Tag Archives: USA

My Study Abroad Overview: Every Barb, Zinger, & Burn Thrown My Way

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

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

My Ultimate American Bucket List

We’re living in the age of itchy feet and bucket lists. My dream has always been to travel to each of the 50 states that comprise the USA. I’m not sure if I’ll be fortunate enough to achieve it, but I’m going to spend my life trying. The thing is though, you can drive through all of the states and say you’ve ticked off that list without ever leaving your car. I want to have a unique, distinct memory to take with me from each one. So far I’ve been to 17 states, but not necessarily on my own terms. In Arkansas I didn’t leave the car. In Georgia, I never ate peaches- and that just doesn’t seem right. I’ve lived on-and-off in the USA since 2012 but only about 4 weeks of my time altogether was spent as a tourist.

Today, I’m excited to share with you my dream for every state. I’m a big fan of the phrase “When in Rome, yada yada” and so I’ve decided to pick experiences that capture the essence of each particular state, but which also tell you something about myself. Feel free to use this bucket list to inform your own travel plans! And, be sure to let me know in the comments what you think of my choices. If you could spend only one day in a particular US state, what would YOU do?



Heart of Dixie


This one’s tough. I’ve always wanted to see Mobile. I think it’d be an atmospheric, writerly kind of hangout where I could compose poems by the sea during the day and party it up with a cheeky bit of Mardi Gras at night. HOWEVER, if I only had one day to see Alabama, and I could never come back, I think I’d take in the Iron Bowl. I love the romance of college football, and the Crimson Tide-Tigers rivalry is something I just wouldn’t be able to pass up.



Land of the Midnight Sun


This one’s easy. I’d go on a cruise through the Alaska panhandle. I want to see glaciers, bowhead whales, totem poles, and miles upon miles of untouched, pristine pine forests.



Grand Canyon State


When I went to Arizona in 2014 I took in the Grand Canyon and it was beautiful. But there’s one part of it I didn’t get to see that I really, really want to. Havasupai Falls. I’ve been obsessed with this place for nearly 10 years now. It’s a remote area characterized by these distinctive blue-green waters and dramatic rock formations. I’m pretty sure that the original Planet of the Apes was filmed there. So it’s always looked like an alien planet to me, and I think that’s why I’m so crazy about going there. It would be the closest feeling I could get to traveling to another world. It’s a 10 mile hike through dusty, arid terrain to get there, but when I’m there, I plan to take some photos, do some painting, and frolic in the water.



Natural State


When I think of what makes Arkansas beautiful I think of snaking rivers at the foot of the Ozarks. I’d love to go canoeing in Arkansas.



Land of Milk & Honey


Well I’ve already traveled through Yosemite on horseback. Sometimes a bucket list item is something simple, brief and low-key. One thing I’ve always wanted to check off my list is to one day go through a redwood drive-thru (basically a hollowed out tree).



Switzerland of America


Garden of the Gods, hands down. For the same reason I want to see Havasupai. It’s beautiful and other-worldly.



Nutmeg State


Olde Mistick Village. It’s a quaint, rural town designed to look like an idyllic New England village of the 1720s. I’d stroll past cutesy mom n’ pop stores, take in the duck ponds, admire the watermills and breathe that clean, country air.



Land of Tax-Free Shopping


When I imagine my ideal afternoon in Delaware, I see myself antiquing; stopping off at quirky stores in the salty, beachgrass breeze.



Sunshine State


My dream day in Florida involves touring through the Everglades and seeing the crockergators!



Peach State


Georgia was my first state and it will always be special to me. Savannah was beautiful. When I go back, I want to eat peach cobbler at a roadside diner, surrounded by tall trees.



Aloha State


I want to see lava flowing into the ocean and sing “Burning Love”.



Gem State

Idaho State v Boise State

I consider myself quite the fan of the Boise State Broncos! Their trick play to win the 2007 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl got me into college football. I’d love to see them play on the blue surface of the Albertsons Stadium one day.



Land of Lincoln


Starved Rock State Park looks quite lovely, full of clandestine waterfalls and steep sandstone canyons.



Crossroads of America


I’d love to one day see a high school basketball game, and where better to take it in than the Hoosier State?



Hawkeye State


I’d pack my dSLR and some pastels and start trying to capture the lonesome beauty of the state’s barns, grain elevators, and gas stations.



Sunflower State


As much as I’d love to see greyhounds running at full speed, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it unless the animals were treated humanely. The ethics are iffy, so instead I’d choose to spend my day in Kansas at the Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita. Yeeh-haw!



Bluegrass State


I’d go to the batting cages at the Louisville Slugger factory. Duh.



Pelican State


I’ve always been fascinated with New Orleans. I’d love to live there, in a swanky apartment in the French Quarter, with a balcony in which I could sit in the warm breeze, listening to the sound of saxophones and women singing about crawfish. I’d get a beignet at the Café du Monde and love it.





There are so many gorgeous places in Maine that it’s almost impossible to pick just one. I’d go to Bar Harbor and photograph/paint the fog. Fans of Fallout 4 will recognize it as the basis for Far Harbor, and Bethesda did a great job of rendering the island with a haunted, post-apocalyptic aesthetic and populating it with giant, horrifically-mutated mantis shrimp here and there.



Old Line State


I wanna find the best darn crab cakes on the Chesapeake!



Old Colony


I’d love to spend the day in Nantucket, stopping at the whaling museum and the island’s various lighthouses.



Winter Water Wonderland


My perfect Michigan experience involves me eating fudge while riding in a buggy on Mackinac Island.



Land of 10,000 Lakes


I’ve been lucky enough to witness some of Minnesota’s beautiful wilderness on a couple of occasions. But that doesn’t mean I’m done yet. I would love to make a spiritual journey to Lake Itasca- a small, glacial lake in northern Minnesota that serves as the headwaters for the Mississippi River.



Magnolia State


My pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s birthplace has been long overdue. Elvis was born in a shotgun house in a little town called Tupelo, that now acts as a shrine for traveling fans.



Gateway State


Missouri is an interesting land, and one that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit on several occasions. But I’ve got unfinished business in this pretty place. One thing I have really wanted to see for a while is the river-town of Hannibal; the boyhood home of Mark Twain and the basis for the setting of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn.



Big Sky Country


On every visit I’ve made to the USA I’ve professed a desire to see an authentic rodeo. My wish could never be fulfilled however, because I was never quite in the right place. Well, Montana is the right place. Going to Montana and not taking in a rodeo would be like going to Rome and not seeing the Colosseum.



Cornhusker State


The panhandle is supposed to be beautiful; full of epic landscapes characterized by green valleys and rocky bluffs. I’d go there.



Silver State


My next visit to Nevada will most definitely see me kayaking in Lake Tahoe, whose wondrous vistas you might recognize from The Godfather Part II.



Mother of Rivers


When I think of New Hampshire I think of the White Mountains, one of the quietest and most serene regions of the USA, and one of the most densely forested. My choice way of experiencing it would be to take the Cog Railway up Mount Washington.



Garden State


Atlantic City is kinda like the Vegas of the East Coast. I’m not much of a gambler, but I’d love to take a stroll along the city’s famous boardwalk and imagine myself walking in the footsteps of many a pinstriped gangster.



The Land of Enchantment


To my mind, there’s no better cultural experience waiting for me in New Mexico than going to Taos Pueblo and observing a traditional corn dance.



Empire State


Believe it or not, if I could pick one thing to do in the state of New York, it would be to stay at the Mohonk Mountain House. It’s a historic lakeside hotel where you can go hiking and get a nice spa treatment.



Tar Heel State


Without a shadow of a doubt, my next visit to North Carolina will be based around going to see a Duke-UNC basketball game. Do sporting rivalries get any better?



Flickertail State


I’d love to attend a cowboy poetry festival!



Buckeye State


For some reason I’ve always had a longing to see Cincinnati. Something about its riverfront atmosphere gives it a Southern charm. I’d like to see it for myself one day, taking in the bridges and the parks and the historic areas.



Sooner State


The Red Earth Festival would be an unforgettable and unmissable experience.



Beaver State


When I think of Oregon I think of white water rapids meandering through enormous, dense forests of redwoods and sequoias. The way I want to experience this state is rafting down one of these rivers!



Keystone State


Pennsylvania is one of the most beautiful and interesting states I have yet to visit. It looks to me like a painter’s dream. But if I had to pick one thing, I think I’d go spend the day in Pittsburgh and ascend the funicular on the Duquesne Incline.



Ocean State


I’d take a ferry from Providence and spend the day on Block Island. I love harbors and lighthouses. I think it would be a great place to have a quiet weekend of writing and painting.



Palmetto State


South Carolina remains a favorite of my family when we look back at the states we have been to, and it’s a contender for number one in our power rankings. It’s an amazing place. If I were to go back, I’d make it my mission to see the fireflies at Congaree National Park.



Coyote State

Aerial view of Badlands National Park, South Dakota

As awesome as Mount Rushmore would be, I’m gonna have to pick Badlands National Park. Even the greatest man-made monuments fall short of the bizarre splendor of nature.



Butternut state


When I stayed in Memphis in 2012, I saw Graceland, but I never got to tour Sun Studio! But that’s okay, because it gives me another reason to comb back my pompadour and return.



Lone Star State


Texas has been my home for the past two summers, and at this point it’s probably about as familiar to me as anywhere else in the USA. There is a lot to choose from, but my biggest unfulfilled wish is to photograph or paint a field of bluebonnets.



Beehive State


Bryce Canyon National Park. I’ve never seen anything so epic as the photographs of those rock formations.



Green Mountain State


I’d die a happy man if I got the chance to photograph or paint the covered bridges of Vermont in the fall.



Old Dominion

Mabry Mill

There’s so much history and so much beauty packed into this great state. It’s a place I desperately want to see for myself. In many ways I think of it as the birthplace of the USA. I’d spend my time here hunting down historic watermills reminiscent of the colonial days, and I’d photograph the heck out of them.



Evergreen State


In general, the Pacific Northwest contains some of the most breathtaking scenery in the USA. But since I’m a Twin Peaks fan, I’d choose Snoqualmie Falls as the place I’d visit for a day.



Mountain State


I’ve long been intrigued by Harpers Ferry. I think if I was going to go anywhere in West Virginia, it would be the place where the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers meet.



America’s Dairyland

MJS 100_0292.jpg

Wisconsin will always be my home state. It’s the place I’ve traveled the most extensively. I’ve seen Lambeau Field, Madison, the Dells, Door County. I’ve made s’mores in the Northwoods, I’ve gone deer hunting, I’ve toured wineries and logging museums, and I’ve seen Aaron Rodgers at the Packers pre-season practice field. There are a couple items still left on my to-do list such as The House on the Rock and Washington Island, but one thing that has remained at the top of my bucket list for a long, long time is to visit the Apostle Islands. That would be a real treat.



Cowboy State

Yellowstone Falls: River, Grand Canyon, National Park, Montana MT


The Taste of My Study Abroad

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

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

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

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That Time I Saw Bill Clinton In A Parking Garage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

That Time I Saw Joe Biden Speak On Campus

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making More Friends in the USA

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

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

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

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

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

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