Time away and reinventing oneself

Sunday, December 5, 2016

When I was thirteen, my parents and I took a sabbatical to Paris. It was the spring semester of 1983, and my Dad was a computer science professor at the University of Michigan. We were due to stay a little over six months. I was adamantly against the idea.

A semester of eighth grade at an American junior high school in the early 1980s--who could possibly want to miss out on that? As it was, I had hardly any friends. I'd grown apart from most of my friends from elementary school, which ended after eighth grade, and hadn't made many new ones in my first year of junior high. Nevertheless, the prospect of going to France terrified me. For months before our departure in early January, every time my parents started talking about our trip at the dinner table, I always said the same thing: why not just stay in Ann Arbor?  My bitching and moaning continued after our arrival. The first couple of weeks we stayed with friends in Meudon while my parents trudged into Paris every day to meet with real estate agents and look at apartments. I'd brought one book with me, and finished it within ten days. It was called "Successful Investing," and my parents had given it to me for Christmas a few weeks earlier. In those days, I was very interested in the stock market. 

Mom and Dad found an apartment in the fifteenth arrondissment, not too far south from the Montparnasse tower. The first time I saw it, I declared it a dump within thirty seconds of entering the place. I resolved to tell my parents every night, just before going to bed, that I hated Paris. Every day, I made a point of wearing shirts that said either "Ann Arbor" or "The University of Michigan" on them. I attended school at the Ecole Bilangue, a private school located near the Parc Monceau in the sixteenth. The largest contingent of students was from the United States, but together we made up only about twenty percent of the school. There were no French students, but we did have classmates from pretty much all over the world. I distinctly remember one girl, who was from the Soviet Union, explaining to me what the Armenian Socialist Republic was. She was from Yerevan. 

At school we had at least two hours of French a day, and a number of our other classes--including math, art, and physical education, were taught in French. We typically had ninety minutes for lunch, and usually I'd go to a sandwich shop or a cafe with my classmates. They all knew how to order, and taught me handy phrases. At the weekends, we'd meet up sometimes in groups--something I never did with my friends in Ann Arbor. We'd go to O'Kitch--the ersatz McDonalds located on the Champs-Elysees at a time when the American fast-food giant wasn't yet allowed to open a store in France--then check out a movie in the version originale at one of the big cinemas down the street. On one occasion we went roller-skating at La Main Jaune. Some of the kids occasionally threw parties--chaperoned by their parents. My best buddy from those years--a kid named Peter, from Kentucky--showed me how the elevator in the building where one of our friends lived would bounce if you jumped hard enough while going up. We ended up getting trapped in the elevator for about twenty minutes, after which our friend's Dad asked us if we'd been jumping. We of course denied it, then later assumed he'd asked because he'd done the same thing.  

Whereas my weekends in Ann Arbor had usually consisted of watching "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" on television, in Paris I had a lot more freedom. I had a metro pass, and if I was out with friends it was okay if I returned relatively late. Sometimes at the weekend I'd just explore the city by metro. I was fascinated by some of the weirder metro lines, such as the ones which only had two or three stops. I'd ride them from beginning to end. On my way to and from school the metro would rise above the surface in order to cross the Seine, affording us all a view of the Eiffel tower.  

The view from my old ride to school
The sabbatical coincided with my sister's first year of college. Seven years earlier, all five of us--my parents, my brother, my sister and I--had similarly spent a semester in Paris, also in the springtime. This was my first year alone with my parents. 

In Ann Arbor, much of our time was spent in front of the television. In Paris, we also watched TV sometimes, but a lot less of it. My Dad had started playing backgammon at work with his colleagues, and he bought a game for the apartment and taught my Mom and me how to play. We had round-robin tournaments that went for hours, playing for a half-franc a game. At the weekends we'd sometimes rent a car and drive out to other parts of the country, including Normandy (where I'd spend a summer with a French family three years later), Brittany, and the Loire Valley. Over Eastern break we went down to Tunisia for a week. I bought my Mom some flowers on May Day. 

And now I'm on a sabbatical of my own, something I'd frankly been dreaming of ever since I started my academic career in the fall of 1999, when I started an MA. Back then, the idea of going on sabbatical meant a lot of things to me, including the fact that I'd have made it. If you're going on sabbatical, that means you'd managed to somehow clear all of the hurdles: getting into a PhD program, finishing it, finding a tenure-track job, getting tenure, publishing a book, etc. I think it's pretty safe to say that, were it not for my experiences in Paris with my parents, I probably wouldn't be in Moscow right now. 

The Kremlin, from the Patriarch's bridge
But while of that stuff is great, for me the idea of a sabbatical has also always been associated with the idea of self-reinvention. I came back from Paris the same pimply kid I was when I had left, but--even though I didn't realize it until later--I'd changed considerably. My interest in languages, in assuming a slightly different persona when living abroad and no longer speaking English, without question started back in 1983. As did my interest in international affairs--the consequence of reading just about every single article in the International Herald Tribune on a daily basis. As did my interest in fiction, which developed out of reading, along with my parents, the dozens of books that they'd brought along for the trip for themselves. 

It's always sunny in Moscow
And frankly, were it not for those experiences, I doubt I would have ended up in Montreal for college, or in Istanbul teaching English after I finished university. And I probably wouldn't have written a book about people parlaying their experiences living in a multitude of countries into intellectual achievement. Where other people saw the pan-Turkists
--Yusuf Akçura, Ahmet Ağaoğlu, and İsmail Gasprinskii-- primarily in terms of "arguments" or "debates" relating to the rise of nationalism, Muslim cultural reform, or Muslim politics, I saw something different. Having spent most of my adult life shuttling between the US, Turkey, and the former USSR, I felt a certain kinship with their mobility, and the ways that reinvention across borders can change one's perspective. None of that would have happened, I think, without my parents dragging me to Paris when I was thirteen. 

This Turk across empires got his start in Paris
The other day I saw something on a FB friend's timeline about why people shouldn't go to graduate school, and below the post there were a number of comments--mostly from former graduate students--about how useless and irrelevant the whole experience was to them. I can't say I disagree with people when it comes to their own graduate careers, but I think irrelevance is in the eye of the beholder. I've always felt connected, in many different ways, to my work, but I see why others feel otherwise. So many undergraduates are encouraged by their professors to go to graduate school simply due to the fact that these people are good at school. But just being good at school isn't enough to sustain one's interest over the course of the 6-8 years that it typically takes to finish a PhD, let alone the decades that one will presumably end up teaching and writing about a set of topics as a professional academic. I meet so many PhD students, indeed a lot of professors, and after listening to them talk about their work I walk away wondering: Wait, why did you decide to do this again? Because someone you respected, one of your undergraduate professors, encouraged you to go to grad school when you were twenty-one years old? And this is the basis upon which you made your choice of career? No wonder some people end up feeling estranged from what they do.    

From my ride to the archives now
I ride the metro to the archive several times a week. At one point on my way into the center of town, the metro goes up above ground in order to cross the Moscow River. The river is freezing up now--you can see big chunks of ice gathering alongside each bank, with the main current getting thinner and thinner down the middle. When it's snowing hard, falling snow sometimes comes into the car through the ventilation system. Even inside the metro, you can't escape the snow.  

On my way home from the archive
There are lots of superficial ways that my life here is different from the one I lead in Bozeman, Montana. When I first got here a couple of months ago, especially, I felt like I was making a total ass out of myself several times a day, never knowing how to do things the right way. That's lessened somewhat by now, but occasions like that still arise. My Russian is better than my French was back then, but it's still a tiring experience to spend several hours with a friend or a group of acquaintances, speaking non-stop while eating or walking around. Living abroad for an extended period of time--especially in a city where I hadn't spent much time before--is a learning experience on a daily basis. 

But I think that the biggest changes--the real effects of self-reinvention--will probably become easier to see only later, after I'm back in the US. For now, I just feel the pangs associated with growth, but I recognize the sensation as something I've experienced before. 

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library. 


More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

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