I don’t like “going out” when it entails “pre-gaming” by downing a bunch of drinks, going to a sweaty bar to drink more, where the guys are too aggressive and the music is nonexistent or older-than-1995 rap, and then feeling like crap the whole next day. Geneva, where I’ve been studying and working all semester, isn’t exactly a going out city, and the places where we have gone out often turn into nights like these. I’m usually ready to leave after thirty minutes because I’m tired of the sweatiness and the music.
So when one of my close friends told me that a guy named Stephen Cornwell, who had come in fourth on The Voice UK, was going to be playing in a Geneva bar, I jumped at the opportunity. A night of live, acoustic music instead of the usual grunginess? I couldn’t wait.
Friday night, he started playing around 10, and we got there around 11. The first thing I noticed, admittedly, was that he was cute. Like not the douchy-cocky-over-the-top cute, but the kind of humble cute where it’s like he doesn’t know he’s cute but everyone in the room knows it and yet he’s still not quite convinced. You guys totally know what I mean.
The crowd was… mixed. There were some washed up forty-year-olds congregating on the sides, a group of thirty somethings near the front tapping their feet along to the beat, and a group of master’s students from the University of Geneva. The master’s students were paying attention, requesting songs—he had this brilliant song sheet that was numbered so that you could just yell out a number and he’d play it—and they’d always clap loudly after he finished each song. My group of friends and I grabbed a table near the back, listened to his beautiful voice and just talked. Around midnight, when he was STILL playing, we noticed that every now and then he’d tell people to get up and dance or to sing along, but most people just kept to themselves. We did meet a German guy named Johann who is a master’s student at the University of Geneva, and he was super nice. He bought one of the girls in our group a drink—in a completely harmless and friendly way (he told us all about his girlfriend, etc)—and told us he was friends with Stephen.
We made small talk for a while, swaying to the music, but I felt like I was holding back. I wanted to leave our table and go to the front so I could dance around and scream the lyrics. I announced that I was going to the front, and that everyone should come with me, and my friends looked at me like I was crazy. But a few of them followed me, and maneuvered our way through the crowd and started dancing like absolute idiots to every song. We would scream the words, flail our arms, laugh along, and yell out song requests as soon as he’d finish each song. Everyone in the bar was staring at us, and Stephen quickly noticed us, too. He cracked this huge smile and started playing every song we requested. He even played some new stuff—songs he had literally learned on the plane ride over—and would move away from the mic so that our voices would carry sometimes. After just a few songs, everyone—I mean everyone—in the bar was staring at us. Their eyes were screaming, “Who are these girls and what are they doing?!” We started to embrace it, looking around and signaling for people to join in, and a few songs later the whole bar was rallying around Stephen. He played some of our favorite songs, like Closer and Mr. Brightside, songs that remind me of some amazing memories I have with some of the very friends in that room. His brother is his DJ, and Stephen would play electric guitar while his brother would add beats behind the music, so it was perfect dancing music even though the songs had more of an acoustic feel. Plus, the interactions between he and his brother were so respectful and innocent, neither of them trying to steal the other’s spotlight.
I think he played much longer than he expected to, and I like to think it was because he was feeding off our energy.
At the end of his third or fourth set, around 1am, he announced that he was selling CDs for $10. You all know I walked up and asked to buy one. But I just wanted an excuse to hear this guy’s story. I learned so much about his character in just the short interaction. He told me he hadn’t explored Geneva all that much, that after his gigs here (he’s visited three or four times), he just goes back to his hotel. In looking back, I regret not asking him to hang out with us the next day, especially since he knew so little about the city. A lot of traveling musicians, who have a decent following and are very talented, are so cocky that they “work the city” where they play, picking up girls and roaming the streets before and after gigs. Not Stephen, though, he was in Geneva to play because he loved to play. I admired that. It was so refreshing to see how he and his brother just traveled Europe doing what they love. He could have employed anyone to be his DJ, but he chose his brother. I respected so much that he clearly cares about the people in his life, especially his family. Third, I admired that he cared to get to know the people for whom he was playing music. He signs all of us CDs, so when I bought one, he asked me my name so he could personalize the CD. We immediately launched into a new conversation about how much he loved my name and how it was so fitting. He could have just signed the CD and moved on, but he chose to give me the time of day. And that meant a lot. I later learned he takes the time to get to know the employees at the bars where he does gigs, and that the friends he makes at various gigs will visit him when he goes back to those bars.
I had the best time that night, surrounded by some of my closest friends, dancing around, not caring who was watching, bringing people together, being my awkward but fun self, listening and feeling great music, and just feeling alive, and I told him that. He told us we should come back the next night.
In thinking about my blog posts over the past two years, I realized I don’t often write about the power of music in helping people to be their vulnerable and authentic selves. That night absolutely confirmed music’s power, with many of my friends totally coming out of their shell and with me making a complete fool of myself in front of so many people. But you know what’s also amazing about music? In some settings, people totally judge you for being your vulnerable and authentic self. That’s why it’s so hard to live like that sometimes. You feel embarrassed, or that everyone is watching you, or that people are talking about you behind your back. Maybe those people are watching you—the people in the bar definitely were—but eventually music levels out that awkwardness and people start to accept the authenticity. After all, a few songs in, everyone at the bar thought we were so fun!
My dream is that one day we would all have the confidence to live authentically and vulnerably in any setting, not just when we’re dancing to music, and that people would accept such authenticity in every environment, not just in bars when the lights are dim and the alcohol can serve as an excuse.
While I was talking to Stephen, I noticed my friends looking longingly at the CDs. I knew they wanted one, too, but didn’t want to have to pay for one. Without thinking about it, I bought my friends his CD. I gave it to them on our walk out the door, thinking it was a casual, small gesture. I have never seen people so grateful and happy in my life. They gave me this giant hug, starting shrieking and jumping about, and talking about how they were going to play it on repeat for hours on end.
And that’s when I realized something else: when you feel comfortable, when you’re in an environment where for hours you can just live, you feel inspired to make others happy. Stephen wanted us to enjoy his music, Johann wanted to make us feel at home at the bar, my friends wanted to make sure I felt loved and supported by dancing by my side, and I wanted to make sure my friends could have his CD. When we’re being authentic, we’re more capable of being generous, selfless, and supportive.
When I got home, I requested Stephen on Instagram. I decided that if I didn’t make it to his gig the next night, at least I could show support over his social media accounts and share his work. He followed me back, and that just further showed his character in not treating me like I was beneath him.
The next day, I was worried all day about the gig because though I had told him I’d come back that night, I forgot it coincided with another program event all my friends were planning to attend. Would it seem like ditching my friends if I went to his gig again instead of the program event? Could I convince everyone on the program to come to the gig instead of the program event? Could we go to both? I knew in my heart I wanted to go to the gig instead of the program event. Everyone joked that it was because I was swooning over Stephen, but that wasn’t it (okay, that was slightly it, but only like 10% the reason). I just wanted to be surrounded by my friends, listening to wonderful acoustic music, in a bar that wasn’t stuffy or creepy, being my authentic and vulnerable self with people I love. I wanted to support an up-and-coming creative, kind, humble person, because so many people have done that for me. I thought about all the times I’ve asked people to read, share, offer advice for my blog, and how much it has meant when those people actually follow through and support me. I know that I would not have 20,000 people reading this post right now if it weren’t for all the people who went out of their way to support me. So shouldn’t I go out of my way and support Stephen, too?
A group of us decided to go to his gig on the earlier side, then try and head over to the program event, and then maybe go back to his gig at the end. The two bars were only a ten-minute Uber from each other, so we figured it was possible. We needed to get to the program event by 11:30 or else we wouldn’t get in free, so we decided to go to Stephen’s event from 10:40-11:15, go to the program event, stay for an hour or so, and then possibly back to Stephen’s event for the end.
We got to the bar, and he played the last chord of a song and then announced he was taking a break… for fifteen minutes. I’m not going to lie, we were devastated. We only had about 30 minutes, and now half of that time would be us waiting for him to play. We still stuck with our original plan, though, scoped out a table and noticed Johann was at the bar again. He gave us a friendly wave, cracked a huge smile, and came over to our table.
“I’m so glad you’re back! The crowd needs to be pumped up again and you guys were the life of the party last night!” I felt honored, and as soon as Stephen started playing we started dancing like crazy and the crowd started dancing along, too. After three or four songs, we put on our heavy coats and prepared to leave. Yohan gave us this look, like, “where are you going? You can’t leave now! You’re motivating him!” Yohan was right; Stephen lit up while we were there, and I felt horrible leaving.
I turned back, looked at him playing, and felt this twang of guilt. Was it selfish that I just wanted to stay here instead of being a good friend and going to this program event? Probably. But at the same time, it was my last night of my abroad program, and I wanted to remember this night. I wanted the night to be symbolic of what I set out to learn on this program, and every day, really: how to be more authentic and emotionally vulnerable. And I felt more myself being in that room than I did going to a club. My friends weren’t as selfish, though, and so we hopped in our Uber to head to the program event. We were going to be right on time.
Maybe because of fate or maybe because he was an idiot, the Uber driver made a wrong turn that added five minutes onto our trip. We were five minutes late to the event, and when we got to the door the doormen said we were too late. We would have had to pay $40, and we didn’t have enough cash for that nor were we interested in paying that much to be there for just 30 minutes. I was upset. I wanted to see my friends at the event. I had thought this plan was seamless! I was angry they wouldn’t let us slide with only being four minutes late. We had left some great music and an amazing time only to be turned away from a bar by snobby people.
Frustrated, I asked if we could just take an Uber back to the gig. So we called one and waited in the freezing, 31-degree weather. Our first Uber couldn’t find us, and then promptly cancelled on us. Our second Uber didn’t speak English and went a super long way to get to us. In the end, it took us thirty minutes to get back instead of ten. I was tapping my foot incessantly, so impatient and anxious to get back to the live music.
When we pulled up, I literally jumped out of the Uber. We rushed back in the door, and he wasn’t playing.
We looked all over the bar, and couldn’t find him anywhere.
He was finished, I thought.
I felt like I had let him down. I didn’t even get to say great job or goodbye, and we had just walked out in the middle.
To be honest, I felt like crying. It was my last night and I felt so myself there; to think it was all coming to an abrupt ending was overwhelming.
Suddenly, he emerged from behind a door. He was in the bathroom!
When he started playing again, we moved to the front and Johann saw us. He immediately grabbed our coats and insisted we join his table, introducing us to his friend, and we all started dancing again. It was so kind of him to include us and take us under his wing when he barely knew us. He told us he was so glad we were back because things were dying down again. Stephen would look over at us a lot and would sing our song requests. I could tell he appreciated that we knew every word to every song, and that we weren’t afraid to make up weird dance moves and have a fun time. At one point, it seemed like he was going to burst into laughter when I started doing the robot. (That would have been laughing at me, not with me, mind you… I looked ridiculous….)
Around one am, he finished his third set, and we all cheered loudly for him. Some huge wrestling match was on TV (of course I have no idea what the match was; I know NOTHING about sports), so they live streamed it on a screen on stage.
We sat down to watch it, but the way the table was positioned, my friend and I could see the screen but our two friends on the other side of the table couldn’t see.
My friend and I decided to act out what was happening so they could follow it, just as a fun and stupid game. We had the best time just fake throwing punches at each other and commentating the wrestlers’ moves. We were all laughing so hard that I got a better ab workout than my Pure Barre classes (and that is saying something because man does Pure Barre kick my butt).
When the match ended, Johann and his friend came back from talking to Stephen and sat down with us. We learned how Johann and Stephen became friends, and it was such a sweet story. Johann actually used to work at this bar, and had gotten to know Stephen since he played quite a few times at that bar throughout the year. Johann admitted that when Stephen walked in the bar the first time, he thought to himself, “another attractive, talented singer and guitarist. He’s probably going to be so full of himself.” But then they got to talking, and Johann realized how humble and kind he was. Ashamed, Yohan offered to show him around Geneva and they’ve stayed in touch. They’ve stayed good friends and Yohan always goes to hear him play, even though he no longer works at the bar. It spoke multitudes to Stephen’s character that he invests in the people who take the time to listen to his music, especially employees at the bars of his gigs.
We continued to make small talk for a few minutes, and then Johann started asking us about Trump. I quickly realized that Johann is absolutely brilliant. I wrote a 160-page memo on how the Trump administration would affect 18 areas of health and am an American who is passionate about politics, but Yohan, a German, knew as much as I did about Trump if not more. He also spoke five languages. He got us debating, asking us our views on abortion (no kidding), contraceptives, climate change, Trump’s cabinet picks, how Trump would affect Europe, among other topics. Every time, Yohan played the devil’s advocate. If we’d argue one way, he’d say, “okay, now I’m Trump. I disagree because….,” or, “okay, now I’m a conservative. I think…,” Or, “Okay, now I’m a professor, a staunch liberal who…” etc etc. And would offer us the other point of view. We would then argue back, or sometimes actually realize that our reasoning was invalid and would eventually agree with him. I’m honestly not sure if Yohan is a liberal or a conservative, as he could argue both sides so eloquently. It was probably the most well-moderated debate I’ve ever had (from one to two am in a bar in Geneva with a German. With five people who all came from very differing backgrounds with very different debate styles. What are the odds?!).
When I checked my phone and saw that it was 2am, I couldn’t believe it. I’m usually a grandma who can tell when it’s past midnight, but I hadn’t felt one bit tired. The public transportation stops running at 2:30, though, so we needed to leave or else we were going to have a long, cold walk back. Stephen stopped by our table, and we talked to him for a little while. He told us thanks for coming, and then told us this hilarious story about the time he tried to ski in Switzerland. He had lied to the chair lift guy that he knew what he was doing—even though he had never skied—and then when he got to the top of the mountain he panicked and didn’t have a clue how to get down. It was so funny, and refreshing that he would admit something like that. It was the kind of story someone living an authentic life would tell. He understood that sometimes talking about our weaknesses helps people let their guard down and feel more comfortable to be authentic, too. He finished the story by adding, “You know, I guess we all have different strengths. That’s why I stick to music.” It was just a casual comment, but one that is essential to understand if we are to pursue authenticity. If we try to be good at everything, or pretend to be good at everything, we’ll never truly excel at anything or feel fully ourselves. Stephen knows he’s a gifted musician, and that’s all that matters. He doesn’t have to pretend he’s good at skiing, too. I know I’m a gifted writer, and that’s all that matters. I don’t need to pretend to be good at, say, drawing, too, or at knowing everything or being the best. I just need to do what I love and embrace that.
When I got back to my residence last night, I messaged him. I told him how I had a soft spot for creative, down to earth people, and that I wanted him to know how much people noticed and appreciated his humility. He told me thank you so much, and then how he hoped to see me in January when he was back at that bar.
But I wouldn’t be back in January. I wouldn’t be living the same spontaneous life where I show up at bars and travel and meet wonderful people.
It was 3am, and I was lying in bed feeling very emotional about this. I fell asleep with my phone on my face, with a sentence typed on my Notes:
I woke up the next morning, disoriented. Packing up my last items, I said bye to my friends and headed for the airport.
Sitting in the airport, reflecting on the past two nights, and the semester as a whole, I looked at that note again.
I was right. Why not? Why wouldn’t I be living the same spontaneous life?
My abroad program ends today, but that doesn’t mean the traveling must end. That doesn’t mean meeting new people and putting myself out there must end. That doesn’t mean I must stop being spontaneous, dancing like an idiot at random gigs, supporting people, enjoying my friends. Just because my abroad program ends today does not mean living an authentic, vulnerable life must end, too. Besides, that’s what this blog is all about: writing about my authentic, vulnerable experiences to hold myself accountable to continue living this way, and hopefully to inspire others to live such a life, too.
I won’t be in Geneva in January listening to Stephen sing and dancing like an idiot, but maybe I’ll be at a bar in North Carolina encouraging some other up-and-coming artist. Maybe I’ll be having a dance party at 2am on a Tuesday night with my roommate, just because we can. Maybe I’ll be exploring a different part of North Carolina, just to get away and see more of my state. I don’t know where I’ll be, but just because I won’t be at that bar doesn’t mean I can’t continue living life the way I was at that bar these past two nights and over this whole semester.
You know, before I left for the airport this morning, I was worried my other friends who were at the program event would be upset at me for going to the gig. I thought they’d think I was selfish, or that I didn’t try hard enough to make it to their event by 11:30. But they weren’t upset at all. Because real friends want their friends to feel loved for who they are at their core. And they support actions that help make their friends feel that way. They knew I felt my best me at that gig, not at the club, and they respected that. Heck, they even asked all about it the next day! That made it that much harder to hug them goodbye today on my way to the airport.
So, this one’s for you two, Stephen and Johann: Thank you for helping me to have an incredible last two nights of my abroad program, two nights that encapsulated my program: a semester of meeting wonderful people, living in the moment and being spontaneous, staying true to myself, appreciating people for who they are, talking about politics and learning from other brilliant people, being supportive, learning to be comfortable with who I am and who I’m not, and being surrounded by people who truly love me for me, even when I am acting out a wrestling match, dancing like a five-year-old, and singing off-key.
If you want to follow Stephen on Facebook, check out @StephenCornwellMusic.
You can also check out his website: http://www.stephencornwell.co.uk/ and buy one of his CDs online! (Would be a cool Christmas gift, and the slow songs are great study music).
In any case, be spontaneous. Go to gigs at random bars. Be supportive. Dance. Sing. Be generous. Spread love. Debate. Listen. Reflect. And most importantly, be authentically and vulnerably you.
Until I’m back in America,