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.