Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"What are you?"

I worked night and day to be ready for the linguistics conference.

The series of "papers" to which I offered my presence have left no mark on my memory.

The incidental ethnographic study of my betters and peers has left the following:

On arriving at the university building I was confronted by a mingling of badged people.

Closed circles indicated that they clearly knew each other and were busy talking up their schemes.

I knew nobody.  What does one do in such surroundings? Is there a secret handshake?

Go boldly up to the first person and offer to speak to them, I thought, would be my opening gambit.

"Bonjour", I offered jovially, to a bejacketed French gentleman.

He studied me head to toe over his serious reading spectacles. Peering blankly at me, he suddenly ejected,

"What are you?"

He clearly didn't recognize my face or my badge. (I later remarked that my badge was pinned on back to front.)

Momentarily stunned, I ran through appropriate and less appropriate responses; had I suddenly grown fish-scales and a giraffe's neck?

Definition of terms
"I am not sure that I understand your question, could you explain what you mean by 'what are you?" I ventured.

"Yes what are you?"

He really wasn't giving anything much away.

Greeted by silence he stammered,  "I mean are you a researcher, a professor, a lecturer?"?

"Oh, I understand..." The "what" was my academic status.

"No, I am a teacher."

"And what are you?"

He was taken aback by my ignorance, or my affrontery.

"I am a professor."

"Oh and what is that?" I asked, seriously intrigued how he would define himself.

"Well, I do research projects, I have written in many top-class journals, I edit them..."

"Oh, good, and do you find anything?" I asked.

The man was clearly getting impatient with me and hurried off to find succour from his learned colleagues with whom he could be recognised for what he was.

The conference proceedings proceeded.

The gala dinner was an excruciating evening of self-congratulation and foie-gras. It left me feeling distinctly nauseous.

The following morning for the "hangover" session, for which  I was due to speak, I was feverish, suffering from gastro-enteritis and absolutely furious.

Six or seven unfortunates were seated in a classroom to hear me talk of  "Compagnie d'apprenants."  I refused to give them any information about the contents of my "abstract" and preferred to experiment with performance art.

They were most displeased.

I crossed the gentlemen on my way to the railway station and gave him quite a few pieces of my mind.

A few kilometres later, I was stopped by a young beggar, clearly the worst for wear.

For reasons which escape me, I invited him to lunch. He refused to go to a proper restaurant, despite my urging. He preferred the anonymity of junk food.

He told me of his young daughter, for whom he was begging to buy milk powder, he told me of his heroin addiction, his difficult relationship with his mother. He offered to do me a drawing to repay me for my attention.

I kept his drawing. Written on conference sponsored note-pad, he drew an elaborate tag.  In the centre of the page, a keyword was clearly legible:


He thanked me again for the "Macdonalds' Best of Chicken MacNuggets Menu" and signed  his "paper".

The meal was paid for by university expenses.

My journey into academia had not been in vain.

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