So, I’m in London. Waking up in the morning in a house in West London, next to the person next to whom, out of all the people in the world, I most want to be waking up with. Riding my bike in traffic in London, on the left hand side, circling buses and avoiding pedestrians and sometimes looking up at the Regency mansions on the way to the library. Writing in a cafe in London, listening to accents from the edges of the empire. In these first few weeks in a new place, the differences between where I come from and where I am seem most marked. I don’t know the conventions here – Christmas is Happy, not Merry. Mistletoe is a plant, not a plastic symbol. More beer is drunk than I am used to, and sex is taboo in a way I don’t expect – jokes about it crop up everywhere as if to urgently break the tension.
In these days, at this time, I cannot yet say that I am truly living in London. I am, in some ways, still in transit. Once, someone asked me whether I thought I would spend my life as an “uprooted researcher living in a global city.” That question has followed me since, as I have travelled farther and farther from the place I grew up with, the culture that I could have called my own. But in a way, nomadism is also my culture: from the Polish orphan who landed at Ellis Island and lost his name, to my grandparents fleeing postwar England for the warmth of Africa (and then again for the cold of the Midwest), and of course my parents, driving their tiny cars full of possessions here and there across the continent.
But that question came back to me today: not the bit about being uprooted, but the bit about being a researcher. As I clicked off the reading light, packed up my pads and pencils, passed through security, and walked into the central atrium of the British Library (looking like nothing else in its airy magnificence than a cruise ship for the bookish) I felt as if I were travelling from one world to another. From the world of my thoughts, the true site of my research, to the reality of being in London: the cold fog descending, Christmas lights twinkling, and the same buses and taxis to avoid on the long descent down Notting Hill. A strange world, after the deep and commanding one of my thoughts – and more strange for being still unknown. I think this is why researchers, even those who like me are committed to understanding and participating in situated and particular knowledge, need sometimes to travel. When the world outside is strange, the world in your head, the world you are excavating every day through writing, feels familiar, comfortable, and known.