Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right
–George Harrison, The Beatles
People always ask if you feel different on your birthday. Do you feel older? Wiser? But no one ever does. It takes a while for change to sink in. The last time I wrote here, I had returned from a stressful but ultimately very rewarding data collection trip to Beijing–about a year ago. I think I haven’t written since then because it’s been hard for me to acknowledge the final steps in the process, feeling like if I publish the words, then it’s real.
Last June, I traveled again. Two weeks in my hometown, a little less than a week in Boston for a conference, and an overnight trip to Paris in the end of the month. As always, traveling makes me think a lot.
I’m starting to think there’s something about newness that I need in order to feel okay about a place. I think being foreign is a benefit to me both in that there is always something new and interesting to learn, and always something that will feel different that sparks comparisons and intrigue in me. I can read about it and experience it and ask others how they understand it, and it gives my brain something else to do than to focus on myself and my own anxieties. Foreignness is also a sort of excuse for naivete, and it’s useful, but I’m not always in a mental space to feel okay appearing that way in public.
I’ve realized something about places that I feel like I could live. When I’m in some places, I feel most like myself, and that’s the difference. I don’t know if it’s that I feel more potential, as if I am able to be whoever I want, or that these places bring out the best in me or they just interest me more and I find myself more interesting when I’m interested in things. Places I know I wouldn’t want to live give me subtle feelings of unease, insecurity, and I find myself getting irritated at people, at humanity in general, at situations, and I feel just…. uneasy. It makes me angry at myself for being irritable and misanthropic, and makes me focus on the things I dislike about myself. It took me a long time to realize how much of an impact the place makes on me.
Boston is one of those places I feel like I could live. I feel free to go about my business without judging myself and everyone else and our interactions together, just knowing that we are all people in the world trying to get by. I think I identify more with city people. Life in the city is busier, faster, more colorful, more diverse, messier, grittier, weirder. On a background of splattered color, you don’t notice little flaws as much. It’s also how people feel lonely, I think, in the city, because everyone’s little weirdnesses blend in more. You aren’t noticed or expected to make chit-chat, and I like that.
Although maybe I’m a bit of both, in the end.
I love chatting with strangers on planes, for example. It always seems interesting who might sit next to me, knowing it could be anyone, really, but that we have at least a temporary origin and destination in common. I struck up conversations twice on my way from Boston to Oslo. I usually chat only with other Americans, so maybe that’s the key–it’s some bit of commonality, something that we both understand about the world, and those little connections remind me that my experiences aren’t unique. It’s comforting in a weird way.
There’s something, too, about being tired. I think I never appreciated how miserable I was in high school and college simply because I was tired all the time. It impacts my health, physically and mentally. I feel aches, upset stomach, irritable, negative, and everything seems so difficult and so stressful. It’s amazing how things can snowball from simply being tired.
And burnout is a lot like being tired, but for your brain. I’ve been burned out seemingly for most of the past year and it feels the same–achey, irritable, misanthropic, unmotivated. I don’t sleep well. I bathe in anxiety for a long time and then can’t wake up in the morning.
I did a lot in Boston. The conference was good and I caught up with a lot of friends and colleagues. I don’t think I networked as much as I should have, but it’s hard to know what the atmosphere will be like ahead of time. I had been struggling with feeling envious of colleagues who have had certain parts of the PhD experience go smoother than they have gone for me—not having had to leave the country, not having had to scrounge their own funding or deal with the stress and anxiety that was my last experiment. Or colleagues who have finished their PhDs and acquired sudden and complete amnesia about how stressed they were when they were in that final stage. On the other hand, I also felt guilty and down about people who had more difficult situations, feeling like I would not have been able to deal with that if it were mine. I think both of those feelings are just manifestations of the same feeling of inadequacy stemming from insecurity, in the end.
At the end of June, I had a trip to Paris to tour a lab as a sort of third-round job interview for a postdoc position. The area was filled with cafes and restaurants, bakeries, shops. I had arrived early, so by French dinnertime (okay, French earlybird dinner time…) I was really famished. I passed by a simple classic cafe called Le Pavé and took a table on the terrace, sipping a chilled rosé and reading a book I had bought recently, a historical fiction about the Indian opium trade.
I had forgotten just how much I enjoy French cafes. And prix fixe menus, which are nearly always a great deal. For something like 30 euros, I had three courses and a glass of wine and bread. The first course was marrow bones and toast, one of my favorite dishes and something I make for myself at home when I buy beef shoulder to make bone broth. Simply salted, the big bones are roasted in an oven until the marrow is jelly-like and caramelized, spreadable. I like to add rosemary to mine. It’s a lot like hot butter, or browned butter–the same idea of a spreadable decadence.
My second course was duck with roasted potatoes in a thin gravy with wine, some carrots and a handful of arugula on top, and for dessert I had a crème brûlée, with the perfect crust that you have to put some effort into breaking, the sugar that tastes good and burnt, and the custard was almost like vanilla mixed with lemon curd, floral and not too sweet, perfect for summer.
It was somehow not perfect, and still perfect, in the way that bad coffee is perfect for the situation. It was what it was, and it’s always what it is, I think, if you are in the right place. There’s something about living in the moment, when you feel like this is the right place to be, that makes everything feel perfect, and it doesn’t really matter what the next moment is, if you can keep this one in memory.
And then I was back to the midnight sun and the summer rain.
And a few weeks later, I found out I didn’t get the job.
I submitted my dissertation in the last few days of August. The next week I was invited to interview for a postdoc position in England. Not really knowing anything about how it would go, I accepted. I did fine. It went fine. I took a bus with the help of a motherly middle aged woman who lived nearby to the university, I drank some tea bought at the train station from an older man who called me “Miss” and wished me luck with the job. I got the offer on my way home.
I often don’t know how to feel about things, as if there is a right and a wrong way to feel. I try not to think about what-ifs, because that leads into a web of terrifying worst-case scenarios. Sometimes it feels like flying. When I’m traveling, there’s usually one moment–just a quick stomach-churning moment– when I realize I’m speeding through thin air in a tube that could at any moment malfunction and obliterate everything I know, and suddenly everything feels precarious. You have to force yourself into a sort of denial, a just-world philosophy and believe that if you keep trying to do the right things, it will work out in the end, all the while knowing you have no control over much of it.
So in general, I try to accept what comes my way and just work with it.
The Finnish PhD examination process is unique and intense. It varies slightly by Faculty, by department, and by type–article-based versus monograph. It took me about six months to write the summary, which is around 70 pages, and mine also includes four articles (three published, one manuscript) which were written over the course of 4 years. The whole thing was submitted to the Faculty and sent out to two pre-examiners: one Finnish and one foreign. Within two months, they send back their comments and recommendation to pass or not, and then the Faculty Council gives the official permission to defend and to print. In the meantime, the candidate can make any last minute changes and get the manuscript ready for printing as well as booking an auditorium for the public defense and making plans for the celebration while the advisor makes arrangements for an Opponent who serves as the public examiner. In this sense the Finnish process is unusual–many other countries use a panel, but the Opponent serves as a single expert and the public examination is mainly a formality since by that point the thesis has already been accepted by the Faculty and two outside reviewers. Here, theses never get sent anywhere unless the advisor knows they’ll pass, so there are many stages of checks before anything official happens. From submission to defense, my process took 14 weeks to the day and that was the fastest I could possibly have gotten it done.
That’s not mentioning all the rescheduling, re-working, redesigning, restructuring, and panic-inducing problems (and subsequent tears) that arose. I kept telling people the process is like planning a small wedding, except that you’re doing it alone and you also have to take the most important oral test of your life in place of the ceremony. I decided not to write about all the issues, mainly because I’ve complained enough about them in person, but also because they’re not what I want to remember most.
The examination process itself takes all day. It’s often scheduled at noon in one of the main buildings of the university–mine was in an old building that had neo-romantic decor, busts of famous writers and artists, columns, tile, paintings of important professors and deans of the university–very official-looking. And it was packed! There was an Independence Day event happening at the same time (because I’m the genius who tries to defend the same week as the 100th year of independence, during Christmas party season), so the building was totally full.
In the defense, the candidate is called the Respondentti, and they are accompanied by a Custos, who is a professor representing the Faculty of the candidate. The Custos sits between the Opponent and the Respondentti during the examination as a sort of mediator. The Opponent is given a special copy of the thesis beforehand that is bound with every other page blank in order to take notes. The examination is announced in advance and is open to the public, with the traditional idea that making academic work accessible to everyone (and critiqueable by everyone) makes the work stronger. It’s always fun to see who wanders in out of interest. I had family and colleagues and some friends there, as well as a few unexpected extras. There is a strict dress code for the participants in the defense–all formal black–but the audience can wear street clothes.
The form of the examination follows a script, starting with a welome and announcing of the thesis, and then a 20-minute lecture by the candidate summarizing the thesis for the public. (20 minutes, by the way, is an extremely small amount of time to try to introduce topical background and present 4 years of work!) Then, the Opponent is allowed to address the candidate, and the form of the examination is totally free. Some opponents focus on broad concepts and have a discussion about the field, and others go line-by-line through the thesis asking the candidate to defend each point. Mine was more of the latter. The whole public examination is allowed six hours but is typically finished within two or three, and then our tradition is to have a small cake and bubbly reception right outside the hall immediately afterward. Since it was December, I decided to bring my favorite glögi for a festive touch.
We had several hours before dinner, so my family and I went to the big Christmas market since the hall was right on the Senate Square. We got lucky and the it was cold but clear, with a few small snowflakes–a huge change from the gale force winds and cold rain of the few days beforehand!
Around 17.30, we headed to the dinner venue. The Finnish defense process includes a formal dinner party on the evening of the defense, organized by the candidate to honor the opponent and important professors in the field. It’s called a karonkka, which comes from a Russian term meaning “little coronation.” Traditionally the dress code is white tie and it’s a strictly academic event, but nowadays the style is mainly up to the candidate. I managed to find an event space above the famous cafe and bakery, Ekberg, in the heart of a posh street in the city centre. We got to see the Christmas decorations and lights along the main road as it was a short walk through the centre from the market. I liked the idea of leaning into tradition, so I planned a fairly formal dinner for 16 people, with prosecco to toast, seasonal Finnish food, and some classic jazz in the background. The room was gently lit with warm chandeliers and white candles, with lighted Christmas stars in the windows and a little bit of eucalyptus and small white candles on the table with white napkins and white tablecloth. The room itself had a warm honey-colored wood floor and oil paintings on the walls. I wore a black lace tea-length dress with a high neck and long sleeves made by a local boutique and my great-aunt Stella’s pearls, with a secondhand black blazer that I had taken off after the examination.
After dinner and before dessert, there are speeches. First, the candidate makes a speech to thank the opponent, the custos, and the advisor, and then the other guests in the order of their seating, which is according to their academic achievements. Then, the guests give their own speeches in the order they were mentioned. It sounds stressful, but the speeches are lighthearted and everyone has had several glasses of wine at that point (Finns, as it is said, “do not spit in their drinks”), so nothing too intense is expected anymore! I had written out my speech but didn’t bother to read it, so I’m sure I left some things out, but I hope the feeling was right. My colleagues were so kind and thoughtful and I felt so supported by them, and it was difficult not to melt into a puddle of emotion. By that point I had been shaking with nerves all day. After speeches, we had coffee and dessert, which was the Ekberg special celebration cake made for the Finnish 100 years Independence Day, called Aino. It was made of white chocolate and yogurt mousse on a base of sweet oat cake with blueberry and elderflower. It was beautiful and delicious, a little bite of Finland.
I was happy in the end that I had chosen a traditional sort of celebration. It’s something so few people outside of Finland get to experience, and it was extra special that it was my family’s first trip to Finland. I’m starting to feel okay about it after all the official paperwork has been done and looking back on the memories, allowing myself to enjoy the achievement. I haven’t felt like any of my previous degrees have been worth celebrating all that much since I always knew it had been leading up to a PhD. I didn’t graduate my bachelor’s degree with honors, and I didn’t even get to go to my master’s degree conferment. So this was finally, the one thing I really set out to achieve in my life that came with an official tick in a box and a public acknowledgement. I finally feel like I have something to be proud of.
After dinner, my family and I and some of my colleagues met some friends at Brewdog, a bar down the street, and after that my friend took us to a very classic Finnish karaoke bar just to get another (vastly different) taste of Finnish culture. It’s these things that appear to me as juxtapositions that I find so interesting about the culture here. There’s such an elegant combination of nature and technology, sophistication and rusticness, joy and depression, progressivism and traditionalism baked into the psyche of the culture. The blending appears everywhere in daily life, from berrypicking and rug-washing to innovations in sustainability and mobile app design, from the self-deprecating stereotypes like having a word for sitting at home drinking alone in your underwear (kalsarikännit) to the cognitive power of having a word for the virtue of tenacious grit in the face of hardship (sisu).
I was supposed to start my new job the first week of January, but my visa is inexplicably delayed and I’ve been told just to wait. I have no passport now (it’s at the Embassy ostensibly getting a visa put inside it) and no valid residence permit (expired when I was supposed to have moved to England), so I can’t leave and I can’t work. So I’ve been doing things that I enjoy, knitting, yoga, going to the forest, baking and cooking and (non-thesis!) reading and (non-thesis!) writing. Trying to be a decent housewife and trying to work on personal projects.
I’m also trying to form a new perspective on things. I’ve had this feeling for a long time that it would be great if life phases and projects were self-contained, in that they start when they’re supposed to, I work on them, they end, and then the next thing begins. I hate the feeling of waiting around for something to start, the feeling that I could or should be doing something ahead of time, the feeling of waiting around for other people to make decisions before I can do anything. It’s the feeling of being stuck, trapped, pointless. It’s hard to move forward with things without knowing all the information, not knowing how it will be or if it will work out. But I’m starting to realize that I need to just do things, and not wait for the right time. Nothing ever feels like the right time. If I want it, I just need to do it. I had some conversations with colleagues about this in the context of planning major life decisions, but it’s also true for the everyday things that I put off because of some nonexistent temporal boundary. I’m still meeting with people. Getting my favorite shoes re-soled. I’m learning to play the ukulele. Because if not now, when?
And in realizing that sense of power, I’m trying to think less about lasts. I’ve spent over a year now sort of grieving my life here, feeling like everything is changing and I’m going to be forgotten and just always alone and struggling. Last spring I was sad that I couldn’t finish my degree soon enough to participate in the big conferment celebration, and then I was a bit sad that my defense kept getting pushed back so that my family was only able to see one (very cold) side of Helsinki. Now I’m anxious about what will happen if my visa is denied. It makes me feel helpless and like nothing can ever just work out well. But I think I need to take charge. If I want to go somewhere, I can make it happen. If I want something for my life in the future, I will make it happen. It’s another part of realizing that probably no one feels like they’re completely safe in life and we’re all just trying to get by without knowing what tomorrow brings.
But these thoughts have, if not exactly doing much for my confidence, at least preserved something. I don’t always see a way forward, things still don’t always make sense, but I’m still here and something small can always be done. And that’s a step forward in its own way.
C’est la vie.
It is what it is.
I’m doing the best I can.