Sixteen Days

According to a handy little checklist issued by the international services office at the university, I am right on track to move.  I’ve gotten all the relevant official documents from my funding agency, documents about the funding from the school, and documents from immigration (all in your choice of languages).  I have an official residence permit card that says I’m allowed to stay in the country.  I have a one-way ticket and a place to stay when I get there.  And I’ve gotten in for free to a conference in Jyväskylä that week as well, plus I’ll get to hang out with an American friend passing through town.

But I’m still having mixed feelings about the whole thing.  Not mixed in that part of me thinks it’s a bad idea, because I’ve been wanting this and working toward this for about a year and a half now.  Don’t get me wrong.  Most of me is excited.  I’m excited to have my own apartment for officially the first time (having a part-time flatmate who was full-time obnoxious negated a lot of the awesomeness of living in a real-person apartment).  I’m SUPER excited for the summer markets and being in the land of the most coffee drinking per capita and the city of the most heavenly pastry I have ever eaten in my whole life.  When I think about those things, I feel almost giddy and ready to go right now.  And then other times, I realize I have two weeks and I worry that I’m not ready for it.  I wonder if I’ll ever be really ready for it.  I think part of the mixed feelings come from Imposter Syndrome, and the rest I think comes from fear of the unknown.

Or rather, fear of the known.

ShardI have all of these incredibly vivid memories about my time in London.  I arrived in the afternoon on a Wednesday and I checked into my hostel.  I had a top bunk in a room of six with a couple of Swedish guys and a Russian girl who didn’t talk to me.  I woke up to my alarm the next morning and showered.  I pinned my hair back in a twist and wore a purple floral dress with black tights.  I thought it was a little curious that no one else was awake at 7am, until I realized that I hadn’t changed my clock before setting the alarm and it was actually 2am.  Too excited to sleep and seriously jet lagged in the wrong direction, I sat in the hostel living room drinking instant coffee on a dirty, beaten-down couch and waited for morning.  I watched the sun rise over the Shard and it felt like discovering the New World.

I have flashes of memories of my classmates.  In the beginning, we stuck together.  We had lunch together in the university canteen and met before class for coffees.  We came from all over the world: England, America, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Singapore, Australia, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Scotland.  We chatted about the exchange rates and learned what exactly porridge is.

mulled wineAt Thanksgiving, we gathered at a colleague’s apartment and shared our American holiday traditions.  We all brought a dish (I, as the official Ohioan, of course brought green bean casserole).  Our British friends were fascinated that we put soup in our casseroles and marshmallows in our sweet potatoes, and one well-meaning English friend baked a pumpkin pie with a topcrust.  We drank mulled wine, sang and played and laughed and talked late into the night.

We had a programme Christmas party in a very old pub called the Mayflower.  It was beautiful–rich old wood floors, walls, ceilings–and it was dark and smelled a little musty as all old pubs should.  There was mulled cider bubbling in a large cauldron on the bar downstairs.  We shared music together, everything from Bach arrangements for assorted sextet to contemporary singer-songwriter and traditional Portuguese fado.

In the spring, we sat on the campus green and studied for our exams together.  We complained about our professors and the assignments and the food in the canteen.  We gathered after lectures in the Hobgoblin and the New Cross House to unwind.  Pubs are good places to unwind, to socialize and to network.  I was starstruck when Jamie Ward wanted to talk to me over beers.

Over the summer I spent a lot of time wandering around Southbank, the area of land that juts upward into a bend in the Thames directly across the river from Westminster.  I perused the book seller under Waterloo Bridge.  Often I would take advantage of the free wifi in Royal Festival Hall and buy an overpriced cappuccino served by a snarky barista so I had an excuse to sit in the cafe and work.  And people-watch.  The space is wide and open, so sound echoes in a sort of muted way.  I liked sitting by the window to catch what sun I could and see the people walking by.  When I got hungry I would walk through the vendor stalls on the lower level; on weekends in the summer there would be a food festival with everything from falafel to pierogies to an incredible smoked Spanish chorizo sandwich and sangria.











And then some afternoons, particularly toward the very end of my time in London, I would just get a coffee from Le Pain Quotidien and sit on the benches lining the Thames, just looking out over the river, watching the buses and tourists and thinking about a lot of things.  It was chilly in London so I held my coffee cup tightly and wrapped up in scarves and gloves and of course, my black suede boots with the holes in the heels.  I liked how the leaves would blow along the walkway and collect in piles alongside the benches.  Sunlight filtering through the trees made a dramatic, and dynamic, scene.  Looking out over the river I could see it both as it was and at the same time flashing back to walking along the path after a night at the Globe, amazed at all the different colors of lights reflected in the dark water.  I thought the contrast was particularly poignant.

I remember how I felt when I realised that my Master’s project was not going to be anything like I had planned. Three days before it was due, I hadn’t written most of it and was told that my calculations were all wrong.  I didn’t have time to do it over.  It was a complete failure.  The realization came in waves, each one stronger than the last.  I remember sitting in the lab, utterly in denial, until the security guard kicked me out at ten.  I carried a backpack full of heavy books and another stack of books in my arms the hour’s walk home, but it felt like nothing.  The real weight was metaphysical and felt as though my very sanity had snapped in two.  I remember walking back to my flat in a daze, feeling utterly vanquished.  It was as if all of my worries about feeling inadequate and incompetent had become real.  At the time it felt like it was all over.  I could never be confident in my ideas and abilities again.  And yet, sometimes you get to that breaking point where suddenly you’re pushed past feeling everything at once into feeling nothing at all.  I felt invincible, and numb.  It was a sort of absolutism, really.  There was nothing to be done except to turn in something on Monday morning.  And I would at least have to know that I worked on it during the last few days that I had.  The only other choice was to give up, and that would mean living with my empty thoughts for the next two days.  At least this way I could focus on something outside myself.

So I woke up early on Saturday morning and made a big pot of soup.  It was an odd hodgepodge of bits I found in the fridge: cubed pork chops, broccoli, potatoes, red onions.  It was cold and rainy, and the pot steamed on the stove.  In London when it rains, everything is damp and sticky and cold, and I remember the texture of the rusty soup pot with beads of soup sweat condensing and running down the sides.  I lit some tea lights and put them around my workspace on the kitchen table.  It made the experience feel sacrosanct.  I thought, if it was going to be traumatizing it might as well be a sort of purgatory for my academic sins.

rainI spent the next 48 hours in that kitchen surrounded by stacks of books, eating my way through my pot of soup, making coffee every few hours.  I finished formatting and submitted the paper within 10 minutes of the deadline and immediately emailed my advisor, asking what I should do when I received the inevitable failure.

In a twist ending to a long and twisty story, I didn’t fail.  But that isn’t really the point.  The point is that the experience revealed something to me.  It was a failure in communication and a lesson in admitting when I am struggling. I learned that I need to ask for certain things from my advisor, and that it’s okay to ask for those things.  I do need some support.

So in the end, this is the long story of why I have mixed feelings about moving to Finland.  It’s because when I remember the beauty of a sunrise on the Thames, I also remember feeling completely lost, alone, and responsible for my own professional downfall.  I remember wandering and improvising and living moment to moment, because that’s just what you have to do sometimes, and I’m not sure that I feel ready to do that again.  But then, you never really are ready for something like that. You just have to do it, and then when you’re doing it, you find out who you are and what you’re about. And that’s a worthy enough goal for the moment.

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