Tag Archives: America

The Crescent City Diaries #6

My visit to New Orleans was very unstructured from the offset. It was completely unlike my trip to Budapest. Budapest was a project, something I was passionate about, and traveled to purely to satisfy that passion. It was something I planned months advance, and by the time I arrived in Hungary I was so high off of half a year’s reading of its history and culture that I had accumulated enough things to do that it was easy to order them into itineraries for each day. It was all about seeing those things I’d read about for real.

However, my trip to New Orleans was different. It had always been a longstanding dream of mine to go there, but I didn’t think I’d get to go so soon. The city was still a myth to me, an idea to be toyed with by novelists and poets and movie directors and songwriters. A place that could only be interpreted by art. It never really occurred to me that I could go there, even though I’ve lived on and off in Houston, TX for the past few years. It would have seemed a strange, fanciful idea- a “one day I’ll make it” kinda thing.

So New Orleans was never a project or a plan. I didn’t read up on it and make a bucket list. New Orleans was an opportunity, one that just kind of emerged out of the blue during the process of planning my upcoming visit to my friends in Houston. I’m going to America anyway- why not go earlier? Why not see the Gulf Coast and make the myth a reality? That’s what traveling in the USA really is, going from state to state and peeling off the layers of myth to see the far more interesting truths waiting for us underneath.

DSC_0028

DSC_0093

DSC_0030

I had 5 days and only a couple things booked, both of them on the same day. So I learned a lot about solo travel and how to take city breaks in particular. 5 days is good because it allows me to move at my own pace, take my time, and discover opportunities while I’m there through word of mouth. However, it also meant that I was more responsible for creating my own fun. Sitting in a hotel room too long feels like a waste, and you don’t have to worry about that with a two day visit. That’s where an itinerary is needed, so you can fit everything in.

DSC_0036

DSC_0035

As I’ve stated in the previous entries of this series, I set out on my first day with no clear goal in mind except to see Faulkner House Books and the Café du Monde. But I took the long way to these stops, zigzagging through the French Quarter and enjoying the ambience. I stopped at Aunt Sally’s to engorge myself on free samples of freshly-made pralines and watch them being made in-house. I went to the city’s famous Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and paid a dollar to pet the stingrays. I found a beautiful little walled courtyard where I stopped to take some photos. I browsed antique shops, I tried on a straw boater at the Key West Hat Company, and I fell strangely in love with an abandoned brick building with smashed-in windows. I ate alligator for the first time and loved it. When I got back to Jackson Square I wondered what else I ought to do. Museums. The Cabildo was closed, unfortunately, but The Presbytère wasn’t. The former focuses on Louisiana history & culture, whereas the latter is devoted to Mardi Gras and Hurricane Katrina. I was eager to see some authentic Mardi Gras costumes and they truly are the stuff of nightmares. I can’t imagine being a kid and going to one of the parades. I’d never sleep again. After staring into the hollow eyes of a mannequin with a pointed cone for a nose, oversized lips, and garments unsettlingly reminiscent of striped pajamas, I checked my phone. It was only 3pm! There were still so many precious hours left. Things were going slow, but not as slow as I’d have liked. I became afraid of running out of things to do.

DSC_0084

DSC_0089

DSC_0085

DSC_0073

After leaving the museum I marched northwest on my aching feet and left the Quarter for the first time. My destination? A little spot called Congo Square. A city park was just what I needed. Somewhere quiet, away from the inundation of stimuli that came with crowded tourist hotspots, where I could take some photos and enjoy the scenery. The square is located inside Louis Armstrong Park- which is no coincidence. Congo Square served as a place for slaves and free African Americans to gather in the 19th century for meetings and open markets. They also used the space for traditional African dancing and drum-playing, leading in no small part to the early development of Jazz. After taking pictures of the flowers, the live oaks, and the statues, I wandered over to another massive abandoned building with broken windows. They’re all over New Orleans, and there’s just something about the crude, industrial design, 19th century vibes, and overall dilapidation that fascinates me. I walked around the lake and my feet began to complain some more. It was time at last, I decided, to head back and recharge before heading out again in the evening. I’d done a lot on my first day- and my next was set to be a big one.

Advertisements

The Crescent City Diaries #4

After rambling down Royal Street and absorbing its stylish art galleries and museums, I veered east and made for Jackson Square. This, to me, was the touristic heart of the city. Bourbon Street might be the most famous location, and the number one draw for out-of-town visitors, but Jackson Square is easily the most iconic image of New Orleans as a place to be discovered. The white façade and lofty spires of the St Louis Cathedral overlooking the equestrian sculpting of Andrew Jackson- the Hero of New Orleans- is a picture many folks will be familiar with prior to arrival. Much in the same way no one walks down the Champ de Mars and remarks “Holy shit, I didn’t see that coming!” when faced with the Eiffel Tower. Jackson Square is a distinctly Parisian space, the park cushioned on two sides by the symmetrical 19th century Pontalba Buildings- known for their iconic wrought iron balconies and red bricks.

DSC_0006

I knew straight away that I wanted to take my time here. I had five days in this city and I wanted to give each place the necessary time to soak into my heart and reveal itself to me. I wanted to savor every moment. That’s why I spent my first morning walking leisurely down Royal, chatting as much as possible with the museum curators and entering as many art galleries as I could. I didn’t want the city’s eclectic features to become a checklist.

I walked down one side and then back up again. I gazed in the windows of the square’s boutiques and bakeries. I watched the street performers, palm-readers, impromptu jazz bands, buskers, and caricaturists ply their respective trades. The square has a longstanding tradition for being an open air artist colony, the local painters hanging their works on the iron fence that surrounds the park itself. I approached the cathedral and watched the people who crossed its shadow as much as the building itself. I entered the park and walked around, enjoying the relative quietness its wide paths offered. Andrew Jackson looked very impressive atop his horse. I decided it was time to cross something off of my world-travel bucket list and exited the park on Decatur Street, heading for the Café Du Monde. I knew that getting a beignet and a café au lait at this historic coffeehouse was a rite of passage for anyone hoping to gain access to the culture of the Big Easy. It’s actually something I blogged about wanting to do in a dreamy bucket list post at the beginning of the year, having no idea that I would get the chance to do so in just a few months. The café has actually been in continuous operation since 1862- the heart of the Civil War. It’s something that every tourist does upon reaching the French Quarter; as such it’s as busy as the midnight release of a new Harry Potter book.

DSC_0008

I took one look at the line that wrapped around the exterior of the café and down the sidewalk and left. Perhaps I could return at a later date. That later date turned out to be about an hour or two hence. After returning from the riverfront and its famous aquarium I found that the line had only gotten larger. This time however, I asked an employee if the line was for orders to go or eating-in. He informed me that there was a different line on the other side of the building for takeout options, so I went there. The wait wasn’t too bad and when I arrived at the window I asked for a bag of beignets and an iced café au lait. I pronounced the pastries “bay-nets” because my French sucks ass, and became aware of my folly as I walked away and the sassy mom behind me hollered for some “bean-yay”. What a div I must have seemed.

I decided to return to Jackson Square and eat my lunch on one of the park benches. Adjacent to me on the next bench was a couple that looked like they had lived pretty rough. They were skinny with tattered clothes and whose red, craggy skin was covered in faded tattoos. They weren’t old at all, but I suspected they were drug addicts. They got into a loud argument and I noticed there wasn’t anyone else around me. They reminded me of that junkie couple from Breaking Bad, and I wondered if I should leave before someone got crushed by an ATM. I tried to block out the sounds of their increasingly violent tones and focus on these French pastries. I think I liked the coffee more than the beignets. I only managed to eat one, since they’re quite filling. As is the custom when eating one, I got powdered sugar everywhere. The powdered sugar mess is sorta like the Guinness foam moustache. That’s when you know you’ve passed the test.

“FUCK YOU!” the woman screamed at her partner, marching off in front of me and going to the other side of the park. The guy screamed something at her in redneck and she flipped him the bird without turning around. After just a few short minutes she came back and they resumed talking in a civilized manner. Feeling full, I got up and left. I felt a little bad for being on edge around them, because they had obviously had some bad luck in life. But when you travel solo you can’t take any chances.

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.

DSC05406

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.

DSC05323

DSC05357

DSC05393

DSC05462

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.

DSC05652

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.

DSC05650

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.

DSC05228

DSC05425

DSC05419

IMG_8598

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.

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.

DSC05560

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!”

DSC05569

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.