During my student exchange at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire it seemed to me that an American campus offered no end of opportunities. Everything was more. We had more food (free food!) than we could possibly eat, we had more recreational facilities than we could possibly know what to do with, and every week there was an event of some kind going on. I could only imagine what opportunities were on offer at institutions such as John Hopkins or NYU. UW-Eau Claire is a small college in a small city, but like everything else in America it’s rich with possibilities. I wish I had done more, but two things that stand out as being especially memorable are the campaign trail speeches I got to see. I’m going to detail the first one in this post today.
In my Making More Friends in the USA post I highlighted three friends I made during my semester abroad and in my Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election post I described the atmosphere of the campus during the 2012 presidential election. It is in this post that we bring those two pieces together, now that the appropriate context has been established.
I got to see Vice President Joe Biden on September 13th, 2012. The campaign was just starting to heat up at this point, with the vote about 2 months away. Even though I didn’t know Biden that well, I knew I couldn’t turn down the chance to see a sitting Vice President. I went with Jimmy and Zeke and I remember standing in line for ages outside the Zorn Arena. It was a bright day, and although the punishing Midwestern summer heat had dropped off quite suddenly, there was a residual, pleasant kind of warmth that ushered in the Indian Summer of fall. Jimmy and Zeke, being freshmen, shared the same sense of excitement that I did as an exchange student. We were similarly new to the campus and in awe of the fresh sights and sounds before us. We were hungry for experiences. As we waited in line we joked around and pointed out the Secret Service agents taking up various positions around the perimeter of the arena.
“Look, a sniper!” we said, pointing at a guy in shades standing on the roof.
As we got closer to the entrance I got my first glimpse of the UW-Eau Claire marching band, who paraded down the street in a phalanx of blue and gold. They were very impressive and I enjoyed the booming music of drums and brass instruments.
The marching band’s reputation preceded them and I was glad to see them in action. One girl told me “The marching band are legit awesome. It’s like, super-nerdy, but they’re so good.”
The running joke on campus was that the marching band was better than the Blugold football team it supported, and that people attended the games as much to see them as they did the sports.
When we got in we were seated in this gallery overlooking the main stage. People were still flooding into the arena, and our attention focused on the secret service agent guarding the exit near to where we sat. The guy was built like a vending machine but had this serene look to his face that reminded me of a teaching assistant or music tutor with unlimited patience. Zeke said that he was going to go shake the agent’s hand, and asked if I could take a photo of him to prove he did it. I was swept up in the adventure of the moment and as he left our row of seats, Jimmy laughed and said “Dude, he’s legit going to do it.”
Unfortunately my camera at the time was not very good. I did my best to get the highest quality picture I could for him, and the result was pretty blurry. However it was not so blurry that you couldn’t tell what was going on. You can see the handshake, but the agent’s got two heads, so it looks like his spirit is leaving his physical body and watching the event over his shoulder. At the time I was worried that not getting a good photo was a missed chance to improve my new friendship with Zeke, but really it just serves as an example of how I used to fret over every little thing back then, that the slightest imperfection in my social endeavors would have far-reaching consequences. But as I have stated, Wisconsinites are a super-friendly bunch, and throughout the semester both Jimmy and Zeke were absolutely wonderful towards me. I apologized to Zeke but he just laughed and said “Good enough. Thanks man, this is badass.”
The event started with a bunch of guest speakers I can’t remember. A quartet of blonde German-American girls gave a lovely rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and my friends reminded me to put my hand over my heart and face the flag. I wasn’t sure what to do, as a foreigner, but I decided to go along with it. It was a strange sensation and a thought came over me at the time: “So this is my life now. How the hell did I get here? Here I am in the USA doing the pledge of allegiance I’ve seen so many times in the movies…”
It was a far cry from the life I’d known just a few short months ago, hiding in my room getting all my knowledge of the outside world through media instead of direct exposure. It was weird. For so long I’d felt that I was somehow “outside life”, existing only as an observer of the stories of others. Now I felt like I was living. I was in the stories I read and the movies I watched. This was a recurring emotion during my student exchange, one in which my perception of reality was changing. This might sound completely insane, but it was like all of a sudden I felt real.
Joe Biden sauntered onto the stage with his trademark swagger and ear-to-ear grin. He was old, thin, with a head of hair so white as to shame a Stranger Things antagonist. He looked like the American “good ol’ boy” archetype and I could imagine him playing a sheriff or saloonkeeper in an old-school Hollywood Western. His natural charisma and quintessential “American-ness” reminded me of Harrison Ford. Despite his age and his thinness, he was a man fit to bursting with excited energy. He seemed so vibrant and lively. He strutted about the stage shaking hands, slapping shoulders and snapping his fingers. His reputation as such a colorful personality turned out to be true, and it made for an entertaining speech. Biden resonated with the youth and knew how to galvanize them. He joked around, he was goofy, and he had this innocent, trustworthy twinkle in his eyes like your favorite uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. He spoke about foreign policy and then went on to paint a picture of the America he and Obama envisioned; a place of diversity, tolerance and progressivism.
I wasn’t too big on politics at the time, but I remember enjoying his speech and leaving Zorn with a sense of hope and optimism. There were people in power working to make the world a better place.