2011 Recap: Part 2 of 3 (May - July)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The thing about working in academia is that every summer is different. My first year of graduate school, I spent the summer working full time as a research assistant for my dissertation director. The following year I still wasn't eligible for summer teaching, so I worked three different jobs and struggled to pay my bills until August rolled around (late August, since we didn't get paid until the last day of the month). After the first year of my PhD program, I taught a 10-week freshman comp class all summer. After the second year, daunted by the idea of reading for comps while teaching all summer, I packed my bags and moved to PA for the summer, where I had the luxury of teaching a night class two days a week for five weeks, then had the rest of the summer off to read and work on my studies.

This past summer, however, was the most exciting one of them all--I spent the first half of it in England, doing research for my dissertation, and the second half teaching a five-week World Lit II class on the evolution of the short story. It was a wonderful (if chaotic and stressful) summer.

Having never lived outside the American South before (and I don't count that summer in central PA, which, with the exception of the weather, is basically like living in the South but without Chick-Fil-A, stadium-seating movie theaters, or 24-hour Wal-Marts and drug stores), living in London for several weeks was an adventure, and one I (mostly) welcomed with open arms.

I'd spent a couple of weeks playing tourist in London before, so in many ways I knew what to expect, but I was also worried about things like the food (I didn't have many fond memories of the food); lack of internet access and the ability to communicate with my family, friends, and fiance; and the fact that I felt grossly unprepared for the academic challenge before me.

You see, even though I had so much free time in the spring, I frittered away most of it playing online and planning my wedding. Then there was a bunch of drama with my family that took up emotional space, stacks of papers and exams that my students kept expecting me to grade (darn them), and the work I had to do for my dissertation director, whom I was still working for as a research assistant. She was on deadline with her latest book, and I was feeling pressured to get work that wasn't due until late summer done so that I wouldn't have to worry about it while I was in England. So when my flight took off a few days after the end of the semester (and I worked for her right up until we left), I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by what was to come.

In case you can't tell, I'm a planner. I like to know where I'm going, what I'm doing, and what the alternatives are, well in advance. Even though I've loosened up on the "clipboard of fun" (as T and Jesse Katsopolis call it), I still like to feel prepared with lots of options for places to go/eat/see/stay when I'm traveling, so I'm never just sitting around saying, "Okay, what else is there to do around here?" But with a month in London on the horizon, I spent no time planning. None. Well, I Google street-viewed the place I was going to be living so I could see how far away the Tube stations were, and I tracked down the closest Orange store so I could purchase a pre-paid cell phone, but other than that, I had no idea what I would be doing for the next month, other than working in libraries and archives.

PB (my dissertation director) was accompanying the five of us (all PhD students in eighteenth-century Brit lit working with her) to teach us how to work in the some of the largest, greatest collections in the world, but other than knowing I'd be at the National Archives for a couple of days, the London Metropolitan Archives two days after that, etc., I didn't really know what I would be doing. I had tried searching through the online catalogs at each collection to find sources that might be interesting or relevant to my research, but with some of them I had struggled to find anything useful, so I was showing up in London with no clear research plan, even though PB had been working with us on one all semester.

I needn't have worried, of course, and perhaps because I went into my London adventure with less structure or planning than I'd ever had on a trip before, I had one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Living in London was completely different from any tourist experience I'd had before. There's a reason why locals often say they've never been to this museum or that landmark, even if they've lived in a city their whole lives. (In Hawai'i, a man we met out hiking in Oahu asked us what other islands we were going to. When we said Kauai, he said, "Oh, I bet that's nice. I've lived here my whole life and never been.") The fact is, though, that when you live somewhere, you just don't have the time and energy for sightseeing very often. You're too busy working/cooking and cleaning/spending time with friends or family/desperately protecting your downtime to want to spend a full day museum-hopping or fighting hoards of tourists to see the crown jewels at the Tower of London. And when you do have some time off, you use it to escape to some other tourist destination, not to play tourist in your hometown.

I didn't understand this mentality really until I lived like a Londoner--waking up early, getting ready for work and grabbing a bite to eat or a cup of coffee, speed-walking to my neighborhood Tube stop (a ten-minute walk), fighting my way onto a crowded train for a 30-45 minute subway ride, working all morning, going out for a quick lunch, then going back to work until 5, 6, or sometimes 7:00, then taking the Tube back home, going to the local pub for dinner or microwaving some pre-packaged Indian food, doing my grocery shopping or laundry, and finally hitting the sack by 11:00. No time for a stop off at the British Museum or trip around the London Eye. And you know what? I loved it. I do not use that word lightly here. Every minute of those days felt special. Even when my eyes were going crossed trying to interpret eighteenth-century handwritten letters or my eyes and nose were burning from the moldly books and papers, I recognized how lucky I was, how few scholars (and especially student scholars) have the privilege of doing what I was doing.

And I embraced the London lifestyle. Never once did I mind running to catch the Tube or squeezing onto a packed train--in fact, every trip was a bit of an adrenaline rush, something I looked forward to at the beginning and end of every day. For the first time in my life, I began to enjoy packaged sandwiches, and I didn't mind the near daily trips to Pret a Manger or EAT (especially if there was a turkey, cranberry, and brie sandwich that day). And even though my friend Jamie and I were sharing an old-fashioned, shoebox-sized flat (which we christened "Marie Antoinette's Nightmare"), I grew fond of the little kitchen, the glass table  overlooking our building's courtyard, my green damask-covered twin bed, and the row of casement windows, which we left open day and night so that the flat was always full of cool breezes.

"Marie Antoinette's Nightmare"
Microscopic kitchen
About four nights a week, Jamie and I would go to "our" pub, The Hourglass, a tiny neighborhood bar a couple of blocks away, where the two bartenders/servers got to know our drink orders and we got to know the nightly rotation of the menu, so we'd know which days we could have the fish cakes, which we'd have the pork, and which days we didn't care for anything at all on the menu and would just order a jacket (baked potato) with brie and bacon.

After dinner we had a routine as well. We'd walk home, sometimes slightly tipsy, and almost inevitably decide to stop by the small Sainsbury's a block from our flat. Sometimes we'd pick up fresh fruit, some gourmet cheese and crackers, a bottle of wine, or, in my case, 10p packages of Haribo gummies. But we almost never passed that grocery market without buying something. At home, we would read, call our loved ones, and fight with the washer/dryer unit, which we never entirely figured out and always required us to hang up our wet clothes around the room afterward. On our third day there the TV stopped working and we didn't figure out what was wrong with it for two weeks, but it didn't matter--we didn't miss it. (Although once we did get television back, we started ending our evenings with unedited True Blood reruns on British FX. I got Jamie hooked, much to her dismay.)

I went to bed every night mentally exhausted but happy and unstressed. I felt better, healthier, in London than I've felt in years, and certainly since I've felt since then. I don't know if it was the air (fresh, unfiltered), the diet (rarely did I see anything on an ingredients list that I couldn't immediately identify--even candy was all natural), or the exercise (walking back and forth to the Tube and all over town on off days), but more than likely it was a combination of all three. I was sleeping better, eating better, and in general happier than I could remember being in recent memory.

On the rare day off (Sundays and the occasional bank holiday), I would go into tourist mode, but even then I took things slower than normal. The first Sunday we all took the bus to Covent Garden, wandered around and had lunch, went to the afternoon matinee of "As You Like It" at Shakespeare's Globe, and then walked around the Tate Modern until near closing. Then we went home. We didn't stay out late or go out for dinner. We went back to the flat and had pre-packaged rogan josh curry from Sainbury's. On the next Sunday, Cassie, Jamie, and I went to Tate Britain, had lunch, went to evensong at St. Paul's, and walked from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace so Cassie, who'd never been to London, could experience some of the more touristy highlights. The highlight of that walk? Strolling through St. James Park, which on Sunday afternoons becomes a retreat for busy Londoners, eager to picnic in the sun, lay in the green grass, and fly kites with their kids.

That's not to say that we were all business six days a week--we made time for fun and sightseeing, too. One day Jamie and I went out to the National Archives (which is in Kew), and we decided to first spend the morning at Kew Gardens, an enormous park full of greenhouses, manicured gardens, and tree-lined walkways. It's probably the only place in the world you can go and see a redwood forest, coconut palm trees, a water lily pond, carnivorous plants, a bamboo grove, and a zen garden all within half a mile of each other. You can see plants from pretty much any part of the world, walk through the treetops, and run your toes through the softest grass I've ever felt.

Water lilies at Kew
Softest grass EVER. I would plant it everywhere if I knew what it was called. :-(
On Friday evenings after work we'd go to the National Gallery, which is open to 9 p.m. that day, so by the end of the trip we'd been through the entire museum slowly and carefully. We'd watch the street performers in Trafalgar Square, and some nights we'd go to the theater. I saw Rupert Everett in Pygmalion and Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams in Neil LaBute's In a Forest, Dark and Deep. We sat so close to Rupert Everett that in the last scenes of the play (when he sits at the front of the stage), I could see the individual hairs on his knuckles. And a couple of afternoons we were groundlings at the Globe. (For five pounds you can stand in the pit in front of the stage, which I now feel is, honestly, the only way to watch a Globe play. We saw Much Ado about Nothing with the fabulous Eve Best and Charles Edwards, which was nothing short of amazing, and All's Well that End's Well. Eve Best forgot her lines, hugged and made fun of audience members, and told her asides directly to people leaning against the stage. The fourth wall was completely gone, just like Shakespeare would have wanted, and the plays were all the better for it.)

One bank holiday Jamie, Cassie, and I went to Bath, and another Sunday I took a river boat to Greenwich to see the Prime Meridian.
Enjoying a cinnamon butter bun with clotted cream at Sally Lunn's in Bath
Me "taking the water" in the pump room at the Roman Baths
Prime Meridian
So we definitely had our fun, and the last week I was there, when T came to visit for a few days, I got to play tour guide and show him around the city I had begun to think of as home.


But at the heart of most days was work, and researching at the British Library specifically. In all, I got to experience working in the National Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, Guildhall Library, V&A Prints & Drawings Room, National Art Library, Blythe House, National Portrait Gallery Archive, British Museum Prints & Drawings Room, and, most importantly, the British Library. I discovered old letters from the women I'm writing about, read their wills and first editions of their books, saw their signatures and addresses on census reports, and examined their manuscripts.

Blueprints of the eighteenth/nineteenth-century East India House
Letter from Charlotte Canning to "Sir David" about her life in India
Dan and Jamie examining an eighteenth-century map of London
Photograph from an 1890s Anglo-Indian family's album. The caption says "A happy Xmas party Wandra. Poona District. 30th December 1892. Maggie with Gunnie." And yeah, that's a woman and her two small dogs posing beside a dead leopard.
I gathered contemporaneous newspaper and journal reviews, transcribed whole books not available anywhere else in the world, and photographed dozens of books of sketches and etchings.

Watercolor from Maria Graham Callcott's personal sketch book
I brought home with me enough research for years to come, including some primary sources that have never been worked with or discussed by modern scholars. The experience was invaluable in ways I'm only beginning to understand.

At the end of the month, I took T to Paris to show him the city I fell in love with in 2005. To me, Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, and I will always feel a tug on my heart every time I even think about it's tree-lined avenues and Hausmann-style buildings. But the entire time I was in Paris with T, a part of me wished I was spending my last weekend in London, properly saying good-bye to the city I had begun to think of as home.

A part of me will always think of London as home, or at least one of the places I have called home. And throughout the rest of that summer, when I was hurriedly preparing for one of my daily lectures, sitting in my windowless office working for PB, or walking from my car in C-zone to the Haley Center through 95 degree heat, if I closed my eyes I could still feel the cool London breezes on my skin, hear a subway train screeching down the tracks toward me, taste the warm Brazilian churros from the Greenwich Market or the nightly pint of Strongbow I had at the Hourglass. Even now those memories are so strong it feels as if I were just there a few weeks ago, and I hope that never changes.

4 comments:

Cody Austin Marschalk January 10, 2012 at 11:01 PM  

Nice summary! Just two corrections: you went to evensong at St. Paul's, and the animal in the picture is actually a leopard, not a cheetah. hahaha :D I loved it!

Lacy Marschalk January 11, 2012 at 7:55 AM  

Oops! You're right! Good call. I've been living on St. Peter Street a bit too long I guess. And I never could tell a leopard from a cheetah. (Especially dead. Wrong continent, I'm guessing?) I made the corrections, though! Thanks, little brother!

Emma January 12, 2012 at 10:12 AM  

Great description, Lacy. It sounds like an amazing experience. Thanks for sharing.

Moka B. January 12, 2012 at 1:41 PM  

Awesome pics, once again, and I loved catching up with your 2011 in more detail than our little chats could afford. (I read your updates out of order: 3, 1, and then 2. Lol.)

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