Saturday, 9 May 2009

Only five hours behind now

I've moved from Chicago, Indiana, to Kalamazoo, Michigan. The train was OK once it got going, though I've knackered my back humping my laptop everywhere. When I booked, many months ago, I discovered that an upgrade to business class was only seven dollars, and I decided that the project could afford this given that the train fare is a fraction of the cost of flights. For my upgrade I was expecting essentially a better seat. I hadn't taken into account the American attitude to these things: it became clear that the extra money was for a dedicated carriage attendant called Marlene, a startlingly energetic lady who told us on embarking that we were all going to have a lot of fun! She gave several of my fellow travellers nicknames. I didn't get one, though she did call over a co-worker and make me repeat various things I'd said -- she just couldn't get over the way I pronounced "turkey and swiss". She seemed like a nice person but I would have paid the seven dollars to be left in peace. Though it was still certainly much better than flying.

On arriving at the conference I immediately encountered a leaflet advertising "Ipodius: Livin' Latina Voce". They record Latin texts for download, including this CD of Latin versions of popular songs. The joke is that they sing Gaudeamus Igitur with Classical pronunciation rather than the medieval pronunciation it was written for! May God have mercy on our souls.

I'm staying in the dorms, because my boss is too, and since he's a semi-retired eminent professor of worldwide reputation and usually impeccable standards I didn't feel I could really demand a hotel. These rooms are famous for one thing: the shared bathrooms. Everyone has an embarrassing Kalamazoo bathroom story, usually involving a nun. They are shared between two rooms, with a door from each, and there is no way of locking the other door when you are in. So it's entirely a lottery whether someone walks in on you in the shower or on the toilet. This amazes me. The long thin layout of the room would easily allow little cubicle doors in front of the toilet and the shower, but no one has thought to do this. So far the only trace I have seen of the person in the adjoining room, nun or not, is a toothbrush in a glass, and I hope it will remain so.

My paper is at 8.30 on the Sunday morning, the night after the famous Kalamazoo disco, where people behave badly with their conference wives, and attractive postgraduates debase themselves with hairy professors. You can buy t-shirts here which say, in six different medieval languages, "What happens in Kalamazoo stays in Kalamazoo". So I'm not expecting a large audience, which I wouldn't normally mind, but given that we're supposed to be publicising the project it does add to the general "waste of my time" feeling.

I feel rather guilty about my consistent inability to enjoy this sort of thing. I'm never any good at conferences, and this is the uber-conference, a sort of conference black hole, with around 4000 participants and 50 to 60 sessions running concurrently throughout the week. It's clear that many people here, mostly Americans I suppose, thrive on wandering around bumping into old academic acquaintances; enjoy the medieval-related japes, like the Arthurian themed M&Ms (the once and future candy); love the huge variety of sessions on offer and earnestly debate whether by leaving the one on Feminine Gaze early they can make the last paper in the Queering Chretien session. People luxuriate in the several halls full of book stands from all the major and minor publishers, while I just walk around feeling increasing repulsion for the idea of adding to this vast morass of careful words. It's not that I don't like my old academic acquaintances, and it's not that I'm not genuinely interested in things medieval. It's just that there's far too much, and all so facile. It seems to me like a sort of conference version of facebook -- a generator of weak humour with all the disadvantages of social interaction, the effort and the awkwardness, without any actual content.


  1. "It's clear that many people here, mostly Americans I suppose, thrive on wandering around bumping into old academic acquaintances ..."

    What you have to remember is that most of the Americans spend the rest of their lives in a sort of intellectual Black Hole: most of them teach at colleges a 4-hour drive from their next closest medievalist. This is a rare chance to feel a sense of community. Like a Trekkie convention ... in so many ways.

  2. I know. I feel like a cad and a hound for not being able to join in. They're mostly such nice people. I'm off now anyway so the guilt trip is over, except that a certain long-haired eccentric is on the same plane, so I'm bound to run into some guilt there. Your contribution to Nigel's session was greatly appreciated...