Tag Archives: Mental Health

The Crescent City Diaries #5 – Faulkner’s Footsteps and Tarot Readings

When I traveled to Budapest last April, I made it a mission of mine to see as many of the city’s literary sites as possible. I bathed in the rich bookish legacy of the Hungarian capital, visiting half a dozen indie bookstores, ordering “The Writer’s Dish” at the famous New York Café (once the hangout of choice for the city’s greatest writers), and visiting Írók Boltja- the city’s greatest bookstore, whose name translates as The Writers Shop. Like Budapest, New Orleans is a writerly city, with a proud history for cultivating literary greatness. And like Budapest, it offered me the chance to follow in the footsteps of wild, bohemian writers. Only this time, instead of tapping into the silvery, cigarette-in-the-rain mood of Hemingway and the impoverished American expats, I would be seeking Tennessee Williams and the whorehouse ambience of screeching streetcars and frantic, cocktail-fueled punching of typewriter keys.

New Orleans is both a place that grows writers from within and attracts writers from afar. And the writers that come want to make this tragic metropolis and its decadent, Old World affectations their own- to capture it in their work the way no one else has. As I got to know the French Quarter well, I asked myself if I could truly live here or not. It would be difficult to invest in real estate with the knowledge that at any time all my possessions might get carried out into the sea. And add to that that New Orleans is quite a boisterous place. It was a little intimidating at first, but as I became used to it I thought more about the Quarter as a home. Part of the anxiety attached to its loud, extroverted revelers and shifty-looking characters comes from simply being alone and not knowing anyone. As a location for inspiration, it’s perfect. There is so much art and creativity to feed off of that I could see myself really happy here, if I were able to afford an apartment of course. All I had at this moment in my life was five short days, so I endeavored to experience whatever trace of the writers I idolized that I could find. I found echoes of Tennessee Williams in unpretentious bars, drinking Hurricanes and listening to sweet jazz beneath the ceiling fans of Americana.

One of the few things I wrote down prior to coming to New Orleans was to visit Faulkner House, which had once been the residence of one of my favorite authors- William Faulkner- and now operated as a bookstore. It was the only thing I had planned for my first day, and after I finished my beignet in Jackson Square, I set about trying to find it. My phone was dying and I just couldn’t seem to locate the darn thing. It ought to be staring me right in the face. Eventually, after much retracing of the same steps, I learned that it was in an alley to the side of the St Louis Cathedral, and set off at a quick pace.

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The bookshop is small but very charming, and you can tell it was once a cheap guesthouse. It’s just one room and a corridor, filled all the way around from floor to ceiling with books. The corridor ends in a gate, beyond which is the private residence of the proprietors of Faulkner House. Inside the store is a lady employed by the proprietors to run the place. But she doesn’t just work as a cashier; she serves as an expert on the house, William Faulkner, and literature in general. As I examined the books on offer, other customers engaged the lady and asked her advice on what to get. They told her what sort of thing they were after and she would give them a recommendation. I found this very appealing, and after picking up a copy of Mosquitoes by the man himself, I decided to make use of the woman’s knowledge. I said I wanted a modern novel by a female writer that is set in New Orleans and touches on female themes. She then recommended The Snare by Elizabeth Spencer. Lastly, I said, I need a gritty thriller set in New Orleans. Something dark, a murder mystery, a page-turner, but that featured real place names and captured the atmosphere of the Quarter that I so deeply cherished. The lady then handed me a copy of The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke. There we go. Three books ought to be enough. As we continued to chat about William Faulkner and his work, I noticed that a fifty-something-year-old man to my side was listening in. His tousled hair was going white and his clothes were utilitarian, even scruffy. There’s no cash register in this place, so the lady added up the total of my purchases using a pencil and paper. As she did so, she turned to the man and asked if she could help him. He said straight up that he wasn’t buying anything, and had come here to ask about poetry readings in the area. The lady informed him that Faulkner House didn’t do readings, but there were open mic nights at a few select bars. The man nodded, telling us how he was from San Francisco. He mentioned the city’s famous City Lights bookstore, which is probably my favorite bookstore in the world that I’ve been too. It’s up there with Faulkner House and Írók Boltja for me. He asked the lady if this was New Orleans’ answer to City Lights, and the lady blushed, saying “There can only be one City Lights, only one!”

The total for my order was sixty-five dollars. I swallowed a lump in my throat, sweat entering my palms. In the U.K the average paperback goes for about ten bucks. I was shocked that these novels were going for twenty each. I paid and left, feeling somewhat uneasy, as though my long-desired pilgrimage to this place had a permanent mark scratched into its once wholesome image. As I closed the door behind me and turned down the alleyway, I saw the man waiting for me by the iron fence of the cathedral’s courtyard. He called me over. I thought he was saying “See ya,” so I waved and kept going. Then he called out again, beckoning me to join him.

“Why’d you do that?” he said.

“Do what?”

“Pay her sixty bucks. There’s a dozen used bookstores in the Quarter. You could have gotten them for less than ten altogether.”

“Right,” I said, and I started to feel down. He was right of course. Books should never be that pricey. But I had assumed these would be the same price as any other standard paperback, and now I had already paid and left.

“You shouldn’t be paying her sixty fucking bucks,” he said, and after he kept saying it I didn’t know what he wanted from me. I just stood there looking sad. He acted like he had just witnessed a real tragedy unfold. “I just wish I could have told you sooner,” he said, seeing my miserable expression. “I’m just saying.”

He asked me where I was from. I told him.

“Don’t they have used bookstores in England?”

“Yeah.”

We got on to talking about literature and the man said that Faulkner never really did it for him. He said that “In America, there are only three writers worth reading: Herman Melville, Henry James, and Henry Miller. Miller is my favorite.”

I told him I had read some Miller years ago, and asked what British writers he liked. He said that as far as literature, we Brits had “everything”, and that he was especially fond of the Lake Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc). He also really liked the novels of Graham Greene. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, we agreed. Enough said.

However the subject came back around to my folly again, and he lamented that he couldn’t have advised me sooner. He eyed the window of Faulkner House with contempt and I stared at my feet like a schoolkid in the wake of being told “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”

Sensing my growing misery, the man offered me a weak smile. Several of his teeth were missing. “Hey listen- cheers– alright?”

He waited for me to acknowledge his use of the British word, but I could only find enough strength to smile back and wish him well.

As always with me, indecisions and doubts snowball, tumbling over each other and coloring my mood- as well as my perception of everything around me. I questioned what I was even doing here, on this trip. I felt very unsure of myself for some reason, like I had no idea what I was doing in New Orleans in the first place. I questioned my ability to simply be an adult and live independently and interact with the world around me. The idea that I’d been duped reinforced the nagging doubt that I still belonged in my mother’s womb. I also had to deal with the notion that Faulkner House- after much excited anticipation- was now stained forever in my memory. The city romped past me, blurring into a kaleidoscopic carnival as if to say that to be here, you had to be happy. The French Quarter is a party after all, right? I then began to question New Orleans as a city too. By this point I was standing in Jackson Square again, and I wondered if the city wasn’t meant for me- that it was meant for adults instead. And here I was, the lost boy trying to find his way home in the glare of neon lights.

Yep, I thought all that, when any normal person would probably just say “O shoot, that was a little pricey. But hey, at least I got what I wanted, three awesome books!”. At least, that’s how I assume other people think.

Before I knew what was happening I was sitting myself down beside one of the palm readers outside the cathedral. She asked me what kind of reading I wanted.

“Tarot,” I said.

Now, you wanna talk about an unambiguous waste of money: this is it. I don’t believe in anything religious or supernatural. If anything I think psychics and mediums and all that are utter charlatans and exploitative shysters. But New Orleans is a supernatural city. I didn’t even think about why I was doing it, I just did it. It seemed simply to be the thing to do here.

The woman told me first off that I was a person that said what I wanted and disregarded what people might think. So that’s completely wrong from the outset. She asked me to draw cards and I pretended to take the whole business very seriously like every other tourist in the Square. Something about a Water Demon. The woman must have picked up on my negative energy, because she told me to stop beating myself up all the time, and that if I put myself first instead of trying to please others, everything I wanted in life would fall into place. She even said there was love in my future- I could share this life with someone, if I wanted to.

Against all odds I started crying. Nothing dramatic, just a light trembling and watering of the eyes. The woman looked at me coldly and asked if I had any questions. I quickly paid and left, careful not to leave my overpriced purchases behind.

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My Irish Weekend Part 3: Ode to a Compost Converter

As I stated in part one, any discussion of my trip to Ireland is impossible if not told through the lens of my friendship with George and Elizabeth. No blade of green Irish grass exists, without the framing device of these two people, upon which it depends. There is no smell of gorse, there is no twinkle in the eye of curious dairy cows, and no flicker of church candles, unless given life from George and Elizabeth. Ireland is opened up through them; there is no other way in. And this is because, unlike Budapest, I was not in Ireland on official Tumbleweed business. As I said- I was desperate to see my friends, and in that sense my trip was wholly self-serving. There was no mission statement; I was just following an urge- a gnawing, biological impulse- which is the need for companionship and the redress of separation anxiety. I wasn’t buying plane tickets with the excitement of seeing windswept castles and jagged white cliffs. I was very much going there to soothe an open wound, to cauterize the ache that comes with missing people to whom you form strong attachments. I’m not really ashamed of that. And it’s worth pointing out this self-centered motivation, because I don’t want to do Ireland a disservice- nor indeed my readers- by pretending that this is a focused and objective account of the country. It’s not. As I told Elizabeth- I would have visited her if she and her husband were living in a Wampa ice cave on Svalbard, with nothing to do except get cozy in the slit-up abdomens of walruses while eating curried reindeer. The place was not a factor to me- but, I knew that wherever they chose to settle, it would become one of fascination to me, whose aesthetics I would attach inexorably to George and Elizabeth’s personalities. I would cherish these rows of gorse and miles of peat bogs, these tranquil lakes and cutesy farmyard animals, as playing a role in their continuum as a couple. Therefore it was inevitable that whatever I saw, I would in some way romanticize it.

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So, unlike Budapest, I didn’t have a bucket list. I just wanted to soak up as much of their personalities as possible. I wanted Elizabeth to do as many theatrical comedy routines and tell as many shock-value “pipefitter jokes” as she could. I wanted quintessential, vintage Elizabeth at her rowdy best. I was not disappointed. Throughout the whole five days I was there, the three of us talked without pause from sun-up to sundown. By noon every day my throat hurt, but I went on talking anyway. The entire trip was a five-day conversation, in which the only moments of silence were the hours in which we slept.

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We spent our time at their house, sitting by the lake, or going for walks in the surrounding countryside. The house, to me, was a symptom of George and Elizabeth’s romantic worldview. When I got out of the car, I knew that there could be no other house for them. This place was straight out of a fairy tale. It could have been one of those ceramic miniature cottages you see for sale in gift shops. The thatched roof, the hanging kerosene lamp, the cobblestone walls, the little red gate, the Dutch door with its bottom-half shut, the lilacs growing down the wall like Nature’s tapestry, were all qualities that spoke to George and Elizabeth’s collective identity.

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As we stepped inside I told them that the house reminded me of the holiday homes from my childhood vacations to places like Wales, Devon, and Normandy; the downstairs a single room, no TV, windows flung open, a few troublesome houseflies, great wooden roofbeams holding up the ceiling. There was no TV and no Playstation- instead; there were boxes of audiobooks and old board games. It gave me the feeling of being on vacation, and Elizabeth echoed this sentiment, saying that the house had a vibe not unlike that of her family’s summer cabin in the Wisconsin northwoods. It was just so charmingly disconnected from urban life. Aside from its romantic, rural qualities, I was also struck by how “lived-in” it felt. They had really furnished the place into a home, a place of their own, a place of love. The house was brought to life by the little things- the tins of spices and teas on the old shelves, George’s handsome collection of tobacco pipes, the framed photos of them together that made ascension of the staircase a timeline of their relationship- which caused me to think of the house as a house of marriage. Elizabeth delighted in showing me their honeymoon photos, kept in large old school albums underneath the wooden coffee table. We drank beer that she and George had brewed themselves. When the horse in field opposite the house started staring at us through the window, we cut up some apples and went out to feed him. We sat on a large rock by the lake and marveled that all this was even happening, ticking off all the coincidences on memory lane that contrived to bring a country girl raised in the shadow of Lambeau Field and a kilt-wearing Oxfordshire Brit to building a life together in the western Irish countryside- as well as the little coincidences that facilitated my humble cameo to their story. It’s quite a thing, I said.

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Staying with them in this house, I got to know George and Elizabeth on a deeper level. I was really experiencing them for the first time as a married couple, as homeowners, and as a family. And they revealed themselves at once to be gracious and natural hosts. I always get embarrassed when I’m being waited on hand and foot, but I couldn’t help enjoying seeing them this way. George and Elizabeth love to entertain. Throughout my whole stay I was lovingly tended to; scarcely a moment passed when I was not handed a beer or outfitted with an extra cushion. Knowing as intimately as anyone my history of mental health issues, they enquired often about how I was feeling. At one point I was even set up in a hammock, and brought a plate of sausages that had been boiled in cider and barbecued. Now this is living, I thought, feeling the sun warm on my closed eyelids and the fresh, country air rising in my nostrils. George and Elizabeth made me feel like the Sultan of Brunei, treating me with such affection that they resisted all attempts on my part to give a helping hand. One of the highlights of my trip was our adventure to the hardware store. We excitedly purchased one of those massive, Robby-the-Robot-shaped compost converters and hurried back to the homestead to assemble it. When it was ready for use, we each pinched our noses with laundry pegs (which fucking hurt like a sonuvabitch I might add) and proceeded to dump as much rank waste inside as possible. With the lid open, George held up the garbage bags while his wife tried cutting out the bottom with rusty garden shears. When Elizabeth started making a series of retching noises, I insisted they let me help.

“WE COULDN’T POSSIBLY.”

“Liz, you’re about to barf,” I said.

“OKAY.”

So I took the shears from her and finished the job, stabbing at the swollen black refuse sack like a Jedi Knight would the pregnant gut of a pot-bellied rancor. After penetrating the bulging sack I had to act fast as the smell of rancid trash grew ever thicker- as though the mortally wounded beast aimed to take us down with her- and I cut crossways with the shears. An immense feeling of accomplishment and self-worth came over me as the entrails burst forth, and our mission was complete.

My Irish Weekend Part 1: “The Happiest Place on Earth”

When I started writing blog posts that included references to real people, TumbleweedWrites was still in its infancy, and I was ignorant of the ethics of such a thing. I took advice from my roommates- who, being central figures in my life, feature in a lot of my posts- about what was the right thing to do. I made a commitment then to always use pseudonyms when referring to real people, and (perhaps more importantly) to never include mention of a person’s address or place of work. With a glass of Captain Morgan in my hand and a border collie nuzzling against my hip, I went through all my previous posts and edited them accordingly.

As a general rule, I try to avoid writing about people unless they give necessary context to a post. I think that’s just good practice- whether you are writing a short story or an article- to leave out any extraneous details, to make sure that every sentence relates to the overarching theme. And a digression into something that only makes sense to myself and a handful of chums would only diminish the quality of the piece.

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Today, I will be breaking both of these rules- but not without valid reason. Firstly- I will be giving the actual name of a place. However, this place is a business operated by my friend’s uncle, so its address is already in the public sphere. Secondly, any adventure I have with Elizabeth becomes inextricably linked to her character, so my descriptions of the places I went and the things I did will be infused with insights into her personality. It would be impossible to narrate something as simple as going to the DMV with her without revealing some aspect of her wit. In fact I’ve done that- and it was hilarious.

Elizabeth has featured a few times on this blog. Diligent readers will remember her from such posts as Our Only May Amelia and Lamb Boobs. I first met the lady I call “Elizabeth” in 2012 through her older brother Aaron. And to this day she still comes out with stuff that completely catches me off-guard. I think that’s one of the defining things about being friends with her; even her siblings will be left dumbstruck by some of her jokes. In that way, she is utterly unique. The effectiveness of her humor comes from a perfect storm of juxtapositions that makes remarks that shouldn’t be surprising to those who know her seem as fresh and shocking as if you just met. She’s neither a girly-girl nor a tomboy. She can be cooing about how “precious” a fluffy lamb is one minute, tying daisy-chains into my hair and calling me “doll”, before turning around and uttering something so crude that we can only categorize it as “pipefitter humor”. She would be just as much at home shotgunning beer in the center of a rave as she would be going through stamp collections in the company of an old bat with a goiter the size of Azerbaijan. No description I give can really do her justice or give you a truthful account of her persona. She’s an actress, a singer, a dancer, an archeologist, a historian, a swimming instructor, a pre-school teacher, a writer, a comedian, a scholar, a prom queen, a roller-blader, an audio-cassette enthusiast, a Pokemon trainer, and she’s fluent in Swedish. In high school she was voted the friendliest kid in her grade. I look at Elizabeth and I see flashes of Scout Finch’s sass, Tom Sawyer’s thirst for mischief, Mad-Eye-Moody’s wildness, Ella Fitzgerald’s rhythm, and Bob Ross’s chilled-out oneness with the universe- but those are just impressions, and not really that helpful. They say more about my associative thought processes than Elizabeth herself, because in truth she is none of those things; she is simply Elizabeth.

Her husband George is similarly hard to categorize or draw comparisons to. He asked me during my stay at their house what my preconceptions of him were prior to meeting him, and I couldn’t really give an answer. I had no idea what Elizabeth’s soulmate might look like, because Elizabeth herself doesn’t fit a certain mold. I answered that I could remember being very curious who such a person might be like; everything from his accent down to his moral values. I had no idea what to expect- what was the perfect match supposed to look like? After meeting him, however, their relationship seemed to make perfect sense. Their personalities seem almost tailor-made for one another- which is not to say that George is simply a male Elizabeth. It’s more like they are two pieces of a functioning whole, and I had a great time in the company of that dynamic synergy. George is just as quirky and unique as his spouse, and I am convinced that if I met him first, I would have been similarly stumped as to who in the heck would turn out to be his other half.

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Even though George and Elizabeth came to visit me in January, I began to miss them terribly. After just a few weeks I was desperate to see them again. They had just moved to Ireland and I lamented how out of reach my close friends were- but such is adult life; I think your 20s really are the decade you begin to realize just how important people are to you. I had so much to talk to them about that I was sending them 10-minute voice messages on Whatsapp every time I walked home from the warehouse. A weekend was agreed in which I could visit them, and the timing could not have been better. I got a dirt cheap flight to Shannon and a couple days off of work, which, combined with the bank holiday Monday, gave me five precious days with my American family.

Getting to Shannon from Bristol was the easiest flight I’ve ever had. We had barely been in the air for half an hour before the captain told us to sit our asses back down and buckle up for landing. The customs process was as smooth for us as gaining admittance to a Mad-town frat party is for the owner of a D-Cup bust. The duty free was full of jerseys for the Irish rugby team. It’s a tiny little airport but very neat and super-relaxed. Before I knew it I was outside, breathing foreign air for the fourth time this year. That’s always the first thing I think about when I exit an airport- the air. I always seem to be trying to get a feel for the wind and- I know this sounds crazy- in that moment it always seems different. I look at the sky and the trees and the cars and I think about how I’m in a new land with its own customs and history. I think about the lives of ordinary locals who look at what I’m seeing with as much familiarity as I would the sky, the trees, and the cars that pass through my peripheral vision in my hometown. I obsess about that sort of thing- the lives people lead in other places, and whether or not they disregard as “ordinary” the aesthetics that are for me so fresh and exotic. And I’m not even talking monkey-puzzle-exotic or pagoda-exotic; I was staring at parked Ford Fiestas, chain-link fences, and the brick backs of pubs where disgruntled employees sucked on cigarettes while taking the bins out.

Whenever I meet George and Elizabeth we do this big group hug thing. It’s more than a little bit adorable, and it always acts as a way to quickly soothe my built-up anxiety and loneliness. My trip to Ireland was convenient for a number of reasons- I was feeling particularly melancholy and stressed at the time. I’ve come to terms with the fact that depression isn’t really something I can permanently exorcise from my existence; however much progress I make it will always be there, and it comes and goes in its intensity like the tide. When it comes around, it has a way of magnifying everything I feel and think so that little worries become big ones. But standing in the Shannon airport parking lot with each of them under my armpit I felt a different kind of tide, a happiness washing over me, the cleansing effect of which I can best describe as “soothing”. Sometimes I think of depression as being like a balloon in my skull that grows in size, and as it gets fatter I become less rational, more agitated, and it’s hard to think or communicate- but then something comes along and pops it, and all the toxic air is farted away. And there I am- my mind is my own again.

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As we drove through the Irish countryside Elizabeth threw packets of Salt & Vinegar crisps at me from a giant bag between her knees. For some reason they had the mother-load of this particular flavor. I never asked why and they never explained, and it’s entirely possible with them that they were fresh off an impromptu heist of the Walkers factory.

“We gotta surprise for yoooou,” Elizabeth trilled excitedly.

The surprise was a visit to George’s aunt and uncle, who run an award-winning fairy garden outside of Limerick. It’s called Terra Nova and you should totally go if you’re ever in the area. It’s ranked number one on TripAdvisor out of 116 things to do in the Limerick area. I’m always surprised when people I know turn out to be successful for some reason. It’s like I never considered that the people behind roadside diners, traveling circuses, and baboon sanctuaries were real.

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We arrived at Terra Nova before it opened, and I was lucky enough to be given a free private tour. At first when Elizabeth told me that her husband would be serving as my tour guide, I just assumed that she meant it in that casual way a gracious dinner host would say “I’ll give ya the tour.”

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But it turned out that I was getting an official, scripted tour. George picked up the Terra Nova leaflet and looked back at his wife.

“Why don’t you tell it, dear? You’re so good at it.”

“No. You tell it much better than I do!” she insisted, and I could tell that Terra Nova really had become a second home for them.

George cleared his throat and put a hand on my shoulder.

The tour wasn’t, as I would have assumed, a string of facts about the flora or the history of the garden. The tour was a story. It was an original fairy tale, blossoming with creativity and whimsy, that brought to life the plethora of gnomes and hobbits and other statues throughout the garden. I was in awe of how detailed it was- going in depth into the habits and neuroticisms of the garden’s inhabitants. Because I’m lazy, I probably wouldn’t read a written tour if it were handed to me, and if I had come by myself it is likely that I would have missed out on this imaginative experience. George led me from one part of the garden to the next, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

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What struck me about the garden were the little details. It seemed that every possible corner, alcove, and space was crammed with eclectic faerie motifs- and each with its own story to tell. Elizabeth told me that she discovers something new every time she visits. You really can’t rush through this place- there’s so much to see that it’s easy to miss something. When you first arrive it looks smaller than it actually is, because there are no wide open spaces. The whole place is made up of tiny, enclosed grottoes and narrow footpaths shaded by thick canopies. You go from one little area to the next and remark “Well heck, there’s more!”

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George’s uncle joined us for some scalding-hot instant coffee by the pond, and told us how he is always adding to the place, thinking up new stories to tell. It’s such an interesting and quirky place, and you’d be remiss to leave it out of your trip if you find yourself in the greater Limerick area. I lamented that I was only stopping by; if I were a local I would come to Terra Nova on my weekends and just read in one of the gazeboes. It’s so serene and enchanting. It actually won the title “The Best Garden in Ireland”, but I prefer Elizabeth’s name for it: “The Happiest Place on Earth”.

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Wanna know more about Terra Nova Gardens? Click here to see their website!

Reassessing My 2018 Resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring Szentendre Part 2

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Study Abroad Overview: Nothing Gold Can Stay

My last exam at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire was held at noon on Friday, December 21st 2012, the day before I flew back to London. Even though I lived in the dorm room adjacent to 459 where Aaron and Akbar stayed, I spent my last night on campus sleeping on their futon. I grabbed my duvet (comforter) and pillows, and had an old school sleepover.

In that last week I was a total mess. I completely prioritized my social endeavors, and academics were a mere afterthought. My semester felt like everything I had ever known, as though I couldn’t remember anything in my life before it. America was no longer a novelty- the initial incredulous shock of “Holy shit, I’m actually in America. This place is real. There are people that live here,” that I felt upon my arrival in August had vanished. Now America felt like home, as though I had always been here. The mythic image of movies and TV was now just that- a myth- and it had become something real, tangible, normal. I was distraught at the idea of leaving my friends behind and the life I had built in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. They say time flies when you’re having fun and all that, but that one semester seemed longer than any other period of my life. It contained within it more memories than all my semesters at Winchester put together. I cursed the way time just moves forward, and I wanted more than anything for time to stand still. With every fiber of my being I was a UW-Eau Claire Blugold, and this is exactly what the student exchange coordinators warned us about back home. Ultimately, this wasn’t a transfer. Technically, I wasn’t a Blugold at all. I was still a University of Winchester student, and there was no evidence or documentation to prove otherwise. In fact, there’s no record I was ever at UW-Eau Claire in the first place. Within weeks my student e-mail account was expunged and the whole experience felt like a blurry detour to the Twilight Zone.

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Studying abroad for a semester in the USA in many ways encapsulates what America is. It’s a dream. And dreams end. Every one of us that departed Winchester for the USA was warned that we would fall in love and forget where we came from. We did. The pain we felt at leaving was guaranteed from the outset. It was the price to pay for simulating American life for a few months.

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During one of my Creative Writing Workshop classes, I wrote a story about an American college boy that, in a chance encounter, has sex with the girl of his dreams. I called her Emmaline Smits, the “Lady of the Bay” from the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. The guy idealizes the girl, but ultimately realizes he meant nothing to her and that the dream that came true didn’t do anything for him long-term except hurt him. My professor said that she thought I should change the main character to a British exchange student, because she thought that he was me. The Lady of the Bay, she said, represented the American Dream, and that my story was about how you can fall in love with America and everything it offers, but then it can take it away from you, and leave you in the dark. I never thought about all that as I was writing it, so it must have been subconscious. It’s interesting that I wrote that story, because it kind of foreshadowed the pain I went through when my semester ended. Emmaline was my semester abroad.

Anyway, I woke up on the morning of Friday the 21st and started to study for my exam. It was the first time I even looked up what the exam was about, if you can believe it. I had to read a poem by Robert Frost. Here it is:

 

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

 

Nothing gold can stay. Nothing perfect can last. Frost juxtaposes images of heaven with the intrinsically flawed nature of the human world. Heaven and Eden are a dream. God is love- perfect love. And to me the invention of God and heaven by humanity have always represented our desire for perfection in a world that hurts us. Religion is born out of the realization of our flaws; it is a reaction to the glaring imperfections of our world, which seem overwhelming when they hurt us. Now, I don’t want to get hyperbolic about the emotions I felt as the curtains of my semester abroad were drawn. Frost’s poem is way more complex than the issues I want to discuss in this post. But I can’t help but think of the immortal line at the end of this famous poem when I think of my student exchange coming to an end.

America is a dreamy place. And the reality is that it can hurt you, whether you live there as a citizen or at the grace of a student visa. It represents the best we have to offer and the absolute worst. It’s easy to fall in love with its sheer variety of ice cream flavors, its powerful showerheads, and its excellent urban planning. But within this romantic framework there is so much potential for heartache. America will always be a place that is of endless fascination to me; a land where the real world and the dream world live side by side.

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Before I left for my exam, Aaron and Akbar presented me with the best gift I could have ever asked for- a t-shirt signed by everyone I met. Aaron even added a signature that read “L.O.B” meaning Lady of the Bay. I remember being paranoid about how the goodbye would go. It had to go absolutely perfectly, I thought to myself, or I’d be anxious for days. I had to go to the bog to answer nature’s call, and as I sat on the cool porcelain of the toilet seat I texted Aaron “Don’t leave without saying goodbye” and he texted back “I won’t” which I instantly realized was the last thing Elvis Presley said before he tragically passed away in 1977. It was the last message Aaron texted me on my TracPhone, and I vowed to never delete it. I liked the idea of looking at it years from then.

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I rushed down several flights of stairs and found him and Akbar loading his things into the trunk of a car. Beside them were Aaron’s mom Sylvia and his sister Elizabeth. I was very nervous and unsure what to say. Then Akbar said “Here he is. Almost missed Aaron because you were taking a 30-minute dump.”

At that moment I blushed as red as I have ever blushed and froze. Sylvia said “Thanks, I really wanted to know that,” and I worried that everything was ruined. I ended up hanging around with them for longer than I should have- since my exam was in ten minutes and on the other side of campus- trying to think of a way to say something cool or funny. No such thing happened. I wished Aaron a Merry Christmas, told Akbar I’d see him later, I tried to make it to Hibbard as fast as I could without slipping on the ice.

I entered the classroom just as the exam started, and quietly took my blue book and started writing. When the exam was finished, I shook the professor’s hand and wished him a Merry Christmas, feeling very emotional all of a sudden. I left the building and found that the campus outside was almost deserted. Most folks had left. I took the long way back to Towers North, stopping by the bookstore to sell my textbooks, and pausing to admire Little Niagara and the silent, imposing buildings around me. Now that Aaron was gone, the semester was over. I felt like a tourist again, an outsider, walking among buildings and trees that did not belong to me, but which just an hour earlier passed in the periphery of my eye without a second thought. There was something so cold about the buildings and trees that would endure long after I’d gone.

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The snow had stopped falling, and the winter sun bathed the campus in white light. That was the moment my semester ended. In spirit, I was already back in the UK. I was British again. Everything between that moment and the plane landing in Heathrow was just my body going through the various motions of transporting myself back to Nailsea. Throughout the whole trip home- a long sequence of cars, shuttle-buses and planes- I was very impatient. I just wanted all this dead time to be over, since I was already switched off from America. My mind and my heart were blank. Whatever had connected me to the America around me was gone; whatever interface that allowed me to feel and consider the trees, the animals, the road signs, the slang, the body language, the sunsets- the vast details that constituted the life force of the America I had fallen in love with- was no longer working. It was like seeing it all in pictures and movies, even though I was still there. It’s one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever had. And it’s the one I want to end this study abroad series on. Thank you to everyone who has read these little essays since the beginning. Hopefully it was interesting to you. I will still write about the USA, but the story of my study abroad is over. Come next week, I will have started a new project, so stay tuned…

My Study Abroad Overview: The Roads Not Taken

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

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

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