Tag Archives: Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’d you do that?” he said.

“Do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tarot,” I said.

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

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

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

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Reassessing My 2018 Resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring Szentendre Part 2

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 More Stories From Hungary

  1. Critters of the Roman Ruins
    Ancient Rome is one of my favorite historical topics, so I knew that I had to check out the ruins of Aquincum. I love how the culture, infrastructure, and bureaucracy of the Empire plays such a central role in the foundation of so many European countries. Like Britain, the history of Hungary starts with its annexation by the Roman Empire. And like London, so too was Budapest founded by the Romans. I took the HEV (suburban metro) out to Óbuda where the site from which the Budapest metropolitan area can be traced to a humble- but not insubstantial- collection of columns, temples and amphitheaters was to be found a short walk from the station. Turns out the folks that lived in the administrative capital of the Roman province of Pannonia had it pretty darn good. The city boasted central heating, a load of public bathhouses, and a gladiatorial arena that featured beast fights, all the while surrounded by the most beautiful countryside in the world.
    Before checking out the ruins however, I took a look inside the museum to buy my ticket and grab some breakfast. The old feller at the ticket counter took ages to acknowledge me so I was just standing there awkwardly for about five minutes (though it felt like fifteen). After pretending my bronchitis was flaring up a few times, I was able to get the guy to say “Szia” in the most disinterested, noncommittal voice ever. I bought a ticket for the museum and the ruins, but he didn’t have any change, so he disappeared for the better part of ten minutes to find some. After he came back, I noticed my stomach was about to riot, and hopped over to the little gift shop where I could buy a substandard donut and a black instant coffee. The woman was very nice and asked me all sorts of questions. I ate quickly though, because I wanted to see the ruins.
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    The museum, though not very big, was excellent. I was very impressed with the artifacts and the information- which was written in perfect English. What makes the history of Hungary so interesting to me is that it is touched by larger subjects in world history that I’m already interested in. In addition to Romans, I learned about Mongol hordes, Popes getting shanked, and the real life inspiration for Count Dracula.
    It was gorgeous weather outside, and as I took photographs of the wildflowers, old stone walls, and the restored painter’s house, I noticed something. Darting across the sun-blasted rocks were little green lizards, not unlike the kind I used to see every day when I lived in Houston, Texas.
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  2. The Football Shop
    I’m a sucker for antiques, memorabilia, and anything vintage. I was walking down Váci utca when I noticed a narrow alleyway that led to a clandestine shopping arcade. I passed the dingy stairway that led to the erotic massage parlor and entered a vintage store full of old gypsy outfits and handcrafts. It was cool to look at but I didn’t buy anything. I said goodbye and left. I was then drawn to the place next door- a vintage sports memorabilia shop. I tried the door but it was locked. Before I could walk away, the owner from the antique store came running outside with a set of keys.
    “This is my hobby shop!” he grinned, and let me inside. I took note of all the sports pennants hanging from the ceiling, and told the shopkeeper about how I liked to collect American baseball and football pennants. I then asked him to spell the Magyar word for pennant for me, and I wrote it down in my journal. Jelzőzászló. I then asked him if he knew the soccer player László Kubala, whose statue I had seen at the Camp Nou in Barcelona. Being a sports nerd like myself, he obviously knew, and went on to tell me that Kubala’s people, like his own, were of Czechoslovakian stock, and that Kubala was a Czech name. He told me how Kubala played internationally for Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Spain. He rifled through a set of drawers to find me some Kubala swag, eventually producing a fridge magnet with Kubala in his Barca jersey. That is lush, I thought, and I purchased it along with a basketball pin.
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  3. The Cave Church
    One of the more quirky things I visited was a Catholic church situated in a cave inside the Gellért Hill. It was really interesting to walk around in, and we were allowed to take photos too. The monks had fixed the place up real nice with shrines and candles and other shiny things, and there was something pure about a rocky cave that I just don’t feel inside a building. If I was gonna find religion, it would be in a place like this, somewhere dark and damp and cool, where you feel connected to the Earth. I checked out all the rooms before turning back. I never know what to do inside a church to be honest. It was visually interesting, but once I’d seen everything I figured I might as well move on. I wasn’t going to say a prayer or light a candle, or sit for a while in the pews waiting to feel something. I had places to go and things to see, so my stay was brief. I felt weird about leaving so soon, but then again I’m not religious, so there wasn’t really anything for me to do.
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  4. The Citadella
    When I left the cave I decided to climb the Gellért Hill to the Citadella. I guess I’m in dire need of a new diet and a personal trainer, because I was blowing out my ass by the time I was halfway up. It didn’t help that it was scorching hot. I paused on the ledges and rocky outcroppings to take photos of the Danube below, before willing myself on. It’s funny how something as simple as just walking up a bunch of steps can make you hate yourself. At the top I joined a long line of red-faced tourists and bought a mineral water and a Solero- my favorite European ice cream brand. It’s just so refreshing. I didn’t go inside the Citadella- an imposing Austrian fortress with a Cristo Redentor thing out front- because I was pressed for time.
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  5. The Folk Concert
    That evening I attended the only thing I booked before coming to Hungary- a concert at the Duna Palota, showcasing some authentic gypsy folk music and dancing. I was interested because I was getting to see a little sliver of rural, rustic Hungary, and the beauty of one of its enduring, oppressed minorities. The foyer was lavish and all that with its marble columns and red carpets, but the theater itself was a lot more intimate than I expected. There weren’t many seats, but that was cool because it meant we were a lot closer to the action. I ended up really enjoying myself- the music was very good and the dance stuff was interesting too. It kind of reignited my appreciation for classical music. I was especially interested in the clothes of the gypsies. They all wore frilly, puffy white shirts beneath dark waistcoats. The difference, however, was that the men wore long, colored pants that they tucked into boots and the women wore colorful skirts and white stockings. The men had their waistcoats open and the women were buttoned up. The dance moves involved a lot of clapping hands and snapping fingers, as well as tap dancing. It gave me this impression of gypsy culture as being something vibrant, rustic, upbeat, and unpretentious. I imagined these kind of dances taking place in the light of campfires in the countryside. I don’t know if that’s a true image or not, but that’s what I imagined.
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  6. My Brush With Fame
    After the concert was over, we were taken to a luxury boat on the Danube for a nighttime buffet. My stomach was fucking screaming because it was 10:30pm and I hadn’t had supper yet. I wondered if perhaps I was the only loner on the boat. They allocated me a seat on a table with couples. It was there that I met two Brazilian women- who we shall refer to as J… and M… for the purposes of privacy. It turned out that J…, who was about my age, was in fact a successful TV producer and journalist back in Brazil, who was traveling around Europe with her feisty mother M… . It was sweet how proud M… was of J…, and she delighted in Europeans having heard of J…’s news station. We drank champagne together, and I was so interested in getting to know them that I didn’t even go back for seconds at the buffet. M… didn’t speak too much English, but she was thoroughly extroverted. I thought she was very graceful and funny. J… reminded me a lot of my friend Elizabeth. J… was very expressive, laughed a lot, and had one of those distinctive, charming smiles that seem to define a person’s spirit. Here are some highlights of my conversation with J… as she and I went out to take selfies together on the deck:
    It turned out we both studied at American universities in the Midwest, her in Michigan and I in Wisconsin. She even knew Eau Claire (the school I went to) because their football team played against her school.
    She started out as a journalist writing reports, and rose through the ranks quickly to become a producer. Now she dictates what the reporters on camera have to say. She covers things like local politics and social issues- such as the poverty of the favelas.
    She advised me that the best beaches in Brazil were to be found on the country’s many islands in the Atlantic. These tropical paradises off the coast were much cleaner and less touristy than the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and the like.
    I asked J… if there were many Michaels running about Brazil, and if I would be called Miguel if I was born there. Turns out the name Michael is actually quite popular. J… said that “Gringo names” enjoyed a
    surge in popularity during the 80s and 90s because middle class Brazilian families deemed them to be classy.
    I also asked J… about the Amazon rainforest. She described it as a “magical place” and we ended up having a long conversation (that
    later continued online) about Amazonian folklore. Her favorite was a popular legend about a pink river dolphin named Boto cor de Rosa, who during the night transforms into a handsome man and rogers all the unmarried women in the nearby villages. Then, when all the seemingly unspoiled maidens started to become preggers, everyone was confused, and ended up blaming it on the were-dolphin. So whenever someone would see a pink dorsal fin, they thought it was a serial rapist.
  7. The Budapest Eye
    It’s not quite as grandiose as its London counterpart, but Budapest has its own giant Ferris wheel. It was a fun little aside to sit in the capsule and take photographs of the cityscape. I came here right after buying my Hungarian hat, so naturally I was curious to see how I looked…
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  8. The Bloody Thursday Memorial
    As I was walking around the impressive Parliament building I saw some stairs leading underground. I went down and found myself in a small museum about the horrible massacre that took place outside the Parliament in 1956. At this point I was ignorant of Hungary’s suffering at the hands of the Soviet regime, and I remember being shocked when I watched the educational videos. One of the more poignant features of the museum is a 3D projection of a tank that plays in front of an image of the Parliament. The tank rolls into place, before turning to face you, lining up its gun and firing. It puts you in the shoes of the Hungarians that the Soviets opened fire on, and when the projection of the tank fires, you flinch.
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  9. The Moisturizer Lady
    When I was rushing through the Budapest airport to reach my departure gate a woman stopped me. Usually I never stop for anyone, especially someone trying to sell something. I don’t normally have a problem being rude to fundraisers, cold callers, or any kind of salesperson. But for some reason, I stopped, and let her sit me down and show me her wares. She told me that I was looking particularly sweaty, and that she just had to stop me and talk to me about all the oils in my face. I guess I was looking worse than usual, since I was wearing my leather jacket to save space in my carry-on. The woman went through her entire sales pitch, and for some reason I didn’t object, even though I knew I wasn’t going to buy anything and I was going to miss my flight if I stayed any longer. I was slightly interested in the science behind it all, and I know I need to take better care of my face, but at the end of the day I just couldn’t be arsed, so I declined her offer and left.
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  10. The Train Operated by Kids
    Wanting to see something a little different to the bustling city, I decided to go on a tour through the Buda Hills. It wasn’t a guided tour or anything like that, just a list of stops to make that I found in my guidebook. I got a streetcar to the western edge of the city and then a train up through the steep, forested hills that overlooked Buda. When I reached the top, I became disorientated and found that the itinerary in my guidebook was super vague. I couldn’t make much sense out of it so I decided to abandon it and follow my nose instead. My first stop was a little mountaintop café where I got myself some deep fried mushrooms and a Coke. I shared a table with an old German couple, since it was busy, and I tried to impress them by throwing what Deutsch I could remember from my school days at them in a random order. They smiled but I don’t think they were too impressed.
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    I then set off in search of the famed Children’s Railway, a cogwheel train operated exclusively by the owners of undescended testicles. I found it, and hopped aboard. The train snaked through the forest, stopping here and there at touristy towns with little shops and cafés. I figured I ought to get off and see some stuff instead of just staying on the cogwheel the whole time, so I got off at this secluded station in the forest. There was nothing around but trees. It was quiet and green and beautiful. I asked one of the kids if I could get back on the railway on another train with the ticket I had. It turns out that I would have to pay for a new ticket, which I thought was cheeky, so I decided Sod the railway, and went off for a walk in the forest. I had no idea where I was in relation to Budapest or any of the other train stations but I honestly didn’t care. There were plenty of walkers and joggers, and I took photographs of the flowers as I walked. Pretty soon I found signs for the Zugliget Chairlift, which was on my itinerary, and which I now realized I was doing in reverse order. The walk to the chairlift wasn’t bad at all, and I was delighted to get on and be treated to some stunning views of the Carpathian countryside to the west, which unfolded before me as a breathtaking vista of densely wooded valleys and hills. And this lush scenery was about the same as it would have looked when the Romans and the Huns were knocking about, and I thought about this as I took it in, trying to visualize armies marching through forests.
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Wandering in the Island of Rabbits

I was sat in the shade of these giant, leafless hardwoods with bone-white, chipped and peeling facades when I opened my journal for the first time under Hungary’s sun. I hadn’t expected Budapest in April would be so darn hot. My leather jacket I’d bought years ago in the Wisconsin Dells- such an integral part of my identity- ended up doing nothing all week except take up needless space in my unforgiving RyanAir carry-on baggage allotment. It was nice that the weather was so sunny for my visit, but I did feel a little disarmed without my favorite jacket. I take this thing everywhere. However the rest of my look was still intact- I had the cowboy belt I got in Texas around my waist and my trusty Jordans on my feet. I drew strength from these things. The kind of strength I figured I would need to travel alone, but which I later realized, wasn’t even necessary. I was surprised how comfortable I was in my own company. During a video call with my roommate Aaron back at the boat, he told me “I don’t want you slipping into the meek persona. No apologizing, no bumbling, no worrying what people will think about you. I want zero fucks given. You wear a goddam cowboy belt and a pair of Jordans for Chrissake. How many people there are gonna be wearing that? Think about what makes you unique and let it empower you. If you’re gonna wear those fancy sneakers, you need to live up to the spirit of Michael Jordan. Can you do that?”

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It was time to do what I’d come here to do and swallow as much of the city as I could, for all its colors and ambient vibrations to be stored somewhere deep inside of me. So I brought this fresh journal- whose scrambled notes I am now translating into a coherent blog post. The journal seemed just right. It was a gift from my mom. She’s quite the traveler herself, and picked this journal up at a famous bookstore in Porto, Portugal called Livraria Lello, that was supposedly a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling. The paper isn’t lined, so I was free to splurge my pen directionless over that inviting, unspoiled white. I included pictures and diagrams where necessary, and within minutes the thing was covered in a hasty series of mind-maps.

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The breeze that touched my skin under that beautifully barren canopy, I realized, was the same that had touched the cheeks of those Dominican nuns almost nine centuries ago. It was a religious air that carried through the trees, and landed now on the cheeks of little schoolchildren. The island had always been a place of tranquility and contemplation for the Hungarians. I decided it would be the best choice for me to start my week in Budapest with- especially since Margitsziget is so close to my hotel. I’d walk around, collect all that precious ambience I craved, before taking a dip in the island’s spa- the Palatinus Strand. The meditative culture of the island goes back to its settlement by the Knights of St. John in the 12th century. After the Mongols ravaged Hungary and returned east for the funeral of the Great Khan, King Béla IV gave his daughter Margaret to the Dominican convent on the island, believing that a child dedicated to religion would be reason enough for God not to ask the Mongols to come back. They didn’t, and the island was renamed to Margitsziget (Margaret Island). Before that, it had been known as Nyulak Szigete, which translates as Rabbit Island, or Island of Rabbits.

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The first thing I noticed was that there were dog walkers everywhere. Budapest loves dogs! I saw two sausage dogs excitedly investigating a big, fluffy gentle giant that looked like a husky mix. Alongside the dog walkers were runners and cyclists. There were no cars. I could hear the birds singing, a sound that escapes the ears when in the rest of the city. I felt soothed by the sound of the bike rental woman as she swept the empty road with a wide broom. Old folks sat on benches while groups of teenagers rented bikes and scooters. The far off din of playing children. Couples strolled through the trees hand in hand. Some of the trees had bright colors, others were barren. The grass was dotted with dandelions. There were a few homeless people sleeping on the grass. On a nearby tree trunk two lovers had carved “Pau + Heni” inside a crude heart.

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I walked up the east side of the island and found a miniature zoo. I let the donkey kiss my palm and moved on, going north to the ruins of a Franciscan church and the old Dominican convent where Saint Margaret had lived her entire life. I imagined her admiring the birds as she collected water from a well, looking across the Danube and gazing in wonder at the outside world. I bought a little dish of ice cream and set off for the Japanese garden at the north end of the island. I sat on a bench and made notes in the journal again as a young Hungarian couple had their engagement photos taken by the pond. After finishing my ice cream I went up a narrow path, only to find another young couple deep in love. They stood facing each other and holding both of their hands between them, talking very intimately. I wondered if the guy was about to propose so I doubled back and took an alternate route. I don’t think he did though- I’ve since come to the conclusion that the Magyar people are naturally very passionate.

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I left and headed south down the western side of the island. I looked at a group of English girls peddling one of those rental buggies, giggling and screaming. For a moment I thought that I was limiting myself by traveling alone, and couldn’t help but imagine doing something like that with my friends. I messaged these thoughts to Elizabeth, and she texted back “I really think there is something special about seeing a place by yourself. Going with others limits your independence and closes your eyes to certain things. I honestly think this trip is going to be something you remember for the rest of your life as the best decision you ever made.”

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She was right. My trip wasn’t lesser; it was just different. My experience of the city would have been completely different if I had gone with friends or family. Now I can go back and discover Budapest all over again through the lens of a roommate, a friend, a brother, or a girlfriend. And I would definitely take my future travel companion to Margitsziget so that I might observe their fresh reactions to the same spiritual breeze that so affected me.

The Cafés of Budapest

Budapest has a thriving café culture. A big reason why I decided to stay for a full week and not a weekend is that I wanted to take the time to sit in these cafés and just soak in the ambience. I wanted to drink coffee and do a little people-watching. I wanted Budapest to be to me what Paris was to Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. I needed to see this city while I was young and have it leave a strong impression on me. I wanted it to become my city, and I figured the best way to find that sense of ownership and belonging was in cafés.

It was during my time in Houston last year that I discovered coffee, and now I can scarcely imagine my life without it. The 200,000 words that make up this blog didn’t come out of nowhere. They needed fuel, and that fuel was caffeine. And I got the strangest feeling ordering my first Hungarian coffee- I was struck by how naturally and confidently I asked for it. Less than a year ago I was introduced to the sweet almond coffees my roommate Anne-Marie made for me, and for a few months I very carefully tried to replicate the exact cups she had crafted. Now I’m fine drinking the blackest, bitterest coffees out there, and it doesn’t bother me where they come from. I was like “Look at me, ordering coffee like a true connoisseur!”

 


CAFÉ GUSTO

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Address: Budapest, Frankel Leó út 12, 1023

What I Got: Bécsi virsli (Vienese Sausages), Americano, Ribizili (Cake)

My Visit: I found this place on Google Maps and saw that the reviews were pretty darn good, with particular praise singled out for the lunch menu. I was after some breakfast however, and needed someplace with which to fill my wailing gut, having not eaten much at the airport the night before. Café Gusto waited for me on a quiet street lined either side with parked cars. There were few pedestrians, and aside from the little Café Gusto, the place looked pretty residential. I was only a block away from the Danube, but the street had the charming quality one finds in cities like Toulouse when they stray away from the buzz of tourism, and realize they have crossed over into a territory that is so thoroughly its own. It’s like walking into a shotgun house out of the pouring rain and coming out on the back porch to find yourself bathed in sunshine.

I entered the café and it was near 10am. The place was quiet, and there was only one other patron- a young woman drinking coffee and reading the newspaper on the terrace with her bike propped against the wall. I sat on the inside to get a feel for the place and ordered some Vienese Sausages. The sausages were excellent, and went perfectly with the mustard. I wasn’t sated however, and ordered a slice of cake after I was done. The interior design was super-cozy, the tables adorned with flower pots, the walls with classy paintings of Budapest and idyllic Hungarian country scenes. Pop music played, not too loud. I admired the little lamps that hung from the walls.

It was here that I learned that you shouldn’t be put off if a Hungarian first comes across as reserved. The waitress was quiet and professional, but I persisted in offering her smiles and acting deliberately goofy. When she took my plate away I said “csodálatos!” which means “wonderful”. She paused and I said “wait!” and typed it into my phone on Google Translate. Then I showed her my phone and repeated the word and she laughed, thanking me. When the cake arrived I asked her for the Magyar spelling. Ribizili. She told me how to spell it and I wrote it down. Obviously, I could have looked it up online, but I was committed to talking to as many locals as possible and bringing them out of their shell if they were on the shy side. According to Dale Carnegie a good way to get someone to like you is to ask them for a favor. I wondered if most of the natives’ exposure to the English was the boisterous lads on Stag-Do’s that paraded down the streets in spring chicken onesies and puked their lángos out into the gutters come morn.

 


Café Smuz

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Address: Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 18, 1055

What I Got: A Magyar kedvenc: szalámis-körözöttes svendvics (Hungarian’s favorite: salami with creamy paprika flavored cottage cheese), vizet (water), blue-velvet latte

My Visit: This place is on the Pest side of quirky, and was easily the most hipster lunchroom I went to during my stay. What makes this café so awesome is that it doubles as a florist. I sat inside and the air was thick with the aroma of fresh blooms. I came here for lunch after leaving Margitsziget and ordered what the menu described as the “Hungarian’s favorite”. I like salami and cold cuts, so it went down very well. I’m not really a latte person since I don’t like my coffees to feel filling. I am most definitely a drinker of black coffee. However, I decided to try the blue velvet they had on offer here, because it seemed in keeping with the colorful tone of the place.

Smuz had a different atmosphere to Gusto. My breakfast was had at a little hole-in-the-wall, a hidden gem, the kind of place where the staff are on first name terms with the regulars. Smuz, however, was located right next to the awesome Parliament building and had a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe to it. The place was full of natural light, which made sense given it was also a flower shop. It lacked that cozy feeling, but the staff were very friendly. They were young, spoke good English, and they were very helpful when I asked them for the names of things for me to write down. As if the place couldn’t get any more quirky, there was an old school nacho machine on the counter like you’d get at an old American movie theater. The music was all 1960s counterculture; John Lennon and Don McClean. I found this amusing, because the last song we listened to on my last shift at the warehouse was “American Pie”.

 


Callas Café & Restaurant

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Address: 1061 BUDAPEST, ANDRÁSSY ÚT 20

What I Got: Sült ananász quinoa-val (Baked pineapple w/ quinoa), Coke, slice of cake

My Visit: The Callas Café sits right outside the Hungarian State Opera House. I came here for lunch before I took my tour. It was a little late, so there were few other patrons. The restaurant is very opulent- everything is clean and gold and shiny. The staff were very professional, and I don’t know whether this was an intentional hiring policy or not, but all the waiters had shaved heads. It made me wonder whether this was considered proper in Hungary, that the best waiters ought to be bald. I sat right next to the cakes in the window and admired them as I wrote in my journal. Hungary is a damn good place to go if you enjoy cakes alongside your coffee. Most places I went to offered a slew of cakes as the primary dessert options, and I came to learn that the cake is a big part of Hungarian cuisine.

I wanted a light lunch because I didn’t want to feel like one of those pythons that had just swallowed an entire Caiman when I went for my massage in a couple hours. I also realized that this café was a little fancy and I didn’t want to spend too much money. I looked at the other patrons and imagined that they were quite well-off. I imagined that the British guy opposite me held a managerial position of some kind, that he was divorced, and that the woman with him was his secretary or something. I ended up getting the baked pineapple with quinoa. Fucking great choice. I wasn’t sure what a baked pineapple would taste like, but it turns out the answer is delicious.

 


Café Gerbeaud

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Address: Budapest, Vörösmarty tér 7-8, 1051

What I Got: 2 slices of pistachio & raspberry cake (yolo), black coffee

My Visit: Gerbeaud is regarded as one of the grandest coffeehouses of Europe, and the fanciest in all of Budapest. I had this place written down on my bucket list at the front of my journal. This, it seemed, was the heart of Budapest’s vibrant café culture. I took the streetcar to Vörösmarty tér in the morning and found it a real hub of activity. The square was filled with stalls selling traditional products, handmade crafts, and all kinds of street-food. Music played and people danced on the balls of their feet, bouncing from side to side with hands on hips. I tried Gerbeaud but the door was locked. A sign said something about not being open until lunch. I was surprised and disappointed. It messed with my plan for that day. I decided to damn it all to sod, and eat street-food for breakfast. I found a stall and got in line. Just as I was about to give my order, I saw that there was another door at the other end of the building, and this one opened. I left the line and went inside, and it turns out the bistro and the coffeehouse are separate entities.

This place was next level fancy. There’s a distinct Gründerzeit flair to the architecture, and the whole place just seems to shine. It’s elegant beyond compare, with its grandiose chandeliers and polished woods, and wonderful staff. I felt like I was really being looked after here. I decided on cake for breakfast, and the slice was so moist and so delicious, I promptly ordered another one when the waiter came to take my plate.

Near me there was a family of four, I think from Russia or somewhere like that. The husband was ginger with a very tidy goatee, and the wife was blond and somewhat Claire Underwood in her appearance. The parents spoke in Russian to each other but the little children- a boy and a girl- spoke perfect American English. The kids were adorable. The little girl had French Braids and was clad in a white, floral dress. I thought it was very sweet that despite her young age, she had the affectations of an adult, with exceptional posture and manners, often trying to calm her baby sibling. I couldn’t help but smile when she got up and stood next to where her mother sat, and caressed her mother’s arm, as though soothing her. Everyone around me seemed to be smiling at this perfect little family as well. The tiny girl seemed wise beyond her years, and said “Papa, you can’t ever judge a thing by its cover.”

 


New York Café

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Address: Budapest, Erzsébet krt. 9-11, 1073

What I Got: The Writer’s Dish (cold cuts & cheese platter), Wiener schnitzel w/ mustard potato salad, New York lemonade, raspberry ice cream sundae

My Visit: I had my eyes on the New York Café above all others, since it developed a reputation in the early 20th century as the preferred hangout of impoverished writers. This place seemed to sum up my vision of what I wanted from my trip to Hungary. A place to eat, drink, and get my creative gears turning. I can’t help but think this establishment must have changed over the years though, because it was easily the most expensive place I went. I walked all the way from the Szechenyi Baths, through Varosliget in the rain, on my bloodied toes to get here. When you enter you have to wait to be seated, and then they lower the rope. It felt nice to be allowed entry. My hair was fluffy from the bath and I was dressed in jeans, my Texas belt, my Jordans, and my UHCL Hawks t-shirt. I was sat in a quiet corner beneath an enormous chandelier.

I opted for the Writer’s Dish for my appetizer since I came here with an interest in the café’s literary history. I actually enjoyed this more than my main meal (the wiener schnitzel), since I do like Italian cold meats and cheese. Opposite me was a table of vacationing Americans. Just like I did in Gerbeaud, I tried to listen to their conversation and imagine their lives. The women talked like the stereotypical suburban wasps, no doubt with tennis instructors and several cars. They tied the sleeves of their sweaters around their necks or waists when it got hot. The men were equally trim and clean-looking, and I overheard them talking about business. They all clinked glasses and one said “from the bottom of my heart, I love everyone at this table”. They discussed their visits to Barcelona and Copenhagen and offered each other travel tips on what to see and where to stay. It was interesting to catch a glimpse of their world. It’s been several years since I used my iPod and I don’t see myself ever needing one again. People are so interesting, and you can learn so much just by getting out of the house.

My Study Abroad Overview: Nothing Gold Can Stay

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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