My last exam at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire was held at noon on Friday, December 21st 2012, the day before I flew back to London. Even though I lived in the dorm room adjacent to 459 where Aaron and Akbar stayed, I spent my last night on campus sleeping on their futon. I grabbed my duvet (comforter) and pillows, and had an old school sleepover.
In that last week I was a total mess. I completely prioritized my social endeavors, and academics were a mere afterthought. My semester felt like everything I had ever known, as though I couldn’t remember anything in my life before it. America was no longer a novelty- the initial incredulous shock of “Holy shit, I’m actually in America. This place is real. There are people that live here,” that I felt upon my arrival in August had vanished. Now America felt like home, as though I had always been here. The mythic image of movies and TV was now just that- a myth- and it had become something real, tangible, normal. I was distraught at the idea of leaving my friends behind and the life I had built in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. They say time flies when you’re having fun and all that, but that one semester seemed longer than any other period of my life. It contained within it more memories than all my semesters at Winchester put together. I cursed the way time just moves forward, and I wanted more than anything for time to stand still. With every fiber of my being I was a UW-Eau Claire Blugold, and this is exactly what the student exchange coordinators warned us about back home. Ultimately, this wasn’t a transfer. Technically, I wasn’t a Blugold at all. I was still a University of Winchester student, and there was no evidence or documentation to prove otherwise. In fact, there’s no record I was ever at UW-Eau Claire in the first place. Within weeks my student e-mail account was expunged and the whole experience felt like a blurry detour to the Twilight Zone.
Studying abroad for a semester in the USA in many ways encapsulates what America is. It’s a dream. And dreams end. Every one of us that departed Winchester for the USA was warned that we would fall in love and forget where we came from. We did. The pain we felt at leaving was guaranteed from the outset. It was the price to pay for simulating American life for a few months.
During one of my Creative Writing Workshop classes, I wrote a story about an American college boy that, in a chance encounter, has sex with the girl of his dreams. I called her Emmaline Smits, the “Lady of the Bay” from the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. The guy idealizes the girl, but ultimately realizes he meant nothing to her and that the dream that came true didn’t do anything for him long-term except hurt him. My professor said that she thought I should change the main character to a British exchange student, because she thought that he was me. The Lady of the Bay, she said, represented the American Dream, and that my story was about how you can fall in love with America and everything it offers, but then it can take it away from you, and leave you in the dark. I never thought about all that as I was writing it, so it must have been subconscious. It’s interesting that I wrote that story, because it kind of foreshadowed the pain I went through when my semester ended. Emmaline was my semester abroad.
Anyway, I woke up on the morning of Friday the 21st and started to study for my exam. It was the first time I even looked up what the exam was about, if you can believe it. I had to read a poem by Robert Frost. Here it is:
“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”
Nothing gold can stay. Nothing perfect can last. Frost juxtaposes images of heaven with the intrinsically flawed nature of the human world. Heaven and Eden are a dream. God is love- perfect love. And to me the invention of God and heaven by humanity have always represented our desire for perfection in a world that hurts us. Religion is born out of the realization of our flaws; it is a reaction to the glaring imperfections of our world, which seem overwhelming when they hurt us. Now, I don’t want to get hyperbolic about the emotions I felt as the curtains of my semester abroad were drawn. Frost’s poem is way more complex than the issues I want to discuss in this post. But I can’t help but think of the immortal line at the end of this famous poem when I think of my student exchange coming to an end.
America is a dreamy place. And the reality is that it can hurt you, whether you live there as a citizen or at the grace of a student visa. It represents the best we have to offer and the absolute worst. It’s easy to fall in love with its sheer variety of ice cream flavors, its powerful showerheads, and its excellent urban planning. But within this romantic framework there is so much potential for heartache. America will always be a place that is of endless fascination to me; a land where the real world and the dream world live side by side.
Before I left for my exam, Aaron and Akbar presented me with the best gift I could have ever asked for- a t-shirt signed by everyone I met. Aaron even added a signature that read “L.O.B” meaning Lady of the Bay. I remember being paranoid about how the goodbye would go. It had to go absolutely perfectly, I thought to myself, or I’d be anxious for days. I had to go to the bog to answer nature’s call, and as I sat on the cool porcelain of the toilet seat I texted Aaron “Don’t leave without saying goodbye” and he texted back “I won’t” which I instantly realized was the last thing Elvis Presley said before he tragically passed away in 1977. It was the last message Aaron texted me on my TracPhone, and I vowed to never delete it. I liked the idea of looking at it years from then.
I rushed down several flights of stairs and found him and Akbar loading his things into the trunk of a car. Beside them were Aaron’s mom Sylvia and his sister Elizabeth. I was very nervous and unsure what to say. Then Akbar said “Here he is. Almost missed Aaron because you were taking a 30-minute dump.”
At that moment I blushed as red as I have ever blushed and froze. Sylvia said “Thanks, I really wanted to know that,” and I worried that everything was ruined. I ended up hanging around with them for longer than I should have- since my exam was in ten minutes and on the other side of campus- trying to think of a way to say something cool or funny. No such thing happened. I wished Aaron a Merry Christmas, told Akbar I’d see him later, I tried to make it to Hibbard as fast as I could without slipping on the ice.
I entered the classroom just as the exam started, and quietly took my blue book and started writing. When the exam was finished, I shook the professor’s hand and wished him a Merry Christmas, feeling very emotional all of a sudden. I left the building and found that the campus outside was almost deserted. Most folks had left. I took the long way back to Towers North, stopping by the bookstore to sell my textbooks, and pausing to admire Little Niagara and the silent, imposing buildings around me. Now that Aaron was gone, the semester was over. I felt like a tourist again, an outsider, walking among buildings and trees that did not belong to me, but which just an hour earlier passed in the periphery of my eye without a second thought. There was something so cold about the buildings and trees that would endure long after I’d gone.
The snow had stopped falling, and the winter sun bathed the campus in white light. That was the moment my semester ended. In spirit, I was already back in the UK. I was British again. Everything between that moment and the plane landing in Heathrow was just my body going through the various motions of transporting myself back to Nailsea. Throughout the whole trip home- a long sequence of cars, shuttle-buses and planes- I was very impatient. I just wanted all this dead time to be over, since I was already switched off from America. My mind and my heart were blank. Whatever had connected me to the America around me was gone; whatever interface that allowed me to feel and consider the trees, the animals, the road signs, the slang, the body language, the sunsets- the vast details that constituted the life force of the America I had fallen in love with- was no longer working. It was like seeing it all in pictures and movies, even though I was still there. It’s one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever had. And it’s the one I want to end this study abroad series on. Thank you to everyone who has read these little essays since the beginning. Hopefully it was interesting to you. I will still write about the USA, but the story of my study abroad is over. Come next week, I will have started a new project, so stay tuned…