Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A moment of belonging

As well as a change in scientific direction (which I promise I will get to soon), this postdoc has represented a major lifestyle change for me. For the first time, I am not living in major city. In fact, I live in a rural area. I drive past cornfields on my way to work every day, and work is only two miles away.
In many ways, I'm now living in the sort of place I always swore I wouldn't. I'm renting what I would call a semi-detached house on a cul-de-sac on a modern property development in the rural rust belt. The nearest big town is an hour away. The nearest Ikea is in the next state. For someone who grew up in a world city of 8 million people, and found his graduate school east coast city of half a million a bit small, it's a change. Moving out here has required a lot of adaptation. I've had to get used to a slower pace of life, to more limited access to the sources of entertainment I'm used to, to having to drive everywhere, and to spending far more time than I used to at home.
It doesn't help that the countryside I'm used to (that of England and France, where I spent all of my holidays growing up) is very different than where I live in now. I can't just walk out of my door, Bilbo the hobbit style, and follow a footpath through the fields up the nearest mountain, and then to the nearest pub. Mountain, pub and footpath are all inexistent. American villages are not places of easy community. There is no village green, no cafe de l'hotel de ville. Yes, there are state parks everywhere, but I still view having to drive as an imposition. The outdoors is on my doorstep, I shouldn't have to drive there.
So finally, after a harsh and dreary winter, I've taken up cycling. It turns out the roads near here lend themselves wonderfully to it: straight country roads, not too many hills, and local drivers who are ridiculously respectful. They always give me plenty of space when passing, and on two occasions have stopped to let me take a left turn. Although I've been warned repeatedly by locals that cycling here is dangerous, let me tell you, compared to my home town, it's a kitten to a tiger. Through these daily back road rambles, I've found a connection to this place, specifically, to my childhood holidays. The neat yards and fields remind me of summers in France. The heat of the day lies heavily on the landscape in the evening; everything is lying still, waiting for a storm or the evening, whichever will bring respite first. I ride past growing, ripening wheat fields, past people mowing their lawns, past ditches full of reeds and wild flowers. As I cycle through the roads, the smells of summer holidays past - cut grass, wood fires, and the fragrant exhalations of meadows wilting in the summer sun - take me back to the small village where my aunt's holiday home is. For as long as summer lasts at least, I feel at home in this different place.
Academia makes us into nomads. This fact is well known and well lamented. Perhaps it would be better if things were different, if one could be an academic and stay close to home. Moving brings with it heartbreak, difficult choices, and a host of unanticipated complexities. As long as things remain this way, however, finding moments of belonging in unfamiliar places will always be a welcome balm for the soul.

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