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Vermont crept quietly into my view as the plane descended onto the tiny runway at Burlington Airport. I arrived on a pitch black September night. No flashy skyscrapers blinked at me from the plane window, no dramatically lit bridges, no labyrinthine streets with endless streams of car headlights signalled my arrival back on Earth. Instead, I climbed down the plane steps and onto the warm tarmac to collect my bag. Apart from the unassuming walls of the arrivals building, I was unaware of what the landscape was going to reveal when the sun eventually rose.
This was my first time in the USA. After a childhood spent reading Wilder by Laura Ingalls and listening to Britney Spears, watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, I was confident that I knew America. I used American slang, and subconsciously inserted ‘like’ into all of my sentences. I already loved this country. I wanted to be here. After all of my dreaming and planning and revising and examinations and visa forms and interviews, I was here. I had done it. I was on my own, ready to start again, to reinvent myself somewhere new. I was going to forget about mistakes I’d made and opportunities I hadn’t taken in Nottingham. For one sweet year, I was going to live the American dream.
The road signs warning of the potential for moose-related dangers peppered my journey to Middlebury College that night, travelling along Route 7 which is the highway that runs all the way through Vermont right up to the Canadian border. It was on Route 7, where the headlights of my minibus picked out my first impressions of America. Flashing across road-signs and clapboard houses, and those ridiculously huge American trucks that I thought only existed on Ice Road Truckers, I glimpsed the mountains, waterfalls and farmland that characterise this wild state.
A couple of days later, international students were taken by minibus to an out-of-town store and a bank. A simple, if not boring task, involving buying some basic supplies and opening a bank account, but to me everything was gloriously new. The brands of toothpaste, the shiny mountains of fruit and vegetables which were set out like a Disney-inspired French market scene. And then there was the soda aisle. Allow me to describe the variety of Coca-Cola options – there was vanilla, lime, cherry, and then vanilla, lime and cherry caffeine-free, and the same in Diet and Zero, Coca-Cola original, fun-size, share-size, cans, bottles, and the revelation that in the US, a standard bottle is 600ml not 500ml. Evidently, I had stumbled across paradise. This combined with the revelation that the bank had a ‘drive-thru’ option quite simply blew my tiny mind.
Arriving in Vermont in the fall was a happy accident of the academic calendar. I have never seen a depth of colour to rival the yellows, browns and oranges of the Vermont “leaf-peeper” season, so-called after the tourists who, in their thousands, tour through the state to witness the autumnal glory. We hiked up Silent Creek, a sea of golden leaves undulated, while the sun was still strong enough to provide a warmth that would disappear all too soon with the arrival of the notoriously icy Vermont winter.
Trekking through the Vermont snows to get breakfast in -20c caused my (inadequately) gloved hands to crack and bleed. Despite this brutal cold, the winter skies in Vermont are mostly bright blue, so even the coldest day manages to avoid the misery usually associated with such extreme temperatures. On one particularly memorable winter journey to the Middlebury Snow Bowl, a ski centre near the college, a friend and I stumbled upon an abandoned snowmobile, a series of rusting tractor parts, and what appeared to be a perfectly intact wooden toy windmill in a small section of snow-covered forest. Coated in white against the horizon, this junk looked as if it might have been arranged by an artist. The image of that little snowy arrangement is forever engraved in my mind’s eye.
The people who came to populate my life in this state were at once hard-working and relaxed, tough but warm, and fiercely independent. A popular series of t-shirts proclaim a desire to “KEEP VERMONT WEIRD” and the state’s reputation for its wildness and liberal thinking is one that Vermonters cherish. There were the breathtakingly confident and energetic students I met at college, the straight-talking men I worked with sorting through bags of trash for $8 an hour, the generous teachers and the insatiably curious school-children I spent a month with on internship, the smiling shopkeepers who sold me exotic treats like locally-produced maple syrup and the less local (but just as exciting) Orange Crush Soda.
Some were born in the state, and proudly told me of family histories going back five generations in the same town, and others were Vermonters by choice, lured by the ethereal – the clean mountain air, the wilderness, to the more practical – the skiing, the maple syrup, the real estate prices, and that world-famous Vermont export, Ben & Jerry’s. Everywhere there were countless tongue-in-cheek references to how the state is perceived by the rest of America, with paintings and posters proclaiming “What happens in Vermont stays in Vermont. But nothing much happens”.
It was not long before I realised that I loved this strange, wild place. The Vermont landscape and its people are inseparable. Brash public radio announcers remind you to affix your snow tires and stock up on fire wood, signs are erected to warn against parking on the side of the street when ice season arrives, and posters urge people to wear bright colours when out hiking during shooting season. These ostensibly mundane features of daily life were to me exotic and fascinating.
As predicted, homesickness was always going to arrive at some point, and I will admit that after a few months I began longing for a decent cup of tea and the BBC, and took to criticising the US healthcare system in political-science essays as a matter of course. But it was not long before I realised that the homesickness disappeared whenever I spent time with the wonderful friends I had made, people who I now see as family.
I went running around the town, joined a dance class, performed in a show, arrived late to countless guest lectures on topics from Greek history to US-Middle East relations, and cooked pancakes with friends (setting off a fire-alarm causing the evacuation of over 300 people into the snow. Accidents happen).
If I had to give one piece of advice to anyone going on a year abroad, it would be to do EVERYTHING. If you make an idiot of yourself by trying to perform capoeira in front of 600 people with just 2 weeks ‘experience,’ then who cares? Or if you feel retrospectively traumatised after an evening of slightly drunken attempts at salsa dancing in a room full of professionals, it really doesn’t matter, just stick it in your scrap-book and smile.
Lucy May Orgill