“Is it okay?” asks the German waitress who’s just served me sparkling water (1.70 €) instead of tap water. Of course it’s okay! By all means, take my change in Euros while I negotiate my personal existential crisis with regards to the gold standard of higher education.
What am I doing here? Cloistered in an undergraduate student dorm room I’m subletting from a French teenager, drinking instant coffee from a chipped mug advertising Nescafe, picking through a bag of museli for nutrients; I’m grumpy, jet-lagged, and have gotten none of my own work done since I arrived. Skype has replaced Facebook as my most-clicked icon, and I check my email obsessively. After three years of extreme joy living in Vancouver as a vibrant social being, I’m taking to my hermitage with a paradoxical kind of self-indulgent gusto. Everything, and I mean everything, is grounds for the most Harley-esque sentimental tears. I recognize that this is ridiculous.
Why did it happen? Months ago, more than a year ago in fact, when my supervisor offered up the experience of doing research in Germany as something that would aid my studies, it sounded like the ideal adventure. First, Romantic Aesthetics is the backbone of my dissertation. Investigations into formal lowering (or what I’m framing as the poetry of expressive letdown) in Hölderlin and Goethe comprise one half of my chapters. (The other half looks at Keats and Wordsworth). Second, I love Germany and Germanic culture. I even love German, which gets lambasted for not being such a romantic-sounding language as French or Italian. Finally, moving to Germany for six months kick-started a couple of personal goals I’d been thinking about passively for years: obtaining my Austrian citizenship and EU passport.
What does it all mean? To be “on exchange” begs the question, for what? For what have I exchanged one living situation for another? For an education, for an experience, for some privileged form of self-improvement, perhaps. To be exchanged brings to mind transactions, negotiations, and currencies; trades, loans, and valuations of all sorts; currents of people circling the globe like so many over-caffeinated commodities. In which case, perhaps it is not my living situation that has been exchanged but me. Baby Scholar AbroadTM, complete with laptop and moleskin. To act completely self-indulgent, as I’m currently doing, is to evacuate myself of any agency in this situation and blame the trade winds of academia for my having landed here.
Yet, this melancholy state is also a creative one, and it’s reminding me of something important that I’d been forgetting—something that I think remains at the forefront of the European mindset—which is that being uncomfortable keeps you alert. Living in cramped quarters, brushing up against people from all over the Continent and, at least in the University dorms, from all over the world, and trying to communicate across languages and cultures… all these day-to-day challenges disallow complacency. In Vancouver I’m very busy but I’m also very comfortable. Here, I’m getting lost, accidentally buying expensive sparkling water, communicating very poorly, problem-solving, learning, and busy as usual, which seems paradoxically to reinforce my belief that there is always enough time, that patience is more important than expedience, and that fidelity to the work will lead to its completion, so there’s no need to rush.
I’ve been here in Konstanz a week, and I’ll be here for many more.
About: Carmen Faye Mathes is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. Carmen studies Romantic aesthetics and the poetry of expressive let-down in William Wordsworth, Keats, Hölderlin and Goethe. Her dissertation asks how disappointing poetry reflects or responds to principles of aesthetic apprehension in Romantic-era Britain and Germany.
Carmen’s blog, the academic romantic, is a rich resource and features interviews with contemporary Canadian poets.