Master of Arts Programme in Openmindedness

University_of_Chicago

Myriad posts since I started this mishegas have begun with an apology but this time? Nope, this time I have nothing to apologise for! Check it out: personal growth! It’s been a reasonable amount of time since my last post. I’m not playing fast and loose with the laws of chronology. I haven’t even cussed. Manners for the win.

Don’t worry, we’re done lollygagging in the world of self-congratulation. On to the point: my trip to Chicago. Man was that an emotional roller coaster.

I want to just glide quite quickly(ish) over my actual journey since I still have a touch of PTSD about it, not least because it was my first experience of the way in which America fixates on feeding you ALL. THE. TIME. My cfs makes eating a total nightmare. Near-constant nausea is no fun ever, but when you know you have to eat because the last time you took a long flight you scared the living daylights out of an Aussie backpacker by nearly fainting on him, eating becomes a complex necessity. So, two tonic waters, a tea, pretzels, chicken paella, two bread rolls, some crackers and cheese, orange and coconut cookies, an anemic salad, deep-pan pizza, a brownie and some grapes later… I popped a rennie and landed in the good old U.S. of A.

The adventure was beginning in earnest, excitement rose up in my chest to wipe out the last of my long-haul-flight exhaustion. My brain was working overtime dreaming about what I would see, who I would meet, seeing Kate again, learning more about the course I will take, will anyone mention my accent, can I really face 4 whole days of talking to new people, am I making the right choice, can I really pull this off, am I really going to move my whole life across the globe? Bubbling on the inside I hefted my hand luggage and followed the signs to baggage reclaim. I would see the famous architecture of Chicago, the prettiness of the campus, I would face the fickle Chicago weather, I would…..go absolutely nowhere for at least 2 hours.

The queue in customs was gargantuan. “Long” is too small a word for it. Monstrous, humongous, prodigious, tremendous! I was doomed. I soon found out why the line was so expansive. People are stupid. Almost no one had got their visa info right. Almost no one felt the need to give the CBP (Customs & Border Patrol – get used to acronyms, there’s a whole section on them still to come) a straight answer while ESTA (see, acronyms galore) the online system for visa waiver countries seems to have chronically befuddled entire nations. I wasn’t even half way up the line before every child in the building decided they had had enough and threw themselves to the floor shrieking like something out of a Wes Craven flick. I can still hear them in my nightmares. Decades later, to a backing track of wailing, I crawled through customs – having successfully refrained from yelling that it was worse than China but not without having to face down a shiny-pated CBP goon who unhelpfully declared UofC a “tough school” – and breathed fresh Chicago air for the first time.

So what exactly is the point of all this I hear you ask? I’m enrolled to begin a Masters at University of Chicago this coming September so I was invited to visit the campus and… well, generally be scared out of going but current students. Yep, the by-line goes something like this. University of Chicago: ACADEMIC RIGOR and don’t you forget it. Not to mention the yawning, eye rubbing and mussed hair of the current students which – since 90% of communication is non-verbal – pretty much screams “flee, flee while you still can, while you’re still innocent, while you still sleep at night and wake during the day, while you’re still sane and you remember what a party is.”

And yet… I remain excited. Who’da thunk?!

Here’s why, or as close as I can see it anyway.

The first day of my trip, before the Committee for Deterring Potential Students got their hands on me, my gorgeous hostess Kate took me for a jaunt around Downtown Chicago. Her caffeine monster was thrashing so we made a bee-line for a coffee shop. This was immediately the best thing that had happened to me since landing in Chicago because the name of said coffee house was “Intelligentsia.” Not only this, but the guy who served us had little round tortoise shell glasses, artfully sculpted ginger beardwork, a very dapper bow tie-waistcoat combo and a talent for detailed “latte art” – my coffee came with a cute little foam fleur de lis. Everyone who knows me knows I take way more pleasure than is healthy in the appearances of the people around me. So this little fella made my day, sending me beaming and carrying my newly-stamped hipster credentials into the bright sunlight and swarming crowds of Downtown. I could already sense it. Chicago felt like a place I could definitely call home and I’d only been there a handful of hours.

This feeling, it turned out, was all-pervading. Chicago, and the University specifically, seemed to be a place where all the beautiful little tattooed freaks, nerds, geeks, social-phobes, book worms and bibliophiles are free to chat Hegel, gossip over superstructures, natter about Foucault and yak on subtexts in peace. So yes, I was nervous, it was all completely new, I was desperate to make a good impression which almost exclusively leads to falling over my own feet and spilling coffee on important people who are dressed in white. Yet, while I sat in the Classics building surrounded by tragus piercings and tattoos of Poe’s face (true story) listening to a very talented Sitar player I felt a creeping sense of ease. It rolled through the room like dry ice fumes, clinging to the floor, almost unnoticeable at first until it began to climb my legs and swirl around my head, filling my nose and sinking into my lungs. (I know, it’s all very abstract and dramatic around here isn’t it.)

Everyone in the room was tapping along to the sitar in some way, a foot here, a finger there, some where even going for the full head, nodding along in full-immersion enjoyment. There were open minds everywhere I look. All were completely open to new forms of music, new rhythms in the poetry that was read to us, new politics and philosophy in the extracts from current thesis projects we heard. Nowhere could be seen even the merest hint of judgement. Inspiration crashed in waves from the podium onto the gathered prospectives, and we took each hit like some kind of science fiction force-field (you know, the ones that only increase in strength if you hit them with blunt force, think Sebastian Shaw from X-Men First Class, and if all of this sentence is lost on you then you’re probably knee-deep in the wrong post to be honest because the geek flag is flying here.) We were positively champing at the bit to get started on our own ideas, our own intellectual endeavours. Notions, theories, thoughts and hypotheses frothed just under the surface of our small talk. It was intense. It was glorious. It felt like home.

Phew, that was exhausting. And the lady next to me just ordered a cheesecake that I would swear is calling to me, so I’m going to go and order one for myself. There is more, so much more to say though and if you’re at all interested I’ll be back soon to fill you in.

Hope to see you there.

xxx

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