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The Heart of Pest

I found myself drawn to Andrássy út more than any other street during my week in Budapest. One way or another, I always seemed to end up there. I thought every street in Budapest was beautiful- in the sense that I may look at it and find it aesthetically pleasing- but I would think of them each as being parts of the greater whole of Hungary’s capital; as contributing to its collective charm. For me, Budapest was the summation of these little parts. It was the collection of old boulevards and alleyways, of streets big and small, that together gave life to what we may call the “charm” of the city.

However, there was one street that seemed to have an identity of its own, that seemed more than just another rib in the figurative thorax. Andrássy út had a particular sense of character to it; a tangible, affecting style that I remember feeling and thinking about while I was there. Located on the Pest side of the Danube, Andrássy connects Erzsébet tér with Városliget. The famous útca was recognized in 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic townhouses and landmarks. The Neo-Classical facades, rows of trees, and the wideness of the boulevard contributed to a distinctly Parisian vibe that brought back memories of getting lost and debating the wisdom of accepting an offer of help from an Albert Fish lookalike- but that’s a story for another time.

As I wandered past the luxury boutiques and international embassies, I took in several of the things on offer. The first thing I did on Andrássy was take a tour of the famous State Opera House. I was surprised by how interesting I found it. The tour guide spoke very good English and told us little anecdotes about the building. Even in the 19th century, there were designated smoking and non-smoking areas. The smoking area was a corridor that separated the bar from the balcony, and supposedly it would get so thick with clouds of tobacco that young unmarried couples would use the cover to make out in secret.

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The tour even ended with a mini opera concert. Professional singers came out in full costume to sing for us, and I was in awe of what they could do with their voices. As I watched them recite a few operatic favorites, the happiness in my ears spread to the rest of my body. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to be there and experience something like that, and just how special it was. It was probably one of my favorite moments of my entire trip to Hungary.

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After leaving the opera house I decided to hunt down some indie bookstores I’d made a note of on my phone. I turned onto Nagymező utca- a quiet cobblestone side-street lined with theaters- that is referred to by the locals as “Pest Broadway”. I was searching for a place called the Mai Manó Gallery, but after walking up and down the street several times like an indecisive window cleaner, I ended up in a fancy place called the Budapest Operetta Theater. There were a bunch of stage hands setting up props and pulling wheeled racks of flamboyant costumes. I asked if I could use the bathroom, and afterwards decided to sit in the lounge and get a drink. I ended up chatting with the barmaid, who was super friendly and seemed to laugh at everything I said. I asked her where I could find the Mai Manó Gallery and after a fit of giggles she pointed directly across the street.

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Mai Manó ended up being one of the little spots that would steal my heart. It was the perfect hidden gem I had been looking for. I entered what looked like an open door to a Neo-Classical apartment building, and found myself in a beautiful yet silent lobby. I had the strange sense that I shouldn’t have been there. Seeing nowhere else to go, I started up this staircase and came to a balcony that looked down at the lobby below. At that moment, a fellow popped his head out of a door and gave me a look. I asked if this was the bookstore and he immediately clapped his hands together and led me down a narrow corridor and into a small room with a narrow window that overlooked Nagymező utca. I felt like I was in a very nice-looking attic. A young woman in a woolen cardigan sat at the desk reading a novel. She smiled at me and asked what I was looking for.

“Books,” I said. I looked around. “What kind of books do you have here?”

“95% of them are photography books,” she answered.

I browsed the little selection, enjoying the artsy feel of the place. These are my kind of people, I thought. Sensitive, artistic, creative. Almost certainly left-wing progressives. Interested in love, beauty, and self-expression. And so keenly attached to their fantastic city. I could tell just by their faces that they loved living and working in Budapest.

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I picked up a book of black and white photographs of Budapest, each accompanied by these really interesting and poetic remarks on the city. One quote particularly resonated with me:

“Budapest is a city of startling contrasts. It is both beautiful and ugly, ostentatious and poor, filthy rich and poverty-stricken, a thousand years old and unfamiliarly new, restored, pampered and dilapidated, dynamically developing and a thing of the past.”

What a perfect description of Budapest by the book’s author- Tamás Révész. This seemed to collect my impressions of the city into a single, delicious sentence. I also picked up several postcards I liked, as well as a framed photograph of a woman standing by a train that struck me as being very Hungarian. I asked for the name of the model, hoping that she was Hungarian, and the woman at the desk studied my purchase.

“She’s beautiful,” the woman commented. “But I do not know the name.”

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The machine that scanned my items wasn’t working, so the woman had to add up all of my many purchases on paper. The whole thing took a good ten to fifteen minutes and there was some confusion about the price of one of the postcards. The man came back in and took over.

“It is my first day,” the woman said, grinning.

I wasn’t in the slightest annoyed. I liked this place and I liked these people. They were very good to talk to and we shared a few laughs. When I left, I was in high spirits. I continued up the road and found myself at the Oktogon- a bustling intersection in the very heart of Pest. A hub of designer clothing stores, coffeehouses, streetcars, taxis, tourists, cyclists- life.

I returned to the Oktogon via tram on the last day of my trip. I had a few hours left to explore before going to the airport, and I continued up Andrássy utca from where I had left off that day I went to the Opera House. I grabbed lunch at a place called Like Étterem. The setup reminded me of a veteran’s kitchen or something. It was very casual and unpretentious. You pick what you want from a bunch of trays on a hot plate, kinda like a school canteen, and the chef dollops it onto a plate and heats it up for you. I asked him for his recommendation and the chef said that the venison goulash was very good. I got that, and it was swell. Every goulash I had in Hungary was different. Some were more like soup, but this one was much drier- more like a casserole. I really enjoyed how hearty and rustic it tasted. I drank some grape juice and became fascinated with the look of these Hungarian cartons.

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After I finished my last meal in Budapest I crossed the street, carried on up the boulevard and entered The House of Terror. Perhaps the most poignant place I visited on my trip, the building that had once served as the headquarters for the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi party) now served as a museum of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes. There were SS uniforms, Stalinist propaganda posters, old firearms, and even a tank. It’s definitely a place worth seeing if you’re ever in Budapest and want to learn about the suffering this great city has endured in the 20th century.

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Upon leaving the museum, I went back to the Oktogon and waited for the tram to take me back to Buda. The streetcar arrived and we all crammed ourselves in like sardines in the carriage. Next to me stood a woman with a placid dog. Some teenagers got on and cooed over the dog’s fluffy features and blank expression. A guy leaning on the wall, listening to music through his headphones. Before the doors hissed shut, a man in a suit jumped on. His tie was loose. I was surrounded by all these locals, just living their everyday lives here in Hungary. I wanted to know everything about them, right down to the most mundane and trivial of details. I was sad to be leaving, and observing all these normal people got me thinking about how life in the city goes on. The city doesn’t know it’s meant to be sad because it’s my last day. What Budapest is depends on the observer; the things we feel for it come from within. Someone else on that tram could have been gazing in wonder at the sights, experiencing it all for the first time as I once did, and many others were so used to the scenery that they thought nothing of it. For them, there was no romance to be found in a streetcar ride. And though we were all taking the same ride at the same time, none of us interpreted it with the same set of connotations.

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My Study Abroad Overview: The Road Trip of Dreams

As I discussed in my last post, my 2012 student exchange to Eau Claire, WI in the USA fell short of being this magical voyage of gilded memories. Like most things in life that are simultaneously overhyped and nervously-anticipated, the eventual experience lands somewhere in the middle. I had a few bumbling failures but also some unexpected successes. My best achievement was obviously making some truly amazing, lifelong friendships. However at the time, I didn’t see it that way. I was caught up in my failures, since it has always been the tendency of my brain to dwell on the negatives for some reason. I attributed my newfound social success to sheer luck. To my mind, it all happened quite by accident.

When Aaron asked me why I thought he and Akbar had taken me under their wing, allowing me to enter their room any time I pleased, spending every day with them, playing soccer with them, going out for meals with them, I answered “You took pity on me I suppose.”

Aaron laughed and shook his head. “Christ, we got a lotta work to do on that self-esteem of yours.”

Perhaps the most memorable date of my up-and-down semester was Friday, November 30th 2012. I was increasingly aware of the temporary nature of my stay in the USA. For the majority of our time, my friends and I would eat chicken alfedo pizza, listen to rap, and play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III, like we would have years together. I was alone in the group in that I had a sense of urgency and imminent peril. For me, this was all going to end in a month, whereas they would keep on going as they always did. I was desperate for us to get off campus and do something vivid and interesting. The other exchange students seemed to hang out together, and given that they all shared that desire to see as much of America as possible during their stay, they went on all these fantastic trips every weekend. Don’t get me wrong- I had my cultural experiences too. I was lucky enough to go on weekend trips with my host family where we’d go to Indian casinos, shoot guns, hunt deer, and go for countryside drives to see the fall colors. But I wanted so much to do something like this with my new friends as well.

I got my wish when Akbar organized a road trip to the Twin Cities to see our Milwaukee Bucks take on the Minnesota Timberwolves in what would be my first- and to date, only- live basketball game. There were five of us that went. Me, Akbar, Aaron, Bart, and Bart’s Malaysian roommate Harry. In a lot of ways it would foreshadow all the road trips me, Aaron, and Anne-Marie would make in the years to come. This trip will always be special to me. There’s something about going on a road trip with friends that is so exciting, and I was discovering that adventurous feeling for the first time on November 30th. The first thing you need on an American road trip is a playlist. Akbar was able to burn a copy of Macklemore’s album The Heist onto a disc, and we listened to that the whole way, bobbing our heads to the beat.

Bart was our driver, and we got to see his parents’ house on the outskirts of Eau Claire. It was a beautiful neighborhood with wide boulevards and the secluded, cozy privacy that comes with tall pine trees. I took my camera, which at that time was nothing special, and almost caused a car crash by taking a flash photo inside the car of the Minneapolis skyline. We were on one of those big freeways entering the city, and for a second I accidentally concussed the driver.

The song “Ten Thousand Hours” was playing and we were in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Enemy territory. The home of our greatest rivals, the Gophers. I enjoyed observing first-hand the friendly rivalry in the pro-Wisco sentiment of my companions.

“Land of Ten Thousand Lakes? More like Land of Ten Thousand Buttholes.”

Yeah,” Bart said as we headed for the downtown skyscrapers, “Fuck Minnesota.”

The game itself didn’t go too well. Our Bucks lost, and I remember taking it very personally, as if the players ought to know it was my first ever game. I wanted to get a picture of the five of us sitting in a row, like you always see from a group of people attending a concert or sporting event. However I wasn’t assertive or confident enough, and I just ended up fretting about it. We were sat right at the back, in the seats often referred to in the American sporting lexicon as “nosebleeds”. We were joined by several other traveling Bucks fans, most of whom were roaring drunk.

“This is like, the fuckin’ Wisconsin section right here,” a guy wearing a Packer jersey behind us slurred.

At that moment the Timberwolves mascot- Crunch the Wolf- came up the stands near us to say hello to the Timberwolf fans and pose for pictures with the children. The guy behind us, mistaking Crunch for a fox, took it upon himself to start heckling the poor fellow in the suit.

“Fuck off Fox! Get the fuck outta here. Nobody likes a fucking fox!” he yelled.

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The game ended and I was sulking again, like I had that time I played like garbage for the intramural soccer team. Even as I was in my funk, I was shocked at how all of a sudden being so openly emotional was now a part of my behavior. Before coming to America, I would never have acted like this.

“Mike’s sad, everyone! We gotta cheer him up!”

“It’s just a game, mate!”

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We ended up walking around the downtown area and taking pictures of each other outside the Federal Reserve. All of a sudden I was cheerful again. We were out adventuring, taking photos in the big city like young folks were supposed to. We decided to grab some dinner, and it was a running joke in our group that we were always being dragged to Asian restaurants, because most of our group came from Malaysia.

“Look, I’m not eating none of that Asian crap no more. I’m hungry darnit, and I want some proper food. American food. Burgers, chicken wings, pizza. No more goddam curries and stir frys,” my friend said.

“I agree,” I said. “I want some comfort food.”

For once, we got our way, and we located a pizza place online. This establishment turned out to be quite the trek however, and we ended up crossing the Mississippi and leaving the downtown area trying to find it. The walk was at least 45 minutes and bellies were starting to grumble. We were now in the residential part of the Twin Cities, and given that we were from Wisconsin, started to worry that we might get shot or stabbed.

When we eventually found the pizza place, it turned out to be this dingy bar that wouldn’t let us enter because we were underage. So we had to walk all the way back to the downtown area. We passed what looked like a student house with an open window, from which could be heard the raucous sound of bros-bros partying and listening to rap music. For some reason, Akbar decided to scream “GO BUCKS!” as we passed, and we all feared that some shirtless Minnesotan thugs would storm out the front door like a blue-eyed Eastern Bloc buggery squadron.

When we got back to the downtown area, we passed a building with a giant neon sign that read “SEXWORLD”. Part of the group- including me- wanted to look inside. Not because we wanted to buy anything, of course, but just to do so in the spirit of spontaneous, edgy adventures. The rumor is there is a gargantuan statue of a dingus made out of gold. Alas, we were overruled by the rest of the group, and ended up instead at a restaurant called Pizza Luce.

We enjoyed some excellent Za and I had chicken wings for the first time! Aaron let me have the last one. It was here that I also discovered my love of root beer. When the attractive waitress served me the drink in a big glass stein, she somehow ended up hitting me in the teeth with it. Everyone laughed and I blushed. The waitress cooed that she was sorry and I gave up any attempts at flirting with her.

As we left, we noted that there were several plus-size women at the bar that we suspected might be hookers, if not people cosplaying to the stereotypical image of a working girl. They had the glossy makeup, a cleavage the size of the Mariana Trench, the hoop earrings, the leopard-skin mini-skirts, the fishnet tights, and the high heels. I hope they were real hookers, because I like the idea that at the end of the day, we’re all just traveling the city at night in search of good pizza. Minneapolis is such a quirky city, but I loved our time there.

When we left we stopped in Hudson, WI to get donuts and milkshakes. In the car we listened to “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright, and Bart demanded that everyone sing along. Naturally, I refused. I never sang in front of anyone. However, the lads forced me, and by the end we were all crooning to the emotive lyrics as we sped homeward under the stars.

My Study Abroad Overview: The Indian Summer

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

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

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

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

Jimmy turned back to me and smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I reached down into my coat pocket and laughed.

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

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

“Oh, um, I’ll have to check,” I said.

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

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

Snow Day

When my Americans ask me how often it snows in my hometown, my answer is invariably “almost never”. Nailsea, though far from resembling a tropical paradise, is situated in a region of England that is comparatively warm. A couple weeks ago, we were treated to more snow than we’d entertained in years. A storm that formed in Siberia blew westward, and all of a sudden we had puffy snow. Actual snow. The kind you see in snow globes and Christmas cards. What made it all the more bizarre was that this was happening in March.

Because this kind of weather is so rare over here, it’s seen by most people as a romantic novelty. Unlike Wisconsin, where even an ice storm won’t be enough to get you out of class, everything shuts down here at the sight of half an inch of wintry dandruff. I noticed that a lot of folks took to the streets. There were more people outside than on a sunny weekend in July. Kids in mittens, being pulled along on sleds. Teenagers having snowball fights. Families building snowmen. The view outside my window was tantamount to a Currier & Ives lithograph. Scowling at the scenes of idyllic wholesomeness from my bedroom window, I decided to stay inside and nurse my three-day headache with painkillers and boiled water.

Yesterday, however, the snow came back. Having already gotten a lot of writing done that weekend, I decided that this time I would go outside and take some photographs. For some reason, I just felt like getting out.


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I decided to head in the direction of my old Primary School, and ended up on a trip down memory lane. The first place I came to was a block of terraced houses that surrounded a flat green. I cast my gaze at a street corner, the bollards topped with tufts of snow, and recalled the long afternoons we spent playing there after school. Sometimes a big group of us would play “Manhunt”, other times a small group of us would sit on the benches talking about the future. I had a girlfriend at the time, which in those days of innocence meant sending each other love notes and having pretend weddings ordained on the schoolyard by a fat friend. I remember the girls watched as the guys wrestled on the grass. My girlfriend said “You’re a really good fighter” and we kissed, standing on the same street corner I looked at now, 14 years later. We probably thought that we’d get married. As I continued my walk past the bollards and left the memory behind, it seemed so strange to me that all that happened, that I was the same person. Other than the name “Michael”, I don’t see what else I have in common with the little guy.

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As I got closer to my old school, I came to a kid’s park. No one was out here pulling sleds or throwing snowballs. It was just me, the snow, and the memories buried underneath.

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The school is bordered by a tall metal fence, which in turn is bordered by a row of tall, piney trees. At the corner of the fence that separates the kid’s park from the school field, there’s a little space in the trees that my friends and I used as a secret den. Having nothing better to do with our afternoons, we decided fix the place up. We sent out search parties to gather resources, and ended up stealing a load of rope and buckets from the bed of a nearby truck. We showed our spoils to the rest of the group, who ended up making a pulley that carried buckets to those on lookout duty at the top of the tree. We didn’t really have anything to send up there, but we just admired the working contraption for what it was.

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I left the spot of our old hideout and decided to check out the far end of the kid’s park. What I really wanted to photograph was an animal of some kind- a bird or cat- but nothing around me showed even the slightest hint of life. Everything was silent. I passed the part of the fence that you can climb over and into (or out of) the school grounds. When I was 11 my friends and I got caught having a conker war (throwing horse chestnuts at each other) by the angriest staff member in school. Rather than face her wrath we made a snap decision to run away. She couldn’t believe that we would just run away while she was in the middle of screaming at us. She chased us across the field, but we were able to make it to the part of the fence you can climb over, and escaped.

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Reflecting on all these memories, I called my friend Artie and told him I was out here at our old hangouts taking pictures. It was freezing cold though, so I told him I would come up and see him, since he lived just a few minutes away. That way my walk in the snow had a sense of direction. I left the school and the park behind; passing the swing set where I got drunk for the first time at the age of 15, the trees we used as goalposts for unending games of football, the spot on the concrete path were the old guy fell over and cracked his head wide open that one time.

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As I started in the direction of Artie’s house, I came upon a huge field covered with snow. At the other end, a guy was walking towards me. A sign of life at last. I said hello and asked if I could take a picture of his dog. I was disappointed not to find a bird in the bushes, but this little pupper would do. It was a West Highland Terrier, the same breed that sunk its teeth into me when I was 14, causing a fear of dogs that lasted several years. Another memory. Once again, it felt like a different life, hard to make sense of. I’m forever asking: Were those my hands? My words? My thoughts?

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The Storytelling of the Everyday

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I like having a date in the future that I can both look forward to and work towards. I try to avoid having a blank calendar. I’m not a planner, but I find that having a proverbial jackrabbit to chase after gives me a sense of forward momentum in life. Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to attach narratives to life, to think of its events as forming a greater story. I don’t want to give you the impression I’m religious or anything like that- I don’t believe in things like destiny, or that life has any grandiose meaning for all of us. I’m a believer in individuals creating their own meanings. I’m aware that my tendency to perceive events as stories is an act of creation on my part, and I’m aware of why I do it. I’ll target one or two events on my calendar and think of the time between them as being a distinct “chapter of my life”. That’s why I like having something in the near future- whatever it may be, a trip, a wedding, anything– that signifies the end of one chapter and the start of a new one.

For example, last year I had three such events that ended up dividing my 2017 into quarters. I had my best friend’s wedding in March, my departure for Texas in May, and my return to the U.K in August. I compartmentalized the time before and after each one into four distinct chapters that formed the narrative of 2017, because I knew that each event was going to be an emotional experience. At the end of each chapter, I would have learned something. One way or another, I’d have something to look back on. I’d carry something with me from the previous chapter into the next.

I don’t think I’m alone in doing this. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “Wow, these must be the ramblings of a serial killer” and if that’s the case I wholeheartedly apologize for not getting through to you. But I’m thinking that many of you have similar thoughts. You might look upon an internship, a gap year, a semester abroad, a maternity leave, as having its own story, as affecting you in some way so that when it ends, you are a different person. I’m sure a lot of people don’t necessarily think of a certain period of time as a distinct narrative until it has long since passed, until they find themselves reminiscing about it. I have difficulty just living in the present, so I’m not really such a person. But life throws all kinds of surprises at you, and if you’ve watched as many movies or read as many books as I have, you’ll find you can’t resist isolating emotional memories as the bookends to a particular segment of your life.

Maybe it’s something as small as you saying “Hey, remember when, for a week, the three of us sat together in math and every day we made power rankings of our celebrity crushes? We were like the Three Musketeers that week”. Or perhaps it’s something as big as losing a loved one, and you find yourself during the months after taking long walks in the evenings. It’s an event that bleeds into the rest of your life until the next thing happens. A new job, a new partner, the discovery of something new, or the recovery of something lost.

We can’t help but look for stories in our lives. But sometimes it’s not such a good thing. I’ve mentioned how I tend to do it because I have a romantic outlook on things, and sometimes it helps to motivate me to enrich the time I have, to work harder with the hope that I can attain something lasting and important from a particular phase of life. However, too much creation on my part can sometimes result in a nasty bout of anxiety. What we take with us isn’t necessarily good. We have bad experiences. We’re all troubled by the human condition like Holden Caulfield. We all suffer. And I have found that creating a narrative out of everything gets me in trouble sometimes. Perhaps you wake up with a headache, and as you’re getting ready you accidentally step on your 8-year old’s art project. Just as you’re rushing to glue it back together, you get a letter in the mail telling you that your bank account is overdrawn. A lot of people- myself included- would then say “It’s just not my day” and subconsciously create this narrative of a bad day. But really, it’s just a coincidence that these things all happened on the same morning. There’s no conspiracy against you, but you’re drawn into believing that everything’s just going wrong. It colors the rest of your day, and things like taking the little brats to school, going to work, making them supper, doing the laundry, seem all the more daunting. You’re crushed by the immensity of it and it all ends in tears and a cheap bottle of wine.

It can be hard to take yourself out of time, to remove yourself at that point from the narrative you have created and realize “Hey, this day can still be good if I want it to be”. As you know, I’m not at all an expert on being happy. Happiness is a tricky business. But if I am feeling swamped or anxious, I find that the best way of ending the “It’s all going to shit” narrative is to go on a walk (preferably at night or when it’s cool) and follow it up with some Yoga Nidra meditation.

So I’m careful when I feel myself making a story out of everything. I have to remind myself to be aware I’m doing it. 2018 is still in its infancy. In April I’m heading off to Eastern Europe for a short solo adventure. I’m pretty excited for it, and I’m looking forward to seeing how I traveling alone affects me. But, as my wise roommate cautioned me, expectations often live in the extremes. There’s the best case scenario where I come back a champion of self-confidence and knowledge, stepping off the plane with a finished novel in one hand and a shapely Carpathian bride on the other. And there’s the worst case scenario where I get lost at night and in my desperation accept the directions of a Transylvanian serial killer intent on leading me back to his windowless rape dungeon. Most of the time, neither scenario comes true, and your experience lands somewhere in the middle.

I’ll provide more updates on my trip pretty soon, but for now I just wanted to share with you some of my thoughts about the way I perceive things. Let me know in the comments if you can relate!

Lamb Boobs & Spanish Typewriters: My Weekend Part One

The first weekend of 2018 turned out to be pretty rad. My dear friends Elizabeth & George came to visit me on Saturday- and it was the first time I had seen them in person since I served as the photographer for their wedding in March of last year. I’ve written in the past about my experience of and obsession with the Greek concept of Philia– the love of friendship, and having two of my closest companions drive all the way to Nailsea of all places, getting lost in Bristol on the way, just to visit me, definitely gave me an emotional rush. The friends my 2012 student exchange in the USA brought me have now become old friends. We’re basically family, and the small network of Wisconsinites I’ve been adopted by treat me with the same openness and give me the same feeling of importance as if we were blood-relatives.

The town I grew up in- while boasting a population of about 20,000 or so- is nonetheless small in regards to its infrastructure and facilities. It’s kind of like one big residential area, an endless labyrinth of semi-detached brick houses and prickly hedges. The streets are quiet and empty, save for a few grey hunchbacks who cross the road at the speed of a banana slug dying of boredom. But then just when it seemed as if the town itself might be taken off life-support, George and Elizabeth’s beat-up “pimp-mobile” in dire need of an exhaust pipe replacement comes roaring through the sleepy afternoon and oh hot dog I feel like Harry Potter when the Weasleys show up in that flying car.

“Your town is so cute!” Elizabeth likes to say with her palms against her cheeks, looking to the cobblestone walls, the church spires, the old fish & chip shop, and the suspicious stares of the townsfolk in flat caps walking dogs.

I decided to take my friends to the best place in town to get some hearty food- the pub I’ve been working at these last few months. It was strange to walk in as a customer instead of an employee, and I wondered as I approached the door if my entrance would be like that scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta is snapping his fingers at all the wiseguys he walks past, strolling with effortless confidence and a cocksure swagger to the best seat in the house, stopping only for all the people coming up to him to shake his hand and pay respects. No such thing happened. In fact, the place seemed pretty deserted. There were a few other patrons, talking in hushed voices because the place was so quiet. The only folks on duty were the bartender, a waitress I hadn’t met yet, and my friend Daniel who cooked our food, and came out afterwards for a chin-wag.

My friends seemed very impressed by the pub and we enjoyed a good meal and many drinks. I opted for the stuffed lamb breast, one of the fancier dishes on the menu.

“I’m just imagining a massive boob on a plate,” Elizabeth said and started laughing hysterically.

“I can just see the little lamb teat pointing upwards,” her husband chuckled.

“Sheep have udders, right?” I said, not very sure myself what lay beneath all that wool. When Elizabeth first visited me in England 3 years ago, she was entranced by all the fluffy sheep in the fields. It’s something my parents and I remember so distinctly from her stay. I guess sheep aren’t exactly a common sight in the northwoods of Wisconsin, and they’re everywhere here. That’s one of the things that happens when you host a foreigner in your country- they point out things you never thought twice about. You begin to look at your surroundings in a different way.

During our meal, we talked about everything from Ed Gein to the chocolate shops of Gent. Elizabeth started hiccupping loudly and I thought she might startle the nearby pensioners into the prone position. George fetched her a glass of water as his wife swore like a sailor after each new quake. I really got the sense that we were now old friends, and after pouring through our shared memories we began to talk excitedly about the future and the creation of new ones. 2018 so far feels like a transitionary period, in which the past and the present seem almost equally large. I feel like I’ll look back on this part of my life as an in-between stage, an intermission between two big acts. My choice of clothing represented the past- I deliberately picked the fringed suede rancher jacket that Elizabeth had helped me afford one day in the summer of 2015 at an antique store on Eau Claire’s Water Street. We talked about three of the weddings we’ve been to together over the years (including their own), before moving irresistibly to the weddings to come- such as Elizabeth’s brother Aaron and his high school sweetheart Anne-Marie.

It always seems surreal having my American family in the town I grew up in. It shouldn’t, because this is the fourth visit I’ve hosted in Nailsea, but it does. My life in the US and my life in the UK have always felt so separate. I swear my sense of reality gets warped and I feel like George Constanza ranting about “worlds colliding”. As always, the visit was a resounding success and it lifted my mood immensely. One thing I have definitely discovered about myself is that I like having something to look forward to, to work towards. If I haven’t got anything on the horizon I get super-restless and create something to look forward to. Itchy feet have resulted in many a purchase of plane tickets, assuming I was able to swing it. But what made Saturday’s visit so significant- and worth blogging about- is that it’s given me my first indication of the shape 2018 might take- the potential it has for personal growth and what it might come to mean in years’ time. Weddings, thanksgivings, new year’s eve celebrations. We talked about the lot, and the trip ended in the most amazing way possible. George is a collector and frequent user of typewriters, and decided to gift one to me, given my love of writing and desire to write in different places. I was over the moon at this wonderful gift- a Spanish typewriter no less- and Elizabeth suggested I feature some scanned typewritten blog posts on TumbleweedWrites, so stay tuned. In conclusion, the visit left me feeling very loved and more than a bit excited for the future.

My New Year’s Resolution

I have always been attracted to the idea of New Year’s Resolutions, because I love having a sense of direction in life. I love the idea of building something. It’s not enough just to earn money to stay alive. I love having a project. But I’m not entirely at ease with the concept of Resolutions. I don’t think people should be made to feel that they have to have one. If you’re happy, why change? A cynic might argue that having a Resolution is a sure way to make yourself disappointed in the future. When I listen to other people’s Resolutions, I find they’re most often based on eschewing perceived vices. Vowing to stop eating donuts, smoking cigarettes, or watching porn. But come Spring they have Type 2 Diabetes, a voice as rough as a cement mixer, and they’ve swiftly gone blind. And while I absolutely encourage efforts to live a more healthy lifestyle, it’s not quite the type of Resolution I’m drawn to. It’s what I think of as a Negative Resolution- aimed at resisting a temptation of some kind. It’s often seeing how many months you can go before you’re rushing out to the store for a box of Shipley’s, a packet of Camels, and presumably a fresh stack of tissues.

I’m more interested in what I call Positive Resolutions- an end goal that I work towards. However, I realize we live in an age that encourages dreams and the entitlement to individual achievement. And so it can sometimes be unhelpful to pressure others to feel like they need a dream or a target of their own. I certainly endorse the idea of striving to improve as a person, but you don’t need some grandiose, lofty Resolution to do that. I asked three people on New Year’s Eve what their Resolutions were. The first to answer was an old friend of mine, who declared he wanted a new job. A nice, solid goal to work towards. The next to respond was his cheerful girlfriend, who was less certain. After thinking about it for a bit, she then decided that if she were to have a target, it would be to compete again in a bodybuilding competition (she’s ripped). The last fellow to answer was the most caught off guard. We thought of Resolutions for him, but concluded that honestly he didn’t need one. Resolutions are like freckles. Sure, they look cute & pretty & distinctive, and you might want them- but you don’t need them. Similarly a Resolution is a fine thing to have, but you’re not missing anything by not having one.

I had the same conversation a day later with my family as we sat down for the first supper or 2018. My brother went first, and with wild-eyed excitement told us that he wanted to try a new hobby, something completely new, exotic, and challenging like Kendo, ballroom dancing, or amateur dramatics. My mom went second, and opted for the becoming less-reliant-on-chocolate-to-get-through-the-day route. When it was my dad’s turn, he answered with a stony face and a gruff voice “I don’t believe in Resolutions.”

Then it was my turn. As the eyes around the table fell on me, I thought about what I wanted from 2018. There were a bunch of areas in my life one might think ripe for a Resolution. This blog for example. What’s the next step for TumbleweedWrites? To reach 1000 subscribers? To blog full-time? The answer is I want this blog to steadily improve, to grow, but I don’t have a specific target in mind for it. I will most likely finish my Study Abroad series of personal essays pretty soon, and I have another big subject lined up for this Spring that will surely feature quite heavily in my writing for this site. More details on that will come very soon.

And what about other aspects of my life? Of course I intend to keep my job and perhaps even get a promotion, but it’s not my Resolution. The same can be said for fitness. I need to lose some of this chub and get my stamina back, but once again, that’s not my main ambition for the year. Those of you hoping for a Mrs Tumbleweed to emerge sometime soon will also be disappointed, because getting a girlfriend is not my focus either. If Mrs Right comes along then that’s swell, but I have decided that I’m not going to treat being single as some kind of problem. I need my energy for writing, and I’m not prepared to enter into a relationship that isn’t organic and natural. So I won’t be reinstalling Tinder or hitting the bars.

I would say that my main objective for the year is to find a literary agent for my novel, which (judging by my current rate) ought to be finished by February sometime. But I don’t think it’s helpful for a writer to worry about something beyond his or her control. Maybe it will get represented, maybe it will get published, maybe it will be on shelves at a bookstore near you- but none of those are things I can really control. At that point your manuscript is in the hands of other people. All a writer can do is write. I hope to write at least one other novel before the end of the year, so that’s a more interesting and worthwhile target I think. Finish the current novel and write a second one.

But truly, my New Year’s Resolution is much more personal than anything I have listed above. Mental health is my primary concern. I’ve spent the last 24 hours deep in thought. I’m reevaluating my progress as a person, and I’ve realized that I’m far from where I want to be. Anxiety is a part of me for better or for worse, and I know I want to manage that better. A panic attack is a wake-up call- a reminder that however much I might feel like I’m doing better, I can slip right down to rock bottom at a moment’s notice. I think my Resolution will be trying to become more self-sufficient, more mentally strong and to be able to handle things on my own. I’m still too much of a people-pleaser, I still compromise too much, I’m passive, and lacking in confidence in the moments when I need to back myself the most. This year I hope to be as thoroughly myself as I can possibly be. And this post here is where it starts. My blog has always been a way to hold myself accountable, and TumbleweedWrites will serve as a record of my progress. When I look back on this post in December, what will I think?