Insecurity, Heartbreak, and the PhD

Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.

As I am now nearing the end of the first year of my PhD at the University of Cambridge, I’ve allowed myself some time to reflect on everything that has happened this year – probably as a way to not think about everything that I still have to do.
Doing a PhD anywhere is not an easy job (I say job as if I’m getting paid, but you catch my drift). Doing a PhD at Cambridge can add another level of difficulty.

The great thing about working here is that everybody is working on such a high level, and the atmosphere is buzzing with ambition and (academic) creativity. The Faculty and College are here to help you get through this in the best way you can, and people are simply wonderful.

That said, PhD’s are lonely. Because I set up my research myself, I am the one in charge of my progress and my ideas. My supervisor (Professor Maria Nikolajeva – I still cannot believe how lucky I am with that), is absolutely wonderful both in supporting me academically and mentally, but it is simply not her job to do my research for me. Getting started, and knowing what you have to do, is impossible at times. On top of this, as if the project itself isn’t enough for and I am not already feeling guilty all the time for every minute of free time I allow myself (this blog post is a rare luxury, but even now I am listening to a talk on literature and ethics as I write), you are seriously expected to do a lot of extra work.

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Thinking of everything he has to accomplish before winter break, the grad student feels the weight of the world crushing his entire being” Lego Grad Student

Getting a job in academia is not easy. Producing an excellent PhD at the end of your three years is simply not enough for you to secure a position. You need to publish, attract funding (in children’s literature, somehow), go to and organise conferences, do academic book reviews, set up outreach and impact initiatives. All of this work is exciting and interesting, and I want to do all of it.

But I also need to live. I want time for myself where I get to switch off – and how do you switch off when your work is necessarily philosophical in nature, and exists solely in your mind? There are rarely times when I am not mulling about certain problems with my work, rarely days where I fall asleep with ease, rarely days where I do not feel guilty about all the work I haven’t done. Writing is hard, and stressful, and I never feel like I’m working as much as I should. I have been informed that this is a classic Cambridge thing, so at least I’m blending in.

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Doing a PhD affects your life in many ways. I take joy out of my work, and I must admit that at times I marvel at the importance of my work and take great pride in the fact that it hasn’t been done before (hubris alert). I get to meet interesting people working on fascinating projects, I get to live in a beautiful city in a college where people are expressly hired to make sure the students are okay, and I get to dedicate myself to what I find interesting for the last time until I retire.

My life has also become very small. I rarely leave college grounds; the library is here, the faculty next door, and I work either in the library or in my shared kitchen. I do work for college in the library and invigilating exams, and I teach a course or two – at the faculty next door. My closest friends all live in the city, and even then I only really see the ones who live in college.
I moved to this city with plans for my project, but mainly with plans for the after: I was in a loving relationship which would be long-distance for a little while, and the plan was that we would both finish our PhD’s and then try to get a postdoc position in Florida and settle down together, all huisje-boompje-beestje. All of this, all of the “after” of the project, has vanished *poof* into the abyss.

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Catching sight of a junior faculty member in a familiar position, the grad student is chilled by what little change his future could hold” Lego Grad Student

Long-distance is a hard game to play, especially between two PhD students. You see, PhD students, or in fact all Cambridge students as I’ll argue, are odd creatures. We are obsessive about something nobody else really cares about, we hardly talk to anybody else (without talking about work), we drink too much, eat, live and sleep in weird rhythms, and are constantly on edge because of our pressure and drive to perform combined with the necessarily blind nature of our work. For us, it unfortunately proved to be too much.

It’s hard. It’s hard to break ties with someone you loved. It’s hard to let go of your ideas and plans for the future, especially when they were tied to a person that you can no longer be tied to yourself. It’s hard to push yourself beyond feeling, to work. How can you focus on work when it lives in the mind, and the mind is tied to the heart? Especially when this is combined with other personal tragedies (family stuff), it gets hard to keep going. I found my way through, but the way it went was not necessarily something I recommend (read: lots of long late nights with friends, Bojack Horseman, and whiskey). To quote J. K. Rowling (note that this is not me outing myself as a Potterhead, I am a literary scholar after all): numbing the pain for a while will only make it worse when you finally feel it.

In the end, it’s important to know that it will all be fine. I know the way I work, which is very much with high peaks and low valleys of productivity, and I know objectively, my work will be fine. I know the way I love, which is rapidly and completely, and I know that my heart is fine. I know the sun will rise tomorrow, I know my new primary sources will arrive in the mail later this week, I know that I am capable.
And this, I think, is the key to surviving a PhD: know that you will be fine, and have faith in your work. At the end of your three years, you will be the expert in what you are doing – nobody else will be as informed as you are. And if this doesn’t convince you, and you have a bit of a nihilistic streak, also remember that none of it really matters, most people will never hear about it, so why break yourself over it? Do the best that you can, but do it for you. Take breaks when you start to crumble.

Know that you are capable.

Welcome to Night Vale

A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.

So…I may have acquired a new obsession.

Yes, I’m a bit late to the game, but I have finally discovered Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s Welcome to Night Vale. Nigh indescribable, Welcome to Night Vale is a fictional news podcast, detailing life in the desert village of Night Vale. This, I know, doesn’t sound particularly exciting.

However, life at Night Vale is very far from normal. The reality as presented in this “news broadcast” is like that of a dystopian nightmare. Imagine a world (or a single town) where all conspiracy theories are true, and take it from there. The city is governed like any normal town: there’s a mayor, the government, the sheriff, civil servants, city council, the sheriff’s secret police, etc. There are, however,  also Hooded Figures, angels, a forbidden dog park, and Mountain Believers.

The City Council announces the opening of a new Dog Park at the corner of Earl and Somerset, near the Ralph’s. They would like to remind everyone that dogs are not allowed in the Dog Park. People are not allowed in the Dog Park. It is possible you will see Hooded Figures in the Dog Park. Do not approach them. Do not approach the Dog Park. The fence is electrified and highly dangerous. Try not to look at the Dog Park, and especially do not look for any period of time at the Hooded Figures. The Dog Park will not harm you.

The one thing that roots Welcome to Night Vale in our reality is the main overarching plotline: the relationship between our radio host Cecil, and newcomer Carlos. Beautiful, perfect Carlos, who, based on his behaviour and reactions to local events, I’m pretty sure comes from our reality.

In the first year of the show, host Cecil has an adorable, starstruck crush on scientist Carlos. Always using the adjectives “beautiful” and “perfect” when describing him, freaking out when beautiful, perfect Carlos gets his beautiful, perfect hair cut – Cecil is smitten. As he is our protagonist, and for a long time the only voice from Night Vale, we are smitten too. And why wouldn’t we be? Although their world and lives are different from ours, both Cecil and Carlos are sympathetic characters, whose feelings we rarely see but when we do, are genuinely touching.

With the show running the risk of alienating the audience by moving away from the world we know further and further, the romance between Cecil and Carlos is the one thing that grounds us in their world. It is the most normal thing to happen in the show! It is impossible not to squeal (at least on the inside) when their relationship progresses, and I cannot imagine anyone unable to get invested. It being a relationship between two men is completely incidental and insignificant, which is wonderfully refreshing.

So, do you enjoy listening to the radio?
Do you enjoy listening to the news?
Are you into dystopian sci-fi, or conspiracy theories?
Do you need help to believe in love?

Then let me help you out: https://soundcloud.com/nightvaleradio/1-pilot-1.

May you too find love in this dark desert. May it be as permanent as the blinking lights, and as comforting as the dull roar of space. Good night, Night Vale. Good night.

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Cecilos fanart by xxblackasdayxx from xxblackasdayxx.deviantart.com

A Day Trip to Soho

Although life in Cambridge is wonderful, and I am equally in love with my friends and my work, sometimes I have to leave the bubble. So after hearing about a secret cocktail bar in Soho with a children’s literature inspired menu, my partner and I figured we might as well go for a cheeky day trip.

Lucky for us, the connection between Cambridge and London is very good, so as soon as we decided to go we found ourselves on a train. After a cold walk through London town, we made it to Poland Street, Soho.

And walked straight past the entrance.

We looked up the address again, and walked past the entrance once more.

Finally, after feeling awfully uncool and trying to look inconspicuous whilst checking every single door on the street, we knew we made it when we found this:

Slightly creepy, but pretty cool!

We then went up several steps, both definitely oozing sophistication, looking suave, and not nervous at all, and arrived in a very swanky, very crowded bar. We were told there was only a standing space for us at the moment (turned out this really was 1 standing place for 2), but we’d be seated soon. Oh, and did I mention that this was at 3 in the afternoon?

All of the nerves, the waiting, and people were instantly worth it when we were handed the menu. The menu is just as classy and cool as the place itself, beautifully illustrated in the style of a children’s novel. The lining is reminiscent of a primary school journal, and although this was all obviously focus grouped and highly stylized, it strangely felt organic and natural.

A fun menu mini game was to find all the references to the Blind Pig

Two things worked against us here: firstly, we are by no means cocktail experts and had not heard of a lot of these ingredients. Secondly, all of the cocktails sounded adorable and were illustrated appealingly beautifully. Making a decision was difficult.

After eyeing up what the people around us were drinking, we managed to make a decision. I went for the Hunny Pot, and my partner for the Half a Pint o’Buttah.  (This was most definitely a difficult choice, as the Jar of Dreams is served with light-up ice cubes.)

The presentation killed it and the drinks were delicious.

Was it ridiculously expensive? Yes. Then again, this is Soho we’re talking about, so considering the costs of running the place I suppose we aren’t talking about extortionate pricing here. The strange thing to us was that while we were comfortably seated and taking our time to enjoy our drinks, the people around us appeared to come there to smash in one drink – within 10 minutes most of them would be gone.

Because of the great connection to London it is so easy for a Cambridge student to escape the bubble, if only for an afternoon. To all who have the same option, or who happen to be in London anyway, I highly recommend stopping by the Blind Pig. If you’re worried about spending that much on only a drink, I say to you: save money by walking from the station to Soho instead of taking the underground. You’ll be able to explore the city a bit, feel refreshed by a doable walk, and feel less guilty about treating yourself to a fancy, delicious drink!

Come Monday, it’s back to the bubble and work again. Especially in stressful environments like Cambridge it’s so important to relax and unwind, and it’s so hard to justify it to yourself. Feel free to treat yourself every once in a while and remember to take time to be delightfully unproductive. In the words of Milne,

Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.

It’s okay to go on day trips too, though!

Nation – Terry Pratchett

That’s what the gods are! An answer that will do! Because there’s food to be caught and babies to be born and life to be lived and so there is no time for big, complicated, and worrying answers! Please give us a simple answer, so that we don’t have to think, because if we think, we might find answers that don’t fit the way we want the world to be.

Rarely does a book come along that is both light and intensely challenging – Terry Pratchett’s Nation is one of these kinds books.

The story is as follows: Mau is a boy from Nation, undergoing a rite of passage on an island by himsel when a tsunami hits and wipes away everything and everyone he knows and loves. English girl Daphne gets shipwrecked on the same shore. Together, but separated by language, culture and religion, they have have to build a new Nation and survive. Why would the Gods allow this to happen? What is the meaning of this suffering?

There’s a reason Pratchett writes “Thinking. This book contains some. Whether you try it at home is up to you.” This book is so highly philosophical and painful, as two young people survive and are faced by tragedy. Mau has to bury everyone he knows, and lead the survivors in the rebuilding of Nation. But what is Nation? When everyone who lived the culture but one has died, can such a thing as “Nation” still exist? Also, is there a God(s)?

Yet even though the topics this book handles are very sophisticated and incredibly heavy, it does have typical Pratchett humour throughout. He makes fun of religion, the idea of Empire, the English, and succession. That said, he takes Mau, his musings and suffering, and his world very seriously. Because of this, the comic relief comes in the form of Daphne, or rather, her education and “good breeding”.

“You are very clever,” said the old man shyly. “I would like to eat your brains, one day.”
For some reason the books of etiquette that Daphne’s grandmother had forced on her didn’t quite deal with this. Of course, silly people would say to babies, “You’re so sweet I could gobble you all up!” but that sort of nonsense seemed less funny when it was said by a man in war paint who owned more than one skull. Daphne, cursed with good manners, settled for “It’s very kind of you to say so.”

The writing is witty and poetic, like most Pratchett novels, but unlike most of his other work the tone of this one is heavily philosophical and serious. You feel for Mau, and as you enter his mind you are forced to face the same questions and issues. Can you believe in the Gods when they wiped out everything you knew and loved? Is it possible to rage against them if you do not believe?

The chemistry between the characters is wonderful though, and it is not all misery and suffering. Overall, I highly recommend this book. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will warm your heart as you ponder the nature of life and the purpose of death.

Terry Pratchett, if I could I would quote the following back to you:

No more words. We know them all, all the words that should not be said. But you have made my world more perfect.

Although you never had a chance to know, you mean a lot to me. Thank you.

Peacock’s Tearoom – Ely

When life in a Cambridge college gets too claustrophobic, chances are high that you are going to go on a day trip to the nearby village of Ely. (Pro-tip: Saturday return tickets are only £2!)

Ely is an adorable, pictoresque little village. It’s very small and very, very English. After doing the prerequisite touristic wander from the water through the cathedral, there’s not much to do….besides a traditional afternoon tea!

Enter Peacock’s Tearoom.

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The interior is cute, albeit crammed: here’s one too many tables in the room! That said, it’s still quite doable.

The food is pretty yummy, a classic afternoon tea comes with four finger sandwiches, two scones with real clotted cream and jam, and a slice of cake of your choice. The sandwiches are fine, nothing too exciting. The scones are really nice, and the real clotted cream is so, so appreciated! After having had one too many teas with either butter or whipped cream, this was a very warm welcome back to afternoon teas, let me tell you.

The star of the show was the cake.
Oooh boy, this cake-  let me tell you. A coffee cake, layered with Baileys cream icing? All the yes! It was perfectly moist, the coffee flavours were subtle and yet obviously present, and the Baileys cream was the stuff dreams are made of.

Behold the tower of food:

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They have many exciting teas to choose from, and it was a tough choice to make indeed! My partner went for a classic vanilla tea, which tasted like buttery biscuits when drank with milk. I opted instead for the Black Witch tea, from Bohea Teehandlung in Berlin. In the menu it is described as “A splendid and memorable spicy blend from Berlin; with star anise, ginger, apple, cinnamon and more”. What is the “and more”? I have no clue. Was it spicy? No, not really. That said, it was delicious! Strangely, it has all the flavours I link to Chai, but doesn’t taste like it. It has a vaguely festive thing about it, but is very autumnal. Simply yummy.

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Overall, Peacock’s Tearoom is highly recommended – as is Ely in general! Both are quaint, traditional, and incredibly English.

Let me finish this off with a picture from inside the cathedral after Evensong. Enjoy!

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A Glorious Return

Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

Wow, has it really been nearly half a year since I last posted on this blog??
After being so consistent with posting twice a week, I must admit I feel more than slightly embarrassed about being gone for so long, but no worries my friends, I have returned!

Yes, the glorious return of this vaguely literature oriented, vaguely tea oriented blog has finally come, and it’s come with some changes.

The reason of this long stretch of silence essentially boils down to lots of moving house, cross city, cross country, cross continent. Also I worked a lot. I may post about that some time (as one of my jobs was literature related and actually very cool).

Also I started a PhD in children’s literature at the university of Cambridge, which is incredibly time consuming – but also loads of fun!
Now, to keep myself sane and to spend time thinking about my favourite ‘genre’ of literature; children’s literature, in a non-academic setting, the blog is back baby!

Get strapped in for a whole new take on this ride, featuring:

  • Fewer postings!
    I’m lucky enough to now be a very busy woman, and will therefore have to limit my postings. That said, the posts that will come out will be of a more …consistent quality, let’s say, and be less formulaic.
  • Talk/rants about my academic struggles!
    I’ll relate it to children’s literature, I swear.
  • Recipes using tea!
    After thinking about it for, well, half a year, I’ve decided that I do really enjoy the thought of using tea in baking and sharing these experiments with you guys, my lovely readers.

Now I went on a lovely little day trip to Ely a little while ago, and to try and revive this blog slowly I’ve set myself the goal to have that post up by this Monday, so I’ll see you guys then!

Blogging Hiatus

Hi guys!

As you may have noticed, it’s been a while since I posted on the blog and I feel really guilty about it.

I first started writing this blog when I was working full time at a call centre, a job which I hated so much that the small amount of time and energy I had left in a day I spent crying in bed. After chatting with my mum about it, she recommended me to start a blog to talk about the things I am passionate about. From that idea, Tea & Tales was born.

Writing this blog made me excited about reading and writing again, and I was slowly starting to feel better about myself. After I quit my job, the blog was the only bit of stability left for me. Things were looking pretty tough, but I really loved writing regularly and occupying myself with things I actually care about.

Right now, things are finally starting to look up. I got 2 new jobs, another one lined up for the Edinburgh Book Festival, and a PhD position at the University of Cambridge later this year. I have friends, a supportive partner and family, and am very happy! However, I am also very busy. Preparing for my PhD, working 2 jobs and moving house take up a lot of time and unfortunately the blog took the fall..

I know this sounds a bit like a goodbye post, but not to worry! It really isn’t. I love the blog, and even though there’s not a lot of readers I love all of you and would hate to let you down!

This message is merely to let you know that I’m really busy right now, and regular posts won’t be happening for a little while – but I’m definitely still here!