Scott Russell Morris is a faculty member at the University of Utah Asia Campus in Incheon, Korea, where he lives with his wife and children. He has a PhD from Texas Tech University and an MFA from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, Chattahoochee Review, Proximity Magazine, and elsewhere.
It's 3:30 in the morning. I've been in Edinburgh for less than twenty-four hours, and I am still trying to recover from the jetlag, so I’ve come down to the hostel's common area to get a snack and do some writing. I didn't know when I came down that the hostel's kitchen was closed for the night, which means I won’t be able to get to my food, which I can nevertheless see through the tiny, scratched windows of the kitchen doors. I examined the vending machines, but they only take coins, and all I have are the crisp bills I picked up from the ATM at the airport. So I sat down to write at the round tables. My notebook is sprawled out before me, a black Z-Grip Zebra click pen in hand.
But then I got up and tried the kitchen doors a second time.
“The kitchen is closed.” There was a man on the couch, and I was suddenly aware that either I had woken him or he had watched me now for some time without saying anything.
I turned to look at him. He wore only a faded t-shirt and shabby briefs, his thin, flabby legs spread as though intentionally displaying his grimy underwear. He shifted around a bit, not uncomfortably, but perhaps uncertain how to act now that he’d been caught, then sat on the couch a bit longer before hobbling out into the hall without saying anything more. I returned to my notebook on the table.
Hunger isn't the only thing that kept me awake or drove me out of bed. I was tense and cold: the short blanket only barely covered my feet, and one of my roommates had opened the window. I could hear urban traffic all night. Sirens, people arguing drunkenly on the sidewalks, and raucous laughter all seemed menacing, as all such sounds do late at night in strange cities. The discomfort reminds me that I am here in Scotland for a “cultural experience,” a graduate student assistant for a study abroad program. But, despite my insecurities and insomnia, there is a charm to the sounds, too, and so I sit here essaying and trying to find meaning in these foreign sounds that are uncomfortable and inviting.
Now that I am writing, I can't even remember what my thoughts were before getting out of bed, but the straining for meaning in my contradictory reaction to the noise had something to do with it, a vague sense of a lightened darkness and a charming menace, just outside the window.
I recall, now, the many study abroad essays I've read as an editor of a student journal—so many bad ones that I told my staff we wouldn't publish anything about study abroad programs—and I worry that I am just looking for the same shallow arguments I'd seen in those essays: Young American sees a new country for the first time, Young American feels like an outsider, Young American has an epiphany. Young American feels at home. Young American understands.
I don’t feel like an outsider, but I’ve not really explored much outside the hostel, either, just wandered the streets for a few hours while I waited for the rest of my group to arrive. I had historical questions about the ruins on the hills, but nothing pressing. I admired the glassy exteriors of Edinburgh’s skyscrapers, reveled in the green and rocky richness of the fortressed hills. But I can’t help coming back to the fact that this is essentially my first time outside of the USA—except for the one day my dad and I crossed into Mexico to buy kitchen tiles when I was six and an afternoon on the Canadian side of Niagra falls just a few years ago—so in many ways I know I am that eager Young American, ready to see Culture, the World, to have Experience. I am trying to steer my thoughts away from the clichés of my excitement and hopes, and I can't sleep because I am excited and hopeful. I want this to be the life-changing experience all writers hope for, where connections are abundant. Connections are everywhere in Edinburgh, a city of complements and contradictions: the modern offices butt against ancient castles; new fashions against traditional foods; the mausoleum of David Hume next to a statue of Abraham Lincoln; a calm, friendly calico cat sitting on the steps of Calton Hill under a “Lost Cat” sign. This early in my trip, these details still entice me because I’ve grown neither callous nor comfortable.
While I've been noticing these contradictions, I've also been thinking about enthusiasm. On the flight from Chicago Midway to London Heathrow I sat next to Eliot, a first-rate Brit, not quite two years old. As the plane ferried out for takeoff, Eliot delightedly pointed out every airplane he saw, and since we were in an airport—the fifth busiest in the world—that was no small number.
“Airplane! Airplane!” His little pointer finger extended at the end of an outstretched arm as far as the seatbelt would allow him to go.
His mother apologized for his enthusiasm, but honestly, it was adorable, and as far as sitting next to a toddler on an airplane goes, not too bad.
A young man just walked into the common room carrying the smell of cigarettes with him. He stares at the vending machine and says “No cigarettes?” He has a thick accent, one that I don't recognize, perhaps German. It's hard to tell from just two words. I consider the vending machines again and remember that getting a snack was the primary reason I came downstairs. I remember that I have some Clif Bars in my suitcase, but I am too lazy to go back upstairs to get them now; besides, I had told myself that I wouldn't eat too many this early in the trip. I have almost two months of hiking ahead of me, and I want to make sure that I have snacks for the hikes. What's more, in the day and a half of traveling to and walking around Edinburgh I have already eaten three bars. The young man looked at the vending machine for a while, but has just left.
His cigarette musk lingers.
I’ve been contemplating enthusiasm ever since sitting next to Eliot because I am concerned about my enthusiasm for squirrels. I behave around squirrels much as Eliot does around planes. I’ve collected the paraphernalia to prove it: at least fifteen squirrel t-shirts, a squirrel nutcracker, lots of little squirrel ornaments, a tie, and a pair of squirrel boxers. My MFA thesis is squirrel-themed. I sign my letters and some credit card receipts with a squirrel-shaped wiggle of a signature.
However, when I broke up with Kirsten, my girlfriend—or maybe ex-girlfriend now—just over a week ago, she asked me why I couldn't be as enthusiastic about her as I was for squirrels. It was not the main part of our disagreement, but it struck me hard nonetheless. Partially, it hurt because though squirrels were part of my identity, the thing everyone knew they could talk to me about—“I’m not obsessed,” I would tell people, “I’m enthusiastic.” —her jealousy of my enthusiasm for squirrels felt odd. I had thought she knew me better, thought she could see through my superficial love for the tree rodents. I thought that she, of all people, could see that though squirrels did enthuse me—in the original sense of the word, to be with a god, they filled me with a sense of wonder—that even with the joy I felt, even in the pleasure I got from people talking about squirrels with me, even with all that, even I knew it was a silly fascination. Almost like an inside joke with the whole world. Were the squirrels all to go away, I would find something else to feed that eccentricity. I thought she understood that about me. And who would want to be the object of that sort of attention? Squirrels are completely unaware and unaffected by my devotion. They thrive and decline independent of my enthusiasm for them, so there’s no harm done that I collect their pictures, horde t-shirts with their images. Who wants that in a boyfriend?
So, like the endangered English red squirrel, we’re uncertain now, too. I apologized to her. We made up at Red Mango, her favorite frozen yogurt joint, where her order every time is pomegranate yogurt with mini chocolate chips and coconut mochi. We’re a couple again, but that was only a few days ago, right before I was on the plane, sitting next to Eliot, the plane pointer.
The young guy looking for cigarettes has come back. He found some tobacco somewhere and came into the common area to roll his smokes. I don't have many friends who smoke. I've never seen anyone roll their own; seeing him do so now makes him seem like a connoisseur, so much more interesting than when he was a guy just looking for a cigarette from a vending machine. He introduces himself as Jimmy. He’s French and is studying in Dundee.
“I'm drunk,” Jimmy tells me, “and if I go to sleep I will throw up. I heard that the Volunteer Arms is opening at seven.” At first I think that the Volunteer Arms is a place for food, like a soup kitchen—Arms has me thinking Salvation Army, my early morning brain too slow to understand—but then he tells me that there will be a jukebox there and that he just needs music. My next thought is a soup kitchen with a rocking dance scene before I realize he's talking about a club. He tells me he’s been going to trances recently, then tells me that he went to Nevada last year. Jimmy's stories meld together in a tipsy spiral, but despite his drunken slur and heavy accent, I think I am getting him clearly. When he was in Nevada they wouldn't let him gamble or drink because he was just 19—though he is 20 now, he emphatically points out—and he tried to gamble anyways but was caught.
“Las Vegas reminds me of Amsterdam,” he says. “A place where you can look up, down, left, right, front, behind, but you just go round. Go round. You cannot get out.” While he rolls more cigarettes he tells me how he left Amsterdam. He didn't have any money, but he had his ticket. The train station he describes sounds like a new annex in Dante’s Hell: it’s full of people pushing and shoving as he makes his way through, people yelling for him to show his ticket. But he tells them he doesn't have one and keeps moving towards the train. “If I show it to someone they will kick me, take my ticket, and throw me onto the tracks.” People grab at him, but he presses through and only when he reaches the train does he finally show his ticket. His voice is triumphant, and I imagine him, inebriated, waving his ticket at the maddened crowd from the back of a departing train, people on the platform still clamoring for his ticket. A puff of the train's billowing steam mixes with the smoke rolling from his mouth, framing the whole scene.
Jimmy tells me that he was in Amsterdam for New Year’s and that it was “the best and the worst New Year’s ever. I was out of control.” I’m still thinking about the circular nature of the city, about not being able to get out mentally or physically. Are there cities you cannot escape? Perhaps he means he can’t escape the memories, and, too quick to judge, I assume he’s feeling remorse for riotous living, but then he mentions mushrooms and reminds me that they are legal there, and he has friends who can get them. “There are prostitutes shaking behind glass,” he says and then giggles, biting his hand to quell the laughter as he looks down at the table.
I ask him why he is in Edinburgh and he says that he is waiting for a flight, and while he waited some girls showed him around town, which is how he got so drunk. He went back to the girls' flat.
“But they were tired,” he says, “though I am always disappointed by Scottish girls' flats whether or not I have sex,” and he giggles again, still biting his hand. He says he is really funny. I guess he is, though it’s hard for me to say if I find him funny or fascinating.
I’m trying hard not to think about him either way because it would mean comparing him to me, which I don’t want to do because in so many of the bad study abroad essays such comparisons always go one of two ways: We're different but those differences make us human; or, We're different but when I think about it, we're the same. I know that were I honest with myself, I could probably see that those two sentiments are in fact true, which is why so many boring essays come to that conclusion. But really, Jimmy and I are both just two guys up late in a foreign city, not sure what will happen next. Both up wanting bodily comforts, unable to find them here in the common room.
All I know of his life is the sex and the drugs and partying, so that’s the part that comes through now, his stories of the sensual side of these foreign cities, a part I have no desire to explore. I have no idea what he thinks of me. He probably doesn’t think of me, which is perhaps the key difference between us. It’s just my obsessive nature again, trying to see what can’t be seen that makes my thoughts circle around him, filling in gaps for him where I am too shy to ask.
That, of course, was part of the problem with Kirsten. She asked, she prodded. I opened up, as much as I thought I could, more than I had for any other, but it still never felt like there was anything to share, and she took that reticence as distance. I enjoyed my life with her. Life was good. Why add the drama of picking out annoyances? Why worry about the future when it would be as comfortable as the present? This hadn’t satisfied her. She worried that I couldn’t be supportive, that I’d always be emotionally distant. I told her I was just more comfortable with the quiet, preferred to explore my emotions in writing. I told her I was funny, but couldn’t she see this about me?
Jimmy asks if he can read what I've been writing, so I hand my journal over to him, and he reads part of this essay, the part about squirrels above.
He asks what “squirrel” is, and I say “écureuil,” which, along with escargot, bonjour and hors d’ouvres, makes up the extent of my French, but he doesn't understand me. He asks if “squirrel” is “tortue,?” which I think might be a dialect word for squirrel. He waves behind his back and says “The animal with the big...” I am thinking tail but he is thinking shell, so I say, “Yeah, a squirrel.” And he asks, “Isn't that also called a … a turtle?” Only then do I recall my limited Spanish, recognizing the similarities between French tortue and Spanish tortuga. I am sure about écureuil, having checked my pronunciation with several French people over the years, but still I start to doubt. I try drawing a squirrel for him, the quick little line drawing I use for signatures, but he guesses,
I never was very good at Pictionary.
Luckily I remember that the common area’s bulletin board has a poster with local wildlife on it, so I lead him to it and point out the endangered red squirrel.
“Oh! “Écureuil!” he says, repeating back to me what I had said before but in a pronunciation unmistakably more French. The confusion could be blamed on the drink, his limited English, the earliness of the hour, or my mispronunciation of one of the few French words I know.
His reply is nevertheless disheartening: “You understand me, but I don't understand you.”
Then, he returns to the table to collect the five rolled smokes and we don't say anything more except “Good night,” though it is already morning. Jimmy backs out of the double doors, and I am done writing. It suddenly seems impossible that anything I might say to anyone would be understood, a sign that I should do less thinking and talking, more watching and listening. Breakfast is still several hours away, so I close my journal and head back to bed as the early summer sun begins to rise.