My North American adventure, part 1

Last April I saw a call for papers for the History of Science Society conference in Toronto. I decided to try my luck and send in an abstract – I’m an MA student but my research is pretty advanced – I figured that the worst that can happen is that I’ll get a ‘no’. It was just after all sorts of academics started posting their CV of failures online – detailing all the jobs and grants that they didn’t get, all of the papers they have written that have not been accepted. It made me realise that my fear of failure can only hold me back in academia, that in fact, in order to achieve anything I will need to try and try and try, and fail a lot, in order to succeed, and I thought that there was no better time to start than the present. I was very surprised when I received an email several months later congratulating me on the acceptance of my paper.

And so, I was going to Toronto, to a four-day conference, and it seemed a shame to travel all the way to North America without visiting my sister who lives in New Jersey, on a little street facing the famous skyline of New York. I spent five days in New Jersey, though it felt like more, and I had such a good time spending time with my niece and nephew, and with my sister and her life partner. Here are a few snippets that I wrote in those few days.

2.11

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It was a day flight, but all the shutters all over the plane were pulled down. I pulled mine up every once in a while to gaze at the tiny mountain tops and lakes below, blinking at the sun reflected by the clouds. Most of the flight I passed in the darkness, with the harsh yellow reading light above trained at my kindle screen, furiously reading the first volume of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust. I started reading in the line for the check-in, and finished after eight hours in the air. I read like I did when I was a child, in wild abandon, completely lost to the world. It is hard to put into words what it felt like to be back in Lyra’s Oxford, to come back to the world Pullman painted in His Dark Materials, the first book of which, Northern Lights, I read when I was 12, falling madly deeply in love with that world, and it, and its characters, have been a part of my life ever since.

4.11

Woke up this morning to a sliver of light peeping through the curtains, so that I knew right away that I had finally slept the night away, as dawn begins to break at seven. My eyelids felt heavy and painful with sleep, so I opened the bedside lamp and read a few pages on my kindle before going out of my room. In the living room, on the royal blue sofa, sat my niece and nephew, with wild bed-hair and glistening eyes, and watched an animated movie on the gigantic screen as the sky outside slowly turned a lighter and lighter blue. The atmosphere in the living room was slightly gloomy, but cosy at the same time. Two childish faces gazing at their own private wonderland in that dark, half bewitched hour, in which the skies slowly open, and the grownups are not yet awake. I never had that, since my mother was always up at six. Maybe that is why I curved out my own space at the witching hours, between 23 and 2 in the morning. Though my father was still awake, he remained in his study upstairs, and the rest of the house was mine, asleep, and bewitched, to read, watch Hallmark films (the magical king – Legend of the Leprechauns, Merlin, and so on, not the sickly-sweet dramas), and mess around on the internet, building my own website, and spending hours in book lovers’ forums.

I put the kettle on to boil and made myself a breakfast of a tortilla smeared with peanut butter and apricot jam, and a soft blueberry cereal bar stuck in the middle. I sprayed it with salt, and made a cup of spicy cinnamon tea, grabbed a banana, and sat down to eat and read. I am continuing a book I started on the plane, ‘Just One Damned Thing After Another’ by Jodi Taylor. The strong tea fortified and warmed me as the sun kept rising outside, and the blue skies started glowing at the edges with gold. I’m not sure what to think about this book, it is not especially good, but also not glaringly bad. It uses the same premise as Connie Willis’s – time travelling historians – but treats the subject in a completely different way. There is none of Willis’s depth of historical details or evidence of painstaking research, instead it is more of a series of episodic adventures.

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When I go to London I always visit Foyles, when in New York I’ve started forming a tradition of going to The Strand. The Strand is a beautiful and gigantic bookshop, that boasts having 18 miles of books. I was walking around this shop of wonders, the floor boards around me creaking with the steps of dozens of people. They sounded like a ship, screeching and cracking around me. I felt so soothed and curious, ensconced, with the floor creak-creak-creaking around me. I spent hours browsing books in the history, photography, fantasy & sci fi, and graphic novels sections, letting images and ideas wash over me and inspire me.

The graphic novels section was the biggest one I have ever seen in a bookshop, and had many tables on which specially recommended volumes were arranged. I read two books on the spot, and leafed through dozens of others, eventually choosing three to buy. It was a delicious experience.

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5.11

Woke up in the dark again. I like it. The jetlag is adding new timescapes to my life – the magical hours between four and seven in the morning on a quiet Sunday. Just me, and the computer, writing and writing and writing. Looking at the schedule of the upcoming conference and dreaming. Inhaling my pumpkin tea, luxuriating in finally wearing long sleeves and socks indoors, and looking at the bluing sky outside.

 

6.11

I could spend hours looking at maps, thinking. Reading place names, caressing rivers and lakes with my eyes, trying to imagine what lives are led there, what the atmosphere feels like, what are these hills and oceans dreaming of.

I am performing open heart surgery on my writing sample for the PhD applications. It is lying, dissected, spread-eagle on my screen, innards poking out in disarray. I am poking and prodding, rearranging organs and limbs, trying out different variations, until finally I connect all of the right veins and arteries to each other, and the paragraphs and chapters begin to pink with the healthy vibrance of a well-structured argument.

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Today I worked until noon, and then decided that being so near New York and only visiting once is heart breaking, so I threw on some clothes and caught the bus to Port Authority. I spent the afternoon in the Met, mostly in the Modern European section.

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Seeing paintings I know and love felt like meeting old friends, but I had one uncanny experience, when I walked into a room and a full length painting loomed before me like a ghost from my past. I realised that I bought a postcard depicting this painting 13 years ago, and it used to hang on the wall of my bedroom as a teenager. It was eerie and spooky and lovely.

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Walking home from the Met I was surrounded by squirrels. Silvery-grey ones, and small ashy-black ones. I saw two squirrels with short tails, which I found out a few months ago happens when a predator grabs hold of their tail – they can break it off, like a lizard, and leave the frustrated hunter with a useless piece of fluff in their mouth. Central Park was darkly and glossily green, with castles rising in the background, and orange leaves strewn on the ground between jutting brown-black boulders, and curling tree roots that looked like sleeping squirrels with red fruits in their mouths.

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As the bus left Port Authority in the direction of New Jersey I opened my laptop and starting working on my application materials again. I raised my head to see New York standing before me, black and blue and yellow, wet from the rain, full of whispering promises. I’ll be back.

Joanne

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It takes myriad stories, to truly know another culture

I have just watched this video, as part of a Ted‐talk‐binge, and it moved me. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose books I have not read yet, but am definitely going to now, is saying that we tend to misunderstand other people and cultures when we are offered only one view of them. She gives various examples, some of them funny and some touching, and I felt that I could both relate to her feeling of her identity being flattened out, and feel guilty of doing the same.

As an Israeli woman, I have, from time to time, come across people who view Israel only as a place of war, which is basically very untrue. Yes, there have been a lot of wars here, yes, the area is troubled, yes ‐ people I have known died, and I spent a couple of weeks in a shelter at one point. But mostly, our lives aren’t any different from the lives of any other person in the western world.

But this video touched me even more when I think of my trip to Kenya a couple of months ago. It was amazing, but at the same time I felt very uneasy a lot of the time. I didn’t always know how to take everything in, and I am sure that I have been guilty of seeing only one story, which is very easy when you visit a country focusing only on one aspect of it ‐ the wildlife, it makes the whole variety of human life in that country take a back sit. So I have only seen the people on the sides of the road as we were traveling from one game park to another, the hotel workers in the lodges, and our guide.
Thinking back though, I did TRY to get a wider perspective, I was feeling curious about the people of this country, whom I could only glimpse briefly through the car windows. I did so by getting friendlier with our guide, and asking him questions about his life, and family, his career path, and about life in Kenya in general. There was also one memorable evening, when I was still in the lodge when a guy came in for turn‐down service. I don’t know how, but we just started talking. He was around my age, in his twenties, and came from a tribal village. We talked for an hour, this was my first experience actually TALKING to a Kenyan, not just watching the display the villages put up for tourists (which I hated, because it made me feel so uncomfortable, and fake, and patronizing). He told me about his village, and how his family reacted when he left to work at a hotel, and how the language system works in a country that has a gazillion of them. The naming system, coming of age ceremonies and going to school. We covered a lot in that hour, and I think it belongs in the list of the most special things I have experienced in Kenya, together with our car being charged by a rhino, and a monkey stealing cookies out of my tray on the porch at six o’clock in the morning.
I think it was very important to me to get another view of life in Kenya, not just the game drives, the other tourists, and the people gardening on the sides of the roads. It is still not enough to get a real, rounded picture of Kenya, and is not even close to enough to getting a picture of the whole of Africa, which is why I brought back a few books that have Africa, or certain countries in Africa, as their main theme. It is something that I would like to educate myself more about, because I think that we (non‐Africaners) have no idea how diverse Africa is, and I would like to be less ignorant.