Lighting out for the territory again...

Friday, May 17, 2019

School got out a couple of weeks ago and I headed out of town as quickly as possible. That's been my m.o. the last couple of years. By May, the snow in Montana is no longer so charming. The joke has worn off, and the fact that it has snowed in May and June  every year that I've been in Montana during these months does nothing to make me want to stick around. The weather is typically blustery and chilly, even when it's not snowing. So I reckoned it was time I light out for the territory, as they say. 

Montana isn't the only place with open roads
And what territory might that be? Why, the Eurasian borderlands, of course. There's research to be undertaken and knowledge to be produced, not to mention a few places to visit along the open road. 

A lot of us were feeling pretty groggy 
by the time spring came around

All in all, it was a long winter. Up until the end of January, the weather was quite nice--lots of snow, which meant lots of cross-country skiing. It was sunny and gorgeous as usual, and the mountains were stunning. But from the end of January until the middle of March, it was just insanely cold. We always get sub-zero (Fahrenheit) days, but this was the first time in almost ten years of living in Bozeman that such days kept coming, time and again. It was often too cold to ski, at least as far as I was concerned. There was a lot of hibernation, a lot of days spent inside whereas ordinarily I probably would have been enjoying life in Montana's outdoors a bit more.  I headed first to Michigan, where I visited the ancestral homeland of Ann Arbor and visited family, and from there set off for Amsterdam. I've probably visited Amsterdam at least 20 times in my life, with most of these trips lasting between 1-3 days. Sure, I'd made the occasional pilgrimage to Holland in the 1990s, but it was mainly when I was a graduate student that I started going there more often--it was usually the easiest place to break up a trip to Moscow or Istanbul. 

For the last few years I've been researching at the International Institute of Social History, which has a great library and archive relating to my current project. It's great, frankly, to have a legitimate research-related reason to stay in Amsterdam, which is easily one of my favorite places in the world. It was a pretty short and busy trip, though--just two days. I arrived on an overnight flight from Detroit at about 8 in the morning on a Thursday, then took the train into town from the airport, found my AirBnB, and then finally rode a bicycle out to the IISH. By the end of the day, I was feeling pretty wiped out. 

Everybody loves the Vondelpark
On Friday, I again rode my bike out to the IISH, then left in the late afternoon and enjoyed a beautiful day on my bike. I ended things on both days with a visit to the Luxembourg Cafe on the Spui, a place I've been going to since the mid-1990s. At the Luxembourg I'm fond of ordering a "kick to the head"--jenever and beer--which I get alongside a dish that was first described to me as "hot balls." It's quite a combination. 

The Luxembourg
 From Amsterdam, I flew off to Moscow on a very groggy Saturday morning. By this time I was feeling the effects of weeks of activity. The end of school had been busy, then I'd made a quick trip down to Omaha to help a friend look for a place to live. In the days after getting back to Bozeman I'd had to do my final grading for the semester, as well as go through--once again--the final proofs for the paperback version of Turks Across Empires, which is supposed to come out this summer. 

Turks Across Empires in paperback:
Great beach reading for summer!
The first few days in Moscow were quite busy as well, getting registered and settled into my apartment. As always, however, it's pretty wonderful to be in Russia. Frankly, I'm a little in awe by it all--at times I still can't really believe the fact that I have a job that pays me to travel the world and research stories that interest me. Back when I first visited Russia in August of 1992, I never would have thought that, in the decades that would follow, I would have so many opportunities to visit, let alone stay for more extended periods of time. In the fall of 1996, when I started studying Russian alongside a Ukrainian lady who lived in my neighborhood in Istanbul, it really never occurred to me that one day I'd be working on the country professionally.

At Montana State I try to encourage my undergraduates to see something of the world--to take a year abroad or else think about traveling or teaching English in another country after they graduate. Most don't do it, but some do--about 15 of my former students have taken jobs after school in places like Istanbul, Moscow, Kosovo, Korea, and even Djibouti. The mountains in Montana might be beautiful, but they also hem people in, I think, psychologically. Bozeman is truly the only place I've ever lived where I've frequently heard people ask why on earth anyone would want to live anywhere else. True, Bozeman is beautiful. But the world is a very big place. 

Walking down Tverskaia
In particular, I have a number of students who seek to go to graduate school immediately after finishing college, or else after taking what they describe as a "year off" (as if the only "on" part of their life was that which takes place inside an American university). But this, too, usually seems like a bad idea to me. 

Obligatory Red Square shot

Maybe my students are just a lot smarter and more self-aware than I was at their age (a definite possibility), but in 
my case I know that I had little to no idea back at that age about my real interests or what I was good at. And frankly, both in graduate school and in professional academia, I've met a lot of people who dove into graduate school not long after they finished college, only to later become burnt out, descend into hackery, or simply discover--many years in--that they have no real idea why they were working on the subject matter to which they had devoted their careers. These are often the people who signed up, right after college, for still more school--usually due to their parents' breathing down their necks to choose a career, or else a random professor encouraging them to follow his/her path--because it seemed like a great idea back when they were in their early 20s. Rather than head immediately (or after a "year off") into grad school, it's maybe not such a bad thing, I think, to forget about school for a while, pursue other interests, and then see where they lead. 

Of course, everybody's different, but in my case I think I was right to light out--and not for the last time--for the territory back in 1992, and accept a job in Turkey that took me far from the place I grew up. The roads that have since developed out from that decision continue to extend in unexpected directions. 


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

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

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