Walking through Lausanne on our way back from the Shakespeare Festival the other night, I spotted bagels out of the corner of my eye, squealed, and then turned on the spot to see the newly opened Bagel on the Way. Since it was about 10 p.m., the shop was obviously closed, but A quickly found its Instagram feed and as its photos looked quite promising with shiny, fat bagels, I was excited to try it.
I took the train to Lausanne on Wednesday with that exact purpose in mind. I met A by the station and we went to Bagel on the Way to get a picnic dinner before making our way down to Ouchy to eat by the lake.
My hand slipped and I bought two new books the other day. I'm already a third of the way through Jessie Burton's The Muse, and I'm having trouble putting it down. It's everything I want from a leisure read – a multi-era historical novel, a story of writers and painters and a somewhat more literary take on the Kate Morton-esque genre I enjoy so much. I'm looking forward to having more time to read this weekend and seeing how the rest of the novel goes!
One of the greatest things about living in Geneva is being so close to so many literary landmarks. I'm awfully aware of the Shelleys when I walk along the lake beneath Cologny, of Edith Wharton when we lunch in Ouchy, and Zelda Fitzgerald when we walk through the flowery lakeside in Vevey. I've personally mythicized their presences in the area over the years, but none of my private musings really compare to the very public, very known story of Lord Byron and the Château de Chillon.
George Gordon Byron traveled to Chillon with Percy Bysshe Shelley on the 26th of June, 1816, two hundred years ago yesterday. He was so struck with the place that he wrote a poem, "The Prisoner of Chillon," soon thereafter about – eponymously – a prisoner in the dungeons of the castle. The castle dungeons look out onto some of the most gorgeous spots on the lake, so that Byron was struck with the contrast between the bleak, stoney interior, and the pristine views of Leman and the Alps is not at all surprising.
Many people travel to visit Chillon these days, some inspired by Byron, others keen to visit the most popular tourist site in Switzerland, and I was able to make two of my own pilgrimages to the castle this year. I'd try to visit it on many occasions in the past, always asking my mom to stop on our drives along the lake, but I had little luck until one of my friends suggested she, A, and I all go on a visit together in September (sadly without my best friend who was supposed to come but was stuck in Italy).
A arranged for us to take a steamboat from Vevey, and we arrived at the castle shortly before lunch. We ate in the gardens and then took our time exploring every nook and cranny of the medieval castle. We were enchanted by the dungeons (pictures of which you can see here) and the faded murals of the castle. Little furniture survives in Chillon (which, let's be honest, is usually one of my favorite things to see when visiting castles), but just about every room looks out on to the mountain-drawn lake and little of the castle consequently seems bare. We spent hours going through the castle that day, going so far as to climb the very narrow stairs to the top of one of the towers (which ended in A needing to go down the stairs backwards and guide me because I hated how narrow and steep they were and was terrified to go back down again), but I knew then that we'd have to come back.
And come back we did! As part of the two hundredth anniversary of the summer Byron and the Shelleys spent around Lac Léman, the universities of Lausanne, Neuchâtel, and Geneva banded together and organized a study trip going from Lausanne to Chillon to the Foundation Bodmer in Geneva (a place for which I have great affection, but that's for another time) to celebrate both the inspiration behind "The Prisoner of Chillon" and Mary Shelley's creation of Frankenstein. A was lucky enough to audit the class that organized the trip in Lausanne, and Rory – aforementioned Italian Best Friend – and I managed to get tickets to tag along from Geneva. We had a wonderful day, starting with an early morning train ride to Lausanne to have pancakes, eggs, and full English breakfasts at the Blackbird Coffee & Breakfast Club (a place A and I discovered in March and love), and then we made our way to Chillon with our universities.
This latest trip was at the end of May, and the castle was set up to host the "1816-2016 Byron is back!" exhibition. We got to listen to a talk about the exhibition, walk around the castle, and take part in a reading of the poem – or rather A took part in a reading of the poem while Rory and I listened.
Visiting was just as fulfilling this time, both aesthetically and intellectually, and had the benefit of being even more caffeinated as we were greeted at the castle with coffee. Having now seen the castle at different times of year, I can easily understand why it's such a haunting and inspirational place.
The most important thing I've been doing to get past my literary burn out (which yes is a serious problem in my field) over the past few months has been reading whatever I want to read, whether it's academic, useful, or not. This means I've been rediscovering lost classics like Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness, dipping back into social satire, and picking up random academic publications like Jane Austen's Erotic Advice (which, almost disappointingly, is not what it seems). There hasn't really been much to tie my reading material together beyond the usual fact that most of what I read is either written by or about women, but that doesn't really change much from what I normally read anyway.
Reading what I want to read has also led to my changing how I read. I'm still coming up with ideas here and there – I've decided for instance that I want to try to work The Making of a Marchioness into my new thesis projects – but I'm letting myself read for pleasure. For years, I've attacked just about every text with my case full of highlighters and handy post-it booklet, ready to annotate every page and turn the edges of the book into a colorful paper flag collage. The approach has helped me with my academic texts – endlessly, but it's also killed my ability to read for fun. And what really is the point of going into academia to pursue your passion if you've killed it along the way?
Because that is essentially what I did. Making it into academia means that you need to fine tune your reading skills and be ready to attack anything, yes, but actually successfully making it with your sanity in tact also means that you need to be able to draw an (even if admittedly fine) line between work and pleasure. I took that line and eviscerated it. I decided to take my fun reads (and watches) and turn them into work, and I forgot to distinguish between the two along the way.
And then I tripped.
So now I've taking a step back. I focused on my classes of the semester, and then I put my highlighters away and folded my post-it booklet shut. I haven't annotated a single one of the new books I've picked up, and I've truly enjoyed myself. I've made it through several books without once thinking, "How can I work this into a critical piece?" I've found inspiration when not looking for it (Burnett), and I rediscovered the pleasure that drove me into this field into the first place. I also started sleeping better and feeling less anxious during my waking hours.
Part of me is worried that I've gotten too comfortable relaxing and refusing to critically engage, that I'll get used to this state of mind and not want to go back to doing what I love, but the logical part of my brain is constantly trying to remind me that I need this, that a month of reading purely for fun isn't really that long when compared to the seven years I've spent immersing myself in critical reading. This is what I need to do to reset and go back into things with that fine line clearly drawn.
I've been meaning to make a little Geneva guide of my favorite places both on here and on tumblr for a while now, so I'm taking advantage of the fact that one of our good tumblr friends is coming (tomorrow!) to visit to push myself and finally post!
Coffee & Pastries
It's funny how unexpected places will go from being names to landmark places in your life. Up until the end of last summer, York to me was that place that inspired my mom's hometown's name and that place they sometimes visit on Downton Abbey. Being an English student for years, I also obviously knew about the mystery plays, but /not/ being a medievalist, it wasn't really someplace I gave much thought to.
Then one of my close friends (who /is/ a medievalist) announced that she would be going to graduate school there and then, weeks later, I met A (who is also a medievalist) (I am surrounded by medievalists), fell in love, and then found myself deep in a relationship with someone who was also about to leave for York for /twelve whole weeks/.
So York suddenly became an important place. I got live updates and photos from A every single day and got to know King's Manor and the Minster before my two visits in November. It's a gorgeous little city, easily accessible by train, with an even more gorgeous center. It's full of medieval buildings and is still surrounded by walls. The Minster, its awe-inspiring cathedral, looms over the city, and it has adorable little coffee shops everywhere. In a way, it's an ideal place – architecturally aesthetic, overcast, and deliciously caffeinated. I could easily see myself settling into it.
My only problem with the city was that – as much as I loved it – thinking of it filled me with terror. Twelve weeks may not seem like a long time to be apart from someone, but it was. A and I hadn't even been together for two months when he left, and separation that early on seemed huge. As someone who grew up on another continent from her mother, sometimes going as long as eight months without seeing her, I thought I was set for life for dealing with long distance. I thought I had it completely down and that I'd always be chill and would never have to be stressed about long distance relationships. Then I met A and my entire attitude fell to pieces. For the first time in my life, distance was hard and I spent most of the autumn terrified and convinced that a harmless city was going to take him away from me.
I knew at the time that I was being irrational, but there was little I could do about it and York quickly became the embodiment of all my fear and uncertainty. My stomach still drops the first second I think of York, but as the months have passed since A came home in December, the fear lifts with more and more ease. I rarely have to do anything more than blink to make it go away, and after our trip back to the city this past week, I won't be surprised if the feeling finally goes away altogether.
(For more of my pictures from York, see my tag on tumblr, and look for a happier post on our return to the city in the coming days.)
The summer I was eight, my mom, her best friend, and my grandmother went on an extended tour of Italy. I was supposed to travel with them, but going through a new wave of seeing evil in my traveling to Europe, my father intervened against my going abroad, and I spent part of the summer staying with him in rural Illinois. I’ve been enchanted with the idea of Italy ever since, and as many times as I’ve been to Como, Lago Maggiore, and Amalfi in the past few years, I’ve had few chances to see the cities. Being far more interested in architecture and museums than in cocktails and lounging, I was unhappy with the extent of my travels and decided that it was time I began to actually see the rest of Italy.
I consequently traveled to Venice two Septembers ago and then, last July, did what I vowed to do when I was eight: prove that I was an adult by going to Rome with my best friend.
I started writing this post a few days after getting back from our trip, but last summer proved to be a transitional time in my life. I met my now-boyfriend in June, spent much of July – and indeed a big part of the trip – hoping that I would get to see him again, and the days after I got back from Rome were dedicated to building up the courage to ask him out for coffee. I did. We connected in a way I didn't believe was actually possible, and I barely managed to think of anything but him for weeks (months?) afterwards. Written blog posts were quickly forgotten, and here I am a year later.
Thanks to this, I now connect Rome with the excitement of that time. It was a wonderful time. It was my first trip to the Italian capital but it was also my first time away with a friend and my first independently financed holiday.
Rory and I took advantage of being able to do whatever we wanted, blissfully away from all of our academic obligations and our families for a few days. We spent our mornings listening to a curious mix of Taylor Swift and Hozier as we breakfasted and did our makeup and then making our way to the center.
We visited museums and villas every day and spent hours getting lost amongst gorgeous sculptures and murals and taking countless aesthetic photos. We shopped and we spent a ridiculous amount of time and money at Babington's Tea Room. We were there in the middle of a heat wave and so the tea room and villas were our saviors in the middle of the 40° days.
We took so many photos on the trip that I have over a thousand pictures on my laptop and have more favorites than I can possibly share. I've included a few here, but you can see more in my trip tag on tumblr, here.
All in all, our time in Rome was perfect. Traveling with my best friend is one of my favorite things, and I can't wait to explore the rest of Italy with her in the coming years.
I was five years old when I decided I wanted to go to grad school. I remember walking through a tiny little park near our flat in the center of Chicago with my mom, holding her hand and happily telling her about how much I loved school as I skipped down the sidewalk. It was one of our rare Sunday afternoons together, and while she was happy to listen to me, she was quick to encourage. "What's the furthest you can go in school?" I asked, and I learned about masters and doctorates.
It was then that I resolved that if that was the furthest you could go, that's where I would direct myself.
I made my mind up then, and in the years that followed, whenever I imagined my future, I saw myself surrounded by books. I didn't know what I wanted to do, didn't come to terms with the fact that the only thing for me was academia until my third year of university, but all I could ever see myself doing was studying. It's what I pictured when I looked ahead, dreaming of books and accomplishments, jobs and marriage and babies rarely entering my head.
So when I finished my degree in Comp Lit and English in 2014, that I would go straight into grad school was never in question. In fact, I started following MA classes before I even validated the last of my BA credits. I was eager to go on, to progress to the next level. To be one step closer to being a doctoral student, and – not to be too dramatic – to fulfilling my destiny.
It was the only thing I could imagine doing, and the only thing I couldn't get enough of.
The one thing, though, that I never predicted was burning out. I read and I read and I read and then suddenly I didn't want to read anymore. I went through over five years of higher education, and then I panicked. I started writing a research paper that I hated, delved into a topic that made me sick, and after pushing through for three dark months, I hit a wall. I underperformed with some projects, excelled at others, and I realized I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, what I wanted to specialize in, what I needed to drop, and I felt the need to pause.
And I did. An opportunity I'd counted on seemed to disappear, and I decided to take advantage of it to slow down and recalibrate. I scrapped my thesis project, dropped classes I didn't like, and I even stopped reading for a couple of weeks.
I paused my academic life, and I started to breathe again. I spent time with my family, my friends, my boyfriend. I slept. I ate whatever I wanted to eat. And then slowly, I started to pick up books again... I resolved to only pick those I wanted to read. I picked what I wanted to pick, and suddenly my appetite came back. I started reading faster, started enjoying my books. I found myself gravitating towards the era I'd always gravitated towards before detouring last year, and suddenly I was going through books with an ease that I thought I'd lost for good.
I still don't know for sure what comes next, but I have learned to balance. To put my mental health and my happiness first. To spend time with loved ones and not to place the entirety of my self worth in my academic performances. But I've also learned that burning out didn't mean that I wasn't doing what I was meant to be doing. I love studying, and I love literature, and I love sharing my knowledge with others. I want to keep reading and writing, and I want to teach. I just want to learn to do all of those things without losing myself along the way.
Hello & Welcome!
I'm Olivia, a twenty-six year old grad student studying in Switzerland. This is where I share my thoughts on the academic journey, culture, travels, baking, and my daily life abroad. Read More.