on offer. It reminds me of what it was like when I had to make this important decision four years ago. On Good Friday, however, I was told to meet an American visitor at the Radisson Blu hotel. But Paul Ludden was not a secondary school student, as I expected; he was the provost of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

It was a rainy day - always good for doing tours because it gives people an accurate idea of what the English weather is like. Paul wore a red cagoule, and I had an umbrella. The first stop was majestic Durham Cathedral and castle, the city's Unesco World Heritage sites. Besides having been featured in Harry Potter movies for Professor McGonagall's classroom and quidditch practice scenes, the cathedral is a landmark in its own right. It was built in the 11th century, and I think my US guest was impressed by the pillars and the elegant cloister.

Opposite the cathedral was the castle. Of course, the Harry Potter theme continued when we set foot in the Great Hall where ceremonious long dining tables were laid out.

Paul was a fascinating conversationalist. In fact, I enjoyed chatting to him so much that I decided to take him on a longer route around campus. Meanwhile, we discussed an enormous range of topics including gun control in the United States, American presidents, higher education, global economic recovery since 2008, gender equality and travel. We compared notes on our trips to the Grand Teton National Park, in the US, and to Stockholm, Sweden. When he saw that our library was named after Bill Bryson, we shared our views on this extraordinary travel writer and ex-chancellor of Durham. It was Bryson who once said: "Don't let your degree get in the way of your education."

Paul kindly invited me to lunch, and we learned of another shared favourite - eggs Benedict.