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.