Sunday, December 18, 2016

Budding romances

New addresses are like budding romances. There is the thrill and excitement of knowing a new city, its many hidden gems and secret nooks. Every day is a surprise, an exploration, a new page of a diary, a brand new chapter of a book. The thrill of discovering a restaurant serving your favorite cuisine. Or a cozy little coffee shop inside a quaint mall with your favorite corner, a little obscure, to sit and read in anonymity. A lesser known road lined with colorful trees. New sights of the changing seasons. Of streets never walked before, and houses never seen before. New smells and things that feel different under the skin. Who knows where this road leads to, and what stories lay in the nooks and corners of these buildings? The sun is the same, but the sunshine seems different, falling on unknown objects and making them glow like new. Like a snow-capped mountain or lavender field that gets you all excited while blasé drivers zoom past without stopping. As I walk back home every day, taking a different road every time, every new house excites me. I see little Christmas lights glowing inside, newly decorated trees, and wonder who lives here, what their stories are. Relationships are the same. They come with the excitement of the unknown, the smell of a new book, the newness of a spring flower. The world is out there for you, waiting to get explored, and discovered. Even the sparkle in the eyes thrills you, because it is new for you. That is how this city feels like right now.

With time, some romances fade, and others turn into love. When the dust of the newness has settled, it leaves behind the comfort of predictability. Knowing all the roads and where they lead to, where they start and where they end. Knowing every little restaurant and every little garden. Knowing exactly where to take the guests. And what roads to avoid during game day. Like living with the same person for 20, 50 years, and waking with them every morning, holding hands and feeling the same love every single day as you take a walk. Romance changes to love, and the excitement of the unknown to the comfort of the known. Because what you created in between is shared history, shared memories. Memories that are unique, like carrying a piece of their DNA in your heart. The city's. The person's. Calling someone and already knowing how they say, "Hello?" on the phone. Or respond when you call out their name in a crowd. On nights that I am working late and all is quiet outside, I can hear the horn of the train with routine predictability. I derive a strange sense of comfort from that sound, just knowing where it is coming from and that it happens every day, although I am sitting miles away from the train and cannot see it.

Because places are not much different from people. You live in them, you live with them. You grow with them, and they grow on you. Familiarity sometimes breeds contempt, and romance dissipates, love evaporates. Until you see things from someone else's eyes, from a new perspective, and perhaps remember what it felt like all those years ago. Because we are creatures of habit, and new places mold us into new habits. Like, I drop by the grocery store every day from work, even if I do not need anything. Because the aisles feel familiar, the people feel familiar. That is the comfort of familiarity. Then sometimes, I take a different bus home, and am surprised by the newness all over again. And thus continues my romance with this city, turning a little bit into love with every passing day.


Monday, December 05, 2016

Teething Troubles

The most horrific thing happened to me this Halloween. While chewing on a piece of Halloween candy flicked from the office kitchen, I bit on a piece of something rock solid. In a split second, I instinctively knew what it was. I was engulfed with a sinking, panicked feeling in my stomach. I'd be less freaked out had I spotted someone staring back at me in the bathroom mirror. I had bitten on a porcelain cap that was guarding one of my upper molars. I had gotten it done in Kolkata last year, amid lying in a pool of blood and tears during a root canal surgery. What is even more horrifying is that I had woken up that same morning in cold sweat after a nightmare where I saw some of my teeth falling off. I could not believe that I was living my nightmare happening for real within a few hours.

I immediately smelled dental cement. Shit! This was not good. I could have swallowed it by mistake and then, they would have to trace my plumbing system to get it out. Worse, I could have choked on it and died in my thirties, even before attaining tenure. Carefully, I spat out the tooth cap, my tongue feeling very raw on the exposed remains of the tooth. I wanted to keel over and throw up.

Last year, I had spent an arm and a leg and a sizable portion of my kidney to get a root canal done from this dentist who claimed that the sophisticated machinery he used meant one would feel no pain. Far from it, I had wept and whimpered, periodically spitting salty mouth wash and coagulated blood. His hands had felt like boxers pummeling fists inside my mouth. I had been sore for days. Even with all this, he had not done a foolproof job. Danger bells had started ringing in my head when I overheard him take a call and brag to someone about an upcoming Dubai trip and plans for buying the new iPhone. I instinctively knew whose wallet would be riddled to pay for it. I have always had a hate-hate relationship with dentists since my milk teeth days.

In a fit of panic, I made a terrible mistake. I somehow managed to put back the cap in its position. I instantly knew it was a mistake because now, I could not eat without fearing that I might swallow it once again. At night, I was afraid to fall sleep lest I swallow it and choke and die in my sleep (I slept on my stomach that night and duct taped my jaw). The next morning, I chewed on another piece of Halloween candy and there, the cap was out again. I was so relieved.

I messaged the Indian dentist on Whatsapp. Rather than sounding apologetic, he admonished me, sounding defensive and telling me how he had taken fresh impressions and gotten me a second cap (yes, this was the second cap that came out, he did such a good job). I wasn't expecting him to miraculously cure me on Whatsapp, but I was not expecting rudeness either. He alluded that the architecture of my teeth must be faulty (blaming the victim, as always). He asked me to find a dentist in the US and ask them to glue it back. As if I did not know that already. I hope that the Dubai trip was worth it. Someday, when dentists in India start getting sued for malpractice, I'll be the one laughing. Perhaps a toothless, gummy laughter by that age, but I'd definitely be having my last laugh.

It's been a nightmare since then. The next few days found me dentist-shopping, and the wide array of options confused me. Some said I need an endodontist, some said an orthodontist, and some, just a dentist. I have never seen a dentist in the US or Germany before (always depended on my Kolkata trips to get my vision and dental issues fixed), don't know how the insurance works here, and the thought of lying in another dentist's room scared the hell out of me. I am suddenly way more troubled at the thought of getting older. I am suddenly repentant for asking grandma more questions and making her talk more on purpose every night after she removed her dentures (and giggling at how funny she sounded). I feel sorry for having thrown grandpa's dentures on the garage roof at the age of five, just for fun. I can sense karma catching up with me big time. Will I ever be able to chew on a mutton bone from my biryani in peace? My Korean dentist friend once told me that most of the patients who visit her do so to fix their dentures since they sometimes come out while kissing with force (why people would be kissing with dentures on is a different story, but who am I to judge anyway?). Would I ever be able to do that without fearing disastrous consequences? Would I be able to fix my tooth without filing for bankruptcy? Would I ever be able to chew on a piece of bone without worrying? Or smile without looking funny? Would I be able to teach three-hour long classes from the next semester without bellowing like a broken harmonium? Or feel less mental about my dental problems? Stay tuned if you have nothing better to do in life and want to know. And if you have secretly suffered from dental problems all your life like I have, let's bond over virtual coffee and share those stories.


Thursday, December 01, 2016

A car(e)free life

Priorities change. Our fears change. We change.

My greatest stress about moving back to the US involved getting a new driver license. When you have been gone from the country for 2 years, you are out of the system. Everything needs to be done afresh, and involves liberal amounts of paperwork and running around.

Multiple Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices in the area told me that I would have to start afresh- clear the knowledge test as well as the driving test. Although I drove quite a bit for 5 years, more than the average person does, knowledge test involved studying, and often memorizing facts that were not directly relevant (e.g., remembering permissible blood alcohol levels for someone who doesn't drink). I was lazy and did not have the mindset to study.

And then, the actual driving test- a chicken and egg problem. You cannot rent a car without a driver license, and if you don't rent a car, you cannot take the driving test. I do not know anyone outside work here, and when I was invited to attend a Sunday bhajan followed by a vegetarian potluck, I was convinced that I am perhaps better off not knowing anyone outside work. Now how would I get a car?

Burdened by these (first) worldly problems, I decided to at least get a state ID first (needs to be done within the first 30 days). I show up with all my documents. The first person at the counter confirms that this will be a state ID and not a driver license. I need to take the driving test in some other location that needs prior appointment. So I wait patiently until my name is called and I walk up to the counter to get a state ID.

"Your driver license expired in 2014. I see that you did not renew it."

A gut feeling inside told me to keep mum and nod, without explaining that I was gone from the country.

"If you pay a fine of such amount, we can renew your license," I could not believe my ears.

Quickly, I paid the fine, furtively looking around and making sure that no one comes from behind and gets me in trouble. With a racing heart, I quickly took the vision test, pledged to donate my organs when I died, smiled for a horrible ID picture, paid all the dues, gave copious amounts of thank yous and sorrys for not renewing on time, and ran out of the DMV office once they issued me a temporary driver license. I did not even stop to use the restroom, lest they change their mind and take away my new license.

Twenty six months into not driving, I got a driver license. Just like that. Without a knowledge test or driving test. Two weeks later, the actual driving license was in my mailbox.

That was part one of the story. Part two is, around the same time, I had an epiphany (with old age, I have many these days) that I did not want to own a car anymore. Not for the time being at least. Yes, this is coming from a person who drove 8,000 miles solo in one month before leaving the US, and suffered from strong separation anxiety when she had to sell her car. I used to itch to drive other people's cars after that. But as of now, I am done with my love for driving. The only three places I know in town that matter (home, work, and the dentist's office) are all connected by bus. Seattle is only a flight away. For other things, there are cabs. This aligns perfectly with my aim to live like a minimalist. A car means additional costs for gas, parking, insurance, and maintenance. Taking the bus makes me walk more, meet more people (I have already made friends), and plan my days better. Restricted mobility also means not being tempted to do unnecessary things, like driving 2 hours to a neighboring city for good biryani. I used to do that all the time. But now, I am happier getting home and reading a book than driving to someplace with no clear aim. And if I am suddenly dying to drive all the way to Southern California or Florida, I can always rent a car.

It's funny how things changed with time. My car was my life, and I could not imagine life without driving. Then, Germany happened, the much needed reset button in my life. By doing the same set of activities, I was engaging the same neural networks in my brain. Now, I was forced to develop newer networks, new skills- learn to take the train, learn a new language, learn to make conversation with the bus driver, and so on. Eventually, I reorganized my life around different hobbies that did not involve driving. Even with a driver license in my hand, I do not care to drive anymore. It's a truly freeing experience.


Monday, November 21, 2016

The lamb shank

A few weeks into my new job took me to my first out-of-town work trip. I was going to stay in a hotel overnight. Being the true researcher than I am, I had looked up a nice place to eat dinner. It had very high ratings, the reviews were stellar, and it was not too far from my hotel. I had even checked the menu beforehand, making sure I knew what I was going to order. I landed all tired, checked in to my hotel, dropped off my bags and headed for dinner.

I ordered the braised lamb shank, skeptical about how tough or tender it would be. I asked the waitress if there will be a bone and she said yes. However, she assured me that separating the meat from the bone will not be an issue. I didn’t quite believe her since I have eaten lamb before, but I went ahead and ordered nevertheless. I didn’t want to create a mess, struggling to use my fork and knife.

And while I was at it, I went ahead and ordered a glass of sangria too. I am not your average alcohol drinker, but I thought that would relax me after a long day. I had spent an entire day at work and then taken the bus for another two hours to get here.

The first sip of sangria sent me spiraling down to Heaven. It instantly relaxed my muscles and made my eyes droopy. I had first tasted sangria earlier this year and loved it. While the cheaper ones were, umm, cheap, the more expensive ones were a gateway to Heaven.

In between, my order of lamb shank arrived, all wonderfully flavorful.

As I put my knife and fork on the meat, ready to cut it, it came out of the bone on its own. It was so well-done that I did not have to struggle with it at all. I spent the next hour or so enjoying the most tender meat I have eaten amid sips of sangria. The meal was very expensive by my standards, and I absolutely knew why.

At some point, the sangria must have hit my head. For I was suddenly engulfed with a sense of guilt. Only a month ago, I was a penurious postdoc. I hardly earned anything. Since I traveled a lot, I traveled on a low budget. I took trains at odd hours like 3 am just to save some money. I made sure that I ate inexpensive food, which was often roadside Turkish food. Although Europe is considered food Heaven, the only time I had eaten at an expensive restaurant was during a Christmas celebration when the department took us out and paid for it. If I was going to be traveling all day, I made sure I was carrying home-cooked food. I ordered the cheapest food, skipping drinks and dessert. I always kept two apples and two bananas in my bag, in case I got very hungry. I realized that I was carrying two bananas in my bag even that day, more out of habit than need. Here I was eating one of the most expensive things on the menu, but still had emergency food in the bag. I even paid a fat tip that day.

The hotel I was staying at was a standard American hotel. It usually means a huge room, a huge television I never watch, a king bed, most of which goes unoccupied, half a dozen pillows never used, half a dozen towels in the bathroom never used, and so on. If you have stayed at one of these standard chain hotels in the US, you will know what I mean. The only noise came from the whirring air conditioning in the room. As I looked out of the window at night, I saw a parking lot, silhouettes of huge cars parked, concrete and cement, and not a soul in sight. This is in complete contrast to the hostels I was staying in even a month ago, sharing my room with travelers all over the globe. I usually had a twin bed and a pillow, and sometimes had to climb ladders to get to my bed. It would be buzzing outside with tourists, local musicians playing live music and what not.

It hit me that day that I will hopefully never have to live in penury again. But that also brought in a feeling of sadness. In the next few weeks, I learnt that money begets money. 

As a postdoc, no one sent me to professional development seminars (that would have helped me find a job sooner), and if I went on my own, I had to pay out of my pocket. As a faculty, not only were they sending me to professional development events, but were also paying for my transportation, food, and hotels (although I can easily afford it now). 

As a postdoc in Europe, I never owned or rented a car, I always took the public transport. Now, if I had to rent a car for work, my university reimburses me. 

I had to buy my own health insurance in Germany. Now, the university pays for my health insurance, although I can afford it. 

I had to buy my monthly bus pass in Germany. Now, the university gives me a free one.

I now have more rights and benefits, although I needed them more as a postdoc. It was a sobering realization, and a sad one too.  The hotel and the expensive food is a nice, kind gesture. But somewhere deep down, beyond this formals wearing faculty lives a poor traveler, happily walking the streets of Europe, eating cheap food, staying in cheap youth hostels, and enjoying live music from streetside performers.


Wednesday, October 05, 2016

On being one's boss

As the train rolled into the station close to two in the morning, almost an hour behind schedule, I pressed my nose to the window pane trying to make out as much of the city as the view would allow. Silhouettes of tall buildings stood as vanguard in the downtown landscape. Traffic lights blinked red and green and occasional cars waited and sped by in otherwise empty streets. Little local stores stood in the darkness dwarfed by larger ones. There wasn't much to make of the city in the dark.

It took another hour to get home, home being a temporary arrangement of sorts. As I debated whether to fully unpack or wait until I moved to a more permanent place in a few weeks or months, the philosophical voice in my head (also known as brain chatter) told me to go ahead and unpack since all homes are temporary anyway. Running alarmingly low on energy, I was glad for all the home-cooked food G had meticulously packed me (even including dessert) as one would do before sending off their kid to college.

After struggling to fall asleep between delirious bouts of tossing in bed, I finally did in the wee hours of dawn. Despite my ambitious plans of showing up at work by 8, that never happened. I slept fitfully for the next few hours, to wake up and realize that I feel even more tired. I walked up to the window and drew the blinds to get my first view of the neighborhood. It looks like any American suburban neighborhood, at least the ones I have seen. Pretty family homes with yards full of potted plants and trees adding color to the fall season. A little grocery store at walking distance which is a huge relief for someone with restricted mobility. Except for the occasional whir of cars stopping and rolling at the Stop sign, there are no sounds at all. No people, no view of the sea and no ships sailing by. I live thousands of miles away from Germany now.

Thus began life in another prison as I molted and liberated myself out of the last one.

Day one at work was very unusual. I never made it to work. Exhaustion induces sleep in a way more potent than drugs or alcohol. I never became fully awake or cognizant of the world until about 4 pm. Just that "poor thing, she is jet lagged and tired" will not take me very far.

Day two: So as not to repeat what happened on day one, I woke up at 5 in the morning and got ready to take the 7 am bus. I was on campus well before 8, only to get stuck because there was no one to let me in. The day was spent mostly doing paperwork. ID cards and visa stuff, setting up computers and emails. It is amazing how much time all this takes. People came by to say hello and introduce themselves. It is pretty much getting married and being a new bride. People show up in hordes to meet you, smile, say how pretty you are (in this case, how fortunate they are to have me) and asking me if I remember them (from the interview). As a new bride/employee, I have to do my homework. I have to know names and faces and be able to match the correct name to face, pretty much like the old aunt of a distant cousin who says, “Remember me?” I have to be familiar with what research they do so that I don’t look lost when they talk. This is also the time when people want to rope you in collaborations since you are new and they want to help you. It is always good to memorize everyone’s CVs.

But here is the strangest thing about being a professor. Suddenly, you don’t have an advisor. No one tells you what to do and you are your own boss. The feeling can sometimes be quite confusing especially since all this while, you are used to looking for validation. Most people respond in two ways. Either they get off the tangent and don’t work as much, or they try to over-compensate and work too hard. Striking the right balance is the key.

It feels like a decade’s worth of training leads up to this final moment of being an independent researcher and faculty member. It’s liberating and scary at the same time. At home, I feel like a little child, cowering and clueless. But when I go to work, I put on my best clothes, my confidence, and show that I am sharp, smart, and bright. It’s a show, a mask I put on until I can figure out how to effortlessly navigate my way around.

I thought that the brightest spot of my day was finding a bus that runs from home to work (not having to drive in America is a rare luxury). It became even brighter when I was issued a card that would let me ride the bus for free. Little joys in life.


Sunday, October 02, 2016

My condition has a name

The thing with Condor Airlines (international, not domestic) is that they ask you money for headphones, have an amazing movie collection of exactly two (a horrible chick flick and an animation movie) unless you pay, and don't even let you choose between chicken or pasta if you are at the rear end of the plane (they just run out of chicken). With the bad food, cheap plastic that would have broken while slicing chicken anyway, and the terribly cramped leg space, I am glad that they don't ask money for using the bathrooms. With 11 hours to kill on my flight from Germany to the USA, I decide to watch the movies with English subtitles and no audio anyway, only to realize that while all that Cameron Diaz and two other women did was wear skimpy clothes and plot to avenge the man who was sleeping with all three of them (such intellectually stimulating stuff!), they played the captions from a WWII movie the entire time. Diaz wades into the ocean in a bikini and someone talks about bombing Berlin and moving in to Poland.

Having said that, there were no major mishaps and I did reach Seattle fine. G was at the airport with the kids. The 3-year old kicked me in excitement, got confused between our names, and called me her name. We struggled to load the two huge bags risking herniated uteri, G rightly asking me if there are bodies hiding in those bags. "No, just kilos of German chocolates to last me the year," I replied. The only reason I got away not paying extra for heavily overweight bags is because I made a sad face and told the kind lady at the airport that I am leaving Germany for good. My German bank (can't say enough good things about them, sarcastically though) decided to give me back my entire savings of two years in 50 euro bills. I am serious. Risking thieves (remember Greece from not too long ago?), random bag checks, or emergency plane evacuations, I had to get very creative about transporting thousands of euro in cash.

Seattle is a brief pit stop before I head to my final destination. I have been missing Germany more than I thought. It feels strange that no one is speaking German anymore, people are not stinking of cigarettes, and restaurants are serving water even without asking. Even more surprisingly, I see Indians walking on the streets for a change. In a funny way, I do feel like an alien (in the USA, they call people like me alien), only from another planet. I got to eat comfort food like idli and biryani at G’s place after months. I am getting a little bit of cold feet right now with this new chapter starting for real this week and have been jet-lagged and up since 2 am every day. I am not sleeping well. Often, I start planning what all I need to pack when I go back from Seattle to Germany. Only that I don’t have to go back to Germany anymore. My brain refuses to acknowledge that I am back in the USA for good. For two years, I shuttled between Seattle and Germany, praying that I make it back, bringing German chocolates and taking back my favorite stuff from Seattle (for example, seaweed from Costco). It does not feel any different this time. Of course I am not schizophrenic and do not live in an alternate reality. So it is easy for me to realize this and quickly switch back to reality. Within a few hours of arriving, I have a cell phone and I am using a credit card and microwave. For two years, I used none of these (I used the credit card only to purchase international flight tickets, daily purchases in Germany happened using cash). It feels like someone has pressed the reset button in my life from 2014 (when I left the USA exactly this month). In a heartfelt conversation with a close friend, I told her although I did everything in my capacity to move back to the USA with a job, I am just not able to calm down or feel like I have really moved back. She told me that I am suffering the sure shot signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The funny thing is, I will have to take a driving test again, both writing and practical. It feels like being in college and having to study for fifth grade. It’s not good enough that I drove extensively for many years before I left the US. It’s amazing how many hoops I have to jump just to settle in before starting the most challenging job of my life. Right now, my brain feels like it has been centrifuged and pulverized. I feel exhaustion way more than excitement. I am mostly navigating in auto-pilot mode, reminding myself to take deep breaths again and again. PTSD, it definitely is.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Connecting and communicating

"Ma'am, I have a doubt. How can I write this in the CV?"

There is language. And then, there is the culture of language. This line written in an email by someone seeking career advice from India opened floodgates of nostalgia. I used to speak the same English many years ago. "I have a doubt" in Indian English equates to "I have a question" in American English. Doubting something is a different thing altogether. I went back to my old documents, looking at the research statement I had written for graduate school in 2005. In my current age and wisdom, that can hardly qualify as a research statement, a page full of lofty ideas and goals of changing the world with no clear focus. If I was in the selection committee reading my essay from 11 years ago, I would have never admitted myself in the program. It's a miracle I made it. 

As I prepare to say goodbye to my host in Berlin, she tells me in a mix of broken English and German that she will miss having me around and will look forward to seeing me again. She was the one who hosted me last year as well, and although this is a pay-money-provide-service relationship (I was staying at her family-run place), she goes out of her way to touch my hand warmly and make me feel at home. I reciprocate, this time in my broken German and English, that her place is the only one I know as home in Berlin. I call her a day later to thank her and let her know I have reached home, and she is delighted. Language is not a barrier between us anymore.

And then, I receive an email from a close friend saying that she has been offered a faculty position at one of the top schools in her field. We have known each other for decades, and I am thrilled. But her words are filled with doubt and anxiety. In her email, she confesses that she is scared as hell and does not know how she will do well. Her self-doubt mirrors mine and her humility and honesty renews my soulful connection with her. That is the exact way I have been feeling as well. I have no idea how to be faculty. To see the same sentiments reflected in a person of high caliber with extensive training from several Ivy League schools only shows me how we are all human, sometimes terrified and vulnerable. I assure her that it will all be fine, that she is already a role model to many (including me) because of her achievements, and she will do great. I tell her that I have decided to frame those damn degrees on the wall facing me in office (as brilliantly suggested by a friend) so that whenever in self-doubt, those degrees will remind me of the immense amount of hard work and motivation it has taken to get to this point. In my friend's insecurities, I feel a renewed connection with her.

And just like that, in three different events with three different people on a random day, language connects my past, present, and future. A young and starry-eyed girl from India whose writing reminds me of who I used to be through our shared cultural nuances of language, a German lady who makes me feel at home in an unknown city despite her broken English and my broken German, and a childhood friend with a stellar career in whom I surprisingly see my insecurities mirrored because of the honest note she writes me.  


Monday, August 29, 2016

24 hours in Berlin

“Sushi on conveyor belts looks the prettiest. Colorfully decked up, as if going to a Halloween party,” I thought, sitting at a Japanese restaurant at the Hauptbahnhoff and eating an early dinner. I have just arrived in Berlin for my visa interview the following day. A little hungry, I wanted to finish off dinner before heading to my hotel. I saw the usual around me, a McDonald’s, Burger King, Turkish kebab place, and a coffee shop. None of them appealed to me. I was craving for something hot and soupy. That is how I found myself at Tokio, devouring a steaming hot bowl of udon noodles with seafood as my mind went in ten different directions.

“Berlin has always been a city of necessities for me,” I further reflected between mouthfuls of body parts of sea animals I did not recognize. I only visit the city when I needed something. Berlin never gave me a chance to woo her.

I sadly reminisced about my life in Germany for the last two years. This trip was like getting closure. I had first planned to visit Berlin in 2010. The trip never happened. I injured my leg on the streets of Sicily, pulled a muscle, and after covering a dozen different places in that first Europe trip, Berlin is the only place I did not visit. I went there for the first time last year, to get a US tourist visa. I had a whole lot of things on my mind then, including why I am visiting the US as a tourist. I did take an extra day and saw some of the usual suspects, but I never saw Berlin extensively. Over the next year, I went to Berlin many times, but every time to catch a train or plane to somewhere else- Budapest, Hamburg, Poland, Croatia. I never stepped outside the very coolly designed Hauptbahnhoff with four different floors of trains and restaurants. My ICE trains always arrived in the basement floor. The U-Bahn and the S-Bahn and the Regional Bahns (different kinds of trains) always left from other floors.

Post-dinner, I had to take the S-train and then a bus to get to my hotel. Déjà vu, I was not only in the same hotel, but also in the same room I stayed last time. I had an 8 am interview the next day, so I tried going to sleep early. I wasn’t even carrying a laptop or camera. I have been practicing living minimally and traveling light these days. Even without the internet distractions, it took me a long time to fall asleep. This never happens, I am usually asleep even before I hit the bed, and wake up much after it is time for me to wake up. But tonight was different. I had a hundred different things on my mind.

I went there armed with everything I had, my passport, every degree and accolade earned since high school, my 80-page long petition, a CV, and of course my knowledge. I was prepared to talk about anything. The future of research. Women in science. NGSS. NCLB. The training process in medical schools. Grant writing. My next five papers in the pipeline. Full form of ERIC. H-index. How tenure works. Why I think I deserve this job. The names of Native American tribes. The future of education globally. And a 5-minute synopsis of the history of the United States. I was going to rock this visa interview.

And the only question they asked me was, "Your tourist visa was in your stolen passport. Did you report it to the police?"

"Of course," I said, taken aback. How else would I get the new passport they were holding?

"Visa approved," they said rather impassively, momentarily throwing me off-guard. I kept standing there, expecting them to ask at least some questions from my HLM class.

"You can go home now," they said, their voice laced with impatience. "Next?"

Seems like my passport thief in Greece was more on their mind than understanding the intellectual mind of a budding faculty member.

And as for going home, of course I'll be going home now. A new home in a new city to start a brand new chapter of my life.

I was inclined to see a little bit of the city, since my train back was not until evening. However, I was carrying all important documents except my passport, and did not want to risk another robbery attempt. I have seen 16 new countries in the last two years, including 10 new ones in 2016 alone. I was kind of done traveling and sightseeing for now. I paid four times more for a new ticket and took an earlier train back home.

People have different favorite memories of a city. Berlin could mean a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, my personal little haven in Berlin will remain that triangle between my hotel, the US consulate, and the nearby metro station. Those are where I have most of my memories of Berlin, of getting visas, walking those streets, taking the bus, drinking coffee, or eating. In a strange way, this is where I got closure. This is where my journey began, and this is where it is ending after fighting a long battle of finding my way back to the US being exactly who I aspired to be.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kon-Maring My Facebook

Of late, Kon-Maring my Facebook feed is the best thing that I have done for myself. As clichéd as this complaint sounds, I was being inundated with life-changing updates from people Facebook has bestowed celebrity status upon, updates I did not care to know about. I tried a couple of approaches of weeding these updates out, but like weeds, they kept growing and coming back, haunting me and showing me how meaningless and devoid of color my life was. Finally, I found my way out of this maze from the public propaganda of private matters.

Why was this important?

Unwanted information on Facebook is of two kinds.

I. Fast poison: News of violence, death, rape, murder, and the millions of opinions surrounding it from people who have no stake in it. Terrorism in Kashmir. Irom Sharmila Chanu’s fasting and the AFSPA. The outrage caused by Trump. Gun violence in the US. Terrorism in Europe. And the millions of discussions surrounding it that at the core level spark nothing more useful than anger, fear, sadness, and apathy.

Newspapers were meant to inform people. Now with Facebook, everyone had a voice, and everyone wanted to talk about what they thought of what they read. Looks like it doesn’t take much to outrage people either. Why is everyone looking for the recent Olympic medalist’s caste? Why are Indians not winning medals at the Olympics to begin with? My response would be why do you care about people looking at castes? Or why are you outraged by India’s Olympic performance when chances are high that you have never trained for one yourself? Why do you have to take every piece of information you read like a pile of shit and fling it around for others to smell on Facebook? Why do you need to engage with everything?

Friendships are put to test under the weight of political stances, armchair activism and people’s inability to respect differing or alternative opinions. In short, these things poison you fast.

II. Slow poison: Things I do not really need to know about. What you ate. What color lipstick you wore. How frequently your baby pooped. How Twinkle Khanna lashed out on Naseeruddin Shah and Karan Johar followed suit. What Shobha De said about India’s performance in the Olympics. Motherhood dare. Black and white challenge. Sari and ghagra challenge. How much shit I can spread around challenge. People engage. People bicker and argue. And people keep stoking the fire.

I was beginning to feel a growing sense of claustrophobia in this virtual space. Earlier this month, I turned 35, and now see more grey hair on my head than I have ever seen before. I am probably past half my time here, and still have so many things to experience. Is this what I am meant to read every morning? The brain-excreta of 900-odd people I had accrued as “friends” at some point? I have the right to shut-out information, just like I have the right to seek-out information. My wall was beginning to look like a battleground, and sometimes, an excreta-ground. Everyone had opinions. No matter how neutral I tried to keep it, everyone wanted to tell me how they disagree. I knew that it was time for me to disengage. My brain has a limited ability to soak up information, and I was done with this he-said-she-said and they-did-they-didn’t spatter of words. I wanted to read things that are more calming, creative, and uplifting.

What I was doing wrong?

I disappeared from Facebook once in a while, but kept coming back as it felt lonely. It’s a lot like dieting to lose weight. If you suddenly give up on food, you will only come back to binge before you know. Then, I started to weed out people. People I did not know. People I have never met. People I am not likely to meet. People I have not spoken in five years or so. But that only took me so far, bringing down the number close to 800.

Then, I started selectively “unfollowing” people whose updates were toxic. I recognized strange patterns in people’s behavior. Some only posted close up images of the makeup they wore. Some only shared news of shooting and violence. Some only spoke in numbers. Published five papers in six months. Ate nine kinds of starters in two hours. Traveling my seventeenth country. Visiting the ninth national park. Giving my eighth talk this year. Wearing my twenty fifth sari. Did ninety pushups at the gym today (hashtag loveyourbody). This quantification of achievements was perhaps coming from a place of lower self-esteem, where one constantly needed to validate one’s awesome life in front of an audience. I am guilty of doing the same at some point too. The yearly memories on Facebook make me cringe when I look back at what I used to write three or four years ago. Looking at others doing it made it more obvious. I unfollowed a 100-odd people who wrote the most toxic posts. However, it still wasn’t making me feel better.

What I did right?

One day, I woke up and knew exactly what I was doing wrong. I finally found the right way of culling through the clutter. Instead of unfollowing people who wrote toxic things and keeping the rest, I decided to do just the opposite. I unfollowed everyone by default, only keeping those whose posts I really cared about, posts that "sparked joy" like Marie Kondo writes in her book. Instead of making this a process of elimination, I made it a process of selection. And that changed everything. I started to unfollow people unapologetically, even my close friends, and soon, more than 90% of the people were gone. But I did not stop at that. I “unliked” most photography pages, food blog websites, and other random local community pages like “Durga Puja in the USA”, “Tulip festival in Seattle” and “Bengalis abroad.” Now, I only get updates from some 50-odd people I really care about, and a handful of other websites such as the HONY, NPR, Brain Pickings, TED, and Upworthy. Individually unfollowing some 750 people was hard, but a little bit of Googling helped. Looks like Facebook has a feature where you can mass unfollow people.

How did that change things?

Now, I don’t have to start my day scrolling through anniversary pictures, birthday cake recipes, silly kid videos, and restaurant and movie check-ins. What I read doesn’t elevate my blood pressure. I don’t have to be a shuttlecock in heated arguments and discussions. Power to you for hiking Peru on your wedding anniversary and taking 4,000 odd pictures, but I don’t have to be forced into looking at them now when I have a paper deadline in two days. It doesn’t mean I do not care for you or do not wish you well. It just means that I choose not to know every little detail going on in your life.

Since we act as mirrors to the society around us, my own posting on Facebook has also gone down. I don’t feel a compelling need to share everything I read that inspires me. I go to bed on time and get my full 7-8 hours of sleep (there is only so much scrolling one can do). I am reading more books. I am watching more interesting videos and TED talks. I am reading more research papers on my areas of interest. I am beginning to think of new research ideas. I am looking for research collaborations in Asia. I have a lot to fill up my time meaningfully and even if I did not, I do not have to be a slave to your colorful and scintillating updates that sometimes borders around narcissistic posts of your travels or your child winning a handwriting competition. I can always follow you back someday or look you up if I feel the need to. But if you cannot keep me engaged in a good way, I do not need to engage in your life’s drama anymore.

Adopting the process of mass-unfollowing changed what I do with my time. Let me know if you have other time-tested creative ideas of disengaging from things that surround you but do not matter. 


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Small Talk

Small talk is probably cultural. Because the content of small talk, although mostly meaningless, varies across cultures. While talking to many in Kolkata, a question I am often asked is, "Ki kheyechish?" What have you eaten? It always baffles me. First, it takes me some time to even remember what I last ate. But then, how does it matter what I ate? Not that you are going to eat it too. How is the knowledge important? I keep forgetting that this is small talk. It has no meaning, no purpose, perhaps other than a cultural basis because food is considered god (Annapurna) and having enough to be able to eat well is a sign of prosperity. The other question is "Kothaye jachhish?" Where are you headed? This also perhaps comes from the imagination of a tighter-knit society where everyone used to watch out for one another. If a woman is venturing out alone, one needs to know where she is headed. I don't think my dad will get asked this question as much though. It still takes me by surprise when someone I barely know asks me this question. Maybe they do not care about the answer. It is just small talk after all.

In this part of the world that is Germany, when we make small talk, we talk about the weather a lot. What a lovely day it is! What a gloomy day it is. The weekend is going to be nice. August and so cold already? When we meet at work first thing in the morning, we talk of the weather. When we meet in the office kitchen to heat up our coffee, we talk about the weather. It could be perhaps because it is so cold for most part of the year that good weather makes news. But then, bad weather also makes news. It is cultural after all. No one talks about the weather with as much gusto in Kolkata. 

Talking about weather, the week started on an extremely cold note. The first day, I went to work shivering. I still did not want to believe it, I thought that it was a figment of my imagination. This is early-August after all, and only last week, I was wearing summery clothes. So I conveniently told myself that I am so cold perhaps because I am PMSing, or the hypothalamus (the temperature regulator) in my brain has blown off a fuse. The tendency to point to the self for everything gone wrong around you is also perhaps cultural. When I boarded the bus on Monday, my teeth chattering despite my jeans and full sleeved shirt, everyone in the bus was giving me strange looks. They were all wearing sweatshirts, jackets, with snug fitting tights and woolen socks. It was reassuring to know that my hypothalamus wasn't malfunctioning after all.

I continued to chatter and shiver to work the next few days. The leaves are still green, and it is nowhere close to fall. How can winter come before fall? Just like at first I did not believe the eminent signs of winter in August and blamed it on PMS, I also didn't believe that my new work visa is still not here. I am officially to start work next week. I have started to get all the group emails from my new workplace that start with "Dear faculty members,..." Wait, am I still a postdoc? Or am I already a faculty? It's probably as confusing as being single for a larger part of your life, and then suddenly one day, not being single anymore. The rational mind knows, but belief takes longer to sink in. But how is waiting for a visa related to not wearing winter clothes? Well, you see, my suitcases are all packed and ready to be shipped. I neatly packed and weighed and labeled them back in May, when it was the peak of summer. I was about to ship my stuff in June, hoping to open them in the US by now. Thank god an inner voice asked me not to ship them so soon. After four days of living and shivering in denial, I finally came home to open those bags and take out my winter clothes today, all neatly folded. Although I am slowly exhausting all my kitchen supplies (rice got over yesterday), I keep telling myself that maybe I could wait a few more days before I start restocking on the grains. Maybe a few more days, and I will not need to buy anything. What a shame it would be to leave things behind. I keep reminding myself to stay calm, keep breathing, and not lose perspective because there are greater troubles than a delayed work start that afflict the world right now. I have a job to be thankful for. I keep telling myself not to lose hope and enjoy my last few [insert time span] in Germany. However, I find it a little hard to stay calm right now. Because just like me, my apartment manager hasn't realized that it is freezing cold already. She hasn't turned on the central heating, making me cocoon inside the only two blankets I have. It's a relief that I have a candle that still has a few hours of life left. As I write this, I am cupping my hands every few minutes and holding them by the flame for some much needed warmth. Because my fingertips are freezing already. I have a feeling that I will have to stock up on candles sooner than rice. 


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ten random observations from Germany

1. Most shops are closed on Saturdays. All shops are closed on Sundays. Most stores are open between 9 am and 8 pm on the weekdays. Imagine, no grocery stores or shopping malls are open on Sundays. 

2. If you forgot your grocery bag, you need to pay to buy plastic bags.

3. I have seen green traffic lights change to orange and then red. Here, there is a one second of orange light before the red light changes back to green.

4. While filling visa forms (written in Deutsche, English, Arabic, and Russian), I had to write my parents' name for the first time in many years. In fact, I even had to write my mother's maiden name.

5. I is enunciated as E. So Ikea is Ee-kay-yah.  

6. J is enunciated as Y. And Y is also written as J. So "year" is written as Jahr (plural, Jahre), and "ya" is written as Ja.

7. The Cs as in cat and not chat are replaced by Ks. Klinik. Oktober. Kaffee with Karan. Kamera. Kanada (not Kannada). Kalkutta. Disko.

8. I haven't seen people hug so much here as a form of greeting. Instead, I have seen colleagues put their hands on my elbow sometimes when they speak. I must say, it startles me a little bit. 

9. Very few people take selfies here. They browse their phones all the time, but they seem to be far less obsessed with themselves.  

10. Long words in every day life. Andreasgaykstrasse. Auslanderangelegenheiten (foreign affairs). Begegnungszentrum (meeting center). Einbahnstrasse (one-way street).


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Te(e)thering onto old memories

I have been in bed for the last 30 minutes, reading, and too lazy to get up and brush my teeth. I know I will at some point. But inertia afflicts me right now, big time. And while I try to build enough momentum to break this inertia, a memory from Nebraska resurfaces. I do not have too many remarkable memories of Nebraska, but this one, for the weirdest of reasons, I remember.

Who is the first person you see in the morning on a daily basis? I am not talking about your reflection in the mirror, but a real person. A partner? Parents? A pet? A colleague perhaps? For me, it used to be the man whose name I never got to know. He had white, back-brushed hair and he used to man the parking garage where I parked my car before heading to work. He used to smile and wave at me religiously as I scanned my parking permit to enter the garage Monday through Friday. And while he smiled his gummy smile, his dentures used to sit in a bowl by the table on the side. Every month, I stopped by to pay for parking, and he put on his dentures before writing me a receipt. Sometimes, he forgot, and those dentures sat there on the table, giggling at me as he wrote my receipt. It used to freak me out. This memory alone is enough to yank me off my bed and make me go brush my teeth.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A post in questions

Whatever you are doing right now, pause for a moment to sit back and think of this question.

“What would you do if the biggest problem plaguing your life right now is taken care of right away?”

The problem could be anything, but had to the biggest one in your life right now. What if you got the job you wanted in the city you wanted as well? What if your ailing child suffering from autism is miraculously cured? What if you found the person after waiting in loneliness for years? What if you got into Harvard Medical School? What if you got pregnant after years of trying? What if after being estranged for years, you and your partner got together? What if all your financial worries are taken care of?

In short, what if that one biggest thing worrying you right now is solved? How would your life look like from tomorrow? Would you go back to living a carefree, cheerful, fearless life just the way you wanted it? Would you start doing the things you promised you would when your worries are taken care of? Or like fluids, would the rest of the worries occupy the empty space in your life now?

I am not asking this question to the readers as much as I am asking it to myself. I wonder if I might temporarily start lacking a purpose, a direction in life if my biggest worry for the moment is taken care of.


Monday, July 18, 2016

Less open borders

I am on a bus from Kraków to Berlin, and my reverie is suddenly interrupted when the bus stops in the middle of the lush green fields. This does not look like a bus station, I tell myself. I look out to see if the road signs are still in Polish or if we are in Germany by now. My line of thoughts is answered as soon as two uniformed policemen get on the bus and start speaking rapidly in Deutsche. "Passport" and "Photo ID" are the only two words I recognize. Quickly, I get both out of my backpack.

Sometime during the trip, this thought did cross my mind. Germany and Poland have open borders, so technically one need not show any documentation. But we live in different times now. This has happened on my way back from Brussels and Amsterdam too. The thing is, this ID checking happens only on the way back to Germany and not while the bus is leaving Germany.

The officers are quick and efficient. It is only when they check my documents that I realize that they are only trying to match my photo with my face. Whether or not I have the paperwork to live in Germany, they probably do not care about. But then, I could be wrong, since almost everyone except me looks German. Both these men are armed, I can clearly see their guns jutting out of their waists. This makes me nervous. They check everyone's photo ID and are gone in less than five minutes.

Later, I ask the coach attendant why the police were here (although I know that it is probably because of the refugee situation) to which, the man shrugs and tells me he understands no English. I am trying to understand social barriers here, but am caught in the web of linguistic barriers. So I keep quiet and go back to my contemplation. Sometime later, the attendant comes back and points me to go to the driver. He probably felt bad that he did not understand my question. So I do, and ask the driver the same question. The driver (whose English is only marginally better) shrugs and tells me that he does not know. I am not entirely convinced. So I ask him what would have happened if I had no photo id on me. Would I be asked to leave the bus? Leave the country? Which country? The driver tells me he has no idea. I am left with a lot of unanswered questions, but I leave him alone.

I am certainly witnessing very interesting times in Germany. The situation was not like this when I had arrived here two years ago. At least during the Amsterdam trip, the cops got on the bus with sniffer dogs to check if anyone was bringing back drugs. This time, I am not sure why they checked everyone's photo ID and why they had guns on them.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Cab and Gab

The older I grow, the more I become like my parents.

Back in Calcutta, whenever we went out as a family and took a cab, my dad would always hop in the front and start chatting with the cab driver, totally ignoring the rest of us. The rest of us would sit back bored and clueless. This was routine. While mom and sister and I loved hanging out with each other, my dad loved hanging out with the driver. We always wondered how come he had so much to talk to with every cab driver he met. With those who migrated from Bihar, he would start talking in Bhojpuri, and the conversation between long lost friends would never end. My mother, usually feeling ignored, would try giving subtle, sarcastic hints about the newly found member of the family. Dad would cleverly ignore all the hints. 

And now, every time I take a cab (which I did a lot during my recent trip to the US since I do not drive anymore), I somehow found myself chatting up with every cab driver. Inconsequential conversations about what they like about their city, how long they have been doing this, why they do what they do, and what interesting things they see on the streets everyday. It's not that we exchange phone numbers and become Facebook friends, the conversation ends every time I get off the cab. Talking doesn't even come to me very naturally. But when you are in a vehicle with a stranger, it only makes sense to talk. The conversations are interesting all the more because these are short-lived, with someone whose life is poles apart compared to mine, someone I am never meeting again. I wonder what my dad would say to that, other than, don't talk to strangers when you are alone. 

If I had a job where I had to take the cab every day, I would write a little book about all my conversations with the cab drivers.