That month when I lived in Europe.

Tonight is my last night in Europe. It’s been a long day–a long week, actually–full of buses, trains, and long distances on foot. Considering this, the idea of being back home in Texas is actually rather appealing. I look forward to driving a car again; to playing golf; to going 2-3 hours without spending money on something. I look forward to Mexican food and AM Donuts. I look forward to seeing family and friends. And, finally, I look forward to slowing down, getting rest, and resuming normal life.

Of course, I have no doubt that once I’m back, I will almost immediately wish I was still here. There are many things about being abroad that are fantastic, and I will most certainly miss them. I will miss the ubiquitous, daily encounters with so much history and culture. I will miss never-ending options for beautiful places to sit and read. I will miss the peace that comes from, if even for a short and fleeting time, escaping certain worries and anxieties that come with “home.” And, strangely, I will miss walking everywhere. For real.

My students flew home last week, and I’ve spent my time since then on two quick trips in opposite directions. I first went or Cardiff, Wales for the weekend, and then I spent the last couple of nights back in Paris. Some of the highlights:

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^ The keep at Cardiff Castle, which is right in the middle of the city center.

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^ A view of Cardiff city center from the top of the keep. I got very lucky with the weather, as you can see.

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^ The lake at Roath Park in Cardiff. I unknowingly booked an AirBnB right across the street from Roath Park, which is a large, gorgeous, and very pleasant park in the northeast part of the city. This picture is of the lake, which is only a portion of the park. Beautiful landscaping and ample places to sit and relax run throughout the property. This turned out to be one of my favorite places in all of my European travels.

Once I got to Paris on Monday, it was starting to hit me how tired I was from the past month. Summer classes are quite busy, and once my students left I sort of had a moment of realizing that I had spent lots of time everyday doing stuff for the class (as well as the on-line course I was teaching). With that moment came an unexpected onset of fatigue, which really hit me once I got off of my EuroStar in Paris around 9:30pm on Monday night. I still made the most of my two days there, but I definitely didn’t do as much as I had planned.

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^ I got an up-close look at the Arc at night, which was so much bigger than I thought it was. I have no doubt that I’m far from the first person to sheepishly say that.

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^ The fatigue didn’t prevent me from returning to L’As du Fallafel. This time I went with the traditional falafel pita sandwich; it didn’t disappoint. This will be a place I always visit if I’m lucky enough to make more Paris trips in the future.

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^ An illegally-taken picture of me reading my favorite book in my favorite room of my favorite bookstore in my favorite city. This is the copy of The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy in the Sylvia Beach reading room at Shakespeare and Company. I sat down and read the first chapter, and then I realized that I couldn’t wait until I got back home to re-read the entire thing, so I went downstairs and bought another (I think this will be my 3rd?) copy.

I didn’t end up going to any more museums during this trip, but I did meet a few people with whom I shared a few drinks, which was great. Things start and end much later in Europe than in the States, and I found myself walking home last night at an hour that I haven’t seen in a very long time. This might have been the first and only time that I felt a bit unsafe while in Europe, but this is mostly because of how late it was and my lack of any phone service. I made it to my hostel in one piece, unscathed. But I had a few hours yesterday and today of simply walking through the streets of Paris, listening to music and soaking up the city. On paper, how I spent my last few days here don’t look very glamorous, but I’ve found that I’m simply not a glamorous traveler. And I’m totally okay with that.

The highlight of my last week in Europe, though, happened right here in Oxford a few nights ago. I got the chance to have a night of conversation and laughs with the owner of the pub down the street, the Rose and Crown. It’s claim to fame is being Thom Yorke’s favorite pub, which is something I talked to Andrew (the owner) about at length. He had a few stories about Thom and the Greenwood brothers, and he also gave me an eye-opening lecture on why Tottenham is undoubtedly the best team in the English Premier League. I have officially become a Hotspur supporter. At some point during the conversation, he asked me to get him a pint. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, and then he pointed me behind the bar and told me to pull a couple. I, of course, had him take a picture of it.

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^ My proudest Oxford moment: pulling a pint for the owner at the Rose and Crown. He wasn’t particularly impressed with my pint-pulling abilities.

Now that all of the trips, classes, and meals are over, I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the incredible opportunities I’ve had for the past five weeks and of all the places I’ve been and things I’ve done. I’ve made trips to Bath, London, Liverpool, Paris (twice), and Cardiff. I’ve been to countless museums and seen some of the most iconic artifacts and pieces of art in the world. I’ve been to the Open Championship, to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and to the ancient Roman baths. I’ve gotten to talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin with an amazing group of students. I’ve been to two Oxford productions of Shakespeare plays. And I’ve gotten to sleep, eat, walk, learn, and live in a place steeped in culture and history. It’s been amazing, and I think that it will only become more amazing once time goes by and I truly get to appreciate how great the opportunity has been.

My biggest regret from my college experience is that I never studied abroad. I’ve never heard anyone say anything other than how great it was. Now that I’ve done it myself, I know firsthand how true this is. And part of me is glad that I never went as a student, because I think it made this experience even better. Although I was teaching the course, I was learning just as much about Europe as my students. I was right alongside them trying to figure out the metro system in Paris, or which coins to use to pay for our ice cream, or where in the world to go to find a public bathroom. I loved sharing these new experiences with my students, and I think they loved seeing their professor be as doltish and tourist-y as they felt.

Being abroad changes you. You learn so much about the world, how it works, and how it doesn’t work. You learn about other places, but you also learn even more about the places you know best. In order to really understand and appreciate home, you have to leave it. I am so glad I had the chance to do so. I just hope the lessons don’t fade away too quickly, and that I’m able to come back as soon as possible.

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Life after Paris

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“There were no problems except where to be happiest” – Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I spent three nights and four days in Paris last week with my students. All of my travels, trips, and excursions in the States and abroad will hereafter reside in two categories: Before I first visited Paris, and After. After around 72 hours there, it is far-and-away my favorite city in the world. I’ll do a rapid fire of pictures, and then I’ll write a bit about why I loved it so much.

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^ The main entry-way of the Louvre. To say that the museum is big is an understatement. It’s scope and breadth is simply unbelievable. I was tired before I even got through security.

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^ A picture of everyone else taking pictures of a famous picture.

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^ One of the many looooong Louvre hallways.

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^ One of the famous panels of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musee de l’Orangerie, which was my personal favorite of the museums I went to in Paris.

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^ Not sure why, but this one (Konto by Kazuo Shiraga) really grabbed my attention. I stared at this for a couple of minutes, completely perplexed yet totally captivated.

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^ The amazing stained-glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle.

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^ The best food I’ve had yet in Europe. The schawarma pita sandwich at L’As du Fallafel. Simply perfect.

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^ My students at our awesome, memorable evening picnic on the lawn right next to the Eiffel Tower. A couple of students and I simply walked down the street, found a butcher shop next to a bakery, and told them we wanted to have a picnic. They loaded us up with a variety of meats, cheeses, and breads, and we were not disappointed.

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^ The view from the mid-way point up the Eiffel Tower. From here, we made our way to the very top, just in time for the first twinkle at 10pm. It was a very long process from getting tickets to actually getting to the top (about 2.5 hours), but my students were thrilled and it ended up being worth it.

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^ And, of course, Shakespeare and Company, which might be the most famous bookshop in the world. I was in there three times during my trip, and each time I could have stayed longer. It oozes literary history, and the collection of books (although over-priced) is superb.

Many authors have written about the allure of Paris. I’ve read so many of these, and I’ve never been able to quite understand what it was about this particular place that was so special. Now that I’ve been there, I still don’t quite understand it completely, but I know exactly what they mean. There’s simply something about the city that is perfect for someone like me: someone that appreciates food, art, literature, and more food. Paris is a huge city, and I know that residents do not spend every day walking along the Seine, reading great novels, and eating expensive meals. They have jobs, they have problems, and they have the same daily aggravations that we all have to deal with. But, as a tourist, the city is absolutely perfect. The options for places to eat, drink, and/or read are endless. I spent time outside of cafes right next to the Louvre eating cake and reading; I spent time in the Tuileries Gardens sitting by a fountain enjoying lunch; I spent hours walking down the river, listening to music and browsing through the bouquinistes stocks of old books and random posters. All of this time was peaceful, and somehow I was able to feel comfortable, unhurried, and even uncramped. I don’t know how this is possible, because there were people, cars, and movement all around me. But something about the river, the old buildings, and the cafes creates some sort of subconscious peace for someone like me. To put it simply, it was exactly what I’ve always hoped for in a foreign place.

Most of my students are equally enamored with the city. We didn’t see a fraction of what Paris offers, and most of what we did fits squarely into the “classic tourist-y things in Paris” category. That didn’t matter. We all loved it. We did a Fat Tire bike tour; a boat ride up and down the Seine; and we went to the top of the Eiffel. We ate lots of great food, walked around 35 miles total, and overpaid tremendously for canned sodas. We were able to sit in the same spots and walk through the same door frames as the people we’ve been reading in class, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin. All of these experiences together created something that I will never forget. I hope they don’t, either.

– – – – – – –

This is our last week in Oxford. The plan:

  • Tonight: Dinner and then Much Ado about Nothing at Wadham College.
  • Tomorrow: Walking tour of New College.
  • Wednesday: A visit to Wheatley to find a specific sandwich shop, and then an attempt to find C.S. Lewis’s house and/or grave.
  • Thursday: Farewell dinner at the Trout.

Once my students head to Heathrow on Friday morning, I am catching a train to Cardiff, Wales for the weekend. I have absolutely nothing planned, but I’ve been told that it’s a great city. Back to Oxford on Sunday afternoon, and then one final trip before I return to Texas: I’m heading back to Paris for two more nights. I simply didn’t get enough last week, and I couldn’t resist the chance to go back. More reading. More walking. More food. And, this time, ample libations.

Cheers.

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Like everyone else, I love it here.

A lot has happened in the past week. One thing, in particular: I officially decided that I love it here. I’m not original in that thought, and basically anyone that makes a Europe trip says the same thing. But there’s a reason why everyone says it; it’s an amazing place. I’ve been asked what my favorite thing has been so far, and, to be honest, it’s been the simple, day-to-day life. Walking to and from the city center; buying cheap takeaway meals; spending hours in places like Blackwell’s. The famous sites and places are great, but they take second place to the simple, seemingly mundane aspects. That being said, here’s a look at what I’ve done in the past week or so:

Last week, my students and I did a day trip to London. We started by going to the British Museum, which is towards the top of the list of attractions for almost anyone that visits London. It’s an absolutely huge museum with all sorts of pieces, from ancient Egyptian artifacts to contemporary African art. The biggest “No way!” moment was seeing the Rosetta Stone. I was a bit speechless at the sheer historical and cultural magnitude of seeing it. But, beyond that, here’s two of my favorite pieces from the British:

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^This is a Netherlands boxwood microsculpture from the 1500s. It might be hard to tell, but it contains various mini depictions of Biblical stories, all highly detailed and exact, and from one piece of wood about the size of a football. Absolutely impossible to imagine how someone did this.

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^This might be my favorite thing I saw all day. It’s Crowd Looking at a Tied-Up Object by Henry Moore (1942). What exactly is the object under the sheet? Why are the people transfixed? I was mesmerized.

After the British, we had a quick lunch right on the Thames river at a place called PizzaExpress, which was right next to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Aside from its cliche name, the food was fantastic and the view was even better. We ate quickly so that we had plenty of time at the museum next door: the Tate Modern. I always love modern art museums. I got to go to the great one in D.C. earlier this summer, and I’ve been to MOMA in New York. The Tate did not disappoint. As soon as I got in the door, I knew I was going to love it. I gave my students two hours to browse on their own, and that time seemed to go by way too quickly. A few of my students would disagree with that, though…

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^ George Braque, Mandora (1909-10). I felt very fortunate to see this famous modernist piece. Ironically, I had this piece on a PowerPoint I showed my students earlier in the class without realizing we’d get to see it in person.

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^ There was also an entire room of Rothko pieces. Perhaps no modernist painter inspires the “What the hell?” and “I could do that” sentiments than Rothko, and an entire dimly-lit room of his huge canvases was quite the experience.

The tip to London was a success. The city is huge, and we had a few moments of not being sure exactly which street to take or towards which underground station to head. But we enjoyed ourselves, and we all made it back safely. That’s really all I cared about.

As soon as class ended on Thursday, half of my students caught a bus to Heathrow for a weekend trip to Rome. A couple of others spent the weekend in Scotland, while a few stayed here in Oxford. I woke up on Friday morning and caught my train to Liverpool for the one Europe trip I’ve had planned for many months: The Open Championship. I arrived in Liverpool early afternoon and went directly to my AirBnB, which happened to be literally next door to a significant site:

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^Goodison Park, home of the Everton Football Club. I’m not kidding: it was right next door. I could have hit a pitching wedge from my front porch to the middle of the pitch.

I then had the entire afternoon to spend in Liverpool. I caught a bus and headed to the city center, which turned out to be so much more than I expected. To be honest, I knew nothing about Liverpool other than it being the home of the Beatles. Turns out that its city center is a lively, hopping place full of open-air shopping for what I would guess is a good square mile. I really enjoyed my time walking around, eating, and of course sitting down and reading for a few minutes in an awesome bookstore. I then killed a few hours seeing Dunkirk at the Odeon in the middle of the shopping center, which was a great place to see a movie. The movie was good, although there were parts of the narrative that fell flat for me and/or begged for so much more explanation (something I’ve found to be the case in all of Nolan’s movies). After the movie I headed back to my rental, grabbed a quick pint at the local pub (pictured below), and tried to get some sleep.

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^Liverpool’s city center. On the right you can see a sliver of the largest and cleanest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen.

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^The friendly (and very inexpensive) pub right down the road from my AirBnB.

I didn’t sleep very well, because I was too excited about my trip to Royal Birkdale the next day for the 146th playing of the Open Championship. I woke up early, walked about a mile to the nearest train station, and figured I’d be ahead of the pack. I was very, very wrong. When I got on the train, it was standing room only. This was at 8am, and the first tee time wasn’t even until 9:30. Regardless, I was able to get on the train and get to the course, through security, and in the gates by 9am. Birkdale didn’t disappoint. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed the experience. I was very fortunate to get to go to the Ryder Cup last fall in Minnesota, which was also an awesome experience, but the Open exceeded it. The course was amazing, and the fans were so much better than American fans. There’s a level of knowledge of and respect for the game of golf over here that simply isn’t there in America. I’ve always rolled my eyes when Open commentators have made comments about this in the past, but now that I’ve been in the middle of it, I am convinced it’s true. The weather was perfect, the course was everything you want for an Open, and the golf was top-notch. I feel so lucky to have gotten to go, and another trip to the Open is now officially on my bucket list. Next time, though, I’d like to be with a group of friends.

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^A panorama I took from greenside on #12 (the par 3). I got to this spot early and had a perfect spot for the first 7-8 groups that came through. This picture is looking back towards the clubhouse and the rest of the course.

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^A look at #18 green from the spectator crosswalk. This is the spot where I just watched Spieth receive the Claret Jug on tv. His performance on the last five holes was unreal, although I have never been as frustrated as a golf fan than I was during the 20-minute delay waiting for him to figure out his drop on #13.

I ended up leaving Birkdale around 4pm, which was right about the time the leaders teed off. That might sound ridiculous, but I had been there for 8 hours and was envisioning an absolute nightmare trying to get back on the train heading to Liverpool alongside 80,000 other people. I don’t regret the decision to leave early at all, other than the fact that the minute I got off the train and started my mile-long walk back to my AirBnB, it started raining. And then, right about the time all of the trees, awnings, and phone booths disappeared, it started really raining. I went from being annoyed that my shorts were damp to accepting the fact that I was going to be absolutely, 100% soaked. If you’ve ever been caught in the rain with no option for escape, you know the feeling. I ended up taking refuge at a gas station, but the damage was already done. Luckily I was able to put my shoes, shorts, socks, shirt, and underwear in the dryer as soon as I got back.

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^ My classy escape from the torrential rain in Liverpool. I was standing by the door to the station, looking exactly like a vagrant. I ended up buying a soda from inside because I felt bad for loitering.

A few more pints that night at the same pub, a good night’s sleep, and then my long, 4.5 hour trip back to Oxford, which involved three different train changes and a bus from Banbury to Oxford. I was able to get lots of grading and reading done during the trip, though, which was a blessing. And I also had the chance to step outside of the train station in Stafford during my hour-long layover. Right across the street was the amazing Victoria Park. A small, seemingly taken-for-granted park here, it was better than almost any park I’ve seen in the States.

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^My view from the walking bridge in Victoria Park in Stafford.

My trip to Liverpool was a resounding success. Combined with my trip to Bath the previous weekend, I’m realizing that a longer trip to another European country isn’t even necessary; the UK has so much to offer. In fact, I’m now thinking that rather than going to Amsterdam or Spain once class ends, I might simply catch a train to somewhere like Whales or Edinburgh for a few days. I’ll probably change my mind multiple times between now and then, though.

Coming up:

My students and I head to Paris this coming Wednesday. We are doing a bike tour of the city that night, will spend the day on Thursday seeing famous expatriate spots around the city, and will be spending the entire weekend in a hostel right on the canal. I plan on staying in Paris for an extra night and then heading back to Oxford to prepare for the last week of class. I’ve actually been rather busy with schoolwork since I’ve been here. Anytime on trains, in bookstores, or between meals is spent either reading or grading for class, which reminds me: This is actually a work trip.

Rough job, right?

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Settled

Early observations from my first few days in Oxford:

  1. I’m honestly not sure if it’s cheap or expensive to be here. I have this feeling that so far it’s been surprisingly inexpensive, but I also think that I might be totally wrong. I’m thinking that if I were to actually check my bank account, I would have clarity about this, but I’d rather continue to live in this limbo state. I’ve been to the grocery store twice, and both times my total bill was under 10pounds. I’ve had a few meals in cafes and small restaurants that cost under 5pounds. And every pint I’ve had so far was at most 4pounds. These are all examples of life so far being inexpensive. But, I’m afraid that this is all actually evidence of it being expensive, and that I’m simply deluding myself. I guess I’ll really know in a month.
  2. We are spoiled in America in regards to personal space. The bathrooms here are tiny, and the process of getting in and out of the shower–or on and off the toilet–takes a certain amount of strategizing. This is undoubtedly something I’m not used to, as room and space seem to be common luxuries in the States.
  3. The British are spoiled in regards to scenery and architecture. Everywhere you go in Oxford, you are surrounded by beauty. The buildings, the parks, the sky–it is all quite wonderful. I can’t stress this enough. The best part is that being surrounded by this on a daily basis inherently carries over into your attitude and demeanor. Don’t get me wrong: I have no doubt that people get just as miserable and unhappy here as we do in the States. But for someone that is simply here for a month, the surroundings push towards a more peaceful and optimistic approach to the day. Even when it’s raining–which it does often–it’s beautiful. I walked all the way to the city center in the rain and never once found myself frustrated or annoyed by it. If it rains for 15 seconds in Abilene, you can guarantee that the sidewalks are empty and no one is outside.
  4. I am spoiled to be here. I have my own apartment within the house, with a private bathroom, kitchen, office, and bedroom. My workspace where I am currently writing this–although it’s not huge–is as pleasant a spot as I’ve ever had the chance to plug in my computer. The fact that I am getting paid for this is, to be frank, ridiculous. I have eight students, all of whom so far have been energetic and interested in the course material, and I get to teach them in a room with large windows looking out on this beautiful city. Once class is over, we all grab lunch and then plan our afternoon adventures. Today we will be heading to see Christ Church and then to George and Danver’s for ice cream. It’s a rough gig, to be sure.

I’m not one to take pictures, but I’ve been told adamantly to make sure I do so on this trip. Below are a few I’ve taken so far:

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^A view of the backside of our house on Canterbury Lane in Oxford. I took this from a picnic table where I was reading last evening around 8:30pm.

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^A view of Oxford’s city center. It has a sort of Diagon Alley feel too it. Apparently during the summer, many students (high school and college) travel to Oxford for language school and other programs. Every time I’ve gone to town so far, the streets have been packed with people, most of whom do not seem to be Oxford residents.

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^The Norrington Room at Blackwell’s, a large bookstore in the middle of town. I will spend many, many hours here over the next month.

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^Awesome British versions of some of my favorite books. Apparently, British versions of books have different covers, which is a problem considering I now find myself wanting to buy the British version of all of my favorites.

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^The Oxford Museum of Natural History, and an example of the type of building I see the entire length of my walks throughout the city. Buildings like this are the norm here.

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^This was my first-night pint at the pub that is less than 5 minutes from our house, The Rose and Crown. Apparently this is Thom Yorke’s favorite pub in town. I hope to see him and have a conversation about In Rainbows.

I’ll post more pictures as I take them. Coming up in the near future:

  1. This weekend: Open travel around Britain. Not exactly sure yet where I’ll go.
  2. A day trip to London next week with my class to see the Tate Modern and Tate Britain.
  3. Next weekend is my trip to Liverpool for the Open Championship. I have tickets for Saturday’s round.
  4. Paris the following week.

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Across the Pond

In nine days, I board a plane to London. Once I wake up, get off the plane, go to the bathroom, and make it through customs, I catch a train to Oxford. After getting off at the last stop (Gloucester Green), I take a quick 5-minute taxi ride and end up at the ACU Study Abroad houses, my home for the following 31 nights. While there, I will walk everywhere, eat amazing breads, make a fool of myself, and get rained on a lot. I haven’t actually experienced any of these things; this is just what people have been telling me to expect.

Saying I’m excited isn’t really accurate. Excitement is undoubtedly a large part of what I’m feeling. I’m excited about the group of students with whom I’m going. I’m excited about the books we are reading for the class. About the 3-day trip to Paris to visit the cafes and museums. About the breadth of opportunity I will have at my fingertips. And about the similar opportunities my students are going to have.

But I’m not only excited. I’m also anxious. A bit unsure of myself. Maybe even a tad bit scared. What if we get to Paris and I lead my class down a wrong street? What if one of my students loses his or her passport? What if Diet Coke tastes different in Europe? I repeat: WHAT IF DIET COKE TASTES DIFFERENT IN EUROPE? I get it: these types of “problems” are what study abroad is all about. Being put in new situations in different contexts is at the heart of fruitful experiences, and I’m totally onboard with that. I look forward to the inevitable hiccups and roadblocks during the month I’m there. Sign me up. But to say I’m not a tad bit anxious would be a lie. I assume that anyone approaching a long trip abroad has that same mix of emotions, and I guess that this is part of what’s so great about it.

I mentioned the Paris trip. I also have a ticket to Saturday’s round of the Open while I’m there, which is at Royal Birkdale in Liverpool. If you watch the coverage, look for the large American rooting on Phil. Once the class ends, I’ve got six days of open travel. Not sure exactly where I will go, but I know that I will be alone, I will be open-minded, and I will definitely spend more money than I have budgeted. Top of my list right now is a week in Amsterdam and Brussels, but Spain also beckons.

Beyond the excitement and the butterflies, though, is an overwhelming feeling of luck and blessing. I honestly cannot believe that I have the opportunity to travel to Europe for a month to teach an American literature class. I get to hang out every morning with a talented, diverse, and challenging group of students, talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin, continue the conversations over lunch, and then say, “Okay–go explore! Seeya again tomorrow morning.” How is this real? How do I get paid for this? I guess this is just another moment where those eleven years of higher education feels so much more than worth it.

I’m happy to get any suggestions any of you might have about Oxford, about England, or about European travel in general. My main goals are to eat well, teach better, visit pubs (for their historical value, of course), and help my students have the time of their lives.

I plan on being a duke or earl by August 1. That’s what happens when you marry British royalty, correct?

– – – – – – –

Things to Read, Watch, and Listen:

Read: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. A classic, but a goody. If that’s not your thing, then read a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri or Lorrie Moore.

Watch: The Keepers (Netflix); Paradise Lost trilogy (HBO); Amanda Knox (Netflix); I recently went on a bigtime true crime documentary bender. I love that stuff.

Listen: Sylvan Esso’s most recent album, What Now, and any Pearl Jam album from the 90s. I recently revisited all of them; I don’t want to say I had forgotten, but I was seriously reminded how good those albums are.

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Paralyzed by Cynicism

Earlier tonight, I was fortunate enough see Nadia Murad speak at the Paramount Theater in Abilene. Murad was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2016, but you’ve probably never heard of her. I never had. I wouldn’t have had the chance to hear her speak if it wasn’t for one of my amazing former students getting me a ticket. Like anyone who has heard her story, I was blown away. Not only because of the horrific details of her time spent as a captive of ISIS, but also because of her presence on stage. I don’t even know how to describe it accurately. She emanated a sense of raw honesty and unflinching reality for which I wasn’t prepared. It was clear that she wasn’t happy to be on stage, because her presence on stage only came from the horrible things that happened to her, her family, and everyone she knew in her hometown. She wasn’t there to shake hands, participate in banter, and then stress the most shocking details of her story in order to boost donations. She wasn’t there because she had life-long plans of being an international figure or a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. She was there because without her telling her story, most people would have no idea what’s going on every single day in various places in the world. Like me. I had no idea. I’m blown away at my own ignorance. Every new day, our world becomes the most interconnected, networked, and information-at-your-fingertips-with-very-little-effort that it’s ever been. I can literally access more information right now with my cell phone and computer than anyone ever has in the past, and tomorrow I’ll be able to access even more. Yet, somehow, I didn’t know about Nadia.

But this isn’t going to be a “now I’m going to be involved and dedicate myself to being more aware!” post. That post would be a lie, because that’s not what I’ve taken away from Nadia’s story. The part that most impacted me came towards the end of the interview, when Nadia was asked to give her thoughts on what normal, ordinary people in a small town like Abilene, TX can do to help people halfway across the world going through genocide and injustice. As soon as the translator finished delivering the question, Nadia perked up in a way that she hadn’t previously. She gave a long answer, the gist of which was that the small, average, and seemingly ordinary efforts of normal people are what she has the most faith in. She’s talked to world leaders, prime ministers, and presidents, and she’s come to the conclusion that “ordinary people” are the ones that truly make a difference in the world. People just like her family of farmers in Sinjar, Iraq. People like construction workers, elementary school counselors, or even English professors in Abilene, TX. According to Nadia, these are the people that can actually enact justice in the world. This shook me, and it reminded me of an unexpected experience from my own life.

I’ve mentioned this before, but a few years ago my group of friends started a very small-scale non-profit organization, called the Back Porch Foundation (http://backporchfoundation.com/). What started as a group of college friends drinking too much and thinking they were way cooler than they really were has since turned into a grassroots effort based on a simple mission: Doing what we can to provide direct help to anyone that needs it. No checks, and no false promises. A single mom needs a washing machine: we go buy it and deliver it to her house. Another nonprofit needs someone to buy Christmas presents for underprivileged kids: we go to Target, crudely wrap them in corny wrapping paper, and drop the gifts off wherever they tell us to. We aren’t heroes, and we aren’t really all that good at it. But we’re trying. Ordinary people trying to help other ordinary people. A very Nadia-inspired approach to philanthropy.

What’s amazing about my experience with the Back Porch Foundation is that while things have gone well lately, they didn’t start off that way. Specifically, whenever we first had the idea of starting the Foundation, we unexpectedly confronted a very real amount of cynicism. A number of people–some of whom were actually part of our group of friends–were skeptical about the idea. We had to defend our intentions, and we had to explain our motivations. I can’t say I know exactly where these questions came from, but my best guess is that people doubted our ability to follow through, or they were unsure about whether or not we were the type of people that should be involved in the business of helping others out. Regardless of the reasons why, cynicism crept into the conversation, and it had a serious effect. We started asking ourselves those same questions, and we began to doubt our abilities to make a difference. This, of course, was misguided, and luckily a couple of years of diligent work helped us to break through those questions and arrive at a place where people are on board with a group of college friends raising money to do good for others. May sound ridiculous that proof is needed for an intention like that, but it is.

I was in the middle of many of those early conversations, and they have stuck with me ever since. Honestly, I still have a rather deep grudge against that misguided cynicism. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but I do know what it does: it takes a person willing to help someone else and turns them into a person lamenting a missed opportunity. It takes a potentially-better world and squanders it, instead leaving us in the status quo where we complain and diagnose all that’s going wrong while sitting back and doing nothing about it. It takes Jesus ideas and turns them into should haves and wish I coulds. This should have and wish I could world depends entirely on us convincing ourselves that those people are right: we really can’t make a difference, and even if we try, our small efforts won’t even make a dent in the mass of problems in our world.

Will giving $20 to Global Samaritan end the atrocities that ISIS is enacting in Iraq? No, it won’t. Will giving a washing machine to a single mother in Dallas ensure that her children will get a great education, that she will have a high-paying job, and that her family will rest peacefully at night and know that tomorrow is going to be better than today? No, it wont. Can I personally use my own resources to house all of the homeless, feed all of the hungry, and relieve all of the pain in my home town? No, I can’t. In that sense, the cynics are right: I can’t solve the world’s problems.

But can that $20 feed an entire family in a refugee camp for a month? And can that washing machine create one less thing for that single mother to have to worry about every day? And can my dollar bills passed out of my car window perhaps help people in my town to have a better chance to peace and fulfillment tomorrow than they had today? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. This is important, and I think we are too quick to ignore it. Small efforts do make a difference–a difference that, too often, is the biggest “change” these situations will ever see. In fact, these ordinary gestures by ordinary people are actually the most dramatic types of impacts that are made in our world. This is the message that Nadia reminded me of: the message that changing one person’s life is, in fact, changing the world. We can all do that.

Don’t give into the paralysis that comes via cynicism. Don’t let people’s skepticism convince you that you can’t do anything about the problems you see. Don’t let the doubts of the world stop you from changing it.

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30 and single.

It’s an amazing thing, the variety of reactions you get when you tell someone that you are 30 years old and don’t have a spouse or children. There’s a range of responses, which can quickly be categorized into two groups: Pity and Envy. Both reside under the umbrella of Surprise, but the logistics of each vary widely. First, Pity.

Pity 1: “What happened?” — Implies the assumed inevitability that a) I’m divorced, or b) I at one point was really close to getting married but something went dramatically wrong.

Pity 2: “Oh, I’m sorry.” — Insinuation that I’m missing out, or that my life has less meaning that it would if I was, in fact, married with children. 

Pity 3: “It’s never too late!” — This response usually happens in one of two contexts: a) The person is immediately put off by this knowledge that I’m single and is ready to transition the conversation to another topic or to another person, or b) He/she is trying to set me up with someone.

Next: Envy.

Envy 1: “In another life…” — Hinting towards the person’s own questioning of his/her life choices. He/she is currently in the middle of a life that didn’t turn out the way he/she thought it would, and sees my life some sort of hypothetical, vicarious example of what life could have been like if certain life-altering decisions hadn’t been made.

Envy 2: “Must be nice.” — Revealing a) Life with a spouse and children is hard; b) The speaker has no respect for certain realities and doesn’t appreciate what he/she has; or c) Flippant comments to give a person the excuse to complain about his/her own life are so much easier than listening to someone else.

Envy 3: “Lucky bastard.” — See c) from “Envy 2.”

The Pity and Envy responses make sense to me in various ways, and I am at a point where I’m not surprised by any of them. The problem is that both of them are on the same side of the ledger in terms of Surprise: whether they are based in pity or envy, all of these response are based on a premise of disbelief that someone could be 30 years old and not have a spouse and/or children. “How is that possible? How does that happen? Why hasn’t he grown up? When is he going to settle down and start his life?” These responses of surprise also come loaded with condescension, as if there’s some sort of rule book for what makes a life worthwhile. That rule book exists, but its criteria aren’t about spouses or children, nor are they about career choices, or savings accounts, or zip codes.

Some of the happiest people I know are married. They have spouses that support them, kids that look up to them, and families that create daily meaning and motivation for the work that they do. Some of the most miserable people I know are married, too. They have spouses that belittle them and constrain them from being who they want to be. They treat their kids as burdens instead of blessings. They go to work and happy hours in order to be away from home. I know miserable people that are single, that simply cannot find meaning without other people being immediate parts of their daily lives. And I know single people that could not be happier with their lives, that wake up everyday feeling lucky to have the opportunity to interact with the people they know and to be part of this inherently strange and confusing world. The rule book for making life worthwhile is different for everyone. That might be the most cliche and trite statement I’ve ever written, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

I’m not out to tell someone what is going to make his/her life meaningful. I don’t claim to know the solution, nor do I want to be responsible for defining a fulfilling life for someone else. I don’t know what fulfills you, and it wouldn’t be fair or productive to claim that I do. I can hope for that for everyone, and that is sincerely my hope. Finding meaning in what we do on a daily basis is a crucial part of the human experience; without that meaning, nihilism slowly–or maybe quickly–creeps in and takes over. I’ve seen nihilism, and I choose to do what I can to avoid it, and I hope that if you’re reading this you have found a better option than the postmodern bottom line of meaninglessness. But labeling certain life choices (such as marriage) as necessarily pointing to certain points on the spectrum of meaningfulness doesn’t work, and I wish we were better at acknowledging that.

Some of the statements above resonate perfectly with me. I agree: it’s never too late to meet someone. Of course I have an answer to the question “What happened?” And I don’t blame some of my friends for calling me a “lucky bastard” and being jealous of parts of my life. But when we ask people these questions or make these types of remarks, we are saying more about ourselves than we are about that person. If we are jealous of those around us, what does that say about the degree to which we appreciate–or don’t–the amazing opportunities we have in our own lives every single day? When we question the life choices of the people we meet, which of our own decisions–that we might regret–are we purposefully overlooking or brushing over? And while we remind our friends that it’s never too late to meet someone, what dreams of our own do we still have time to achieve?

Our culture is plagued with a lack of self-awareness. We are really good at seeing other people’s lives, figuring out what they should do differently, and then moving on to someone else and making the same sort of judgments. I am guilty of this as much as anyone. Maybe it’s time to stop picking up on what people don’t have, or only noticing what could be better for them, and instead start trying to be empathetic to who they are and why their life is what it is, and to use that empathy to better recognize ourselves and, in turn, appreciate what we have and why we have it. “Not like mine” is not a valid reason to feel sorry for or to be judgmental of other people’s lives. We all do this, all the time. I think all parties would be better off if we didn’t.

Yes, I’m 30. No, I don’t have a wife. Yes, I play golf more than 98% of the general public. No, I don’t want to be single forever. Yes, I do get to eat Chinese take-out twice a week, sometimes as I watch television. I’m jealous of you and your awesome marriage, and I’m not jealous at all of your crappy one. Sure, I’d be happy to meet your single coworker, or to talk in more detail about arranged marriages…Now, let’s talk about something else.

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