December 31, 2016 One year ago today, I stood on the old stone bridge in Heidelberg between rolling hills and vineyards, screaming and laughing and hugging as New Year’s fireworks arched off the castle parapets. Now, 365 days later, we will leave this tiny Vermont village to dance in the new year in Montpelier’s old Grange Hall with the usual, lovely, giddy crowd of hippies and farmers.
And when it’s all over, I won’t be taking the train to the Mainzer Altstadt, but flying back across America to the San Francisco Bay to start my second semester at Stanford, Ph.D. in German Literature and Languages. My brain, and my soul, haven’t quite caught up with the changes of the last year.
On one hand, Stanford has been incredible. This is what I came back to American academia for–the incredible intensity and closeness of education, the in-class debates that blur the lines between scholarship and politics and life, the drinks with the professors at the end of the semester, the feeling of community and shared joy (and sometimes misery) among the students. And being at this particular school is a blessing; the resources and opportunities at my disposal are still shocking to me. You’re playing with the big boys now, Emily. How on earth did you get here?
The sheer beauty of the place is staggering, too. It’s like living and working at a five-star resort, 365 days of the year. The long porticos and green lawns and palm trees–and the sun, this wonderful warm, dry light that I can’t get enough of after a childhood in New England and two years in Germany. I sit at the bright little cafe on the quad and drink my chai latte with almond milk, reading contemporary theater and overlooking green grass and flowers, and can’t quite believe it.
At the same time, though, the last semester has been hard and unsettling in new ways. I’m experiencing culture shock for the first time in my life, in the country I was born in. Arriving in Germany felt like coming home–some part of me immediately recognized something there, and I fell for the place hook, line, and sinker. Here, even now I’m still struggling to find my feet under me, to make sense of exactly what this whole place is about, to find something to hold on to in the rush and energy of the Silicon Valley.
And it turns out that living on a five-star resort starts to become a bit freaky, after a while. We spend the day in Berkeley, with its dirt and its homeless, and the campus here begins to seem disturbingly prettified. We count more Apple products than people in the cafes in Paolo Alto. Our student housing has a sauna and pool, and we swim under the stars and palm trees and discuss an article from Die Zeit–about families in our community who make $50,000/year and still live on the streets, because the housing market is booming and things can be a bit problematic if you don’t work for Google or have a Stanford stipend. But we don’t see any of that ourselves, not on our daily walks between our newly-renovated subsidized apartments and the school. We have the sneaking feeling that something very real is missing from our experience of the Bay Area.
It’s not that saunas and MacBooks are bad things, and it’s not at all that I am ungrateful for the incredible gift of these next five years, for the opportunity to do what I love in such a stunning and secure environment. But this place asks some hard questions when you peek below the gorgeous, red-tile-and-sandstone surface.
Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Check your privilege, all ye who enter here. I would like to learn how to do that.