By Queen Mary University of London Film Studies student and Turing Scheme grant recipient, Georgia Kumari Bradburn.
I arrived in Austin, Texas in the middle of the night. My luggage was stuck in Houston, so I called
an Uber with only a small backpack and the clothes on my back. My driver asked me “do you
mind if I put on some music?” I obliged, and he put on some country music. I thought to myself
“Now I’m definitely in Texas.” But without my luggage, and being thousands of miles away from
home, I felt the loneliness creep up on me.
Without spoiling too much, I will say in advance that this blog has a happy ending. With the help
of The Turing Scheme and the grant I received from them, I had a great experience studying
abroad and learned so much about different cultures and ways of life. As a film student, I decided to undertake my year abroad in Austin because of its excellent film school-style program and state of the art equipment. But I knew very little about Austin itself, and assumed the city would be a secondary character in my experience studying at The University of Texas at Austin. But that’s the charm of Austin, it defies your expectations in the strangest ways.
I remember rushing through the city and seeing it all for the first time. The first thing that struck me about Austin was the sense of liminality, a city that seems constantly on the threshold of something else, totally detached yet so close to unification. On one side you see the lonely fluorescent gas stations, ageing taco restaurants lit by bright neon signs, tiny beautiful houses with cluttered porches surrounded by nothing but the night. Then you look to the other side and see towering high rise buildings, glaring city lights and the metropolitan civilisation of “downtown”. Two cities tumbling into one another to form a weird, wonderful enigma that both young and old people can call home. It felt sort of comforting, in a way, that the liminality of the city matched my mental state, almost like it was affirming what I was going through.
The next day I took an Uber from my hotel to Pearl Street Co-op, one of the many co-operative houses owned by the organisation College Houses which provide affordable housing alternatives for students. This time around, the driver turned on the radio and instead of country we listened to some reggaeton. The two signature sounds of Austin.
I arrived at Pearl Street Co-op with the same things I left the airport with as my luggage had not yet arrived. I was exhausted and felt lost without my personal possessions, but when I met my fellow co-oppers they instantly came to my needs, offering their clothes, food and toiletries to tide me over until my luggage arrived. My first impression of Austinites was their kindness and hospitality, something that made my transition go a lot smoother than I expected.
Co-op culture is its own thing in Austin. Pearl Street Co-op has existed since the 1970s and has a whole history of its own. Once known as The Ark, it was an oasis of hippie life, the kind depicted in the movie Dazed and Confused which was set and filmed in Austin. Outsiders dub it as a hub for misbehaviour due to its history, and the fact that each house is entirely run by its young members. But the most striking thing about the co-ops is in their name; the “co-operative” culture, the defiance of typical American individualism and the curation of a collective, communal living space. By signing a lease to one of the co-ops, you are agreeing to undertake up to 4 hours of “labor” a week, in order to maintain the functionality of the house. Types of labor include cooking meals for the house, cleaning, maintenance work, gardening and repainting, and is a great way to bond with fellow co-oppers on your shift. It fosters an idea of collective responsibility which makes group living so much better and more affordable. In each member is a determination to make sure everyone is looked after, which I felt as soon as I arrived.
Outside of each individual co-op is a wider inter-co-op culture which forms a close knit community within the vast liminal lonelinesss of Austin. Every now and then, a co-op will host an event like a gig, yard sale or party, and you are likely to bump into the same people at each event and build connections throughout the co-op network. On the evening before my 21st birthday, I attended a hybrid hyper-pop gig and fashion show at 21st Street Co-op, the oldest housing cooperative in the United States. Having attended co-op events before, I bumped into old acquaintances and picked up unfinished conversations. As the clock struck midnight and I turned 21 years old, I was surrounded by people I had only known for a few months, yet I felt like I had known these people my whole life. That’s the really special thing about co-op culture, you will meet the most interesting, kind and wonderful people you will ever meet, and the thought of having to go back to your home country and leave them forever is excruciatingly heartbreaking.
The moment I truly understood what authentic Austin is was when I attended Eeyore’s Birthday, a celebration of the beloved Winnie The Pooh character in a local park. A seemingly quintessential hippie affair, the event consisted of maypole dancing, face and body painting, drum circles, food, drink and partying. The park was absolutely packed with people, both young and old, as the event catered to children as well as adults. As I danced in the drum circle with my co-op friends, I took in the sheer oddness and quirkiness of my surroundings, something I would never have anticipated in a state known for its conservative traditionalist politics. More than that, though, I realised that the liminality of Austin disappears in the midst of the community, which I had found through the co-op and through these weird and wonderful people dancing around me.
As I leave Austin, I leave with a deep love and affinity for a community I never thought I would find. Whilst my short duration stay meant I kept somewhat of an emotional distance in order to not feel too attached to the people around me, I will miss it all and I hope to come back and revisit sometime along the road.
I often think back to before I arrived, and my assumption that Austin was yet another unassuming corner of the world that would have no appeal or relevance to my life. But, in fact, it has left a huge impact in the way I view community building and collective living. For anyone considering studying abroad in Austin, I highly recommend doing so, and I highly recommend choosing to live in a co-op as they make everything seem a little bit less lonely.