Saturday, May 3, 2014

I'll never be a homeowner! But I will do this PhD

This semester I've been teaching a writing class at the university for the second time. I designed the course for our African Studies MA students, and there are a couple of them in there. But there are also people from other programs who want to improve their writing. This year I have an older, more advanced group that includes an oral surgeon (I imagine her running up the street to class from the hospital, straight from surgery each week), a speech therapist, a former geriatric nurse, and a couple economists. Half the class already have PhDs or master degrees in other subjects. I find it flattering that all these interesting, accomplished people have come to my class all semester and bothered writing the the things I ask them to. I try to not think about it too much lest it become intimidating.

Except for one, the class is all non-Swiss. Several of them have been writing recently about what it feels like to be foreign--the feeling that even when you're well-connected in Basel, have a job and friends and things are going well, there are still situations when something feels slightly out of sync on the inside.  They're writing about re-learning who we are in a different culture, the geography of the city and the geography of our own hearts, and one of the younger ones is writing about making choices that seem to be taking her off the normal progression for a woman her age. She's doing what interests her, but seems concerned about where it's taking her. I'm doing stuff that interests me, but I'm also concerned about where it's taking me. Or rather, why it hasn't taken me back to Oregon yet.

I wonder sometimes if so much questioning what we're doing and where we belong is just a normal thing that most people experience, or if it is condensed in the experience of living abroad. I notice that when my friends in the US are thinking about making a change in job or house, "What continent should I live on?" and "What countries should I send applications to?" aren't questions they're generally asking. Those have been my main questions for years, it feels like. We're probably all a little lost, but we're lost in different registers.

When I was visiting Gregg before Christmas we went to a comedy club with a line-up of comedians around our age. Almost all of them had jokes about not feeling like adults, not feeling like their lives are pulled together yet and having no real game plan to accomplish that. One of them said any time he clumsily spills something or knocks something off a table, before it hits the ground he has re-visited every failure of adulthood and it invariably ends with "...and I'll never be a homeowner." :) I could relate, although for me it's set off by things like misplacing jewelry, ruining silk shirts, forgetting to return my library books, or painting my nails. As I was procrastinating this week, searching the internet for the courage to read a stack of my students' essays, I watched a Buzzfeed video called "12 signs being ladylike isn't your forte." One of those signs is that "trying to paint your nails makes you wonder why anyone trusts you with anything," and the woman has painted not just her nail but the entire end of her finger red. 

I think about this sometimes when I go in to teach my writing class and I see my name and my class details blinking on the wall in the main university building, indicating we're up. This announcement in English stands out among the German class announcements. Ahh, it makes me feel so...grown up and far away. Except when I'm slightly underprepared for class. Then it's all: have they seen my nails? Do they know I've hardly written anything lately? What am I doing here? Should I even still live in Switzerland? If I keep this foreign thing up, I'm never going to be a homeowner. 

And that's my long way of telling you that the University of Basel Forschungsfonds committee decided to give me money to finish my PhD, and I will thus remain employed (yay!), and in Basel (hmmm....), until around the middle of next year. 


  1. Ah, Steph!
    We are looking forward to your return to Oregon...should we look for a house in the countryside for you to buy? When I see one empty, I think of you. Trouble is, they all want money... :-)