Foreign Correspondence: A Circular Goodbye

Written by Nina Hanz

On my last day in Cornwall, on the U1 bus to Truro, I met (or rather re-met) one of the first international students I met upon coming to Penryn Campus. We were in the same mentor group and we both seemed equally eager to start our Erasmus at the University of Exeter. It took me a while to recognise her face, but we seemed to bond just as much on that bus ride as we did the first day we met. After we discussed how lucky she was to spend another term there, split ways to catch our respective connections and said goodbye, I could not help but feel as if it were Cornwall’s way of wrapping my semester abroad up in a big red ribbon—shipping me off with a perfectly packaged farewell gift to remind me of my short semester abroad.

However, this oddly circular ending quickly spiralled into a whole web of similar experiences as I reflected on the relationships I had made during the fall semester. The first friends I made and had dinner with were the same people I shared my last feast with, the first peer I met in class was also the last person I studied in the library with, and even the first professor I met who helped me find my way to an introductory lecture was also the last lecturer I had and the last professor I spoke to on campus. As reluctant as I was to leave, it seemed that all these events that had unfolded the last three months in Cornwall were arranging themselves in a circular manner for me to say goodbye and have my own sense of closure.

On the next leg of my journey home I had neither internet connection nor someone to talk to. Instead, I was reminded of a quote from Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. “Happy endings must come at the end of something,’ the Walrus pointed out, ‘If they happen in the middle of a story, or an adventure, or the like, all they do is cheer things up for a while.” While reading this for the first time, it came across as quite ironic. How do you know when a story is at its end opposed to just the calm before the storm or an adventure’s lulling center? The root of this problem is whether you see the narrative as cyclical or following a more linear structure.

During my semester studying at the University of Exeter’s literature department, I read many texts from both of these categories. This allowed me to draw connections between two seemingly unrelated courses: children’s literature and literature written during the 19th century under the influence of extreme physical and mental states. The juxtaposition of these two courses allowed me to compare many of the different tropes of literary movements within Britain. As I do not concentrate on literature at my home university, I had always associated nonlinear narratives with Modernism Literature. However, these structures that initially seem disconnected, such as flashbacks, were already part of the experimentations done by Victorian authors like Thomas De Quincy and Anne Brontë as they moved away from the conventional, cyclical tales. These authors saw past the circular narrative which, while changing the characters, inevitably lead them to the same place where they started. In fact, they broke right through it.

I often found that these stories were far more real; the narrative progressed, but simultaneously worked its way into the past, present, and the future. It is so rare for us to return to the same place and have this bulbous and perfect ending. More often than not, it is just another passing moment that cheers us up for a brief moment in time. Although my university degree started in the Netherlands and next semester will end there as well, the narrative is far more complex than what meets the eye. This is because life does not consist of many closed books to be compartmentalized on a shelf, rather it is more like a mess of poems, novels, and folktales spread across your desk.

Considering this, I reconsidered that the oddly circular events that have opened themselves to me this past term are not quite what they seem. A goodbye is not the end because the connections, friendships and memories made cannot be confined to just the story of my semester abroad. The photos will annually pop up on my Facebook, my friendships will continue to span across country boarders and time zones, and just writing the University of Exeter into my academic profile will surely feed back into my career. While it may seem like I have bid my farewells and tried to close this chapter of my life, I would feel naïve to believe I have closed it and simple titled it as another chapter of my life. Rather I feel as if Cornwall was saying, “We are not quite done with you yet, Nina.” And if the girl on the U1 bus does stumble upon this article, I hope that in one semester’s time when she is faced with her own goodbyes, that she also realizes that Cornwall will always be part of a complex, nonlinear part of her own life.