Sunday, 31 October 2010

Welcome to “the land of big trucks and expanding guts.” (Cody Jones.)

I'm sorry for the lack of regularity where this blog is concerned. I've never forgotten about it, of course, but as any university student can attest, sometimes your weeks are so busy they positively fly past. It's often like you're trying to write an essay whilst caught up in a tornado. Anyway, a lot has been going on and I have plenty to write about. I visited the mountains in a place called Asheville, went to the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, experienced my first UNC football game and today is Halloween.

I also found out that, with my combination of modules, it will never be possible to complete all of my assigned reading. In that spirit of things, I got a D on a midterm and my grades started to slip all round. It's been hard to deal with; at home I was often top of my class and it's hard to cope, self-esteem wise, with struggling so much. The one thing I've realised is that a year out here is completely different to a year at home, in terms of what I'm trying to get out of it. Here, I don't have to like everything I learn, but being exposed to so many new teaching styles is invaluable experience if I ever become a lecturer myself. It's not to say that I'm not getting anything out of the classes here – they're excellent. I just can't give them the focus they need, and the style is so different. I excel at long essays with room for creativity and originality, but short answer questions and exams, not so much. The majority of what I'm learning is out of the classroom, and that's how it should be.

On the upside, I feel more confident about my writing than I have done in years. I've never wavered from wanting to become a writer. But being out here has made me doubt myself in all kinds of ways – that I can probably explain in more detail when I have hindsight on my side – just not about writing. If anything, being so isolated has reinforced that need to write, to find escapism, that was probably the reason I began in the first place. I have found other forms of escapism over the years, typical ones which are followed by apologies and de-tagging photos on Facebook. I have found more healthy ones, too, like working out and cooking. Yet writing is still the most central, most fundamental part of who I am and how I live. What's difficult about being an artist at this age, is when we have to transition from escaping to crafting. We write for others, not just ourselves. When I reached the end of my teenage years, I became shy of my writing, constantly comparing myself to others, from friends in the Creative Writing Society to Hemingway. I've reached more of a happy medium now. Writing is like any other art: very little about natural talent, and largely about practice and diligence. Whilst I have given more energy to crafting and improving, I'm happy that it still remains my escape, and if I like, it can still be something that is just for me.

I feel that the title I've given this entry is relevant because it references several topics I've gone over: Cody Jones is a former member of the CWS, an American, and was commenting on a Facebook status I wrote about all the American food I've enjoyed. Which brings me – finally! - around to the subject I was originally intending to write about. Food, not so glorious food. As anyone who has ever been alive for more than two years is probably aware, food is a large part of American culture. The more grease, the better. For a girl whose diet is comprised mainly of wholegrain, fresh produce and hippy stuff like tofu and beans, this was intimidating. It was probably one of the debilitating parts of the experience, but I seem to have found some solutions at last.

At the international orientation back in August, our advisor told us that Southern food was amazing, but to be careful how much we had. Someone also referenced food when talking to us about homesickness, along the lines of: “Sometimes when a student is sad they just sit in their room eating lots of chips and pizza... or they don't eat anything at all.” I did both. In the early days, sometimes I would eat practically nothing at all, because it was so stressful trying to find something to eat that I knew I would like. When every day is filled with unfamiliarity, you just want to have a meal that you know you will like the taste of. Even things that seemed the same, like cereal, often had added sugar or used spices we don't have at home. Then sometimes, I would just eat anything because I was too disorientated to care. Fast food places are everywhere, even on campus. We may criticise Americans for the obesity crisis, but I can say from experience, we have it a lot easier at home. In Norwich for example, I could have lunch at Pizza Hut or Nando's, but I know it would be wiser to go to Tesco and buy salad and some fruit. In Chapel Hill, take Tesco out of the equation and what do you do? There is the odd shop that sells fresh apples and bananas, but not many, and that is literally all that they have.

I decided against getting a meal plan on campus because they are jaw-droppingly expensive and don't have a large variety of healthy options. Besides, I love to cook and I have a decent kitchen in my house. The only problem was getting food. Now, the thing to explain here is that people here rely very little on public transport or walking, so it follows that a lot of things aren't accessible that way. Two of my housemates have cars, and will kindly drive me to get groceries when I need to. However, this still wasn't entirely a solution for me because I'm used to being able to go weekly in order to eat fresh fruit every day, and besides I will admit that I am stubbornly independent. American supermarkets have yet to start doing home delivery, and as much as I asked around, no one was too confident I would be able to walk to get fresh produce regularly like I wanted to. So I had occasional healthy days when I had been shopping recently, but mostly watched in horror as my body proceeded to show me how unhappy it was. My skin was pubescent and painful. My hair was dry and not as shiny. I had sore eyes, couldn't sleep properly and always felt sluggish. I gained weight. I tried making the best of things: walking a lot, drinking plenty of water, having a vigilant skin care regime. But the fact of the matter is, what we eat is so so important. I suspect I have a particularly sensitive system, because you can tell within a couple of days whether I've been eating right or not.

I knew where a couple of supermarkets were from driving there, so one day I decided to go ahead and walk, just to see if it was doable or not. And this is where my two months of struggling becomes very funny. I walked down the road for, oh, fifteen minutes, and immediately came across a wonderland. Weaver Street Market sells mostly organic and local produce, has hardly any frozen food, and everything is free-range. I'll make my point this way: there was about five different varieties of tofu. I think you see what I'm getting at. I thought it would be drastically expensive, but it was actually quite reasonable. I eat very little meat – which helps the budget – but I did buy fresh chicken. I've eaten nothing but frozen chicken for two months and the difference is staggering. I know which I prefer! It has been goodbye peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, hello potato salads. Anyway, having good food again has made me so much happier. Cooking is a kind of therapy for me, and eating is a social activity; my housemates and I are trying to make time for a group meal once a week. I also feel even more qualified to write healthy eating articles for Concrete next year, an idea that's been bouncing around in my head whilst I panic about my lack of work experience.

There is probably a lot more to say about North Carolina food that will crop up in due course: corndogs, Southern barbecues, Krispy Kreme burgers, frozen yoghurt and ice cream places, (savoury) biscuits and sweet tea. Despite what may seem like a negative angle in this entry, some of their food is really good. Or I'll put it this way: their “bad” food, is really, really good. Just so long as it's not my entire diet I'm happy eating it occasionally. And to answer another question that I am asked a lot: I don't see a lot of fat people. Why? Exercise. UNC is a sports-oriented university, all the exercise facilities are totally free, and people here take pride in looking good. They don't gorge on food all day every day just because it's there. If you think about it, a lot of British university students are incredibly unhealthy but not necessarily fat, so it should come as no surprise that I'm not seeing a lot of large people in a college town. On the one hand I am, as ever, jealous that I am someone who gains weight immediately after a bad week. On the other, if I didn't freak out about diet and exercise so much, I would probably never have taken such an interest in it, and y'all would not have had this entry to read.

And now, I shall leave you with the very best part of American cuisine. If you are ever in the states, go there immediately. I first had it back in 2007 during mine and Katharine's Amtrak trail, and it has remained my favourite restaurant ever since. Behold:

The Cheesecake Factory in Durham, NC.