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.”

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…