The summer between my junior and senior years in high school I was an exchange student through the American Field Service program.
Five other people and I flew on Flying Tigers airline to Amsterdam in The Netherlands. From there we dispersed to our host “family,” where we spent 12 weeks.
It was tough, lonely and memorable. There was a girl my age but she was shy. My bedroom was in the attic with a slanted ceiling. I had a great view of the small town.
I spent a lot of time riding my bike past beautiful fields created by that country’s masterful system of dikes. It was the greenest green I’ve ever seen, then or since.
I tried to learn a little Dutch before we left but I ended up staying with a family in Witmarsum, a small town in the north, where they spoke a regional dialect bearing little resemblance to what I studied. We smiled a lot.
Since I was on a farm and since it was the Dutch they served rich butter and dark, nutty bread on which they sprinkled liberal amounts of chocolate. They appreciated my appetite.
I spent a lot of time recording impressions in my journal, cramming whole pages of thoughts on thin blue aerogrammes mailed back to my family, reading Penguin paperbacks published in Europe, exploring on my own.
When we would take out an atlas so I could point to where I lived - it seemed everyone I met had a globe, a map, a thick atlas - I would feel as if I were on another planet looking down at the United States of America, on Detroit, Michigan.
On Sundays, in my family’s tiny, little car we would visit many small towns. Since Holland is a fifth the size of Michigan and could be crossed in one day I understood firsthand the enormity and uniqueness of the States. I loved being there.
And I was happy to get home.
I’m expecting the same thing to happen after a semester or two of graduate school in Pittsburgh, where I’m about to explore different kinds of writing. I never expected to go to graduate school. I wasn’t a “hanger-on,” like a lot of the perennial students I met at the University of Michigan, kids who kept changing their major so they wouldn’t have to go out and work.
I finished college in the regulation four years. I was more a member of the Give-me-the-real-world crowd. Our motto was: Let me outta here!
After 40 years of the real world (I have to put pencil to paper every time I say that; 40 couldn’t possibly be right, could it?) and a monthly Social Security check, I’m ready for a break, a diversion, a shot in the arm. I’m ready to be an exchange student again.
It will be lonely. I’ll be on someone else’s schedule. There will be directions to follow, name in the upper right hand corner and all that. There will be rusty brain cells. There will be grades.
Those are the givens.
There are other givens. I’ll miss my friends, who have grown to become my family. I’ll miss my buddies at the Michael Cohen weightlifting center, my gardens, my chickens, the Bean. I’ll miss the continuing saga of Savannah.
But from afar and during my visits, I’ll be paying attention.
Will the Aquatic Center ever reopen? We got the pool -- a good one, too -- after an earlier SPLOST vote. But something went wrong. A handful of years after construction it closed and is now under RE- construction. That ain’t right, folks.
Neither is the absence of a major SCAD parking lot. Putting up a school with 7,000 students without provisions for parking? Insanely irresponsible, for the school and for the city that allows it.
I’ll miss watching the building of the Ellis Square Restoration and Whitaker Street garage. Like we did with the Jepson Center, I stand outside that giant crack in the earth and wonder how in the heck it’s going to move forward. This has become the most anticipated new downtown construction project of the decade.
A close second for me is the house under construction at Habersham and Jones streets, the one designed by architect Dan Snyder. Dan never does anything ordinary so this will be something to watch. The house sits across from a Jerry Lominack-designed residence built in the ‘70’s.
A cautious optimist -- as opposed to a friend of mine who describes himself as a brooding optimist -- I’ll be looking for more neighborhood cafes along the line of Al-Salaam on Habersham, which serves the best (and maybe only) falafel in town.
I’ll be looking for more activity at Starland. I’ll be crossing my fingers for the new school superintendent. He seems like a keeper.
But for now I have to sharpen my pencils and exchange a few addresses for life’s next adventure.
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