Sobriquet 82.2

Given that A) I am sitting on an airplane heading from the Netherlands to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, B) the in-flight movie does not interest me, C) I have pretty much read all the interesting bits in the magazine I bought in Manchester, D) I am not sleepy enough to doze, and E) I have an electronic device that is approved for use at this particular stage of what will be a nearly nine-hour flight, I have decided to write a blog post to eat up some time and give me the opportunity to get some non-academic writing done.

As I write this, I am returning to the U.S. after a nine day trip to the United Kingdom, where I attended the Paranoia and Pain: Embodied in Psychology, Literature, and Bioscience conference at the University of Liverpool. Paranoia and Pain is the second conference at which I have presented a paper this year and is, in my estimation, the best conference I have attended. Ever.

This is not to say that I have never enjoyed a conference before, but there was something special about this one. Given the conference's focus on topics as generally off-putting and depressing as pain and paranoia, one might be surprised to learn how cheerful an event the gathering actually was, but it was wonderful. My suspicion is that the type of person--if there is, in fact, a "type"--drawn to such themes is often more sensitive and kind than the average person. I have no empirical evidence to support this surmise, of course, but it certainly felt that way.

I arrived in Liverpool by way of Amsterdam and Manchester on Sunday, April 1 to uncharacteristically clear skies over England. The short train ride I took from the Manchester airport to Liverpool's Lime Street Station provided me with a wonderful opportunity to observe some of the English countryside. Upon arrival at the University of Liverpool's satellite campus and conference center, I met another international delegate with whom I quickly decided to explore the city center. Being foreigners, the appeal of sitting in the top deck of a double-decker bus was just too appealing to pass up, so we boarded a bus and headed down to the docks, passing Beatles-related tourist traps and fish-and-chips joints as we took in the sights and sounds of a Liverpudlian Sunday afternoon. It was fun and, after a nice dinner at a place called The Hub, we returned to the dormitory for bed. Since I'd had little more than twenty minutes of sleep in the previous thirty, I conked out pretty quickly, slept all night, and awoke on Monday morning fresh and ready for the conference.

Many of the conferences I have attended in the past have been large, sprawling affairs in which one quickly becomes lost among the throngs of academics milling around, rushing from session to session. The Paranoia and Pain conference, while not tiny, managed to cultivate a distinctly communal atmosphere by scheduling group meals, social events, common lectures, and through a minimal overlap of panels. The result was a warm, inviting milieu in which many participants spent time getting to know one another rather than simply focusing on presenting their own respective papers and existing in the sort of self-imposed solipsism one occasionally encounters at larger, less intimate conferences.

For me, though, the highlight was spending time with a group of like-minded scholars, discussing the things that engage our hearts and minds, at conference panels as well as in pubs and coffee shops.

Initially, I intended to fly home in time for my Friday classes, since I did not want to miss a full week of classes right in the middle of the semester, but when I looked at the calendar, I was delighted to learn that my college would not be holding classes on either Good Friday or Easter Monday, essentially giving me an additional four days to spend in the U.K. before heading home. As a result of this fortuitous timing, I got to stay for the last day of the conference and spend a few days with an old friend living in the Scottish borderlands. Although I hadn't seen her in more than twelve years, we had little difficulty picking up where we left off and I had the pleasure of exploring the southeastern part of Scotland (including Edinburgh) with a local. It was wonderful.

One thing of which I became increasingly conscious of during the week I spent in the U.K. is how liberating it has been, socially and philosophically, for me to be in England. I realize, naturally, that I am enjoying the novelty of things, that a longer period of time would likely bring me to a less starry-eyed optimism and rose-tinged worldview, but some long dormant parts of my personality have reemerged. Now, of course, I must be careful to remember that certain things are almost certainly the result of my being in a particularly unique situation. It is not lost on me, for example, that a good deal of the friendliness I perceive among the English has been the result of my novelty. They hear an American accent and respond with the same curiosity as an American might to a British accent in Cleveland. Such special treatment may well mask realities that I could find less pleasant over a longer period of time. Likewise, I realize that a conference of the sort I outlined earlier is unique and not necessarily representative of England, Europe, or Academia and that, in other situations, the people in whose company I have enjoyed so much time might not have even spoken with me in the first place. Not out of malice, of course, but circumstances often determine social interaction and, realistically, people in their own element, who know a newcomer will not be around for long might not go out of their way to meet someone new.

Still, be this as it may, I do feel there are certain things that this brief trip has brought to the forefront of my consciousness. Many of my values, for instance, are at odds with those espoused by a fairly large number of other Americans, particularly in the political and religious realms. Attitudes that have been met with consternation and, in some cases, outright hostility (I'm thinking specifically of the nasty response my refusal to vote for Barack Obama in the last election drew from some self-described liberal friends who could not respect my distaste for a hopelessly broken two-party system) in New York or Iowa appear to be far more common in England. I'm not claiming people here are somehow more enlightened, but rather, that in some ways I remain more in sync with European value systems that those most prominent in my native country. I'm sure I sound like a hipster in saying so, but it's true. I just feel "better" in some very key, even ineffable ways when in Northern Europe (I restrict myself to this region only because i have limited experience in Eastern Europe and have never visited the southernmost parts of the continent). Having twice lived in Norway, though, I can't say I am especially surprised to find myself feeling this way. It is not lost on me, either, that, with time, I would likely find myself missing the United States or being tired of always being a foreigner or token American, that I would find some cultural trends stifling and prefer those left behind, that the cloudy skies of the U.K. or my beloved Western Norway might very well have much the same emotional impact as those I disparage in upstate New York. All the same, having once lived in Europe and having imbibed certain cultural qualities at a relatively young age, I cannot help but feel a certain refreshment at re-encountering them and an accompanying dread of returning to the States today.

It will be interesting to see how things develop for me as I move forward.

There is still a pretty large part of me that would like to live abroad again, though it is mitigated both by a concern for finding a permanent place to settle and call "home" as well as a very strong desire to remain close to my family and friends. I suppose this is one of the downsides to having had the blessings I have had in life, having both travelled extensively and having a number of cherished relationships with loved ones.

At any rate, I've nearly exhausted whatever lode of material I've been tapping into for this post and will sign off now, before I end up rambling unnecessarily.


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