Category Archives: Personal

Spring 2018 Recap

Today I’d like to do a springtime recap! These posts are always super-fun to write, and they let y’all know what I’ve been up to when I’m not writing or scrapping metal. Don’t worry; there are no spoilers for anything I review here.

 


TV: Westworld & Evil Genius

 

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These are the two shows I’ve really been obsessed with this year so far. I’m actually enjoying Westworld’s second season more than its first. I won’t spoil anything for those of y’all still catching up, but I love the direction they’re taking the show in and the themes that come with that narrative avenue. The crux of Westworld is its exploration of the consequences of theme park robots remembering what happens to them before they’re destroyed, repaired, and reset, and I think that the concept of these “dreams” and “reveries” being the catalyst for self-awareness is such a fascinating, clever idea. It’s probably the most layered TV drama that I watch. It’s a show that I think about when I’m not watching it. I love going online after the episode finishes and watching video breakdowns of all the hidden meanings and revelations.

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Evil Genius, on the other hand, is a Netflix crime documentary, pitched to me by my kid brother as being to 2018 what Making a Murderer was to 2016 and The Keepers was to 2017, respectively. I loved both shows, and Evil Genius definitely scratches that particular, chillingly-macabre itch. It’s just as addictive, and like them, it’s a documentary that proved as engaging as a thriller flick. But where Making a Murderer raised questions about the U.S criminal justice system, and The Keepers was poignant and unsettling, Evil Genius is just plain weird. It’s a case of reality conjuring up something stranger than fiction. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong is about as frightening as a Cormac McCarthy antagonist, and her associates tantamount to a Who’s Who of Erie’s most despicable white trash assholes.

 


Cinema: I, Tonya

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This might be my favorite movie of the year so far! When I think back on all the media I’ve consumed in the past few months, I, Tonya stands out as something that was both an enjoyable and a creative experience. Margot Robbie gave a career-defining performance as redneck figure skater Tonya Harding. A complete performance. One that utilized every aspect of her talent in order to create a Tonya that was in equal parts flawed and sympathetic. Given the nature of the film as being both comedic and heart-wrenching, it had to have demanded a lot of her, and she just kind of gets it right. It works, and the performance made the movie. I love how creative she is an actress and how invested she is in her recent roles; it seems like she is selecting parts that she’s really passionate about and working as both an auteur and a performer. She reminds me a lot of a young Robert De Niro.

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I was very impressed with the choreography and cinematography of the ice skating scenes, which are the most exciting moments in the film. Watching them was like watching the car chase in The French Connection or the bank heist in Heat. They’re treated like action scenes and the way the movie pulls them off is simply breathtaking. It honestly looked like Margot Robbie was executing that triple axel.

 


Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire & A View from the Bridge

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The Tobacco Factory and the Old Vic in Bristol have had some awesome plays on this year. In my last “creative roundup” post I wrote about going to see Macbeth. And recently I’ve been to see two more tragedies: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller. I was already very familiar with the former, having seen the Marlon Brando film version several times. But it’s a story that’s so damn good that it never gets old, and I jumped at the chance to see it on stage. Even though I write fiction and poetry, I’d say my two favorite storytellers of all time are Shakespeare and Williams. As far as narratives go, they’re my absolute idols. I love the themes that Williams works with, and the modern adaptations of his plays have the freedom to be more explicit and visceral. In the Brando film version, the darker elements of the plot are hinted at but never seen. So much has to be inferred when watching it (or indeed any other adaptation of Williams’ work from that period). But watch one of his plays nowadays and it is absolutely brutal. Everything Williams wanted to write about but had to dance around in the 1950s is unleashed in all its bleak and depressing glory. I thought that Kelly Gough in particular did a fantastic job as Blanche Dubois, in a performance that made me think about just what a tragic character she is.

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A View from the Bridge, on the other hand, was a play I knew literally nothing about. I’ve seen both The Crucible and Death of a Salesman on stage, and I know that Miller is an O.G. I went to see this one with my father and my nan, and it was only on the drive to the theatre that I learned the play was about Italian-Americans in the New York docks, which made me think: I’m gonna like this. The play turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever been to- not just this year, but ever. At the interval we all looked at each other, blown away by how good it was.

“This is absolutely brilliant,” my nan said, and the woman behind us was like “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

There were a lot of young people in the audience, who were no doubt studying the play for their Lit exams, and when the play ended everyone was on their feet whistling and hooting. It was probably the loudest applause I’ve ever heard at the Tobacco Factory. If you ever get the chance to see this play then DO IT. It’s a classic tale of incest and revenge…

 

 

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Reassessing My 2018 Resolutions

With my Hungarian series concluded, I’d like to write a post reflecting on how 2018 has gone so far. In my New Year’s Resolution post I outlined some targets I wanted to hit: finish writing 2 novels and develop my sense of self-sufficiency. I’m continually searching for creative and mental satisfaction- they have always seemed like the twin pillars upon which my life is built. One’s about actualizing what isn’t here and the other’s about repairing what is. Succeed in both and I guess I’m whole. As long as I stay inspired and stress-free, I’ll keep the black tentacles of depression at bay.

As I look back on the Spring of this year, I can’t help but feel it’s the importance I place on these two targets that’s part of the problem. My tendency to perceive a year in my life as having a narrative. As the weeks go by I’ve felt the weight of the pressure I’ve put on myself grow heavier. I’ve been stressed. And when I say I’m stressed, I don’t mean that my life is stressful; I’m not referring to exterior stressors like inflated gas bills, vindictive ex-spouses, or inheritance feuds. My stress comes from within. It’s derived from my own sense of failure in relation to my progress. I’ve attached a great importance to 2018 as being a year in which I can look back upon as having some kind of legacy. So far I have mixed feelings about the whole business, and therefore mixed feelings about 2018.

I am making progress. My dissatisfaction is with the pace of my progress. I’m hungry for results. As it stands, my novel is at about 50,000 words, with about another 15-20k to go. I just can’t help but think that I should have finished the darned thing a couple months ago. The issue is not that the novel is going slow (since I have all the chapters mapped out), but that I’ve been struggling to allocate time for it. Things were a lot easier when I worked at the pub. My new job at the warehouse brings in more money, but it’s at the expense of my writing time. It means that I have to go hard on my weekends, and so my sense of rhythm is lost during the week. It’s a stop-and-start writing experience at the moment, as opposed to something that flows from one day into the next. I should be doing a better job of getting some writing done in the evenings after work. That’s the discipline I’m trying to strengthen. I always get some done- usually for the blog- but not as much as I could. I end up getting distracted by things like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes or the Ricky Gervais Show.

Reading is another thing that stresses me out a lot. I haven’t been getting as much reading done recently because I’m worrying about the blog and the novel. But reading and writing have a natural synergy, and when one is neglected the other suffers. I think a lot of my worries relate to speed to be honest. Not so much the absence of progress as the rate of it. Wishing there were more hours in the day.

I’m confident of finishing the current novel and the next one by the end of 2018, and I do think that my reading will pick up too. But will I be happy and fulfilled by the end of the year? Will something still feel missing in my life? Reading and writing are tangible, measurable goals. But the more abstract resolution I made about improving my mental health is harder to assess. I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety recently, and I’ve been disappointed that it can still crush me like it did when things were really bad (the pre-medication era). I thought I was getting better at keeping my emotions in check and not collapsing under the pressure of a mood swing, but lately I have felt exceedingly weak.

But it’s not all been bad. Sure, I’ve had the odd panic attack, and I’ve been frustrated with my writing efficiency. However other stressors have gone away. Socially and creatively, it’s been a very good Spring. I’ve been inspired, I’ve traveled, and I’ve felt more capable and relaxed in social situations. I’ve gotten out more, I’ve interacted with more people, and I’ve tried new things. I’ve experienced a wonderful harmony between being sociable and being independent. I’ve taken the train to London to watch Chelsea games with my friend from Winchester, I’ve flown to Ireland to see Elizabeth & George, and I’ve reconnected with a school buddy at work that I previously didn’t get to see that much. It’s been nice to hang out with different friends from different places, and feel like my relationships with them are in good health. And yet I feel like I’ve grown as an individual. I’ve taken the time to prioritize myself and my own needs. I have been extremely comfortable in my own company, and it’s an awesome feeling. Going to Hungary turned out to be a massive success, and I loved that I could enjoy being a lone wolf like that.

And my new job, though physically demanding and long hours, is exactly the kind of challenge I need. I need to have my freedom taken away and to be pushed to the limits of my energy in order to become the best writer I can be. Through struggle comes growth, right? I have this belief that the more my conditions for writing are handicapped, the better at the craft I will become. If I was free all the time, with nothing to distract me from writing, I don’t think I would be a very good writer. My hope is that ultimately I will be able to balance my writing life with my work life more effectively, and feel that I am at maximum exuberance. I want to make every hour of my free time count, and not let it drift away into nothingness as it has in the past.

In conclusion, my year thus far has been mixed. There’s a lot I’m happy with and a lot I’m unhappy with. My plan now is focusing on balancing all the things that are important, and not letting any one aspect of my life start to rot.

Exploring Szentendre Part 2

As I reached Fő tér, Szentendre began to feel like a labyrinth you never want to find the way out of. A labyrinth of narrow alleyways and small squares, all paved with cobblestone. Baroque churches, pastel houses. Old lampposts and doorframes that were paradoxically theatrical and yet understated; extravagant in and of themselves, yet –when fitted together in the context of the town- sleepy and subtle. Lights in colorful lampshades hanging across the street. The lampshades like the traditional skirts being sold in the shops below. This was rural Hungary- vibrant colors and floral aesthetics.

 

Every house around the square a museum, café, or crafts store. I hopped from place to place, buying souvenirs and taking in art exhibitions. The people out here were some of the friendliest I met on my trip. Even the museum curator who told me to stop being an asshole was nice about it. I saw a painting of an owl, and knowing that my roommate Aaron is an owl fan, I got my phone out and took a picture for him. The curator said “No photo,” and I clapped my hands together, bowed low, and said “Sajnálom!”

The woman laughed and said “It’s okay.”

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I decided to head to the river and get an espresso. I stopped at a little boat that served coffee and snacks, pausing to admire the tranquility of the Danube. The other side of the river was covered in low green hardwoods. Looking at it all from this angle, I thought, the river probably looked much like it had for the past thousand years. There were no houses on the other side, and there was no traffic on the water in the way of boats or paddleboards. On the Szentendre side of the Danube, I was treated to the view of the quiet riverfront- a line of cafés, a road that wasn’t very busy, and a wide footpath that lined the riverbank. In the grass nearby, some teenagers taking selfies with the Danube in the background. A woman walking her dog, her step unhurried. I liked the look of that sidewalk that ran parallel to the river, so I finished my espresso and set off north.

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As I walked further and further from Fő tér, the town got greener and more quiet. The roads and the paths got wider. The people, cars, and buildings became sparser. I reached Czóbel Park and decided to loop back toward town and grab some lunch. My walk back to Fő tér along Bogdányi út was probably my favorite part of my trip to Szentendre. The atmosphere reminded me of Toussaint from The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine. I passed pottery shops, a library, an orthodox church, and a bunch of art galleries. A man walked by with a barrel over one shoulder, whistling. A local painter worked on a watercolor, sitting in the long afternoon sunshine.

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When I got back to Fő tér, I got lunch at a restaurant called Korona Étterem. I sat inside, since I like to stay cool, and my eyes were drawn to the magnificent taxidermy on display. I liked the rustic, country design. For my starter, I got the goulash, which turned out to be different to the variants of the dish I had experienced in Budapest. It was less thick and more hot. The texture was that of a watery soup rather than a creamy one. The waiter lit a flame underneath the bowl, which hung in this little metal stand, and I had to wait for the fire to die out before I could eat.

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For my main course I had duck with plums and fried potato cakes. It seemed to me a very traditional meal, and that’s why I chose it. I had fried potato cakes several times during my visit to Hungary. They taste nice but they are quite filling. After writing in my journal for a while, I decided to walk around the town taking photos, before finally heading back to the train station.

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Even visiting Budapest for a week didn’t seem like enough time. I wanted a slower pace, which I figured was the key to knowing a place on a deeper level. I wanted to be in the picturesque painter’s town for an indeterminate amount of time. I wanted to be like the painters, working on their craft and removed from time. I wanted to reduce everything to ambience and atmosphere. If I simply lived here, it would exist in the periphery of my vision- which would make me happy and inspired. That’s what I wanted; I looked at aesthetics as a gateway to improved mental and creative health. But as a tourist you are rushed; it’s about hitting landmarks and essential spots before the countdown to reality chimes at zero. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed being a tourist- but I also lamented that I couldn’t be more. I wanted to write poems in cafés, play pickup basketball in the shade of the Parliament building, or read great novels on park benches. I wanted my sense of time to be amputated.

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However, visiting for a week proved to be a good choice- I was able to slow the pace from a weekend’s city break whilst ensuring that I wouldn’t get fired from the warehouse. As I passed the church on my way to the train station, I realized that I had unfinished business. I turned around and headed back toward town. My trip to Budapest was all about becoming more confident and more self-reliant. That’s why I went clubbing by myself, why I used Tinder, and why I made a routine of chatting with the receptionists at my hotel every evening about how my day had gone. I wanted to make friends with everyone.

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At this point in my trip, I hadn’t yet had any pictures of myself. It was time to get over my fear of approaching strangers. I thought about Aaron and Elizabeth’s father for some reason. Now there’s a Bull Moose, I thought. There’s no way he would worry about what some stranger on the street thought of him. In my mind, he represented fearlessness and capability. I needed to be like him and stop being so afraid of people all the time.

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I stopped at the bridge where I wanted my photo taken and waited. I told myself there was no logic to my fear. Everyone out here was enjoying the sun. There was no chance that one of these people would scream at me for asking them to take my picture. And even if they did, I couldn’t let such a scenario determine how I lived my life. Aaron and Elizabeth’s dad wouldn’t give two shits if some stranger was mean to him. He’d forget about it and move on. It takes more than that to take down a Bull Moose.

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It had been a decade since I left school and I was still trying to eschew the part of my brain that told me to never approach anyone or draw attention to myself, the part of my brain that still saw every person as a potential bully with nasty intentions.

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So I asked the first person I saw to take my picture.

“Sorry, I’m in a rush,” she said and walked past.

Don’t panic, I said to myself. If I left the bridge now, I’d never approach a stranger again. I would not leave until the mission was complete.

I then asked these two teenage girls if they wouldn’t mind, and they happily obliged. That wasn’t so hard, I told myself. It was easy, in fact. I left the bridge feeling that I had gained a skill, and it turned out to be one I would use several times on my trip.

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10 Stories From Hungary

In addition to my thematic posts regarding my trip to Hungary, I’d also like to share with you some rapid-fire asides. These are little stories that aren’t big enough individually to warrant a blog post, but which- collected together here- can hopefully give you a good impression not just of Budapest, but of me as a person.

 

  1. The Presley Serenade
    On my first full day in Budapest, I decided to wear one of my (many) Elvis Presley t-shirts, since I was stopping at the little park named for him. In the evening, I wandered around Buda looking for a place to eat. I’d had a long day walking around Margitsziget, the Hungarian Parliament, and video calling my American roommate Aaron, so I pretty much jumped at the first place I found. That place was a restaurant called Kasca Étterem. It was only when I stepped inside that I thought I had made a mistake: this joint was hella It was by far the most posh restaurant I went to on my trip- I’m talking chandeliers, elegant wood panels, framed paintings of rural idylls- and here I was in my dorky Elvis graphic tee and my wrinkled jeans.
    I was the only patron in the entire place, and the service was exquisite. Near to where I sat there were two musicians playing classy music on a piano and a violin. As I ravaged through the complimentary bread and olive oil like a feral dog, it suddenly occurred to me that I recognized the song they were playing. Well I’ll be a sonuvabitch if that ain’t “Love Me Tender” them fellers is playing, I thought. I looked up and both the musicians were grinning at me, waiting for me to notice. They pointed at my t-shirt and winked at me. I’ve never been treated so good in a restaurant. I raised my glass to them and continued eating. A few more people entered the place- most of them lone diners like myself- and the musicians went back to Hungarian folk music. Ten minutes later however, they started playing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and I couldn’t help but give them the goofiest grin and snap my fingers at them. They winked back, and before I left for the night, I gave them each a handsome tip. It amazed me that they just had Hungarian folk versions of Presley classics on standby in case an absolute direhard like me came in.
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  2. Using Three Currencies
    It’s best when visiting Hungary to take a decent amount of Hungarian forints. However, I ended up using both euros and pounds during my trip. I had some euros I wanted to get rid of in my wallet so I gave them to a waitress for helping me write down some things in Magyar in my journal. The pounds I spent at a little kiosk outside the Citadella. I wanted to get my kid brother Frank a present and I saw this awesome pewter statuette of a Roman centurion. Frank (like me) loves Ancient Rome, and Hungary was a part of the Roman Empire. I didn’t have any forints left and the guy at the kiosk didn’t accept cards. I told him the centurion was a gift for my brother, and asked to pay for it in pound sterling. The guy agreed and he got his phone out to calculate the price. I was prepared to give him what I knew was probably too much, since I only had tens and twenties. However the guy said he felt uncomfortable taking too much from me and insisted on looking up the exchange rate and giving me the correct change in forints.
  3. The Shifty Guy
    Prior to arriving in Budapest, I read that violent crime was very rare. What was rife in the Hungarian capital however, was supposedly scams and petty theft. I had to keep my wits about me- this being my first true experience of traveling alone and all that. The only time I felt in danger was on my first day, when I was walking around Margaret Island. Even though it was a gorgeous morning and there were plenty of folks enjoying the island, I happened on a path along the bank that was quite deserted. I stopped to take a photo of the river, and out the corner of my eye I see this shifty-looking motherfucker coming towards me. The path was so wide that it was strange for him to be standing so close. I turned and looked at him and he stopped, jerking to the side. He looked like he had some rough experiences in his life- his face was craggy with dark lines and heavy bags under his eyes. He wore a scruffy leather jacket and he had the saddest, most beat-down expression I ever saw. He pretended to be admiring the river as well, probably waiting for me to look away again. At that moment I made a decision to walk away and not worry that it looked rude to do so.
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  4. Public Transport
    During my time in Hungary I used almost every type of transportation available. I got trains, subways, buses, trams, and taxis. The bus ride from the Buda Hills back to the city was free, which amazed me. The trams were also free, and easily the most convenient way of getting around. In general, the standard of transportation was very good and very affordable. I got the HEV (the suburban metro) a few times when going on excursions into the country, and it was very simple. The first time I didn’t have to pay. I told the hotel receptionist about my free ride later that evening and she said “Sometimes this happens in Hungary!” and laughed. The HEV was efficient, and from an aesthetic point of view it was slightly run-down, but in a way that I found kind of charming.
  5. The Homicidal Ticket Barrier
    I went to a bathhouse in Buda late one evening and when I got out it was completely dark. I walked through the parking lot, where a ticket booth had its barrier raised into the air. I wondered why it was stood up like that in a permanent way, but shrugged and kept going. It was only as I passed under it that the barrier decided to suddenly drop, and I jumped a country mile and screamed “Fucking Christ!” at the top of my voice. Whoever was in the booth must have heard, and immediately stopped the barrier’s murderous descent, lifting it back to its upraised position. Whoever had started lowering it must have had no idea that someone was out there in the darkness about to get their brain caved in.
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  6. The Bogroll Incident
    After reaching the northernmost tip of Margitsziget, my intestines notified me of an urgent fax that needed sending. I turned back and headed down the western side of the island. I’d seen everything I wanted to at that point, and the next thing on my agenda was to stop at the Palatinus Strand thermal spa. They’d have the facilities I needed there too. By the time I reached the entrance to the bathhouse I had a pained, horselike gait. I paid my ticket, bought a towel, and rushed up several flights of stairs to the changing room toilets. I realized only too late however, that the cubicle I was in didn’t have any bogroll. Fuck, I thought, this is going to be like Door County all over again. So I check the other cubicles, and they don’t have any paper either. Now I’m stumped. This is the civilization that produced Ferenc Liszt and Sandor Petofi, that invented the ballpoint pen and the Rubik’s Cube, the engineers of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the freaking descendants of Attila the Hun aka THE SCOURGE OF GOD. There’s no way they got this far, and accomplished all that, without wiping their buttholes. There had to be a logical explanation for all this. So I go back to the part of the restroom where the sinks and hand-driers are, and find that the bogroll dispenser is right next to them. I had to grab a load of paper and go back into the cubicle, and come out and get more again if I needed it.
    Of course, I later found out that not all restrooms are like this- but some are. I encountered the same situation in the Kiraly Baths.
  7. The Beggar Woman
    I was walking towards the Hungarian National Museum when I was approached by a middle aged lady in a square. She was wearing a black dress and had those pointed glasses you associate with 1960s librarians. I thought that she looked very classy, that she might be a fashion designer or a dance instructor or something. Intrigued, I decided to stop and see what she had to say. She spoke a strange mix of Hungarian, English, and Italian, and said something along the lines of “I’ve been watching you and I can see that you are very nice…” and in my utter hubris I thought that she was trying to recruit me as a male model, that she was inspired by the contours of my face. I asked her what she wanted, already imagining my wealthy life as her pet. Then she started making eating gestures with her mouth and hands and I felt a pang of shame and sympathy. I gave her some money and went on my way, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her story.
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  8. The Taxi Driver
    I got many taxis- perhaps more than was wise- but there’s one journey that sticks out. I was walking downhill from the Castle District and decided to get a taxi the rest of the way to the Lukács Baths in Buda. I flagged a taxi down and hopped on in. The driver was a tall, muscular guy with a shaved head and a jaw the size and shape of a picnic cooler. I imagined that he was ex-KGB or something. He laughed that he was on his way home, but it was fine for me to use him. We ended up chatting a lot and I asked him what sports he was interested in. He said football (soccer) was at a very low standard in Hungary, and symptomatic of a larger societal decay. Today, he argued, young people want money but don’t want to put in the work. The same, he said, was true of footballers- instead of focusing wholeheartedly on their craft, and creating “good product”, they were driven by money. I tried to steer the conversation around to something positive and said “Ah, but that Puskas was a helluva player though wasn’t he?”
    He replied “You must not think this, this was long time ago. This is not now. Puskas wanted to work, create good product, and only much later came fame and money. Now is opposite.”
    I asked him if he liked basketball and he said “Basketball is ok. Men’s- not so good. But women’s basketball is quite good.”
    Somehow the talk transitioned to politics and he said the country was going downhill. He then added that “Mr Cameron is very good boy,” and went on to say that the former British Prime Minister visited Hungary or something, and the Hungarians were very impressed.
    It was at this moment that I realized he was driving me in the exact opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I pointed this out and he frowned, confused. I showed him the Lukács Baths on Google Maps and then he realized. He became very embarrassed and said that he thought I wanted to go to the Rudas Baths, which are the other end of Buda. He turned around and drove me northward, repeatedly apologizing. I said it was okay, I wasn’t in a rush, and it had been me asking him all these questions. He wouldn’t let it go though, and said “I just go on talking, chatting away…silly…and you, looking on your phone, and me…chatting away.”
    I really tried to let him know that I didn’t care at all. He parked up and when I got my money out, he refused any payment. I insisted, and eventually convinced him to accept half the money, which he proclaimed he would give in full to his children.
  9. The Peaches & Cream Club
    Going to Budapest was always about trying new things and developing my sense of self-confidence and self-sufficiency. I’d been clubbing exactly 3 times back home, and even though that was enough to know it’s not really for me, I wanted to see what I was capable of and do something a little more wild and youthful. I went for dinner at a restaurant in Pest, near Kossuth tér, and drank a few beers as I was eating. I looked up nightclubs in the local area and tried to discern which would be the best choice. I left the restaurant just before 10pm and went looking. My first choice was closed for some strange reason, so I had another look at Google Maps and found a place called the Peaches & Cream Club. From the outside, it reminded me of one of the futuristic clubs you’d get on the Citadel in Mass Effect. It looked very stylish and I wondered if I had inadvertently stumbled upon something out of my price range. I got in line behind a group of guys and thought Well this isn’t that scary. I listened to their conversation and they seemed worried that it would be too fancy and expensive. Looking in from the outside, you could see the bar lit up in bright pink, and the dark silhouettes of ladies’ legs as they waited in front of it, with the rest of the place in shadows. It was a good design technique to have the bar adjacent to the windows like that, so you could see the outlines of people having drinks and waiting to be asked for a dance.
    Eventually the bouncer let in the group in front of me. He asked if I was with them and I said yes. The entry fee was not much at all. I paid a small amount to have my jacket in the coatroom, and then I entered.
    On my left, snazzy leather couches where couples and small groups had intimate conversations. On my right, a medium-sized dance floor. And dividing the two: the bar. My biggest anxiety about clubbing was what to do with myself, so I decided to get a drink. Not only would vast quantities of alcohol take the edge off, but I figured the image of leaning on the bar was inoffensive and unsuspicious. I started drinking rum, and the bartender didn’t ask me to pay for any of my drinks. I had the money ready, but upon serving me, he would jump straight to the next person. In fact, I didn’t see him taking money from anyone. Several drinks later, I decided that I had to start dancing- the final step in overcoming the anxiety of clubbing alone. I saw some guys standing at the edge of the dancefloor, watching, and joined them. More people started dancing, and eventually I made my first movements. Nothing too flamboyant; I just kind of bounced up and down very lightly, sometimes swaying to the side. The Commander Shepherd. That’s what I did. I consciously did the Shepherd for about three hours, and after the first twenty seconds or so, it was no longer awkward. I realized that no one was looking at me, that even though I was surrounded by people, we were all anonymous. No one cared, and that was a very comforting realization.
    I also realized that all clubs are different. The ones I had been to in Bristol, England seemed very trashy by comparison. They were dark places where everyone was squashed together, with people making out or getting in fights. They seemed like scary places. I had attended a club in Bristol called Ramshackle for my friend’s 21st birthday, and I remember tattooed rough lads pushing my friend around or taking a swing at bouncers. Hands grabbed at every butt and boob that passed by. Even I was getting molested as I made my way through the crowd. Sodom and Gomorrah, I thought.
    But the Peaches & Cream was different. The guys didn’t seem threatening or thuggish- they looked very normal, as though they didn’t really know what they were doing either. No one was making out or doing anything sexual. I wanted to meet people and I hoped that by putting myself in this environment I would end up somewhere completely random. That didn’t happen, and by 1am I was exhausted from all the dancing, so I gave up and left. I had mixed feelings about it all. I was glad I did it and got over my fear of nightlife to some degree, but I was also disappointed that I didn’t make any friends or have a funny story to take from it. I just went to this place with all these people, danced among them, and left, and no one even knew.
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  10. The Hat
    I went crazy for souvenirs in Hungary. As with any culture I visit and become fascinated by, I try to assimilate as best I can. I like to eat what they eat and wear what they wear. I want to experience what makes them beautiful and unique. And it’s a wonderful thing to do. Nothing upsets me more than those pretentious twatwipes that complain about cultural appropriation, and make that complaint out to be a cornerstone of the liberal identity. You’re not a progressive. If you’re worried about traditions and aesthetics becoming diluted and corrupted by the inclusion of others, then you’re a conservative. Culture belongs to everyone, and I like to educate myself on how others live, and experience first-hand their way of life. As with anything in life, you just have to go about it with respect and empathy. In Texas, the cowboys I met delighted in my enthusiasm to get fitted with a Stetson and a pair of boots. In Budapest, I saw a lot of young Hungarian men wearing these caps and I decided to buy one for myself. I even asked the vendor if I looked Hungarian and he laughed and said yes. He even gave me advice on which hat would look the most authentic. So I bought one and wore the hell out of it for a week!

Why I Went To Hungary

I started planning my trip to Hungary in December of last year. Even as I sit here now- sorting through various photos of the Danube- I’m still not entirely sure where the idea came from. At the time I had just started working at a pub in my hometown of Nailsea. It was my first or second shift in the kitchen, and one of the waitresses was showing me how to drain the dishwasher. We got to talking, and before I knew what was happening I blurted out “I’m going to Hungary.”

At that point I hadn’t booked anything. I hadn’t even told my friends. And yet here I was, saying with absolute authority to someone, who- at that time- was a total stranger, that I was bound for the Pearl of the Danube. I was saying it as much to myself I think. I knew that I would definitely go, that for some reason, this journey was of paramount importance. But why?

Hungary is landlocked. Let’s start there. Something about landlocked countries intrigues me. When I was a little kid, I wanted to know what was going on in places like Paraguay and Mongolia, and why no one seemed to be talking about them. There’s a sense of adventure intrinsic to the road less traveled, and it wasn’t until December of 2017 that my mind wandered to Eastern Europe. I looked at Slovenia, Slovakia, and Romania. I settled on Hungary. I wanted to know what was going on there. I wanted to know how the people spoke, how they laughed, how they dressed, what they did with their hands, what they thought in their heads- everything. I wanted to breathe in the air of the Carpathian Basin and feel everything that they feel for myself. Out of all the countries I looked at, this one stood out. The land where the great steppes of Asia finishes in Europe. A nation descended from a “horse and bow” tribe of the Ural Mountains, that despite centuries of occupation, annexation, and bloody upheaval, has retained its cultural and linguistic identity. It fascinates me that a history so wrought with conflict and tragedy has done little to the Hungarian sense of nationhood. There is a clear sense of continuity from the Magyar tribe that emigrated from Asia over a thousand years ago to the Hungary that exists today. I had to meet these Magyars, these members of a tribe that has existed for so long, and which flourishes today.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of why I needed to go. Everyone has a bucket list. It’s natural to become suddenly obsessed with a foreign country and to dream of one day going there. The decision to go was made very quickly. All of a sudden I had this new priority in my life. And the first order of business was justifying it. How could I explain my need to see old Magyarország? I had just spent 4 years in the USA, doing odd jobs in between to fund my travels. Was that not inspiration enough? Surely I ought to be planting down roots, saving up for a car, finally trying to secure a career? It seemed like the absolute last time to think about traveling again. All these thoughts came at me like so many Tatar arrows, but in my heart I knew that my mind was made up. The only thing left to do now was to justify my itchy feet.

I knew that it wasn’t just about Hungary. The Magyars would still be there in 10 years, and assuming there’s no nuclear war on the horizon, so too would Budapest be waiting for my discovery- and just as beautiful. I wanted to go so that I could test myself. It wasn’t just about the physical journey, but the inward one. The primary motivation behind my trips to America was the need to see my friends Aaron and Anne-Marie. If they lived in Chad, I would have still visited them for four consecutive years. My energy was focused entirely on soaking up as much of them as I could. When I was in the UK I felt their absence as a very literal, very painful ache. I couldn’t stand to be apart from them, and I felt that the only time I could flourish was when I was in their presence. Around them, I was my best self.

My trip to Hungary was a solo affair. I wanted to do something purely for myself, to engage my passions on my own terms. My trip to Hungary was in many ways about self-reliance, to test my wits and my inner resources, to use them to go somewhere exotic and engage with it as thoroughly as I could. I wanted to form connections and relationships independent of a third party. I wanted to generate my own sense of happiness and fulfillment, without relying on the Americans who have done so much for me over the years. I had to do this, and I had to do it myself. The urgency, I think, is the same urgency that has compelled me to write more and do more since my 25th birthday. I want to do as much as I can and I want to do it now. I don’t want to wait for anything. I’ve already wasted so much time in my life already, and now I have a craving for vivid experiences that grows ever more insatiable.

Now that I think about it, the whole thing really is pretty darn morbid. I can feel the ticking of an unseen clock in my heart, and I shudder every time its black hand strikes twelve.

My Study Abroad Overview: Nothing Gold Can Stay

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

My Study Abroad Overview: The Roads Not Taken

I’ve always been the kind of person that, whenever I commit to a path, am irresistibly drawn to imagining myself taking the other option. The road not taken. My student exchange to America’s Dairyland was one of the best experiences of my life. But as I’ve stated in my recent posts, it was by no means perfect. For a while now, I’ve wanted to do a post where I share with you my regrets regarding my semester abroad. They’re not necessarily things I agonize over now (it’s been 6 years after all!) but they are things that caused me a great deal of anxiety at the time, and for a while after I left. It’s interesting to imagine how things could have happened differently.

  • I’m an awful decision-maker, and on my first weekend on campus I was presented with a choice that made my anxiety run wild: attend the Blugolds’ season opener in what would have been my first American football game, or play soccer with Akbar and his mates. I chose the latter, and it was fun, but at the time I was paranoid that I’d missed a great opportunity. After all, I’ve been playing soccer my whole life, so by choosing to go with Akbar, I wasn’t really challenging myself or engaging in a cultural experience. I went because I liked Akbar and wanted to get in with his friendship group- which is what ultimately happened. But I still lamented the road not taken, because I knew that the season opener was not an experience I could ever do again. I imagined a crowd full of excited freshmen and myself among them, meeting new people, living as Americans did. The image pained me, and I never ended up going to see a Blugold game that semester.
  • As you know, I’ve always been a big believer of “When in Rome…yada yada” and assimilating to a local culture. But as the above point shows, I don’t always do that. Sometimes I panic and pick the easier, more familiar option. I’ve always hated the way time can slip like sand through your fingers and without even realizing it, opportunities will become closed off. During my exchange, I was told that while the weather was still warm in the first two weeks of September, a lot of Blugolds liked to go “Tubing” on the Chippewa River. It was almost like a rite of passage for students at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. I didn’t find likeminded people that wanted to go tubing and I wasn’t assertive enough to persuade my new friends to do so, so I never did. It felt like a missed opportunity at the time. However, this is one regret I am proud to say that I rectified upon my return to Eau Claire in 2014. When I came back to the city two years later, I told Aaron and Anne-Marie that I wished I had gone tubing during my exchange, and so they took me several times, and now I’m really glad with the way it turned out.
  • Perhaps my biggest regret of the semester (and this is one that still bothers me now) is that I didn’t join any clubs. It was something I knew I wanted to do before I even arrived in the USA and I just wasn’t brave enough or proactive enough to do it. I was dictated by laziness and fear. My friend Jimmy from down the hall was a member of a fraternity, and at the time I did want to join him. It seemed like such a staple of the American collegiate experience, as well as a great way to meet friends. Jimmy told me that the fraternities and the sororities organized events together in order for boys and girls to meet each other. For example, a boy and a girl would be matched together and go on a date to a bowling alley or something. I was utterly fascinated by his stories, but I knew at the same time that I was just not confident enough to try it out. I was also terrified of hazing rituals. Members of fraternities were not allowed to divulge any secrets, and I did not like the idea of going in blind. I can’t even chug a beer or a take a shot, and that’s not even considered mildly adventurous by most people. Goodness knows what sort of challenges they would have come up with. At Winchester (my British university) there was a rumor that to join the soccer team you had to eat a candy bar out of a guy’s arsehole. Seriously, fuck that noise.
  • There were one or two times during my exchange where I felt that I let my friends down. Too often I try to please everyone, and in so doing, end up pissing off everyone. My experiences of being bullied at school, and then being friendless and alone during my time in Bristol and Winchester, have made me into a people-pleaser. But the problem with obsessing over politeness and being liked is that sometimes you don’t take a moment to be honest about what you truly want, and in American culture this does not go down well. Americans like you to be straightforward. They hate any kind of deceit, even if it is well-intentioned. There was one time during my exchange where Jimmy and Zeke wanted to take the bus to the mall and hang out there for an afternoon. They asked Aaron, and because Aaron is American, he told them straight-up that he didn’t want to go. He wasn’t rude about it, but he was clear, and they respected that. I was torn. I felt that I ought to, but I also worried that I wouldn’t get any homework done, I was too lazy to move, and I also had a tendency to follow Aaron and do whatever he did at all times. I could tell Jimmy and Zeke were upset, because it seemed like I didn’t want to hang out with them. As soon as they left, I felt awful about not going. I regretted it instantly. And during that afternoon, all I did was make myself suffer for not going. I didn’t do any homework, I didn’t hang out with Aaron, I just sat in my room and tortured myself psychologically. If I could go back in time now, I would definitely go. Jimmy and Zeke were wonderful friends to me during my semester, and deserved more of my time.
  • In that same vein, I wish I had made more of an effort to be friends with my roommate Brad. We might not have had the same interests, but I could have made a better effort to talk to him more, even if just to make our dorm room a more comfortable place. The problem was I was too wrapped up in my own issues back then. I couldn’t see anything beyond my own failures, and I didn’t have the strength to take the initiative in a social situation. I would have liked to get lunch with him now and then, or chat with his parents when they visited. When the semester was over, I did feel a pang of regret.
  • Later on in the semester, I took a liking to a girl in one of my Literature classes who just happened to be an R.A in Towers North. I never did anything about it, and I’m not sure that I would be able to if I went back in time with the mind I have now. But at the end of the semester, I was disappointed that I didn’t even make the slightest bit of effort. Every American I met told me that American girls were obsessed with British accents. I had a lot of guys come up to me and say they were jealous of the “advantage” I had by speaking with “that Oxford voice”. My host family told me the reason for the obsession was a movie called Love Actually in which there’s a British guy that’s really smooth or something. So having girls want to talk to me (or any British guy) was known as the “Love Actually Effect”. I think the constant reminders of this supposed advantage and the insistence that I use it made me feel very anxious and I collapsed under the pressure. Having just come off the back of 3 years of hiding and living like a recluse, devoid of even the slightest bit of self-esteem, I was in no fighting shape for courting whatsoever. So in that sense, I don’t blame myself as much now as I did when my semester ended, for not letting that girl know I was interested in her. I just wish I had had enough courage to talk to her more often.

In conclusion, I’m happy with how my life has turned out since my semester abroad at UW-Eau Claire. It’s been 6 years now, and I am able to see that the long term consequences of my student exchange have all been amazing. But I wanted to write this post because I think it’s important to remember that however happy I am now, I didn’t necessarily feel this way at the time. These are all regrets that I felt during my exchange and for a while afterwards. It’s important to me that I remember that at the time my exchange ended, I did feel a strong sense of failure. I think the value in documenting that kind of information is that it’s telling about my state of mind, my changing sense of perspective, and my mental health. I still suffer from trying to please people, and I still torture myself over the paths I don’t take. I’ve discovered that I attach overwhelming significance to even the slightest everyday choices, like not going to the mall or whatever. It’s the sort of situation that could happen again, and indeed still does, where I obsess over the social ramifications of making one choice or another. And that’s why I think it’s important to share experiences such as these, because I’ve found that a lot of people have described having similar struggles. There is a comfort in knowing that what once seemed like a problem intrinsic to my character might very well be a common pitfall of the human condition.