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Hungry for knowledge

Student’s semester in London included the usual sites and shows — along with hunger pains.

Hungry for knowledge

Student’s semester in London included the usual sites and shows — along with hunger pains.

A semester in London.

Paintings which I’d studied only from slides in the Moudy Building now appeared inches from me in The National Gallery.

I took walks along the Thames River, with Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament gleaming gold on my right. I had a front row seat to the Lord Mayor’s Parade and watched gilded carriages meander down the street.

But all I could think of sometimes was a chicken strip. I was hungry. I was living on sandwiches and baked potatoes — enough to get me by, but never enough to quench the ache.

I should have just been grateful to be in London. I was blessed to be in that great metropolitan world capital. It was better to walk down the bustling streets of London with a pence in my pocket than be back in sprawling Cowtown with all the money in the world. The chance to be in London, with the world at my feet, had skewed my priorities.

I had scrimped and saved — to live on the bare essentials so I could take advantage of London while I could. I lived on whatever was cheapest at the grocery store so I could attend a show (many of which were required for my theater class) or buy a few Christmas presents.

Let me reiterate that I did not starve (which is obvious to anyone who looks at me now). And at first, it really wasn’t too bad, but then the ache got to me. It’s just an ever-present feeling of never being satisfied, of craving more than a baked potato. Of wishing you could have two sandwiches but knowing you need to save the bread for dinner.

I don’t think any of the other TCU London students knew what I was going through, not even my roommate. But I didn’t want them to. It was humiliating then and still hard to write about now. Some of them will probably read this and say, “Why didn’t you just ask?”

But I couldn’t. It was hard enough asking my roommate for a slice of cheese to spice up my baked potato, knowing that I hadn’t chipped in for it. Toward the end of the semester, money became especially tight; I took advantage of every free thing to do in London.

When I couldn’t afford the tube fare (about $1.75), I walked. In addition to my London Centre classes, I also enrolled in a short night course at The National Gallery. I loved it but dreaded walking to the museum, for it meant a trip down Tottenham Court and Charing Cross roads.

Other than its melange of used bookstores, Charing Cross Road could just as easily be called “Restaurant Row.” With everything from Pizza Hut to Indian fare to fish and chips, it was all I could do not to press my nose against the giant glass windows like some degenerate Charles Dickens character.

I often caught myself glaring at the diners inside, fiercely jealous. I wondered if they realized how lucky they were, having such a selection to choose from, as I gobbled half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And I had to force down those sandwiches there at the end. (You don’t realize the importance of variety until you eat the same thing every day. It took me more than three months after returning to the States to be able to eat another sandwich.)

It was about that time I volunteered at a soup kitchen. It was ironic, really — a hungry person volunteering to help the hungry. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for some of the leftover soup the first time I worked there. But the second time, I couldn’t resist, playing it off as being just “a poor college student.”

It just smelled too good. So I took my Styrofoam cup of steaming soup and savored every drop. Yes, I served the traditional unshaven men in flannel shirts and ripped pants, but there were others also. Clean-cut, seemingly middle-class men that I would not know were going hungry if I passed them on the street. We shared that secret kind of hunger.

How many of those men — with whom I had now personal contact — had I ignored on the street? What was I to do if I recognized them begging on the local street corner? When I’m living on potatoes and sandwiches myself, could I spare a few pence for these hungry souls?

My hunger is gone now, but the effect stays with me. I can barely refrain from rolling my eyes when I hear students complain about Marriott food. Hunger is such a horrible thing; some days, I would rather have slept on the street with a full stomach than to have never been quite satisfied under my own roof.

When you don’t have enough to eat, there are far more important needs in the world than the latest fashions or Heisman trophies or even a 4.0 grade average. To see me now, it doesn’t seem like I have ever gone hungry. The only wanted side effect of doing so — shrinking down to skin and bones — never happened.

One day at that soup kitchen, I filled up three thermoses with the soup for a very large, very friendly 30-something man with a full head of thick blond hair. He asked me if there were soup kitchens back in my hometown of El Paso. I nodded, and he then said, “Well, I hope you have never needed to use one.”

It felt like he had ripped my heart out of my body; I felt guilty for volunteering at the El Paso food bank only once in 18 years.

I also knew then that we were not the same. I was hungry, but I was also earning a college education, seeing the world and knowing that in two months, I’d be sitting down to a plate of Mom’s home cooking.

I don’t remember that man as often as I should. I didn’t come back to the States and throw myself into championing for the hungry children of Fort Worth or even the occasional volunteer hour at a local soup kitchen.

Maybe I just don’t want to remember being hungry.

But I should.

Reagan Duplisea is a journalism senior from El Paso and currently serves as managing editor of the student magazine, Image.