Oh, how I wish it was publicly acceptable to have hair like these girls. I love Heart, mostly their seventies stuff though. I didn’t actually realize this song (which I always loved) was by them, until a few days ago. Major revelation!
On Saturday morning, we touched down in Melbourne after more than 36 hours spent either in the air or in airports. Everyone in my group couldn’t help but clap and cheer as that last plane finally landed – we were that relieved to be home. I ran out towards the baggage claim area, searching for Nathan, and when I found him, I couldn’t stop hugging him. So many days of missing him were suddenly concentrated into one sweet moment – I was finally home!
As I opened the door, I realized that Nathan and my Mum had been secretly conspiring when I was gone. The house was spotless. And Nathan had added a few little personal touches. We have some framed photos of the puppies and our nieces in the house, but none of us as a couple. But on my return, some happy snaps of us had appeared on the mantelpiece, and I realized – despite his tough guy act, he must have missed me too.
On my free day in New York, I was determined not to waste it wandering around aimlessly like I had for some of the time in Washington and Boston – I think I was so overwhelmed with options that I became paralyzed about making choices. So I had a plan. I got up early and headed straight across town to Tiffany’s. No, I didn’t eat breakfast there, and because I was alone, I didn’t even get a photo of myself outside the windows – next time! I bought a little charm of an apple for my bracelet (the big apple, get it?) and a necklace.
Then I set out on a very important mission in Central Park. Every since I was a kid and saw the movie Balto, I’ve wanted to find the statue. I walked all the over the park, kept going even when it started to rain, got covered in mud, but I found it.
And for any diehard fans of the movie: yes, I did look up at that statue and say, “I would have been lost without you, Balto”. (Nerd)
After that, I went to the Guggenheim, which was good but I wished I had skipped it and spent more time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The place was gigantic, and I didn’t even get to see a quarter of it before closing time. I took photos of literally every single thing I saw, mostly to show Nathan, but my favourite part was seeing the eternal bond between girls and their little white fluffy dogs throughout history.
Before I left, there was one last thing I had to do. And I wish I could say I did it properly, and Nathan is never going to let me live this down, but: when I went to see the Statue of Liberty, I didn’t get off the ferry. It was pouring with rain, the seas were rough, and the queue to get on the return ferry stretched all the way around the island. Hundreds of people getting drenched as they waited. I wasn’t the only one in our group who made this choice though.
After a farewell dinner, our group said goodbye to New York and began our long flights from Newark to Los Angeles to Sydney to Melbourne. My feet swelled up like crazy on the flights and I slept almost all the way home. Getting to Sydney was the hardest. We were literally so close to home, yet there were still so many hours ahead of us of waiting, boarding, flying, collecting baggage and finally driving an hour to get home from the airport. Although I was long overdue for some puppy cuddles and getting to see Nathan face to face, I will miss all three cities. I can’t wait to go back there one day, and show Nathan everything that I saw, and explore together all the places that I missed out on. All in all, it was a great trip!
1. One of my favourite things that we did was visit a gospel church in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos – I wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate to take any, so I left the camera in my bag. They were so welcoming, even to an agnostic sinner like me. The singing and dancing was incredible, even on a hot day with no air conditioning. There were even nurses on standby to check on the people who got so excited that they fainted. At the end of the service, there was a bit about being friends with your fellow man, so all the members of the church came around and hugged and kissed us all. I had never seen anything like that before!
2. We had soul food at Sylvia’s Restaurant. American food spans from the absolutely delicious (every single carnitas burrito that I ate on the trip) to the noxious and foul (think tater tot casserole or pumpkin casserole with marshmallows). I knew that soul food isn’t exactly about fresh fruit and vegetables, so I was a bit dubious going into this one. We had: scrambled eggs (except for me – I don’t do eggs), bacon, grits, juice and salmon croquettes. The grits were interesting, I ate them but I’m still not sure if I actually enjoyed them or whether I was just chalking it up to an experience. While we were eating, we learnt about the actual Sylvia behind Sylvia’s and how she worked from nothing to having a renowned hot spot with time-honoured recipes. The theme of the whole trip was for us to be exploring the American Dream, and it really was amazing to see some examples of how hard work and persistence could turn into something big and wonderful.
3. We also visited Ground Zero and the September 11 memorial. This was incredibly hard. I still remember it happening. I was thirteen years old and so excited that my birthday was only days away, then waking up to hear the news and feeling like I was still dreaming. The eeriest part came after the buildings were down, waiting to see if that was it, or whether there was more coming. I (and I suspect most people) had never seen anything like that before, and all I could think of was that there were going to be more attacks in other cities. My class at school was going on a field trip to hike through some rainforest that day, and after some debate, it still went ahead. But I will always remember getting on the bus and driving away from the city, not knowing whether I would come back and the whole world had been bombed or World War III had started. Of course, I was a million miles away on that day, and I cannot imagine how much harder it would be if it was happening in your country, in your city, to your family.
The memorial was so well designed; so peaceful and reflective, but there was such a heavy weight that seemed to attach itself to you as you walked through. Glenn (our professor) told us about some of the colleagues that he lost on that day. I read the names that surrounded by pools and imagined that they were my parents, siblings or friends, and the tears started running down behind my sunglasses. It was a very hard part of the trip, but I’m glad I went.
Like with Boston, it was sad to leave DC. There were so many things that I had planned to do on my free day that I just didn’t have time for – all being added to the list of things that I will do with Nathan, when I eventually come back. The bus trip to New York wasn’t half as long, but it was especially cool seeing the city skyline from far away. We went through a tunnel – I have no idea if it was the tunnel or not – but everybody just turned to each other and said, “Have you seen the movie Daylight?”.
We were being hosted by the Fashion Institute of Technology, which was fabulously located, but it was a bit of a shock when we got inside our dorms. Two beds to a room, with about a metre of hanging space in a tiny wardrobe. I would struggle with such little space, but I can’t imagine how a fashion student would feel. Now I know what they mean about New York apartments being miniscule. We caught the subway across town to Central Park, and I was struck by the contrasts between the hot, grimy, awful subway platform (and the rats, oh my god) and the sprawling oasis in the middle of the city. We wandered by the John Lennon Imagine memorial, where there seemed to be a sort of vigil going on, with hippies telling stories about him.
Later that day, a few of us headed out to see the Empire State Building. I am a teensy bit afraid of heights, and when my ears popped in the elevator, I knew we were in trouble. It didn’t help that one of our group decided to tell me a story about snapping elevator cables when we were nearing the 80th floor…
But fear of heights aside, the view was worth it. I got so many postcard-worthy shots, it’s so hard to narrow it down to a few. Unfortunately 90s-era Tom Hanks wasn’t waiting for me at the top, but that’s okay – it wasn’t Valentine’s Day after all.
Visiting the US has been amazing so far, but getting to experience the national holiday in the capital just takes it to another level. I can’t just kid myself that Washington is just like Melbourne, because the red, white and blue is right in front of me, wherever I go.
We don’t really do patriotism in Australia – or at least, we don’t do it like the Americans. I was sensible enough to stay out of the hot sun in the middle of the day, but I ventured out for fireworks later with one of the girls from the study tour group. We sat on the lawns between the Capitol building and the Washington monument, not sure which end the fireworks would come from. A woman and her gaggle of adorable children came by selling “crowns” for the occasion, so I had to buy one.
When I lived in Taiwan, we went to the fourth of July fireworks and festivities at the Taipei American School a couple of times, so I knew we were in for something impressive. As we waited (for what felt like forever) for the sky to darken, excitement started to set in. I ate an ice cream sandwich and swatted away mosquitoes, waiting and waiting.
It was worth the wait.
A big part of the study tour was getting a sense of the culture through the types of food that people ate. There were little things, like the breakfast buffets at the dormitories that contained things like potato and bacon so crispy you could snap it. Then there were bigger, organized group activities, like making the trip to Ben’s Chili Bowl.
The whole lot of us packed into the entire back half the restaurant, and practically every single person ordered the same thing – the original chili half-smoke. I couldn’t help but wish for a salad on the side, but it was awesome. The owners talked to us about how the restaurant was passed down through family and was more of an institution than a mere eatery. There were photos over every surface of all the famous people who had eaten there (including Obama), and the centerpiece was a big painting of all the major figures of the Civil Rights movement standing together. It was really special to be there, in such a historical spot, eating the same recipe that so many important people had eaten before me. I bought a fridge magnet and a bottle of hot sauce for Nathan before leaving.
Later, we went to the baseball. I had no ideas, no expectations about what it would be like, but knowing that I’m not exactly a sports fan, I will admit that I thought it would be a bit boring. I was so wrong. It was loads of fun. I loved the little race of the presidents before the game, and the little organ interludes. Our whole group stood up and sang the national anthem too (luckily the lyrics were on the big screen for us).
I loved it so much, and added it to the mental list of places that I have to take Nathan to, when I eventually get back to the US. I even bought a Washington Nationals baseball cap (they’re totally my team now, okay?).
We didn’t get much time to settling into Washington – the first night we were there, our whole group headed back into the city to do a walking tour of the monuments by moonlight. Unfortunately for me, this is the part of the trip where I crashed. Part of being me is having ups and downs, but this was a big down. I found it hard to talk to people, I felt disoriented and sick, I wanted to cry for no reason, I sorted of drifted around with the group feeling disconnected from everything. I tried taking selfies in front of the monuments and even though I thought I was smiling at the time, it’s pretty clear how low I was feeling. Luckily, it passed. I had big reservations going into the trip about whether I could cope emotionally, so I felt pretty proud of the fact I could recognize what was happening, still participate, and get past it. Anyway, on to the monuments.
It was an amazing walk, even though I barely had the energy to get myself home afterwards. We don’t really have anything like this in Australia, with so many huge monuments grouped together – they seem to be scattered throughout different cities, in various parks and squares and things. The monument that affected me the most was the Vietnam War memorial. Glenn, our professor, had warned us before we walked through that it was a very emotional experience, but it still didn’t prepare me for how many names were on those slabs.
Death seemed to be a bit of theme in Washington, because we visited Arlington Cemetery a few days later which was even more heart wrenching. It’s such cognitive dissonance to be in such peaceful surroundings – lush green lawns, graceful sloping vistas and shady trees – and know that every one of those little white markers stands for a violent, horrible death.
It was a sobering experience, and honestly, I was glad to get out of there. The whole place just made me so sad.
After leaving magical Boston, I thought it would be hell to be stuck on a bus for nine hours with nothing but a truck stop to look forward to. But I was wrong. The landscape was so evocative. Huge trees, mighty rivers, wildflowers everywhere, bridges across valleys and rivers that were so wide, I was sure we were going to fall in. I listened to Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash all the way and imagined myself into Dr Quinn, fighting bears and trying to build a cabin sturdy enough to last out the winter. Incredibly nerdy.
When we finally made it to American University, we were getting our luggage out from under the bus when the sky burst, spectacularly. We got absolutely pelted with rain and had to lug all our suitcases up a hill while torrents of water sloshed around our ankles, then stand dripping wet in a queue for the longest time to get our security passes. It reminded me of the mini-monsoons we used to get in Taipei.
The dorms were interesting. It was fine for the time that we were there, but I can’t imagine spending whole semesters there. Especially sharing a bathroom with so many other people. There were about fifty girls to three shower cubicles. I came up with what I thought was a great solution, and started sneaking off to another floor of the building for my shower. Which was great – I had all the time in the world to shave my legs – except for two little encounters. I was showering, minding my own business in my own cubicle, when I heard the door to the main bathroom open. Somebody came in and I started hearing these horrible noises. Like a mix of the worst kind of phlegm-snarfling raspy choke and something out of The Grudge. It went on and on, and seriously sounded like a demon. I was utterly frozen, unable to get out of the shower, terrified that some slimy undead hand would reach under the door and grab my ankle. After a few minutes, the person left. This happened twice while I was staying at the university, and I still have no idea what it was. My only hypothesis on the whole thing is that there was a group staying in the dorms that were undertaking a ballet intensive, so maybe those horrible sounds were from somebody trying to make themselves throw up. Awful, and I hope not, but that is really the only reasonable explanation I can possibly think of for what I heard.
Anyway, back to Washington! It was so balmy and there were magnolias everywhere. I will always be a tropical girl at heart, so I loved the weather, but some others didn’t cope so well with the heat. We had walked a lot in Boston, but that was nothing compared to how much we did in Washington. One of the girls had a pedometer that estimated we walked 25km in one day. I had plans of looking smart for some of our official visits, but ended up too blistered and sweaty to manage much more than flip flops and jeans shorts.
As much as I loved Boston, I really, really, really missed Nathan and the puppies. Somehow, especially the puppies. I could call Nathan and talk to him every day, but although the puppies could sort of hear my voice, they didn’t really understand skype. So of course, I had to pat and photograph every dog I met.