Five years ago, I studied abroad by living on ship for four months. Much to the dismay of my family and friends, I haven’t stopped talking about it since. I saw a good chunk of the world on my voyage, and lived the suite life aboard a vessel called the MV Explorer. But in doing so, I made friends from around the globe.
Bree, like all the most-polite people, is from Canada. Nova Scotia to be exact. She’s obsessed with country music and loves all things southern. She’s studying to be a doctor and hates to admit that she sometimes says “Eh.” She and I found a random Domino’s in Le Harve, France and ate pizza while sitting on a bus stop bench.
Carrie is a spit-fire intellectual from Iowa. The only thing better than her ability to find good artwork in foreign cities is her ability to make fun of yours truly (it’s out of love though). We bonded in Italy and were late getting back on our ship because we stopped for one last gelato. Worth it.
Conor is the New Yorker of the group. He lives for rock-climbing and ultimate frisbee, and he has a dog named Jasper that resembles a fuzzy rug when lying down. We call this animal “Rug Dog,” and it has become the unofficial mascot of the group. My favorite memory of Conor involves a group evening stroll on a beach in Barcelona; Conor went to the ocean’s edge, and a large wave came out of nowhere and engulfed him.
And then, there’s Nikolai, who is the classiest and most hilarious Norwegian I’ve ever met. While he is classy, every time he travels he takes a photo of someone’s butt in front of a landmark of that place; it’s just his thing. Nikolai and I laughed hysterically in the back of an extremely sketchy taxi in Barbados. This was before I watched him light a cigar in Cuba with a Zimbabwean dollar bill. Good ole Nikolai.
While I made a lot of friends on the ship, those four are the closest to me. We’ve managed to do about one reunion per year. One was a five-day homecoming voyage for alumni of our Semester at Sea program. Two others were at Conor and Bree’s homes in New York and Nova Scotia. But last year, it was my turn to host. So last summer, my four most long-distant friends ventured to the hills of Kentucky.
We spent the majority of the time in my family’s camper, enjoying the beauty of the woods while playing games and catching up. A campfire was in order. I have never seen such culture shock as when I told them to check themselves for ticks.
“Why are the bugs so terrifying in Kentucky?!” Bree asked.
We also shot my dad’s guns at clay pigeons because what’s more southern than that? For those of you who just gasped, I promise my family keeps the guns locked away in a safe, and we, of course, had to go over some gun safety before firing.
I wanted to give them an accurate taste of the American south, and that taste was loaded with butter, sugar, and grease. My family cooked two dinners for them—one being pinto beans with cornbread and one being chicken-n-dumplings. Both meals had about ten southern side items and were served with sweet tea that was really more “sweet” than “tea.” My extended family (in almost incomprehensible southern accents, according to Carrie) also cooked them a southern breakfast one morning. The four ate enough biscuits and gravy to clog arteries. Nikolai discovered red-eye gravy, a super rich liquid made with grease and coffee (really), and he ate so much that I genuinely thought we would bury him a few days later. I also had to take them to get legitimate fried chicken. We were in Kentucky after all.
Along with the real KFC, Kentucky also makes a little something called bourbon. The state produces over 95% of it if you want to get specific. So we went to Maker’s Mark Distillery in Bardstown. I’d never been, and I was kind of proud to learn that everything related to Maker’s is completely hand-done, from making the labels to dipping each bottle into the signature red wax. We watched the whole process and even stuck our hands in the bourbon mash—it’s not like it’s unsanitary. It’s alcohol.
We drove to Louisville for a day to visit the biggest KY city, see some horse country, and tour a phenomenon’s heart: Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. We had tours of the facility, sat in Millionaire’s Row, and saw a behind-the-scenes look of the epicenter of horse racing.
Tours continued by yours truly when we reached both my hometown and alma mater’s campus. My friends often call me a “poster child” because of my obsession and previous involvements there, so they kept making comments during the tour as if they were marveling at famous landmarks.
“Oh my gosh, Bryson walked by this trashcan every day as a student here. Take a picture.”
After our Kentucky shenanigans were done, we went a little farther south, because one of my favorite things about where I’m from is being close to my absolute favorite American city. We hit Nashville wide open.
There’s a certain vibe in Music City. Everyone is welcome and everyone is trying have a good time. They’re either trying to see a sneak peek at the next Taylor Swift or trying to be the next Taylor Swift. Add some hot chicken, cowboy boots, and few hipster coffee shops, and you’ve got an interesting city dynamic.
We walked the Broadway strip to listen to some live music and give line dancing a go. We won’t be asked to be on Dancing with the Stars anytime soon, but it was some prime entertainment. We successfully completed an escape room—a tradition we have established at each of our reunions. We saw Rymann Auditorium and eventually found ourselves at the Grand Ole Opry House. Here is a photo of us outside the most famous venue in country music. Also… I saw Carrie Underwood’s dressing room, so I can die with contentment now.
It was obviously good to see my long-distance friends, but I took much more away from this particular visit than previous ones. If you think I’m going in a clichéd no-place-like-home direction, calm down. But I do want to urge you to view your home as a visitor would view your home.
I had never done a lot of the tours I did with those friends because I never felt the need to “tour” the area where I’m from. But in showing them around my stomping grounds, I learned so much about my old Kentucky home, and I really appreciated it more. I saw my friends light up when they discovered something cool in Kentucky, just as they did when they discovered something cool while we were exploring Brazil and Germany and Cuba. And that made me proud. I, too, saw a new place and got a new perspective.
So thank you to my four worldwide confidants. It was thrill to have you in the south.
Stay tuned for part two: our most recent adventure in the midwest.