California dreaming of a nice cup of tea

July 14, 2000

Stuck in American suburbia with a sick girlfriend and a book to write... Nick Groom kicks off a three-part series on academic sabbaticals.

I needed a change. What will appear on the CV is something like: "visiting professor at Stanford University, taught course on 18th-century English poetry". I also went to give a couple of conference papers and to finish my book - writing far away from the rattle of day-to-day university life in Britain.

On these baldly professional terms, the two-and-a-half-month trip was an undoubted success. The students were terrific - it is a strong and lively English department; and if I did not quite finish my book, I did give talks on it at both Stanford and Princeton.

But, of course, I did not go to California in the late spring with my girlfriend, who was teaching there, solely for the satisfaction of academic asceticism. We went for everything else as well - San Francisco nightlife, the start of the asparagus season, galleries, concerts. On those terms, it was a disaster.

The difficulties started long before we left. We simply could not find anywhere to live in California. With a mortgage each, renting a place in Silicon Valley was too expensive, and, in any case, far from easy. Friends on the same sabbatical visit as ourselves found somewhere they could rent just a few days before they arrived. We, however, needed an exchange. Eventually, after a series of internet searches, adverts in local and international papers, and appeals to friends, we ended up 50 miles from the university in a crashingly boring suburb. It was so prototypical of that sort of American way of life that the week we arrived, the place was actually pictured in a New York Times feature as some sort of apotheosis of suburbia.

As it is extremely difficult to arrange these things from thousands of miles away, I would suggest that host universities compile a list of reasonable rents and possible exchanges. But then I would not exchange again anyway. Although the couple who stayed in my cottage were as good guests as one could hope for, sorting out the place and making all the necessary arrangements is too much like moving house for it to be particularly easy, or enjoyable.

Nevertheless, we got there, unpacked our crates of books, papers and research notes, and settled down. It was certainly peaceful (in the way that cemeteries are peaceful) and we could write without distraction. The long thrice-weekly drive to Stanford was alleviated by listening to tapes of Seamus Heaney reading Beowulf and Ted Hughes reading Ovid, and the university was both relaxed and stimulating. Then my girlfriend fell ill.

It proved very difficult to find a hospital to admit her as a non-emergency case on the basis of travel insurance, and when eventually we did, she was misdiagnosed, ineptly prescribed and told to go back to work in two days. She got much worse, so I took her into emergency at Stanford, where she was admitted, after a preliminary examination of her financial status, and remained for a fortnight. When she was well enough to fly, our insurers (Voyagers - who did a first-class job) repatriated her. A university-sponsored health plan would have been a great asset, but clearly comprehensive insurance was an absolute necessity (despite the frequently intoned mantra "But no one ever gets ill in California").

After spending most of my days in the ward or on the road, and most of my nights on the telephone (California being eight hours behind Britain), I was suddenly becalmed in the suburb.

I managed to write a great deal of my book - the laptop and Hotmail account were meat and drink, but my poetry class was also a lifeline and got me out of the house. One of the things I had not expected to find was the degree of undisguised curiosity - I was an exotic Englishman teaching English literature. It was almost as if I had come straight from 18th-century Bristol and the company of Thomas Chatterton.

Eventually, in the final week, I moved much closer to the university and was again able to socialise with the faculty for end-of-quarter parties.

The students' papers were almost without exception surprisingly good.

So would I go back? For the teaching, certainly, and when I was not bedevilled with worries I found that in the tranquillity of the suburb the writing came as easily as it had in Devon or London. But I soon became thoroughly disenchanted with American values and infrastructure. Too often they seemed to be conspiring against us, provoking me to question the whole basis of the culture I was temporarily a part of, which, of course, would have been a good thing - if I could have had a moment's respite and found a decent cup of tea.

Nick Groom is a senior lecturer in English at Bristol University.

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