“It all began with the planting of a set of magical beans that the Year Abroad office unknowingly handed me in January 2015.”
Undergoing a lifestyle metamorphosis is an inevitable part of taking a year abroad. Aspects of your existence that you don’t expect to change are swept out from underneath your feet and for a second you’re in limbo, floating unassisted through an exciting though admittedly chaotic flux of cultivating new friendships, questioning old beliefs and mapping out your new physical and social surroundings.
Moving to Canada certainly involved a deep uprooting of my intrinsic values and extrinsic landscape, but out of my first semester grew a great and rather beautiful beanstalk of new ones. As in Jack’s own story recalled from hazy hours spent high above the clouds atop his own enchanted plant, often I feel as if I am wallowing in the riches that grew out of stolen, precious hours of last semester. It all began with the planting of a set of magical beans that the Year Abroad office unknowingly handed me in January 2015.
This said, it is easy to be blinded by the idyllic notions of the exchange experience. Last term my friends and I were caught up in a frenzy of perpetual motion, with homesickness and exams only blips in the continuum of euphoria we had created between us. It was the epitome of living in the present – each moment was full of promise and in our wake we left an aura of contentment which seemed to rosy-tint the very fabric of time. It was not without its difficult moments, and some friends were affected with news and events that would irrevocably leave their memories tinged darker.
Visiting home over Christmas shattered some of this ideal, yet in a way that I can now reflect on as overwhelmingly positive – striking a balance between the realities and responsibilities associated with the aftermath of Calgary, with maintaining family relationships and old friendships, and with my own personal growth which was admittedly beginning to wilt.
Personal reflection, physical activity, and laying groundwork for the summer and my dissertation next year at Durham would, like sunshine and water, nourish and encourage me to flourish. If a pumpkin can transfigure into a carriage at the wave of a wand then, with a hint of magic, I could transform myself into someone I would be proud to be in the future as well as now.
“We adorned our faces with red battle stripes until we looked passable as legitimate basketball fans and cheered along as balls were catapaulted into nets. The university brass band blared out the Jurassic Park theme tune.”
Speaking from four months into 2016, and nearing the end of my time at the University of Calgary, I can attest that much of last term’s atmosphere has carried across and even been enhanced by an influx of new intercontinental friends.
We are the old-timers, the grounded and knowledgeable ones with stories from Canmore and beyond which we recall as if mere fairy tales from a time long past. This semester I have traveled to pastures new and old within and outside of Calgary, delved into realms of unexplored subject matter in classes which truly inspire me, and have busied myself with planning for a highly anticipated post-exam road trip down the US west coast as well as attempting to secure a summer internship which would juxtapose yet complement a perfect year.
A Dinos hockey game at the Saddledome where hoards of students packed into the stadium to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh‘ as our team thrashed Mount Royal (the Slytherin to our Griffindor), despite little knowledge of ice hockey, welcomed us to a brand new semester. The infectious spirit associated with sport at the university seems distinct to North American college culture, where anyone from an athletic fresher with a sport scholarship to your overweight and aging computer science professor can get equally involved and wave a foam fingers high in the air belting out ‘GO DINOS!” at unfathomable decibels.
Watching basketball turned out to be a more relaxed affair, yet still with a battalion of Dino supporters armored in red t-shirts marching into the Jack Simpson Gymnasium for the aptly named ‘Pack the Jack’ game. We adorned our faces with red battle stripes and stickers until we looked almost passable as legitimate basketball fans and cheered along as balls were catapaulted into nets and the university brass band, whose tone and tempo was conducted by the relative success of the game play, blared out the Jurassic Park theme tune over and over with ever-increasing sincerity.
I’d be lying if I said that my enthusiasm for watching sport reflected my participation but I have harnessed many of the free activities offered here, such as approaching bouldering with the attitude if not the skill of spiderman, squash (where I all but squashed my own ego), yoga, and the expansive gym, saturated with protein-shaker wielding ‘bros.’
The 21st birthdays of two of my closest friends provided more than valid reasoning to plan a weekend-long party. In questionably Canadian style, we spent one night at a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant housed in a cowboy-themed Casino. If you don’t like the smell of raw fish, having food thrown artfully in your face, or the sound of a drum as big as a small elephant being thumped, then this wouldn’t be the place for you.
Celebrations extended to the subsequent evening, where we hosted a party that embraced a multiplicity of fun, involving a pinata and other (slightly adapted…) children’s party games, as well as a DJ set by our talented friend which transformed our flat into a club so fun that it made going out to one seem unnecessary.
The campus rabbits bound across grey-green grass taunting me with the snowy white of their coats, whispering “she’s late, she’s too late!”, as if they are concealing a hidden, snow-covered wonderland.
As we drift through March and into April with temperatures regularly edging towards 10 – 15 degrees and the sun brightening up the city, it is still all to easy to gaze bitterly at the last remaining grizzly lumps of gritty snow and long for the icy, bracing days of January when good snowboarding days were guaranteed. The campus rabbits are all the more obvious as they bound across the newly emerged grey-green grass taunting me with the snowy white of their coats, whispering “she’s late, she’s too late!”, as if they are concealing a hidden, snow-covered wonderland.
This said, there will be snow in the Rockies for a long while if you know where to find it, and I am secretly thrilled by the faint opportunity of tanning during my short walks to lectures. As darling Leo endearingly misunderstood in his woes about the lack of snow in Alberta when filming The Revenant, the chinook is a common phenomenon in this province which is unrelated to climate change (though this is not to say that global warming isn’t real). It can have Calgarians swapping their winter boots for flip-flops (I refuse to use the word ‘thongs’) overnight. Poor souls.
I can speak from first hand experience that sun and snow can make a rather beautiful marriage. Having returned recently from a Ski Club trip at Panorama Mountain Resort where, admittedly, most time was spent reveling in the sunshine at a bar perched on the summit, my impressive goggle tan and high spirits can attest to this. Less romantic was my experience at the aptly yet ironically named Sunshine Ski Resort, in Banff, in February. I became a little too confident of my abilities at the park, and mistaking my knee for the edge of my board I landed heavily on a fibre-glass box, resulting in a swelling so large that it almost matched Donald Trump’s ego. This put me out of action for a few weeks, though thankfully did not call an end to my snowboarding days.
Following a rather unconventional Easter Sunday evening where we ordered Indian food and shared some invaluable exchange-family bonding, I set off to greet my Dad and Brother at the Lake Louise Ski Resort for some real-family time. They had flown over to see what all the fuss was about going skiing in the Rockies, and presented me with an all-too convenient reason to take the week off and partake in some spring snowboarding. We spent one day at Louise and three days at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, robbing every restaurant of their finest (dirty, gravy-sodden, squeaky cheese-loaded) poutine, and stealing the sunshine at every chance. Sunbathing opportunities presented themselves when I finished a run first, though an unwelcome wave of snow washing over me, as I reclined on my makeshift snowboard deck-chair, often announced their arrival.
“A builder! My knight in a shining neon vest! I waved frantically, shouting, ‘Kind sir! Will you assist me in finding the path back to Kicking Horse?'”
The moral of the Tortoise and the Hare caught up with me when I found myself alone in a woodland clearing after taking a wrong turn down a cat-track in my haste to win the race. Phone-less, map-less, with a snowboard slung over my shoulder, I took a wild guess that my destination was to the left and marched into the trees. I would fall thigh-deep into snow every third step, and cheerfully chanted “we’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going to catch a big one” in an attempt to scare off the grizzlies who, I’d been informed, had recently awoken from their winter slumber.
A rustle in the bushes to my left caught me off guard.
I fell into a soft bank of snow which enveloped me, but I used my newfound bed to devise a plan. From my horizontal perspective, I glimpsed the corner of a red roof through the trees in my peripheral vision. After pinching my own arm to check I’d not fallen down a metaphorical or physical rabbit hole, I dug myself and my snowboard out of the snow and trod, now more carefully, towards my new bearing.
Reaching the owner of the red roof – a rather impressive yet eerily deserted show-home – I found myself alone on a newly built road. Exploring the web of side-roads that encircled me for ten minutes or so, I spied my first point of human contact atop the roof of another home. A builder! My knight in a shining neon vest! I waved frantically, shouting, “Kind sir! Will you assist me in finding the path back to Kicking Horse?” Blinking at me with a look reminiscent of a mentally impaired horse rather than a knight, he pointed to a large sign emblazoned with the text ‘Kicking Horse Ski Area, 900 meters’. I thanked my hero and trotted my jolly way along the road.
Fifteen minutes later, I found myself back at the main lodge, in the arms of my ashen-faced father who had legitimately sent out a search party. The Aussie lift attendants, after being motioned to call off the search, offered me a thumbs up and an eye-roll, suggesting that such trivial scenarios occurred on the daily. Silly Brits.
My absence had lasted an hour and a half and lets just say, for dramatic effect, that it catapulted me briefly into total independence. My exchange experience has been centered around people. It is not often that I find myself totally alone for an extended period of time, thanks to technology, proximity of my friends, and the bustle of campus life. Fear only took over momentarily, but the rest of my micro-adventure had been exhilarating. The importance of a clear sense of self was amplified for brief moment.
However, my best adventures have been those shared with friends. I have recently been reminded of the invaluable importance of having people around to share adventures, musings, and day-to-day experiences. My friends here are the people who will keep the memories of this year abroad alive – they will keep our stories relevant and real. I won’t lie – this semester has been harder than the last from a personal point of view. Realities have caught up with me somewhat. However, it has been the people here that have helped me to rationalise, and ground my perspective of post-exchange life as something to anticipate rather than forbode. The very idea of uprooting again is scary, but my support network is enduring.
As the semester draws to a close, several of us will be driving an RV down and around the west coast of the USA for nearly a month during May. The mere mention of this trip sparks a flurry of excited squeals as, although the semester is ending, it seems that the best is truly yet to come.
In the words of Christopher McCandless (the protagonist of my favourite biographical film, Into the Wild), “Happiness [is] only real when shared.”