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I don’t want to leave. Does anyone? How do you even prepare?
Really, I always knew it would come to this. I remember lying in my bed sometime in January, amazed that so much time had already passed. In some sense I suppose I could say with a wistful sigh or panicked shout, “It went by so fast!” But that’s not right. It went by exactly as fast as it seemed to go, unforgiving, merciless and straight on towards its inevitable conclusion: May 27th, 2014.

There’s no denying that while I am sad to go, I am ready. We, the Duluth students, have spent nine months preparing for this. At first, we consoled each other and bonded over things that we missed, celebrated the discovery of some favorite American product in a local shop. We pleaded our Stateside counterparts to send us culinary contraband, and in return we sent missives of postcards and English chocolate. We stayed up with each other for hours, talking about the lives we had and planning our first steps off the plane and back into what we left behind.

Missing things is really a way of life. After a while, my Missings became more like an itchy scar than an open wound. Before I had a chance to realize it, I was sinking deeper and deeper into a new pool of Missings. Just as I began to enjoy my new cell, I have to leave it. And so, the cycle begins anew.

My last week has been spent doing “lasts” and saying goodbye. Last time going to Asda. Last time buying good chocolate. Last burger, last pizza, last pub, last full English breakfast. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. How do you say goodbye to so many people and things with such finality? I’ve determined that there is no good way. Goodbye is really only as final as I make it, though, because in some sense nothing will ever leave me.

Fortunately for me, fate is a terrible weaver. In the great tapestry of life, my thread has been crossed many times with many others, and they have all left their mark somewhere – from the trinkets in my bags to the memories in my head. It’s weird how even the most insignificant actions can have the most profound effects on others. In this sense, we can make our actions a message to the future.

For this reason, in true V for Vendetta style (and because I’m a sentimental moron) I hid a note in my room for the next occupant to find.

Dear occupant,
My name is Mitchell, and for the 2013-2014 year I was an American exchange student here. I had some of the best times of my life this year, and this room saw my life change. I hope whoever you are wherever you’re from, you take opportunities where you can and take the time care about the people in your life.

I’ve got nothing on my mind,
Nothing to remember,
Nothing to forget.
And I’ve got nothing to regret.
But I’m all tied up on the inside,
No one knows quite what I’ve got,
And I know that on the outside
What I used to be
I’m not
anymore.

Crossroads, Don McLean

Letter from America

Mitchell,
By the time you read this, you’ll be leaving England. At the time of writing, you’ve been here almost two weeks.
It’s been a good two weeks. Hopefully the experiences you’ve had complete overshadow everything that’s happened so far though.
So I’ll write what I hope happens:

  • Make friends in every class
  • Have a good exchange weekend
  • Spend Christmas with new people
  • Spend New Year’s somewhere awesome

As you know, I’m not much for setting goals. But remember the reasons you came on this trip in the first place:

  • Always wanted to study abroad
  • Make new friends
  • Leave home
  • Forcefully eject self from ‘shell’

I think so far that I am satisfied with the trip – but I hope you are able to look back at this year and say without doubt that it was best year of your life. [editor’s note: so far…]

-Mitchell Rysavy, September 2013″

Just Passing Through

Of all the books I read in elementary school, there are two that I distinctly remember reading: Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli and There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom by Louis Sachar. I cried for hours after finishing them – I sat up after my bedtime with my poor mom, who listened to me blubber about imaginary characters, and she told me that I had a big heart. I couldn’t understand how someone could irreversibly change someone’s life and just leave – the injustice of it all shattered my fragile psyche. And yet some part of me almost wanted to have my heart broken, instead of reading about imaginary characters to feel it in my stead.

Fast-forward to 2005. My family hosted the young girl who would later become my little sister in a program called Journey of Hope, which connected young eastern European orphans to midwestern families for a summer. The first time I can remember being in an airport was picking her up at Minneapolis-St. Paul International, and the second time was when we had to drop her back off. We led her through the throng of people towards security, and watched her trying to stay in the back of the line so she could say goodbye one last time. It was the saddest I could ever remember being, and we remained silent as we made the long drive home. In just five weeks, we had both welcomed a young spirit into our house and watched it leave us, irreversibly changed. The next year was filled with translators and meetings and long-distance phone calls, but eventually we achieved our happy ending and my sister came home.

All of this was in my mind as I walked away from airport security for the umteenth time this year, shedding a single manly tear. This time I wasn’t actually traveling anywhere; I was dropping my dad off on a flight back to Minnesota after a 9-day abridged tour of England and Paris. All in all, we did pretty well: Oxford, London, Malvern Hills, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Mona Lisa, Van Gogh… I had fun. It was sad, for a moment at least. Me and my big heart. Though all in all it was a much happier parting than the last time I had dropped someone off in an airport, as I knew that in less than two months I’d be seeing him again. But it occurred to me that my parents had been through something similar for three of their four children now… sometimes short term, sometimes long term. It’s funny how things work out like that, because I’d never have thought to call us such an international family, but since 2005 we kind of have been. I imagine it’s kind of mixed blessing for them, seeing all the places their children are going but also spending a lot of time saying goodbye in airports.

I remember when my mom first told me about the Journey of Hope program, and I remember five weeks later when she told me we would be adopting my sister. The future seemed like such a daunting concept even then, and through many tears and muddled emotions I told her that nothing’s going to be normal anymore, is it? To which she replied, no, I guess we have to find a new normal. I guess we did.

Bringing It All Back Home

My god, what happened to February? Did January even happen? And now it’s April. I turn around and all of a sudden it’s spring break and we’re registering for next semester and I go back home in two months. Home… remember home? I thought I remembered home, but now I’m not so sure. Home sure feels like the place that I sleep, where I return to after a trip and where I write these posts. Home is where the heart is, and for sure I will be a leaving a piece of my heart in England.

A long, long time ago, on a lake far, far away… someone told me that my study abroad group would become a kind of family. I didn’t believe them. Traditionally I haven’t meshed well in big groups and I knew I was taking a gamble – but I lucked out. Seriously this has been the best seven months of my life and it’s in no small part due to the people I’m with. There’s no way I could have predicted pretty much anything that has happened so far, and I’ve always had someone to cheer with or complain to. It’s pretty great.

At some point in the last month the impermanence of our situation started creeping into our thoughts and conversation. We all know that this nine month experience will end eventually, but it’s making me really sad to think about it. This is the way I see it: in a year or two, most of us will be graduating anyway, and then we will all scatter into the great diaspora of life. Why rush it? After we get back, most of us are going back to Duluth, so why shouldn’t the friendships we made here survive the trip over the Atlantic? So I keep telling myself, though I know that real life isn’t quite so simple.

Above all, I will take this opportunity to enjoy what time and trips I have left. This past weekend we went to York. I suppose it’s fitting that I visit the original York before New York, where I someday hope to live (at least for a little while.) It’s a testament to how comfortable that I’ve become with these people that I worked up the courage to make a video featuring people other than myself. The videos are generally a lot of fun to make, and they’re a great way to share what I’ve been doing to my stateside audience. But, of course, my videos serve another purpose: they document my year in a way that text never could. Thanks to this uniquely 21st century technology, I will be able to look back at myself in decades to come and really remember what a great time I had with my friends.

And who knows? Maybe we’ll still be in touch.

All At Once

It was a beautiful early spring day, and after three hours of purgatory class, I walked down to my favorite park and watched the sun set over Worcester. The sky was clear, or at least, clear by English standards; what clouds that remained were bathed in pink and orange light as the sun made its slow plummet towards the horizon between the Malverns and the Cathedral. I was reminded of the last time I had watched – really watched – a sunset: August 29th, 2012. That night I had driven out to one of my favorite places to watch the night fall, for less than 12 hours later I would be leaving for Duluth, and everything would change.

See, I wasn’t used to change. In my eyes, I haven’t changed since like middle school. I mean, once I discovered the Beatles and got my first computer, the stage was pretty much set for everything that came after. Even most of my clothes are 4+ years old. But the thing you have to realize about change is that it has a nasty habit of sneaking up on you…

This past weekend, the UMD group went to Wales. We set off at the crack of dawn (7:30am!) and drove and drove and drove. Wales came into view like John Green describes falling asleep: slowly, then all at once. The suddenly tiny coach bus was weaving on and off country roads, through narrow village streets and between snow-capped mountains. It was surreal; the clouds seemed to part as we crossed the border and once again enveloped us, slowly making their way across the jagged terrain.

Our destination was a hostel in the national park of Snowdonia, but we were in no hurry. We made stops in the villages of Portmeirion and Beddgelert, and finally, in the late afternoon, we reached the hostel, Idwal Cottage. Idwal sits in a valley, dwarfed by its mountainous surroundings yet humble in its aims. The group arrived to find warm beds and began preparations for a hot meal. Myself and two others took the opportunity to seek out a winding path towards the mountain lake.

I can only imagine what it would have felt like, as a settler to the area, to see the mountains for the first time. Stone walls and fields spread wide across the valley, as they have for generations. I thought about how it must have felt for people long ago, but it occurred to me that this landscape wasn’t inherently better than anywhere else; really, all landscapes are kind of equal, when you think about it. I suppose someone that lived in mountains their whole life would be as awestruck at the vastness of the Great Plains as I am in Snowdonia. It really calls into question our notions of natural beauty, and what we consider to be worth keeping around.

Saturday night was spent relaxing and, for those of us who had ventured outside, recovering from the wounds of our adventures. It was nice to have a meal cooked by someone who knew what they were doing, and afterwards, some of the group made use of the Welsh boardgame collection offered by our generous hosts.


The coach bus set off once again through the mountain valley for the return trip. We stopped at Caernarfon Castle, which fulfilled all my expectations of what a castle should be: “big” and “maze-like.” As we made a loop around the castle walls, ducking in and out of towers and staring down pits, we imagined what each room could have been, and the daily lives of the castles’ inhabitants. This castle had dominated the city for hundreds of years, a bastion of stability in the ever-changing chaos of the world. And now, old and tired, a husk of its former glory, it played host to our tiny troupe, intruders in its once-noble halls.

After Caernarfon, we embarked once again, this time for the city we now call home. Before I knew what had happened, we were on the highway and Wales had disappeared from view, like nothing had happened.

We made a short stop in the city of Chester, but the magic of Wales was gone. Chester is home to Roman ruins (they really are all over the place) and ruins of one St. John’s Cathedral. Set high in the wall, above what remains of an altar, is an ancient oak coffin that reads “Dust to Dust.” Standing in the ruins of the cathedral, it’s easy to see that nothing, no matter how we try to preserve it, lasts forever, and we are all subject to the power of time.

Because that’s the thing about change: it happens slowly, and then all at once.

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Accomplishment

I’ve put off writing this post for a long time. I’ve gone through so many iterations of this post in my head that it has apparently looped back around to writing this post about writing this post.

But anyway. Let’s talk about goals.

I had a turbulent summer, and in the middle of it I created a list of goals for my upcoming year abroad. It is an interesting and eclectic list, but it is well-balanced with a few easily-achievable goals and a few stretch goals. I was not in the best place when I wrote it, so even as I arrived in England I wasn’t sure if I was going to take it seriously.

Soon after I got back from Barcelona, I opened my neglected, 50-cent Walmart journal and looked at the list once again. It surprised me to see that I had completed a fair few of them since coming to England:

Stay in a hostel
Go to Spain
Go to Stonehenge
Travel by train
Spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve with cool people
I certainly have never considered myself a goal-setting person, but being able to cross those particular items off the list felt pretty good. Since coming here I’ve been in constant fear that I’m wasting my nine months in Worcester by taking the occasional chance to relax. Barcelona was fun, probably the best thing I’ve ever done, but I don’t know how ready I am for another big trip. I’ve come to realize that I have no reason to be ashamed of what I do or don’t get a chance to do over here, and measuring my successes against what others are doing is probably not going to end well. It wasn’t really a big revelation, but I feel like it’s an important one nonetheless.
All that said, I have seen some really awesome places. This past weekend I went to London with the UMD group and I got to spend some quality time on the London Underground, chasing the dreams of my past lives. It reminded me of the first time I was really in a big city – Chicago, 2010, band and choir trip. Back then, I said I wanted to move to a metropolis only because I knew I wanted to leave where I was. That feeling certainly hasn’t disappeared, but it has mellowed a bit. I think I’ve come to respect that the choice between an urban and rural lifestyle is not a dichotomy. Being in a big city, surrounded by people and tall buildings and more life than I have ever known gives me a completely different feeling from the isolation that driving on unpaved roads through fields does. And I know these feelings are complementary, and they will be with me forever no matter where I go.
Ultimately, I have but one goal for this year, and it is simple: don’t come back as the same person that left.

Opportunity Knocks Softly

Some of you may know that I spoke at my high school graduation. I guess I’m still proud of that speech, for the most part, but there’s one part in particular that sticks in my memory:

“Right now, I’m still a little scared. But I’m not going to face my future like a deer in headlights, because it’s my future. And it’s exciting.”
I have a confession to make: I lied. At that time, I wasn’t excited about the future, or scared either. I didn’t know what to think, because I don’t usually think that far ahead. All I knew was that I was looking at another long, hot Minnesota summer and at the end of it, I would be going away. I certainly couldn’t have guessed what I would actually be getting myself into. Change was coming, and, ironically enough, I was exactly like a deer in headlights (without the imminent threat of death, I suppose.)

During high school I came to develop an image of myself, a certain set of things that Mitchell Rysavy knows about himself and what he believes and what he wants to do with his life. Actually, if there’s one thing I’m most sure about, it’s my future self. Past Mitchell can be a jerk sometimes, but I’ve found out that future Mitchell is a pretty cool guy that you should totally hang out with sometime. So I’ve learned I don’t need to be too concerned with the future, because if I do my part now, future Mitchell’s got my back. Or… front? Whatever.

My freshman year ended up being the best and most challenging year of my life up to that point. Gone were any expectations set by anyone who knew me, and gone was any preconceived ideas of what Mitchell Rysavy would or should do when he walks into a room. Unlike many, I don’t think I changed that much, but I did notice that many of the truths that I held to be self-evident about myself started crumbling. I started to question their use as a foundation for Mitchell as a person, and in doing so I slowly redefined myself in this new light. I gave myself a tuneup, if you’re the kind of person that uses car metaphors for everything.

The point is, after a successful freshman year at UMD, I somehow managed to ensure that I wasn’t going right back for a successful sophomore year – instead, I’d be going to Worcester taking a gamble in the success department. Why? I get this question lot from everyone, and from myself most of all. Why did I come to the University of Worcester? Why Worcester? Why England?

The truth is, even after three months here, I don’t have a nice, prepackaged answer to these questions. I don’t really know – but logically there must be a reason. I didn’t really choose the University of Worcester specifically, and – interestingly enough – I didn’t come here for academics. I just came because I saw an opportunity to do something different, and it fit with the new Mitchell – the same Mitchell who found his way to classroom on his third day on campus, and listened to a presentation about coming to some place called Worcester.

I didn’t do it because I have some greater life plan that it fulfills, because I still don’t think that far ahead. No, I came here because I saw that I was changing and I liked it, and I trusted that post-Worcester Mitchell would be near-unrecognizable from the person that gave that speech not so very long ago – I just needed a little push to get there.

Romancing the Stone(henge)

(for the record, the intro for this video was inspired by the opening credits of my favorite movie, School of Rock, and I regard it as the best 30 seconds of video I have ever created)

At some point on my train journey to Liverpool, I realized that I was:

  1. Alone
  2. Not Lost
  3. Still Alive

It didn’t even feel like I was traveling very far – although, to be fair, I spent more time on trains than I did in Liverpool itself. But I did it – I arranged my own travel and left Worcester by myself. That may not sound like a big deal, but it was to me!

Most of the rest of my time has been spent between Reddit and Netflix on an ordinary school schedule – wake up, eat, class. Eat a few more times. Get outside. Watch Buffy & Angel. Rinse. Repeat. The promise of routine helps keep me sane, but obviously I didn’t come all this way to do exactly the same things I do at home.

A couple weekends ago the UMD group went to Stonehenge and the city of Bath. Stonehenge is cool because it’s Stonehenge – a tourist mecca. I’m pretty sure England doesn’t even count your visit to their country unless you go there. They reenact ritual sacrifices every twenty minutes. And the laser show – did I mention the laser show? You should go sometime.


Well, not really.

It is a pretty unique experience though. Even the clouds parted for us.

It’s pretty humbling to tread on such ancient ground that’s so much older than not just myself, but my country and just about everything else I have ever seen or loved.
Of course, the same applies to all of the city of Bath, a city that’s famous for its remnants of Roman settlement. The city is noticeably different from other English cities I’ve visited – everything is made of similar grey stone. According to our tour guide, this is one reason that both Charles Dickens and Jane Austen both hated it. Appropriately enough, Bath is owes much of its popularity to the three hot springs within its border – the only three in the United Kingdom! In fact, the Romans liked the springs so much, they built a bath house over it.
Now I don’t know about you, but when I was told about the “Roman bath” I pretty much figured it was a glorified sauna. I guess the Romans took their bathing pretty seriously, though, because an entire complex was built around the bath houses – and they are bath houses. There’s even a temple. Well, there was a temple. But by far the most interesting part of the museum built around these ruins was their coin collection.

The coins found on this site span hundreds of years! I tend to think of Roman times as being within a single generation – I know that’s not true, but I don’t have a benchmark. But these coins… they’re such a simple thing, but they represent so much history that is lost forever. I mean, did people throw them into fountains and make a wish? Did they get what they wanted? Did they like their emperor? Did they think about how they would be remembered?

I still think it’s crazy how I can walk into town every day and walk through buildings older than the United States, and in the grand scheme of things, that’s not even old. They told us that the water in the hot springs of Bath first fell 10,000 years ago. That’s pre-Roman. Even Stonehenge has only been around for a few thousand years. Listen to me, a “few thousand.” Like it’s nothing. 
It certainly is humbling.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Let me give you the low down on my school week:

  • Monday: No class
  • Tuesday: Human Geography, followed by a seminar
  • Wednesday: Educating the Human Brain, followed by Social Constructions of Britain
  • Thursday: No class
  • Friday: Biology (all morning)

The whole “having to sit in class for more than one hour” thing is really throwing me off, but I think I’ll live.
Anyway, I was sitting in Tuesday afternoon geography listening to the lecturer talk about what makes a place. “Place” as a concept here – a “place” could be your seat at the dining room table just as much as your home town is a “place.” He showed us pictures of some of his favorite places, and asked us to think about what some of our favorite places are. I thought about mine:

  1. Duluth, Minnesota
  2. My basement at home
  3. The bike trails back home

All of sudden, it hit me. Harder than anything I had felt on this trip so far.
I was homesick.
I missed Netflix on the worn couches in my basement. I missed the exertion of biking up and down hills. And I missed waking up near the awe-inspiring majesty of Lake Superior.
The feeling soon passed, but I was left considering how “home” had changed over the last year and a half.
Last year, as myself and hundreds of other freshmen settled in to college life, I would occasionally hear someone refer to their dorm or floor as “home.” And this was always weird to me. I mean, yeah, it kind of was – it’s where we slept and kept our junk. But to me, it was never “home.” My room here has a much stronger claim to the term – considering I have my own bathroom and kitchen, and I have to do my own shopping and everything – but it still isn’t “home.”
Home to me is still the place where I grew up, all the way back across the Atlantic. I know this will eventually change, and that it’s starting to change already. But they don’t call it “homesick” for nothing.

And now for something completely different!

My first few weeks have been full of… well, stuff. Lots of stuff. I’ve taken three major trips: a walk through the Malvern Hills, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Lake District near the Scotland border.

The Malvern Hills were apparently J.R.R. Tolkein’s inspiration for the Shire in The Hobbit. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any Hobbits on my walk, but the view was pretty inspiring.

The Natural History Museum was fascinating in the way that only hundreds of taxidermied animals and glass cases of minerals can be. I did get up close and personal with a marble statue of Charles Darwin, though:

I also got to see a dodo, and I was pretty excited until I found out that it couldn’t have been a real one.

The whole from from UMD went to the Lake District, specifically, to the Priestley Centre on Coniston Water. I went canoeing for the first time, and the next day I walked, climbed and crawled all the way to the top of the Old Man of Coniston, the twelfth highest hill in England. I didn’t get many pictures of this trip, but I made sure to get a picture of the old man as a souvenir:

And that brings me to today. I have been laying low and going to class for the last two weeks, and I think I’m finally starting to settle in. I don’t have any big set plans for the coming weeks and months yet, so only time will tell what I’ve done when I next decide to write…

Arrival

On Sunday the 8th, I said goodbye to my family and friends in Minnesota and left home for the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport.

For the entire week leading up to my departure, I focused a lot on how sad it would be – to leave everything and almost everyone I knew behind. And it was – but I was kind of disconnected from the fact that nothing’s really ending permanently.

In fact, so much is only just beginning.


The 8 hour flight was my first ever airplane experience. I was pretty nervous, but it actually went very well. Aside from the fact that I didn’t get much sleep and had very little leg room, I’d say it actually went pretty well. Even the food was good acceptable. At some point, as I was watching the plane slowly fly over the Atlantic on the small screen in front of me, it hit me that this was the farthest I had ever been from home. I had done it! I finally left!

We were greeted in London at Heathrow by fog and rain. We did just arrive in England, after all. After getting through customs and collecting our bags, we boarded a large coach bus that took us to our eventual destination: Worcester, England.

By the time I finally got to a bed and was able to sleep, about 18 hours had passed. At that point, it still felt like I had just left Minneapolis.

The next two days have been a whirlwind of activity, from registration to grocery shopping to walking many miles around Worcester. I don’t start classes until the 23rd of September, and all the weekdays before that are filled with orientation activities. It will be nice to start class and get a routine, but I’m also kind of afraid that I won’t like the classes (“modules”). I supposed this is just normal start-of-the-year anxiety!

Looking ahead, it seems like the possibilities are endless. The entire group has been dreaming big about trips around Europe and I can only hope that I will get to make the most of this long trip.