PhD life on the road
Have you ever read On the Road, by Jack Kerouac? If not, you may still have seen some of the book’s famous quotes as inspirational images on Instagram (“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road”) or know vaguely of its significance in capturing the roaring voices of the Beat generation in 1950s America.
Ever since I first picked it up in a small bookshop in the south of Germany, the book has resonated strongly with me, and while not everyone would subscribe to the jazz and parties lifestyle of Sal and his friends, I still think it has some relevance to us as early career researchers in the ever-changing, ever-faster spinning landscape of academia.
Academic life almost by definition entails travel (conferences in exotic locations, visiting labs, fieldwork, and more), which is a privilege, but can also pose unique challenges. For example, sometimes you have to leave behind your friends, family or partners (“the two-body problem”), to relocate to a different institution.
There have been in-depth reflections on the blog in the past, on what it feels like to be an international student or staff member here at UofG, but I think I can still contribute something new, based on my experience of moving, travelling and being an expat in various countries throughout my education.
Recently, I went back home to visit my family in Germany. I had a very strange aha-moment, during which the supposedly familiar environment suddenly felt alien to me. I tweeted about this phenomenon, which I can only describe as a “reverse culture shock” and found that many academics shared this experience with me.
So, what does it mean?
For me, it meant that I suddenly became hyper-aware of my own culture, specifically, how we Germans like to complain about our (actually very reliable) public transport system and generally are very German in our ways. Some things are maybe a bit more abstract - feeling like a tourist in your own country, realizing gaps in the shared knowledge of current events and scandals, to the more specific ones: socks in sandals at almost 40° Celsius weather! But the reverse culture shock is not all bad. It also makes you realize some positive aspects about your home country that you can only see from a distance. The conversations you overhear on the streets feature a plethora of languages and accents, everyone is on bikes and the colourful, old houses are charming and pretty.
This strange phenomenon reminded me of a short story by Ernest Hemingway, entitled “The Good Lion”. Sometimes overshadowed by its more famous cousins “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “Hills Like White Elephants”, it tells the tale of an expatriate, winged lion who briefly lives with his wild relatives in Africa.
After a while of living there, he realizes it is time to move on ( bidding the wild lions farewell in various languages, alluding to his past travels) and returns home to his father in Venice, who, now old and grey, still watches over the Piazza San Marco. Upon returning home, the good lion realizes that Venice and the antics of its inhabitants have remained very much the same, but his travels had changed him in fundamental ways. The story concludes with the realization that he is happy to have undergone this change, but also content to be finally home.
Similarly, in recent years, my relationship with On the Road (and what it represents) has slightly changed. I no longer romanticise living out of suitcases or boxes, or moving from country to country. However, I still get a sensation of “Fernweh” (the German word for the Pinterest-ed to death “wanderlust”) quite frequently.
It is wonderful to travel, to have all of these new experiences, learn and unlearn things about distant places, but it is no less wonderful to call this rainy town in Scotland my home.