Reflections from a Year Abroad

By Denisa Botescu • BSc Anthropology

Thursday, 28th March

It’s currently 23 minutes past midnight, I am listening to some French music from the 1930s, I’m home alone and there are only three days left until the last quarter of my year abroad starts. This morning I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to spend some last hours with a friend who was returning to Europe. It was 40ºF (4ºC), the sky was blue, and the air smelled like spring. Lake Michigan was no longer frozen, people were smiling again, children were running around, and I could feel the sun actually warming my back. I think winter is officially over. I did not check what kind of climate Chicago has before coming, but now I can say that I have experienced a day with temperatures lower than in the Arctic and a very, very, long winter. 

I landed in Chicago more than seven months ago with a backpack, a phone with no battery, a sense of excitement, tired after the 9 hour flight and with a latent fear of the unknown. I had already spent two years studying anthropology at UCL so I was familiar with the first year adaptation process when you arrive alone in the big city and you feel you’re about to become… to become. The feeling I had in my first few months in Chicago was similar, but more consciously experienced. I somehow knew what to expect so I allowed myself to take the process gradually and let it be awkward when it was awkward, intense when intense, boring when boring, and happy when happy… 

I am currently reading Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, where he constructs this ideal society where philosophers are part of an elite institution, Castalia, in which the Glass Bead Game is a quintessentially universal game that produces a synthesis of all the other specialized spheres of knowledge. The main character’s, Knecht’s, journey into the ideal and rather ironic Castalia mirrors in some way the stages I have been going through in my adaptation to this real and material University of Chicago. A year abroad at one of the best universities in the USA, one of the best anthropology departments in the world, the home of so many important thinkers… the perfect opportunity for me to put my insatiable need for validation into question. Similar to Knecht on his way to Castalia, I felt I was entering a different way of thinking and relating to thought. A year abroad where grades do not matter as long as you pass, where you can choose your own classes and where you can present yourself from scratch all over again to a brand new group of friends, allowed me to reflect on myself and on why I am studying in the first place.

It seemed as if something was unveiled and I discovered what it means to learn, read and discuss out of pure passion. I was still in an educational system, but somehow I was not fully in it, so I had the freedom to explore and encounter myself within what I was reading. In my last high school year in Romania, I found and anthropology introductory book in the city library and I would go there every day after school to read it. It felt liberating, I was doing something that I was passionate about and that was ‘mine’. Then, after the first two years of university, I was feeling how the monotony of studying was settling in. I was reading things that I was actually finding interesting but, having the mindset that I have to produce a ‘good’ paper on them, I entered this mechanical way of relating to anthropology as a simple discipline among others. I am not studying to prove I write good papers, but to respond to some questions that I have and that I cannot answer by myself.  What is the role of university other than to open my access to those different answers? Yes, this might be a cliché and banal question, but it is one that I had somehow forgotten.

Am I romanticizing things a bit? Perhaps. Do not get me wrong; the past months have not been just this smooth process of ‘unveiling’ and passionate reading and writing. I have had my hard moments when I felt I was having to write too much, to read too much, I felt alone, lost, scared, homesick, tired and all the things that make us human. Then I would go to the lake, which is big enough for you not to see anything on the horizon, and sit down on the grass and remind myself how little I am compared to that infinity. I do not know very well why, but this made me feel grounded again – to breathe out, look at the sky and feel I could go on for a bit more.

On top of all this, I feel I’ve grown emotionally and socially too. I assume it is normal for these things to happen given my 22 years of life and the end of my adolescence. However, it might not be only me, maybe the process of ‘going abroad’ has itself something to do with this realisation. Last quarter I took a course on Anthropology and Psychoanalysis in which we were reading Stefania Pandolfo’s book, Knot of the Soul (2018). In the introduction she writes: 

I take writing not simply as a matter of genre (in the sense, for instance, of a literary genre of ethnographic writing that pays attention to the poetics of description and evocation) but, acknowledging Maurice Blanchot’s intimation in The Space of Literature, as a site of ‘passage’, a passage to another side of the real, where the subject recedes and the world comes to the fore in the impersonality of the image. (Pandolfo 2018:23)

Is perhaps anthropology itself located in these ‘sites of passage’? Is this why I have been able to understand it better by putting myself in a process of ‘passage’? To add an even more bombastic question, isn’t actually life itself a perpetual passage? Hence, it makes more sense why this year abroad is allowing me to realise so many things about myself and about where I am heading. To particularise and ground things a bit, since I arrived I have started going to contemporary dance shows, experimental theater performances, found a group of friends where I feel confident enough to dance with my weird moves, I went to some frat parties (yep, frat parties), started volunteering for DocFilms (which is the oldest student lead film group in the country and they have a proper cinema, whose doors I love to close at midnight after the last screening), and I realised I quite like taking the metro to a random neighborhood and walking around until I get tired.

Why write these particularisations? Well, even if I was already doing some of these things before coming here, I feel the magic of being abroad is that it has allowed me to just be me, without feeling the need to see myself reflected in other Lacanian mirrors to know who I am. I think this ‘abroadness’ offers a kind of space of experimentation and passage where you can ‘become’ who you ‘are’ and consciously do the things that you like and define yourself.  It might let ‘the world come to the fore’ and us see our real selves. I wander if the field, this strange space where you can both observe and participate in order to gain anthropological knowledge, might be similar to this ‘abroadness’ and passage that I have been exposed to.

Anyway, maybe this was just an irrelevant self-reflection on my own too personal experiences. But, it might be the case they are not as personal and individual as I may think. They may just be some common ‘end of adolescence’ realisations put in the frame of a ‘year abroad’.

Greetings from Chicago!


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