‘VAMOS A LA PLAYA, OH, OH, OH…’: ACADEMIC LIFE (IN SOUTHERN EUROPE, ON A TRULY GLORIOUS DAY)

It’s an absolutely glorious day outside, with temperatures around an ideal 25º, not a cloud in sight. The beach is 5 kms. away, reachable in under 40 minutes by metro and here I am, hearing in my head the chorus of that catchy 1983 summer hit by Italo-disco Righeira, singing in Spanish: ‘Vamos a la playa, oh, oh, oh…’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTsVJ1PsnMs). Never mind that the song deals actually with the risks of going back to the beach after a nuclear explosion… (https://www.musica.com/letras.asp?letra=1490365). And that I hate going to the beach because I’m pale and I sunburn in five minutes, not to mention how the gritty sand finds a way all over your body… Ugh. It’s just this strange feeling that nothing and nobody prevents me from walking away, yet I’m staying on, tied to my desk and my computer. How much easier it is to do this with grey northern skies outside the window.

I do not intend to draw a sharp line between productive northern academics and unproductive southern academics justifying the division on the grounds of how distracting the weather is. Surely, one can always find other distractions. When I was on La Caixa’s scholarship, I recall one of my peers asking genuinely surprised how come nobody was going to check on our performance as scholars, considering we would be abroad, we were young and, well, you know?, fill in the rest. The person in charge of us replied, very politely, ‘we trust you; you know how hard it’s been to get here and you won’t start misbehaving now.’ ‘My!,’ I thought, ‘aren’t we strange people?’ Twenty years later, I have the same feeling: we, academics, are very strange. Here I am, tied to my desk, writing this post as I hope for the energy to continue the complicated article I’m working on to descend on me… instead of picking up my bag and heading to the sea… beaconing out there… It seems I’m still to be trusted.

The problem is that as I age I find my trustworthiness increasingly stupid (of me). Less vocational colleagues are surely if not down on the actual beach, possibly taking it easy in ways that my vocation spoiled for me from day one. Meanwhile, here I am, all stressed out because time runs fast and I won’t be able to do, in this strange semester with no teaching, all the writing I vowed I would do. Why all that stress, I wonder? As I brace myself to reach the ripe age of fifty next year, I am starting to wonder whether it is worth it, the whole thing of trying to accomplish something–and this nagging doubt returns with the intensity of a punch to the face on every sunny day.

I think of a colleague, truly upset that she had not passed her accreditation as full professor, telling me ‘if it’s going to be ‘no’, then at least they could let us go to the beach and relax.’ She, nonetheless, did not relax and got her accreditation at the second try–she’s still waiting for her merits to be acknowledged with real tenure not just a certificate but I’m 100% sure she’s not sunbathing. Good for her? I wonder… I’m thinking also of this other colleague who worked wonderfully hard to get the same accreditation, but then lost tenure to someone else in her own Department. Already past sixty, this admired colleague decided to retire–telling none of us, her colleagues for decades in Cultural Studies. I do wonder what went through her head and whether she finally decided that the beach made more sense. I hope she is happy now.

Of course, I’m way too young for that kind of decision. Still, just as forty certainly is a time of personal crisis, fifty seems to be the natural time for an academic crisis (in the Humanities, I’m aware that scientific research is quite different, bringing in earlier crises). Fifty is when you start measuring your colleagues in terms of how many books they’ve written and when you start thinking that the time to write your own is fast shrinking. Mind you, I am not depressed, feeling that I cannot do anything worthwhile yet. What I am considering here is that, unlike most workers whose daily schedule is marked by someone else, I determine my own and there are days when it feels like a strange masochistic exercise–why try so hard to produce something that, as a younger colleague noted with a smile, nobody will want to read, anyway? Why not relax and go to the beach instead? Is it a sense of duty? Is it pure ego?

I keep on telling myself that as long as football players and top models matter, academic work matters–but, who am I kidding? All the articles and books published this year by Spanish scholars matter far, far less than Leo Messi’s goal yesterday, the one that won Barça the League’s championship. Nobody goes on the streets to cheer for intellectual achievement, whereas thousands flooded La Rambla yesterday to celebrate Barça’s triumph. Thousands more had cheered Barça’s star player Gerard Piqué in the morning for publishing a cute photo showing his usually well-coiffured blond head all tousled. In this trivial world of ours, this matters. (Is it envy? Is it sour grapes?)

I could end up by claiming that I’m not picking up my bathing suit and towel this Monday morning out of respect for those workers who do not have the option to do so, even for the unemployed who sadly have all the time in the world to enjoy sunshine but little reason to enjoy themselves. But no, this is hypocrisy–it’s pure ego, the hope that this is finally the article that makes my reputation (if ever an article written by a Southern European academic can achieve that). The hope that next comes a book, and another, and another. It is also, a little bit or all of it, cultural clash between the northern Puritan work ethos born of melancholy grey skies and the southern temptation to take life as it comes born of cheerful blue skies.

The weather forecast for tomorrow announces rain…

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2 comentarios en “‘VAMOS A LA PLAYA, OH, OH, OH…’: ACADEMIC LIFE (IN SOUTHERN EUROPE, ON A TRULY GLORIOUS DAY)

  1. You should go to the beach early in the evening, and your problems would disappear (that’s what I do although the sea without a sunset, in the Eastern shore I mean, looks rather graceless at that hour.

    And the desire for recognition is intrinsic to the profession—it goes without saying we all want readers and kudos and so on, the best we can do about that i think is to laugh a bit about it and relativize matters, that’s what I try to do with my blog and hence the name, Vanity Fea. Otherwise one might even forget that one writes in order to be read and recognized—curiously enough many of our colleagues seem to go that way, perhaps it’s another tactic of self-defence against the irrelevance of our endeavors.

    And I’m guessing I know who you mean, that colleague who was fed up and chose a sudden disappearance after failing to get a chait. Well don’t be surprised about the Cultural Studies group, in our departement she left with the equivalent of banging the door on the way out, with a letter denouncing the corruption of criteria in the University and ending more or less with «ahí os quedáis». One should not take one’s career too seriously, but not taking work seriously is also a serious shortcoming.

    So, despair about an article or book making your reputation. if you haven’t got the feeling of satisfaction with what you’re doing by now, you problably never will, come what may.

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