Tag Archives: Wisconsin

That Time I Saw Bill Clinton In A Parking Garage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wisconsin Name Origins & Misnomers!

Wisconsin will always be my favorite U.S state because it’s the first state that I lived in, and one in which I lived in three non-consecutive periods. It’s the state that made itself my home; it’s the place in which I found love. And it enjoys this gray area where its reputation precedes it, but it’s not quite so iconic that it won’t be misunderstood, misrepresented and mispronounced. So I thought I’d do a post today covering some misnomers and little-known facts about my home state.

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  1. How did Wisconsin get its name?

There are several theories on this. Here’s what we do know: the first European to reach the Wisconsin River was the French explorer Jacques Marquette. He arrived in 1673 and in his journal he called the river Meskousing. The French later changed this to Ouisconsin, which was then Anglicized to Wisconsin in the 19th century and made the official spelling in 1845 by the Wisconsin Territory legislature.

But what does the name actually mean? It’s believed that Marquette derived the name from the native Algonquian-speaking tribes of the area. A popular theory is that it comes from the Miami word Meskonsing which translates to “It lies red”, in this case referring to the setting of the Wisconsin River as it flows through the reddish sandstone of the Dells. It’s a neat idea, but I tend to go with the other theory that posits that it’s actually an Ojibwa phrase meaning “Where the waters gather”. I learned this at the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum when I got a private tour during its offseason in 2012. It’s always the definition I come back to, and in the fall of 2013 I submitted a portfolio of poems based on my experiences in Eau Claire that I called Where the Waters Gather.

  1. How do you pronounce Wisconsin?

A lot of people who aren’t from Wisconsin mistakenly emphasize the “c”, which always sounds super-preppy and stuck up. If you’re around Wisconsinites you want to avoid making the mistake of saying “WIS-KHAN-SIN” and instead adopt the smoother, more natural pronunciation of “WIS-GAN-SIN”. The “c” is actually more of a hard, low “g” that is not meant to be emphasized.

  1. How else can you avoid offending Wisconsinites with incorrect pronunciation?

These are the two big ones my roommates and I like to point out: Milwaukee (the state’s largest city) and Green Bay (home of the greatest franchise in all sports). Let’s start with the former. If you’re not from Wisconsin, there’s a good chance you’re pronouncing the “l”. You’re not meant to. A true Wisconsinite will tell you that in order to say the name correctly, the “l” has to be completely dropped. This is another instance, like with the name “Wisconsin” where the natives prefer the low, smooth sounds that don’t break up the flow of the word unnecessarily. The correct way is to say “MUH-WAH-KEE”.

As for the city of Green Bay, this one’s interesting. The Wisconsinites will say it as if it is one word. Even though it is not spelt that way, in your mind you must think of it as Greenbay, and say it thus. This occurs in British English too. For instance, we call Leicester “LES-TER” and I defy you to sit down with an American watching Jamie Vardy and co. for the first time and not have them demand why it’s not called “LEAK-EASTER”.

  1. Why is it called the Badger State?

Believe it or not, this has nothing to do with the animal, no matter what the chain-smoking Dementor sex-offender inside Bucky tells you. It’s actually all to do with lead mining. In the 1830s Wisconsinites traveled to nearby Galena, Illinois for work in the lead mines, making temporary homes out of caves they dug into the hillsides. The Wisconsinites were derisively nicknamed as “badgers” and their troglodytic burrows as “badger dens”. The Wisconsinites accepted this moniker however and decided that the best thing to do would be to own it, so they took the name back north with them and it later came to include everyone in the state.

  1. Where does the term Cheesehead come from?

Much like the origin of “badger”, the nickname “Cheesehead” was originally created as an insult by natives of Illinois. Given that Wisconsin is the largest producer of cheese in the U.S and perhaps the greatest cheesemaking land in the world (yep, it routinely beats out France in international competitions), you can see how our neighbors south of the border arrived at the name. It’s true that the term “Cheesehead” was used as an insult for the Dutch by the German soldiers during WW2 but I’m not sure if there’s a connection. I think the jocks of Illinois arrived at it independently.

What’s more interesting is that the first Cheesehead hat was actually worn at a Brewers game, not a Packer game. A guy from Milwaukee made the first one by cutting up his mom’s couch. Presumably this was before he got his skull caved in with a rolling-pin.

  1. How old is the chant “On, Wisconsin”?

It’s believed that the first person to yell “On, Wisconsin!” was Arthur Macarthur Jr during the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863.

  1. How did the Green Bay Packers get their name?

This one’s interesting. Despite what rival fans around the NFL may have burbled into your ear, it has absolutely nothing to do with laundry or fudge. The team was named for its initial sponsor, the Indian Packing Company. That’s where Curly Lambeau worked. In 1919 his then-employer gave him $500 for uniforms and equipment on the condition they would be named for their sponsor. A newspaper article at the time of the team’s formation actually referred to them as “The Indians”, but by the time the first game came around the nickname “Packers” had caught on. I think this is so interesting because the team could just have easily become The Green Bay Indians, especially given how that nickname is so popular with other sports franchises. A year after the team’s founding, the Indian Packing Company was purchased by the Acme Packing Company, and so when the team’s introduction to the NFL came around, they wore jerseys that read “Acme Packers” on them.

 

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My Top 5 Wisconsin Delicacies!

Today I’m going to be writing about one of my greatest passions and that’s the cuisine of the US state of Wisconsin. There are several delicious entries which sadly didn’t make the cut and still so many more that I have yet to try, but here are my current power rankings for the delicacies that I have had thus far!


#5 Kneecaps

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I was attending a wedding reception at a bar in Denmark, WI in the summer of 2014, when my roommate’s mom told me I ought to try a Kneecap, saying that not only was it a Wisconsin dessert, but one specific to the northeast region of the state. My love of cultural assimilation brought the pastry to my lips. It’s basically a fried donut with a depression in the center that’s filled with whipped cream. It’s also covered with powdered sugar. I’ve got a sweet tooth so it definitely suits me. It’s interesting that I’ve tried this, and yet I still haven’t tried Wisconsin’s most famous dessert- the Kringle. But it’s on my bucket list!

 

#4 Deep-Fried Cheese Curds

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Most Wisconsinites will tell you that the best and purest way to eat cheese curds is when they are “squeaky” to the bite. This is caused by the elastic protein strands in the curd rubbing against the enamel of your teeth, and so the optimal time to eat them is at room temperature when they are fresh. As much as I do love them, I think I prefer them deep-fried and battered. I had them once at Curly’s Pub- a restaurant that used to be found in the atrium of Lambeau Field (or, as I call it, The Sistine Chapel of the West). They’re great as an appetizer and perhaps best paired with a cup of ketchup.

 

#3 Booyah

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We really are getting local now. Booyah is a stew that’s made with vegetables and the bones of meat (chicken, beef, pork or ox tail) and it’s specific to the Bay Area of Northeastern Wisconsin. It’s a staple of things like church picnics and is usually only made for such social events, since it’s cooked for 2 days in a cast iron kettle with a wood-burning fire and serves a whole army of people. I had it at a high school graduation party in a small town near Green Bay in 2015. The smell of Booyah is amazing. The whole yard was thick with the scent of chicken broth, and it was tasty but super-hot. I actually burnt my tongue eating it. My roommate’s grandfather took it upon himself to tell me the history of this mysterious dish, which cannot be found outside of the Badger State’s borders. He told me that the stew is Belgian in origin, and I have since confirmed this online, with articles telling me that the name “booyah” is a Flemish or Walloon Belgian spelling of the French word “bouillon”, which translates to “broth”.

 

#2 Brats

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This really is a great example of the German influence on the state. The immigrants of the 19th century brought the recipes of their homeland with them, and Wisconsin is one of- perhaps even the best- places to go in the USA for sausage. Summer Sausage, Kielbasa and Venison Sausage are extremely popular, but perhaps none is more quintessentially Wisconsinite than the Bratwurst. In the rest of the USA the hot dog reigns supreme at summer cookouts, but in Wisco they prefer Brats. Wisconsin is actually the nation’s largest producer and consumer of this sausage. I’ve had it dozens of times during my time living there, and there are so many variations. I spent July 4th in Wisconsin in 2014 and 2015 and on both occasions we grilled Brats. We chose these beer-battered Brats with chunks of cheddar inside. I miss them…

 

#1 Fried Fish

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Remember, this is a subjective power ranking, and it’s based on which delicacies I tried and which I liked best. And undoubtedly the most pleasing entry to my taste buds is the fried river fish I ate in 2015 whilst spending some time at my roommate’s cabin in the Northwoods. We had a blast catching some trout at this trout hatchery an hour’s drive away, and we took our catches back to the cabin where my roommate’s dad deep-fried them. I have a picture of our fried trout from that day which you can see above! It’s not only my favorite Wisconsinite meal but it also stands as the best fish I have ever eaten.

 

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My Top 5 Areas of Natural Beauty in Wisconsin

A few weeks ago I wrote the post My Top Five Small Towns in Wisconsin, and it was so enjoyable to write. Whenever I get an idea to write something- be it a short story or a game review- that idea is only ever the skeleton of what the post becomes. So much of what the text is about is discovered in the act of writing. I often find I only need a vague, hazy image or idea- just enough to get started- and once I do, everything just kind of snowballs. A thousand ideas seem to seep in at once, tugging me this way and that. I never truly know how a piece of writing will turn out. When I write the memoir entries of my online journal- I surprise myself with how much I remember. But those details are only revealed through the act of writing. It is writing which brings them back. Before I start a memoir entry, I always worry that I won’t have enough material for a solid blog post.

Here we go! These are the top five places I have traveled to in Wisconsin that I consider to have been the most naturally beautiful.

 

#5 Devil’s Lake State Park – Sauk County

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This was the first taste I got of the wilderness of Wisconsin, my first sense of it’s being a frontier. Prior to visiting, I had thought for some reason that the Badger State was going to be comprised of flat cornfields and yellowish prairie. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Wisconsin is known for its rolling hills, its dense pine forests, its rocky bluffs and its crystalline lakes. It actually has more freshwater bodies than neighboring Minnesota, whose license plates boast of it being The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. This is the country that inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder to write the inimitable children’s novel Little House in the Big Woods.

Devil’s Lake seems to me like the quintessential Wisconsin state park. You have bluffs, a lake, and piney woods far as the eye can see. When I went there with my family in August of 2012, it reminded me of the scene where Shelley Winters gets knocked off the rowboat in one of my favorite all time films A Place in the Sun (based on Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel An American Tragedy). The lake itself, like much of the topography of Wisconsin, was shaped by the glaciers during the last ice age. The glaciers are the brush and Wisconsin is the canvass. The lobes of these glaciers traveled across the land, depositing materials and then melting, and thereafter the land as we see it today took shape. This is how Devil’s Lake was formed, with the lobe essentially creating earthen dams out of terminal moraines. The lake is about 47 feet deep and by no means the deepest Wisco has to offer (that honor belongs to Big Green Lake in Green Lake County, which has a whopping maximum depth of 237 feet). Devil’s Lake seems to have derived its name from a misinterpretation of the Ho-Chunk name for the lake- Tawacunchukdah– which means Spirit Lake.

The time I spent here was short. My family and I had a picnic here and we discussed the image of Americans as being extroverts. A guy walked past, offered to take our picture, before pointing at our Doritos and exclaiming “I LOVE that flavor!”. It might sound like nothing, but this tiny exchange left my British parents in quite a state of excitement.

 

#4 Big Falls – Eau Claire County

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This is a special place to me and my now-roommates Aaron and Anne-Marie. The summers of 2014 and 2015 are a particularly nostalgic era in our lives, in that it seemed like the last taste of freedom before our youth was finally and decisively ended. We were still undergrads and the summers then were a chance (before the responsibilities of true adult life sunk in its hooks) to treat every day as an opportunity for adventure. We went everywhere together, did everything together. Our thirst for excitement knew no bounds, and I had forever attached them to my idea of what the American summers meant. We became known as the Three Amigos, and perhaps no place exemplified our antics better than Big Falls.

We went four times to Big Falls- twice in each successive summer. It’s a favorite recreational spot for college kids and families of the Eau Claire area. The falls themselves are located on the Eau Claire River, and there’s a large beach area where we would set up our blankets and have the most amazing picnics. The three of us would wade into the waters and spend hours throwing the pigskin or the frisbee to one another, deliberately trying to get each other to dive for it. During the summer of 2015, we went there with Aaron’s sister Elizabeth, and somehow we got the idea that they would throw the frisbee and I would chase it like a velociraptor and try to catch it in my mouth. We have a bunch of memories from this place, from fording the river with our picnic baskets and coolers held above our heads to me getting bitten by a horsefly.

 

#3 The Prairie River Dells – Lincoln County

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The Prairie River is a 40-mile tributary of the Wisconsin River, and I was lucky enough to visit it in June 2015. The word “dells” derives from the French “dalles” and roughly translates to “narrows”. It refers in general to rapids enclosed on either side by rocky gorges and ravines. We were spending some time Up North at Aaron’s family cabin, and Aaron’s dad- who Aaron boasted was an experienced woodsman- suggested we check out surrounding areas of natural beauty to satisfy our craze for photography. The Prairie River Dells Scenic Area is located near to the town of Merrill, and we were able to take the time to drive there after breakfast.

At this time our party consisted only of myself, Aaron, his dad, and of course Anne-Marie. We took close-up photos of flowers and insects, we took selfies (which we had to retake due something flying into my eye), and climbed the outcroppings that overlooked the river. It’s a beautiful, secluded area and perhaps the most wild place on this list. The river is surrounded in all directions by thick forest and the most brightly green shrubbery I have ever seen. The trail itself is for the most part natural and unpaved. All around the fragrance of wildflowers. Tag alders and tamarack.

The river itself has significance to the local area as a productive source of trout fishing. In order to help restore the river as a flourishing habitat for trout, the DNR removed four dams. The river is now free-flowing for its entire course!

 

#2 Witches Gulch – Adams County

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Of course, the term “dells” is more famously associated with the Dells of the Wisconsin River. Like much of Wisconsin, it owes its existence to the glaciers that ran amok during the ice age. The story of the formation of these dells is pretty exciting- I promise a tale of mayhem and destruction! Although the dells were formed during the ice age about 15000 years ago, the rock that they were carved out of goes back an incredible 520 MILLION YEARS, during what geologists call the Cambrian Period. Basically, the rock that became the dells was sitting at the bottom of this shallow ocean. Then, skip forward to about 19000 years ago and the glaciers are coming in. Although the rock itself avoided the touch of the glacial lobes- given that it is located in the Driftless Region- it would still be shaped by them. When the glaciers melted they formed what was known as Great Glacial Lake Wisconsin, about 150 feet deep and roughly the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. What glacier remained acted as a massive dam of ice, which ultimately gave way causing a cataclysmal flood, whose waters then created the bizarre and beautiful rock formations we enjoy today.

I went to the Dells with my roommates in the summer of 2015. One of the things we decided to do during our weekend vacation was take a dinner cruise through the dells at sundown. It proved a great opportunity for photography, and we have many memorable snaps to mark the occasion. Halfway through the tour, our boat anchored at a little inlet shadowed by overhanging trees from the high cliffs above. We were at the beginning of what was known as Witches Gulch (yeah, I’ve looked it up and apparently it IS Witches Gulch and not Witch’s Gulch). The name itself seems kind of obscene. But the location is gorgeous. It’s basically a tight ravine that follows the narrowest of winding creeks. The whole place is straight out of a spooky fairy tale!

 

#1 The Northern Highland

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I’ve mentioned several times on this blog my trips to Aaron’s family cabin. Well the cabin is situated in a remote part of Northern Wisconsin (which is basically one giant old-growth pine forest). You’ve got the Chequamegon Forest to the west and the Nicolet Forest to the east, and scores of lakes in between that were created by melting blocks of ice during the glacial drift. The cabin is right on one of those lakes, built over time by Aaron’s dad, who even constructed this massive dock for the boats. Going here really is a treat; one leaves the entire world behind. There is little to no cell phone service here. Everyone wears t-shirts and shorts. The girls don’t wear make-up or fix their hair. The emphasis of the lake life is comfort.

But this post is about areas of natural beauty, so I’ll save my stories about the cabin itself. But I will, however, initiate this comment by saying that one of the things we would do at the lake is go canoeing, kayaking, speedboating or pontooning. One night I went kayaking alone on the lake, which is a great way to appreciate its immensity. It was late in the evening, but it was summer and it was light. All around the trees were hushing. Being alone in that kayak I was struck with how loud these trees sounded, as if this was the only way to hear all of them together as a cohesive whole, as an orchestra of the forest. Sundown is a great time to be on a lake. On this one you can see loons traveling in pairs, every now and then diving down to catch fish. At the shore of the nearest island there’s a bare tree with branches like spikes. It’s the only tree on the shoreline without needles. On the top branch you can sometimes see a bald eagle surveying the lake below, occasionally making a sharp dive toward the water and reemerging with a fish. I took my kayak right under the branch it was sitting on, resisting the urge not to look up and see the talons that were sure to bury themselves in my eyes. But it turned out the eagle wasn’t so interested in me as it was in the fish.

The lake is abundant with wildlife, including large fish like muskie and pike. One time Aaron and I canoed to the furthest point of the lake, got out, and explored the nearby woodlands, before remembering the only thing we had to protect us from Wisconsin’s black bear and reintroduced timber wolf population were a pair of oars.

 

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I just want to say thanks to my brother for helping me with the pictures for this post! If you enjoyed reading it, please consider giving me a Like or Subscribe!

 

Making Friends in the USA Part 2

You may remember from my first post in this series that in American colleges, the dorms are monitored by R.A’s. I decided to give my R.A the pseudonym Akbar, because he spoke Tamil and the Mughals once ruled India. I figured that was more badass than just giving him a replacement Indian name like Sanjay or something. Anyway, I remember that throughout International Orientation Week I consciously tried to get on his good side. I hinted that I had no friends and no one to eat with, and Akbar, whether he detected my overtures of friendship or not, invited me to play a few soccer games with him and his mates, who were from all corners of the planet. Akbar knew I was shy, and one time he asked me to come eat with him and a few of his friends. I said very little, but I remember him introducing me to two Americans, who were the only other white people at the table along with myself. They had these very sarcastic expressions on their faces and I got the impression they were constantly making fun of the others. They reminded me of New York comedians like Jerry Seinfeld. There was the cool, confident air about them and they sat back very relaxed (in contrast to the highly animated Malaysians), very much waiting for some poor soul to test their wit. One of them lived on lower campus, and for the sake of this blog we shall name him Bart. The other was Akbar’s roommate (I didn’t even know R.A’s had a roommates!), and he was a sophomore that we shall call Aaron (due to his striking resemblance to Aaron Rodgers). The first thing Aaron told me about himself was that he was an “asshole” and that I should be fully prepared for him to make fun of me and any point moving forward.

I believe this encounter took place on September 4th, a Tuesday, and at the time it did not seem too significant. It is however important for this story going forward. Despite joining them for dinner that time, I resumed my routine for the rest of the week of grabbing takeaway boxes and rushing back to my dorm. You might wonder why I didn’t pursue Akbar’s friendship further, but his inviting me to dinner was just one incident in a whirlwind of experiences that week. This was the first week of classes, and I was like a little puppy exposed to a sudden influx of stimuli from every direction. It took all my energy just to keep up with everything.

The UW-Eau Claire campus is huge. At the time I was in awe of the giant dormitory buildings and the wide open spaces. It was in stark contrast to the University of Winchester, which seems almost entirely localized in the parking lot of a hospital. The UWEC campus is often praised for its greenery, its woodland aesthetics, and the clean, open areas. However by American standards it is considered a small college, with a student body of no more than 12,000. It was still a massive change for me however; as the number of students enrolled at the University of Winchester at the time was about 6,000. There seemed to be no end of things going on at the campus. There were the damn religious zealots, running around campus shouting about Jesus, there were the political factions who decided to spray-paint the sidewalks with partisan propaganda like they were playing real-life Overwatch, and every now and then you would see a phalanx of white girls in flannel shirts and beanies chanting “No ifs, no buts!” remonstrating with placards in front of Schofield. I quickly became used to the idea that every time I stepped outside I might get approached by someone for one reason or another.

One night I walked with my roommate- let’s call him Brad- down to lower campus to meet up with a friend of his from high school. The night was full of activity, but it was a completely different atmosphere to Winchester. Every night in Winchester you would hear the drunken singing of three lads with their arms around each other or some basic bitch puking in a bush somewhere, but in the U.S there is strictly no alcohol permitted on campus. Suddenly, I was underage again. It didn’t seem to bother me as much as it did the other British students in Eau Claire, since even when I was of age back home I didn’t seek out the party scene. Instead, there were more wholesome forms of entertainment; on the big grassy area behind Putnam on lower campus a huge cinema screen had been erected and was playing the first Hunger Games movie. Brad had disappeared to Skype his brother from North Dakota, and I spent the evening with his friend Kathy and her friend Bridgett. We sat down for about 5 minutes on the edge of the crowd before wandering off to this photo booth. A bunch of students were there taking pictures with their new friends, and as we waited in line, we ended up talking to this group of girls. I remember thinking I was doing well, and I really didn’t have to offer much for these girls to seem impressed.

“Start talking,” they demanded.

“I don’t know what to say,” I flat out told them.

“It doesn’t matter. We just want to hear your accent,” they said.

The first week was full of random social events like that. I remember early in the week I had to get up one morning to partake in this icebreaker exercise with a classroom of people that neither included those on my floor nor those in my classes. It was completely random. The teacher gave someone in the first row a clean roll of toilet paper, and told them to take as many or as few squares as they wanted before passing it on. Soon everyone had differing lengths of bogroll in their hands and we were informed that we had to tell the room a fact about ourselves for every square we had. I think I took a medium amount- perhaps 5 or 6 squares. I was the only foreigner in the room. I did not feel confident whatsoever, as my stomach had been rumbling loudly this whole time and I was super paranoid that everybody knew.

I remember being amused that the guy before me- a skinny, pasty looking chap with rectangular spectacles and an N7 hoodie- stood up with about 15 squares and absolutely no trace of shyness and declared “I love video games, mostly recently the Mass Effect Trilogy”. I respected him for it but watched eagerly the faces of everyone else in the room, as back then I didn’t game too much- it was more something of a casual, infrequent indulgence that I hid shamefully. But this guy didn’t give a flying fuck. He just straight up broadcasted his love for Commander Shepherd and didn’t give a second thought to the pretty, German-looking ladies of the American Midwest. The whole experience of being around different kinds of people and watching them interact was very interesting to me, and contributed in no small part to my growth as a person.

However I was still missing what I had craved, what eluded me at Winchester and in Bristol, which was a friendship group to belong to, that would take me in wherever they went. I was having a lot of positive interactions but they were isolated incidents. I had no hope of attaining this dream, and at the end of that first week I consciously told myself to be prepared to be a lone wolf once more. The sights and sounds of the New World would make it an improvement over another year in Winchester. I tried to tempt people to befriend me by leaving my door open and playing my iPod through Brad’s stereo, which consisted at that time almost exclusively of Elvis Presley songs. I sat at my desk, doing homework or creative writing exercises and listening to “Don’t Be Cruel” and “His Latest Flame”. People would smile at me, say hi, but they walked on past my open door. No one took the open invitation.

It was Friday, September 7th and about 12pm noon. It was a clear day and summer had carried over from August. I removed my iPod from the stereo and sat in silence for a while. Then, all of a sudden, there was a knock at my door. I looked up. It was Aaron- Akbar’s roommate, the Aaron Rodgers lookalike. Out of all the people I had met and spoke to, he was one of the last I expected to show up here. I had barely spoken to him that time at dinner, and he seemed like someone who had it all together. I remember him being the laidback comedian of the group; he was entirely unlike the other Wisconsinite guys I met who were more enthusiastic and forward in their pursuit of friends. They were all like “I’m so happy to meet you! I love England! What’s it like?” whereas this guy didn’t seem to be impressed so easily. However, as I looked up and saw him leaning coolly in my doorway, I saw for the first time that this guy had a friendly side to him and now I wasn’t threatened by his unforgiving humor. He asked in casual way, as though he expected me or whoever else he chose to be fully expectant for this kind of interaction, if I wanted to “grab some lunch”. I jumped at the opportunity, since I thrive best in one-to-one scenarios, and we walked over to Hilltop and sat down. It wasn’t too busy. We got to talking, and pretty soon I was convinced that Aaron was my best friend.

That might sound strange, but hear me out. Sometimes friendship is more of a gradual progression, but at other times it’s like lightning- it’s perfect and it happens all at once. There was no sense of awkwardness or contrived conversational tactics. We clicked instantly, and I was as comfortable talking to him as I was my closest friends back home, or my family. We ended up talking for 5 hours, just sitting in the cafeteria like two brothers who had known each other their whole lives. I already knew that I would never have to eat alone again. We exchanged numbers and he told me he expected me to come along to a screening of the Packers season opener against the 49ers that Sunday, and that he would teach me the rules of American football. Eventually we got up as he had to go to class or something like that, but he told me he would be in touch about hanging out later that evening.

Finally, I thought, I had somewhere to belong. I was already getting on well with Akbar, his roommate, and I knew they had a group that played soccer regularly, and would be sure to welcome me again.

*

Want to know what happens next? I’ll release the next episode in this series by the weekend!

Making Friends in the USA Part 1

With this post I would like to continue my account of my student exchange to the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in the USA. In the inaugural episode of this series, I wrote about my first impressions of American college life and my experiences during International Orientation Week. The whole post covered the events between the dates: 27th August 2012 to 31st August, Monday to Friday. For this episode, I would like to explore what happened next; how I navigated my first week of classes and how by the end of that first week I had somehow, against all odds, secured a solid social foundation- and a friendship that would come to define my life for the next 5 years.

Everything changed during those few months I spent studying in the USA. My life developed a new pattern thereafter. My writing changed. I was exposed to new places, thoughts and experiences. It’s quite incredible when you look at how it all started. A big part of my motivation for studying in the USA was that I was failing socially in the UK. Things weren’t turning out the way I wanted them, and after chasing the dream of going to university to study creative writing since I was 12, I was finally there, and I needed a new dream. In the UK school technically ends during the year one turns 16, and you are presented with several options. A bunch of people went to colleges to pursue more focused, singular studies or training, others opted for apprenticeships in their chosen trade, and some jumped straight into the world of work without a second thought. A good number stayed at school to complete a two year academic program that would prepare them for university. I did this- but I switched schools. I chose to study at a place called City of Bristol College for two years where I pursued qualifications in English, Film Studies, Philosophy and Politics. From an academic viewpoint, it was a resounding success. It was the first time in my life I actually felt smart and passionate. Socially however, it was a disaster. I didn’t know how to make new friends, and for those two years I spent every break I had hiding in the library. Talking to people gave me serious anxiety. I remember once, I was in English class and we were studying Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The prettiest girl in the class asked me what the word “malice” meant, and even though I knew, I blushed as red as a plum tomato and with a trembling voice apologized for not knowing. Yikes. I figured university was the answer to my problems. But if anything things got even worse. I was told to expect the time of my life, and was assured by many that I would flourish in such a setting. What actually happened was that I became aware for the first time that I was suffering from clinical depression. It offended my sense of masculine pride that I could be so weak. I struggled to make friends with the people in my classes and the folks on my floor. Even when others tried to include me, I didn’t know how to include myself. It’s hard to explain, but for whatever reason things weren’t clicking. I spent the entire first year hiding in my room. I didn’t go out drinking or partying once. I tried to during my first week, but given that I had no kind of photo ID, I was asked by the bouncer to kindly piss off. The more time I spent in my room, the more paranoid I became that people must resent me for it. The incident that stands out to me most was my first night back after Christmas break. I was watching a film on my laptop when I heard voices outside my door. I heard a girl say “Is HE back yet?”

I knew she meant me. A few seconds later, a daring hand pushed open my door. My door was unlocked. It flung open and I heard the group shrieking with laughter and running down the hall, as though they expected a ghoul to come out and gobble them up. At the time this gave me very serious anxiety- the kind of rising heat that one feels in their chest, taking hold of one’s breathing. You can feel every breath and every heartbeat. According to science, my body was entering fight or flight mode. Later I calmed down, and decided the time had come for me to give in and get my ass over to student counselling. In many ways it was a defeat. But I would lie awake at night, having internalized everything for 3 years, having never told a soul, and my heart would feel so strained and tight. I swear I was scared to look down for fear of seeing it beating through my chest. My counselor was called Katie and I saw her once or twice a week for the duration of my 3 years in Winchester. I told her that I had gone weeks without uttering a word, and fearing that I would suffer some kind of permanent damage to my speech, I said that I just needed to come in and practice physically speaking for an hour. So that’s what I did. I was terrified of eating alone in the cafeteria, so every day I requested a takeaway box and hurried home to my apartment, where I enjoyed my food with an episode of The Sopranos.

It’s at this point that I feel the necessary context has been laid down for the events of my second week in Eau Claire. We’re going to start on Saturday, September 1st 2012. I was fully prepared to spend another year hiding in my room, or the library, or somewhere I could get away with eating alone. I should also point out that these were the days when my eating problems were at their absolute worst. Back then I struggled to eat in public whether I was with friends or not. I often left meals unfinished unless I was completely alone, and my biggest fear of the cafeteria was that I would puke and all the friendship groups would turn around and stare at me. It sort of happened once- I got so anxious I coughed up my food back onto my plate, but no one really noticed. So when I reached Eau Claire, I started taking my food back to my room in Towers North where I would eat at my desk. One time during International Orientation the cafeteria was closed and I walked to Shopko and bought a rotisserie chicken. It was the weekend after International Orientation, either the Saturday or the Sunday that ushered in the month of September, that for some goddam crazy reason I decided I would try to eat alone at the Hilltop Café- the big cafeteria of upper campus. It was a lot different to the cafeteria back in Winchester. Back there you had 3 or 4 choices of British cuisine, and though the standard of the food was actually pretty good, the prices were near extortionate. We had a set budget of 50 quid a week for food that was deliberately too little for what we needed. In the US however- the land of plenty- not only was the selection of food much wider but we could eat all that we wanted for free. We could eat there 25 times a day if we pleased. They even had sections devoted to exotic cuisines, like that Wok place. Anyway, I braved the cafeteria alone and instantly regretted it. It was prime eating time in the evening and the place was absolutely packed. All the American freshmen and sophomores were here now, and their loud voices and broad shoulders left little room. I eventually got a plate of food, and stared at the sea of tables with their wild and hooting patrons and felt a kind of nausea. Somehow I discovered a free table in the corner of the room, and ate facing the wall, with my back to the noise.

But that behavior just ain’t gonna fly in the Midwest. Before I knew it, I felt a tap on my shoulder and a massive American was standing behind me. Despite being shaped like an NFL linebacker, the guy spoke gently. He asked if I wanted to sit with him and his friends. I obliged. I quickly discovered that I was quite fascinating to the natives. My accent alone commanded interest. I could have talked for an hour about oven mitts and they would have listened. They seemed like a typical group of lads, with interests in sports and chasing skirts and good ol’ fashioned bro’s bro’s banter. I didn’t speak too much. I was shy but they seemed to accept that. They just talked as they usually would, including me here and there. Afterwards they invited me to go bowling with them downstairs. I discovered then that it was an American custom to give a high five or to bump fists after every bowl, even if it was a gutter-ball (which in my case, it often was). On the lane next to us were three Swedish exchange students that I recognized from International Orientation. One of them was perhaps the most blonde and beautiful girl I have ever seen. The guys started to admire her from afar, and I informed them she was Swedish. She was, however, guarded by two guys the size of refrigerators. They honestly made the Americans I was with look small. The guys struck up a conversation with these Swedes, each of them doing their best to court the girl, even though she was spoken for by a guy who looked like he might well have been the actor behind Colossus from Deadpool. I remember with amusement how, after they left, one of guys confided to us “O man, I just wanna undo that zip…” referring to the girl’s blouse, which had a zip right at the cleavage. It seemed like there would be no end to the adventures an American campus would provide, and we were just guys being guys. I was very much taken in by their wild enthusiasm. I felt like I was part of one of the typical groups of bro’s you might see in the American movies. After bowling we went back to their floor in Towers South where we watched an episode of a show they called How I Met Your Mother with some of their female friends. When I decided to go, everyone said goodbye and smiled, and as I waited in the elevator, I heard one of them say “He was a really nice guy”.

It was a very positive experience for me, but I still didn’t have a social foundation. I didn’t possess the know-how to go about finding that group again, or indeed an idea of what I would say if I did. Despite their affability, my mind seemed programmed to interpret it as a one-time thing. I expected nothing more. I just didn’t have the confidence or the skills necessary to seek them out and reacquaint myself with them. But don’t worry; this story has a happy ending…

My First Week of College in the USA

One thing I wish I had done during my student exchange 5 years ago is maintain a blog, or at least a journal of some kind. I guess I was too busy living life to report on it- which is better than vice versa- but I have always been interested in doing both. My friends know me as someone that loves perusing old photos or discussing old memories, and I often find myself possessed with a fervent zeal to immortalize even the smallest memory, to lock it down and carve it into a mosaic.

The reason I wish I had kept a better record of my 5-month stay in the United States is because it was such a pivotal period of my life. Everything seemed to change then from thereafter; not in a dramatic way- but when I follow the proverbial threads of my life, I often find that the biggest and messiest knot is situated in that time period: early-August to December 23rd of 2012. The whole concept of The Butterfly Effect (the notion that a single butterfly beating its wings can cause a tsunami halfway across the world) freaks me out. I don’t like thinking about it, because I have fallen in love so many times at the behest of something far-off and paper-thin. Without that one decision to aggressively pursue my application to study abroad, things could have been a lot different. I’m not just talking about the fact that I’ve got to try some cultural things- eating s’mores and shooting guns- but the big stuff. The friends I am living with right now, whom I have visited for the last four years in a row, were made on the UW-Eau Claire campus. We have become family. You’ll see my goofy mug in family photo albums depicting weddings, high school graduations, vacations. All that opened up to me because of a damned butterfly.

I’ll cut the sappy shit before it starts to test your barf-reflex. What I’m introducing, in this post, is a series of retrospective personal essays that will be detailing my time spent at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire during the fall semester of 2012. I’ve wanted to write this for a long time, and I feel like I’m making up for not blogging about it at the time. The intent of this series is to detail as much as I can in the way of sights, sounds, smells, so as to provide a veritable window through which the reader may gaze into my past. I will make sure to keep everything relevant and interesting to what might be called “overarching themes” like culture shock, the contrast between an American campus and a British one, an examination of the local region of Eau Claire versus an interpretation of the city as a microcosm of the United States as a whole, and also- for those readers interested in things like mental health- a log of how my stay on an American campus affected things like my social anxiety and tested my interpersonal skills yadda yadda. Ok? Ok. Let’s do this.

Close your eyes. You’re a tall (6”4), skinny, uncoordinated- but if I may say strikingly handsome- British male of 19 years. Hear the sound of the car door shutting. My host mom has dropped me off outside of a huge dormitory building, “Towers North”. You’re standing with all your luggage- hauled all the way across the ocean to Atlanta, Georgia and driven via Elvis Week to Eau Claire, WI.

At this stage of the journey, I was alone for the first time. Now I had to make good on my ability to survive on my own. It was this moment- the first instance of “fish out of water”- that I had long thought about since my application had been accepted. So we have to go back further into the memory. I applied for the exchange program in the fall of 2011, having only been at the University of Winchester a few weeks. I didn’t think I would be accepted. I knew that as many as 70 people were applying, of which about 15 or so would be successful. It seems strange now to think that I applied to study abroad so soon in my academic career- when just the concept of university and living away from home was new in and of itself. But the rules were plain. The exchange had to be for the first half of your second year only, and in the UK an arts degree is strictly 3-years. We don’t have situations, like in the US, where you might stay for 4 or even 5 years, and things are measured in numbers of classes or credits. But that’s a post for another time.

I made the interview stage and the guy asked me why I ought to be given this opportunity. I straight-up told him that I didn’t have any travel experience, or any kind of independent experiences to speak of. I said I hoped that the exchange was a chance to force me out of my comfort zone and to transform me into a different person- a more resourceful person- by the end of it. “Ah,” the interviewer said, with a trace of a Welsh accent, “so you want to become more worldly?”

He seemed to dig it. I didn’t think I had done very well, and I even- in my panic- ended up using a pretentious word like “deontological” for how I hoped the exchange would go. Surely no one who talked like that ought to be representing the university? Well, a month later an email told me I got it. I had applied to study at the University of Southern Maine, on the basis that they had the most comprehensible website, I wanted to be near big cities and action, and I figured they had the best opportunities for creative writing. It’s information in my memory like that that freaks me out when thinking about the butterfly effect. Somewhere down the line, at the right time, in the right space, a butterfly beat its wings, and the resulting soundwave pushed me in the direction of Wisconsin rather than the state I asked for. I’m glad it did.

I remember the morning I found out- I had poetry class. I was walking down the hill from where I was living, St Elizabeth’s, to the poetry building, which I believe was called Medecroft Annex or something like that. I suddenly blurted out that I had gotten the place in the program to the guys either side of me. One of them, a fellow poet who lived on my floor in the dorms, reassured me that I would be ok. I remember little details like that, because at the time I was shitting myself.

Fast forward 7 months and I’m standing in the shadow of Towers North with all my bags and reminding myself “you’ll be ok”. The first person I spoke to- the first person I even saw- turned out to be my peer guide for International Orientation. We’ll call him Andrew. At the time I remember thinking that Andrew looked stereotypically American; he greeted me with a huge grin and large hands. I figured him for the jock type, as they call it in the movies. It turns out he was into sports, and as he helped me get my bags inside the lobby he took note of my Chelsea t-shirt and asked what I thought about the Blues signing Eden Hazard that summer. I decided then that I liked this guy. I appreciated the way he seemed to sense my shyness and offer reassurance throughout that first week.

The second person I met turned out to be one of the best friends I’d make that semester. He was the R.A (Resident Assistant) and he was an exchange student himself, from Ipoh, Malaysia. I’m committed to using pseudonyms for this blog, and given that my friend was a fluent speaker of Tamil, we’ll just go ahead and call him Akbar- after the most badass Mughal Emperor. I remember being very keen to make friends with Akbar from the outset. At the time I saw him as an authority figure rather than a fellow student, and I zoned in on him as someone who could redress all my grievances. He commented in the elevator that he was a Liverpool fan, and had just got back from visiting the UK, where he had taken a tour of Anfield. I remember telling him that I could have easily mistaken him for being British- his English was as good as mine, and he even used what I considered to be British slang terms that I didn’t think existed outside of the Isle. I made sure to let him know that I would be seeing him around, before rejoining Andrew outside, whose booming voice was gathering the rest of the exchange students.

We were a helluva melting pot. I knew I had been joined by about 6 other British students from Winchester, but they were literally nowhere to be seen. I was the only European, as far as I could tell, around. I remember being extremely anxious that day because I discovered (too late) that the cargo shorts I was wearing really needed a belt to stay up. They took us all over lower campus, where the administrative buildings were located. That week it reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit and I was sweating my balls off as we were shepherded from place to place, all the while with my hands in my pockets to support my loose shorts. It was a long week and I didn’t really care for the activities, but I knew that (mostly) they were necessary. I’ve always had a very short attention span. I get impatient easily when it comes to bureaucratic stuff. I get bored and I moan. I remember Andrew coming over as I rushed to set up my BluGold (college email) account, and he said “Don’t worry Mike, we’re gonna get you out of here”. God bless that chap, I thought. Some empathy.

The university gave us long talks in which they informed us of what to expect from American culture. They told us that we weren’t to fire any guns or have any pictures of us holding guns, or we would get in trouble. I did both anyway. They told us what to do if we saw a bear or a moose wandering around campus. The most I ever saw was a deer, and nowhere near the centralized areas. And then they told us about Wisconsinites themselves, and what to expect in a social situation. One thing that always stuck in my memory was their warning that Wisconsinites often remarked “How’s it going?” as an alternative to saying “Hello” and that they were never actually interested in how one was doing. I decided to put this into practice throughout the semester, and every damn time I said “How’s it going”- even when I walked briskly past someone- the person would always stop and tell me how they were doing, before asking me the same question.

The week ended with a scavenger hunt, which was okay except it was swelteringly hot outside and after walking several blocks I found that I just couldn’t be arsed anymore. We ate at a place called the Smiling Moose Deli. There were four of us- a Ukrainian girl, a Mexican guy, a Chinese guy, and me- that were being shown around by this girl that was a real sweetheart. It was a long-ass day; Friday 31st August, 2012, and I was distinctly aware that whilst I was “fannying about” as we say back home, all day Towers North was filling up with freshmen. These were the Americans, the folks I would be living with. I reminded myself that as much of a fish out of water as I was, I still had a year of student living under my belt, whereas these rowdy lads and lasses were experiencing college for the first time. They didn’t seem nervous though- Americans never do.

I’ve had long discussions with my now-roommate on how shyness exists in the U.S, and apparently it does, but it’s subtle. The Midwesterners have a culture that is friendly and- by British standards at least- very straightforward. They are well accustomed to social situations and know how to hide shyness when the time comes. At some point or another, all Americans have been on stage, so to speak. Their unique brand of humor so often lends itself to theatrics.

I was more nervous than anyone else there- or so I told myself. What I should have told myself is that people are icebergs- most of who they are remains underwater, unseen. You reveal to people only what you want, and it’s not so easy to separate an introvert from an extrovert as you might think. I am quite sure now that I did not appear as nervous as I thought I was. The fact that I was British gave me a social edge, as Akbar pointed out encouragingly. I was a novelty. Every word I said was given special attention. I got back to Towers just in time for Akbar to tell me I was late and that the rest of the floor, including my roommate, had already met each other. The entire building, joined by the residents of Towers south, which may have been a thousand people, were all sat outside on the grass waiting for the R.As to do a little presentation. On the way there Akbar told me how everyone on the floor- including the females- were obsessed with meeting me, and had apparently gone on a hunt to look for me. Now I was worried about being a massive disappointment. They were probably hoping for a Charlie Hunnam or an Andrew Lincoln type- someone with a voice as rich as a cheesecake and who possessed a roguish, Byronic charm that was at once debonair and yet free-spirited and with a thirst for wild adventures. Little did they know they were getting an accident-prone goofball with skinny thighs and a large Adam’s Apple. Yep, I was the living manifestation of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, right down to my vulnerability for jump-scares at the slightest oriole-fart. Only my time was spent less on smoking weed and making a citizen’s arrest than it was writing self-insert Star Wars fan-fiction.

Things went well though. Akbar led me over to where the boys of our floor were sitting at the edge of the grass. Much as I had when I met Andrew, I ended up categorizing everyone into stereotypes at the first instant. I think that it is a natural process however. You can’t know someone in any great detail at first sight, so the brain is tempted to turn to the stereotypes of our culture, which are always based in some truth- even if only superficially. All them turned around at once, and seemed to say in unison “Hi!”. Hardly able to deal with so many faces, I remember my mind’s eye reducing them to a single archetype- all of them, in that very moment, were pale-skinned, athletically-built, with close-cropped, sandy hair and pale-colored eyes. Akbar warned us that we had to clap and hoot for him when it was his turn on stage. Everyone seemed to like Akbar, and the lads were pleased they had an R.A that they could joke around with, and perhaps not be punished by with too much sadism.

After the show was over, we discovered that the cafeteria was closed, so Akbar led me and most of the guys of fourth floor over to the local Wendy’s for dinner. To those of my readers based in the UK, Wendy’s is a fast food chain that is basically identical to McDonalds, the creepy clown replaced with an even creepier design of a ginger, freckle-faced girl straight out of a 19th century Bavarian wood carving. There are a million fast food chains, from Krystal’s to Whataburger, to Church’s, that never made it to the UK. I got a shake, fries and we sat around the small restaurant sparsely. We shared our last names, the ethnicities behind them, and then started talking about slang. I remember the guys being in fits of laughter as I told them that “spunk” in the UK was slang for semen. At one point, without saying anything, one of the guys stood up and left. The would-be ringleader of our floor told me “He just dipped”.

“Beg your pardon?” I said.

The guy informed me that “dipped” was slang for leaving the area. I have always remembered that with fondness, though I have yet to incorporate it into my evolving lexicon. Things got better once the Americans arrived. These were the people I would attempt to be friends with. After living throughout International Orientation week with scarcely a soul in the building save for me and Akbar, suddenly the place was alive with howls of laughter down the corridor, the sound of rap music reverberating through the walls, and the freshmen girls, playing volleyball below, waiting we hoped, for some guys to join them.

*

I hope you enjoyed reading! I will be continuing this series with more accounts of my student exchange.