Some people have signature phrases or words they tend to use, consciously or unconsciously. I remember from my childhood a local dignitary who was a frequent speaker at school events. He liberally sprinkled his speeches with the phrase “and if I may say so’, and all us kids would have fun counting how many times it occurred.
I have a few hallmark phrases myself; one of them is that pseudo-sporting metaphor ‘hit the ground running’. What started off as ironic usage has now unfortunately become part of my idiolect. But that’s exactly what life has been like the last few weeks, with the impenetrable red tape of starting a new semester, and getting back up to the world speed at which everything happens round here. During the same period Mike and Lilli came to visit so I had to prise myself out of my comfort zone – the square mile around the university – and go downtown, because that’s where people want to be. I have been a reluctant tourist so far, but, in my defence, study commitments don’t leave much time for that sort of thing. I am realising gradually that I will have to wait for visitors with a highly organised sightseeing schedule and explore the city with them.
In order to qualify for my international student visa I have to enrol in four classes a semester, which is a lot of reading and writing. This term one of my classes is Conversation Analysis, which studies how talk is structured into turns and sequences, and how speakers ‘get things done’. This involves a forensic analysis and transcription of people’s utterances, where we have to mark pitch change, micro pauses and something called ‘rush ons’. For a top-down person like me this attention to minute detail is challenging, and my first transcription was completed (semi-satisfactorily) only after a good deal of blood, sweat, and tears. But the class is conceptually very interesting and yesterday at the Nail Spa I found myself eavesdropping on two blokes having a pedicure (this is New York) and wishing I could record the conversation.
Just when you thought you had conquered your fear of flying, you get a bumpy Atlantic crossing to get the adrenalin flowing again. I have always been an intermittently nervous flyer, but five transatlantic flights in a short period had desensitized me to being up in the air, and I was beginning to fancy myself as a born again jet setter. So when I boarded the Kuwait airways flight 101 to New York JFK, my mood was not one of anxiety, but mild frustration at the delayed departure, and curiosity about what the service would be like on this new airline company (for me). The crew seemed to be numerous, predominantly male, but pleasant and dapperly turned out. And the voice from the cockpit wasn’t Kenneth More’s, but the tone was urbane and reassuring as one would want in one’s captain, so I settled down in my flight socks to enjoy my refreshments.
For all my new bravery, though, a crumb of residual anxiety lurks when flying over the Atlantic because the ” ‘unlikely’ event of landing on water” suddenly becomes less unlikely, and that’s a road I try not to even go down. However, we were tootling along smoothly and I was in my serene flying self when things started to get rather bumpy, and the warning came to buckle up. Thereby followed almost an hour of severe turbulence, the kind that rocks you from side to side, up and down, and makes the plane rattle. It was very unpleasant, so I took a large slug of the rescue remedy that I keep in my bag for such occasions (it’s the brandy not the Bach flowers that help), and quietly repeated to myself the mantra ‘ it’s the safest form of travel’, and after one particular swoop, I admit it, The Lord’s prayer. But despite these props, I could not unclasp my white knuckles from around the arm rests,and I sat rigid, my eyes closed, holding on for dear life. At one point, the older beveiled lady sitting across the aisle from me reached across and stroked my hand, which was a lovely gesture. But there was an eloquent silence in the plane apart from the man behind moaning softly and I thought of that line from the Woody Allen film : “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. Eventually I got used to the turbulence, as you do, but it was the shakiest flight I have ever experienced. It was very good to get to JFK, however late and bedraggled, and be triple-checked by immigration.
I am now settling into my new room which is freshly painted and spacious. Unfortunately it has what they call euphemistically ‘ a courtyard view’, but with some mood lighting I think I can make something of it.
The combination of cold weather and looming finals is proving to be a business opportunity for my local deli. The number of students needing fast comfort food seems to have tripled and extra staff have been called in. The guys behind the counter show no sign of pressure though and move quickly and competently around each other to load up the sandwiches and fry the sweet potatoes .
I’m impressed by how they remember complex orders. Yesterday a bloke rushed in and said urgently something like this “Can I get a hero with turkey, ham, corned beef, chipotle, onions, American cheese, Bacon, mozzarella, avocado, onion and tomato? And another one the same but with swiss cheese not American and aubergine not tomato?” I waited to see how the deli guy reacted to this but his impassive reply was “what kind of bread?” I felt as if I was in a fast talking film of the 40s.
Nate the security officer warned me it was coming but we have had such a balmy autumn I was lulled into a false sense of security. Over the past two days the temperatures have dropped, and the Simon and Garfunkel line ” going home/ where the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me” has taken on a new resonance. I just can’t get that song out of my head – it’s become an ear worm.
It’s easy to remain unaware of the changing season when you’re hermetically sealed in the overheated college building. And then you come out and your nostrils stick together with the cold. The woollen caps and snoods are out and I’m seriously considering finding some kind of headwear that will keep me warm. But you have to be careful about that kind of thing at a certain age. One particular breed of New Yorker are the elderly ladies with the quaint hats, and as much as I admire their style I’m not ready to become one of those just yet. There was one yesterday in the supermarket dressed like Charlie Chaplin, complete with bowler hat and bright red lipstick. This being New York, nobody batted an eyelid. My eyes swivelled at first, because basically I’m a just a small town girl (♫ ♫) and still getting used to the wonderful freedom here. But despite her unusual appearance she chatted away aimiably and helped me choose my soup as if she had been my Aunty Gwen. Anyway the hunt is on for a hat with chutzpah.
Last assignments are being finished, including a beast of a project renowned among students as a rite of passage that will make you or break you. It consists of designing a test, and making explicit the test construct, specs, design, and other procedures. Then you administer it to some hapless evening class. After scoring you do a statistical analysis of the findings, demonstrate how crappy your test was, and say how you would improve it the next time. All this stretches over 13 weeks and is written up in a paper about EIGHTY PAGES LONG. The saving grace is that you work on it with a partner so that you share the anguish. Kevin and I are on page 75 and are putting this large baby to bed by Sunday.
Next week when classes finish, the holiday celebrations begin. And then its homeward bound for Christmas.
I often write about my favourite places to eat and drink, but I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression. The main purpose for my being here is to work and study, and there’s been plenty of that going on too. Term started on September 3rd and is still in progress, and so, a fairly long haul. Work consists of reading a lot of articles or chapters, and then, either discussing these ideas in class, or writing them up into term papers. I usually enjoy writing, but I grappled for a while with the American academic style, which is much more scientific than the British one. The latter is more discursive, as if you’re having a thoughtful chat with a colleague and musing about different ideas. American academic discourse goes more like this: ” something something conceptual framework dum di dum tease apart blah blah conceptualization something something this is an important piece blah blah empirical question dum de dum negative skewness blah blah blah kurtosis etc etc.” I was initially overwhelmed (that word again) by this impenetrable language, and even more so by the flow charts used to illustrate conceptual models or frameworks. When my turn comes round to describe these in seminars I am like a rabbit stuck in the headlights and stumble through as best as I can. The pressure really cranks up, however, when working on two different papers at once, as we are doing now, while at the same time attending and reading up for seminars. When this happens there’s absolutely no wiggle room. Someone once called the fuzziness this induces in the brain “an overcrowding of the cognitive workbench”, and at times mine feels jam-packed. But I’m explaining, not complaining. This is the deal around here, and I’m not certainly not alone. The dining room, library, park benches, Starbucks and any free perches are occupied by students with their brown bags, drinking iced coffee and staring intently at their Macs. It’s a product placer’s dream.
This week I have had a couple of moments of human bonding. The other evening a security officer was at his desk clearly unwell. He’s one of the more seasoned staff and you take nothing for granted after 50 these days, so I asked a student to hurry and get another officer for help. I was feeling quite concerned. Fortunately, It was nothing serious, but the officer now greets me loudly as his hero when I swipe in; we have become a pair of old timers bonded by this brief moment of physical vulnerability. The other incident was when a young international student struck up conversation in a queue. He confided his anxiety about his teacher training placement, which he felt had finished badly due to different cultural communication styles. I tried to offer constructive advice but it made me realise that, however culturally aware we aim to be, we often default to our own cultural expectations when dealing with others.
And now I must stop procrastinating and finish that bibliography.
My university friend Sarah was in town, passing through on her way to Key West, so we arranged a brief encounter before she went off to meet a work colleague. She and I misspent our youth in Birmingham and Florence in the 70s, and the joke goes that we have to stay friends as we both know where the bodies are buried. I also have very fond memories of visits to her parents ‘ home on the South coast where we would kick off the evening with a trip to the local pub. Happy times. Sarah is a literary agent now and our habitual rendezvous for the last 25 years has been at the Ristorante Diana in Bologna on her annual trip to the book fair. This year we met in front of the Columbia campus, Coffee, or something stronger? I asked. She was working valiantly through her jet lag, so we made our way up to the Heights bar, where they make a mean Margarita.
I discovered the Heights when my sister visited a month ago. Tucked away at the top of an unprepossessing staircase on Broadway, it is the perfect antidote to the urban chic-erie that can dominate the city. Unreconstructed, un-themed, and with a mixed clientele of students, good ole boys and suited business folk, it’s an unthreatening watering hole for a pair of Thelma and Louise wannabes in their mid years. The Margaritas, with plenty of salt, came with chips and salsa, and were so good that we had another. It is always good to catch up with people who knew you when you were young, so we reverted to our 21-year old selves for a while, and exchanged news and photos until it was time for her to go. We hailed a cab, raising an arm assertively, New York style, and said goodbye until the next time. The Heights is becoming the place I want to take people to when they visit.
Oh, and this evening, guess who’s coming to dinner? Noam Chomsky is doing a three-evening gig at Columbia, so I’m going to try and get along to that.
” The experience of the learner encountering another culture either through the direct experience of travelling abroad, or simply through the language and the literature is, by definition, one of estrangement. The first thing to be registered is strangeness and difference.
Beppe Severgnini, in his book Inglesi, is amazed by what he calls the ‘harmless ceremonies’ of British daily life. He describes a discovery made by an incredulous Italian friend of his that “in Britain you need four ‘thank yous’ to buy a bus ticket”. Severgnini comments:
Italians are amused by this ritual; when they have to pay for their tickets at home they normally do it with a grunt. Americans who normally carry out such transactions in dead silence are flabbergasted.
Of course this kind of ‘politeness shock’ works in reverse as well. And sometimes, the visitor returns home with a kind of linguistic infection: an Argentinian colleague who had spent several weeks on a course in Britain, returned to Buenos Aires, got into a taxi at the airport and told the driver – in Spanish – where she wanted to go – so far, so good – but after giving him her destination, she added por favor – whereupon the man swivelled round, smiling broadly, and said “Señora, if you ask me like that, I’ll take you to the ends of the earth!””
from “Making it Strange: literature and culture shock” (Pulverness, 2000)
The above excerpt comes from an article which struck a chord with me when I first read it over ten years ago. Rereading it today it perfectly sums up the sense of dislocation I got when I first came here, which is now gradually evaporating. Two words that people use frequently at my college are ‘ overwhelming’ or ‘overwhelmed’. This is usually regarding the workload, as in ‘I’m overwhelmed’ or ‘ that class overwhelmed me ‘. But they are also used to describe the the period of adjustment to the new cultures, both foreign and academic. I heard it a lot in queries when I first arrived: ” do you feel overwhelmed?’ and yes , I did. Now everything is coming into focus. The international officer asked me how things were going the other day. I said I was much more settled, to which she replied: ‘ and you can’t hurry that “. It made me think of my favourite Supremes song.