Earlier this month, A and I spent a week with his family, visiting more of his family, and staying at the house where his grandmother grew up in France. It was a wonderful, if admittedly overwhelming experience. We were never fewer than twelve people in the house – going up to nineteen at one point, and it was, as A said, much like living in a Mauriac novel. Fascinating characters abounded, and many long and late night conversations were had around the dinner table over cheese and wine.
I'm back! I spent this weekend attending family events celebrating a branch of A's family. The main event was yesterday and brought around 150 (out of 250 invitees) together. It was quite possibly the single largest gathering I've ever taken part in and definitely the largest family reunion I've seen. My grandparents threw big family reunions together to celebrate my grandpa's 70th birthday in 1998 and their 50th wedding anniversary in 2002, but even those maybe only brought 20-25 people together. This was something else entirely.
(Keep Reading for pictures of the closest thing you'll get to me frolicking in the countryside. Also me being sentimental.)
It was my birthday this week, and as a result, I let myself step back from current events for a day and think about the good in my life and oh my god was it amazing. I've decided since then that I'm going to make this a weekly thing. Every Sunday, I'm going to look back at my week and think about the little things that made me happy. And I'm going to post it because I miss being able to share happy thoughts on my blog and eh, we could all use a bit more positivity these days. So here goes for this week:
December's been an odd month. I've dealt with a lot of phantom anxiety, found sudden motivation to nail down my new thesis, /and/ found great peace. Christmas last year was a great mess with too much going on and too many emotions in play, but this year has been almost surprisingly calm. I went all out with decorations, wore glittery red nail polish all month, and decided to spend the holiday with A and his family.
Coming from a divorced family spread out over two continents, I've spent a lot of holidays away from "home," but I'd never spent one away from at least part of my family. I didn't quite know what to expect (despite films like The Family Stone telling me to expect disaster), but I know I certainly did not expect everything to feel natural and easy. The short week was surprisingly anxiety-free, and everything about it felt right. Nothing awkward, despite my having interacted with sixteen different people in only a few days! I'm still a socially quiet cookie, so I didn't suddenly start chatting with everyone I met, but I still managed with only one little withdrawal into A's room in the middle of only one of the dinner parties.
My favorite bit though –– other than the moments where I introduced A to a few of my favorite Christmas films (A Charlie Brown Christmas! Miracle on 24th Street! The Year Without a Santa Claus!) –– was when we went on a long walk with A's mom through the countryside near their house. It wasn't a hike by any means, but we passed beside fields and vineyards and walked through part of a forest, and it brought back memories from when I used to go on hikes with my grandparents when I was little. It was brilliant and got rid of all the "athletic" fears I had when I first met A. I'd repressed how much I enjoyed doing things outside over the past decade or so, but now I'm actually excited to think of hikes or maybe even skiing again. We'll see what time brings...
Otherwise, I really enjoyed getting out of the city for a bit and getting to know more of A's family. I also managed to make pancakes for ten people one morning, and I feel oddly proud of myself. Even that wasn't hard (and was even enjoyable?!) and again, excitement! I'm so thankful this year has brought my love of the kitchen back to life.
Here's to more anxiety-free holidays in the future...
August has been quite the month again this year. I've spent a lot of time with A, working on our respective projects (thesis, him; conference, me), visiting museums, and relaxing over Friends and Community. We've also tried a lot of new places to eat and done our fair share in the kitchen. I remember we would barely eat when we were together last summer, both too nervous and excited by the newness of everything, and now we're all about food. We spent a good five hours in the kitchen last night, making some of my grandma's dishes to serve at A's family's Sunday lunch today and then experimenting with a burger recipe (it had melty cheese in the center!) and sweet potato fries for ourselves. A does most of the work in the kitchen (I spent a good hour of that time typing up notes at the table while he was frying up eggplants), which is excellent both because it pleases me that it messes with gender expectations and because it's just really nice to have someone cook for you.
Otherwise, August has mostly been about getting back to work. I've slowly been getting back into things, reading quite a few articles and trying to jot down ideas. It's been more frustrating than rewarding so far though because despite all the good the last few months have done for me, the guilt of not having more to show for it than my improved mental health is starting to hit me. I feel much better and I have new ideas, but the old "produce! produce! produce!" mentality is hard to shake. I was brought up to believe that great success is the only option and that mediocrity might as well be failure, and replacing that with a healthier, more realistic mindset has me struggling despite my efforts. I'm consequently going between phases where I'm paralyzed by fears that I won't be "good enough" for academia anymore and others where I'm super motivated to prove myself. We'll see where this goes in the next few weeks as the conference draws nearer.
I also spent this past weekend in Neuchâtel, and A and I managed to go into town to visit one of his favorite museums yesterday, so I should have another post coming in the next few days about that!
With flowers and palm trees everywhere and island gardens on the lake, Lago Maggiore comes in as one of the most paradisiacal places I've ever visited. My first visit to the lake was three summers ago when my mother, grandmother, and I decided to take a holiday in June. We stayed at an old hotel on the outskirts of Baveno, a small town visited by Shelley, Wordsworth, and Queen Victoria, and spent two weeks relaxing and taking in the Italian sun and scenery (which in my case, meant hiding beneath a giant hat with my books). We've been back twice since and returned last month when my grandma insisted on a change of space.
This time last year, I was recovering from an odd bug that led to my passing out and getting stitches (at home!) after cutting my chin open in the subsequent fall. I was terribly light headed and frequently dizzy, and yet the one thing that kept me going was that I had the promise of a date (or what I hoped was a date) ahead of me. Now, I was not the type to put dates in a place of such importance, but you see, I'd met A a month before and that one meeting had turned my world on end. Seeing him again had become a priority, and there was no way something as small as stitches and being unable to get out of bed for more than a few minutes without succumbing to dizziness was going to stop me.
Stop me, it did not. I somehow made it to our coffee shop, somehow kept my cool, and somehow made it a few hours before everything started spinning. We stayed together for six hours that day, talking non-stop. I felt that the world was slowly settling into place, even as my body was protesting at my getting out of bed. I knew then that what I'd felt the first time I saw him weeks before had been right and that my life had already begun to change.
Dramatic and corny and utterly cliché as it sounds, everything did change then. There's a quote in Alain de Botton's Essays in Love on how, "if you asked most people whether they believed in love or not, they'd probably say they didn't. Yet that's not necessarily what they truly think. It's just the way they defend themselves against what they want. They believe in it, but pretend they don't until they're allowed to. Most people would throw away all their cynicism if they could. The majority just never get the chance." I was one of the most cynical people until I met A and got that chance. I held onto that cynicism until the day of our first date. I desperately clung to romanticism and hope through fiction, but I didn't believe it existed in the real world until I laid eyes on him and began to converse with him. I fell in love with an idealized version of A based on his intellectual and cultural self that day, and while those first feelings of love were based on an idealization, they were not any less real. They were signs of hope, and the first steps towards letting go of deep cynicism.
That same book says that when you see beyond the idealizations, you risk falling out of love. I saw beyond those idealizations over time, and far from making me begin to resent flaws in him, doing so has made me fall a thousand times more in love with him than I did then. This is maybe much to share with thousands over the internet, but in these times of growing hatred and fear, I feel the need to share the good. I didn't believe in love and I didn't believe I'd ever even want to find anyone, but my life utterly changed a year ago today, and I see nothing to hide about that. We live in a world that shames idealism and optimism as being naive and childish, but I see nothing to be ashamed about in love.
We aren't celebrating by doing anything big today. We were going to celebrate by going to an outdoor screening of Singing in the Rain by the lake, but again (oddly), I've been sick for the past few days. So instead, we've spent the day in pajamas, drinking lots of tea and alternating between books (me), thesis work (A), and watching endless random videos on loop. It isn't particularly romantic in the ideal sense, but as I've learned this year, the love found in the every day is so, so, so, so much more important than the ideal and in that sense, today could not have been more perfect.
I meant to post this on Sunday, but time goes by a little differently when you're on holiday. I'm back on Lago Maggiore with my family for the better part of two weeks. I said goodbye to A last Monday morning, headed back to Geneva, and then drove to Italy a couple of hours later. We went through the Simplon pass as it was pouring rain. It was quite an experience, and I'll post about it later on. I love going through Simplon because it's always an experience of the sublime, no matter the weather.
Being in Maggiore again has been wonderful. We came here for the first time three summers ago, and it's our third time back since. It's a gorgeous little corner of the earth and one of my favorite places to be. The landscapes are domestically sublime, with the rolling mountains in the background and the peaceful lake before us. We're staying in Stresa this time around, and we can see the Borromean islands from wherever we are. We've gone back to Isola Bella and Madre so far, and though it wasn't my first time on either, it was still exquisite to visit the houses and gardens again. Situated in the middle of the lake, they're like little pieces of floating heaven. It's easy to forget that the world is a dark, dark place from here, and such aesthetic fluff has certainly been necessary given the heartbreaking events in our country over the past few days.
Before A and I started dating last year, he wrote a blog post imagining what an opera about different post-structuralist philosophers would be like, referring to Derrida and Butler and punny arias like "Perform thy gender, love." I found this post in the days after we first met, and it confirmed what I suspected after that first meeting – that I'd finally met someone who loved opera, had a sense of humor about it, and was consequently oddly and remarkably well-suited to my person. In other words, it confirmed that I'd met the perfect man (calm rationality and my exasperation with men be damned!)! Naturally, thanks to the extreme joy caused by the revelation that he liked opera so much he could intelligently joke about it, I went on to refer to him almost exclusively as "Post-structuralist Opera Boy" when talking about him to my friends for weeks afterwards.
Then, on our first two dates, A went on and on about how much he likes opera and classical music, rambling to the point where he felt the need to apologize. He was a bit embarrassed, but I was so pleased by his enthusiasm that it was eventually what drove me over the edge and caused me to confess my feelings for him.
So, naturally, opera has played an important role in our dating life ever since we got together. I took A to an opera themed restaurant for his birthday, and he me to one on mine. We went to the opera together for the first time in October, while he was away in York and I was still stuck in Geneva, simultaneously attending the Met's live screening of Il Trovatore and communicating over whatsapp. We then went to an operetta for New Year's and several other – both traditional and satirical – productions by his favorite, local opera company, L'avant-scène opéra.
Then, last night, we went to see the Geneva production of Falstaff. We'd bought the tickets a couple of months before, taking advantage of their student offers, and it was our first "big" opera outing together. It was also our first time at the Opéra des Nations, the new, wooden theater where the Grand Théâtre de Genève is housing its productions while they renovate their Place de Neuve theater in the center of the city.
The new structure is located right in front of the U.N. and is extremely charming. We picnicked on the steps of an old building located in the same park before going in to our seats, and it made it seem like an even more summery experience. The wooden theater alone makes it feel seasonal – even though the theater will stand year round – and I was reminded of both childhood visits to the Ravinia Festival and to outings listening to operatic concerts on the shores of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (where hilariously, my family summered before my mom moved to the real Geneva).
Falstaff itself was wonderful, oddly yet appropriately aesthetically marrying what A identified as German Expressionism to Shakespeare's stories. I'd neither heard nor seen Falstaff performed and have only studied and seen Henry IV, Parts I & II (in Stratford in 2014) and not The Merry Wives of Windsor, so it was nice to see and hear an opera I wasn't very familiar with. A likes to read plays before seeing them and listen to operas to be prepared, but if it isn't for the sake of study, I sometimes like to go in without knowing what to expect. We spend so much time reading and rereading texts, watching and rewatching films and shows, and analyzing them all to death for study that the element of surprise is so welcome when possible. It helps me draw the fine line between work and play, and it's why I let myself be carried away by the storytelling when I read or watch things for fun. I was able to do just that with Falstaff. It was entertaining, and as a bonus, the opera also emphasized the folly of men and played up the power of women, so I was extremely happy with the whole.
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.
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.