Two UMD Students Share Thoughts
on Returning Home
After a Year in UMD's Study Abroad Programme
The nine-month “ride of my life” came to a close on Thursday, May 22. The flight back from Birmingham, England to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport was exhausting. Two hours to Iceland, one-hour layover there.Another six hours to get back home.
The forty-four of us got antsy the last few hours on the plane. We could see U.S. land underneath us. We occupied the majority of the rear of the 747. We pulled out laptops, started blaring music. Took off our seatbelts and danced around in the aisle, sat on each other's laps. We got disapproving looks from just about everyone. “It's been a long time,” we would have said, had anyone asked.
I felt a mix of emotions. I'd been mentally preparing myself for this for weeks, maybe months. I was excited to see friends and family, but at the same time dreading the change of scenery. We stepped off the plane. Walking up to passport control a greeter told us where to line up, and our first contact with another Minnesota accent was startling, several of us noticed and mentioned it. We retrieved our luggage and I took one final walk through customs with the people that I had come to regard as family.
We swung a right, and spread out before us were dozens of mothers, father, sisters, brothers, friends, and a couple boyfriends and girlfriends. Teary eyes all around; hugs, kisses, waves, handshakes. I was overwhelmed, I looked around, people were already starting to disseminate, I had too many people to say goodbye to. I decided to tackle it methodically, embrace the people I might not see for months first; pat the guys on the back that I'd see the next day. Amanda Haack's parents were late, and she stood in the midst of it all like a lost puppy, she was one of my best friends on the trip, she lives hours away, and she was the hardest to walk away from.
Moments later I was in the family van, the van that had been a staple in my life for several years previous. The van drove out of the terminal, made our way along the Fort Snelling National Cemetery, and my eyes were transfixed on cross after cross.
My friend Dave Doyle and I had commented hours ago on the plane, that the past year was already starting to feel like a fading memory. It took less than ten minutes in that van for family normalcy to return.
Suddenly I was fifteen again, and my mother was driving me from place to place. My two sisters were barking back and forth at each other in the back seat, one of them burped, then giggled, my mom started yelling at my dad to watch the road. The highways, the buildings, the strip malls, the exit ramps; all so familiar and yet felt obscure, as if relics of another universe. We turned onto my street, and my dad reiterated that they had torn down the giant tree that had stood in my front yard for my entire life. The tan-brick and white-painted house in Golden Valley had been the only place I've ever remembered residing. The tree really was gone. It felt so empty. My dad showed me the chunk of the trunk that he'd saved. He was going to make a table out of it.
I noticed the oddest things in the first few moments back at my parent's house. I went to turn on the bathroom sink, and the amount of pressure I was accustomed to applying was different. Our washer and dryer were larger than any I remembered using in England, the shower felt different, there was more water in the toilet, and the comforter on my bed was shockingly black and white.
The next morning, my father dropped me at the U of M - Twin Cities campus on his way to work. Five of us, Corey Onderick, Kelsey Burns, Dave Doyle, and Cory Hertog and I had decided, while in Birmingham, that we loved the metro area, where we were all from, and decided to transfer campuses. Never before had I wanted to go to school in my home city, but the time away from it made me appreciate the variety of experiences it had to offer, as well as the friends I'd left behind when I took off for Duluth freshman year. As I nervously sat in the meeting room, waiting for the others to show up, I couldn't help but ponder whether I had made the right call. The familiarity of the city was scaring me, after being gone for so long, did I really want to spend two years in the city I grew up in? It took Cory finally showing up to break me out of the suffocating trance I felt myself spiraling into. As the meeting began, I looked around at the four of them, and they shot me reassuring glances, we were in this thing together.
Those first few days, I felt alienated from my home country, and the people inhabiting it. I wanted nothing to do with anyone, and I only spoke when spoken to. Everyone told me that the reverse-culture shock coming back was much more severe than the shock getting to England, but I underestimated their warnings. I found myself slipping headlong into a very real, very profound depression. Thinking now, two weeks after I got back, I find that I am no longer a participant, but an observer of U.S. culture. I find myself floating along the fringes, skeptically studying every Wal-Mart, every parking lot, every car, every billboard, the way people walk, and dress, and talk.
I wanted to write this article immediately upon returning, but I've been at a loss for words. Even now, I find it hard to describe the changes that have overtaken me, that have taken over every one I've talked to from the trip. We can't be content with just our little slice of the world anymore, with Minneapolis, or Duluth, Minnesota. I've lived in the United Kingdom for a year; I've traveled to nearly twenty different countries. I've stood in front of the Berlin Wall, I watched the Eiffel Tower light up on New Year’s Eve, I’ve had Christmas dinner in London. I lounged around in some of the largest outdoor Turkish bath houses in Budapest, Hungary; I've taken old Soviet trains as far east as I could, through Romanian oil fields, through Bulgaria, across the Turkish border. I drank apple tea and smoked sheesha while watching boats come through the harbor in Istanbul, and I stood on top of the Acropolis, and looked out on the great city of Athens. I made my way west again from there, endured a grueling trip to the hospital in Croatia when my knee gave out on me midway through my trip, and hobbled to our villa in Spain on crutches.
This weekend, I could be in Paris. Instead I'm at my parent’s house. It's an odd reality one has to come to grips with.
But I’ve experienced moments of healing and transition that have been as frequent as the dark thoughts. Two days after touching down, my father took me and my youngest sister about an hour outside of Minneapolis, to a little town on the St. Croix River. It was a town I'd been frequenting off and on my whole life. We commented that the local ice cream shop no longer stood next to the local independent grocer. It had relocated to the back lot.
After having a burger at the local bar and grill, we drove down a winding street, and approached train tracks. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a solitary train conductor, standing next to a solitary three-car train. On the way back around, that train started moving, and we stopped at the intersection to watch it pass. It crawled by, and each person, and I mean every single person, stood by the window and waved at us, young children, an Indian couple, an old man. It was so reassuring to see people still using that form of transportation that is such a part of daily life in Europe. We got ice-cream at that old parlor, and again out of the corner of my eye, I caught the slogan written on the change jar. "Change Needed." In more ways than one.
But it's the little towns, the simple life, the neighbors that all know each other, and care for each other, the small town America that gives me hope.
I've returning with a revitalized vigor for life, with a greater environmental awareness, with an increased respect and in some since devotion to public transportation (I've vowed never to own another car), and a profound connection with the inhabitants of the world around me. Through the new lens over my eyes, I've began searching for signs of a changing tide, of the kind of movement that will be needed to heal the rift in our country, to reverse the destructive tendencies that have become such a normal part of public life for the last century.
And believe it or not, I'm beginning to see it. It's taking skyrocketing oil and food prices, and the high rates of unemployment to get the humble residents of small towns to start talking about changing the status quo. But it's exactly this kind of talk that is sweeping the bar tops, the supermarket checkout lines, children's PTA meetings. Americans, albeit a bit behind the rest of the world, are realizing that after decades of burning through our finite natural resources, after building suburb after suburb that forces us to commute 30 miles a day to work, that we can't sustain ourselves much longer on our present course. The millions starving and the victims of resource wars all over the world can attest to that. The hundreds of thousands dead in Burma and China showcase nature's tendency towards equilibrium.
Shifts in attitude start small, and they start at home. SUV sales are going down, hybrids are going up, more people are biking and walking.
Mike Cason, Dave Doyle, and I went to see Barack Obama's victory speech on Tuesday night at the Xcel Energy Center. We stood outside for six hours. People called us crazy for getting there so early. But 40,000 people showed up to a place that holds 20,000. We stood thirty feet behind the podium. The energy, the electricity, old and young, so many people vibing to the same person, the same message, the same unifying goal of leaving our children and our grandchildren an Earth worth living in, could be felt in every recess of the jam-packed stadium.
The realization that I need to channel the positive insights that I’d accumulated into a productive force here back in the States has been a creeping sensation. But it would be a waste to do anything less, and I’m trying to do the best job of reintegrating back into our society, while hanging on to the friendships, lessons and experiences I attained in my time abroad.
My biggest fear is that I will forget the magical year we shared together. Sometimes it feels like it was just a dream. But it’s kept alive by the friendships I’ve made, the pictures, the knowledge I’ve gained.
When I stare out of my parent’s window, I can see the missing space,
the gaping hole, which my childhood tree had always occupied. But when
I squint my eyes and think back, I can still see the tree where it once
stood, however with the passing time its branches are a little fuzzy and
some may be in different places.
And I’m beginning to realize, that the same holds true for everything in life. When I squint my eyes hard enough, I still see my flat in Birmingham, the beautiful beaches in Brighton, the parks of London.
Because while I may have left England; England will never leave me.
Dealing with the reverse culture shock and changes in relationships has left some of us with the feeling we are losing ground. In England the possibilities were endless. There was always another train ticket to buy or cheap flight to find. We had what seemed like an eternity for winter and spring break to travel anywhere we could manage. Most of us made great use of our time and gained lifelong memories as a result, meeting someone new at every step along the way. Coming back to America has suffocated me with an isolating feeling. Gas prices, travel distances, lack of public transport, and all those other annoyances are magnified. At least we do not have an exchange rate to worry about anymore.
When people say "You don't know what you had 'til it’s gone," they really mean it. The change of scenery is complete. I, we, are never going to live in England again. At least not with the time and space we did these past months. That group dynamic is missing. Regardless of how much we hated parts of it at times, I miss even the worst drama. It was our life in England. No matter how many stories we tell, only we will know what it was really like. How could I explain flat 109 logically? Or the 44 for that matter?
There are a few people from this trip I am still hanging out with as much as possible. It’s almost like were using each other for support. Talking about readjusting with friends that are going through the same thing is easier than explaining yourself to family and old friends.
Seeing so many different cultures and getting a first hand view of life in other countries allows me to reassess my own culture. I’m glad America has garbage collection, unlike Albania. I wish we had universal healthcare, it really works. I miss having busses that go where I want to. And if anyone know a good Balti joint in the metro area, please let me know. We don't know how good we have it. Thanks to my experiences abroad I appreciate parts of the U.S. a little more.
The style of living between our suburban wasteland and the rest of the world is so different. I can't picture myself enjoying living the “American dream” anymore. It is a fine life for most people, but I find it lacking in more ways than one.
All this may feel negative. I am actually really positive inside. I have plans and goals that I know I will achieve: road tripping this summer with friends that were on the trip and a few good ones that remember me even after the lengthy absence, or looking forward to returning to UMD closer to graduating from college than before. Maybe I'll take a trip through Central America to see what it’s like there. I still need to find a job and get a few shirts back from the ex but those are small worries in the long run.
Looking at a map of where I traveled makes it feels like a dream. I was actually over there in the places I had read about in history class. Pictures remind you of little things. It’s hard to forget some of the places; the sunset in Sorrento, the missed train in Amsterdam, the free coffee in Zagreb. Three of a seemingly endless string of moments we lived. Only two weeks ago I was trekking to Shannon. In the last 24 hours overseas, arriving in Birmingham, finally getting back to Tennis Courts, partying one last time, cleaning and packing frantically, running to Shackelton to return my keys, and not being able to sleep on the final Den Caney ride or overseas flight. I barely had time to think. It feels like it was already years ago.
Passing our yearbooks around on the plane was a sobering moment. Some of these people were about to become a line in a book of mine, a witty comment about how political I was or some inside joke. I didn't really know what to say to most people, in words or in text. I was mostly silent. One girl started crying; luckily she liked gummy bears and cheered up quickly. For how exciting I thought returning home would be, it was traumatic and hard. Much more than anyone warned us. I felt like the life I built was being broken into pieces that would now be scattered across the U.S. After a smooth pass through customs, the parents were waiting near the doors of the terminal. I looked around and saw my mom. Hugged her and then didn't know what to do. I didn't want to walk around and say bye to everyone. T hat would have been too hard. I said goodbye to a few close friends and got the hell out of there. For better or worse I left some people without saying goodbye. I like leaving things open like that. Why make something you don't want to end final if you don't have to.
Last Tuesday Dave Doyle, Erik Lund and I went to the Obama rally at the Xcel. After a couple cups of coffee and a quick lunch, the hours of waiting came to an end. We passed through the metal detectors and past piles of abandoned umbrellas and chairs, I had to jog to catch up with Dave and Erik, they were moving so fast. We went down the steps to the floor and some volunteer gave us yellow wristbands and told us to enjoy the view. After all that waiting and a long line ahead of us we didn't expect to be 30 feet from the podium. The podium stood empty for another two hours and then to incredible applause, Obama took the stage and announced his nomination. It was nice to finally feel the excitement in person. After reading about it all year, words can't describe the hope he gives, the people he unites, and the feeling I got listening to him speak. For the thousands of people there that night, it meant something. It meant something to the little boy halfway across the world too, and that’s the part I love.
I returned to my house to find a bundle of balloons floating in the front yard. Three small ones: one red, one white, and one blue. A fourth was the largest and was in the shape of a guitar. It read “USA Rocks!” My mom is pretty funny!
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