In November 2011 I went to Hôtel de Ville in Paris to see an exhibit titled “A New Perspective on the South.” It was organized by Agence Française de Developpement (AFD), a non-profit French development agency, to showcase the results of projects with partner organizations throughout the global south. I had seen it promoted in newspapers, on the Métro, and in public spaces around town, and was curious about it because the tales we tell ourselves about the world are deeply important, sociologically speaking. Whether we encounter them in textbooks, museums, televisions shows and films, in church sermons, in conversation with our families, in theater and literature, or increasingly, in the digital world via sites like Facebook and Twitter, narratives give us a script that we use to make sense of the world. They provide logics for fitting people into roles; they teach us about heroes and villains, victims and saviors, and right and wrong. They help us understand who we are as people, and how we fit into the greater scheme of things. In short, narratives play a big and important role in our lives. So, armed with an umbrella on a rainy afternoon, I arrived at the open-air exhibit to see what the French narrative of development looks like.
As I walked the streets of Amsterdam in late September of 2011, I sensed the oldness of the place all around me. As an American, I often find myself awestruck by the visible age of European cities. In terms of the built environment, the United States is a young place. I grew up in New Hampshire, one of the original thirteen British colonies, and have seen my fair share of old New England. I have eaten at “America’s Oldest Restaurant,” The Union Oyster House (established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1826), and have taken care of business in one of the nation’s oldest plumbed indoor toilets, at Harvard University. But, there is something different about Amsterdam, a city that was founded around 1300. Its oldness, and all that represents, is on the surface, looking back at you, as you look at it. Maybe it’s the distinctive and uniform architecture of the original brick buildings that line the city, or they way they tip toward and away from its streets, and slant sideways, due to their slow sinking. Maybe it’s the canals, which remind me of the role of waterways and seafaring in the building of the Dutch empire.
As I walked through Zurich’s old city to meet my friend Anne for a beer on a warm, late summer night, I paused at an intersection to wait for the signal to cross. A cyclist approached from across the intersection, and I noticed that he rode on the wrong side of the street. As he approached the corner on which I stood, he lifted his arm and shouted forcefully in the face of a man on a scooter, “Sieg heil!” Stunned, I turned toward the scooter rider, and noticed that he had dark skin. The signal changed, and I crossed the street as the man on the scooter rode away. Disheartened, I noted that this was not the first instance of open racism that I had witnessed in the city.
Dust, dirt, and hair. This is what I saw as I stood over and looked into the bathtub in the flat I stayed in on the morning of my first full day in London. I did not have time to waste. I was scheduled to deliver a talk on my research later that afternoon, and was in haste to leave the flat for the day. But, there I stood, paralyzed by a collection of barely noticeable reminders of the human occupant of the flat. I wrinkled my nose and pursed my lips as I contemplated the situation.
My host was unnerved. His neighbors had been talking loudly outside of his apartment again. He explained to me that there is a “certain class of people” who behave this way. They have loud conversations in public, behave and speak crassly, and they have taken over the public spaces of the city. He supposed the volume of their conversations might be because of cultural differences. In London there are ever increasing numbers of immigrants from beyond the shores of the United Kingdom. It didn’t used to be this way, he told me.
Up until about a year ago, I imagined that when I completed my doctorate in sociology I would become a professor. At that point, I had been in graduate school for six years at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and I was a year shy of finishing my dissertation, and attaining the degree. I had excelled in my program and fit the mold of a successful academic well. I had earned high honors on my Master’s thesis, had presented my research to enthusiastic audiences at conferences across the United States and beyond its borders, and had enjoyed the success of having my research published in an academic journal early in my career. I loved teaching and seemed good at it. My academic advisors encouraged and championed me. I had been groomed for the job.
But as this year wore on, and I wrote, revised, and completed my dissertation, I found myself straying from the well-worn path of the academic. The question, “Are you on the market?” (as in, the academic job market) made my stomach turn. Not because of nerves or fear of not finding a job, like many experience, but because I felt strongly that I did not want to be on the job market. In fact, I found myself repelled by the thought of it. When I tried to envision myself applying for full-time professor jobs, I just couldn’t see it. The thought of going to whatever institution would have me (this is the way, in academia), and settling into the routine of stable, rooted adulthood that one is supposed to strive for pushed me with visceral force out of this trajectory.