Tag Archives: Academic tourism

Zagreb 2.0

It is the middle of a teaching term. My work as Associate Dean is plentiful. Scholarship season is upon us. Graduate student recruitment is upon us. And at the Faculty we are working on new programming, strategic enrolment planning, and student experiential learning opportunities. Blah diddy blah. It is mid-October and busy!

Nevertheless, I took six days out of the term to attend a conference in Europe. Where, you ask? In Zagreb. Why, you ask? Because it was a Canadian studies conference sponsored by the Central European Association for Canadian Studies, and I like to support the study of Canada by scholars working overseas. But mainly I went because the conference was organized by my dear friend and colleague V. When Arlequino and I were in Zagreb while on sabbatical this past spring, I told V that I could not travel all this way for a conference in mid-October. Nevertheless, I did.

And I am SO. VERY. GLAD. I. DID.

V organized this conference almost single-handedly and she did a brilliant job. I am not the only one who applauded her efforts. The topic was “Beyond the 49th Parallel: Canada and the North.” It attracted scholars from various disciplines (History, Literature, Sociology, Languages, Geology, etc.) and from at least 10 different countries, maybe more. There were Canadians there—quite a few of us—and the papers were generally (and much more than usually) rich and provocative.

Here is how you can tell when a conference is good.

People commit to it. There were about a hundred delegates and three keynote speakers. People came out to sessions and speeches and readings. People stayed at the university and participated. Okay, it was raining, so perhaps the wet weather kept people inside, but usually at a conference in a big, interesting city academics will skip out of sessions to do other things. I have been guilty of that myself—many times. But at this conference the sessions were full, even the early morning and late afternoon/early evening ones. Everyone attended the opening ceremonies. Everyone ALSO attended the closing ceremonies and the conference dinner. People were just there, having a good time. Catching up with old friends, making new ones, continuing conversations that had started in sessions.

The keynote speakers did not disappear either. They attended sessions. They chaired sessions. They talked to young scholars. I was proud of my Canadian colleagues on that score. The only other conference where that routinely happens is at the IABA conferences: life writing scholars are really, really nice people who care about mentoring the next generation. I felt that here too.

Presenters stuck to the 20-minute time limit. Wow! That’s a biggie. People hate it when presenters drone on and take up too much time. Here I heard excellent papers, efficiently delivered, often even talked rather than read. And there was PLENTY of time for discussion.

The food was excellent. I remember many years ago when I was part of a team organizing a conference and we noted that people talk about two things after the fact—did people go over time and how good or bad was the food. We academics care about our stomachs, but it also takes energy to spend a whole day listening, concentrating, talking, thinking. Paying attention. We need fuel. Coffee is crucial too, and it was good.

Oh, and I got to have dinner with the Canadian Ambassador to Croatia too.

Attending conferences in beautiful locations is one of the perks of our jobs as professors. But to be able to travel back to one of my favourite places in the world and to talk seriously with colleagues both Canadian and European was a special treat. More projects will follow from this conference. Research networks spreading across the oceans. Plans for collaboration are afoot.

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A reckoning

Today is the last day of my sabbatical and I’m feeling contemplative. This has been the best sabbatical I have ever experienced. Although I might not have done as much work (read: writing) as I had wanted to, I have done some significant personal and intellectual work. These are the accomplishments, successes and resolutions:

  1. I have determined that although early retirement seems tempting, I am not ready to stop working at the university just yet. There are things I still want to accomplish in both my teaching and my administrative roles. A new course on indigenous literatures. Better funding packages for doctoral students. More traction on non-academic career building for all graduate students in Arts. Writing too, but that is always going on in the background.
  1. Strengthening my network of international colleagues has been a true delight. I am now in meaningful and regular contact with colleagues in Croatia and Poland in particular. Facebook helps! But so do other gizmos and software such as smart phones and WhatsApp. We communicate, build relationships, make lasting friendships as well as work collaboratively on projects. I will be going back to Zagreb in October for a conference organized by V. Awesome. I will stay in the apartment we rented and which felt like home. Excellent.
  1. Including a recent holiday trip to Cuba (where I also have connections with the University of Holguin), I have travelled in eight countries in six months. What a rare pleasure.
  1. Living in Europe for four of the six months has deepened my sense of myself as a European person. It is odd that this is happening after spending most of my life in Canada—45 years! And ironic considering my academic specialization is Canadian literature. But it’s true. My soul responds to Europe. I was born either to pick potatoes in Eastern European fields or to sit in cafes talking. Probably both. I walk the streets of villages, towns and cities and I feel at home. I recognize it; it recognizes me. This morning I woke up and realized that I had been dreaming in German—with the same level of proficiency I actually do have, not as a fluent German speaker. But stil, isn’t that odd? IMG_1675
  1. Books can weigh you down. I sent a box of books I intended to read (those autobiography theory and indigenous literary theory books that had been collecting on my “to read” shelf) from Canada to Vienna. They arrived safely. I sent a box of books from Vienna to Zagreb. They never arrived. Lost in the customs house no doubt. Abandoned and now unread by me. I miss them, but it is also strangely freeing not to be followed by books. Although I am not ready to retire, I am ready to start divesting myself of books.IMG_0892
  1. I have had the privilege of spending whole days reading. Most of you reading this blog will understand how truly splendid and rare that is. Right now I am reading yet another book about WWII and Eastern Europe: Walking Since Daybreak by University of Toronto historian and Lativian-Canadian Modris Eksteins. He embeds his own family story (going back to his great-grandmother) within the larger story of the war and in particular what happened to Latvia. His purpose is larger than that. He argues that “The year 1945 stands at the centre of our century and our meaning.” Get that? “our meaning.” That resonates with me. And I am learning so much from Eksteins’s book because he is a historian and he looks back centuries to the pagan tribes that settled in Eastern Europe. Oh, and did you know that Catherine II, Catherine the Great of Russia, was born in Stettin Pomerania! I didn’t. I have also just read the latest Kate Atkinson novel, A God in Ruins, which is partly about her [fictional] protagonist Teddy’s experience as an RAF bomber pilot during the war, involved in the relentless bombing of Germany. On the ground, cities burn and civilians die. Hamburg. Nuremburg. Bremen. Berlin. The two sides of my family—English and German—are defined in relation to that war, with which I am completely obsessed. IMG_1635
  1. My visit to my mother’s home village (now in Poland and about which I have already written) has prompted more writing. I am writing what I think might become a book one day. Child refugees during 1945 and what they pass on to their own children. I am involved in the Oral History project being conducted by the Waterloo Centre for German Studies and have discovered that many German-Canadians in the Waterloo region are, like my mother, originally from the East. Many of them emigrated and settled here in the years after 1945. Many of them share similar stories of flight and living in deportation camps or under Russian occupation before they could finally leave Germany. I would like to talk to their children.
  1. And finally, my marriage has been strengthened by spending an extended period of time with Arlequino. We were never more than a few hours apart for most of the four months we were in Europe. And we loved it.

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Back from the Beach

Actually, we didn’t spend all that much time at the beach; I just like the alliteration!

I have returned from a conference/teaching event at the University of Holguin, Cuba. This was the sixth International seminar on Canadian Studies, but the first one I had been to. Hopefully it will not be the last, as it was a wonderful experience. I love being a cultural ambassador for Canada. I love being a visiting professor. I love that so many people around the world are interested in Canada and in Canadian literature.

It was a mad scramble to get ready for it. Classes ended; marking began. Marking ended; I put my house on the market. Somehow I managed to write two presentations and make two PowerPoints all in a mad dash. It reminded me of being in grad school and power-writing essays over a weekend!

On the teaching day I delivered a course on critical approaches to Métis literatures, outlining some of the current debates in this particular scholarly field. My conference paper the next day was on place-based identities in Mėtis literature where I focused on theorizing the connection between particular geographical locations and Mėtis stories, including life stories. I was a bit nervous because Clément Chartier, the President of the Métis National Council, was there, but apparently I didn’t say anything too silly or completely wrong when we chatted over lunch one day. It was actually great to meet President Chartier. Had to go to Cuba to do so!

Cuba itself has changed a lot since the last time I was there in (I think) 1999. There was more variety of food, more consumer goods to buy, more openness to entrepreneurship and to Cubans owning small businesses. American dollars no longer circulate, but there are two different Cuban pesos: the CUC, which is what we foreigners pay with, and non-convertible Cuban pesos, which the folks use. One CUC is equivalent to about 25 non-convertible pesos, so that tells you something about wages and cost of living. Cubans who work in the tourist industry have access to CUCs and the goods that they can buy, so clearly those are much-desired jobs. But, in true socialist style, tips earned by workers at resorts are pooled so that everyone gets the same. Tourists ride in fancy air-conditioned buses. Ordinary Cubans take cranky old buses, ride in old cars (some as old as the 1940s), or use horses and buggies to get around. Beaches were as pristine and gorgeous as ever, and the people are truly hospitable.

As for the academic context, here are some observations:

  • Cuban students and professors are passionately interested in all things Canadian.
  • They desperately need books and other resources in Canadian Studies.
  • Cuban universities look and feel a lot like universities anywhere: students look like students; professors look like professors.
  • The weather is better than it is here, but some of the buildings are in disrepair.
  • I will never again take air-conditioned university classrooms for granted.
  •  It is possible to show a perfectly adequate PowerPoint presentation projected onto a white piece of cloth.
  • People were so grateful to have Canadians come to teach them, to talk to them, and to mentor them that it truly felt like an honour to be there.

Thank you to Roxanne Rimstead (Universite de Sherbrook) for inviting us!

Here are a few photos: Arlequino has more and maybe he’l send me some 🙂

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