24 June 2014

What I was doing was fascinating

In 2006, after Yoko and I got married, we went to Malta and Italy for our honeymoon. In my mind, there was no more romantic place than Italy. I had never been there — I had imagined it, idealised it in the way that Midwestern boys think about anything beyond the hundreds of miles of corn separating us from anything. Italy, yes, where people eat the sorts of food they do on PBS documentaries, and drink strong coffee and wine. What does wine even taste like? Two students came back from studying in Florence when I was at Knox, and were suddenly wearing leather shoes and complaining that someone had set out juice and cookies at a poetry reading. They're both sweet, we need something bitter to balance it.

I spent this weekend in Italy at a conference and was struck again with how Italian Italy is: very much like one imagines it to be. Yes, the people golden and well-dressed, smoking cigarettes and sitting effortlessly beautiful in cafes in the setting sun. Still the Midwestern boy, I look on with a sense of aspirational awe, like someday I too might be able to shed this hunched, sweating white body and transform into one of them. I am, after all, 1/8 Italian — my grandmother’s maiden name was Albie. I walked around in the evenings after the conference, buying pizza and gelato, watching all of the people that are 1/8 me and wondering how, in only three or four generations, we had ruined ourselves: a people who drank wine at lunch and slept from 2 to 4, to dreadful Puritans and Calvinists, wound so tightly. What part of my blood is to blame for that?

Whatever aspirations I have, I still feel like a tourist, in the way that all millenials are now tourists, having been somewhere in the world to study or volunteer or do some other insufferable thing. You can hear the young American accents in the cafes and you suspect that if you went over to the table, you could strike up a conversation about Angkor Wat or a wet market in Bangkok. Everyone’s been everywhere now, any place in the world feels like a different part of Disneyland. There are still wars, of course.

For the first time at an academic conference, I wasn't a student trying to be heard or get a job. I am now just another academic in the pile, without the protection of my supervisor who had helped found this particular association and whom I had, in the past, stood and sat next to at important times in the conferences, feeling like people were listening to what I was saying. In 2010, I remember now, I was sitting in a terrace restaurant in Amsterdam, above Vondel park, with everyone I was reading at the time and citing in my upgrade reports and I felt like I had arrived in some way, had somehow taken a place among all these important scholars who would listen to me when I talked about my research.

Four years on, my supervisor has retired  and she, at least this year, was a kind of ghost. A third of the people presenting cited her in one way or another — a keynote speaker quoted and disagreed strongly with her, but because she was not there, it seemed odd to assert an opposing position. I wondered if I should stand from the back, one of the last students that orbited her and shout out some opposing point. You've misrepresented her. I know — I was sitting there when she said that for the first time. Without her standing next to me in the lunch line, people I thought would remember me, did not remember me. I’m Stephen, I was Lynne’s student? I say. We spoke at length in 2010: you thought was I was doing was fascinating.

Instead of falling into some family of academics, I feel even more American than ever, setting out to make my own path at a University no one knows yet, and slowly building my own reputation — my own people in my own orbit. After all, in a couple of years, no one will ask or care whom you studied with. It feels terribly lonely though: a string of publications with my name only, no one else standing with me. I shouldn't, of course, be bothered — this is my path. I'm forty-fifth generation Roman and with some luck, somewhere I can recover in some small way, my ancestors — 1/8 of them — who looked out at the Mediterranean and weren't so bothered.