Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: An Introduction


A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here.


"You know the message you're sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You're telling the world, 'I give up. I can't compete in normal society. I'm miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.'"
- Jerry Seinfeld


What do sweatpants and Europe have in common?  Not much.  In fact, people in England don’t even call them sweatpants, which makes it hard to find them there.  English people refer to them as track suit bottoms.  “Pants” is either slang for underwear or a synonym for terrible (as in, Hardees breakfast is pants).  Neither interpretation will work for a piece of ultra-casual leg-wear.  Predictably then, whenever a customer asks an English sporting goods sales clerk for sweatpants, the clerk inevitably scrunches up his nose, looks confused, and points the customer towards some Adidas wind pants.   If the customer is a connoisseur of sweatpants, wind pants will not do at all.  Unfortunately, this confusion is not limited to England; the rest of Europe is equally unaware.  Clearly, this is a collection of countries without proper appreciation for sweatpants.  

I, on the other hand, am a true lover of sweatpants.  Both functional and adept at hiding any semblance of figure, they are an essential part of my wardrobe.  But there is a deeper, more symbolic connection between me and  cotton, drawstring-cinched, elastic-ankled bottoms.  In November 2001, I began a six month trip through Europe.  I was a fish out of water, to say the least.  I was the sweatpants in a drawer full of European skinny jeans - odd, directionless, and shapeless.  

I had been looking forward to this trip for years.  I had a brief semester of study in London during the fall of 1999.  During those months, I discovered how fantastically challenging life becomes when home is thousands of miles away.  But it wasn’t quite enough.  I wanted to go back, get a job, travel, and figure out how to survive on nothing but my wits, a few bucks, and whatever creature comforts I could fit into my suitcase.  As luck would have it, I found a wonderful little program called BUNAC that let me do just that.  My then-fiancée and current wife, Karie, wanted to come along as well.  This seemed like a swell idea.  

BUNAC allowed us to plop down in any number of countries, but we decided to work in Britain since they speak English almost the same way we do.  We settled in Oxford, took several small trips during our time there, and backpacked for six weeks after our work visas expired.  What follows is the story of those few months slaving away in Oxford and getting lost and confused in Europe.

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