Friday, April 29, 2011

Nearing the Finish Line

Boxing up a lot of my school books and readings, looking at the dates on some of the materials, it really hits home. I am 90 days away, for the most part, from being done with my MA in International Affairs, a journey that started in January 2009, or perhaps more accurately, in September 2008 when I attended the information session.

So many images are clear in my mind from those early days. In fact, August 2008 is very clear in my mind - that was when Russia invaded Georgia. I can still see myself getting out of my car in New Rochelle, walking to the train station and having the newsreader's voice on 880 buzzing in my ears. He was quoting Condi Rice who had given a stern warning to the Russians over their "disproportionate" response to the Georgians. I remember thinking how nice it would be to do work that mattered, that was significant, that had meaning.

I had looked into international affairs in May 2008. I called CUNY's chairperson, who didn't return my call. I even remember the person who answered the phone asking me if I lived in New York, because that would have an impact on tuition costs. I recall typing 'international affairs careers' into google to see what it returned in an effort to get a sense of what the field was like. I dismissed it all, simply because the guy at CUNY didn't return my call. And then Russia/Georgia happens, and that changed everything. I began looking into the field a little more, found the information session at the New School on, I think, September 15, 2008. I walked out, excited, feeling this could be transformative.

Two and half years later here I sit. Amazed I've made it this far, sad that all this time has passed, exhausted at the hustle and bustle I have put myself through. But I felt I had to make a change, so I did it, and the moment is getting closer, the days passing by in a blur.

I think back to 2009 - the Fulbright, the Polish, that summer, looking at other schools. Everything seemed so far in the future, and I had a well-paying, albeit very unsatisfying job. It's easier to say you are making a career change when you have to pass through 2 years before you actually have to put your talk into action. That's what I'm facing now.

Reflecting on these past 27 months, the memories are as bright as day. I still remember that first night, that first semester, reading Leviathan as I was doing my laundry, going to buy Marx in Forest Hills on a sunny day,  writing the paper on Yugoslavia; reading Polanyi, still in New Rochelle, overwhelmed at the volume of reading assigned each week. As I put these materials into boxes, I tell myself that now that the pressure to get these pages read is no longer, I should go back to read much of this material. Read it slowly, over time, the way I would read any book. Absorb it, enjoy it, reflect more carefully on what it is telling me. I did my best to read everything that was assigned; since I was paying for it, I felt the need to fulfill my obligations to myself.

Ninety days from now, I will be packing my bags in Kosovo after 8 weeks there. I will be readying to make the trip home, preparing to give a short presentation on my work there on September 9, in the same hall where the information session took place in what would be almost 3 years ago to the date. Symmetry is a wonderful thing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Polish vs French

I've been learning French this semester for several reasons, with work and career the primary concern. Spanish would be much easier to learn - I took three years of it in high school, and in New York, like many other places in the US, Spanish is heard and spoken widely, providing the learner with some immersion, certainly more immersion than one would find with many other languages, French included (although there is no shortage of French in New York either).

But I chose French not just for work, but also because of my obsession with Europe, living a fantasy of someday residing in France, Belgium or Switzerland. There's nothing really stopping me from going to either one of those places. The question becomes, how does one find work in a new country where one isn't a citizen? By work, I mean substantive work, not just teaching English, which many in Western Europe are learning from a young age anyway.

Comparing French to my year of Polish study, Polish is clearly easier to pronounce. Slavic languages are phonetic, so as long as a person knows how the letters sound, they never change no matter where they are in the word, unlike English, where non-native speakers can become frustrated when confronted with short and long vowels, and the letter c, which in a word like 'concern' sounds like a 'k' and an 's'. French on the other hand, is quite different, and without hearing the word pronounced the first time, a person can do quite well in embarrassing oneself. The silent letters, coupled with the nasal sounds combine to make the uninitiated look, well, uninitiated. Both languages are pleasant to the ear - Polish can be described as "flowery," while French just seems to flow from the tongue and when spoken fluently, might be one of the more prettier languages to listen to. French is also nice, in that one can see the relationship it has with English. I don't know which language came first - that would require doing some genealogy research on England and France to reach a conclusion.

Slavic languages, in the majority of cases, do not translate when given a simple look-over. Outside of words like mleka or woda (milk, water; ironically, in French, milk and water are not even close to the English translation), it's a completely different way of thinking, and where definite and indefinite articles do not exist.

I also now understand why Spanish and French are often mentioned in the same sentence. As romance languages, they are very much alike, and in my time learning French, when I look at Spanish words around New York, I see the similarities. One would assume that learning Spanish becomes easier once they grasp French and vice versa, just as learning Polish helps a person learn other Slavic languages. Stating the obvious, language families makes learning a bit easier and expedites the process of going from one language to another. The real challenge is immersion and becoming accustomed to hearing the words to bring about fluency.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Lost Part II

I finished reading Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost this morning. Rarely has a book struck me the way this book did. Because the book is so close to home, which is to say, because I have tried to find information via travel to Poland, through, etc, and have come up empty, I can relate to what the author was going through, why he was so interested in it, and why he took it so seriously. The difference, of course, is that the author accomplished largely what he set out to accomplish. He asked the questions early enough to learn all he could about his familial roots, and when he was old enough, he began making the trips around the world to find out the details about those who were lost.

He also had a great deal of luck; it's almost unbelievable, as one reads through the pages, to see how all the pieces came together. It was a serendipitous experience, being in the right place at the right time, one clue leading to another, a seemingly unimportant detail leading to a significant finding. Just when he thought he was done with his research, he would meet one more person who could give him information, and that person would send him to another, and another, and finally, he's in the house where two of his ancestors were found hiding during the war, setting foot in the hiding place itself. Later, we learn that he finds himself standing at the very spot where his ancestors where shot after they were discovered.

I confess to feeling a sense of envy as I read through the pages. The sense of accomplishment the author must have felt when he finished his four/five year tour, visiting numerous continents and elderly survivors who knew his ancestors from 60 years prior and could remember enough to provide enough information to paint a picture that brings those lost people back to a small degree.

I would absolutely love to find out what happened to my grandmother's sister. I doubt very much I will, and of course, with so many other things to worry about, it's difficult to dedicate the time to such an effort. It is, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of searching for a needle in a proverbial haystack, especially since her sister probably, at least as far as she knows, was not in a camp, or on any deportation list that was kept by the perpetrators.

I can think of one other book that had an impact on me as profound as The Lost. And yet, the book is a work of fiction, not a real adventure capturing the lives of those in the present as they seek information about the lives of the past. The book is about Vietnam and it's call The Things They Carried. I first read the book when I was in high school, when I was captivated by the Vietnam war and when I was preparing an essay on PTSD, which at the time, was something new, whereas today, PTSD is widely accepted as an outcome of prolonged exposure to combat (among other things). I then read the book again in 2006, and it didn't bring about the same reaction I had to it when I was a teenager. I'm not sure why - while I remembered bits and pieces, especially the ending which is easily the most profound portion, I did not think reading it again after more than a decade would be like seeing a movie for the nth time, where the suspense is no longer there because the ending is known. With that said, I highly recommend it.

And so, my next step is send some names and birth dates via email to the Polish State Archives to see if I'll have any luck, once again, on finding something from the past.