Expectations vs Reality on the US Trip

This is the second part of our guest report from Kiefer Holland on his trip to the US. The title says it all!

When thinking about how I could create a blog post that reflected upon a five-week research to the US the best form I could come up with was to do an “expectations vs reality” kind of thing. Quick, simple, hopefully readable, and, more importantly, covering the requirements of gaining the funding. After I had finished writing it, I noticed that the reality sections spent a long time explaining the expectations, and I’m fine with that.

One thing I should probably acknowledge is that the expectations may seem to have little to do with the actual work itself. However, a big takeaway from this trip for me was that, when you’re on an archival trip to a different country, you are in the archives for a maximum of eight hours a day, and for the rest of the time you are living alone in a place that is unfamiliar, which presents its problems. I gained a lot from doing this research trip, and I am very privileged and grateful to have been able to do it, but that does not mean it was always easy. Also, 1000-words on the work would basically be me listing the archives that let me take my notebook in and telling you how I filed pictures, and that would be pants.

Expectation One:I will miss home.

Reality:This may seem like a bleak way to start a discussion of my expectations, but the fact of the matter is that I am very attached to my home comforts. I basically exist as an unusually sociable hermit in my daily life, and reluctantly leave the house perhaps twice or three times a week. This is no tragedy: one, I like it in here; and two, locking myself in a room with my work for days on end creates the possibility that I might actually do some work towards my PhD. So, rather than spending my last few days at home excitedly packing and dreaming of the adventure to come, convincing myself to pack and leave was a little bit of a lethargic process. The reality in this case was that my expectation was spot on. In fact, I missed home more than I thought possible and even considered leaving the US early.

Expectation Two:That, for some inexplicable reason, I will like Philadelphia the most.

Reality:This may or may not have something to do with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I’m genuinely not sure where I got the impression. Actually, it might have been more to do with the fact the picture of the kitchen on the AirBnB listing looked amazing. My expectations of Philadelphia and the kitchen were both close to reality. Philadelphia was beautiful, and full of history relevant to my research into the works of nineteenth-century African American women. However, I also really liked Salem and New York. Salem was gearing up for a month-long celebration of Halloween when I was there, which was quite charming, and in New York I have a couple of friends (no pun intended) who I was really pleased to see (see Expectation One).

Expectation Three:That I might find something in the archives.

Reality:Genuine hope. I visited six locations and nine archives, so the chances were good, but you can never be certain. I totally found some stuff. Helpful stuff too.

Expectation Four:That I might find nothing at all.

Reality: Honest pessimism. I couldn’t guarantee I would find anything, and the idea of finding nothing was one that filled me with no small amount of dread. However, I think knowing that finding nothing is a possibility is probably healthy, right? I did, of course, “totally [find] some stuff”. (Also, I reckon “Genuine Hope, Honest Pessimism” would be a good title for a novel or poem).

Expectation Five: That US supermarkets will be exciting.

Reality: Nope. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I personally like going into “grocery stores” in other countries to have a perusal of what foodstuffs are on the shelves. It’s like a little window into the day-to-day life of the average person. Also, as I was cooking for myself at the AirBnBs most nights, the supermarkets were kind of necessary. They have a lot more confectionary, obviously, but most of the brave new world of flavours I found were flavours I had no interest in any way. However, Trader Joe’s does have its merits, including very nice peanut butter cups. (Note: Germany and Italy both have a lot to offer for the supermarket tourist)

Expectation Six:That US TV will be good.

Reality: Nope. Lots of (very very shouty) adverts between what I think was an average of maybe ten-minute sections of TV. Cancel. Netflix, and to a lesser extent Amazon Prime Video, got me through this trip on golden wings of absolute trash.

Expectation Seven: That someone will comment on my accent.

Reality: This happened once, I think. I was in New York, and the person commenting on it was British and evidently taken aback to hear me and one of my New York friends chatting away in mildly Mancunian accents. Actually, in the same café an American did ask me if I was British, which I suppose was derived from my accent, but my glitteringly foreign tones garnered no comments at all. I must strive to sound more like Mary Poppins.

Expectation Eight:That I will get some writing and lots of work done.

Reality: Negative. There’s just something about sitting for six to eight hours in a room pouring over old paper whilst unable to eat or drink without an inordinate amount of faff, followed by trudging back to an AirBnB and cooking dinner, that makes working in the evenings seem mightily unappealing. That could just be me though.

Expectation Nine:That the US won’t seem as different as I imagine it will because of “common ties”.

Reality: I don’t know if I need to explain this or not really. Large chunks of our culture (TV, films, music etc.) are shared with, or largely dominated by, the US. As it happens, this does not equate to an actual similarity in common life. Everything that seems slightly different on a screen or in a lyric is a billion times more different when confronted in person. What I’m saying is that I sometimes felt very alien. That said, Boston does have a Primark.

Expectation Ten: That I will get sick.

Reality: This might seem a little like I’m a major germaphobe (an accusation you wouldn’t be remiss to make against me), but – although I barely ever get sick – I was certain I would on this trip. In my defence, I was travelling to new places, staying in different houses, sharing one (horrendous) bathroom, and getting on five planes, one coach, and no less than six trains. That’s not to mention the various undergrounds or equivalent. This is how people get sick. I did not get sick. That was either a lucky escape, or I am, possibly, a bit of a germaphobe.

Thanks again, Kiefer! Once more, and as ever, if anyone out there wants to discuss posting on the blog, have a chat, or complain about PhD stress, hit me up at james.johnson@stir.ac.uk or on Twitter.

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