by Elin Johnson

One thought that resonates with me is,“life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” This is often quoted by English teachers coercing groaning freshman into public speaking, or precedes the enigmatic string of numbers stowed away inside of stale fortune cookies. For me it has always been a mantra. One to convince myself that whatever half-baked idea I was pursuing in order to impress a cousin was worthwhile, and would, in the best-case-scenario, result in the loss of dignity instead of limbs. Growing up, I was described by most of my early elementary school teachers as “free spirited” and a “joy to have in class.” That second bit is trivial, but I like to remind myself of it. My free spirited-ness, so to speak, was actually a yearning to fill every day with spontaneous adventure and reenact full-length musicals during nap time. As I aged like a fine cheese, school ceased to have purpose when nap time was eliminated in order to better crush our spirits. This cut short my Broadway career, but did not hamper my desire for adventure.

This feeling manifested itself until it boiled over in the fall of my junior year. In a giddy state inspired by childhood dreams and anecdotes from acquaintances, I applied for an exchange program to England. When I was accepted, my poor mother was forced to acknowledge that the quirky little proposal she had let me entertain was instead going to be a reality. I had worked hard all summer and fall for a spring break ski trip, and put these funds towards the endeavor as a way to sedate her monetary concerns. My parents had always understood my craving for adventure and, after some consideration, supported me wholeheartedly. We prepared for my departure by purchasing several boxes of Earl Grey and a stack of English literature for moral support.

After a tearful Nicholas Sparks farewell to my dogs, and stoic handshakes with my parents, I was off to battle the redcoats. I faced my first challenge before I had even crossed the Atlantic. My beloved East Coast grandparents had beat the shortcomings of New Jersey into me until bruises formed that matched the liver spots painted on the taunt, newspaper skin which coated their arthritic knuckles. If New Jersey is a cesspool of fake tan and breathing with your mouth open, then Newark can be equated to the school receptionist with the talon-like fake nails who makes it evident she doesn’t care about your excuses – get to class. I hobbled through the labyrinthine airport, sleep deprived and starving, constantly checking to see if my mysteriously elusive host parents had contacted me at all. As I grew increasingly nervous, images of my face plastered on the side of milk cartons, and my grieving mother being consoled by President Obama (who was inexplicably invested in my retrieval) passed through my mind. When I finally found my gate, I discovered that I would be traveling with a full mariachi band who was serenading everyone in the waiting area with sweet twangs of their guitars. This was perplexing on many levels. My frazzled brain could not comprehend why they had left their customary jovial positions on buses and subway cars for such a less festive mode of transportation. Looking back, I wonder how they got through security with their instruments. Whatever their motives were, the band made me feel oddly comfortable and any minuscule doubt in my mind about exchange vanished. I was being accompanied by the highest form of entertainment to frolic amongst Shakespearean backdrops and eat tiny sandwiches.

As soon as I landed in the Birmingham international airport, I knew I had come to the right place. The wind ripped across the terrain, carrying splatters of frigid rain, and a January gray adorned the early morning sky. In that first analysis I felt more at home than I ever did in any of the places I’ve lived. In that instant, I could have never imagined how I would evolve with every experience, and grow to love the double-edged politeness of the people who inhabited that tiny island. I had no idea how hard I’d laugh, or how inspired I would become by the thoroughly modern political turmoil of a contentious election played out in a country which oozed history. All I knew in that moment was that I was right where my free spirit needed to be.


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Elin is a lifelong Alaskan with a passion for storytelling and everything outdoors. When she isn’t traveling or at the dance studio, you will most likely spot her between the pages of a book confused as to why she has become so tiny, or forcing her dog to watch the cinematic masterpieces of the 80s and 90s. Elin is always ready for an adventure, especially if there is a chance of karaoke, so don’t be afraid to pick her brain about favorite books or her true feelings about breakfast foods.


  • Noah Zimmer

    As an exchange student my self, I understand how the trip there can be nearly as influential as the experience itself. I really liked how you started the essay with a quote and talked about how that related to you. My favorite part was your description of new jersey. Keep up the good work!

  • Raia Stamm

    This piece of writing is truly amazing, and Elin is so much more than just a writer she is an artist of words. The way that the sentences are stringed together with humor and honesty, truly shows the kind of person the author is. The descriptive language and funny anecdotes pull the reader in and keep them interested up until the last word.

  • Ryan Terry

    I love how you put so much humor (or should I say “humour”) into you work, but without reverting to a more primitive writing style. You are still using sophisticated language even when making some pretty silly jokes, which, in a way, makes them even more amusing. Good Job!

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