Fear and Loathing

I spent the best part of nine months in America in 1989-90 on an international student exchange programme. It was an experience I’ll never forget, mostly good, and certainly an eye opener.

There was a bit of a last minute faff getting my visa (I had misunderstood the requirements) and by the time I got to Gatwick Airport I was shitting bricks, having never flown or been abroad before. Lockerbie was also still fresh in the memory.

The plane I was on just happened to be Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural flight from Gatwick to JFK, and so we had the unpleasure of Richard Branson sexually assaulting us in stockings and suspenders to celebrate.

On arrival in the US, I had no clue what to do other than to get a “limousine” to Farmington, CT, and then a taxi from there. I had my dime for the phone call ready.

The limousine was a coach, and we arrived in a deserted Farlington coach terminal at 2 am. I found a phone booth, put in my dime and called a taxi. The operator couldn’t help me and hung up. There goes my dime! Why didn’t I have a Plan B dime? Fuck! Somehow, I managed to call another taxi and got to my student digs on campus at CCSU in New Britain.

It all felt utterly surreal to me then, like being stranded on another planet, adrift in my bunk bed, alone in the halls of a spacecraft, listening to the crickets and the ghostly sounds of train horns. From the initial induction for international students - “Americans can be outwardly incredibly friendly to strangers, and will almost certainly invite you to come to their house anytime for dinner. Whatever you do, don’t go! They won’t be expecting you!” - to the imposing vastness of the country and people, I was warned to expect culture shock.

Everything was big to me then, which meant that I felt small and insignificant. I found it hard to adapt and got so homesick that I booked a flight home for Xmas and New Year just to see my family and friends again. I didn’t really want to go back afterwards.

But I had already had some amazing experiences. My roommate, Mark, was totally into active outdoor life and we went climbing locally at Ragged Mountain, which was an exhilarating first for me climbing to the top of a cliff. Then we set up a ridiculously ambitious plan to climb Long’s Peak in the Colorado Rockies during the Thanksgiving holiday. We failed because we got hit by what was thankfully just a two day a blizzard as we set up our tents at basecamp. Once safely back down and showered, we had a massive breakfast at Ed’s Cantina in Estes Park the next morning before going skiing (another death-defying first for me).

Mark is still cycling, skiing, hiking and living off his memories of later climbing Mount Everest while selling toilets to pay for it all (which is funny in itself as I have never met anyone who can fart and burp constantly like he did back then). Mark’s wilderness pal Mike is still in the wilderness, and is now also a published author on the significance and synchronicity of owls as messengers from other worlds or dimensions in time and space.

We regularly ate at Pizza World in Farmington, where they made the biggest and best spinach and ricotta calzones. We drank pitchers of beer at Elmer’s, and got free slices of fresh pizza every evening at 10:30.

I trained with the Blue Devils' soccer team (with one eye on getting fit for our Colorado expedition), and made number 26 (out of 11) on the team, which featured multiple Geordie, Irish, and European failed pros on soccer scholarships, and coached by a Geordie and an ex-Bristol City player.

A group of us Internationals set up a satirical student magazine (A Connecticut Wanker) produced on a very early Apple Macintosh computer.

I even got to have a go on the student radio one morning and played Fools Gold by Stone Roses to our mystery audience.

That reminds me, Steve Albini’s untimely death yesterday - when I got back to the UK, I tried to get involved in the student union magazine and wrote a condemnatory piece about the naming of Albini’s new band Rapeman. I got slaughtered by the hipster editorial team for being unhip and not being into Marmalade, and I held a grudge against Albini ever since (despite grudgingly enjoying his work as a producer). So it was with mixed feelings that I read yesterday that he had recently noted the error of his ways as a young man and sought to hold his hands up and acknowledge his white male privilege.

When I somewhat reluctantly returned to the states in January, I ended up having such a blast I didn’t want to leave when my visa expired and tried (and failed) to get a new one so I could stay and work. We did more skiing (in Killington, Vermont), and watched Nelson Mandela walk free on the hotel TV. (Almost exactly thirteen years later, I watched in shock and awe as the US bombed Baghdad back to the Stone Age on the hotel TV while on a skiing trip in France).

We did Spring Break in Miami, and the Florida Keys, but especially Key West.

We took a road trip to New Orleans via the Appalachian Trail, Memphis and the Mississippi. And we finished off with a road trip delivering a car from Boston to LA, taking in the Mesa Verde, and the Grand Canyon, along the way.

We did day trips to New York and Washington, DC.

When I say “we” in all of the above, we were a group of international students, quite a few of us English, but with some French, German, Italian, Cypriot, Bangladeshi and Canadian people in the group, too. Not everyone went on every trip, but I did.

We split up in Santa Monica as my two travelling companions wanted to go to San Diego, while I wanted to go to San Francisco (and I had run out of money, so my plan was to get a flight back to New Britain from there, and then on to my flight home to the UK). I ended up literally walking around San Francisco for a week with no money and staying in the cheapest hostel I could find. I spent quite a bit of time sitting on the dock of the bay looking at Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

One memory that always stuck in my mind was talking to a business professor at CCSU. I think I had signed up for his class before quickly dropping it because he insisted on too many formalities in his classroom that I felt had nothing to do with learning or even business (although what do I know about the latter?). Anyway, for some reason I can’t remember, this professor ended up explaining to me just how fearful, and loathing, and downright paranoid he was about unAmericans who - in his words - were “all out to get us”.

I didn’t really understand it then, I was just left gobsmacked that anyone could really feel like that in the richest and most powerful country in the world. But on the other hand, I knew that most of the Americans I had met had never travelled beyond their state borders, and never learned anything of the world outside of the US, and mostly were solely concerned with getting their degrees while having one massive keg party. A surprising (to me) number of female students were already married (or engaged to be married), and all wore so much make-up on a daily basis it’s like they were auditioning for Real Housewives sixteen years before it aired on TV.

The Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza and a recent quote from a Jewish man born and raised into Zionist culture made me think about my paranoid professor and his culturally repressed students and the American people more generally, as it is the United States of America that is paying for and arming Israel. The US is, of course, founded by religious extremists fleeing persecution in their homelands, and who then inflicted genocide on the native American peoples as they colonised and settled on their lands. It’s a white European, male supremacist culture, very similar to Zionism, so it’s really no wonder the two are inextricably allied.