Field Research

Unlike other academics, this particular English professor does not usually travel for her research. Oh yes, I have travelled to attend conferences or to give talks (let me name the countries: Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico & Hawaii and other parts of the USA, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, all over Canada—and more). But my basic research has not required me to travel. Many of my colleagues work in British literature and travel to England to conduct research. Others are searching in archives here in Canada and abroad. But I do not need to go away to do research. My work is on the literature of my own country, and generally focused on the present or the recent past.

Until now.

You will recall, gentle reader, that I have been researching my mother’s childhood and her experience as a refugee during WWII. She was one of the millions of people who either fled Pomerania and other German territories in the East in advance of the Russian occupation or were forcibly removed from their homes when the territories transitioned to Poland. I have known this story all my life, but only in my middle age and towards the end of my professional academic career (well, I’m not done yet, but I’m getting used to the thought of retirement) have I taken up this story as a research subject. And for the most part I have done what I have always done: I read. I read books, journal articles, and periodicals. I scoured the Internet. I watched movies and documentaries. I pored over maps. I read and read and read some more. But I did not move from my office, my computer, my reading chair, my desk.

Until now.

While on sabbatical in Europe I went to Kępice, the Polish name of the village where my mother was born and where she spent the first eleven years of her life. To her it was Hammermühle, and it was home. I did not know I would be able to visit the place, but then an extraordinary circumstance made it feasible. My friend and colleague (let’s call her Sylvia) happened also to be on sabbatical and in Poland at the same time that I was in Zagreb. We determined that there were three days when our schedules overlapped and that a trip that we had talked about long ago could happen. So we booked it. I flew to Gdansk, met Sylvia at the airport the next morning, and then we travelled by train first to Słupsk (formerly Stolp) and then by a very rickety local train on to Kępice.

At Gdansk Station

At Gdansk Station

On the train

On the train

This train

This train

I cannot say strongly or often enough how grateful I am to my companion on this journey. Her fluent Polish and unwavering graciousness opened many doors for me/us. I don’t speak a word of Polish (well, I know a couple of words now) so without her I would have been wandering around not really knowing what I was looking at and gaining no significant information about the history of families, including my own, in that place when it was part of Germany.

So what did we find? Enough for another essay, which I will write this summer. But the most amazing and heartening discovery was the fact that the local Poles had gone quite a way towards not just acknowledging the history of Germans in Kępice but honouring that history. This monument speaks volumes.

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It was in the “old German cemetery” behind the church, which our landlady had told us about as we ate her excellent food. There was only one restaurant in Kępice; luckily it was a good one. She listened to why we were there (Kępice is hardly a tourist destination) and felt moved to try and help us. The doors began to open with her. But she did not mention this monument. It was erected in 1999 to acknowledge the shared history of Poles and Germans in the village. It is placed at the back of the cemetery in the very centre. The graves themselves are overgrown, and only a few headstones still had discernable inscriptions on them. The most common headstones seemed to have the names and dates, etc. written on ceramic or porcelain plates attached to the stones. These were missing from all of the headstones we could see. But look closely. At the base of the monument are fragments of those plates, now set in another stone. Were they broken deliberately? Were the names and the general presence of Germans deliberately effaced? Perhaps. But the people today have collected whatever fragments remained and have ensured their survival. Traces of the past. Traces of people “aus Hammermühle.”

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How to fall in love with a city

Zagreb has my heart. How did this happen? I was here for three months three years ago, and now, having returned, I do not want to leave. After the glamour and order of Vienna, Zagreb initially felt dingy. There are cracked and broken sidewalks, potholed streets, many closed up shops, graffiti (not the Bansky kind of street art) scrawled on buildings, buildings that seriously need bits of them to be repaired and restored. I hadn’t remembered this aspect of Zagreb. The grey, even shabby side. I had remembered this:

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But after a week I was in love. In love with the streets, the café life, the slow pace of the pedestrian sidewalk waltz, the innate civility of the courtesies and greetings strangers show one another.

How to fall in love with a city:

  1. Rent an apartment. Pretend you live there, and eventually you will begin to refer to the apartment as home and begin to long for one of your own.
  2. Shop at the markets and the local stores. Okay, we do shop at supermarkets, but we shop in our neighbourhood. We smile at the ladies at the cash desk, and we say thank you a lot.
  3. Learn the words for the simple politenesses, the please and thank you but also how to say good morning. Learn how to order your coffee as you like it in Croatian.
  4. Walk it. Our host and new friend Andrea has written a “Walking Manifesto” that beautifully expresses why walking matters. Please read her blog.
  5. Walk in green spaces. Zagreb is remarkably green. There are grand boulevards that include park spaces, such as Zrinivac; there are the Botanical Gardens and other large parks ; there are green spaces above the city; there is a mountain behind the city that you can hike up (we did part of it on the day we went to Medvedgrad from Sestine). Look at the gorgeous flowerbeds that are everywhere, and admire the trees and bushes that dot the streetscape. Right now fruit trees are in blossom. Heavenly.
  6. Eat. Seriously. And also eat seriously. Eat the local food. In season and prepared as it comes, with all the sauces and toppings and side dishes that usually attend particular dishes: fish with potatoes and swiss chard; slow cooked veal in a rich sweet/sour sauce with dumplings; chevapi (spiced ground meat fingers) with raw onions and a sauce that is a cross between fresh cheese and sour cream). Eat street food, especially burek (phyllo pastry stuffed with meat, ricotta-type cheese, potatoes and onions, spinach, or fruits). Drink Croatian wines, Croatian beers, and Croatian brandies. You can’t get them in Canada.
  7. Look up and look to the side. There are many open doors and open gates in this city. There are courtyards and passageways. Follow them. Stick your nose in the spaces that beckon. You will find treasures. Including a local craft beer garden where you can sip your excellent pint on a sunny day.
  8. Drink coffee at cafes and frequently. One of the things that drives me nuts in Vienna is the price of a coffee. Four euros! Ridiculous! In Croatia coffee is just as good and one third of the price. But coffee drinking is not just about the coffee; it’s a way of life here.

Yesterday I also had the great honour of teaching a class to undergraduate students at the University of Zagreb. I felt at home.


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Sabbatical adventures

There is no doubt that the opportunity to spend my sabbatical in Europe also brings with it many tempting distractions. Especially travel. By the time I leave I will have been in seven countries: Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Croatia, Italy and Poland. Hungary and Slovenia are also possibilities. We keep thinking—it’s so close! The trains are so excellent (fast, cheap, comfortable, convenient, frequent—oh, the trains)! Why would we not go there?

So we do.

A couple of weeks ago we went to visit my aunt and uncle in Germany. They live in the village (now incorporated into a town) where my mother’s family landed after “die Flucht” as refugees and about which I have written. They lived on the second floor of this house.


Burgartenweg, Stederdorf, Peine

Burgartenweg, Stederdorf, Peine

I am speaking with the departed. I am recalling their life stories.

Visting my great-grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, all buried in the same gravesite.

Visting my great-grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, all buried in the same gravesite.

Before I leave Europe I am planning to go to the town in Poland that was my mother’s ancestral home: it was then Hammermühle, then part of Pomerania; it is now, post WWII, Kępice in Poland. I consider this trip to be part of my research—my academic research. Because one of the projects I will be working on is another piece about German immigrants who once lived in the East and were expelled, especially people now living in the Kitchener Waterloo area. This is part of an oral history project that my colleagues in the Department of German and Slavic Languages have been engaged in. I have been asked to write a chapter of what will eventually become a book of interviews. I am thrilled to be part of this project, and I am looking forward to getting my head into it.

But right now I am getting ready to move from Vienna to Zagreb, where I will pick up on a life I enjoyed during my last sabbatical three years ago. Remember Lady Professor in the Balkans? This time I will not be teaching, but I will be giving a guest lecture and reuniting with Croatian colleagues.

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European conferences and me

Greetings from the Czech Republic.

You might be thinking that all we have been doing on sabbatical is reading, scribbling and sightseeing, but one major event that we had planned in advance was the 10th Brno Conference in English, American and Canadian Studies. Brno is an easy train ride from Vienna, about two hours away from Prague. This was a large conference, made up of academics who study literature and other media, language teaching, linguistics, and translation studies. The Canadian content, I have to say, was very strong. The conference began with a keynote address by Aritha van Herk (well known writer and professor at the University of Calgary and someone I have met at several other conferences over the years). There were multiple parallel sessions, but Arlequino and I mainly attended sessions on Canadian topics. Both of our papers were well received. Really well received. It was gratifying. When we return to Vienna I will keep working on mine, building it up to be a publishable article. We have also received offers to give talks in Zagreb and also possibly in Vienna and Bratislava.

Arriving at Masaryk University

Arriving at Masaryk University

One of things that I love about these Euro conferences is meeting people with similar interests but who work in very different academic environments. The delegates were from all over central Europe: Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech, Germany, Belgium, Croatia, Bosnia, Poland, Serbia, Bulgaria, Austria…There were also other Canadians and Americans in attendance. BUT, most of those people were working at central European universities. There were also people from Australia and New Zealand who wound up teaching in central European universities. Which made us wonder: why are we not teaching Canadian literary and theatre studies in a nice university such as the University of Masaryk in the Czech Republic? We missed that memo: you too could live in a nice European city and have a very nice life.

Chairing a session

Chairing a session

Delivering my paper, titled "Stories of the Road Allowance People as Multimodal Text"

Delivering my paper, titled “Stories of the Road Allowance People as Multimodal Text”

Sharing stories with a Canadian postdoc who is at the University of Vienna

Sharing stories with a Canadian postdoc who is at the University of Vienna

We met people who had lived and worked in Europe for 40 years. We met a guy who was a former journalist in Chicago who ended up teaching somewhere in Poland. There was a guy on my panel from Australia now teaching in Germany. There was another guy from New Zealand who teaches in Bratislava. There were a couple of Turkish (?) muslim women who were teaching—somewhere. Talk about diversity. And richness of experience. One lasting impression was the enthusiasm with which people attended and engaged in this conference. Sessions were full. Discussion was energetic. There was a real commitment to sharing knowledge and exchanging teaching and research experiences. These conferences are hubs that academics look forward to attending, partly to see friends again, of course. Our conferences in Canada are like that too, but we have far more opportunities to gather than expat academics here do.

And the conference dinner? FANTASTIC! Lots of gorgeous food (served buffet style) and the waiters kept coming around with trays of beer. Czech beer, as you may know, is famously good.

New friends

New friends

Best love.

Best love.

Post conference we got on another train and headed for Prague, where we are spending a couple of days as tourists. On the agenda: beer, art, theatre, dumplings. Watch for more photos soon.



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Sabbatical project number 2

Research and writing is only part of what Lady English professor wants to accomplish on her sabbatical. I also want to learn Spanish. I have tried several times before to learn this lovely language: I have taken continuing education courses and even hired a private tutor. I have travelled to countries where Spanish is the lingua franca and I have tried to increase my knowledge of it through (albeit brief) immersion. But truth be told, I still only have menu and basic tourist Spanish (Donde esta el bano por favor?). So I bought the Rosetta Stone program and have committed to doing lessons throughout the time we are here in Europe. Incidentally, Arlequino is embarking upon the equivalent program in German, so hopefully by the end of our sabbaticals we’ll both be more multi-lingual.

I suppose my language colleagues will be disappointed in me. Rosetta Stone? The software for business people and diplomats? The disembodied voice of recording and static pictures of people doing things? Language learning is best undertaken in classrooms, with other people and with the teacher as guide and mentor, and with contextual knowledge and lots of practice. I agree. But here we have another resource and right now that’s what I’m using. In an apartment in Vienna. On my own.

Rosetta Stone’s approach is about forming sentences straight away. No rote learning, no repeated verbs conjugations, no lists of numbers or days of the week. Their approach is to get you to describe what is going on in the picture. It’s a challenge!

One of the great things about sabbatical is the space in my head and the time in my day to embrace new learning. I feel lucky.

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The rhythm of our days

We have found our rhythm. We have approached sabbatical as writers approach their work: set a time of day and number of hours for working and then do something else for the rest of the day. Mornings are our best time for thinking and writing, so we get up early (which is no problem since the nearby church bells wake us up at 7:00 a.m.), fiddle about with correspondence, social media, and games. Shower. Eat breakfast. Begin.

Arlequino is reading plays written by Canadian soldiers in WWI for his next paper and also writing an external examiner’s report for an Australian PhD thesis. I am reading for and outlining a conference paper that I will give at the University of Brno, in the Czech Republic, at the beginning of February. The paper is going to be about Stories of the Road Allowance People, a well-known work of Metis literature. I am going to talk about what other critics have not really commented on: the fact that the text is multimodal (i.e. it is composed of words and also visual images—paintings—and music and voice—it comes packaged with a CD). I am thinking about how so much of indigenous literature is actually multimodal and how literary critics need to develop analytical approaches that can address their generic and formal complexities. We literary scholars do tend to be word-focused. I’m trying to extend my critical and theoretical apparatus beyond the word. I have done some of this thinking before—a paper on how an author uses photographs in her memoir of residential school experience, for example. I have done some work on personal web pages. One of my recent publications is on a graphic autobiography. This is my next step.

We are both going to the same conference, so next week is writing week for both of us. We have switched modes from being excited tourists to being professors on sabbatical in a lovely European city.

More church bells sound at noon. I have to explain. As is the case with many churches, the bells sound out the hour and the quarter hours. But at 7:00 a.m. and again at noon they go crazy and for what seem like several minutes. I suppose this is all about marking the time of day when it is a) time to get up and go to work; b) time to break for lunch; and c) time to go to church. One doesn’t need a watch here to know what time it is. That said, we have noticed a plethora of watch stores in this city. Odd.

In the afternoons we go on an outing somewhere. A museum. A park. A market. I will write about some of those visits in upcoming blog posts, but for now let me just give you a few photos.

This is what I brought with me for work. Shipped a box of books.



This is my working corner of the flat. Arlequino gets the desk; I’m fine with a couch, a table, a laptop.


And this is out and about in Vienna.




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Lady English professor is on sabbatical. In Vienna.

Arlequino and I have both been working administrative jobs at our respective universities, and they have exhausted us. Happily, last year we applied for a half sabbatical to be taken at the same time and our sabbatical leaves were granted. Then at some point we realized that we did not have to stay at home while on sabbatical, and suddenly a glorious plan was hatched. Let’s spend four months in Europe!

And here we are.

Vienna is home base for some members of my family, so this is where we begin. We are living in a spacious apartment in the third district, living the way the locals do. We shop every day for wine and bread and other delectables; we cook for ourselves. We spend some time each day at our work, but we also enjoy what a big European city has to offer. Mostly we walk and walk and walk. Vienna is a low-rise city, at least in the older parts. People live in apartments above stores and offices, and most buildings are only four or five stories high. It’s human scale. We can see the sky, feel the sun, and hear the children coming and going from school or kindergarten. In the evenings, the streets are quiet, as this is a residential street. In the centre of the city there are signs outside of bars and restaurants asking patrons to be quiet when they are outside, as there are people sleeping above.

I will post later about the work that I am doing, but for now a few more observations about Vienna.

Fur coats. There are women everywhere wearing fur coats. And I’m not talking “faux.” The aversion to wearing the fur of other animals has not taken here, or at least not by women of a certain age.



Markets. Yes, we shop in supermarkets, but there are also street markets where you can buy just about everything. Fresh fish, cheeses of every variety, sausages, fruits and vegetables, flowers, nuts, pastas, sweets. And sushi. We haven’t tried the pork knuckle yet, but we will.


Wine. The guy at the market who is selling his homemade wine for 2 euros a bottle might like his wine, but I don’t find it drinkable. On the other hand, the 3 euro wine at the supermarket is perfectly acceptable. Somehow I had it in my head that white wine rules in Austria, but the red is also good. Zweigelt. Just sayin’.

Museums! So many museums. More on that later. It’s 9:30 a.m. in Vienna and time to do a few hours of work.

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