It’s mid-summer cleaning time.  As I pack myself up for a very permanent-feeling move to California, I’m purging myself of old books and clothes and knickknacks and CDs, hopelessly attempting to maintain the myth that I still maintain the student ideal of a life that fits into two duffel bags.  Cleaning has taken a digital form, too, as I attempt to squeeze an extra year out of a laptop that has seen one-too-many tours of duty in the developing world.

Last night I was deleting old photos, working forwards from the appearance of digital cameras among my peer group—circa 2004.  I reached the folder containing my early photos of Oxford, taken during that first term in 2009 when I felt the need to document every remotely gothic-looking building I saw, which, in Oxford, meant pretty much everything.  Maybe it’s because I am back in the town where I grew up—to me, the most comfortable and familiar place in the world—but those photos already feel incredibly distant, just one week after I have left England.  I almost had to pinch myself: yes, really, I lived in England for two years.  No, seriously, I went to Oxford.  Me.

I sit down to write this hoping that a bit of detachment will help me articulate something I have wanted to write for some time, but never quite felt able to capture.  As I returned from my jaunt around Europe, and confronted that sad finality of leaving, I was overwhelmed by a simple sentiment: I absolutely love England (okay, Wales, you can be part of this too).  While the whole business about the “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K. may be a bit of a wash, I know that, for me, I will always feel a strong connection to the place, even as I acknowledge that I will probably never again call it home.  I am, you might say, a consummate Anglophile.

At the same time, however, my time on the continent reminded me of why finding quick explanations for my chronic and incurable Anglophilia is difficult.  England doesn’t fare particularly well on the generic metrics by which American tourists judge countries.  Things aren’t as efficient in the U.K. as in Germany, and—I’m afraid to say, after some rigorous experimentation in the last two weeks—they have better beer too.  I haven’t been to Italy, but I’m told it tops England in one of its own country’s biggest selling points: history and old buildings.  The night life is better in Spain, and the food superior in France—unless you’re vegetarian, in which case, curry saves the day.  But that’s Indian, anyway.

Many of the Americans I met during my time at Oxford never could seem to get past these comparisons.  Even people for whom I had a great deal of respect often could not say much more about the country in which they were temporary residents other than that it was crowded, rainy, and bureaucratic.  Of course, I’d like to think that I have more than such a superficial take on this place, but that doesn’t make it any easier to explain what I like about it.

For every positive stereotype I can conjure, there’s a quick counter-example.  Yes, I suppose I’ve encountered the classic plucky English demeanor that insists that, with appropriate quantities of tea, any obstacle can be overcome—but thinking of the irrepressible rudeness of the Gloucester Green bus-ticket salesmen reminds me that it’s not universal.  Claiming that I love England for the quaintness and antiquity of Oxford seems dishonest when I think of every visit to multi-cultural London, or even my most recent walk down Cowley Road.  And while I’d still probably prefer a Tory government to a Republican one, the recent phone-hacking scandal has thoroughly dispelled any illusions I might have held about the British political system.  Socialist utopia, England—like the rest of Europe—is not.  Just ask the people rioting in London.

When I look back on it, though, the reasons I can offer for my all-consuming Anglophilia—quickly becoming Anglo-nostalgia—are a bit like my photos: disjointed and disconnected.  It’s a series of mental snapshots that are neither truly representative of England nor, in my mind, capable of being disconnected from it.  It’s discussions of everything ranging from ecological Marxism to the latest antics of the boat club, held in pubs which—for reasons ineffable—have always felt a far cheerier environment than American bars could ever be.  It’s the way that sunny days are talked about for weeks thereafter, and how any weather even slightly above-the-rainy-norm must be seized upon and enjoyed with a picnic in Port Meadows.  It’s that night in Cambridge where I realized that going to Grad School doesn’t have to mean growing up.  It’s the brilliance of my English undergraduate friends, whose hours spent making fancy-dress costumes and drafting absurd JCR motions would have, at Princeton, been used panicking about this or that resume-building extracurricular activity.

No, that’s not it, or at least, not all of it.

This time last week, I was closing out my British bank account.  As I drew out my last £9.12—it seems my scholarship calculated the stipend just right—the teller remarked:

“Heading back home to the states?”

“Yes,” I replied, “But I’m sad to be leaving.”

His response seemed almost tailored to be put into a blog post: “I can never figure out why people would say that about leaving England.”

I wish I could have explained it to him, but some things are beyond words.

Going Back; Moving On

Every time I go back to Princeton, the entire thing feels like a non-stop personal examination.  While I should just enjoy my precious few days on campus, I find myself spending the balance of time agonizing over how it is, exactly, I am supposed to relate to my alma mater.  I am I supposed to feel sad or elated to be back?  Should I go for the humorous-if-sketchy persona, or try to show that I’ve grown up a bit?  And what am I supposed to say about the real world*: that it’s a non-stop barrel of laughs, or that I cry myself to sleep at night longing for the undergraduate glory days?

The first time I go back this year, I feel nothing.  It’s the day after I returned from Ecuador, and I run along the tow path from Jackie’s house in Lawrenceville onto Princeton’s campus.  Aside from a handful of inexplicable changes—did they put a new archway into Brown Hall just to give alums something to whine about?—everything looks the exact same.  And yet I am not overcome with the wave of nostalgia I was expecting.  The undergrads aren’t yet back from their summer vacation, and the emptiness of campus reminds me that my best and worst memories of Princeton have nothing to do with gothic buildings.

Two Saturdays ago, I went back again—except this time, not to Princeton, but to the band.  At first I am elated, because after about five minutes it doesn’t seem to even matter that I am graduated.  More than anything, though, Saturday made me feel relieved.  In part, I am relieved to see that the band has not fallen apart, and, in fact, is thriving.  But I’m also relieved that, even if it were falling apart, I’m not sure it would be the end of the world.  I am not worried about what the officers are doing, or whether the new members are having a good time, or how it will all look in the eyes of athletics.  I am, for an afternoon, a freshman again: I can dance and sing like an idiot and not care what anyone else thinks.

I feel like a freshman again Saturday night, at the Triangle Show, but this time not in a good way.  By my senior year, I found at least mildly amusing the skits and songs celebrating how fabulously isolated and rich and preppy Princeton is.  With a bit more detachment, though, I am taken aback—and remember why, when I first arrived, I didn’t feel like I fit in.  On Sunday, I go to lawnparties—an event I rarely made it to as a student—and can’t help but feel grateful for the fact that I no longer have to look at the J-Crew-clad army again and think, “These are my peers.”  I actually wind up leaving lawnparties early and going to Marquand library to work.  Peering over a dense book of sociological theory to watch people stagger back from the street on a Sunday—now that makes me feel like an undergraduate again.

Striking the right balance when going back is hard enough that I am realizing that, perhaps, it is easier not to go back at all.  And, of course, Princeton is doing its part to nudge me out the door.  Graduation doesn’t actually mark a clean break.  For a few years, you can still make it back and steal a few moments where it feels as if you’ve never left.  But then they change the ID card, so you can’t getinto the library anymore.  They block off the places you used to sneak into, and they reorder things enough that it doesn’t quite feel like home anymore.  Eventually, all your friends graduate, and the new students don’t particularly want to listen to your stories about six, seven, eight years ago anymore.  Your antics stop being funny in a nostalgic sort of way: they’re just pathetic.

And it’s realizing that—that this really might be my last visit to Princeton outside of reunions—that makes me incredibly sad.  It really is over, and, regardless of what the song says, you can’t actually go back.  I’ve spent so much time trying to forget about Princeton and get over it that I almost forgot how much I love this place.

* By “real world”, I obviously mean, “the other fake world: Oxford.”

Oral History

My grandpa is out in the garage.  He’s been standing-up for the last four hours, while he refinishes a bench with a power-sander.  I suppose this is not that exceptional, except that he is ninety years old, and—despite having flown half-way across the country unassisted to come visit us—has decided to spend his vacation doing manual labor.  You’d think after twenty-five years of retirement, he’d have figured out how to rest, but apparently not.  I wish my dogs were in such good shape.

He’s also—naturally—still mentally sharp as a tack.  He started telling stories about his time in the Army during World War II the other night, and could still embellish with such details the name and hometown of the staff sergeant with whom he had a three minute conversation sixty-seven years ago about acquiring extra sheets for his platoon’s barracks.  My grandpa never got within a thousand miles of combat, but for me, his stories are still amazing.  Hearing him talk about being the sole white officer for an all-black unit—the military didn’t allow black units to have black officers until it integrated in ’49—had a few cringe-worthy moments for my politically correct soul, but was still mind-blowing.  He was there.  This was his world.

He continued on to tell me about some mysterious cargo he unloaded on a supply convoy to Brazil in 1942.  It’s not exactly the stuff of history books, but I desperately wanted to pull out my tape recorder; in a few minutes, he had moved on, and I can’t help but think that story will never be told again.  When I was little, all my friends’ grandparents had served; indeed, practically every retiree you would see was a vet.  At the rate they are disappearing, though, it occurs to me that my children will probably never meet someone from this “Greatest Generation”—and as a result, the way people like my Grandpa lived and served and died will be no more or less real or relevant than what we read in books about the Civil War or Wild West or Roman Legions.  I suppose for that reason, the idea of having my Grandpa’s voice digitally preserved—even if it’s just a story about a practical joke he played on the Captain during basic training—seems unfathomably value.

And then, of course, there’s the sociologist in me.  I’ve been spending the last three months trying to understand the worldview of people in the Amazonian jungle, some of them indigenous people born before their society even had contact with the outside world.  It’s a puzzle, for sure, but there are times when I wonder if the way my Grandpa sees my own country is any less foreign to me.  We had coffee with a friend of my father’s this week.  On our walk back to the car, my Grandfather asked “What does her husband do?”, at which point my father explained that, well, actually she didn’t have a husband, she has a partner, and the two of them have a child together.  He paused and thought for a bit.  He may have made it through the war, but this was still a new encounter.  Eventually, he said “You know, I’ve seen a lot in my life, and I’ve learned not to judge.  My mother never judged, and I think that’s why she lived so long.”  There is as much to learn from my Grandpa as there is from the Huaorani, I suppose.

I head back to Princeton tomorrow, leaving at 3:30 a.m.  I’m pretty sad to be leaving after only a week.  It’s always too short, no matter where I am.  I guess nomadism is inevitable now that I have people I care about scattered across three distant corners of the country and in three separate continents.  I only realized I needed to pack, unfortunately, at 9:05 p.m., and my Grandpa—who has been going to bed at 9:00 p.m. for the last thirty-thousand days of his life—had already retired to the guest room, where we keep all the duffel bags.  Not wanting to be the guilty party, I sent my mother in to retrieve one.  She told me she found him on his knees, giving thanks to God for his family, for being here, for being alive.

My Grandpa has lived to all his friends pass away and the world as he knew it turned on its head.  And yet, he tells me, any day he gets up is a good day.  He’s still grateful for everything. That is how you live to be 90, and still have power-sanding to show for it.

In My Father’s Shoes

One day in eighth grade, when my mother was out of town, my dad picked me up to school.  At this point in my life, all I wanted to do after 3:30 p.m. was get home and fry my brain with hours and hours of video games (I think it was Starcraft at that point), but when my dad picked me up, there was always something that we had to do first.  Trips to the hardware store, plant nursery, or office were always exciting detours to look forward to.

This particular day, we drove to the outskirts of town, to a strip mine where human ingenuity and modern technology were being used to tear down a volcano.  My dad was looking to pick up some cinders, I think, for some landscaping project on which I would invariably be forced to work on the following Saturday morning (I would, once again, have preferred to be playing Starcraft).  My dad chattered with some sort of a salesman, who walked into his trailer to get a price quote on something.  As we waited, gazing over the desolate moon-scape, I turned to my dad and, in the charming sarcasm of an obnoxious fourteen year old, told him “Dad, I’m so glad we can share these father-son bonding experiences together.”

Our trip that afternoon has earned a place in family lore, but it’s not the only quality time we spent together in my youth.  There were also Boy Scout backpacking trips, in which we together learned such useful skills as tomahawk throwing and spar-pole climbing, as well as sniggered at my Scoutmaster’s lingering anger over Jane Fonda’s visit to Hanoi (which happened in 1969) and fear that the federal government might restrict his assault rifle ownership.  For a mountain of reasons, though, the last two weeks I have spent with my dad travelling Latin America take the take for the best days I have ever spent with my father (and not just because there are no pit mines or black powder shooting ranges involved).

My dad has a pretty deep connection to Latin America, having spent two years in the Peace Corps in Peru and another year doing conservation work in Costa Rica.  When I was really young, I used to tell me teachers that my had two jobs: one where he sat in an office in Washington D.C., and another where he went to the rainforest to save monkeys.  Precocious as I was, within a few years I figured out that it was actually the same job: director of The Nature Conservancy’s Latin America program.  Still, though, not until this trip did I have any idea how far-reaching—and fascinating—his roots in Latin America were.  Who knew that I spent an entire year backpacking across the continent, anyway?

It seems every place we visited triggered another memory: “Oh, yeah, I think maybe I was involved in the creation of that park.”  Sometimes, though, his footprints were not so larger, but they were always interested; on this trip, he finally opened up and told me tales of hitchhiking through Argentina, or taking wood-powered paddle boats through the Amazon.  The best part of it, though, is the sense that I am starting to trace my father’s footprints.  Long hours spent winding along Andean highways have given me plenty of time to imagine my dad, at the same age, doing the same.  My father, too, arrived in Latin America with only a bit of Spanish and not one bit of experience, and a few decades later retired with a trail of protected areas and national parks in his wake.  Spending time with him makes me realize that I could be very content with my life if only I could do the same.

Cold Calling

The dirty secret of my budding* career in the social sciences is that talking to people kind of scares me.  It’s a bit difficult to explain why: having spent three years Mohawk-ed in one of the country’s more conservative institutions, I can’t say that I’m too obsessed with what people think of me.  Still, though, approaching strangers—whether to get directions, ask them to take a survey, or order a pizza—has always been something of a phobia.  I pretty much gave up on a political career when, working on campaigns, I realized that making cold calls made me sick to my stomach.  It wasn’t until one year into my last research project, with, that I finally mustered up the courage to actually ask people for interviews.

Last week, I let this fear get the better of me.  I spent a lot of time sitting around my hotel, hoping that people would miraculously respond to e-mails sent weeks ago, even though they were in reality just a phone call away.  I was reconsidering retitling my thesis “An ethnography of the lonely”, because all my data came from people who—seeing me on a park bench down by the pier—were sufficiently starved for human interaction to talk to a solitary gringo. And to think, if I had chosen to enroll in Economic and Social History rather than International Development at Oxford, I could be in the emotionally safe space of a library!

This week, my fear of coming back to Oxford empty handed eventually got the better of my social phobia.  As potentially disastrous as a phone call in a foreign language over a questionable connection can be, I’ve been making a lot of cold calls—and scoring a lot of amazing interviews.  People are, of course, overwhelmingly nice.  This is something that I’ve known all along, but that has been striking me this week, as an enormous number of people have offered me their time and knowledge after I—without introduction—called them.  Today, I even marched over to the mayor’s office, hoping to get an explanation for why her secretary had not contacted me as promised.  I left an hour later having carried out an on-the-spot interview.

Maybe this sounds vaguely like gloating, but for me, it’s just one of many ways in which I feel like I have personally grown during this trip.  Of course, having a mountain of data and the right to hold my head up high on my return to school counts for a lot.  And I’m really excited about the idea of now being—more-or-less—bilingual.  But much more valuable for me is the realization that maybe choosing a career path that involves a life spent talking to people of all sorts isn’t such a bad idea after all.

*Or soon-to-be-ending, depending on whether I get around to taking the GRE and/or fail my thesis because I do not use these words enough.

Three Cheers: A World-Cup-Patriotism Post-Mortem

Sometime around age sixteen, I pretty much gave up on patriotism.  The accumulated weight of bearing witness to a senseless “pre-emptive” war, the travesty that was the Bush Administration, and listening to one-too-many Anti-Flag records combined to squash much appreciation for the country where I was born out of me.  I wouldn’t say I was “anti-American”, but I certainly had lost faith in the myths of American exceptionalism drilled into me by public schooling and Boy Scouts.  Not even my hopes of a future political career could keep me saying the Pledge of Allegiance or make me lip-synch to the National Anthem.

There were few things about the student body at Princeton that annoyed me more than some of my peers’ complacent, uncritical patriotism.  A yearly confrontation with jingoism came every spring at Tower houseparties when, at some point during dinner, a group self-labelled “the assholes” would stand up and start chanting “USA!  USA!  USA!”  Emboldened by my Mohawk and a half-bottle of wine, I would join my friends Devon and Jordan in some sort of inane counter-cheer (“Anarchy!  Anarchy!” was a highly intellectual favorite).

I left for England safe and secure that I was a “different” sort of Yankee, the kind that avoided the brash nationalism for which Americans were, in my mind, known.  I had all sorts of aspirations to show people that we weren’t all small minded, gun-toting, flag-waving yokels.  What I discovered very quickly, though, is that—like it or not—I am very American.  When I first arrived and people asked me where I was from, I would respond “The U.S.”, which would usually prompt, “Yes, I know.  But what part?”  Either through accent, or volume, or sheer gregariousness, people just seem to know that I am American.

Over time, I’ve learned to simply accept and appreciate it, and be unabashedly loud and friendly.   Of course, my journey of changing national self-identification has been a bit more complex than just realizing that my lack of volume-control.  In such an international climate as Oxford, many of our conversations revolve around simply describing where we come from.  It’s in these moments that I realize my enthusiasm for the U.S.: I light up when I have a chance to describe the vast expanses of the Southwest, or have an opportunity to explain American marching bands, or even unwind the complexities of our system of government.  While I always shy away from claiming that the U.S. is better than country X, I’m increasingly unafraid to offer up differences and say “Where I come from, we do it this way.”

I got a bit of a shock a few weeks ago at Boat Club Dinner, though.  Towards the end of the night, it was announced that I was Worcester’s new Health and Safety Rep (a largely ceremonial position—I’m just hoping to get in on some undergraduate drama).  On my way up, my English friends started chanting “USA!  USA!  USA!”  For once, I didn’t feel any compunction to reply, but just took it as being appreciated for who I am and where I come from.

The World Cup is, of course, a time for all the nationalities of the world to join together in irrationally exuberant patriotism.  My housemate Christoph told me the other day that the World Cup is the only occasion when Germans will display flags without fear of any connection to Nazism.  Juxtaposed against Pride Week, I’ve been reminded that—pretensions to a universal humanity aside—we are creatures that appreciate being part of groups and communities.  And, within the understanding that these groups reflect differences not hierarchies, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

Nonetheless, when I sat down to watch the England-U.S. match, I wasn’t expecting it to be a great patriotic moment.  The English grad students in the Worcester common room were clad head-to-toe in red and white, while I was wearing the only thing I own with an American flag on it—a Propagandhi t-shirt with a tattered flag below which was written, “Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes.”  English people know that Americans don’t care about football, but don’t quite believe it: they peppered me with questions about the American team which I, not knowing the name of a single player, was ill-equipped to answer.  The game was, for me, a chance to watch people getting excited—but not an opportunity to get excited myself.

Ninety minutes later, though, my heart was pounding.  The U.S. was close to pulling England into a humiliating draw which, despite being likely to put my personal safety in jeopardy, would give me weeks of bragging rights.  When the whistle was finally blown, the other Americans in the room and I lept to our feet in celebration.  I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth:

“USA!  USA!  USA!”

– – – – –

Jukebox: Bob Dylan – Things Have Changed

Twenty Three

Somewhat against my better judgment, I turned twenty-three yesterday.

Anyone who reads this regularly knows that I’ve been going through a bit of existential angst about where my life is heading lately.  Yesterday was a nice switch, a chance to take a step back and think about where, in the last year, I’ve been.  As full of challenges and frustrations as twenty-two was, it was, on reflection, pretty amazing.

In the last year, I drove across the U.S. in a car deemed “not safe for any distance” by a mechanic, had maggots surgically removed from my rear-end in a one-room clinic in Uganda, and got in a fight with a neo-Nazi in London.  In January I boated through mangrove swamps in Thailand; three months later, I was wandering the streets of Barcelona at two a.m.  I took up a new sport, rediscovered my inner jock, and fulfilled a long-deferred dream of competing in a collegiate cross-country race.  There were periods when I grew up fast—I submitted my first journal article for peer review—but also—at least for a few summer nights in Flagstaff and Saturday nights in Oxford—times when I didn’t grow up at all.

When I was little, my parents always used to leave a present and a balloon by my bedside on my birthday morning.  Right when I wake up, I can typically barely remember my name, much less what day it is, so this tradition was always nice because it made me feel special from the first moment of the day.  I haven’t woken up to a present in a long time, though, because I haven’t been home for a birthday since I turned sixteen (and that day I failed my driver’s test, so it was a bit of a bust).  It’s always been something—exams, travel, reunions—but it seems like my birthday has passed with a “pfft” for a while.

It was a good omen, then, when I woke up to a set of balloons and a beautiful watercolor of Oxford painted by my housemate, Nicola.

Strong contention for best birthday gift... ever.

The rest of the day went by uneventfully, but pleasantly: I had lunch with a friend from my program, went for a long run along the Thames, and spent the evening dreaming up band names with a fellow punk-wannabe from in my college.  Since no day could be perfect without some radical politics, in the evening I went to an event on the economic crisis put on by the Oxford Socialists.  I walked out feeling intellectually and, in my own way, spiritually stimulated.  It was 9:00 p.m., and the summer sun had just set below Oxford’s spires, an indescribably beautiful image that was, I think, especially fantastic to anyone still recovering from the English winter.  I could hear a string quartet playing inside New College, on the other side of the 800-year-old city walls.  Before I went to bed, I managed a bit more celebrating with a Swiss linguist, a German investment banker, and a Romanian police officer.

Against Me! captured it best: “If you had told me about all this when I was fifteen, I never would have believed it.”

– – – – –

Jukebox: NOFX – New Happy Birthday Song