As I discussed in my last post, my 2012 student exchange to Eau Claire, WI in the USA fell short of being this magical voyage of gilded memories. Like most things in life that are simultaneously overhyped and nervously-anticipated, the eventual experience lands somewhere in the middle. I had a few bumbling failures but also some unexpected successes. My best achievement was obviously making some truly amazing, lifelong friendships. However at the time, I didn’t see it that way. I was caught up in my failures, since it has always been the tendency of my brain to dwell on the negatives for some reason. I attributed my newfound social success to sheer luck. To my mind, it all happened quite by accident.
When Aaron asked me why I thought he and Akbar had taken me under their wing, allowing me to enter their room any time I pleased, spending every day with them, playing soccer with them, going out for meals with them, I answered “You took pity on me I suppose.”
Aaron laughed and shook his head. “Christ, we got a lotta work to do on that self-esteem of yours.”
Perhaps the most memorable date of my up-and-down semester was Friday, November 30th 2012. I was increasingly aware of the temporary nature of my stay in the USA. For the majority of our time, my friends and I would eat chicken alfedo pizza, listen to rap, and play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III, like we would have years together. I was alone in the group in that I had a sense of urgency and imminent peril. For me, this was all going to end in a month, whereas they would keep on going as they always did. I was desperate for us to get off campus and do something vivid and interesting. The other exchange students seemed to hang out together, and given that they all shared that desire to see as much of America as possible during their stay, they went on all these fantastic trips every weekend. Don’t get me wrong- I had my cultural experiences too. I was lucky enough to go on weekend trips with my host family where we’d go to Indian casinos, shoot guns, hunt deer, and go for countryside drives to see the fall colors. But I wanted so much to do something like this with my new friends as well.
I got my wish when Akbar organized a road trip to the Twin Cities to see our Milwaukee Bucks take on the Minnesota Timberwolves in what would be my first- and to date, only- live basketball game. There were five of us that went. Me, Akbar, Aaron, Bart, and Bart’s Malaysian roommate Harry. In a lot of ways it would foreshadow all the road trips me, Aaron, and Anne-Marie would make in the years to come. This trip will always be special to me. There’s something about going on a road trip with friends that is so exciting, and I was discovering that adventurous feeling for the first time on November 30th. The first thing you need on an American road trip is a playlist. Akbar was able to burn a copy of Macklemore’s album The Heist onto a disc, and we listened to that the whole way, bobbing our heads to the beat.
Bart was our driver, and we got to see his parents’ house on the outskirts of Eau Claire. It was a beautiful neighborhood with wide boulevards and the secluded, cozy privacy that comes with tall pine trees. I took my camera, which at that time was nothing special, and almost caused a car crash by taking a flash photo inside the car of the Minneapolis skyline. We were on one of those big freeways entering the city, and for a second I accidentally concussed the driver.
The song “Ten Thousand Hours” was playing and we were in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Enemy territory. The home of our greatest rivals, the Gophers. I enjoyed observing first-hand the friendly rivalry in the pro-Wisco sentiment of my companions.
“Land of Ten Thousand Lakes? More like Land of Ten Thousand Buttholes.”
“Yeah,” Bart said as we headed for the downtown skyscrapers, “Fuck Minnesota.”
The game itself didn’t go too well. Our Bucks lost, and I remember taking it very personally, as if the players ought to know it was my first ever game. I wanted to get a picture of the five of us sitting in a row, like you always see from a group of people attending a concert or sporting event. However I wasn’t assertive or confident enough, and I just ended up fretting about it. We were sat right at the back, in the seats often referred to in the American sporting lexicon as “nosebleeds”. We were joined by several other traveling Bucks fans, most of whom were roaring drunk.
“This is like, the fuckin’ Wisconsin section right here,” a guy wearing a Packer jersey behind us slurred.
At that moment the Timberwolves mascot- Crunch the Wolf- came up the stands near us to say hello to the Timberwolf fans and pose for pictures with the children. The guy behind us, mistaking Crunch for a fox, took it upon himself to start heckling the poor fellow in the suit.
“Fuck off Fox! Get the fuck outta here. Nobody likes a fucking fox!” he yelled.
The game ended and I was sulking again, like I had that time I played like garbage for the intramural soccer team. Even as I was in my funk, I was shocked at how all of a sudden being so openly emotional was now a part of my behavior. Before coming to America, I would never have acted like this.
“Mike’s sad, everyone! We gotta cheer him up!”
“It’s just a game, mate!”
We ended up walking around the downtown area and taking pictures of each other outside the Federal Reserve. All of a sudden I was cheerful again. We were out adventuring, taking photos in the big city like young folks were supposed to. We decided to grab some dinner, and it was a running joke in our group that we were always being dragged to Asian restaurants, because most of our group came from Malaysia.
“Look, I’m not eating none of that Asian crap no more. I’m hungry darnit, and I want some proper food. American food. Burgers, chicken wings, pizza. No more goddam curries and stir frys,” my friend said.
“I agree,” I said. “I want some comfort food.”
For once, we got our way, and we located a pizza place online. This establishment turned out to be quite the trek however, and we ended up crossing the Mississippi and leaving the downtown area trying to find it. The walk was at least 45 minutes and bellies were starting to grumble. We were now in the residential part of the Twin Cities, and given that we were from Wisconsin, started to worry that we might get shot or stabbed.
When we eventually found the pizza place, it turned out to be this dingy bar that wouldn’t let us enter because we were underage. So we had to walk all the way back to the downtown area. We passed what looked like a student house with an open window, from which could be heard the raucous sound of bros-bros partying and listening to rap music. For some reason, Akbar decided to scream “GO BUCKS!” as we passed, and we all feared that some shirtless Minnesotan thugs would storm out the front door like a blue-eyed Eastern Bloc buggery squadron.
When we got back to the downtown area, we passed a building with a giant neon sign that read “SEXWORLD”. Part of the group- including me- wanted to look inside. Not because we wanted to buy anything, of course, but just to do so in the spirit of spontaneous, edgy adventures. The rumor is there is a gargantuan statue of a dingus made out of gold. Alas, we were overruled by the rest of the group, and ended up instead at a restaurant called Pizza Luce.
We enjoyed some excellent Za and I had chicken wings for the first time! Aaron let me have the last one. It was here that I also discovered my love of root beer. When the attractive waitress served me the drink in a big glass stein, she somehow ended up hitting me in the teeth with it. Everyone laughed and I blushed. The waitress cooed that she was sorry and I gave up any attempts at flirting with her.
As we left, we noted that there were several plus-size women at the bar that we suspected might be hookers, if not people cosplaying to the stereotypical image of a working girl. They had the glossy makeup, a cleavage the size of the Mariana Trench, the hoop earrings, the leopard-skin mini-skirts, the fishnet tights, and the high heels. I hope they were real hookers, because I like the idea that at the end of the day, we’re all just traveling the city at night in search of good pizza. Minneapolis is such a quirky city, but I loved our time there.
When we left we stopped in Hudson, WI to get donuts and milkshakes. In the car we listened to “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright, and Bart demanded that everyone sing along. Naturally, I refused. I never sang in front of anyone. However, the lads forced me, and by the end we were all crooning to the emotive lyrics as we sped homeward under the stars.