Wednesday, April 20, 2005


The first time I lived in Spain for an extended period of time, on a yearlong dissertation research trip, I was challenged and thrilled and exhausted by the constant stream of new things I had to learn. I had a fairly good handle on my dissertation topic, and I could speak Spanish well enough to get by (ah, that early na├»ve confidence!), but that didn’t prepare me for all the little differences of daily life. Want to go to the archive? Of course, that’s easy enough. But which bus goes there? Where do you buy a bus pass? (At the tobacco stands, of course; where else?) On the way home, need to shop for dinner. But you can’t just pick up tomatoes and drop them in a bag; you need to ask for a certain weight in kilos, and they choose the tomatoes for you. The nice tomato man asks, do you want tomatoes for salad or tomatoes for cooking? (Turns out Spaniards like their salad-tomatoes a little on the green side, so that’s really a question about whether you want them ripe or not.) And so on. All of these things are perfectly manageable, but for your first few weeks in another country, the most routine tasks involve a substantial learning curve, and you feel like a fool for not even knowing how to buy tomatoes.

But then there comes a day when you hop on the bus, say hi to the driver who recognizes you now, spend your day at your usual table in the archive, stop at the store on the way home, ask for half a kilo of cooking tomatoes, greet your neighbors, pause at your door and realize – hey, I just did all those things effortlessly and without thinking, those things that three weeks ago felt like walking through sand.

Where is this going, you ask? Well, this is for Rana (and for Scrivener who's just turned 34), because I promised several weeks ago I’d write about why I liked being 35. In the larger pattern of my life, being in my 30s feels like having been in Spain long enough to know how to buy tomatoes.

This analogy probably won’t work for non-academics, because it rests on the fact that my 20s were mostly spent in graduate school, postponing the kinds of things that most people associate with a real life – a spouse, an income-producing job, a house, a car. Instead, I had the constant learning curve of coursework, research, and prelims, in equal measures satisfying and exhausting, and all on close to a poverty-level income. When I got frustrated by my lack of a “real life,” I consoled myself (fairly successfully, because I’m incurably cheerful) by thinking, Yes, but I still have all those things to look forward to, and the reasonable expectation that they will indeed happen, just as I knew I’d eventually figure out that three tomatoes were about half a kilo. And I enjoyed the anticipation.

So here I am at 36, starting to get all those things I looked forward to for so long. And I think I’m enjoying them a hell of a lot more than I would have if I’d just been handed them all when I was 20. These aren’t big successes I’m talking about (except for that big fat trophy, heh); they’re not newsworthy or earth-shaking. All I’m doing is going through my ordinary life doing ordinary things, but I still get a little private sense of triumph from them - hey! I know how to find my way through the world now.

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