10 Photos From Hungary

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In Hungary people don’t clink their glasses and cups together. Apparently this is because of the Revolution of 1848, when 13 generals were executed by the Austrians. The story goes that after each execution the Austrians would clink their beer steins together, and so that is why the practice does not exist in Hungary. It’s all about honoring the memory of those men.

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“Hungarians are well renowned for their love for freedom, their noble and generous hearts, and their heroic courage. Their hospitality is legendary.” – CHARLES-LOUIS MONTESQUIEU

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I only have three regrets from my trip to Hungary:

  1. I never got to sample some Tokaji- Hungary’s sweetest wine.
  2. I never touched the pen on that anonymous statue in Heroes Park that looks like a grim reaper. Supposedly, if you touch it, you become a great writer. Which explains a lot, because Hungary has produced a lot of awesome poets and novelists.
  3. I never got to see a Mangalitsa pig. They’re a special breed of Hungarian swine that are famous for their wooly coats. They honestly look like pigs wearing a sheep-disguise. I want one…

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“Hungary is a thousand-years-old state, a historical and geographic whole, welded together by centuries, and held together by internal attractions. This unity cannot be torn apart in a moment, neither by weapon, nor by pen.” – G. FERRERO

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In Hungary, the lucky number is 96. Buildings in Budapest are required by law not to exceed 96 feet, and the Hungarian National Anthem- if sung at the proper tempo- should last 96 seconds. This is all because the first king of the Magyars, Arpad, was crowned in 896- which marked the birth of the Hungary as a nation.

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“Hungarians are of Turk race and their leader goes to battle with twenty thousand horsemen. The land of the Hungarians is filled with trees and waters. They have a lot of croplands. These Hungarians are handsome and beautiful people, tall, and wealthy – which they owe to trade. Their clothes are made of silk. Their weapons are laid with gold and silver and pearls.” – AHMED IBN RUSTA

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Here’s a haiku I wrote in the hotel bar while drinking Soproni:

views of the Danube
I watch the clouds plunge into
a moving charcoal.

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“I admit I have a Hungarian temper. Why not? I am from Hungary. We are descendants of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.” – Zsa Zsa Gabor

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The first thing I did in Budapest was check out a small park named for my favorite singer of all time. It turns out Hungarians love Elvis Presley almost as much as I do. Just a few years ago, Elvis was posthumously made an honorary citizen of Hungary and the small square I visited was renamed for him. The reason for this was a performance of “Peace in the Valley” that Elvis gave on the Ed Sullivan Show, which he dedicated to the Hungarians in the wake of Bloody Thursday. Elvis was appalled at the brutality of the Soviets and wanted to raise awareness of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Back then, there were only a few TV channels and Elvis was the most famous human being on Earth, and so millions of people became aware of the suffering in Hungary and a lot of money was raised for relief efforts.

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“The Hungarians bear labor, toil, searing heat, cold, all kinds of necessity well. They love freedom and splendor.” – LEO the WISE

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The Baths of Budapest

The Romans didn’t just colonize the area of modern-day Budapest for its strategic location on the Danube. Bathing was a huge part of Roman culture- both as a means of hygiene and recreation. The ancient city of Aquincum- which served as the administrative capital of the province of Pannonia- was founded so that the Romans could enjoy the hot springs there.

Budapest contains a whopping 80 geothermal springs and boasts the largest underground thermal lake in the world. When the Ottoman Turks occupied Hungary, they too made use of these springs, and built several decadent bathhouses that are still in use today. The three Ottoman baths- Király, Veli Bej, and Rudas- are some of the most popular in the city. You can tell them apart from the other spas by their Turkish design- the main baths are all octagonal with high, domed ceilings.

By the early 20th century, Budapest had established itself as the “City of Spas”, and frequenting its many stylish establishments soon became a staple for tourists looking for the Budapest experience. The thermal baths are part of what makes Budapest unique, and I decided before I arrived that I would go to one spa every day- and not do any repeats.

Here’s how it went down:

 

DAY ONE – Palatinus Strand Baths

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The first thing I did on my first morning in Budapest was visit Margitsziget (Margaret Island). After walking around its tranquil gardens, I stopped off at the Palatinus Strand to relax and take in my first Hungarian spa experience. Supposedly, this is where the locals go, since Gellért and Széchenyi are loaded with tourists wielding Gopros and selfie-sticks.

It’s certainly the least historical of the spas I went to. The design is modern and slick. But it’s also got this relaxing, summertime vibe to it. Outside there are several pools surrounded by pine trees. There’s an outdoor gym, a wave pool, an Olympic swimming pool, and loads of sunbeds where people sat with newspapers and novels. It’s easily the biggest of the spas I went to, and you really feel like you’re on vacation here. It reminded me of my time at the Mt Olympus Water Park in the Wisconsin Dells.

However, when I went there was a lot of construction going on so a bunch of the outdoor stuff was off-limits. Also, no matter how long I stood in the wave pool with hands on hips and eyes narrowed, the waves didn’t come…

 

 

DAY TWO – Rudas Baths

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The Rudas Baths are very popular with the locals. A taxi driver told me “Rudas is very good baths, very good”. I went here on the evening of my second full day in Hungary. I’d been all over the place- to Roman ruins, Opera houses, indie bookstores and massage parlors, and it was gone 7pm when I showed up at the Rudas Baths with a hungry stomach, depleted phone battery, and toes ravaged with blisters. The Rudas Baths, while retaining their historic charm, are obviously well-maintained. Even in the late evening it was more touristy and busy than the much larger Strand. The best feature that the Rudas has is its rooftop terrace bath, which offers a breathtaking view of the Danube and the rest of the city.

 

 

DAY THREE – Veli Bej Baths

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The Veli Bej Baths, built in 1574, are said to be the oldest in the city. I went here upon returning to Budapest from a day out in the village of Szendendre. It’s said that these baths are Budapest’s best kept secret- since they aren’t as well-known and admired as the likes of Rudas and Gellért. It’s very similar to Rudas- they’re about the same size, and they’re both of Turkish origin. However, I think I preferred Veli Bej. It wasn’t too busy, and I really felt like I was living in the Middle Ages. The historic main bath is so wonderfully-preserved, and it had perhaps the best atmosphere of any of the baths I went to. I felt like I was a Turkish Sultan, unwinding after a busy day of conquering.

There’s a good range of saunas on offer, a swimming pool, and best of all- a Jacuzzi. I spent ages in the Jacuzzi just sitting there with my eyes closed and mapping out the plot for my next novel. The only reason I got out was so that I could rush back to the locker room and write my ideas down- so I attribute all that inspiration to the work of the bubbles.

 

 

DAY FOUR – Gellért Spa

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Gellért is often listed as the best bathhouse in Budapest. It had number one spot in all the power rankings I could find, and is celebrated for its opulent, Neo-Classical architecture. I got the feeling, when I entered along with a stream of other excited tourists, that this was “the big one”. Before I even stepped out of the locker rooms I knew that the other baths I had been to were small-time compared to this. The locker rooms were unisex, and for a while myself and a bunch of other lads were left scratching our heads and wondering where to change, since you had to pay extra for a cabin.

“I guess it really is mixed. Boys and girls. I’m cool with that,” the man near me said.

I recognized his accent as American and so I asked him where he was from. Turns out he’s a radio announcer from New York. I ended up chatting with him and his family for a while. They said I sounded American. I get that a lot, but mostly from British people. I told him I was raised in Wisconsin, but when I learned that his son was a trained linguist, I modified my story to say I was half-American.

The pools here are very grandiose. You feel like you’re in a fancy, 19th century hotel, which isn’t exactly untrue. I hobbled around the tiles on my heels, since my toes had open wounds from which poured blood and a strange colorless fluid. The way I was walking you’d have thought I just got released from a lengthy prison sentence, if you catch my drift.

The pools were super-busy but super-good. I spent well over an hour hopping from one to another before trying out the Finnish sauna, which reminded me of that scene in The Witcher 3 on the isle of Hindarsfjall.

 

 

DAY FIVE – Lukács Baths

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The guidebook I brought with me rated the Lukács Baths second to Gellért, but for the opposite reason. The Lukács Baths are also famous for their Neo-Classical architecture, but the scene is much more quiet and low-key. Most of the people here were Hungarian locals, and there’s this sense of authenticity that comes with it. It’s also the most confusing of the baths I went to. I got lost several times when I was here. Heck, I got lost just trying to find the entrance to the damn place. And inside it’s a bit of a maze too. The Lukács Baths offer a plethora of spa experiences, including massages and a wide range of medicinal treatments. The main indoor thermal bath smelled strongly of sulfur, which, combined with the run-down tone of the place, actually added to its historic charm.

 

 

DAY SIX – Széchenyi Baths

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This place was probably my favorite. It’s undoubtedly the most popular with younger folks, and it’s the iconic bathhouse travelers go to in order to get their “gap yaar” and “bucket list” Instas. This was the only thermal bath I went to in the morning, since I wanted to avoid it when it got real busy. But even at 10am the place was packed. There were people from all corners of the world taking selfies by stone statues and frolicking in the water. There were old people bobbing up and down along the edge, roaming packs of teenagers splashing each other with glee, and of course the obligatory young couples fondling each other with hungry hands beneath the surface.

I really enjoyed Széchenyi because it’s so big. Even though the Strand had a bigger area, Széchenyi had more pools by far. One of the indoor pools even had this thick, minty aroma which I thought was an interesting touch. The architecture is so grandiose and really channels that antiquity vibe. I liked the steam room because those tend to be less overwhelming than the saunas. I don’t feel like I’m gonna collapse and be discovered face-down next to the coals. The Finnish sauna was very good too though. The young woman next to me took her top off. I wasn’t sure if this was allowed or not- perhaps my Hungarian readers can enlighten me in the comments. I didn’t stare, because I didn’t want to make her feel self-conscious. I believe in topless equality as much as the next guy. I didn’t look away either though- because that would be rude, wouldn’t it?

 

 

DAY SEVEN – Király Baths

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Király was interesting, because it was easily the most run-down of the bunch. It’s one of the oldest baths, and probably in dire need of some refurbishment if it wants to capitalize on that sweet tourist cash flow. The only bathers here were Hungarians, and it wasn’t busy at all. Unlike the Lukács Baths, Király is not stylishly-dilapidated. It’s not got that Victorian hotel feel. But it has got an atmosphere all its own. It’s one of the oldest baths in the city, but it’s just been forgotten about for some reason. I came here not just for my last bath, but as the last thing I did before I got my taxi to the airport. I’d already checked out of my hotel at this point. I liked the idea that I was bathing with the locals- working class Hungarians with tired expressions. No selfies, no Gopros, just ordinary folks looking to unwind from the stressors of daily life.

It’s not the biggest spa complex, but it does have a Jacuzzi, and a pretty good one at that. I stayed in the Jacuzzi for a long while, and I swear it took a soul-crushing amount of effort to drag myself out.

20 Notes From Budapest

I’d like to kick-start this new series of blog posts with a rapid-fire list of observations on life in Budapest. We’ll get to the quirky stories and all that later. For now, here are 20 notes I made during my stay in Hungary’s capital:

  1. Buda and Pest are historically two different cities, with two very different vibes. Buda, on the west side of the Danube, is situated on steep hills and bluffs. Pest, on the east, is completely flat, expanding outward onto an endless plain. It wasn’t until 1873 that the two cities unified to become Budapest. So you can’t shorten it and be like “I’m off to ‘pest mate,” because if you say that, you are referring to only one half of the city.
  2. The fact that Buda and Pest were once distinct and separate cities is well known, but what fewer people realize is that- despite the name “Budapest”- there are actually four districts. There’s Buda to the west, Pest to the east, the island of Margitsziget in the center of the river, and Óbuda to the north-west.
  3. Buda has typically been more rich and opulent. That’s where you’ll find the palaces and many of the old bathhouses. As far as the tourist is concerned, it’s like a long strip that hugs the west bank of the Danube. Beyond that strip it’s very residential.
  4. Pest, on the other hand, has historically been more poor, quirky, and alternative. There’s the Jewish Quarter, the old hangouts of impoverished writers and artists, and Kossuth Lajos tér– where the Soviets massacred the starving masses on that awful day in 1956 (Bloody Thursday). Pest feels more like a classical, mazelike European city, and walking around its wide, sylvan boulevards I was reminded of Paris.
  5. If I were to advise you where to stay, I’d go for a hotel or hostel in Pest that’s not too far from the river. I found that Pest felt like it had more going on. When I went out at night in Pest, there was a real buzz to the place. Every street seemed to have a restaurant, and it was easy to find something to do and feel like a part of something. If you’re interested in nightlife, then you absolutely must stay in Pest. That’s where all the clubs and bars can be found. In Buda, however, I found I had to walk a few blocks to find a good restaurant, and the streets were often quiet and devoid of that sleepless tourist-energy that characterizes international cities. In Pest, everything just seems like a cluster of activity.
  6. They say that Budapest is the “Paris of the East” and I can see why. But to be perfectly honest, Budapest is so beautiful, and so rich in its cultural history, that it is far more than that. For me, it stands on its own in the pantheon of the world’s most interesting and aesthetically-charming cities. It’s right up there with Barcelona and Udaipur. The streets of Budapest are leafy, clean, and spacious, with gorgeous facades. It’s never too crowded or too noisy. You can look at the cityscape from the hills of Buda, the Budapest Eye in Pest, or any of the bridges that cross the Danube, and the view will look like it’s straight out of a postcard. There’s an aesthetic consistency to the cityscape that makes you feel like you’re in the 19th I like that its historic atmosphere has not been diluted by skyscrapers and modern architecture, as is the case in London. The best way to experience the beauty of Budapest is to take a river cruise at night, when many of its magnificent landmarks are lit up.
  7. The Magyar language is one of the most mysterious and complex languages in the world. Hungary is a linguistic island- surrounded on all sides by countries with languages of Germanic, Slavic, or Latin origin. Magyar could not be more different- it’s not even European. It’s a Uralic language, whose only relatives today are languages spoken by a few tribes in Siberia. The Ural Mountains of Russia are the ancestral homeland of the Magyar tribe, who long ago migrated west and settled in the Carpathian Basin, where they founded Hungary!
  8. I learned as much Magyar as I could using an app on my phone called Duolingo. However, I found it was more useful for ingratiating myself among the locals rather than getting me out of a tight pinch. Most Hungarians I met spoke a little English, and those that worked in customer service (hotel receptionists, waiters/waitresses, etc.) spoke it very well. I also found that almost everyone expected me just to speak English. However I wanted to put what I’d learned to good use- and trying out a new language is part of the fun when traveling abroad- so I would always open conversations in Hungarian. This led to some confusion however, because people kept thinking I was either bilingual or an actual Hungarian. They’d then respond with a long sentence in Magyar and I’d break it to them that I was English, upon which they’d blush and exclaim “Oh! I thought you were Hungarian!”
  9. In Magyar, “sz” is pronounced as an s-sound, and “s” translates to a sh-sound. So szauna is pronounced “sauna”, and that’s a pretty easy word to learn because it’s almost exactly the same as its English counterpart. And “Pest” is pronounced “Pesht” which I really enjoyed saying for some reason.
  10. The Hungarian people are super-friendly. They’re not as extroverted and expressive as the Greeks or Italians, but they’re extremely nice. Some Hungarians can come off as reserved at first, but if you try to speak a little Magyar and give them a smile, then they open up quick. I didn’t encounter a rude person while I was there, and everyone I approached seemed very cheerful and patient. People helped me with directions, agreed to take my photo, and took the time to indulge my questions about the language and culture.
  11. I also found that the Hungarians were a very honest bunch. There were several occasions where people would decline tips in whole or in part if they felt they didn’t deserve them. One taxi driver tried to persuade me not to pay him at all! He got confused and took me south for a few minutes, and seemed so embarrassed by this harmless mistake, that he refused payment. I eventually convinced him to take half the money, and he vowed to give it to his children. I was very impressed by this, because it would have been easy for all these people to assume I was a naïve tourist and to take advantage of that. And this same refusal happened with all kinds of professionals- shopkeepers, masseuses, and taxi-drivers alike.
  12. Budapest is super-easy to get around. I found that the trams were especially useful, because they came very frequently and I’m pretty sure they’re free. I mean- no one asked me for a ticket. I used the tram several times and it seemed like a hop-on, hop-off kinda deal. You can get from one side of the city to the other very quickly, and using them turned out to be so much better than wandering the streets looking for a taxi.
  13. Budapest loves dogs. I saw doggies everywhere I went, many of them well-trained and following their owners without the need for a leash. I kept wondering if the dogs here were the same as the dogs back home. For some reason, they seemed smarter.
  14. In Hungary, the familial name comes before the given name. So it would be “Puskas Ferenc” and not the other way around. However, Hungarians don’t change the order of foreign names, so I would still be called Michael Vowles and not “Vowles Michael”.
  15. A shopkeeper in Szentendre told me “In Hungary, we love flowers”. It’s true. I noticed that a lot of traditional designs featured floral patterns. Hungary is a great place to go if you’re looking to buy a classy scarf, skirt, china plate, curtain, or table cloth.
  16. Budapest is most definitely a city for lovers. I noticed that the people here are a lot more affectionate with their partners in public than they are in the UK or the USA. Everywhere I went I saw young couples making out up against a wall, having intensely-intimate conversations as they held hands and maintained unblinking eye contact, and kissing beneath a streetlight as though trying to replicate a movie poster. I saw it a lot in the city’s many bathhouses. I was at a thermal spa in the UK once and a young couple were told to knock it off after kissing too much, but in Budapest they’re free to pretty much go at it. So I definitely recommend Budapest as a honeymoon destination. The many lovers you see on the streets are in some ways a feature of the city, as much a part of its enduring character as the hot springs and the Chain Bridge.
  17. Budapest is a city with a turbulent history, and everywhere you look there are reminders of tragedy and revolution. Be it the Ottoman occupation or the Mongol invasion, or more recent events such as the atrocities of the Nazis and Soviets, the city of Budapest very much wants to preserve the memory of all that has happened there. Perhaps most poignant was the “Shoes on the Danube Bank” memorial that honors the many Jews murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross during the Holocaust.
  18. I liked Hungarian cuisine, but I didn’t love it the way I love Italian. I noticed that a lot of traditional Hungarian restaurants featured game dishes. I saw duck on the menu more than I did beef or pork. Things like goose liver, wild boar, and venison are also very common. One thing my Brazilian friend and I noticed was that the Hungarians use a lot of fat and oils in their dishes. At one point she actually got a stomach ache from a particular meal. The fried potato cakes for example- a common side dish- are quite filling.
  19. Of course, the most iconic Hungarian dish is goulash. It’s not quite soup and it’s not quite stew, but you get the idea. I had several varieties of goulash, some of which leaned more towards soup, some more towards stew, so I’m not entirely sure which version is the most authentic. But every goulash I had, I liked. A lot of the time, it’s served as a starter. In my opinion, the best meat for goulash is venison!
  20. I wasn’t sure whether to stay in a hotel or a hostel while I was in Budapest. On the one hand, I wanted to meet as many people as possible and feel energized by the spirit of adventure. On the other hand…I wanted the privacy and comfort of my own room, especially if I was going to be doing any writing. I ended up staying on a boat anchored to the Buda-side of the Danube that operated as a hotel. All the staff there were amazing, and I spent many an evening in the hotel bar drinking Soproni and writing poems.

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: Every Barb, Zinger, & Burn Thrown My Way

Considering the last post might very well be construed as negative, I thought I’d do something a little more light-hearted today. I thought it might be of interest to you to read some of the comments I received during my exchange. I think it’s worth documenting, because nothing is of greater interest to me than the way we interact. I am intrigued by attitudes, perceptions, and the differing ways in which we express ourselves. Hopefully, this post will serve as a window to the past.

  • You, sir, are an Englishman. I don’t want to make you feel self-conscious, but literally everyone turns around in their seats when you put your hand up and talk in class.”
    It’s true. I got quite a few stares. This one was said to me during one of my American literature classes. I’m not gonna lie, a big part of me enjoyed being thought of as a mysterious, exotic novelty. Probably because I’ve always considered myself such an aggressively-boring person. But here, all I had to do was speak and people would be like “Check out Andrew Lincoln in the back there,” or so I imagined. Back home I had to be funny and interesting in order to stand out (two things I’ve never been good at), whereas in the USA I just had to open my mouth and the whole class would give me their utmost attention.
  • “Did you go to the Olympics?”
    This one kept coming up. During the summer of 2012, the Olympic games were held in London. As I’ve said in other posts, I’ve found that one of the defining traits of Americans is their raw enthusiasm. It’s in stark contrast to the dry, deadpan mannerisms of the English. Every American I met thought that it was “So awesome!” that my country was hosting the Olympics, and assumed I would be interested in making the most of it. Americans love an excuse to party and celebrate. They couldn’t believe it when I said that I had no interest in the Olympics and barely even noticed it was on.
  • “Hey, remember when we kicked your ass?”
    I got loads of remarks about the Revolutionary War of 1776. Obviously, it’s the most important part of American history and every American kid is taught about how the tyrannical British Empire tried to oppress the American colonists. So a lot of Americans assumed that because it’s so important to their history, that we Brits would also be educated on it. But most British people haven’t got the faintest clue about George Washington and the War of Independence. It’s just not a big event in British history. I only know about it because I’m infatuated with American history and culture. In school we learned about Henry VIII, the Romans, and William the Conqueror.
    Americans like to tease each other good-naturedly, and on several occasions people tried to get a reaction out of me by bringing up George Washington crossing the Potomac with a bunch of Prussian mercenaries and slaughtering their British oppressors. They were disappointed when I didn’t defend my homeland. As faithful readers know, I’m practically the opposite of a patriot. I don’t believe in loyalty to a man-made construct you have no control over being born in. Patriotism as a concept just makes no sense to me; I think it’s just another way for those in power to treat ordinary people like cattle. Add to the fact that I’m a shy, agreeable person by nature, and you can see how a debate never got going. I just endured a few barbs here and there.
  • “I am just fascinated with your culture. I bet it’s just like Harry Potter.”
    Revolutionary banter aside, I found that most Americans I met were enamored with the British way of life. Several people even idealized it. My roommate was crushed when I broke it to him that most British schools aren’t castles and abbeys, with little moss-covered cobblestone walls and the whole student body wearing ties and blazers. The reality is a hellish landscape of run-down utilitarian buildings populated by little twatmouths with upturned collars who delight in launching spit-balls into each other’s throats and carving the word “CUNT” onto the classroom desks. When I told him about people I went to school with who dared each other to masturbate in class and set the crotches of unsuspecting nerds on fire with a deodorant canister and a lighter, he said that his rosy vision of England had been utterly tarnished forever. I found that a lot of Americans thought of Europe as being more classy, less commercial, and even morally superior. I remember a secretary in Hibbard telling me how much she adored my culture and envied our long traditions. The British Monarchy in particular was a source of endless fascination for those I met.
  • “You’re gonna have to say that one more time…”
    The British don’t tend to enunciate like the Americans do, and this got me into all sorts of trouble. When I asked my host dad if there were any bears nearby, he made me repeat the question at least 4 excruciatingly awkward times; in my accent, the word sounded to him like “Baz”, because we Brits seem to have some kind of vendetta against the letter “r”. When I asked the sales assistant in Scheels if they had any dartboards I could buy, she similarly made me repeat myself a bunch of times. Aaron could only bear to watch me say “Dah-t-baw-d” so many times, and put me out of my misery by hollering “He’s lookin’ fer a dartboard!”. The worst is when I’m in American restaurants and I ask for a glass of “waw-ugh.”
  • “You need to loosen up.”
    I got this a lot too. Everything about the way I dressed and behaved and talked gave the Americans the impression I was deeply repressed and hella uptight.
  • “I’ve never been to Europe, but that’s somewhere in Germany right?”
    To be fair, this guy was drunk as hell.
  • Terms of endearment thrown my way included “The Prince of London”, “Cocky Brit” and “That Limey Fuck”.
  • “Mick Jagger is my favorite Beatle.”
    Aaron used to say this a lot in an attempt to provoke me. I love the Rolling Stones, and it was his way of teasing me as well as satirizing the ignorant redneck stereotype.

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.

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