Category Archives: Personal

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.

My Study Abroad Overview: The Road Trip of Dreams

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.

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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!”

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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.

My Study Abroad Overview: The Indian Summer

I can remember the first few weeks of my semester abroad as having a particular feeling. I think September is the best time to be on an American campus. It’s a dreamy, hopeful kind of place. There’s a palpable excitement that you can almost hear, a nearness of laughter and footsteps and backpack zippers. It was sunny all the time, and my host family told me that this was called an Indian Summer. I shared upper campus with thousands of American freshmen, and it seemed that all of them had no desire other than to make friends. Anything seemed possible. Everything I saw and heard seemed to encourage me.

People left their doors open and music filled the dorms. I distinctly remember that the radio always played a song called Blow Me One Last Kiss by Pink, and I could hear it every time I went to the showers. The song Call Me Maybe, which had dominated the summer of that year, still lingered in everyone’s favor, but in a few weeks it vanished with the sunshine.

During this hot September the volleyball courts were always full. It seemed like a way to meet people. I went down a couple times with Jimmy and Zeke.

“You mean, we’re just gonna walk right up to them?” I said, lingering behind. My particular brand of British anxiety meant that I saw myself as a burden to others. The whole idea seemed crazy to me, even rude. I had never asked anyone to include me in something ever. It just wasn’t in my programming.

Jimmy turned back to me and smiled.

“Yeah, we’ll just ask them,” he said. In his mind, it was a simple as that.

We joined a game and I had a lot of fun. Sports was a good way for me to integrate myself in a social group, because when you’re playing a game you’ve always got something to do. And if you like sports, as I do, you end up forgetting you’re in a social situation at all. Adrenaline and competitive instincts kick in.

As we left the court, Jimmy said “Did you see me chatting to that blonde? She was pretty hot.”

I was happy. It seemed that there were opportunities around every corner. Each new face was a box of secrets waiting to be opened. If I could go back to any one part of my exchange, it would surely be those opening weeks. It was all noise and color and action. At that point, my plan for my student exchange to completely transform me into this super-confident Byronic rogue looked feasible. But I was still afraid. I didn’t trust the tools I had at my disposal. I wanted it to be a passive process, where America would act as this big wave that would sweep me up and carry me to the shore.

Of course, I learned that no such change is possible. I could only change as much as I let myself. If I truly wanted it, I had to face my fears and be proactive. I think that is the biggest lesson I learned from those months I spent in Eau Claire, WI. That is the one defining takeaway from my student exchange. It just wasn’t enough to have the opportunities and the encouragement there on the outside- I had to transform myself from within.

It was during that Indian Summer that I was introduced to Macklemore by my new best friend Aaron. We listened endlessly to his album The Heist. I remember Aaron sitting cross-legged on the rug, wearing a high school soccer t-shirt that he had cut the sleeves off of, dancing to the song Thrift Shop. It was very popular at that time. I sat watching him sing along and folding laundry from my usual spot- a detached computer chair propped up against the wall. It was at that moment our friend Akbar entered the room and threw a condom at my face. The corner of the wrapper scratched my forehead above the eye and I picked it up and stared at it. It took me a while to realize what it was. I looked back up at the Malaysian’s toothy grin.

“You’ve got until Christmas to use it. That’s plenty of time, bro-la,” he said, winking at me.

Blushing, I put the condom in the front pocket of the Green Bay Packers coat my host family had given to me.

My plane left the Minneapolis airport on December 22nd. As I waited in the departure lounge, messing around on one of the free iPads, I got a call from Akbar. I was sad and emotional, but the fact that he was both the first and last person I spoke to during my exchange pleased me. I like things to be neat and cyclical. Most of the time he’s teasing me, but on this occasion he spoke softly. He wanted to make sure I was alright at the airport and he wanted to say goodbye.

I reached down into my coat pocket and laughed.

“You know, I still have that condom you gave me at the start of the semester,” I said, putting it away quickly in case anyone around me caught sight of it.

“Well, you’ve still got twenty-five minutes to use it. Any hotties around?”

“Oh, um, I’ll have to check,” I said.

“There’s still time, la. You’ll only need fifteen seconds!”

I tend to celebrate my 2012 student exchange as being this wonderful thing that happened that changed my life forever. And that’s true. It did. But it wasn’t perfect. And my naïve idea that it would be this golden experience from which I would emerge a new man did not come to fruition. There were highs and lows from my time in Eau Claire. And it was during that semester that I realized for the first time that when it comes to me, the highs are very high and the lows are very low.