‘Real Life’ in the UK

Chris Cantillo, 2018 Scholar

‘Real Life’ in the UK

In mid-September of 2018, I really thought the world was my oyster. All I could think about was a year to grow, explore, make new friends and, most importantly, escape the bubble I had lived in since the summer of 2014 –– one I only half-jokingly call a minimum-security prison.

I consider my background to be altogether boring and uninteresting, but I do feel the need to include it, if only for context. I’m currently an Ensign in the United States Navy, and I’m from a tropical paradise called Sarasota, Florida. I went to the US Naval Academy for my undergrad, where I studied Aerospace Engineering and spent four years on the Offshore Sailing Team. On May 25, 2018 (a date I will never forget), I happily graduated with orders to graduate school at Cambridge, to be followed by training as a Naval Aviator in Pensacola, Florida. For the days, weeks and even months following that day, I felt blessed beyond expression.

As many can attest, we ring-knocker types are not particularly known for our humility in the face of change. The resounding attitude is that whatever new thing gets thrown at us could not possibly be harder than living at the boat school for four years. Not that any individual thing at the Academy was particularly hard, but the combination of it all had an unavoidable way of grinding anyone and everyone down. Hence, I was a cocky young officer walking off a plane into a foreign country with too big a head, too big a wallet and absolutely no idea what real life is all about. 

That last note, regarding “real life”, is without a doubt the most important lesson that my time in the UK has taught me. David Foster Wallace, in his famous commencement speech “This is Water” at Kenyon College, talked about life lived in the “day-to-day trenches of adult existence” where a myriad of petty, unsexy and seemingly trivial challenges can make even existing in a city at rush hour an utter nightmare. He shared that perhaps the most important thing a college education can give someone is perspective: to look at the little, seemingly meaningless, everyday battles of life as beautiful, if not just bearable. The speech is a great read and is very powerful, especially given the context of Mr. Wallace’s eventual suicide.

To be completely honest, I had never experienced those small day-to-day battles. In many ways, my time at the Academy was a four-year-long adrenaline shot where stress, exhaustion, euphoria and a healthy bit of fear alternated as often as the class bell (which yes, we do actually still have). Sure there are plenty of seemingly stupid inconveniences on any given day but, thanks mostly to my four years on the sailing team, I had far too much work, responsibility and excitement to ever pay them much mind. For better or worse, most of my decisions had real impacts on other people. People got seriously injured, expensive assets were destroyed, and I did things I never dreamed of doing in my 20s all while I fought tooth and nail to make what I thought were the right decisions in situations which were quite frankly over my head. Many people will describe the Academy as sink or swim, and I personally tried so hard to keep my head above the water that I never had a chance to think about much else.

About two and a half minutes after I walked into my flat in Cambridge for the first time, I realized that such experiences are in no way part of “normal life”. At Cambridge, I have yet to be placed in a situation where any choice I made has had an effect on anyone else. Instead of 30 hours of mandatory events crammed into a 24-hour day, I have 20 hours of informal lecture spread over a full week. Where there used to be 20 things that needed done for every one volunteer, at Cambridge there are 20 well-meaning volunteers for every one thing that needs to be done. Where my best friends used to sleep 10 feet from me, my old ones are spread across the world and my new ones are spread across a new and foreign country. I spend as much time running errands and doing chores as I spend doing homework, and my reward is simply having a hot meal on the table. None of this makes my life particularly hard –– in fact, it is very much the opposite. It is just very, very different, and I still do not really have it figured out.

An old professor of mine once told me school is supposed to be about finding out who you are. The Navy has taught me many skills and given me many incredible opportunities, but being in the UK has given me the time to grapple with life’s important questions about happiness, love and my place in the world. Questions about how to fill a life far from my career with purpose, and how to reconcile my past and future with a lifestyle that I never previously and will not soon again experience. Figuring out how to do this has been hard, and I would be lying if I said my three months here have been purely enjoyable. I have, however, been lucky enough to meet people and see things that have transformed the harder moments into something worthwhile. People who have opened my eyes to how wonderful the world can be, and places that have made me realize just how far I am from the center of it.

In just nine short months, I will be on a plane heading back to the states to start my military service. I am beyond excited to begin my career, but I know that the feeling will be very bittersweet as the wheels leave the tarmac. While I will spend a great deal of my life far from the comforts of student life in Cambridge, I am incredibly grateful for this year to get to know myself and the world just a little bit better.

Relatable Content: “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace



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