From America

It has been 10 months since I left to work in the US and a few since I came back to Europe. I have wanted to write a summary of these times for a while and share my photos. These things take their time, but now is good to get it underway.

I was reminded of the States again when I saw a picture of myself in the airplane, on route to Newark, taken last year’s August. It had someone that had much to look forward to, by leaving for another continent, it felt. Indeed, afterwards, I am very happy that I did. The six months – less than was intended – managed to give more new insights that would have surely transpired otherwise. It takes time to get to used to a new everyday life in another country. But it was a good experience in so doing.

Let me start with the work side. In Finland, for the last couple of years, I did my research mainly alone and my research project in the US was really the same. There was a group in Princeton around my work that met regularly, so I was certainly already integrated through that. And nothing should undermine the effect of this Ivy League had to the research work. One might admit that, back in Finland, I was a little bit struggling with my career and funding. In practice, for some two years no-one was just accepting my applications albeit I had gotten a PhD well enough. I’d thus end up, luckily not unemployed, but in the 2-4 months’ project loop, where you do what others tell you to do and that tends to lead to little continuity. Yet, a few weeks in this US University, my research funding applications were thick with ambition and tellingly, all of them were successful later. Why did this happen? At this point, I had not yet had given my papers to anyone. I had met a few people, but all in all, maybe it was also a matter of being there and absorbing the culture: like hearing people talk and observing the place. I am not even sure how that works. I would have returned to Finland with years of research funding after Princeton, if I had returned. But I did not, of course, as I am now living in the UK similarly with a longer project. So overall I was much better off when I ended my stay in the US than when it started. It was probably a risk worth taking (i.e. leaving for another continent, for just 10 months, with no future work that you know about).

Another, most tangible memory that has stayed with me from the US was just how friendly and kindly all my colleagues and new friends were, even if they hardly knew or could have known me before. This was something, somehow different than just politeness. If I’d mention to someone I was looking to travel, they’d forward me offers and send me thorough trip suggestions every week. One person popped up in my office very often to chat. We did not work together nor know each other in any other way than meeting there in the work place. You could get into some pretty personal discussions with other parents you met in a park. A student once asked me and I and he would go to the bar and movies together. And when I moved, a coworker took some of my stuff to her basement and promised she can sell it after wards. That was very kind for all I know the stuff is still sitting there.

To sum, the States was perhaps one of the first – I hope not last – my experiences of not doing one thing and being considered another thing (by someone who, for their higher position in some hierarchy, supposedly knows better). In practice, I was the postdoc who was often in his office and worked a lot and was pretty nice to people. That is what I tried to do and that is what people saw in me for all I know. New York City, close to Princeton, was something of an expression of this feeling just by walking on the street.

I am no longer in the States, for the next three years, and am enjoying another new work place in GB. But when I think about it, I wish to go back some day.

Following collects some of the pictures I took, divided to a cities near where we lived.

Princeton

20140823_144022Palmer Square, road where we lived

20140823_144249Palmer Square

20140824_112721Streets

20140831_095755Carnegie Lake

20141005_165200Mountain Lakes

20140831_101147A very small turtle, next to Delaware and Raritan Canal

20141220_144246Near Mountain Lakes

20141231_100834Marquand Park, New Year’s Day

20141231_104957Princeton Battlefield State Park

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Restaurant on Nassau Street

New York City

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Manhattan

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Empire State Building

20141227_125913Manhattan from Brooklyn

20150213_113445Roosevelt Island on a particularly cold day in February

20150213_121741Manhattan seen from the Roosevelt Island tramway

20150221_135428Upper Manhattan

20150222_142320Coney Island in February

20150222_162419Coney Island, beach

20150222_162431Coney Island, beach #2

Philadelphia

20141011_152808South Street

20141012_132538Rocky Stairs

20141012_154747From the window from a friend where we stayed

Ithaca, NY

20141119_102703The Cornell campus

20141119_151944Gorge

20141119_152520Gorge #2

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Dewitt Mall

Misc

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Cookie Monster in Quaker Bridge Mall

Princeton: visitor’s attractions

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(The picture is a historic coupon for obtaining ice, taken at the Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve in NJ.)

For the past six months I have been living as a postdoc in a big university in the US in Princeton. As I am moving forward soon to a new endeavour, I wanted to tell about my experiences regarding things I have done here, in everyday life, with a small child, and without a car in this particular case.

An omission should be mentioned before the start: living in a town that is of course frequently associated to its universities, I will not say very much about the campus life here. Part of it is because a lot of information is doubtless available for those who need it; another reason is that as a postdoc, I know something about what goes on in the campus but not all of it and rarely do go there after my office hours. Hence, more than a summary of academic activities, this post is an outline of what to do in a university suburb that is not directly linked with the universities. (The plural is intended, as the town has three universities, as far as I know.)

Let me start with where I and we spend the most of our free time relatively. The town has what I think is the most enjoyable public library I have seen. For start, the staff is very polite, the space magnificent, the child enjoys a fish tank, toys, and free story times, the adults eg newspapers, movies, cafeteria, of course books, and a good affordable cafe. What matters to me all in all, though, is how socially inclusive the place feels. You just need an address (maybe that would be flexible too) to get the library card: and that gives access to the collection albeit a lot you can do by just going there. It is one of those places, which as a visitor to any country one learns to appreciate, where you almost always feel at the right place and in the right time. I have seen visiting parents making many new connections there: I have also seen people bringing their own visiting relatives there (I also seriously thought about taking my mother) which shows the place is important for its users. On top of this social side you have the usual library books, as I mentioned, and we use it for renting dvds for a $1 for a piece.

When I mentioned the place to a US expat living in Europe, he remarked it is great to hear our child can engage with American culture this way. I think he has it right, regarding why going to this place serves more than just our immediate needs. Where else would our child learn so many American children’s songs? Where else would we watch the newest (in fact, considerably, from the European vantage) American movies if not here? With a one year old the movie theater is not an immediate option.

I will shoehorn the next recommendation in as it is related and even if this as a digital service is not specifically to do with the town. Nevertheless, with your library card you get to register with the Hoopla streaming service. This is rather ingenious maybe for reasons that have not been articulated albeit I have not checked on its origins. You use your account to ‘borrow’ ie keep streaming a video, a record, or an audio book for a fixed time: further there is a limit to how many works you can get in a month. Though this may sound limited to some, to me, it actually circumvents many of the issues I have with streaming personally. Because the amount of streams is limited, you actually sense possessing and thus appreciating what you have as long as it is on loan. It is not like the fast food buffet feeling of exhaustion, having ‘all you can eat’ as per music. And it doesn’t cost and thus it is and feels like a public service. 

Of course, a streaming library is as good as it’s contents and fortunately the selection is diverse, large, and even unpredictable when need be. I would have never imagined finding this many good records I enjoy.

My second or third attraction continues with the theme of music. Princeton Record Exchange is all what I remember a good old record store to be, which are either less common than before or then I don’t go to them anymore where I’m from. New records are ample, often even cheaper than the norm, and there right on time: the place further has a big used and discount section. You could theoretically get a good start of a record collection for less than $20. As a collector of some sort, the selection is also admirable (maybe partly because some of the American artists were rarer in Northern Europe than they were here). Nonetheless I count having bought more than 10 cds there in less than six months: that maybe more than the last 3-4 years combined for me. On top there is movies and even games. It is a good antidote for those Fridays when you walk home from work and know there is no weekend plan. On a broader note, I think the place has taught me to appreciate what a good record store is worth once again.

Let me end with some of the surroundings, with knowledge that much more may be reachable by a car. The Mountain Lake Nature Preserve just north of the center has a long stretch of forest and footpaths as well as a mountain lake. Gourgeusly green in the summer, it still is quite nice for a slight homesickness for Northern Europe during the rainy winter months. The little museum piece that started this post is from there: apparently the mountain lakes were dammed for generating an ice infrastructure back in the days. I have yet to find other similar preserves in a walking distance although they may exist.

I wish I could write more as the city center does have an impressive amount of shops and boutiques. I do notice I haven’t managed to visit many of them yet. There is always a chance of discovering something new before we embark, but above are the places I will miss and consider revisiting, if I travel here again some time.

New York and big city habits

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What I most enjoy about a city as big as NYC is the feeling of being unremarkable and anonymous and hence getting a lot of your own space (not always literally). My impression is not everyone likes this feeling and there are sociological theories against it: indeed it figures many move to small towns like the one I live in now to sense knowing the place and having a degree of predictability.

For those who have always felt different in whichever environment, embarking to a big city can be a refreshing experience, though.

Am wondering around with a book I bought, in a red bag, hair still wet, I sit in a cafeteria to read it and write emails. The taxis go past, the coffee is ok, I seem to be noticed by no-one with my slightly worn clothes, also slightly worn smartphone, and a book that accompanies another book of a 19th century political economist.

I suppose I could literally be a graduate student from the next university, a professor from the next state, an academic tourist from Finland – none of which I am – and nobody could tell the difference nor even reflect on it.

To embrace this new sense of normalcy I adapt new habits: I like it that I always feel busy here even as I am walking to nowhere in particular and try developing a kind of a blase attitude to accompany the busyness.

Ithaca semiotics

I am sitting by myself in an Ithaca cafe, upstate NY, and someone uses the word ‘semiosis’ in the table next to me.

Are you right to feel enjoying a place based on a two night visit, neglecting how it is when you are in a daily routine? I do like the place and feel it resonates with things that are important to me: from locality to vegetarianism, a university and Science & Technology Studies, and indeed semiotics.

Finland coast, for a while

When it turned out we would be living abroad for the next ten months, we decided to stay near relatives so they could see us and the child a bit more often. It has now been almost two months of making work in another city’s public library, plus beach, walks, and parks with the child. Next week we fly to the States. Meanwhile here is a selection of photos from this coastal town in Finland, summer 2014.

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While it was unusually warm we also had a share of bad weather including one exceptionally strong and a sudden storm. The first two pictures are what a beach looked like in some ten minutes. The last pic is after – spectators observing a flooded bridge.

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In London, with a six month old

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Doubtless much has been written about traveling with children and I can only add a few observations that surprised me in the first travel of our six month old. We are in London. It was originally to attend a job interview but as I just got another job and canceled the interview, this turned just recreational.

The possible difficulties of traveling with a baby may actually not be that surprising. Foremost, maybe just avoid staying in anything that insinuates hostel – either in name or pricing. I am sorry to be saying this. In spirit, I am all for the hostel way of experiencing another town (I write “in spirit” as I am too old to live in one anymore). The key issue is sleeping. Sleep takes a meaning and a tone of its own with a toddler, one that does not go well with paper-thin walls and listening to others partying and walking and shouting and leaving at 5am and what not. Which is how I would describe our “suites” that were indeed in my budget but not a good experience. You’re tired all the time anyway and it adds to the irritation to be waken up every 20 minutes.

Moving around is sometimes difficult but not extremely so. Buy a second hand travel buggy and carry it when need be. Anyway, London with its busses and elevators and ramps is very easily navigatable with a buggy. The thing even stores some stuff of its own that you could not normally carry with you (eg bottles of water to a restaurant…) This is not more difficult than in everyday life.

However, there are a lot more things that are good and surprised me. First, I sort of knew but had not anticipated that people adore small babies and absolutely show it. Maybe half a dozen people just came to greet M. while we were sitting around. Add with the tens of people that smiled and looked at her and us. When traveling with my partner, I seldom talk to anyone else, so it is a nice thing to draw more attention in my view.

Indeed, in my 20s I went to all these places alone. British Museum, Piccadilly, Oxford Street, I saw them in my own company. That was cool, but a child, even when she still does not understand maybe all of it, adds charm to many things. I just love walking her around where I live. So think how fun it is to show her – with all comprehension of how little she knows – London Eye, the Aquarium, that British Museum again etc. I don’t know why exactly but it simply adds to the experience.

In the end, it could be that tourism and the thrills of a six month old just align very closely. In my experience, babies just adore seeing new people and other children and being pushed around in their buggy (wherein they can sleep). Tourists, by default, walk a lot and then sit in places with other people. A perfect match. 🙂

However, as many people starting from baristas that have children have just pointed out to us, it may be easiest to travel now and gets significantly different in a few years or months…

To a new land

I had tried to find a job and research funding for a while when things began to happen. Namely I just learned that I was accepted to an open position in a major university in the US. I immersily look forward to pursue my research and meet the people there, and I think there’s a lesson for PhD’s – to keep writing those applications if you want to do scholarship.

Hence, in September and beyond, you will find me in NJ, to continue articles about what I most enjoy researching: risk, systems, infrastructures, and disaster in the context of sociology and international relations as well.