An antiquarian and an English student sitting on a couch, surrounded by books. Customers of the bookshop tiptoe around them, pretending not to notice the interview going on just two metres away.
“I’m afraid I won’t even make it to the reading next week. I have to work that day,” I say.
“Oh, so you’ll be at the literature festival then?” That’s his best bet where I’ll be headed on Thursday. I think nothing of it.
“No, I — I work at the cafeteria. The student cafeteria.”
Silence. The antiquarian shifts in his seat, looking puzzled.
I decide to clarify. “My shift ends at 8, so I’d be late to the reading if I went. It’ll take me till 10 after to be ready to leave.”
“Well,” he says, “I expect we won’t start at 8 sharp anyway. It’ll be 8.15 probably.” I respond with a quick OK and an uncertain gesture. We move on to other subjects, and I can be the one asking the questions again.
That’s when it should have sunk in. But I didn’t catch on until after the interview was over. We had exchanged our polite handshakes, I had thanked him for taking the time and said I was hoping I was going to make it on Thursday. But even then I was failing to see it. This man thought I was working full-time. He thought I was an experienced journalist, set on writing his next piece on the upcoming literature festival. He probably had no clue that I was still in school, let alone at undergrad level. Why did you have to blow your cover, past Phil? Why couldn’t you at least pretend for a few minutes?
I’ve been interning at Heidelberg’s biggest local newspaper since the beginning of June and was asked to write an article about an upcoming reading on Émile Zola, to be held at that second-hand bookshop. The occasion for the event was the antiquarian’s recent publication of a bibliography of Zola’s work in German translation, so he was a suitable interviewee around whom I could frame my article. He would be hosting a guest speaker and giving input on editorial matters that might come up during the lecture. And he might show off parts of his Zola collection, which includes an original copy of the French author’s famous open letter “J’Accuse” about the Dreyfus affair.
As flattering as that misunderstanding is at a glance, I’ve got to take it with a grain of salt. For one thing, I wouldn’t attribute the mistake to the fact that I act grown-up or feign expertise really well. I think my receding hairline and new glasses account for at least 60% of it. Furthermore, it’s not a pleasant experience to have the contrast between expectations and reality so blatantly exposed. It comes with some serious ramifications for your self-image.
I’ve been thinking a good deal about self-image, about being a fraud. It’s not a new trend, not even on this blog, but that just goes to show that my disappointment has been a long time coming. And this time it has truly reached its final form.
I kind of regret studying English and Philosophy.
Don’t get me wrong: I still like being a student — it’s all I’ve ever known — but why did it take me so long to figure out I’m terrible at it? Yes, I do still consider “the system” to be responsible in certain respects. But my disdain for it has shifted from a disaffection with its methods to its failure to alert me to the fact that I suck.
I get good grades, excellent ones even. And I envy people who still naively draw a sense of confidence from this dysfunctional currency. Good academic performance used to be a side effect of my tendency to live inside my head, which I’ve exhibited since childhood. These days I can’t wait to escape my mind. I want to do stuff, effect serious changes, but I would have to get started with zero tools or ideas at hand.
I’ve wasted time pretending to be (but never really growing into) a critical reader, pretending to engage with academic concerns and traditions. I’m sure that I’ve become smarter throughout my studies, but in retrospect that’s little more than an indication of how outrageously ignorant I was before. How can this current version of me be an evolution of anything lesser? It’s hard to wrap my head around it.
In conversations it does help somewhat to be upfront about my ignorance — as long as I don’t express it in a self-deprecating remark. It turns out that after all this time, my ignorance still comes coupled with curiosity. It has that “Tell me more” vibe to it.
I wonder if I’ll be able to extend that curiosity to the much more rigid academic schedule I’m about to encounter in Canada, where I’ll be spending the upcoming academic year. My hope is that in such a radically new environment, under continuous assessment and with courses that better suit my interests, I will work up a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge that I never before could. It’s a second chance of sorts. A last chance.
Strangely, through this disillusionment I haven’t become any more pessimistic about my life. Quite the opposite. Having my self-image so thoroughly challenged has helped me look into my future with a more open mind, a spontaneity I don’t recall having felt before. I could become anything I want to. I could defy the very concept of a career by working odd jobs and looking at life from as many angles as possible for the years ahead. I could become a professional vagabond. Alternatively, I could take the road more travelled but decide on a field of work uninhibited by my background. I could work in PR, publishing, or tourism, and write for passion projects only on a freelance basis. I could be employed by an NGO, a political party or a nature reserve. By realizing that I’ve just been a cog in the machine all this time, that few of my achievements speak of true merit, I’ve gained a purpose. Unlike my peers I haven’t accumulated a wealth of marketable skills yet — and maybe that’s a blessing rather than a curse. I’m not worried about being underemployed so long as I have enough money for books, WiFi, and supper.
I’m in the process of letting go of my ego. Maybe that’s the only path to the good life for me. My current flirt with journalism is, of course, an attempt at finding some footing as a writer, and that might strike some as a career-savvy move. But honestly, I won’t fret if the future I glimpsed in that encounter with a local antiquarian remains forever confined to a parallel universe.