Dispatch 2: FAQs for the First Week

Dispatch 2: FAQs for the First Week

I brought seven notebooks on this trip. (This trip is my trip to Washington, and it’s not so much of a trip as a sojourn, and it’s not so much of a sojourn as a study abroad.) But apparently seven notebooks is not enough space to take down all of my thoughts, so here are a few.

Here is a guide I jotted down to help anyone who follows me through the first week on campus. No, it’s not oddly specific and it’ll definitely be helpful to people not in my exact specific context.

How do I fold a fitted sheet?

  1. Shake out your sheet until both pairs of underwear that were hiding in it fall out.
  2. Search “how to fold a fitted sheet” on YouTube.
  3. Watch the first video. Attempt folding the corners into each other. Get frustrated.
  4. Watch another video, promising to be the only video you will need. Completely fail at following the instructions that sound deceptively simple. Get more frustrated.
  5. Find a Martha Stewart video about folding a fitted sheet. Attempt to keep up with the instructions that the sheet folding expert swears are easy. Laugh at Martha’s joke about being divorced, so as to distract yourself from the fact that you still don’t understand how to fold a fitted sheet. Ponder on the fact that Martha Stewart became a homewares and lifestyle powerhouse despite a former career as a stockbroker and a conviction for insider trading. Get more frustrated and annoyed at Martha Stewart.
  6. Watch another video. Attempt to fold the corners over each other on your bed in a completely new way, as if this will help.
  7. Roll the sheet over itself.
  8. Develop a passionate anger for your paradoxical desire to see things neat and your inability to actually make them neat.
  9. Throw the sheet onto the floor petulantly.
  10. Follow a few of the rules from the videos about folding corners over one another and then eventually scrunch it up but fold it neatly and put it on the shelf.
  11. Tell your mother that you can’t fold a fitted sheet. Get frustrated when she tells you that you have to fold the corners in on each other. Again.
  12. Have a rest on the other set of sheets you bought from Wal-Mart.


How do I fix the dry rot on my wall?

Stick a copy of the Bill of Rights on top of it and pretend it’s not there. (Any of America’s founding documents will do the job. The Constitution, which is four pages, is best saved for larger stains.)

How do I cope with the obscenely bright light shining through a grid of glass windows on my wall, facing the aisles between apartment buildings?

Buy an eye mask from Bed, Bath & Beyond. (A padded one with moons and stars and things so as to not get a headache from the pressure on your eyelids.)

What do I do when my flatmates move my shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel to the bottom of the four-rung shower caddy?

  1. Buy larger versions of the same items from the Lush on M Street.
  2. Decide unilaterally to be more comfortable in the apartment by asserting your right to more space.
  3. Move whatever is on the second rung of the caddy to the bottom and replace it with your things.

How do I get my flatmates to stop watching loud documentaries about the production of honey in the living room at 1am?

Tweet exactly what you hear in a thread. They won’t stop the behaviour, and will likely repeat it every night, but you’ll have an outlet to vent your ceaseless frustration.

What do I tell myself if I catch myself thinking “maybe I’d be happier if I were at home and not on exchange”?

but ya are blanche

What’s the best laundry detergent to buy?

Definitely liquid based. You can moderate the amount you use based on the size of your load, which you can’t do with pods. Also, consuming liquid detergent is not (yet) a meme.

What do I do if I lose my keys?

Honestly I have no idea and I’m terrified of finding out.

How does eating in the dining hall work?

  1. The person at the entrance to the dining hall swipes your card, gives it back to you, and does not make eye contact.
  2. You walk through the hall and glance at each of the options.
  3. You make a selection and put this on your plate. This may entail seeing something new that looks appetising, which goes on your plate, but does not end up tasting like the thing it was labelled to be. It may also entail you giving up and putting two slices of plain cheese pizza on your plate and, if available, some curly fries.
  4. Fill up a plastic cup with something from the soda fountain. Do not select pink lemonade; it does not taste like the pink lemonade from Bondi Pizza that makes your mother roll her eyes and your father scoff every time you order it. It tastes like swill. Also, do not select Gatorade. Drinking Gatorade from a soda fountain is like drinking Moët from a goon bag.
  5. Deposit your empty dishes on the metal conveyor belt in the small nook on the right hand side of the room.
  6. Return to your room and inhale a family-sized bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos.

How do you cope with the sudden bursts of existential angst, homesickness, utter confusion, and sheer terror?

You don’t. But every time they happen, they’re a bit less bad than the last time they happen. Just maybe, by the time you’re getting ready to leave, you’ll realise there was nothing to be terrified of. (At least, I hope so.)


Dispatch 1: Pilgrimage

Dispatch 1: Pilgrimage

I brought seven notebooks on this trip. (This trip is my trip to Washington, and it’s not so much of a trip as a sojourn, and it’s not so much of a sojourn as a study abroad.) But apparently seven notebooks is not enough space to take down all of my thoughts, so here are a few. I expect there will be a few more soon.

There’s a fantastic essay from Michael Kirby’s A Private Life that stuck with me long after I read it. He tells the story of visiting the town of Fairmount, Indiana; it’s a pilgrimage to the birthplace of James Dean and one of the many little journeys we all take on our search for meaning. For Kirby, James Dean had awoken something in him when he was young, something that never went back to sleep again. I felt almost in this vein visiting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential library back in December. For me, the essence of the American presidency has always been a marvel, has always made America something of a shiny city on a hill, as it were. I make my way to the library the morning after I arrive in the US for this adventure I’ve thrown myself into.

(The nomenclature is important. If I continue to use the word adventure, rather than any of the other adjectives that spring to mind – words like insanity, Quixotic jaunt, aimless quest – it makes me feel grounded and with a sense of purpose. Or, at least, I tell myself it does, and then I believe it, for the most part.)

The trip to the library, in Hyde Park, is a mark in and of itself of commitment. I make my way to the subway in Grand Central Station, near my hotel – the hotel room I wake up in has a king sized bed in it, and consequently is mostly just comprised of the bed, but that’s fine – and travel to Penn Station, where I buy an Amtrak ticket. After getting slightly lost, possibly more than once, and permitting myself a giggle at the fact that I’m taking the 69, I find the queue to board the train. The trip takes an hour and a half, and in that time I manage to congratulate myself multiple times for having navigated to the station and onto the train successfully.

(Congratulating oneself for doing things that literally anyone could do appears to be a vital tool for the upkeep of my mental health, or so I’m finding. I wonder if it’s a consequence of living in another country, where simple everyday things occur as a consequence of an entirely different set of actions and decisions, so public transport and eating a meal become Herculean feats of strength and ingenuity.)

I find a taxi at Poughkeepsie station, and take the trip up to the library. It was the first to be built, and the only one to be used by the sitting president as an office during his tenure. FDR would never see the library after retiring, as he never did retire, instead dying in office in 1945. I ponder as I make my way in that a president who was elected to four terms – and none of them in his best health – was probably not going to leave the White House in any vehicle other than a hearse. I ponder this, and the departure of presidents more generally, as I note the framed photograph of the current president on the wall of the ticket booth in the main entrance.

There’s the usual film at the start of the trip through, which provides context that I was already aware of. I sit alone in the theatre and watch it; it’s a rather cold day, and out of the way, so the complex isn’t exactly bursting with visitors. A few more show up, and we are toured through the house where Roosevelt grew up, and then left to our own devices in the museum and library building.

For me, presidential libraries are not about learning. Presidential libraries are hagiography, modern day temples to men who play at being gods. He signed the Civil Rights Act, He took the United States into war, He brought freedom to the Middle East, with the power of His voice, He lifted up a nation. A museum devoted to a president is not a place of learning, it is a compliment with touch screens and artefacts and sometimes oddly low ceilings. And, by and large, I have loved every single one I’ve visited.

My devotion to the presidential libraries made this trip something approximating a pilgrimage. I had something of a notion of myself as intrepid, seeking out these temples to the divine in such exotic locales Kansas and Arkansas and Michigan and California. But odes to men, real men with dimensions and flaws, do not draw pilgrims. They draw tourists, looking to see something, to read a bit, to get the stamp. That is what I am. The past is a foreign country. So is this one.

So I get the stamp in my passport at the gift shop and borrow the library’s wifi to call an Uber back to the train station. The trip back feels longer, as though I am realising with every minute that brings me closer to New York City that I’m going to have to do this every day for two weeks, finding a reason to get up and head out and do.

(I will be mostly successful. Barring Christmas Day, the day I went downstairs to have breakfast in the morning, watched The West Wing on Netflix, and ate nothing but ice-cream flavoured jellybeans of which I did not have enough to sustain myself, of course.)

I return to my hotel room, promise myself I will not fall asleep, fall asleep at five in the afternoon, wake up four hours later, don’t go back to sleep. I have missed dinner. (I miss dinner the next night as well, and have technically missed dinner for the last two consecutive nights, so by the time I get to Saturday dinner is a myth, and every time I use the word I suspect it comes across slightly reverential.)

But hey, there’s another stamp in my passport.