Where I’m From and Why I’m Here

Katherine Poore is a Third Year English and French major, who studied in the UVA Exchange: University of Edinburgh program in Fall 2017. She has her own blog where this post was originally posted. Check out the link and post below!

wanderingthroughwilderness.wordpress.com

I write this to you all fresh from an eight (!) day journey with my friend Anna Lee, where we hopped from Marseille to Aix-en-Provence, France to Florence and then on to Rome, Italy,before heading back here to face the end of our semester abroad, brave final exams, and soak up the remainder of our time across the pond.I spent my Thanksgiving going to French class and then hopping on a plane to Prague, Czech Republic, before tuning in via FaceTime to say hello to family at 1 am, when Thanksgiving was already, technically, over for me. Two days later, I took a train to Vienna and spent a whopping 24 hours there, exploring Christmas markets, touring Schonbrunn Palace, and going to a Mozart performance that was so surreal I can’t put it into words. **

Over the course of these trips, I’ve stayed in many a hostel or Airbnb and run into Americans, Italians, Slovakians, South Africans, Australians, Chinese, the French, Brits, and a number of other nationalities. Some of them are doing the same thing as me—taking a weekend, going on a trip while they’re already on the continent and airfare is cheap. Some of them are there for work. Some are there for personal journeys, or school, or they’re just trying to stay over here and travel until their Visa runs out and they have to go home. Everyone’s exact narrative varies, although some are similar enough, but we’ve all got one thing in common: we’re not from here, but we are here.

And this, if I had to compile a list of personal FAQs from this semester abroad, would be one of the chief questions posed to me: Where are you from? Why are you here? (or, sometimes, why Edinburgh? or Why not France ? or any of that question’s grammatical variants). Of course, there are others: What are you studying, what year are you, how are you finding it here,and soon and so forth. But it’s these two—where from, and why here—that linger with me a little longer than the rest.

I’d say it’s because they don’t have clear-cut answers, but they do (Tuscaloosa, Alabama,and It just worked out better this way). Invariably, there are more complicated answers; I could launch into my backstory (born in North Carolina, a short stint in Alexander City, then Tuscaloosa, and now Charlottesville, Virginia), or I could—and sometimes do—recount the fraught saga of my hopes to study in Lyon, France or London, England, summing it up with the conclusion that God had different ideas than I did, and now here I am, in Edinburgh, Scotland, spending too much money on coffee, hiking up Drummond Street every morning, and somehow ending up at Christmas markets when I should really just be studying.

So it’s hard to pinpoint why I think about these questions so much, when it’d be easy enough to not think about them. I’m here because I’m here. I’m from the States. Which one,you ask? Alabama—yes, the one with Forrest Gump and that one Lynyrd Skynyrd song. Do you know much about football, the American kind?

But perhaps there’s something more to these questions, besides the potential complexity of an answer. These questions trace a journey, from point A (where I’m from) to point B (where I am now). They ask for a story, a narrative of movement from one place to another, that is rarely as straightforward as the words used to ask for it.

But I’m all about journeys, and trying to uncover why they happened, what I’m supposed to learn, and who I was when I started compared to who I am now. And this where-and-why only asks about the journey of before, of how I got here and not what has happened since. The sequel to these questions, the How has this changed you? hasn’t been asked yet, mainly because I’m not finished with my time here and so cannot yet fully employ that simultaneous gift and curse of retrospection to examine what has been good and what has been bad or strange or funny or hard.

That being said, I think it’s interesting at this point, before these next two weeks are up and I’m on a flight back stateside, to think (briefly) about how I got here, and what I wanted, and where I came from.

In the most literal sense, I came from the Providence, Rhode Island T.F. Green Airport,on a ridiculously cheap Norwegian Air flight. Before that, it was the Atlanta airport, and then, of course, my home in Tuscaloosa.

But what I really came from was a long,beautiful summer in the Blue Ridge mountains,where I’d returned to a summer camp I’d called home so many years ago as a lonely, quiet middle-schooler. Before that, it had been an anxiety-riddled semester of existential questions,flourishing friendships that challenged how I look at love, and personal doubt. I came here from a place of trying to prove something, of wanting to see more, of wishing to test my limits and revel in another tiny corner of this world the Lord created for us. I wanted to get away, because that’s when I think best,and that’s when I can see myself, and the people and places I’ve left,more clearly. I wanted a reprieve from the wonderful and loving, but also physically and emotionally taxing, world of UVA, with its over-busy lifestyle and obsessive comparing of hours slept during the night.

I wanted to keep moving, because it’s something I’m good at, and something I like, and mobility—and the chance to see more of the world—has an allure I just can’t ever seem to shake.I wanted to rec-contextualize myself again, to get another angle for the exploration of what and who I am.I wanted to take the tiny, tattered fabric of my life and sew it someplace new on the tapestry of the world, to see how I fit into a new part of the pattern.

I recognize that, ostensibly, this is all emblematically youthful, romantic, naïve, and probably grandiose—that these are big words that are difficult to translate into everyday life—but youthful questions are important questions,if only because they are big and difficult to translate.I’m not trying to paint myself as some deep thinker here, as some tortured artist or restless soul that tosses and turns at night while grappling with the deep, dark question of humanity, or who traverses the world without ever looking back or missing her mom.I wouldn’t call myself any of these things, because they’re tropes, and they’re not real, and I don’t think the questions I’m asking are terribly unique ones.I am one of hundreds of thousands of college women who decided to skip town to spend a semester in Europe, and I’m probably not the only one who came for these reasons.

But I think that’s a more honest answer for where I came from, and also why I’m here: I came from a place of questions and uncertainty and restlessness,and I’m here so I can take a better, different look at these questions, so I can experience someplace new, and so I might burst the bounds of my own localized understanding of the world and see the different parts of the world’s pattern, whether I fit in to them or not.

Next time I post, I’ll be back in the States, feeling the numb sort of whiplash that comes with the quick, unceremonious uprooting of life from one lifestyle, community, and place to another. There will be a lot I’ll want to say, and a lot I won’t know how to express, but if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that I won’t have answered these questions. I’ll probably keep seeking, and moving, and wondering, and sewing my fabric into new places on the tapestry. Sometimes it will fit, and sometimes it won’t, but at least I’ve seen a new part of the pattern.

**For those of you wondering: yes, I have still managed to make it to class, and school does exist, and I am doing it!

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Bright Yellow Suitcase

Mary Long is a Foreign Affairs and English double major (with a minor in Spanish) who spent the spring semester of her third year traveling from San Diego to Hamburg on Semester at Sea. This is her first post as she prepared to embark on her voyage this past spring.

 

Bright Yellow Suitcase: On being ready to go but unwilling to leave

I first heard about Semester at Sea through an old friend’s Instagram account, which is indicative of a whole handful of things, but especially of the heightened globalization of the world. Without getting technical or meta or anything of the sort: how crazy is it to think that a single series of photographs determined my path five years into the future?

I distinctly remember seeing that friend’s pictures appear on my phone, promptly turning to the internet for further research, and writing down in my journal — right then, right there — that I was going to do that. At some point, some way. And here we are, over 1,700 days later, and I am less than 100 hours away from embarking on that same voyage my tenth-grade self swore to some day do.

Needless to say, I’ve been looking forward to these coming moments for a long while. This past summer, when this whole dream began to become a reality, I thought through what these next few days and weeks and months would look like, over and over, and over and over. But as the fall semester rolled along I got swept up in the present — not a bad thing, certainly — and stopped throwing myself into the future.

This happened accidentally, of course, in between the tests, the readings, the car breakdown, the never-ending and hellacious visa application process, that pleasantly surprising date function, that perfectly impromptu trip to Boston where we almost missed our flight. Somewhere along the way, within and without of those innocuous, seemingly mundane moments, I was no longer thinking about spring semester and all the traveling and adventure that would fill it. I had started the semester thinking I was more than ready to go; I ended it realizing I would never be ready to leave.

Those final weeks of December were, for me, full of an uncomfortable dualism, an awkward balancing of excitement and tentativeness. I wanted more than anything to go, I was thrilled more than anything to go. And yet: it was harder to leave than I had anticipated. There is a difference, I realized, between putting yourself in a new place and taking yourself out of an old one, even temporarily. The former is freeing. The latter is frightening.

When debating whether or not to study abroad, a chief concern — petty though it may sound — was that the life I would be leaving at UVa for a semester would continue on without me. I decided to go nevertheless, telling myself that just as my UVa life would continue without me, so too would I continue without my UVa life. There was liberation in that — I wasn’t confined to any one place, any one person, any one rule.

But as the clock ticked down to that moment when I hugged my family goodbye for seven months and began the first leg of my journey to the Semester at Sea boat by boarding the plane to San Francisco, I began to feel that I didn’t want to be completely liberated from the places, people, and rules that I already knew.

There’s a great Modern Love article that talks about this jumbled mix of wanting-yet-refusing to be tied down. It’s called “Security in a Bright Yellow Suitcase”. The author remembers traveling to and from her boyfriend’s apartment each weekend, packing her belongings neatly into a bright yellow suitcase each Friday evening and Sunday morning, coming and going easily and without question, able to leave whenever she so pleases. At the start, she loves that she is able to so smoothly go, that while she relies on the boyfriend for companionship, she simultaneously stays unattached from him; she feels that her ability to move allows for a certain liberation on her end. But over time, things stop being so neatly packed into that bright yellow suitcase, and items that were once distinctly hers begin to be left at her boyfriend’s apartment, signaling a heightened coexistence. Surely there is something attractive and freeing about independence, but don’t we want someone and something to depend upon?

I don’t think I understood that concept so clearly until now. In moments of rejection or doubt, I used to reassure myself of my potential by thinking of all the places I someday hoped to go to, thinking of travel not just as a means for adventure but also for escape.

I’ve traveled before this, but never for such a consecutively long amount of time, and never during the school year. This trip has already made me realize that “escape” is something which is much more attractive in idealistic form than in reality. That I want to have both the mobility to come and go as I please as well as the desire to attach myself to a place and the people that fill it. That I want to take my yellow suitcase far and wide, but be unafraid to occasionally let its contents out of the bag.