Tag Archives: College

The Taste of My Study Abroad

Peanut butter is one of those things I’ll always associate with a particular time and place. We have peanut butter in the U.K but it’s not overly popular. In the US however, it’s everywhere. To me, it’s a distinctly American taste. On the lower campus of the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire there’s a big cafeteria that I would go to in-between classes. I remember looking around and seeing a PB & J for the first time. There seemed to be something nostalgic and quintessentially American about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For some reason, it was strange and funny that these were actually real, that they were right there in front of me instead of in the movies. They seemed more American than hot dogs even- because hot dogs and hamburgers have been transplanted into foreign menus so thoroughly. The PB & J seemed like the sandwich an American boy might have in his lunchbox at a summer camp; I can see him, sandy-haired and sitting on a log taking large, American-sized bites in the sun. I got myself the sandwich and found a booth. The first thing I realized was just how rich it was. The taste was fine, and I loved the jelly, but I found it so filling that I only ever got it in the future for the novelty value.

Sometime later, I was hanging out with my friends Jimmy and Zeke. They delighted in my thirst for American experiences, and out of the goodness of their hearts, took me down to the dorm’s vending machine and treated me to a care package of what they called essential American candy. It was interesting to me what Americans considered to be the most American and the most important. The care package included a Hershey bar, a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup, and a Pop Tart. These were the things I had to try. If you’re an American reading this, what do you think of their choices? Let me know in the comments what candy you would choose for someone’s induction to American life.

Dedicated readers of TumbleweedWrites will remember my Lamb Boobs post a few weeks ago, in which I mentioned that my friends George and Elizabeth gave me a typewriter as a thank you gift for serving as their wedding photographer. Last weekend I finally got around to learning how to use it, and I decided to make a menu of all the food items that made a strong impression on me during my study abroad. These aren’t American meals so much as they are American tastes. These are the things that, whenever I take a bite out of them, I am instantly taken back to my time in Wisconsin in the fall of 2012. In some way, they all made me feel American when I ate them!

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Dressing the Part

When I entered the USA for the first time, I was very much intent on absorbing as much as I could from the local culture. In some ways I arrived a tabula rasa– a blank slate. A land that could only exist in movies was suddenly real and tangible. I was so curious about how these Americans lived and how they thought, and I wanted to get as close to that experience as I could. I wasn’t really sure how I would ingratiate myself in this land of s’mores and denim, but before I even set foot on its mythical shores, I had a deliberate commitment to “When in Rome…something something…”

I say I was a blank slate because at the time I had none of the elements in my life that now seem so important. I was lacking in life experience and social exposure. I was naïve, and I even told the student exchange coordinators in Winchester that my reason for going was, quite frankly, to become more worldly. I was also wayward and uncertain in my own homeland, living as the campus recluse and wondering if I was missing out on things key to a person’s social development. Honestly, I was like Quasimodo, only venturing out my room when I was sure I had no chance of seeing anyone. In that respect, I felt different to the other exchange students who traveled with me from Winchester to Eau Claire. They seemed like complete persons, people with distinct identities. I imagined that they would bring the U.K with them to Eau Claire, teaching their new American friends interesting nuggets about their life across the ocean. I imagined them challenging Americans on “Proper English” and introducing them to British drinking culture. They were, in my mind, exciting prospects for waiting Americans, bringing the exotic British experience to their lives. Their interactions with the locals looked like a two-part exchange.

By contrast, I had very little to share. I was looking to make myself anew. Kind of like a phoenix, except not as graceful and majestic. I was to be born again in the chapel of “Howdy pardners” and “You betchas”. I used the word soccer instead of football and I put my hand on my heart during the Star-Spangled Banner. When asked to perform my own national anthem, I refused, saying I hated the Queen and that garbage song. I remember that lack of pride specifically shocking the Americans, and I wondered if in a dorm room on the other side of campus, the other Winchester students were proudly belting out “God Save the Queen” in front of their cheering American admirers.

Even though I would later adopt a lot of Americanisms, I don’t want to give the impression that I was somehow destined to be Americanized or anything. It wasn’t a smooth transition at all. As I got to know Aaron, Jimmy and Zeke better, I began to realize just how differently they thought to me. As I have stated in other posts, the traits that seemed to define my new friends were openness, direct language, decisiveness, and a lack of fear of embarrassment. What I mean by that last one is not that all Americans are flawless extroverts, but simply that they came across as not showing any outward signs of shyness. I couldn’t have been more different to them. I was self-conscious, passive, bumbling, and awkward. But I’ve covered that in previous episodes. Today I want to draw attention to more superficial changes.

Believe it or not, at the time I had a “no-denim” rule. I wasn’t quite sure what my fashion sense was, but since the age of 15 or so, I refused to wear jeans. All of my trousers were black office-style pants. I often wore button-down shirts tucked into a black belt. I guess I was trying to look old-fashioned or something. Anyway, in the U.K this never really stood out. At Winchester there’s kind of a hipster atmosphere anyway, and what I wore was never a point of conversation. But right off the bat in the USA, the locals seemed perplexed at my choices. Americans were shocked that I didn’t have any jeans. I was told that if an American were to dress this way, they’d be considered “preppy” and “a nerd”. That’s not to say that all Americans dress the same, but what the exceptions did was really own it. Their style was a way of expressing themselves and considered a part of their identity. They weren’t self-conscious about being the girl that always wears a beanie or the guy that always wears a trench coat. I was no such exception. I had no such ownership and confidence in the way I dressed. I was still figuring it all out, trying one item and then the next.

“It must be really formal in your country,” one person told me.

“This is normal for the English,” another person explained, as if defending me against accusations of being a dork.

I’d say most Americans at the time wore jeans when it was cool and athletic shorts when it was hot. I didn’t even own any shorts! But both girls and guys alike seemed to be stocked with them. Almost all Americans wore backpacks too. When I was 11 years old and I went from Primary School to Secondary School in the U.K, I was told immediately by older kids to adjust my straps to wear my bag as low as possible, or I’d get bullied. If you want a snapshot of life in a British school, then just picture every person’s backpack level with their ass, because that’s how it was. The kids that didn’t make the change quick enough were probably hounded into a discreet corner and given a good beating. Anyway, no such rule existed in the USA. Aaron took one look at my low bag and said “That’s just stupid,” before adjusting it to its proper height for the first time in a decade. I later logged into Facebook and saw a status from my friend and fellow writer who was studying in Oregon. She was saying how she couldn’t get over how high everyone’s backpack was in the USA, and recalled how kids with high backpacks would get bullied in school. And she was from Shropshire, so it’s clearly a nationwide insanity in U.K schools.

I got my first pair of jeans when I went deer hunting during Thanksgiving break. They were an old pair handed down to me from my host dad, and I had to wear a tight belt to keep them up, because I had no defined butt whatsoever. I was rail-thin. My host dad said “We just had to sort you out,” and gave me a brown leather belt to replace my black one. All of a sudden I felt like a cowboy. That day drinking beer in a tree stand seems like a turning point now, because when we got back from the hunt, I had lifted my decade-long ban on denim. I quite liked feeling rustic and unpretentious for a change, and within months I had completely shed the French philosopher look. I went to the student building on lower campus and bought myself a gray sweater. I rushed back to my dorm and tried it on with my new jeans. I then walked across the hall into Aaron and Akbar’s room and I remember Aaron looking up and going “Whoa! You look great”. My new style was already winning me compliments. People said I looked like “an American college boy”, and I wondered if I would possibly get mistaken for a frat bro.

The Dark Side of Eau Claire

As I continue my study abroad series of personal essays, I’d like to pen a short post about the city of Eau Claire itself. So far I’ve covered culture shock, my social anxiety, the friends I’ve made, and the classes I took during my 2012 student exchange, but there doesn’t exist yet a post about the city I called home for a semester. It’s something I get asked about a lot- the kind of place it is, what it has on offer, how well it stacks up against the image of an American city as given to us in Hollywood movies. And of course, nothing you see on the big screen can really prepare you for your first time living in the United States. But just for fun, I’d place Eau Claire somewhere between Hawkins from Stranger Things and Twin Peaks, but with a downtown area looking as if it were lifted from the set of Tombstone and repopulated with the combined cast of literally every Baz Luhrmann movie. It’s not small enough to give you the creeps that everyone’s watching you, waiting for you to fall asleep, and you know that if you nod off for one moment they’ll feed you to the big monster made of Jell-O that lives in the sewage system. No, the locals are for the most part very friendly, but there are a few sinister figures and neighborhood oddballs. But the town is also not so big that it doesn’t have that community sense of identity, and you don’t have to worry that you’re in a concrete jungle so vast that no one will notice when you’re inevitably snatched on the way home from the bowling alley by a bloke impersonating a police officer just so he can make you the leading star in his homemade snuff film. In case you haven’t realized yet, I’m putting a twist on this post about my favorite college town.

When I tell people that I’m interested in horror, they’re often surprised. I don’t watch slasher movies or read horror novels. I’ve never gone trick-or-treating or dressed up for Halloween. But what I mean when I say “horror” is really better described as “spookiness”. I’m interested in the horror that exists in the everyday world, that beats quietly in the human heart. And it’s this morbid curiosity that can actually be traced back to the city of Eau Claire itself. During the summer of 2014, when I returned to the place that had changed my life less than two years prior, I was chilling with Anne-Marie at her place on First Avenue. As we waited for Aaron to get back from work, we flicked through the channels on TV.

Southern Fried Homicide!” she said in her best Savannah-drawl. Anne-Marie is superb at accents. It was her decision to put the documentary on that changed everything. We spent all day watching Investigation Discovery, and when Aaron got home he became hooked too. They were highly-stylized documentaries with dramatic reconstructions, and every time the woman in the program went for a walk in the woods or got up in the middle of the night for a glass of milk, we’d recoil into the couch and squeal “No, no! Don’t do it!” as if it were in fact a fictional movie. It even got to the point where, after going to bed, Anne-Marie came back down the stairs to find Aaron and I with our hands over our mouths, sitting in the dark with the light of the TV flashing on our faces.

“When are you coming to bed?”

“Be right there, babe,” I remember him saying, and two hours later we were still sitting in the dark, watching the story of a girl from New Zealand getting murdered by some spoiled rich kid in Portsmouth.

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I probably took this fascination with horror a little too far however, culminating in a phone conversation in the winter of 2015 when Aaron asked what I was doing with myself in the UK. I replied in the thickest Australian accent I could that I was watching a show about a murder in the Outback mate.

“Good lord. You need to stop with these documentaries about Australian backpacker killers and leave the house,” Aaron said and we both started laughing.

But let’s get back to the real topic of this post- which is ultimately my attempt to convey my impressions of the city in which I found myself, and the way it always seemed like a spooky place to me. To give you a brief rundown, Eau Claire is a pretty desirable city as far as American cities go- it’s small, green, the streets are wide, there are no skyscrapers, there’s no pollution, and the whole place is surrounded on all sides by dense pine forests like that town in the Edge Chronicles. When I got there, it made me think that this was perhaps once a haven in the piney wilderness for travelers and merchants to stop off at on the way to Minneapolis. But really, I was seeing Eau Claire through the lens of Tolkien. The settlement in fact began as a lumber town, and there are plenty of remnants of that history. As my host family drove me around the spacious, quiet streets, they would throw facts and local trivia my way. There used to be a cornfield there, that kind of thing. It became clear to me that half of the city had remained almost exactly as it was, completely immutable, and that the other half had undergone some drastic changes. For the longtime resident, it seemed as though they would look in one direction and see the city exactly as they remembered it from their childhood, but then turn around and find themselves faced with a landscape as alien to them as it was to me.

My host mom liked to tell me how, when she was a kid, you had to cross the Chippewa by ferry. There’s a bridge there now. As we drove across it to the western edge of the city, we came into a place called Shawtown. The name instantly set my imagination into all kinds of spooky directions. I wanted to say, “Forget it Jake, it’s Shawtown,” and get to work on writing a gritty noir thriller. Shawtown was set up as a place for the families of the lumberjacks to live; the decadent Victorian mansions of the lumber barons themselves can be found on the east side of the river, nearer to downtown.

There’s the horror of one’s imagination and the horror of real life, and I experienced both throughout the three years I spent in Eau Claire. The horror of the imagination is taking a walk on a long path through the woods and finding a pink toddler’s shoe by the edge of the trees. There was no doubt in our minds that she had been snatched by the Hag of Half-Moon Lake; a pale, bloated witch with gills and webbed feet, her hair sickly green with algae.

“She’s a meat pie now,” I lamented, pointing at the shoe.

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There are mundane landmarks in Eau Claire with a quirky edge, places that for all intents and purposes are perfectly normal but nevertheless created this spooky atmosphere in my mind. Places like Pizza Del Re and the Pickle, unremarkable brick buildings that looked like fronts for mob activity, gave me the shivers. To say nothing of the many strip mall laundromats, the cheap fast food joints, the impossibly small bars, and beauty salons with bordered-up windows. Right on the edge of town there’s a place called The Antler’s Motel, where we assumed many a janitor had to fish a face-down body out of the pool. But by far the creepiest location of all is Banbury Place- an old tire factory on the edge of town that now rents its considerable floor space as warehouses and offices. Anne-Marie even had a roommate that used to cycle there, and I always said I wouldn’t have been surprised if one day her bike was found on the banks of a ditch, the front wheel silently spinning. Everyone liked to joke about how scary it looked, but that’s not to say it was in fact a place of unrelenting horror.

All those places aren’t necessarily the cause of anything sinister; they just contribute to the spooky backdrop. While I was in Eau Claire, there were plenty of real events to get scared about. There were reports of a strange man jumping out the bushes and flashing girls with his flaccid cock, there was the car chase and subsequent shooting in 2012- part of which I actually witnessed, there was the teenage runaway who crashed a stolen car full of cocaine right outside the Menominee Street Dairy Queen and ran off into the swamps of Carson Park, never to be heard from again- Aaron witnessed that one. There were the meth-heads that lived next door to Anne-Marie, whose half-naked children found no end of amusement in Superman-punching the passing cars. And there was the awful time that some deranged man tried to break into Anne-Marie’s house at night. It all adds up in the paranoid part of your psyche. One time my friend Zeke was showing me his student house, and insisted that I see the basement.

“You go first, I’ll be right behind you,” he said.

I made my way down into the pitch-blackness on a staircase that wobbled like a Jenga Tower after you start taking out the bottom few blocks. I reached the bottom of the stairs. It was cold and damp. Even though Zeke and I are good friends, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that he had lost his mind since I last saw him, and I braced myself for the ball-point hammer that was surely about to cave in my skull. But all of a sudden, the light flashed on and I found myself looking at a table with several upturned red solo cups.

“Dude! Check out our beer pong table!” Zeke said, and I breathed a sigh of relief. He was still the same old Zeke.

I know this post is a little bit different to my usual personal essays, but before I finish my study abroad series, I’d like to give you an impression of the city I lived in as it existed for me. That, I believe, is the best way to go about travel writing; not to document the actual, literal Eau Claire- since I am not a local historian or a longtime resident- but to write about how it appeared to me, as an outsider. I’d love to get a dialogue going with some of you as well- let me know in the comments what seemingly normal places in your hometown give you the chills. Why do we see the haunted in the mundane?

That Time I Saw Bill Clinton In A Parking Garage

In the last post in this series I wrote about the kinds of opportunities on offer at an American campus. When I studied at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire my semester coincided with the 2012 presidential election. It was awesome to have Vice President Joe Biden come to campus and to attend his campaign speech for free. As the semester went on, the weather got more and more bitter and so too did the election.

On October 31st Bill Clinton was visiting Eau Claire to campaign for Barack Obama. How could I turn down the opportunity to see such an iconic figure? It was a Wednesday, and on every Wednesday I had my senior class- a 3 hour creative writing workshop. It was my favorite class with my favorite professor. As I walked down the hill to lower campus, I started to wonder if I could really be arsed to see Clinton. Back then I was extremely anxious about going to places and trying things without someone to do it with me, which sounds crazy when I had already come all the way to another country by myself and was doing just fine. Not only was I anxious, but I was a lazy son-of-a-gun to boot. I wondered if I would be able to motivate myself to walk downtown and see this speech all on my own. I didn’t like the idea that laziness and anxiety would get in the way of a chance to see a former President, and I continued this warring dialogue in my head as I approached Hibbard. It would be so easy to just say “ah, heck with it” and walk back to the warmth and comfort of the dorms, and resume binging Breaking Bad and eating pizza with Aaron. I wished he were here so we could go together.

I got into class, sat myself down, and a thought occurred to me. In my Making More Friends in the USA post I introduced my friend Calvin, who sat near me in that creative writing class. Only two days prior, he had asked if I wanted to get coffee on my birthday. I was busy chillin’ with Aaron, Zeke and Jimmy in Towers North at the time, but had promised him we would hang out. Calvin had a friend, a girl that sat with us, called…let’s call her Briony. As we unpacked our notepads and pens, she said, “Hey, isn’t Bill Clinton in town today?”

Class commenced as per usual, and when it ended it was late in the afternoon. Calvin looked at me and said, “So, how about that coffee? You busy?”

I said I was interested in going to see Clinton, and perhaps we could go together. He smiled and looked back at Briony and asked if she was interested. Swell!

We left the campus and headed toward Briony’s house where we planned to leave our bags. I remember being interested to see what a given student house looked like. We walked through big sylvan streets with little traffic. The houses all had large lawns. They were often made of white-painted wood and all had spacious porches which contained locked bicycles, inflated donuts for tubing the Chippewa River, hookah pipes, and the evidence of many a party; beer bottles and red solo cups strewn about the front steps and lining the porch railing. There were also dogs and families in some of the houses. A thick canopy covered every street, and everything was shadowed and sleepy. The front yards were adorned with whirligigs, flower patches, American flags, abandoned couches, empty lawn chairs, tricycles, and discarded stacks of cardboard.

We arrived at the house where Briony lived and it fascinated me. Briony and her roommate rented the upper half of the house, and so there was a stairway on the exterior of the building that took them up to their front door. I remember Briony apologizing for how messy her apartment was and it struck me as representing the carefree existence of student living. We found her roommate sitting cross-legged on the floor and the girl smiled up at us and said hi, promising to look after our bags.

“Just throw them on the floor anywhere you like,” she said, as Briony went into another room to fetch her jacket.

We started then towards downtown Eau Claire and the light was starting to leave the sky. It was at that point in the day when the streetlights are coming on and glow faintly amber against a sky the dullest shade of white. The speech was taking place at the Ramada Convention Center. By the time we arrived, the line was so big that it stretched around the whole block. We instantly grew apprehensive about whether we would make it.

I can be a pretty impatient person sometimes and one thing I’m not good at is simply standing still. I’ve always hated waiting in line, especially at airports and the like. As the day grew later and the line (“queue” in British English) trudged forward at the pace of a spilt flow of porridge, I began to realize just how naïve I was to the weather in Wisconsin. I’ve always had this tendency to put on less layers than I need out of a fear of being too hot. I hate being out and about with too many layers on and feeling sweaty, and back then I figured it was better to be too cold rather than too hot. Almost as soon as we got in line, I started complaining I was cold. I knew right away I had made a grave error. I was dressed in a thin, white vintage cabana shirt with black, office pants. I looked like I ought to be drinking Cubanitos in Havana or smoking outside a café in Sidi Bou Said. Aside from being about forty years out of date, I attracted all kinds of bemused stares at my lack of preparedness. With the kind of shirt I was wearing I was practically topless for all the protection it offered. To quote Joey from Friends: my nipples could cut glass.

Unable to control myself, I started shivering like crazy. Wisconsinites are polite and yet direct. They’re too polite to criticize my choice of clothing but nonetheless direct enough to ask where my jacket was. A woman in front of us couldn’t stand to hear my teeth chattering any longer, and said that while she didn’t have a spare sweater for me, she could offer me these little things that might warm my hands. Out of her handbag she produced these two things that looked like teabags.

“Rub them together in your hands. It’ll warm you up,” she said. “But whatever ya do, don’t open or tear them. That would be painful.”

The line snaked around these two massive buildings and we were stood there for an hour or more, with me cursing my stupidity the whole time. It was nice to hang out with Calvin and Briony some more, but I was starting to think I should have taken them up on their initial suggestion of coffee. I imagined we would have gone to a place in the campus student center Davies called The Cabin. I never actually went to The Cabin during my exchange, but I remember thinking of it as a nest of hipsters in flannel shirts and beanies, discussing Bon Iver over their Caribou Coffee. I was super-paranoid about being associated with hipsters back then. I’m not sure what my fear was exactly, but I avoided them like they were linked to Spanish Flu. But all my insecurities about being a closeted hipster went out the window when I was on the sidewalk that day feeling my crown jewels shrivel up into my body in a desperate attempt to preserve heat. At that moment The Cabin looked like the warmest, coziest place in the world.

This better be worth it, I thought to myself. We were so close to the convention center now. As we edged closer, coming off of the street and under the massive concrete parking garage attached to the side of the building, we began to talk excitedly about the comfy chairs and central heating ahead of us. It was fully dark by now. The stars were out and the hardy Wisconsinites breathed clouds of condensed water vapor. Then all of a sudden the line came to a stop and didn’t start moving again. A crowd began to form outside the hotel and a woman came along and announced that the seats were all full and that she was very sorry but could we kindly piss off.

An audible groan rang out and the crowd didn’t move. A barricade was erected to keep us from getting any closer and to make room for Clinton’s motorcade. We waited for the shiny black cars to arrive so that we might catch a glimpse of him. At worst we could brag at having seen one of his secret service agents. The only thing I remember from this part of the story is a crushing sense of disappointment. Finally, however, as if knowing that I had come all this way from Bristol, England, the woman returned and announced to the sizable crowd that Bill Clinton was going to come out and give a mini-speech to us, so that we didn’t go home with nothing. What an amazing fellow, I thought.

Then, sure enough, Bill Clinton’s motorcade turned up and he got out of the car. He looked exactly as he did on TV. His hair was brilliantly white though- whiter and thicker than Biden’s. He had a really distinctive look to him, I thought. Someone handed him a megaphone and he addressed the shivering crowd of Wisconsinites clad in green and yellow coats. It was quite a scene, I thought. Even though we didn’t get to see the actual campaign speech, this little spontaneous moment in the parking garage felt somehow more special. Everyone seemed to be wearing some form of Green Bay Packer attire, and we all felt touched by Clinton’s coming out to us in the cold.

The fact that I didn’t bring my camera felt like an even bigger mistake than my choice of clothes. Sometimes in today’s world of social media, it feels like if you don’t have a picture to mark an event, then it didn’t happen. So I don’t have a photo of my own to accompany this post. However, I did find this image online of Clinton speaking to us in the parking garage-if you look really hard you can even see half of my face, at the back of the crowd on the right of the image.

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Photo credit: Jeff McCabe, click here to see original image

When the speech was over everyone cheered and we hurried back to Briony’s house as quickly as we could. And so ends the memory and today’s blog post. Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying this study abroad series, then consider giving me a Like or let me know what you think in the comments. Make sure to subscribe to keep yourself up to date, because I have plenty of stories left from that fall semester in 2012.

That Time I Saw Joe Biden Speak On Campus

During my student exchange at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire it seemed to me that an American campus offered no end of opportunities. Everything was more. We had more food (free food!) than we could possibly eat, we had more recreational facilities than we could possibly know what to do with, and every week there was an event of some kind going on. I could only imagine what opportunities were on offer at institutions such as John Hopkins or NYU. UW-Eau Claire is a small college in a small city, but like everything else in America it’s rich with possibilities. I wish I had done more, but two things that stand out as being especially memorable are the campaign trail speeches I got to see. I’m going to detail the first one in this post today.

In my Making More Friends in the USA post I highlighted three friends I made during my semester abroad and in my Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election post I described the atmosphere of the campus during the 2012 presidential election. It is in this post that we bring those two pieces together, now that the appropriate context has been established.

I got to see Vice President Joe Biden on September 13th, 2012. The campaign was just starting to heat up at this point, with the vote about 2 months away. Even though I didn’t know Biden that well, I knew I couldn’t turn down the chance to see a sitting Vice President. I went with Jimmy and Zeke and I remember standing in line for ages outside the Zorn Arena. It was a bright day, and although the punishing Midwestern summer heat had dropped off quite suddenly, there was a residual, pleasant kind of warmth that ushered in the Indian Summer of fall. Jimmy and Zeke, being freshmen, shared the same sense of excitement that I did as an exchange student. We were similarly new to the campus and in awe of the fresh sights and sounds before us. We were hungry for experiences. As we waited in line we joked around and pointed out the Secret Service agents taking up various positions around the perimeter of the arena.

“Look, a sniper!” we said, pointing at a guy in shades standing on the roof.

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As we got closer to the entrance I got my first glimpse of the UW-Eau Claire marching band, who paraded down the street in a phalanx of blue and gold. They were very impressive and I enjoyed the booming music of drums and brass instruments.

The marching band’s reputation preceded them and I was glad to see them in action. One girl told me “The marching band are legit awesome. It’s like, super-nerdy, but they’re so good.”

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The running joke on campus was that the marching band was better than the Blugold football team it supported, and that people attended the games as much to see them as they did the sports.

When we got in we were seated in this gallery overlooking the main stage. People were still flooding into the arena, and our attention focused on the secret service agent guarding the exit near to where we sat. The guy was built like a vending machine but had this serene look to his face that reminded me of a teaching assistant or music tutor with unlimited patience. Zeke said that he was going to go shake the agent’s hand, and asked if I could take a photo of him to prove he did it. I was swept up in the adventure of the moment and as he left our row of seats, Jimmy laughed and said “Dude, he’s legit going to do it.”

Unfortunately my camera at the time was not very good. I did my best to get the highest quality picture I could for him, and the result was pretty blurry. However it was not so blurry that you couldn’t tell what was going on. You can see the handshake, but the agent’s got two heads, so it looks like his spirit is leaving his physical body and watching the event over his shoulder. At the time I was worried that not getting a good photo was a missed chance to improve my new friendship with Zeke, but really it just serves as an example of how I used to fret over every little thing back then, that the slightest imperfection in my social endeavors would have far-reaching consequences. But as I have stated, Wisconsinites are a super-friendly bunch, and throughout the semester both Jimmy and Zeke were absolutely wonderful towards me. I apologized to Zeke but he just laughed and said “Good enough. Thanks man, this is badass.”

The event started with a bunch of guest speakers I can’t remember. A quartet of blonde German-American girls gave a lovely rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and my friends reminded me to put my hand over my heart and face the flag. I wasn’t sure what to do, as a foreigner, but I decided to go along with it. It was a strange sensation and a thought came over me at the time: “So this is my life now. How the hell did I get here? Here I am in the USA doing the pledge of allegiance I’ve seen so many times in the movies…”

It was a far cry from the life I’d known just a few short months ago, hiding in my room getting all my knowledge of the outside world through media instead of direct exposure. It was weird. For so long I’d felt that I was somehow “outside life”, existing only as an observer of the stories of others. Now I felt like I was living. I was in the stories I read and the movies I watched. This was a recurring emotion during my student exchange, one in which my perception of reality was changing. This might sound completely insane, but it was like all of a sudden I felt real.

Joe Biden sauntered onto the stage with his trademark swagger and ear-to-ear grin. He was old, thin, with a head of hair so white as to shame a Stranger Things antagonist. He looked like the American “good ol’ boy” archetype and I could imagine him playing a sheriff or saloonkeeper in an old-school Hollywood Western. His natural charisma and quintessential “American-ness” reminded me of Harrison Ford. Despite his age and his thinness, he was a man fit to bursting with excited energy. He seemed so vibrant and lively. He strutted about the stage shaking hands, slapping shoulders and snapping his fingers. His reputation as such a colorful personality turned out to be true, and it made for an entertaining speech. Biden resonated with the youth and knew how to galvanize them. He joked around, he was goofy, and he had this innocent, trustworthy twinkle in his eyes like your favorite uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. He spoke about foreign policy and then went on to paint a picture of the America he and Obama envisioned; a place of diversity, tolerance and progressivism.

I wasn’t too big on politics at the time, but I remember enjoying his speech and leaving Zorn with a sense of hope and optimism. There were people in power working to make the world a better place.

Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election

One of the things I haven’t covered yet- a detail that made my semester abroad that much more colorful- was that I was in the USA during election year. Tensions were high and the campus was highly politicized. Both the Dems and the GOP had official organizations at the grass-roots level- veritable legions of fired-up, partisan students that scoured the campus for recruits during the day and drank toasts to the bloody demise of their counterparts come night. There was a real sense of vitriol between the two sides. It was as though every four years the country braced itself for a civil war, which is an apt choice of words because the ideological divisions in this country can be traced right back to the fricking Gatling Gun. I’ve always thought that America is really two countries- like two warring spirits vying for control of a host body. One thing I picked up on as soon as I arrived was the tangible sense of dread people had towards the 2012 general election. Now I’m not saying people back in the Old World of Yurrup enjoy elections, but I’ve certainly never seen the same sense of fear. In the UK some people go about hardly noticing there’s an election at all. But in the US- boy do you know it’s game time.

The US is about as polarized as a nation can get. When I was making my road trip across the country before moving into the dorms, I met up with my assigned roommate Brad and a bunch of his high school chums in the parking lot of a Best Western hotel in Madison, WI. After grudgingly obliging their demands I say “bloody hell” several times in my normal voice, I was able to pick up a few pointers on the Do’s and Don’ts of living in the Land of the Free.

“Whatever you do, do NOT mention politics, religion, or race,” one girl told me.

There was this sense that to do so was to light a cigarette in a room already doused with gasoline. Any moment things could explode. It was an interesting climate to witness, and any American will tell you that when things kick off, it’s ugly as all hell. And it’s true; in the UK there simply isn’t the same level of hatred that exists between both factions. People just kind of get on with it, and few folks can really be bothered to make a scene.

The memory of that semester that sticks out most to me was the time my bestest of mates Aaron got back from casting his vote.

“Shit’s hit the fan,” he said, lying back on the rug across from where I sat. Aaron told me how an argument about abortion exploded on lower campus outside the voting booths. I’m not sure who started it, but basically what happened is two girls got into a screaming match and one of them called the other a “cunt”. You know the hatred is genuine when Americans use that word. In the USA it definitely carries more weight than anywhere else. Over there it’s strictly a gender-specific word. It’s a word used against women to demean women. In the UK, it’s still bad, but it’s applied more or less equally to both genders (think of it as an upgrade of “jerk”). And in Australia, I hear it’s actually a term of endearment. But no, in the US whenever that word is used it’s like all air is sucked out of the room. Back home, if I were to say it I’d get a slap on the wrist for being vulgar, but if I were to utter it in the USA, there would be a sense of “Did you really just do that?”

As a foreigner, I was pretty much insulated from it all. Come election-day a girl knocked on my door and asked if I had voted yet. I told her I wasn’t eligible, and for some reason I got a real sense of satisfaction in doing so. But a part of me did feel like I was missing out on the party. I wasn’t politically-inclined at all in those days, but I still felt swept up in all the excitement. There was a real sense of hope that came with Obama’s crushing victory, and the dorm rooms were warmed by the glow of progressivism. No offence to Mitt Romney, but he displayed about as much charisma and political insight as a pilchard. I’ll never forget staying up with Aaron all night to watch the live coverage of the votes being counted, and I have such a vivid memory of Obama’s rousing victory speech in the wind and rain of Chicago. It was probably one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard, and one of the few I’ve really been affected by with a surge of emotion. Our reaction was tantamount to that of seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo performing a slam dunk over someone. “Holy shit,” Aaron said. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you had to give it to Barack Obama; the man is undoubtedly one of the greatest orators in American history.

Making More Friends in the USA

I’ve written in previous episodes of this series how I made friends with an Aaron Rodgers lookalike and his Malaysian roommate, and having finally found a friendship group of my own, latched onto them like a lamprey eel. But that’s not the whole story. It’s true that I spent almost all of my time with them, but I was also blessed with some other friendships during my 2012 student exchange. After years of loneliness in Bristol and Winchester back in the UK- where I’d sit on benches eating alone, staring at a group of friends walking past, telling myself that would never happen for me, that any form of companionship was denied me- the few friends I made in the USA seemed like a lot. For the first few weeks, it seemed as though friends were falling into my lap, and I wasn’t even doing anything proactively social. As I’ve stated before, just being British made me an exotic novelty- no matter how boring and pathetic I thought I was. One of my British friends asked me recently if I thought he could make friends if he went to the USA. And the answer is of course. If I can, any of you can- no matter how low your self-esteem is.

Midwesterners- Wisconsinites and Minnesotans especially- are renowned for their cheerful, kindly demeanor and affability. By and large their culture celebrates openness and politeness. Around the same time I was practically becoming adopted by Akbar and Aaron, I was making friends with two other lads who lived a few doors down the hall from us. For the purposes of this blog we’ll call them Jimmy and Zeke. Both of them were freshmen with a wild thirst for adventures. I met Jimmy first. He took it upon himself to befriend me, approaching me several times during my first week to make me feel welcome. My initial impressions of him were as someone who hung out with jocks but was extremely nice. I thought he looked like what I imagined a baseball player looked like, and I categorized him as someone who hung out with the cool kids in high school, but was universally liked- someone with a sense of schoolyard honor. Jimmy was also from Minnesota, and I feel like my entire impression of The Gopher State was grafted from his personality. Because Jimmy was such an easygoing type, I figured that all Minnesotans are similarly laidback. Whether there’s any truth to that, I’m not sure, but I haven’t had an experience that’s disproven my “chilled-out” image of the Minnesotans.

The first thing Jimmy taught me was that Midwesterners can be forward without seeming rude. Jimmy asked me if he could watch the Vikings’ season opener in my room because he had nowhere else to watch it. I was delighted to host him, although the TV wasn’t really mine. It was my roommate Brad’s, but he was out and hadn’t previously given me any indication I couldn’t use it. Jimmy figured out how to work the TV and we watched the Vikings. It was the first time I had sat down and watched American football. Jimmy explained the rules to me and my initiation into the sport I would soon come to love came from him. For some reason I was nervous about Brad walking in, even though I knew logically that he wouldn’t have a problem with what we were doing. Back then I wasn’t ruled by logic, but baseless fear born out of a lack of social exposure. I had already agreed to meet Aaron on lower campus and got ready to leave. Jimmy seemed cool with this and asked if he could stay in my room and watch. I trusted him and I was eager to please, so I said yes and left. As I walked down the hill to lower campus I kept thinking about what would happen if Brad came back and found some guy sat on the futon watching sports. It was an interesting little moment for me, as I wondered if such a thing would be awkward in the USA. My takeaway was that Americans feared social awkwardness less.

I first met Zeke a few days later when Jimmy and I grabbed lunch at Hilltop. Zeke was different to Jimmy, but the two of them made an interesting pair as roommates. I clicked with both of them instantly. Zeke was harder to categorize into a stereotype like everyone else. Jimmy was the kid in the movie that offered help to the bullied runt, teaching him how to throw a ball and swing a bat. Aaron was the guy that got the girl in the end and took her to prom. I even categorized myself- think of me as the Neville Longbottom type. But as for Zeke, I wasn’t sure where I had seen his face before. Out of everyone I met he had the most fervent zeal for collegiate adventures. He was intellectually-curious and more or less seemed to want to try everything. He grew up in a rural part of Wisconsin in a town of about three houses, that for some reason I always pictured looking like an Amish hamlet, complete with a working gristmill. As we ate lunch that day he eagerly engaged me on my religious and philosophical views. I wasn’t offended by the interest, but I felt I had to choose my words carefully. These fellas were still new to me, and I didn’t want to alienate potential friends by making myself look like the Antichrist. I just said I wasn’t sure about all that stuff, and they said that “most campuses are pretty liberal”. From that moment forward we became comfortable exchanging ideas throughout the semester, and both seemed very interested in what I had to say. They made my thoughts feel legitimate and they made me feel like I was not only smart, but interesting.

The last significant interaction I want to discuss is a friend I made in my Creative Writing Workshop class. We’ll go ahead and call him Calvin. My friendship with him follows the pattern of people finding me intriguing and going out of their way to make friends with me. Calvin had blonde hair and looked kind of like a young, Scandinavian Stephen King. He was a senior, and a fellow writer, so that made him different to the other friends I made. I remember him sitting near me, and seeing that I was shy, going out of his way to include me. Just like Zeke and Jimmy, he made me feel interesting. He often encouraged me to share my work and complimented my writing on several occasions. We agreed to meet up to see a visiting writer give a talk on campus one evening. That writer was actually Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar (See American Dervish & Disgraced). After watching Akhtar speak about the writing process and Sufism for an hour, we exchanged numbers. Later, when my 20th birthday came around, Calvin gave me a call and asked if he could treat me to a coffee or something. Unfortunately I was busy at the time, but I promised him we could hang out in the near future. The interaction is significant because it’s another example of how forward Americans can be, and how the experience of having people proactively seek out my friendship contributed to my development as a person and my overall impression of the Midwest. It was little moments like these that really made my exchange.

My idea behind this post was not only to highlight what my behavior therapist roommate would call “social initiations”, but to establish these three personalities for further posts going forward. In many ways, this piece is a necessary foundation for the next few posts in my student exchange series that I have planned. Be sure to catch the next episode tomorrow! Thanks for reading.