This past semester I traveled to Florence, Italy, to spend the latter half of my junior year studying abroad. During the past three or so months I’ve surfed the other side of the Atlantic in Lagos, Portugal, dismissively stared right back at Mona in the Louvre in Paris, inadvertently offended a man of the cloth in Italy and recreated my favorite scenes from the film “In Bruges,” well, in Bruges. And all that was just one week.
Like all good things, those antics eventually ended and I returned home, trading gelato for frozen Go-Gurts, lavish Italian first, second and third courses for Chipotle and renaissance art for Adult Swim. The end to my time abroad happened to coincide with the end of winter semester and as my Facebook newsfeed overflowed with the laments of graduating seniors, I dwelled on the juxtaposition of the two experiences. What about Michigan had influenced these seniors so profoundly? Had I missed out on that by studying abroad? And if so, had my time abroad changed me?
After dwelling on the question and a quick phone call to my mom asking why Facebook statuses affected me so much (she said maybe it was that time of the month, I told her wrong kid), I arrived at a simple —if not peculiar — solution: that Michigan Difference we always speak so highly of — which permeates through all our daily activities like Doritos Locos Tacos through the colon of a frat star — is built upon a foundational acceptance of what I call “the weirdness.” Furthermore, it was because of the ways I had accepted this weirdness as a student that despite living halfway across the world from Ann Arbor, it still played a significant role in shaping my time abroad.
Now this weirdness is impossible to precisely define. The weirdness exists between acceptance and dismissal — the figurative hand that quite literally pushes your envelope. The weirdness comes in any shape, form or goo and includes the strange meat I continually accepted from a tattooed Italian man in the sandwich shop next door to my apartment in Florence to the occurrences at a typical poetry slam in Kerrytown. Yet, this weirdness need not deviate from the mainstream. If the aforementioned activities fail to strike you as peculiar then a dabble into the weirdness may entail actually washing your hands after you go the bathroom or attempting to stop trying so hard to not to look like you’re not trying to look cool, you damn hipster. The point is weirdness has no boundaries — it is a continual enigma and is simply that which pushes you beyond your comfort zone and forces you in reflection to note “well shit, that certainly was weird.”
A continual cultivation of the weirdness is necessary to truly absorb any experience. As any Wolverine can tell you, the Michigan Difference is not easily summarized — if at all. It involves the prestige of our school, but also going to class blackout drunk on St. Patrick’s Day and confusing an underclassman for a leprechaun. Football pre-parties are a factor and so is our work-hard, play-hard attitude — name me one student who hasn’t had a professor yet who so completely rocked their intellectual foundation in a good way, and I’ll show you a Michigan State student.
Our Michigan Difference is defined by its inability to be defined, existing upon a foundation that celebrates any personal endeavor, embracing the weirdness clad in gear from The M Den with No Thai on its breath. The best times I’ve had at Michigan have been when I stepped out of the confines of any defining adjectives, attending non-Greek life, Greek life and even Residential College parties, listening to readings in the auditorium of the University Art Museum or getting to know the entirely too old patrons of Scorekeepers Bar and Grill.
This acceptance of the weirdness stayed with me when I studied abroad, allowing me to truly dive into a different culture uninhibited by any fear of the unknown. I felt bad for my peers who refused to leave America behind — instead constantly searching for Wi-Fi while trying to pass Nutella off as an excursion into foreign cuisine. Because of the lessons Ann Arbor taught me, I was truly able to leave her behind.
I know I may sound like an abomination hybrid of a car commercial and Jim Carrey from “Yes Man,” telling you to grab life by the horns and buy a Dodge Ram — but the point is, that’s exactly what I want. Minus the Dodge Ram part. For everyone, from those who just graduated, to those now completing another chapter in their career as a lifelong Wolverine, to those just beginning their maize and blue diary that I totally don’t have hidden under my bed — I hope you never forget to always carry with you that undeniable and insatiable desire for the weirdness that defines our Michigan difference.
Ben Gloger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.