One of my quirkier qualities is that I really like going to restaurants by myself. I always feel fine sitting there alone at a table — never lonely – just relaxed and happy to be served a meal I didn’t have to cook myself. I never notice the other patrons, so I am never bothered by what they all might think of me. Not having to make conversation, I am free to read or write or simply lose myself luxuriously in my thoughts. I don’t worry that “I’ve been here too long” or “maybe it’s time to go”. I never feel “I wish I were at home.”
I had lunch yesterday in Graz by myself at a sidewalk café near the university – but I couldn’t conjure up the same fabulous feelings I usually have. I was bothered about something, but I wasn’t sure what. Sure, the waitress was incompetent and slow, but she accomplished her screw-ups in a really sweet way. The New York Lox Bagel I ordered was too salty to elicit any feelings of nostalgia, but I still enjoyed the textures of it. The busses that drove past a bit too quickly and close for comfort whipped my hair around and blew my napkin off the table – but . . . that wasn’t the problem either.
I realized the feeling had started earlier in the day. I had taken the train to Graz to teach the first session of my university course in the new academic year. I had had to come earlier than usual so that I could pick up the key to my new lecture hall and check out the technology there. Once again, I was given a room totally unsuited to language teaching and learning. It was an old fashioned, cinema-style lecture hall with uncomfortable wooden benches rising up row by row from the front. They could easily seat over 100 students, when I was only expecting 10 or 20 tops. The teacher’s desk in the front was at quite a distance from the first row and it created a long formidable barrier between me and the “audience”. It was a place to confront students with information, not a place to create an environment conducive to language acquisition.
At least the computer worked.
I locked up the room and realized I still had two hours to kill, so I wandered around the university for a while and ended up in the café. While walking through the busy campus on what was only the second day of classes, I was struck by just how many students there were. And they were all so eager and full of good intentions. This phase always lasts for a week or two and then you start to notice the crowds on campus thinning, the pace slowing, as students reduce their originally ambitious course loads and start reconsidering the true value of regular attendance. I thought “Some of these students might turn up in my course tonight.” But I didn’t really care. I had been working at this university for almost 30 years and for the first time, I no longer felt like a part of it all. I’d been here too long. Maybe it was time to go. I wished I were at home. I carried those feelings into the café with me and it ruined my usual pleasure in solitary dining.
Everything written in this post so far is basically a transcript of what I scribbled down in the café while waiting for my bagel – I just switched it into the past tense. Four hours after writing all that, on the train ride home, I felt fabulous again. It was a small group that showed up for my course, but what a bunch they were! Interesting, talkative, motivated, fun . . . The time flew by and I am already looking forward to next week.
As long as I focus on my handful of students, it doesn’t matter whether I fit into the university anymore or not. I can remain oblivious to the entire goings on around us and lose myself luxuriously in my teaching.