Friday, December 02, 2005

Are You S.A.D.?

Recently, after I had described another week’s archival and culinary adventures, Věra looked closely at me and inquired whether I had experienced any crisis lately, any feelings of depression or loneliness, or of not knowing what to do next. (She is, after all, a social worker.)
No, I said, not really. Not for more than an hour or so now and then. I have a pretty satisfactory existence here, even if it does lack rabbits and other pettable mammals. My research is interesting, my apartment is comfortable, and I have Czech and American friends around to talk to. If I get fed up with Nezval’s handwriting, I go and read Brouk or some other printed source. My main source of angst is that I haven’t gotten in touch with all of my Czech friends, or seen all of those that I have been in touch with.
Věra looked incredulous. She pointed out that she’s Czech, she has an interesting job, she has family and friends here, and that doesn’t stop her from feeling down in the fall and winter.
I said, well, that’s not unusual. Lots of people experience that. We don’t get enough sunlight in northern lands to keep our brains happy. There’s even a name for this—Seasonal Affective Disorder (thank you Kristen, for reminding me of the full title). I’m not sure why it hits some people more than others, but I am not much prone to it. Instead, I tend to find fall and winter invigorating. When I get depressed, I usually know why, and it’s never because I don’t like the weather. No, I get depressed because someone has died or broken up with me or expects something I haven’t managed to provide, or (akin to that last category) because I have to revise a grant proposal and have no idea what to do with it next.
And this brings me to the topic of The Weird Existence of Researchers overseas.
The lives of PhD students (and professors and others) doing extensive research abroad are rather peculiar. We are (generally) free of teaching responsibilities and other income-generating activities, as typically we have to have received some sort of grant in order to fund our time abroad. At the same time, even though we have usually had to write extensive proposals explaining what we want to work on and where we will find the research materials (whether these are archival documents, interviewees, performances, or what-have-you), it can be surprisingly hard to do the work we came to do.
Kristen, for instance (as her readers will recall), ran into the not-unheard-of problem that her visa and residence documents took forever to come through. While she was able to move into her Moscow apartment pretty much on schedule, it was a good long time before she was in a position to be allowed a library card or even to get a cell phone. I don’t suppose that she was able to get an enormous amount of work done on her dissertation while dealing with this. I’m sure this was a big part of what caused her recent atypical attack of homesickness.
Sometimes materials are not to be found, or are not yet available. Jesse would like to know what has become of some archival recordings that seem to have vanished in the bowels of the archival system. My friend Deanna, too, is not sure where certain documents have gone. Dawn has to wait until at least January for her author’s papers to be processed. And I find that a remarkable number of periodicals I order don’t arrive or (before I get to the point of ordering them) are described as water-damaged and non-circulating.
More often, the difficulties are a little more subtle and intangible. Every library and archive, in every country, has rules and practices that are mystifying or unexpected to the newcomer. If the rules are actually written up (which sometimes they are and sometimes they are not), they are often framed in language that baffles the foreigner. For example, on Dawn’s first visit to the Národní knihovna, she rapidly found out how to order books and journals, so we went to lunch while these were being paged. She merely wanted to photocopy specific articles, so I said that was really easy—after all, it had always been easy for me, in that I handed the volume to the librarian, said I wanted to photocopy it, the librarian gave me my library card back and passed the book to the photocopy people, and I went around and got the book and photocopied from it (this is easier done than described). Of course, Dawn’s periodical proved to be gigantic and not possible to photocopy normally, so the librarian (who was exceptionally busy at the time) gave her a special order form to fill out. We puzzled over this for awhile, because to the extent we could understand it, it seemed to be mainly for things she did not need or want, like slides, or copies of microfilm, or archival photocopying. There didn’t seem to be a category for oversized items. Dawn found the whole thing maddening.
Likewise, Jesse tells me that he goes to a library that has curious policies about CDs. One cannot take them home, but unlike what I do at the University of Pittsburgh music library, you don’t take it and pop it into the CD player yourself, the librarian has to be informed in detail what you want and operates all the controls. This would certainly dampen my interest in listening to CDs at the library (after all, last time I did it I was merely looking for some representative mazurkas), but of course my research doesn’t normally require listening to music.
Several researchers (I will not name them) have noted that contact people who are supposed to be helpful or advisorial do not really perform this function, but merely sign paperwork permitting a loose affiliation with a university or institute. The effect of this ranges from the mildly disconcerting to the seriously troublesome. I did notice that the staff at the Prague Fulbright office took the trouble to warn people who might fall in this category (mainly, it seemed, the more elderly professors). Of course, even if it does not cause problems, it means the visitor lacks access to the insights of local scholars who could be saying “pursue this” or “don’t waste your time with that” or “the best source for so-and-so’s papers is the X archive.”
And, horror of horrors, the entire dissertation might have to be reworked (something I have already heard two people considering doing).
Even though people who go off and spend 6-12 months in a foreign country tend to be somewhat adventurous, this does not make us immune to feelings of loneliness or isolation. I may not be sad or in crisis at the moment, but I know the feeling could hit at any time.

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Blogger Kristen said...

Again: tfoo, tfoo, tfoo!!!

December 03, 2005 9:10 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

Well, so far the charm is working.

December 03, 2005 10:25 PM  

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