Unpacking Place

By Amy Price Azano

November 2, 2023

Photos provided by the author.
Cover photo: Norwich, January 1993

To say I was unprepared for my junior year abroad is an understatement. As I packed to leave the country for the first time, I borrowed my grandmother’s suitcase because it was the only one large enough for a semester’s worth of clothes and my boom box. (Yes, a boom box!) The suitcase was vintage even for its time, a powder blue oversized soft case without wheels. The first of many uninformed decisions. I flew by myself from DC to London and, with that large blue suitcase, navigated trains and buses and several long walks until I made it to the University of East Anglia’s (UAE) campus in Norwich, England—about 120 miles northeast of London. I said hello to my suitemates, unpacked my belongings, and grabbed a beer at the local pub with another American who was also moving in for the Spring 1993 semester. As an undergraduate student at Louisiana State University (and having lived the previous summer in New Orleans), it was not my first beer—though it was my first lukewarm brown ale with a 7% ABV (quite a bit more than the ubiquitous Natty Light of the early 90s!). Another poor decision.

My room at UAE (note the boom box)

Back in my room, I remembered to plug the international adapter into the outlet and set an alarm for an early start so that I could tour campus prior to my 9 am class. For a 20-year-old college junior who drank two of those brown ales before feeling their full weight, it would be a rough morning. Even still, I was shocked to find my body aching from the previous day’s travel and what felt like very little sleep. It was also strangely quiet and pitch-black outside, but the trip predated the internet and Google deep dives so I truly had no idea what to expect. I assumed my new friends were late sleepers and that this northern territory had an oddly late sunrise. I wondered how busy Londoners could start their day in what feels like the middle of the night. But, it was my first day of class! I excitedly got dressed and found my way into the still community kitchen where the only light, the red glow of the microwave clock, revealed it was in fact the middle of the night. 

At 3:30 am, I returned to my single dorm room, unplugged my clock, and woke up later that evening having missed and, consequently, been withdrawn from all my courses (a university policy). My suitemates felt terrible for neglecting to share a feature about the outlets that could make American clocks work twice as fast (a detail I might have noticed were it not for the ale). Going to each professor the following day and explaining my folly earned a few chuckles and some sympathy points.

They allowed me to re-enroll, and I spent my time that semester studying creative writing and Shakespeare. I made friends from around the world. I fell in love. I borrowed a rucksack and traveled to Prague for the four weeks in between quarters.

Arriving in Prague, March 1993

And, to be sure, I was not prepared for any of it. Not for the growing or deep longing for home. Not for feeling more capable than I had realized. Finding the world bigger than I imagined. For not feeling self-conscious about my country accent that had previously signaled ineptitude in academic spaces. (We all just sound American over there!)

At the base of the Astronomical Clock

I journaled in Prague’s Old Town Square, in awe of the astronomical clock built in 1410 – and all this within a couple years of the Velvet Revolution and months into the new Czech Republic and the opening of its first McDonald’s.

But the hardest part of the journey was yet to come–the one at home. Not the literal trip home. By then I was a pro. I had been across the English Channel after clipping coupons from a local newspaper for a free trip to France—a failed attempt to get to Paris to meet an LSU friend also studying abroad. I made it to Dunkirk, slept in a bank vestibule after not getting a ride to Paris, and ferried back to England the next day. (I am haunted by these poor decisions.) In Prague, I made friends with Czech students at Charles University who were studying English. Together, we traveled to Český Krumlov for a party. Getting home to Luray, Virginia was a piece of cake.

I had been in Europe for a little more than six months. I learned to love that room temperature ale and drank it in pubs older than the United States. I had arrived with $200 US dollars and babysat for professors and did other household jobs for income. My parents routinely sent care packages of Doritos and spending money collected by our church congregation. I’ve lost many of the memories to age, but I can close my eyes and remember every detail of a surprise 21st birthday celebration my British friends planned for me—a birthday of little significance there but an American rite of passage they didn’t want me to miss. I can see the kind Czech man working the street cart who sold “smažený sýr” (fried cheese). Each morning he would offer a wide smile as I ordered “smažený směrem” (fried directions)—a mistake that brought him so much pleasure he hated to finally correct me.

Somewhere, Czech Republic

I had a million stories and I couldn’t wait to share them with my family who had gathered for a welcome home party on my aunt’s porch in Luray. But instead I found myself fielding a single question: How was London? I had many attempts to respond. I actually wasn’t in London, but Norwich has a massive medieval castle built in 1070. Did I tell you I saw Kafka’s house in Prague? I joined a student protest in Cambridge. I walked across the Karlov Most (the Charles Bridge) to visit the Prague Castle.

But they were just as eager to share what I had missed. It was as if this critical era of my life had happened in a space-time continuum, and talking about England and the Czech Republic felt like describing my time on Mars. My family was interested and proud of me but mostly just happy to have me home. To them, the adventure had ended and even though it was offered in jest that I had gotten ‘too big for my britches,’ I didn’t know how to react. All I wanted was to be home, but I somehow still felt very far away. Eventually, I responded: London was really nice. 

Party at Aunt Tracy’s, August 1993

This past summer, thirty years later, I traveled for the first time (not counting my poorly planned overnight stay in Dunkirk) to mainland Europe. I went as part of a faculty development program to Virginia Tech’s Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. As a rural education scholar, I have engaged in research and outreach addressing equity and opportunity for K-12 learners in rural schools and communities. And while college isn’t the goal for everyone, it should be an option for everyone. Rural students attend and complete college at lower rates than their non-rural peers, but for the ones who do, I wonder if they experience that same tension or alienation I experienced as a first-generation college student. I wonder if they have access to the robust offerings, like study abroad.

Not in a bank vestibule, July 2023

This is what took me to Europe this time—to think about a course for first-gen undergraduate rural students that would give them the time and support to reconcile these local and global literacies so that they don’t seem at odds with one another. What does it mean to “pack and unpack place” and contemplate our rural identities even as those identities evolve? In other words, how can we gain cultural capital without it being at the expense of our social capital back home? 

For my recent trip, I packed light in a suitcase with wheels. I purchased the right adapters. I finally saw Paris. And as my two weeks wore on, I felt a sense of peace replace a weight I had been carrying with me for a long time. I wouldn’t trade a single second of my wild adventure in 1993 but my moments being in the world seemed to take me from my place. It surprised me, after all this time, to revisit my younger self on this recent journey and to realize that home had been my guide all along. 

Seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, July 2023

Amy Price Azano is the founding director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Rural Education and a professor of rural education and adolescent literacy in Virginia Tech’s School of Education.

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