Graduates In Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale

I think if you can make plans that far in advance, you are officially in the adult club. My current life has the same expiration date as my student visa.

Sometimes a book is the literary equivalent of a superfood salad, a glass of white wine, and a warm bath: it just does exactly what you need it to do, and you don’t even feel bad about it. Sometimes that book comes to you by way of a good and trustworthy friend, which is even better. Red and I have been friends since the summer after our junior year of high school, when we met at a state-sponsored summer camp for nerds in Newport News. We’ve written letters and emails and Facebook messages, sent each other playlists and book recommendations, done shots and drunk tea, stayed up late and slept in late, looked at the moon, visited art galleries, disgraced ourselves, and redeemed ourselves. She hears all about my misadventures in Oxford and London, and I hear about her life with her fiance in Ohio. She’s a hard worker and a fierce heart.

Which means that when she sent me a surprise late birthmas (this is a thing) package with two books, I knew perfectly well that they’d be good. I started Graduates In Wonderland the very next morning.

One of the weird things about this stage in your life is that everyone does it differently, but there are enough common denominators for most other peoples’ experiences to be recognizable. That said, you do have to understand that Graduates In Wonderland is the sort of thing–the sort of story–that only exists because of privilege. The night before they graduate, Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale promise to send each other emails every week with honest accounts of their lives in the various foreign cities in which they end up living. Both women went to Brown, an Ivy League, and both have family situations that can provide them with at least some financial support whilst they pursue multiple masters’ degrees and general international adventuring. I know that I write this as the possessor of an Oxford degree, and therefore have limited scope to blather about privilege. I do spend a lot of time worrying about money, however, and what surprised me most about the emails that comprise the book is that very few of them mention any kind of panicking about money. At one point, Rachel gets hit by a car and the insurance pay-out is $10,000, which carries her through the first year of her masters’ in Paris. She doesn’t dwell very much on the fortuitousness of this, which struck me as a bit odd. Then again, because these were emails between friends, maybe that’s why; do friends really write to each other about their money fears? I’m not sure I tell my long-distance buddies about mine. But on the other other hand, these are supposed to be “no-holds-barred” emails, which makes it a little hard to believe that the girls can quit jobs without once mentioning to each other that they’re worried about how they’ll make rent. I’ve been unemployed and soon will be again, and let me tell you, I thought about almost nothing except how I was going to make rent. Maybe I’m the weird one.

If you kind of abandon the idea that this is non-fiction, however, Graduates In Wonderland is pretty charming. (Come on–no matter how “raw and honest” their emails to each other were, there’s been editing.) BUT BUT BUT. Come on now. It’s tremendous fun to read the travails of women your own age, who are also, like you, battling through misery and self-doubt one day, and taking shots with commitment-phobic boys in questionable bars the next. It reminds you that you’re not alone. It makes you hopeful that you’ll make it through. And it brings to the forefront of your mind the brilliance of your friends. After Rachel is unexpectedly and horribly dumped by a Frenchman named Olivier, Jess writes, with the absolute solidarity of a friend:

You want someone who is going to stick around and give you half a chance. Olivier is not this. At least you didn’t waste years on him…But honestly. I want to punch him in the face. I want to take a fish and slap it across his face, while yelling, “NON! NO MAS TOUCHE PAS!”

You are going to be okay. I promise.

If you visit me here, I’ll take you to the farthest place from Paris: St Kilda. It’s the closest thing to a beach in Melbourne–a strip of sand on a bay. The streets are lined with fish-and-chip shops, cyclists, and bakeries. We’ll lie in the sun, and I’ll make sure your pale skin is completely covered in SPF 50 sunblock. I’ll find a strapping Australian guy named Jono to rub it in for you.

That’s love, you guys.

Actually, in some places, this book almost hurts to read, because in among the ridiculous romance escapades and the exploring of new cities and the discoveries of your own competence, there are some really sad moments. Like when one of the girls asks how many times you can move from city to city without losing most of the people you knew in each one. That’s the rootlessness of your twenties. That’s one of the worst things about this life stage, too: the intensity of your friendships, the difficulty of starting them in the first place now that you’re no longer living within a couple hundred yards of everyone you know, and the bereftness, the sense of melancholy, when you realize that you’ll still end up losing most of them. It’s a tough place to be.

It’s also a great place to be. Rachel’s mother tells her, when she gets accepted to a masters’ program in Paris, “In ten years, you won’t be able to do this. So go.” I can’t think about this too hard because it frightens me and excites me and hurts my head and makes me useless, but there are so many things I do these days that I won’t be able to do in ten years. There are so many choices I could make that won’t be reasonable options when I’m thirty-two. It seems ungrateful not to bite off as much of life as is possible. Accept the invitation; apply for the job; reply to the text; flirt with the bartender (when applicable); be good to yourself. I don’t often need persuading of the fact, but I’m glad Graduates In Wonderland is here to remind me, when I need it.

In 2014

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2014, I have:

recorded a CD with Exeter College Choir

written my first review for Quadrapheme Magazine

danced at Burns Night

Burns Night

planned an alumni event at Freshfields on my own

met J.K. Rowling, and talked to her about her shoes

staffed Founder’s Day (hungover and on four hours of sleep)

endured sixteen consecutive days of fatigue, alcohol, singing, and jet lag

sung at the National Cathedral

made friends at a gay bar called Freddie’s in Crystal City, in the company of my darlings Theresa McCario, Jonathan Giles, Chelsea Meynig, and Ella Kirsh, and new darling Michael Divino


attended a keg party

found emergency medical care in lower Manhattan

skipped May morning for the first time

met A.S. Byatt

shaken the hand of the Queen of Spain

gone drinking with a platoon of Marines

become poetry editor at Quadrapheme Magazine

Quadrapheme logo

performed the second most ludicrous gig of my singing life so far

purchased an ostrich feather wrap and a tiara

sung my final evensong at Exeter College naked (except for the cassock)

attended a white tie ball

ball me and N

danced around a bonfire with Will Michaelmas Watt

written my first lesson plan

marked someone else’s coursework for the first time

adopted winged eyeliner

started a novel

milked a cow

become managing editor at Quadrapheme Magazine

composed precisely forty job applications and cover letters (I’ve just counted)

moved house

This is not actually my house, but it is my street.

This is not actually my house, but it is my street.

gotten my first adult full-time job

learned how to use Twitter properly

vetted, purchased, installed and learned to use a new database

had a poem accepted at Boston Poetry

strategized, recruited for, and implemented a new after-school programme

stuffed 2,705 individual pieces of paper into ~540 envelopes

seen the Late Turner exhibit at Tate Britain

The Blue Riga, JMW Turner

The Blue Riga, JMW Turner

sung harmony with my little brother on guitar

read 102 books

I don’t believe in predicting the future, either: not five years into the future, not one year, not even six months. Experience has taught me that such predictions take a particular delight in confounding you. But I can say that I fully expect 2015 to fill the shoes of its predecessor.


The lease on this house is up tomorrow. The Duchess, with her father, leaves around eight. Most of the house is burnished, shining, ready for inspection. The kitchen and the hallways need a quick going-over; I’ll cover it tomorrow morning. I head out shortly after she leaves, for a house viewing–I need a new place to stay for next year.

Halfway down Marston Road, something pokes at eye height out of the pavement-side hedge. Out of instinct and habit, I duck, swerve my head aside to miss it, carry on. I’m nearly past the thing altogether before I realize what it is: it’s a blackberry vine. There are blackberry vines at home, in Virginia. They will be ripening in our top field now. We used to go out and pick them on stifling August days, armored in long-sleeved clothing to fend off the thorns and the iridescent, buzzing junebugs, sweating and swearing and getting pricked, sticky with blood and juice, with the brittle dry grass scraping up to our thighs.

At the same moment as I recognize the vine, the hedge breaks, there’s a field beyond it, and I can smell newly mown grass. In the field in front of some apartment buildings, a bunch of kids are playing kickaround with what I grew up calling a soccer ball. It is a football here. I turn up Jack Straw’s Lane; a new song comes through my earbuds, and suddenly my chest fills and tightens with something: longing, sadness, hope, something else I don’t know the name for.

The viewing at the potential new house is very good: the house is big, there is a garden, the people who live there are friendly and pleasant. I want them to like me. They’re interviewing ten other people, they say. I don’t want to sound desperate, but I reiterate again that their house is my first choice. I ask them to let me know when they decide. They give me a mug of tea. They assure me that they will be in touch.

My legs ache in the night air. It feels as though I have been walking for a very long time.

On the way back, I keep noticing things. The large lawn and yellow lights in the welcoming windows of number 20, Jack Straw’s Lane again. There are halos around the streetlamps, like chemical fog. The hazy moon, slipping behind a rag of cloud. A little girl in salwar kameez, skipping ahead of her mother. When she is nearly a block ahead, the mother breaks into a run, not wanting to let her get too far away.

I want to put these things together. I am a meaning-maker. I need things to be thematically coherent. There must be a reason all of these separate observations make such a difference to me tonight. There must be a thread that connects. I cannot find one.

When I get back to the house on St Clement’s, it is dark. The kitchen light is off. I turn it on. I sit at the table. The kitchen is stark, the countertops bare, the cupboards empty. The fridge and freezer, defrosting, gape hungrily at me. I take my laptop. I keep the music on. No amount of coffee, no amount of crying/No amount of whiskey, no amount of wine…Nothing else will do/I’ve gotta have you.

I write. I write this. I write until I can see clearly. I write until I can breathe easily again. I write until the taste of blackberries leaves my mouth.


Travels with Choir In Search of America

I. home

Going through immigration and border control at Dulles (the worst airport to have ever existed in the entire history of the world). I use my American passport, which saves me about twenty minutes. The immigration official eyes my customs card. “You carrying anything?” I’ve declared the presents I’m bringing for my family–a college coaster from Founder’s Day for my father, a mint Aero bar for The Kid, and a jar of lemon curd for Mamacita. “No sir,” I say. “Just chocolate.” He smiles and taps my passport twice on the counter. “Good girl. Welcome home.”

II. tales of the city

After our first evensong, there are people I recognize in the congregation: my darling and long-unseen friends Jon, Red, and Chelsea, all of whom I met when I was still in high school. Red lives in Ohio, so seeing her is particularly unexpected, and we jump around and shriek a lot. Jon suggests that we go out. “Hell yes,” I say, “but I don’t know this area, so where should we go?” He says, thoughtfully, “I think we should go to a gay bar called Freddie’s in Crystal City.” So we do. There are cheeseburgers, our waitress is a beautiful transvestite with eyebrows of Platonic perfection, I get a cocktail with a flashing ice cube in it, and we all get drunk enough. Jon, who is going to do postgraduate work in musical performance this fall, sings karaoke (Aerosmith and Scott McKenzie), and just at the end of the night, I get drunk enough to sing some too. When I get down off the stage, a ghetto-fabulous man sitting at a nearby table offers his hand for a high five and says, “Darling, that was gorgeous.”

III. bringing down the house

The next night we go back, but we bring the Duchess. She and Red get on like a house afire. We meet a group of amazingly camp anesthesiologists, and somehow get sucked into a poker game which apparently runs on Freddie’s front porch every Monday. The players have names like Donny and Junior, and most of them seem to have been in Vietnam or Kuwait. The only other female in the joint is a sweet butch woman named Lani who has the most perfect country-western voice I’ve ever heard in real life. She plays Texas hold’em with a preserved scorpion in a jar next to her on the table. She says it’s her lucky charm. They invite us to come to a baseball game the next day. We say yes, out of midnight goodwill, knowing full well that in the morning we’ll agree not to turn up. They all think that the Duchess and I are dating. We choose not to correct them.

IV. i’m a stranger here myself

Philadelphia. The day has been one of unclean hair and hangover and boredom and discomfort, and now we’re at a party thrown for us by one of the churches we’ve just sung at. There’s plenty of wine but I’m too tired to talk to anyone, so I take a cab home on my own. Halfway down Rittenhouse Square, I discover I’ve lost my phone charger, so I ask the driver to take me to a pharmacy. There’s no one behind the counter. I’m leaning over it, trying to make out the writing on the various boxes of electronics, when a woman appears. Her name tag says SHANNIA. She says nothing, but her glare is very eloquent. “Hi,” I say. “Do you have any chargers for iPhone 5?” Her stare becomes indifferent. “No.” I point at an empty hook, from which swings a tag that reads IPHONE 5 CHARGER. “You do stock them, though?” She glances, barely, at the hook. “We sold it.” I apply my most pleasant smile, as though it’s lipstick. “There aren’t any more in the back?” The woman does not move a muscle. “No.” Recognizing the uselessness of any further attempts, I leave. The taxi driver must see the look on my face as I emerge, because he rolls down his window and says sympathetically, “No luck?” “Afraid not,” I say, trying mightily to keep cheerfulness in my voice. The driver makes a face, starts the car again, and says, drily but not unkindly, “Welcome to Philly.”

V. the innocents abroad

Leaving New York by way of Newark. Jersey’s reputation is well deserved if the security people are anything to go by. They are all women, and all are using a tone of voice best described as a bark. I take off my ring in case it sets off the metal detector, and put it on top of my bag. One of the women snarls at me, “Put that back on your finger.” She sounds like Marlon Brando playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. This tickles me. I comply. As I’m about to go through the detector, she barks again: “This a laptop?” She’s grabbed my backpack and is feeling the contours of something heavy and rectangular. Fuck you, I think, almost happily. I can do this too. I raise my voice. “No ma’am.” Flat tone, disinterested eyes. The “ma’am”, as intended, does not sound courteous. “What is it?” she snaps. “It’s a folder,” I say. The less detail, the better. Subject, verb, object, now fuck off. And it works. She puts my bag down, says nothing else, motions me forward with a jerk of her head. The guy on the other end of the metal detector winks. Good girl. Welcome home.

In 2013, I have

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2013, I have:

climbed a fell

taken a Virgin train first class, for free (!)

given a speech at Burns Night

done four live radio broadcasts from Manchester, over a week during which, apart from the broadcasts, I did nothing except revise medieval dream poetry and watch baking shows with the Duchess

learned to lay a fire

gotten naked–for the children (and it’s not often you hear someone say that) (aka participated in the naked calendar produced by ExVac, Exeter College’s own charity which takes disadvantaged children for a week’s holiday in the spring vac)

woken up at 5:30 a.m. for May morning

drunk red wine in a mortarboard

This happened.

This happened.

contemplated suicide

revised for Finals

worn a corset in public

commissioned a dress

sat Finals

been trashed

graduated from university

applied to do postgraduate work, and been rejected, and been devastated about that, and then been kind of okay with it

swum naked in the Adriatic

danced in an Italian bar until two in the morning


sung Bruckner motets for bewildered but enthusiastic Italians, also at two in the morning

read seventy-nine books (beginning to end)

bought twenty-three secondhand books

met Philip Pullman, and chatted about The Faerie Queene with him

watched all three series of Game of Thrones

moved house

become identifiable by sight at Gloucester Green book stall

walked on the North York Moors


become unwittingly hooked on The Great British Bake Off (shoot shag marry: shoot Mel and Sue, shag Paul, marry Mary. Obviously.)

written eighteen different cover letters for job applications

interned in London, twice

joined Pottermore, and done absolutely nothing on it

discovered that the five-year plan I thought I had isn’t actually the five-year plan I want, and changed it accordingly

laughed so hard I spat water all over the kitchen

cried so hard I couldn’t see the next day

landed a job

gone out every night in a week

...and they all had red eye, The End

…and they all had red eye, The End

created a graph in Microsoft Excel

started to write poetry again, and submit it

won a mention in the Southwest Review’s poetry competition

cooked a Christmas dinner

flown home for the first time in a year

bought alcohol without being carded (in the States, no less)

started to realize that you can be happy and uncertain at the same time.

skeptical amiability

skeptical amiability

Happy New Year’s, you guys. I hope that Santa brought you everything you asked for, that your New Year’s Eve is safe if not sober, and that the coming twelvemonth (a word that needs bringing back) is good to you!

Happy New Year from (most of) L'Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who's taking the picture)

Happy New Year from (most of) L’Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who’s taking the picture)