Days merge into weeks that result in a month that looms in the horizon indicating that it is not sensible anymore to think about it as a tourist visit at all. As someone who had travelled a bit before, I had the urge to fall into the trap of thinking of being here as a slightly extended tourist stay that had definitely already been different from any trip I had previously ventured on. Yes, I was already the second month in and I certainly didn’t believe I actually was at the time! Given that I arrived in late August and spent the entire September here in the U.S., October was going to be the third month I was going to spend here! I was wondering when I would actually stop keep tracking of time, which as the most intangible thing there is, is the most intangible thing that tangibly controls us.
The first day of the second autumn month and the second full month of my life here was marked with a nice pensive walk in Brooklyn with a fellow Fulbrighter. New York looked more like it was still lingering in the beautiful early autumn realm of September. We could enjoy a lovely talk and meal sitting on the grass in Prospect Park sharing our perspectives, experiences just to find that as confused as we could be about where our lives are going, knowing that there is someone struggling in pretty much the same way you are is absolutely comforting. I knew from that early point on that it was all about the people who I was going to meet and hopefully maintain and nurture my connection with. Museums, music, teacher-student misunderstandings, accommodation issues – it wasn’t only our present that brought us together (and it might as well with tons of other strangers enjoying that Sunday afternoon walking the Brooklyn Bridge that Sunday evening), but our past as well, the past we might have been wanting to take a break from here, but here it was doing all the bonding for us to make our present even more alive and vibrant.
I was also trying to establish more connections with “my” (I was getting to a point where I could call it that) campus community. I was increasingly more picky about the events I was going to attend, but I certainly knew I couldn’t miss a few inspirational talks given on a regular basis at the business center of our university. Unflagging optimism isn’t something Russians are good at even believing in, but Americans certainly pack a punch when it comes to at least giving an illusion of optimism. I am obviously not the one to take a credit for that, but I call this “American air punching”. This is exactly how you feel while you are listening to another speaker who has had their share of trouble and misfortune just to rise above it all and embrace life and all the beautiful things it has to offer. I think public speaking skills that are generally fostered in American public education system certainly come in handy to create the effect. You can really feel in the moment with the speaker and they have you hooked and wanting to have the words they say resonate with you and your experiences. Of course, you are very unlikely to walk out of this cosy space a different person as the package of our past is what we drag along into our present, but the feeling is real and it is here now. It would take a while for it to start feeling more like an illusion, but when you hit a slightly low point in life, it might pop up in your head to give you a sense of security. That’s generally how I feel about the positivity in America. The part of the country where I am in might not be too representative of the entire nation as this area is very diverse, but there is something that unites all of the United States or at least it’s something intangible they want us to believe exists. I’m not sure if Americans are generally better at dealing with life crisis than other nations, but on the surface they certainly want to appear to be. This is why I choose to call it an illusion, it’s not tangible at all, but it might go a long way controlling your thinking and life in a very tangible way if you let it.
I was trying to move ahead with my research, but as I had found out earlier, there is this organization called the IRB (institutional review board) at American universities. If your research involves human subjects, your proposal has to go through this organization for them to make sure there will be no physical/mental damage caused to your participants. This is another cultural thing you have to deal with here, as it might seem too overwhelming how sensitive Americans are about ethical issues. They are so wrapped up in this paradigm of looking at it (as we might be in ours as well) that it might come across as totally strange how we find this whole thing too ridiculous and try our best not to be vocal and explicit about it. As a result, in order to comply with all the requirements and following my supervisor’s advice, I found myself changing my original proposal significantly. There was one training session organized by the IRB, and what it did was to confuse me even more about what I would have to do and if I did exactly that, how long it was going to take before I could actually start? I decided I would continue to do interviews for my “Bilinguals” project without waiting to get my official IRB approval as long as my participants were OK with that. It was actually another excuse to maintain and nurture friendly connections with people as we made arrangements to meet for interviews and enjoy lovely conversations afterwards while it was still surprisingly warm and nice outside. I think studying language and bilingualism in particular is about getting in touch with people and being a good listener to whatever they have to share about them and their stories. This romanticized view of the subject might not agree with the general rules and regulations enforced by the IRB though…
At that point, I wasn’t too discouraged as there were a lot of other things to keep me interested and busy right here on campus. Right across the street from my building, there was the School of Communication and Media. I was there for the official opening and could enjoy some free ice-cream and a live open-air concert. Yes, Americans love free food and now I do even more than I could ever imagine! As it was open house, everyone was welcome to come and have a look at all the brand new facilities and equipment. I felt something within me fluttering and sending vibrations of life over my body as I entered the building and saw all different rooms it had where people were busy showing news reports being put together, videos being edited, etc. Some of the rooms overlooked the Manhattan skyline and that was where some of the students aspired to take their skills I guess. Such an inspiring environment to be in! After joining a few tours of different classrooms, I dropped in to the editorial board of the local newspaper called Montclarion in the hope of arranging to get published there. Yes, dreams of journalism aren’t meant to simply die here on the other side of the Atlantic! Needless to say, I walked out of this building with a tiny extra portion of life injected in me with that illusional but sweet feeling that whatever you set your mind to the universe will help you achieve…
As a language teacher, I couldn’t help taking advantage of a very beneficial linguistic environment I was in. Of course, it would have been very unprofessional of me to have any significant difficulties using English from day one. Being a teacher inadvertently involves being a constant learner as well. But eventually after all those small triumphs that one might have only been dreaming of achieving (talking to a native speaker for the first time, getting to speak English for an extended period in a natural setting, etc.), the excitement wears off and instead of an excited and inquisitive learner you grow into a user of the language. I would never underestimate English and the role it has and is playing in my life and its current extensive international chapter, but throughout the last few years of teaching, travelling and generally reflecting on life, I have discovered that the professional, social, personal and “linguistic” me would definitely benefit from stepping out of the increasingly growing world of this international lingua franca. It might sound sappy and cheesy after all, but English is like the first love for me, something that cannot be erased and would have an effect on any of my future endeavors. It is also like a truly genuine friend to count and rely on to facilitate communication. But what about trying to make a few new friends (linguistic and human) while learning a new language? I wasn’t the one to acquire English in a natural way, it was all through formal instruction (mostly on my own and later on at the university). How did I even do that? I don’t want to sound overly self-confident, but the fact that I am writing this living here shows I must have done something right on my English learning journey. Is there any way I could help others in theirs as well? That has been something I have been paid to do during the last five years. It wasn’t until I started learning new languages that I realized my own experience of learning a new language could give me a better insight into whatever was happening in my classroom.
Even though I wasn’t going to be teaching during the next ten months, I decided to continue with my linguistic escapades as part of my big American journey with the above and some other purposes in mind. Yes, that might seem like a strange decision to make in an English-speaking country, but here I was! Back at the Uni, I wasn’t much excited about having to learn a second foreign language and never had got to use German naturally till I had travelled to Germany, which was brief and awkward. Yes, I knew those were going to be the two words to describe my attempts at new languages, but being a teacher one might forget what it is like to be a learner who is meant to fail and flounder. My first encounter with German that I wanted to refresh my memory of was during a German class here at MSU. As the language material being taught was incredibly easy, I could observe and reflect on how much of our personalities we bring into the way we teach. The teacher had her students painting and drawing, which I hadn’t really asked my students to do as I wouldn’t have been comfortable with it myself. Was I robbing them of a chance to or was there something I hope I was contributing to their learning, something so “me”…? Actually, I got to speak some German with the mother of my Austrian friend and I loved every minute of that spontaneity, briefness and awkwardness!
The other two escapades were more rough, risky, fresh and belle with a lot more briefness and awkwardness to them. The first one was with Italian. Yes, at this point of my stay, I was already missing Europe and I was dreaming I might end up in the bellissima Italia in my future career. The people from the Italian program were amazingly friendly and accommodating and enchanted me with their Italian charm. Even though they were all living and working here and some were even born and raised in the U.S., there was something persistently Italian about them that I don’t think they would ever agree to let go of. Their fashion sense, that sophisticated appeal they radiated was so undeniably there! This bellezza had me wanting to do my best to sing every vowel of this word the way Italians do! The symposium of Italian teachers I had the honor and pleasure of attending later in October gave more opportunities to get inspired to continue on my trip despite briefness and awkwardness I had trying to speak Italian.
I knew I could speak it better and give it more commitment if it wasn’t for French, which could have been a bit better if it wasn’t for Italian. Yes, choices can get tough! Maybe I needed that double portion of brief and awkward in my life after all… We sometimes venture on linguistic journeys driven by some romanticized idea of a nation inspired by its cultural contributions to the world or even some individuals we see on our trips. Some stereotypes are here to be born and dismissed and some are so undeniably there! The romanticized stereotype of French seemed to suit the real and tangible me that even my Mum who we’d never had any talks about languages with, once said I should try to learn French. Really – do mothers sometimes just know? Yes, and I came here straight from Paris where my parlez-vous anglais proved how English would always be there to give me comfort while I was just like a kid learning to swim (I can’t actually!) and going into the exciting new waters under a watchful eye. My first American experience of French was during a conversation class here at my university. Fashion and language interact in their own delicate and subtle way and that was I was thinking as I put on my Breton striped shirt and Eiffel Tower-shaped earrings I got in Paris to help me along. Well, whatever facilitates that move out of the comfort zone… Am I really getting out of my mouth something that I hope sounds remotely French in front of a native speaker? Of course, English is always here to help, but anyway, it is happening in its own tiny and fearful way! As long as there is patience and understanding from a person who has to abuse their ears listening, I am not too hard on myself for whatever it is I am saying probably having tons of mistakes in it. Yes, teachers have a hard time with accepting mistakes, let alone making them, because we hear plenty almost every day anyway. They are part of learning as annoying as they might get when being made over and over again. Therefore you have to be a bit adventurous and curious as a teacher to do something that would inevitably involve you making mistakes. As someone doing research into language and personality, I couldn’t help but wonder how I was coming across trying to get out of the comfort zone of English into the uncharted but merveille territory of French. I haven’t had anyone trying to speak bad Russian in front of me, but if I ever do, I promise I will treat them as nicely as I was. Would I have had this experience if I had never dared to fail and flounder? Yes, you feel vulnerable in the process and as a kid playing in the sand, you might get an adult watching smudged and stained while you are busy building something and that is how you feel with native speakers who might in fact turn out to be generally very nice people (and from la plus belle city you’d been to so far) and inspire you even more with their own personalities and stories that might have all the stereotypes reinforced, revisited or thrown out of the window altogether… Yes, one’s teaching experience might get in the way of learning as I discovered during the French class I had attended. Even though there was stuff for me to learn and accepting I had a hard time memorizing, the teacher in me kept analyzing how my colleague is going to handle a particular stage of his class and what the transition to what I thought I knew was coming was going to be. Yes, our professional past is always there resonating into our present, but isn’t that another exciting adventure…? And yes, we do bring our personalities in the way we teach (and see others do so)!
Another passion of mine that I was dreaming of happily incorporating into my love for languages is writing. Am I not making another humble attempt at that as my fingers are tapping on my keyboard typing this…? I had attended a few writing events at the university, but one definitely stood out as I actually got to write something and hear a reaction to it. What the two lovely instructors got me and a few others present to do was to randomly scroll through out timeline on social media and put whatever visual or verbal data we came across into a story. As much as writing sets me free, I might cringe a bit (isn’t that the fear of making mistakes or coming across in a certain way?) at the thought of having a native speaker of English listening to my writing. Of course, once I was done writing, I was still on a high this activity has a way of giving me as I explore my own limits that open up a small new vein in my creativity that sends waves of electricity into my own sense of being. Under this drug of stimulated creativity, my insecurities naturally went down even though my voice was trembling a bit as I was reading (because yes, the insecurity caused by your own accent and overthinking of what effect it is producing was there). The reaction I got from the instructors was absolutely amazing! My own amazement also went up to a whole new level as I heard one of the instructors say to the other one “Her English is amazing!” after we said our goodbyes and I turned to leave. That might have been that boost and burst of emotions writing had given me, but I felt like smiling back to the world that I felt smiling at me or shedding a tiny but genuine tear of happiness. I knew I must have done something right to make me a tiny bit proud of myself at that moment. Thank you, English for that! You are a true friend that enables people to believe in me whenever I get too busy convincing myself I shouldn’t.
Finally, there was some travelling involved as well of course! It used to be one and only topic I would write extensively about. Now I had found myself trying to incorporate it into other things that I was attempting to incorporate into the bigger picture of my American life and hopefully my life afterwards. It felt bizarre to travel all this way to the other side of the Atlantic not exclusively for travelling. That certainly gave new adventures a bit different flavor. Our first day trip was to Philadelphia as it seemed as the closest large city in another state. I guess that was the initial superficial criterion for opting to travel there. Our first experience with the Greyhound bus service got off to a bad start as our bus got broken down a few minutes after it had left the Port Authority in New York. The whole feeling of travelling to New York from Montclair on a dark and rainy autumn as a starting point of a trip was unusual. The weather is another intangible thing that tangibly controls us. At some point you give up trying to plan around it and that seemed exactly what we did as we found it was really raining just as the weather report said it would be. The power of a good company and spirit can make the control the weather has over us slightly less tangible. American road trips are a lot of fun as long as your bus is moving providing an array of landscapes with different degrees of variety. Crossing from New York back to New Jersey all the way down to Pennsylvania was part of that rainy morning. About two hours later the three of us – two Russians and an Austrian – ventured into exploring the historic city center on our own with about six hours on our hands. In a bizarre way I didn’t have much of an idea what the city would have to offer. We are sometimes so overwhelmed by the global power of the USA that it had had throughout its relatively short history that we might forget about individual and overall importance of particular states and cities in making this country what it is today. Philadelphia houses what has played a huge role in shaping the idea of pursuit of freedom and independence. The Liberty Bell is humbly located in the building overlooking the Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. A huge chunk of the U.S. history was right there for me to embrace against the grey skies of Philadelphia. Compared to more familiar landscapes of New York, it seemed a luxury to be in a city and being able to comfortably see the sky! The way the historic heritage is treasured and preserved in America is incredibly humbling. I am not sure if it has to do with how fairly short and incredibly rich it is, but it certainly fits into the idea of the American nation we have. Interactive screens and efficient service contributed to a real experience of the history of the city. Unlike in New York, it was all so tangibly in the air here. The problem was that enjoying a walk, which is arguably the best way to explore the city, was virtually impossible as the rain was drizzling throwing subtle shades of pessimism on our plans for the day. At the end we decided to do a very touristic thing and take a bus tour of the city center. Of course as you had already been living in a country for a while, the feeling of being a tourist even while getting around evaporates into the desire of simply enriching the existing knowledge. The house of Betsy Ross, the woman who made the first American flag, the Reading Terminal Market, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway lined with international flags (guess what flag two of us were busy looking for?), Philadelphia Museum of Art with the famous Rocky Statue and the Steps that after a few doubts we climbed. I didn’t know about the others, but that was there that I was ready to acknowledge how far I’d come to actually be here at that moment and mentally I threw my hands into the air in Stallone’s character victorious fashion! Colonial houses lining the streets made me want to come back in a warmer weather. The tour finished not far from the City Hall, a massive and gentle greeting from Europe. This largest municipal building with the architectural structures surrounding it gave me a retreat and a feeling of being an exploring tourist here in the USA. Later we met a fellow Fulbrighter who was studying at the University of Pennsylvania and enjoyed a local specialty – Philly cheese steaks. The meat was really good and the cheese – well, I developed an even more loving and affectionate relationship with cheese here as I could eat anything as long as there was some in it. The power of social connections and how personal they make a visit to a city is hard to overestimate. As it had stopped raining, we could pick a beautiful spot for the interview for my project on the grass right in front of the Independence Hall. We wrapped our day in Philly with a walk back to the City Hall. As I turned with my back to it after peering at this magnificent European beauty, I could see a few humble (compared to New York) skyscrapers and what generally looked like a mini-sketch of a typical evening in NYC. It was time to walk back through Chinatown to the bus station with Europe on the right and the USA on the left. I had the soundtrack from the film “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks playing in my head. Walking the streets of Philadelphia gave me this kind of a serene and a bit bleak feeling. It was time to say goodbye to the City of Brotherly Love.
The effect of another trip of the month was supposed to be more predictable as it involved visual marvels. But in the end the decision to go to the Niagara Falls was quite spontaneous as our Austrian friend came across a cheap package tour. Why not? Embracing spontaneity is something a lot of us here were getting better at, I think. Unlike Philadelphia with its historic significance, the spectacular grandeur of the Niagara Falls is a totally sensual experience that requires no solid prior knowledge. With things like Instagram increasingly taking over our everyday lives, we are easily lured by anything visually appealing. With an image of the place and our own individual expectations of the visual scale of the place, we set off on a trip with a group of mainly Chinese tourists together with a few fellow internationals from our university. I had never thought I would use this word to describe this particular season, but here in the U.S. I learned how gorgeous autumn (or fall) can be! It was the fall foliage season and going on a long bus trip to the upstate New York was a perfect chance to see it unfolding in its multicolored beauty and charm! As I was trying to make sense of the guide’s comments who switched from English to Chinese and back, my eyes were treated to the kind of autumn I’d never seen before. I had forgotten about a reading book I had with me and even the music on my phone. The latter has this amazing power to enhance our visual experiences, but at that particular moment I decided not to let it interfere with a canvas of landscapes changing from a combination of different shades of orange, yellow and red (that color got me completely hooked and charmed as it seemed to be missing in all of the Russian autumns I had seen). I am not into painting and drawing so I am not impressive with describing colors, but I think the effect the nature had on me was just perfect and right and made me live and enjoy the moment while my Austrian friend sitting on the left was alternating doing the same with preparing for her test in Chinese and felt those small linguistic triumphs whenever she could figure out some word the tour guide was saying to the Chinese-speaking part of the group. Our first stop was at Watkins Glen State Park. Just as their history, Americans know how to preserve their nature. Parks are very welcoming spaces to connect with it without getting lost as trails are clearly marked. It was a small warmup for the Niagara Falls as there were some waterfalls as well. It was a bit rushed and as my knitted coat seemed a bit too warm, I did felt a bit sweaty and uncomfortable. As a Russian, I had to mentally get used to be dressed lightly in the middle of the autumn. That was another surprising thing to discover about this season that I used to mainly associate with depressing transitions and my birthday which I wish was in spring or summer. Another quick stop was at one of the Finger Lakes. I am not much of a nature admirer and still have to practise opening up my sensory tools, but it wasn’t just because we were given very little time that I virtually ran to the Seneca Lake, but it was because I couldn’t wait to stand surrounded by this emerald vastness that matched the grayish skies. The life around it was so laid-back with a few locals sitting here enjoying the afternoon. Yes, we were still in the state of New York but considerably far from the hustle and bustle of New York City. It would have been great to enhance the serene feeling of the surroundings in one of many wineries we drove by. The houses and the feeling was so incredible that I texted my sister telling her she was probably better off not getting to see them as her life might never feel the same afterwards as I knew that looked a lot like a place I imagined she was dreaming of living. A few hours later we were approaching the Niagara Falls. It was a bit too early to try to compare the expectations and reality and nothing we were approaching so far seemed to match any. Niagara Falls is a city whose life is largely centered around tourism. My own expectations of what I was about to see after crossing the street with a Hard Rock café might have been not realistic as I imagined I would be sizing up this water mass while looking all the way up. That was how I had been imagining the place all my life till that moment came when I heard the water streaming and actually had to look all the way down to see it climaxing down into making what the real image of the Niagara Falls is. Looking up, I could see the Canadian City of Toronto and its lights. Visually the whole landscape is certainly appealing as the colors merge and change. Sometimes a human touch to a natural wonder enhances it for other humans. That was definitely the case. There were a bit too many humans wanting to take their pictures of course, all of them looking down with cameras in their hands. After we had visited a mediocre native American dance show, we drove to our hotel for the night. On our way we could see the Canadian border and what I thought was a customs post. Yes, even here on the other side of the Atlantic far from Europe I can see two countries so close together. We weren’t happy but chose not to complain about something that looked like bed bugs at our first American motel as we only had something like five hours to sleep. I guess I spent one of them just listening to a Buffalo radio station and contemplating and not even trying to count how many nights I had spent at hotels lying thinking like that. When the morning came, we set off to explore the area around the Niagara Falls and that was a gorgeous autumn morning that we spent driving around and walking. As we were so close to Canada and could even see its flag waving at a distance, we got a taste of France as well when we went to see Fort Niagara with its French castle overlooking the marvelous Lake Ontario, one of the five Great Lakes. When we got back to the Niagara Falls, what we saw was pretty different from what we did at night and I think it was more natural. We took the Maid of the Mist boat along the Niagara Falls dressed in pink ponchos to mark the Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I think at that moment my life-long image of the Falls and the reality were finally at peace as we had to look up to see the water running down and splashing. Little moments that are too short but powerful enough to contemplate long afterwards… Soon we were ready to go on a long ride back home, to New York.
The City was still there with its messy and inconsistent texture waiting to be explored. It is when you repeatedly travel to a place for different purposes that it becomes part of your life. Meeting new people, seeing new friends, attending some events or simply wandering on my own – New York had had me coming back a lot! Once we got to experience it in an unusual way as me and two other Fulbrighters were paired up with a local host to show us around. This lovely girl, a student of the New York University, showed us some places that would become usual places for me to visit such as Bryant Park, Grand Central Terminal, High Line, Washington Square… She also took us to her apartment and that was actually the first apartment in New York I had been in! This is a city of stories of lots and lots of people living and usually sharing apartments like that one with others…
Autumn in New York especially in October made me want to see the movie with the same name again. Central Park has to be part of the autumn experience here in New York. Even though its colors weren’t as spectacular as they were on the way to the Niagara Falls, being there on a sunny day after walking the Avenue of the Americas, or the Sixth Avenue, passing by the NBC studios and Radio City Hall with two fellow Fulbrighters from my university from Montenegro and Papua New Guinea was amazing. Taking countless pictures and talking about all sorts of things in that perfect coat matching the color of my eyes – that was perfect as well! Just a little human-made touch to hopefully enhance and be confident with what the mother nature gave me!
And of course, the whole month was also marked with the color of pumpkins that were virtually everywhere in the run up to Halloween, which I didn’t care to celebrate on the last day of the October, because I’m just not into spooky stuff. Anyway, there were all reasons not to be scared but excited about what the next month had to offer!