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Saturday, 9 June 2012

Place : Probably still in Finland. Time: Havent got a clue because the stupid sun wont go down and the curtains don’t block the light properly so it could be Saturnalia for all it know.

Sub-title: Bio-ethnographic semiotic mediations in paralinguistic ecologies: Toward a quantum theory of metaphor .
Well the conference is ended and the talk, eventually, went very well.  Which is a relief because sometime around “Its-still- friggin -Light” O’Clock on the ‘evening’ prior to the talk,  things were looking bleak. Not as bleak  as the previous day because some progress was being made, and after observing some talks I had developed some “What to do if your talk is crap” strategies, but there was still a massive hill up which to follow three particularly uninterested cats. 

In the end I didnt use the "What to do if you talk is crap" strategies, but one day, I am sure, I will. I offer them here as help and advice for others with a brief description of said strategies as follows. The first of these strategies was to spend the entire talk talking about everyone else’s work. This was a technique I have witnessed on more than one occasion. You stand up to give your talk but as soon as you’ve introduced yourself, you say something like “And I have to say that when I was preparing this talk I thought I’d talk about semiotics, but before I do, I’d just like to say a few words about what Steve was saying in his inspiring talk because it really got me thinking……” A few essential features of this approach are:
  • 1.       Always say you were going to talk about semiotics. No-one will understand what you say you were going to talk about  (there are no Department of Semiotics anywhere as far as I know yet everyone talks about them. Or it.) but will be impressed that you were going to talk about it.
  • 2.       The person who’s work you then go on to talk about must be much more famous than you.  This is called an ‘affordance’.
The second strategy to use is to invent a new word that sounds a bit like an old word then pretend that the small difference you have identified is significant. This technique mostly  applies in the social sciences for reasons that will be discussed in ‘3’. In fact, I have already successfully employed this technique domestically, albeit not in an attempt to break new research ground, but instead in an attempt to get RHB to look like an idiot in front of a class she is lecturing. I did this  by inventing the word ‘interpretatitive’ and deliberately using the word in conversation with her over several days hoping that she would pick it up and use it in her own conversation. You can employ  this techniquewith any existing word, provided that everyone already understands the initial word and knows how to use it. So, for example, this week I have seen a lecture where great importance was placed by the speaker on why they no longer used the word ‘interaction’ but instead now used the word ‘interactivist’. This change of word also involved a change from verb to adjective and hence meant that the guy who was impassionaetley calling for an end to the tyranny of using the word 'interaction' had to use  sentences that were impossibly long and convoluted. For this guy, there was a big advantage in employing this technique because  what he was saying was ok (something about natural language use), but he just didn’t have enough of it to fill the time he was allocated.So by making your own life much more complicated, and the listener's hearing experience almost unfathomably opaque you can spin out your own  threadbaricity (see I've done it there and should now gone on to talk about threadbaricty at some length).

The third strategy is to borrow a word from science – like ecology – then follow it with a word from the social sciences – like ‘mediation’ then add a word from another social science (but not your own discipline) but modify it with a prefix . Exemplars of this technique actually string together whole sequences of words in this manner and the subtitle of this entry is an example of this. Why this only applies to the social sciences is that science is much better at inventing words than the social sciences, albeit that they themselves steal them all from Greek.

The subtitle is also an example of the final technique which is to add a “Towards….” in your title. I realize this is controversial. I realize that Bakhtin was forever going towards stuff and is generally considered brilliant. But maybe its just a translation mistake ? Maybe Bakhtin wasnt going towards something, maybe he never claimed to be "towards" . Butt for others than Bakhtin, the justification for writing "Towards.." at the start of your paper is  (and I just know this is going to kill some philosophers I know) derived from philosophy and discussions about ‘Becoming…” . I have to confess I know absolutely nothing about these philosophical discussions, nor anything about philosophy, not anything about the discussions of Being, and hardly need to,  but I do know (from a conversation this week) that there’s a kind of philosophy-lite that goes on in the social sciences that is prepared to steal from anywhere in order to get a new idea.  To that end, these philospoher-lite guys justify the use of  “Toward..”  on the grounds that nothing is permanent, nothing is fixed and nothing can be described in terms of either time or space. All is simply Becoming... And because of reflectivity, reflexivity and something else (I am usually asleep by this part of the explanation) the Becomingness of everything also applies to your explanations for stuff as well.   So your own position can only be described as a “towards” and you never get anywhere.

My attitude to all this is that it’s plagiarism. Therefore it’s wrong. Its also unnecessary, there’s plenty of good stuff in the social sciences and no reason to steal  (inaccurately) from other disciplines. Of course, there’s synthesis,  and healthy eclecticism,  and beyond this global relevance of some ideas that are valuable tools, attitudes of everyone aspiring to have thoughts. . But there are limits and when linguistists stop talking about the ways humans communicate and start talking about fishponds, or seriously discussing that we (applied linguists) should expand themselves beyond describing words, gestures, emotions, pauses, gestures, signs etc etc etc and should start describing the 'vibrations between entities such as when you talk to plants'   I worry. There’s  too much already imperfectly understood, described or interpretated and this search for ‘newness’, this  whole paradigm busting approach, sometimes smacks,  a little,  of ‘trying to hard’.

Having said that, I did have a little moment this week myself. I was busy writing my talk, trying to avoid using any of the techniques described above, when I had a thought. Now I should explain that as a rule, I hate thoughts. Like cats they usually arrive at inappropriate moments, go nowhere and you can definitely have too many. For someone who’s serious about academia, they also get in the way of the real business at hand,  which is writing papers, attending conferences and doing research. Nevertheless, a thought I had. Now usually, I don’t share my thoughts on this blog as they are too banal. Usually, I try to imagine what someone else would think and write it down.  But on this occasion to tell the rest of the tale with any satisfaction, the thought I had must be shared.Please note that I am not claiming it is not banal. 

“Hello” the thought said to me, “I've had an idea so stop writing  and listen carefully now.  What if,  instead of asking people ‘What are you doing?’, you ask them ‘What do you think you are doing?’”

“What?” I said to the thought “.. you are making no sense. I’m going back to writing”

“Hang on a mo” said the thought “ just hear me out”.

So I did, and eventually what the thought was saying began to make  sense. Firstly, the thought established that I was in an interpretive discipline. Correct, I agreed.

 “Which” it said, “involves you asking other people all kinds of questions, the aim of which is to find out why they think they are doing what they are doing”. I assented.

 “Well” said the thought, “why don’t you just ask them ?”. 

The thought went on to explain that because everything I did was an interpretation anyway, one person’s perspective is as valuable as any other’s. And  usually, I refer to some framework or something (after I have interviewed people) to try and tease out the person's meaning and usually what I am trying to find out is why they are doing what they are doing. All of this of course requires hours of transcribing long conversations in which the interviewer (me) tries to  use various strategies to uncover, illuminate, elucidate and interpretate what other people are thinking. And this is a completely futile exercise because you know, having read most of the stuff that Bahktin managed to write before smoking all his own work,  that knowing the Other is impossible anyway. Or its totally possible, I cant remember. So why don’t you just cut out a load of work which may or may not be futile, cut out all the interpretatatititve nonsense,   and ask the people you interview what they think they are doing, preferably limiting their answers to twenty five words or less. After all, the thought concluded, why should you do all the work? 

I don’t have many thoughts - as I have mentioned I don’t really like them – but this one I grew quite fond of as the day progressed. I went for a massive hike (about 20Kms round the lake), went for a few beers downtown, went to the hotel, slept about an hour, got up, got a train, a coach,  a plane, a train and a taxi and I was home. When I got home the thought had left, so I claimed the idea that the thought had had as my own. I really hope thoughts cant sue for plagiarism.

I have added photos of the trip at :

Unfortunaltely, since I last used Picassa and Google, they have improved the utility of thier photo sharing stuff. Which means I now cannot uses said photosharing programmes, software, sites etc (like Google+) because I have no idea how to. Hopefully you can see the photos by clicking the link below. Let me know if you cannot

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Jyvaskyla: Day One of Now I dont know how long I have been in Finland: Day Two and Three of conference

I wake up slightly disoriented. I have been following cats all night and they are still out playing somewhere. I gave up four hours ago, fell asleep to some American reality how called "The Biggest Loser" and the talk is no-where near finished because after starting badly, it deteriorates rapidly between minute four and six before finally falling apart somewhere round minute 9. A new strategy is needed if I am to finish the talk, that is obvious, but quite what that strategy might be, I am in two minds. The first mind says "Go Back to the lake and jump in" and the second mind says "No, the lake is really cold". One of the cats comes back with an idea which the third mind (currently trying to decide what to wear) seizes on eagerly. Instead of staying in your room all day writing your talk, go to conference and watch a few talks. Once you have got an idea of the standard of talks, all you have to do is to aim to be no worse than the worst talk you see. It's a great idea, albeit somewhat un-collegiate, so I prepare for the short walk along the lake.

After a shower, I glance in the mirror and all three minds realise I need a shave. The beard is the salt and pepper of old, but not-quite-old-enough-to-be-distinguished, age. Unfortunately I havent yet bought any razors and I didnt bring any with me, so I decide it might look as if I am intense. Then there's the choice of shirt. Due to restrictions on baggage allowance on the airline I flew with I havent brought enough clothes, figuring I could wash them in the hotel, but I have worn all the decent clothes I brought and am now down to a choice of two shirts. Choice #1 is a skintight, long sleeved base layer designed to be worn under other outdoor wear that I brought in case of snow. You can stop laughing now, but when I packed this item, my reasoning was that this is Finland. In Scandanavia. Unfortunately, it is pure white as well. Or rather, it was pure white, but having seen a few seasons, its now a bit mangy with a yellowing around the collar and cuffs from sunblock, a few pulled seams and a large black mark on the left forearm from a fibre tip pen. Choice #2 is a vintage 1987 Liverpool football shirt with a number on the back and a Liverbird badge proudly sitting on the chest. Deciding which one is more appropriate for an academic conference is somewhat of a challenge. Next its the jeans, which have a bit of mud down the inside of the calves but are other wise ok. The hiking boots could do with a quick clean and are a lot muddier than the jeans, but the real problem with the boots is the laces which have finally dissolved after Sunday's hike and are now just frayed and tattered bits of string located sporadically among the eyelets of the upper part of the boot. I put my glasses on to examine myself in the mirror and remember that I cant find my posh glasses so am wearing the ones with the chipped lenses from a cycling accident  and bent frame from where I sat on them. I dont look perfect, but this is strictly a reconnaisance so I guess it doesnt matter. I put on the heavy winter jacket I have broughtin an attempt to reduce the effect of the football shirt and set off.

I shuffle (because of the laces) along the lake side mumbling my 'talk' to myself  amid a gaggle of athletic looking Finnish people who are roller skating, or rollerskiing in the bright sunshine but am grateful that they appear to be keeping a safety cordon around me, presumably so they dont crash into me. Pretty soon I get quite hot, so I hook the coat over one of the straps of my pack. I am nervous because of the talk, but I start to get really freaked out when I begin to feel a burning sensation down the back of first my left leg, then my right leg. The sensation starts just above the knee and gets more intense lower down the leg. At first I try to walk it off, but it just gets worse, so I try altering my gait and changing the shuffle to a little hopping/jogging motion but it keeps getting worse. Presumably for added safety, the Finns extend their safety cordon. I am also slightly late for the talks so I dont want to but reluctantly I stop and give the back of the leg an exploratory, tentative touch. My hand comes away wet and when I realise its not blood, I also realise that the back of my pack is very very wet as well. It appears, after further exploration that my massive 2.5litre  water bottle did not have its top secured correctly and has been leaking, slowly at first then more rapidly, down the back of the leg.

I arrive at conference looking like........well, its hard to say actually. Its also hard making my way to the room where the talks are because I am forced to shuffle sideways along the wall, like crab with a broken leg, in order to hide the massive water stain down the back of each leg. Earlier I said that I didnt believe in metaphor, but circumstances have proven me wrong,because I am not actually a crab, I am just like a crab which is problematic because a human-being being like a crab is a very unnatural looking thing. Incidentally, this volte face on metaphor is the only independent insight I gain from the whole conference.

It is a wet and miserable couple of hours. The speakers are all disappointingly good. I miss coffee because I have to stay in my seat as my jeans are still wet but I give in towards the end of the coffee break because I need to answer nature's call. So I sprint to the bathroom, kind of sideways, hopeful that this doesnt attract attention and sprint back, barging students out of the way, anxious to be back before anyone else returns from coffee and sits in my puddle. It is mine, after all.

Jyvaskyla: Day Five in Finland, Day Two of Conference

I have never shirked impending doom. Run away from it yes (thereby avoiding the creation of conditions which would make 'shirking' a possibility),  or  pretended it is not impending doom also yes (which usually is known as 'putting a brave face on the situation' and usually ends up in utter humiliation expect that you pretend to yourself that its not) but I have never shirked it. The reason for this is not an innate nobility of spirit, it is simply that doom, if it is to impend, likes to have a lot of material to work with and the more material it has, the more it tends to do whatever it is doom does after it has impended. So shirking -  which is trying to minimize the personal effects of doom's post impendingment by involving others - doesnt dilute the effects on you, it tend to make them worse.

Thus, faced with a conference talk in two days time, I have two options as I see it. Either I sit down and write the thing and try to make it as good as possible, because shirking - turning up and delivering something half-assed  - would just result in the type of awkward silence in the ten minutes allowed for questions at the end that is usually broken by someone saying "Thanks for your talk..." then going on to talk about their own work while you stand like a proper 'nana at the front and then everyone applauds the other person. Or (and as contemplate my options this is emerging as the favourite), I throw myself in the beautiful nearby lake and get into sufficient difficulty to require hospital treatment for two days but dont drown enough to actually be dead.

I happen to be by the lake as I am thinking about this, and experimentally, I dip my toe in the water. It is a beautiful lake, surrounded by tall pine trees and athletic Finns rollerskating, running, jogging, hiking, walking their dogs. There's also canoes, kayaks, sailing boats distributed around the lake and even a water polo match going on in a roped off area near the shore, and given how competent, healthy, calm and athletic everyone looks,  I feel assured that rescue would be available quite quickly if I did get into difficulties. In fact, they all look so competent and assured (as befitting a place every survey says is among the best places to live in Europe) I feel that I would actually have to plan my quasi-drowning quite carefully in order not to get rescued too soon. They look as if they would have a plan for such situations and be able to act on it. It's quite different form the random chaos of a British beach. I dip my toe experimentally in the water, just a rehearsal, but as the toe enters the water however, a flaw in my plan emerges. While I have no objection to getting into aquatic difficulties and nearly drowning in order to avoid giving this twenty five minute talk,  I have no intention of making the experience painful. But the water is freezing, cold enough to solidify blood, it seems. Glancing at the polo players, my assessment of Finnish happiness changes from one that involves the view that they have a kind of  existential internal calmness to the view that they must all suffer from a kind of quiet ontological madness which looks like contentment. I dont want to be rescued by people mad enough to ignore this kind of cold, they'd probably make me do the talk anyway.

So its off to the hotel room to write. I'd previously likened my poster to a puppy and I dont mean metaphorically ( I dont believe  metaphors exist anyway). My poster was a little six week old Labrador, with a snuffly nose, squished face and massive floppy paws. It was  playful, immensely loyal, eager and above all, so cute that no one really questions it even if it has a little pee on the floor. . Dogs and posters are safe and lovable, both in the private owning and the display of. Talks are different, they are cats. Even when you are trying to write them, they go wherever they want and wake you up at awkward times of the day wanting attention but giving nothing back.  They change their behaviour completely, unpredictably and capriciously and equally unexpectedly, return to their original behaviour just after you have given up on them. Or they dont. And when you display them, they have a habit of showing their private parts in public and scratching their owner just when you are proudly showing them to your neighbours, so instead of a beautiful, sleek, purring ebony ballerina what actually goes on display is  a flea-ridden, angry traitor  that suddenly turns round and shows everyone its arse just as you are saying how proud of it your are. I start to write, following the cat wherever it wants to go.

Jvyaskyla: Day Four in Finland; Day one of Conference

I promised that I would update this blog throughout the week. Obviously, this hasnt happened. Here's why....

Day One:
I arrive at the conference venue in very good time, cradling my precious poster to my chest like someone returning home with a newly acquired puppy. The poster itself just stops short of licking my face - it knows it is loved and, despite that it is now carried only in a humble cardboard tube, has been protected all the way across Europe by being additionally carried in one of my guitar cases during the journey from Hull to Finland, has been examined every day since I arrived,  and  placed in a cool corner of the hotel room awaiting its moment when I have gone out. The reason for this devotion is that this time, I'm determined to win. The last conference I attended, my beautifully crafted poster - which I regarded as a work of art and was therefore reluctant to let anyone near during the poster session - failed to win the prize for "Best Poster". I was devastated, as Grasshopper's advice that academia is a competitive sport, is advice I have wholeheartedly engaged with, endorsed and adopted as my own personal Warrior Code.

There's about an hour's wait before registration starts, as in my eagerness, I 've arrived a little early, but when the doors open, I sprint towards the registration desk, cut the greeters friendly welcome short, grab a welcome pack and conference pack  and slink off to a corner to examine the details of where and when and how to display, al driven by the rationale that - if I have a choice of location - getting there first will allow me to pick the best spot on the poster boards. In the poster section of the conference pack, my brilliant abstract isnt listed. Surely, I think, there's been a mistake, but after scouring the leaflet, booklet, maps, inserts, tourist information, abstracts several times, its appears that I've come all the way to Finland for nothing. I'm not listed as a poster and neither is my poster.

One final, slower, more forensic trawl through the pages is launched when suddenly I see within the "talks' section, on Conference Day Three, in Room Alpha, under Parallel Sessions, at 13:15 "Mazzer will talk about ....." . WHAT ?........ What?.....What?........what?.........what???  I check every notice board in the conference venue. I use the internet facilities provided to check the conference website. The same message keeps coming up, I have to deliver a talk in two days time. Not wanting to make an idiot of myself, I sidle up to one of the conference organisers, and introduce myself.

 "Hi" I say "I'm Mazzer, erm, Just, you know, er, like, er checking , er, a few , er" ...cough... " details of this here like presentation I'm giving, er,, are these, er, times and stuff, like, er , confirmed and all, y'know?"

The organiser glances at my name, glances at the programme and says she's pleased to meet me and looking forward to my talk (I only later find out that everyone at conference claims to be looking forward to everyone else's talk, its like saying 'thankyou' in England). I wander around for bit, disconsolate. It looks true. I have to deliver a talk in two days. Nothing else for it, so I head back to the hotel and begin to write....

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Yyvaskyla: Day Two and Three: Liminality

Settled in the hotel and a brief review of what, for want of a better word, we will call my budget, makes it apparent that I cannot afford to both get drunk and eat. More accurately, a brief review of restaurant prices and a quick trip downtown on the first night makes it apparent that I can afford neither to drink beer nor to eat. As I wander round town on the first day, scoping the place out, I keep an eye out for solutions other than the various fast food joints that litter the shopping area, and when I  stumble across a supermarket I think I have the problem solved. It looks really cheap and everyone in the place looks slightly more miserable than the average resident  of Finland I have seen so far. Rows of dull fluorescent lighting, only half of it working, illuminate the place and its simply called "Supermarket", so I head in.

Working out what food you can have in a hotel room has always presented a number of problems. The first of these is that with no kitchen, the food is permanently available and close at hand. Through previous experience I know that this can lead to you eating everything you buy within half an hour of getting back to your room, forcing the choice of whether to go back out again to buy more Pringles or not. The second problem is smell and the way it clings to hotel rooms which means that if you buy food that is too aromatic (I remember the infamous onion bhaji incident when a hotel in London wanted to charge me for extra cleaning) you can end up living in a room that smells like a deli counter. So the ideal is to go with neutral odour but, in view of the first issue, food that's very bulky and filling. These considerations in mind, I limit the quantity of Pringles to two boxes and buy a 1kg tub of potato salad. As I approach the counter I realise I have nothing to eat the salad with, so I jump out of the queue and take another circuit round the shop to see of I can find some utensils.

After two laps, I'm unsuccessful until I spot a store assistant desultorily packing shelves. I walk up to her, smiling brightly, and say "Hei" (which is Finnish for 'Hi'). She looks at me warily. I cup my hands in front of me about eight inches apart and say "Fork! Please". The wariness turns to puzzlement-anger (a complex emotion most often seen on people's faces when dealing with bureacrats). I realize my mistake, drop my plastic shopping box, grab the potato salad, shake it in her face and mime eating, then point to my right hand which is making little scooping motions. The lady nods gravely, says in perfect English "Come with me" and I follow her to an area of the store (which I had previously eschewed on the basis of 'unlikely to be there') that features massive displays of barbeques with every item you would ever need for a barbeque plainly on display. Especially forks. A little bit more embarrassed than normal, I grab a catering pack of 150 plastic forks, head for the tills, pay and leave. The rest of the day is spent trying to each a kilogram of potato salad and writing a professional application for RHB, although I have no shortage of forks with which to eat.

The next day, I determine to learn from my mistakes, so I ask everyone I meet whether they speak English and how to say "Please' and "Thankyou". Thank you is easy enough ('keetos') but, as one informant tells me, Finnish people have a complicated relationship with "Please". Actually, its not that complicated, they dont say please.
 "We dont really have a word for it" says Saara, my principle informant, "I think its because we dont need it. I think they only say it in countries where they need to pretend they mean "please'  because every is so rude otherwise. I've lived in Italy and they say 'Please, please,please,please, please' all the time when what they really mean is 'gimme!'
 "Ok" I say "Well 'keetos' for telling me that" I joke "Keetos very much!". She laughs not.
 "You say 'Thank you' too much" she says "Its rude to keep repeating it".
 "Oh, ok" I say "Sorry about that".
 "And dont keep apologising" she says "that is also rude. You sound very English saying 'thanks' and 'please' and 'sorry' all the time, and you told me you didnt want to be English, you wanted to be Canadian. Just think to yourself - what would a Canadian say?"
 I hesitate for a minute and mumble "Awesome".

Later that day as I head out for a hike, Canada is still buzzing round my head. As I walk from downtown Jyvaskla to the head of the trails at Laajavuori (about 3kms north west of downtown if you want to find it on Google maps) the resemblance to Nova Scotia gets stronger. There's coffee shops that only lack "Tim Hortons" signs and even the place names are startlingly similar: I bet those reading this who dont know either place well would struggle to say which from  'Maki-Matti' and 'Kejimkujik' belonged where.  In fact,  the familiarity of the environment is so strong that I decide to try to deliberately notice differences to try to establish some sort of concrete perception of place. Unfortunately for Canada, the biggest difference I can identify  (and yes I know the language is an obvious one, but to be honest, although written Nova Scotian is familiar, the spoken language in that part of Canada is about as intelligable as Finnish to me) is in the physical shape of the people. After a whole hour's walk to the trail head I still havent seen  a single morbidly obese person.

At the trail head, I grab a map and head off into the woods on a wide gravel path keeping an eye out for smaller side paths that look as if they go somewhere interesting. Soon I spot one, and, trying to think how my  like my friend Carl who's spent most of his life in woods would navigate, I plunge down a single person path into the woods. After about a kilometre I have two choices, so still channeling Carl, I take the one that goes 'up'. It winds for about an hour through a beautiful, but increasingly dense forest, the noise of the road fading with every step. Remembering Carl's adage of "Drink before you're thirsty, eat before you're hungry" I sit down for a snack. The water tastes great but I am hungry so I fish out the kilogram of potato salad. Disaster. I have brought no forks. But there's no-one around, so I scoop  some out of the container with my hands enjoying the primal feel of it all. Suddenly, there's a crack on the path behind me, followed by a kind of snorking noise. I begin to regret 'channeling' Carl on this expedition as I now remember that the last time I was in the woods with him, we got attacked by a bear. I also begin to regret not Googling "Finland - bears"  before I set off for the hike as at least that would give some idea of the danger I might be in. Hands full of aromatic potato salad with only my drinking water to wash it away, I start to feel uneasy so I hastily start to pack up. At this moment a massive wasp lands on the potato salad, I jerk in reaction and the contents go flying, half over my legs, half on the ground. There's a crack in the forest behind me.Convinced I am now potentially  one of those stories you read about -  "Idiot tourist's body eventually found in Finnish forest: Man  gets killed by bears and wasp on ill-advised hike after tellling no-one where he was going and having a rubbish map. Took potato salad and no fork" - I finish packing and try to walk calmly back to a main trail. As I walk the panic begins to subside gradually, so I slow the pace and settle back into a casual walk.  Eventually I meet a friendly group of mountain bikers  who have just stopped for a rest, so I settle down with them for a chat about 'hard tails' and West coast style (which I've never done). They ask where I've been and I point up the trail. "Wow. No-one goes up there. You're a real woodsman" says Sammi, the oldest. I cant wait to get back to the hotel for a shower.

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.