I'm halfway through a two-week trip to England, and as I make plans--or intend and then fail to make plans--with the dozens of friends who are also here for a few weeks, it occurs to me that academics live out a less-glamorous but equally peripatetic version of the lives of the wealthy of previous centuries.
Like the Englishmen and women who descended on London en masse for "the season" and then moved on to Bath or Brighton before returning to their country homes; like early-twentieth century Americans who were similarly assured of finding friends and neighbors when they decamped to Palm Beach in March; or the rich of many nations who were never more than a couple of degrees of separation from the other passengers on the luxury ocean-liners chugging back and forth across the Atlantic, so we wind up moving around the globe more or less in tandem with people more or less like ourselves.
Conferences, of course, are one version of this, and they too have a season (I've sometimes done three conferences in three cities in three months, seeing basically the same people at every stop), but taken individually they're most akin to the ocean-liner experience: you're thrown together with all these people you know--and almost no one you couldn't--in a confined space for a set number of days. Visiting archives or rare book libraries is another version: I never know exactly who I'm going to see, but I always run into a friend who turns out to be a long- or short-term fellow, or who's just in town for spring break. This past week, I ran into several people at the British Library whom I'd last seen at the Folger. I didn't know they'd be at either place, but it's not really a surprise. There's a circuit.
But for those of us who study the history or literature of Great Britain, London is a special case, as I'm sure Paris, Berlin, and Rome are for those in other fields. At this age and stage of my career, I assume that pretty much everyone I know will be in London every couple of years: for a conference, to work in the archives, or at the front or back end of travels elsewhere. And the academic calendar being what it is, those trips usually happen in June and July, so we're all here at the same time. These days I come an average of every other year, usually for 10-15 days, but I have friends whose research or personal lives require a full annual decampment and who settle in for two or three months every summer.
It's delightful, and nothing that I could have predicted twenty years ago, when as a college student I made my first trip to England. Even ten or twelve years ago, when as a grad student or first-year faculty member I scraped together enough cash for a plane ticket and a week in the UCL dorms to hit a conference or squeeze in five days at the BL, I saw myself as traveling to do my own thing, making a strategic strike, furthering my research or my career--not functioning as part of a larger community. Now, though, it feels natural, expected, tribal. I come both because I need to, and because my people are here.
But as that phrasing suggests, there's something insular about it, too--that we do what others of our class-loosely-defined also do, that we expect to know people wherever we go (because we go to the kinds of places that our kind of people go). As screwball comedies teach us, it's always possible that the handsome gentleman you met on the Queen Mary or at the Breakers is a grifter, but more likely than not he knows the aunt of your neighbor back in Philadelphia and she can vouch for whether he'd be a good match for your unmarried daughter or the pretty widow who dines at the captain's table. Even the new faces are already, in some sense, known.
Still. When the academic job market flings us so far asunder and we're perpetually trying to build up new networks--and bloom where we're planted and all that jazz--there's something comforting about having a tribe and having a center and being so easily fitted into the social order. Back home we need to connect to our communities in a larger and deeper way, and it takes time and effort. Here in the tribal bubble, it's easy.
Except I'm still not sure I'm getting invitations to the right balls.