Sustainability of positivity – on hoping the bubble won’t burst

Not long after my fantastical conference trip to Canada, I spent a week in Denmark for research and some serious future planning for the translators’ network.

Since returning from my trip to Canada I’ve been on an absolute high. It boosted my perception of my own progress with the thesis, but also made me feel connected again to the field. Working from home can be a lonely place. It’s good to get reassurance that you’re studying something interesting and relevant (or, more importantly, that other people find it interesting and relevant!). Since the trip I’d also had a positive supervision meeting in which the whole thesis structure looked to be taking shape; scarcely imaginable to me nine months ago when I returned from maternity leave.

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The week in Denmark this month was full of meetings – including two interviews, and the translators’ network meeting (which was the primary motivation of the trip) – and a full day’s library visit. With a “whole week” to myself I’d also pencilled it as a solid writing opportunity – I mean, all that time alone, away from the kids, what else could I possibly do? Turns out that was brightly optimistic. A full week is rather shorter when you factor in travel time and looking after yourself (meals, fresh air…). Every day had one thing planned and to my surprise the rest of the time filled up. But still, I felt so positive, to be “doing” research and “being” there in meetings. Doing and being. Not exactly living my regular life with the PhD around edges.

The comedown, of course, is that now I can’t hide from myself and my work under the guise of being busy “doing” research or “being” present. The trips are an amazing privilege – admittedly with bonus fun thrown in – but they create work: writing up my conference paper and finding somewhere to publish (well, tentatively…), interviews to transcribe and their content to analyse and integrate into chapters, notes from reading to add to chapters and more reading to start as a result of that reading, and a reassuringly long to do list following the productive translators’ network meeting. But the action stops and the fear of the blank page before me gets ushered in. Where will I find time and focus again to write? Around the kids, the nursery runs, the household, preschool summer holidays, my eldest starting school in September (wail!), adjusting to my partner’s new pattern of working from home more/away from home less…

The Fear today is prompted too by me receiving my final stipend payment from my studentship. I’m in my writing up phase and there is no money or job on the horizon. I have to make the last few years worth it. The countdown is on to submit a coherent 90,000 word document within a year!

Oh Canada!

This PhD has taken me on some amazing adventures, the likes of which I can’t imagine I would have been doing in a “regular job”. I reported at length on my brilliant whirlwind first ever trip to New York three years ago (was it really that long ago?!). Last week I got to visit Canada for the first time and – oh my – was I not disappointed.

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I was attending the Association for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada annual conference to present a paper on my latest research into Danish literature and culture in the UK. The conference takes place as part of the rather mega Congress of the Humanities, which this year was hosted by Ryerson University in Toronto.

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Beforehand, two separate Canadian friends had told me Toronto is “the New York of Canada”. I wasn’t quite sure what they meant until I got there. But it soon became clear: tall buildings. Hipster coffee joints. Fab foodie hangouts.

I stayed in an apartment relatively near downtown (well, it felt completely downtown to me, but Torontonians have a strange sense of scale about their city: they considered the area a little further out). I flatshared with a fellow PhD student from another UK university – our frugal choice was between shared dorms in a potentially grotty halls of residence (and we’d been burned before by that at a conference that shan’t be named!) and the path untrodden of an unknown apartment found on AirBnB. It turned out to be an excellent decision. The flat was well-furnished and spacious, and overall it was more fun.

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cute little lights on the subway

We could walk more-or-less everywhere. The subway was so-so, much less grimy than the New York subway, but came in handy for slightly longer trips. The streetcars ie. trams were also handy as well as being adorably quirky and retro.

As well as wandering and sightseeing and eating (okay, that admittedly feels like the most of what I did!), the conference itself was very welcoming and interesting. Unlike larger conferences, there were no parallel panel sessions, so everyone from various disciplines attended each panel, meaning there was a good mix of input from different perspectives. My piece about hygge and Britain’s white middle classes was well-received, even by a North American audience which still has to wrap its head around quite how ingrained the British social class system really still is in our society. And it was excellent to meet so many other people in the same niche field who I might not have encountered in Europe. There’s something to be said for funding application justifications which then ring true!

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I think it was the longest I’d ever been away from my children. 5 whole nights, six days, and a whole lost day to jetlag upon my return. While I was there I didn’t fully recover from slight discombobulating jetlag and I ended up waking at around 5.30am every day… not terribly helpful when I naturally struggle to drift off in the first place. I was running on adrenaline all week, in hindsight. We managed one video call between me and the family – unusually for my trips away – but it seemed appropriate as it was a particularly long time apart. I was up at 6am (as was my flatmate/friend/colleague/pal – insert correct nomenclature – so I wasn’t disturbing anyone) and the UK was 5 hours ahead so it seemed as good a use of the time as any! The baby seemed entertained by my face on the screen, but my eldest found it hard: it seemed to upset her, so I think I’m right to usually avoid video calls on my trips away – out of sight, out of mind.

As I already knew from my last North American adventure, me and planes and sleep don’t mix, so I ended up a weepy mess by the end of the return flight and again over lunch when I finally reached home. Then I slept for 13 hours straight and it was awesome.

Finally, despite the length of the stay and the time apart from the kids, I utterly failed to get any solid PhD writing time in. I don’t know how realistic I was being thinking I might find time. The conference was really engaging, and the bits round the edges were well worth it as I’ve no idea if and when I’ll be going to Canada again soon. Back to earth with a bump this week.