Where the Hell is Łódź? (Conference Part I)

polskiLike most devotees of the comfort zone, my off time and weekends are sacrosanct. If an entity or human touches, threatens to invade or misuse, or even addresses it directly in any way with which I am mildly uncomfortable, I will mentally build a muppet of their likeness and stab that fucker full of fork-tine sized holes.

So when the linguistics professor for whom I do research said “in December, you need to go to a conference in Poland…” I bit the inside of my cheek and mentally translated his measurements into original GI-Joe dimensions and grabbed my mental fork.

Outwardly, I said: “Oh OK.”

Academic conferences are a novel concept to me. This is partially due to the fact that the university has a peculiar way of encouraging/demanding that we take part in them right before they force us to fill out enough paperwork to build a tree fort. And then they quibble over and contest each Koruna like Ebenezer Scrooge in a spice market. I have been to three academic conferences in the last six years, and each time I have sworn never to go to one again.

Still, conferences have an attractive side. This side is primarily built of free food, free booze, and the allowance to say the phrase: “I am going to a conference in December.” It sounds so official and professional. Also, it is the only time I use the word “conference” without collocating it to Big East or National Football. At first I enjoy this novelty.

Since I am informed of this Polish conference in September and it doesn’t take place until December, I have a lot of time to enjoy this novel concept without having to do really anything. And I did. I’d drop it into conversations casually, “Nah, I’ll be at that accents conference that weekend,” or “Sorry, got a linguistics conference then.”

As December grew nearer I was asked to accomplish the nightmare of bureaucracy that comes hand in hand with a conference. There were forms to fill out, requests to make of the conference planners as well as my university. There were courses to cover and organizational problems to cope with. I am 100% incapable of succeeding at forms on the first try.

I repeat: 100% incapable.

Every time I fill in a form, whether it’s for a conference, airline ticket, amazon.com purchase, or registration to a website, I screw it up.

I am not the only one aware of this fact. Dr. Dominka, the official in charge of forms, is forced to send, resend, and reresend my form so that I might tweak it with another detail that I have somehow missed. Though he is friendly and helpful, his frustration becomes slightly palpable by the third (I forgot the conference title), fourth (I forgot to add my head of department), or fifth (I forgot to add my middle name) time he writes. The fact that this signals my absolute incapability of succeeding at bureaucratic tasks is solace enough to eliminate any embarrassment I might feel about this.

Like many things out of my normal routine that take place a few months after they are organized, I almost don’t believe it’s going to happen. An Accents Conference in Poland? No way, not me. Surely you’ve got me mistaken with someone who might understand what that actually means.

But no, it’s me.

I finally understand it’s happening when I am boarding the double decker Polskibus bus, which picks us up at 8 a.m. in the bitter cold morning on the last day of November. We will be in Łódź in 8 hours, where, my colleague informs me, it will be much colder. I snuggle into a seat and take out my kindle.

As we spin out of Prague, anxiety is bubbling over me. I am heading to a country I’ve never been to where the majority of inhabitants use a language I don’t know, to an academic conference on a subject on which I am only on the very rim of understanding: phonetics. I will have to be a part of a talk given by the professor I work with, but to what extent I don’t yet know. And worst of all, I will be forced out of my comfort zone for five days. Five. Long. Days. Instead of teaching my sleepy students today, I’ll be on an 8 hour bus ride. Instead of eating an omelet and watching Seinfeld Saturday morning, I’ll be at a phonetics conference. The novelty wears off when it’s actually happening. On the bright side, I’ll get to tell you guys about it in the next three posts.

As if directly mocking my comfort zone, we pass the university as we head into the countryside north of the city.

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