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Saturday, 2 June 2012

Jyvaskyla: Day One - Homesick

I take a quick look round to check the dining room is empty and, against all principles, pile an inch thick stack of sliced ham on my plate. Quickly, another stack follows, cheese this time. Plate full, I glance round to check the coast is still clear,  grab another plate, load it with salad, dash to my table, run back to the breakfast buffet, fill two bowls with fruit salad, add another plate load it with tomato and what I think is pickled cabbage, sprint to the newspapers get the biggest Finnish newpaper I can find and place it on the table carefully  (so that it looks as if its being casually read) to cover most of my hoard. A final furtive scan of the area of operations then a   sprint to the coffee jug, fill a mug, run back to the table,  and I dive headlong into the feast with the plan of stuffing as much as possible down my neck as quickly as possible so that by the time someone comes by the amount left will only look like a reasonable amount of food for a breakfast for one.

"You are very hungry".

I nearly jump out of my seat, startled to see a beautiful Finnish girl standing at the end of the dining room, smiling encouragingly. Because of the arrangement of the doors, she had to have been there the whole time.

"Ah ha!" I say, pointing to the ceiling. In truth, I am unsure why I say "ah ha", its not really part of my usual linguistic repertoire but then pointing at the ceiling is not part of my usual behaviour either. Neither is miming actions with every word uttered but in my next sentence I do it anyway

"Yes. Hungry. Man. Me"  (I pat my stomach)

"Big hike today. Round lake. I am going." (I mime walking with my fingers and point out the window. I am also an inch away from resorting to the British default of shouting-at-the-foreigner-to-make-them-understand). Then I say "Stone Age breakfast".

I've obviously puzzled my breakfast hostess and she looks worried

"Is there something wrong with the food?" she asks, carefully.

In as much as I am here for a linguistic conference, I will  acknowledge there is a rather obvious sub-text to this particular speech act which can be analysed in any of a number of ways, but non-technically, it should be obvious that the hostess is actually beginning to be a little concerned about my sanity or sobriety, or both. While I cant claim the former, I am most definitely the latter, which brings us to the reason for my raid on the breakfast bar in the first place. I am beginning to discover that academic conferences aren't holidays and that at least one group of  impressions of the general public - that boffins fly round the world on these 'jollies', sniffing of the gilded bough, bathing in lillies, feasting of the fattened calf and drinking themselves into stupidity while giving eachother jobs and patting eachother's back and building a massive pension fund while getting paid ludricous amounts of money from the public purse - are, for the most part,  completely untrue. The truth is nearer to the situation, encapsulated by the breakfast anecdote above,  in that a large part of each day when on these events, is spent working out how you are going to be able to keep sufficiently within your budget to allow at least one evening meal in a restaurant, or at least one additional day trip to a place of interest. If your budget doesnt allow that then your stuck in a Holiday Inn or Ramada or something with CNN for company.  The reason for piling the plate is to try to minimize food costs,  as a brief glance round the restaurants downtown shows prices of 32 Euros for a plate of spaghetti bolognese. The imagined train ride to St Petersburg is probably not going to happen.

The bizarre reference to "Stone Age Breakfast" however, remains unexplained. I explained it to the hostess very awkwardly, by telling her that "Continental" breakfasts are more similar to a mesolithic (or even early neolithic) breakfast than the 'traditional' English breakfasts that are soaked in processed carbohydrates and refined sugar. At this point I could tell that the hostess concluded I wasnt dangerously insane, just intensely boring and a little bit odd. But the reference also links to another feature of academic conferences that I encountered early last night, that feature known as The Name Game.

The Name Game can start, as it did last night, with hearing an accent in a hotel bar and watching people's behavior very closely. As I walked through the hotel lobby/bar it was immediately apparent that the person sat at the bar was :

1. British  working class
2. Lecturer at a provincial University slightly below middle ranking
3. On a limited grant

Getting closer, the accent confirmed conclusion #1. If accent isnt particularly your strong point, there are other clues you can use. Firstly, drinking alone tends to be a European phenomema, but it can be narrowed down. Most Europeans, when drinking alone, tend to do it facing outwards from the service point. Thus, Italians, Spanish and French people can be found in cafes and bars drinking alone, but will sit at a table and watch life go by. Only in a few countries do people face the bar, unwilling to be too far away from the source of alcohol. This  can be further refined by a class identification, in that in Britain, this behaviour is mostly a working class behaviour. Middle class British people drinking alone will tend to bring a newspaper or book to a hotel bar and will sit at a table so that they dont have to talk to anyone (with the wierd dichotomy inherent that actually talking to people is exactly what they want to do). Of course, at this stage, the guess as to this persons origins/job was still a guess so further refinement was needed.

Of course, I had the advantage of hearing the accent and recognising it, but if you cant distinguish between accents, there are other indicators you can use. These are related to #2,  which is slightly easier. There are very few reasons why anyone should be in Jyvaskyla (its not an obvious tourist destination) and the fact that there is an academic conference here makes the conclusion that the guy was associated with that conference probable. The question that arises is in what capacity, as he could be a technician, someone providing commercial services or even a coach driver. Here, the clothes give the game away and solidify impressions of both professional status and nationality. The guy was clearly not North American, as American  US academics all tend to look as if they come from New England - preppy is,  I believe,  the word - so polo shirts, slacks and slightly nautical clothing predominates. Canadian academics are a bit more diverse - older Canadian academics all look as if they are on holiday in Florida, while younger Canadians are the most weather appropriately dressed people in the world, leading me to wonder how big their suitcases are, because no matter what the weather is, they just have the right clothes. Most Continental Europeans dress they way they think Canadians dress, so its all day-hiking boots, fleece jackets and dry-quick teeshirts, but, unlike Canadians,  they tend to dress like this whether its snowing or a heat wave. The British, of course, can be identified by the fact they they look uncomfortable in whatever clothes they are wearing. The guy at the bar looked archtypically Britishly uncomfortable, mixing hiking boots with a dress shirt and ironed jeans but he hadnt shaved closely enough to be a coach driver and his phone wasnt visible or used at all during the thirty seconds it took me to approach him, so he wasnt either in a line of commercial business nor a technician.

Finally, the fact that he was on a limited grant could not be divined form appearance but from place. Being in the hotel bar when there's a whole unfamiliar city to explore is a recourse to security. It is a sign that you are being careful, garnering information from friendly bar staff before making any decisions about venturing out into the wider world. Discovering new cities is of course immense fun, but the experience is different on a budget than if you have loads of cash. With loads of cash, you do ask the hotel staff for advice on where to go, then when outside you completely ignore this and  head off into the night. You go to pretty much any restaurant you like the look of, eat what you like, have too much to drink,  and when the bill is much more than you thought it might be, you might determine not to return, but its really no big deal. On a budget, you gather information very, very carefully, sometimes for a couple of days. Then you venture out, with a map, timing your adventure so that the planned meal fills the evening. You head to go  a carefully identified, middle-priced but pleasant restaurant, eat only what you can afford (not what you want), have one drink and lots of water and no coffee and eat slowly. Then the bill comes, and this time, when it is invariably much more than all your planning anticipated, instead of no big deal, your evening is ruined and you go back to the hotel and head for the bar, justifying to yourself the drinks you are going to have on the grounds you need cheering up. This guy was in stage 1 - information gathering stage. His disappointment was to come, but you could tell by the look on his face he knew it was coming.

The relevance of "Stone Age Breakfast" may not immediately be apparent, but it derives from the conversation I subsequently had at the bar with our new friend. Description for that conversation is maybe for another time, but in case that description does not happen, I will just add that Marshall Sahlin's book "Stone Age Economics" was in my mind this morning as the conversation with my new friend drifted toward the ridiculous notions that fortify neo-liberal economics about 'rational economic man' and human nature etc. But I'll finish with a reference to the title "Homesick". Its true - I am slightly homesick - this place looks startlingly similar to Nova Scotia. The same type of forest, houses, road system, weather and even smell. It might be that a return to Canada is impossible in the near future. But from what I've seen so far, Finland would do as a replacement.

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