Wednesday evening. Arrive, fresh faced and excited, though slightly confused when I emerge from the train station into a mall. I consult a map and find it lacks a “you are here” indicator. With the help of a Balti guard I find my way out, learn that in Birmingham people say “ramp” instead of “hill,” and get promptly quite lost, rolly-bag in tow, trying to find my cheapie hotel, which I’ve been told is walking distance from both the train station and the hotel where the conference will be held. I find another “Brummie,” as those crazy Birmingham residents are known. He takes me on his way with him—through the library, a giant modern glass building with a McDonald’s in the lobby. I quickly learn you can get very few places in this town without passing through, under, or over other buildings which are wholly unrelated to your destination. Kind Mr Brummie points me towards the bus stop, reminds me they run on the lefthand side, and departs. I’m in a bit of a hurry; it’s already 6 pm and I haven’t finished writing the paper I’m slated to deliver on Friday afternoon. I’m not worried, though– I have visions of myself working in the light of a window in a charming provincial Inn, this bein gthe fantasy conjured up by the ever-so-Anglo Norfolk Inn where I’ve booked a single room for the four nights of the conference. I arrive at my hotel and though the exterior is charming, rambling brick, I am dismayed to find it run by dimwitted Ukrainian women who are baffled by the intricate workings of the credit card machine. I get up to my room and find it identical to the one I lived in senior year at Barnard, in the crappy dorm where some girl killed herself three years before. Except Barnard didn’t smell like an odd combination of cleaning fluid, Ukrainian perfume and ass. Distressed, I escape to a nearby Indian restaurant but am not down with the Balti-style saag paneer. I long for my hometown variety, replete with la vache qui rit. I watch the Argentina match with the wait staff and write in my journal.
Thursday noon. Still haven’t finished the paper. Set out early to get to conference ahead of time. Plot out itinerary on map; satisfied with map-reading skills; leave feeling confident. Disembark at appointed stop. Continue up street which curves and twists in ways not reflected on map. Begin to feel queasy when two men leer at the sight of my knees peeking out from in-between long grey shorts and knee-high black boots. Walk faster and turn down iPod in order to hear in case leering men approach me from behind. Spy sign for Crowne Plaza Hotel over the rooftops, not too far off, due north. Five minutes later, hit canal. Look left; look right: no way of crossing in view. The queasiness solidifies into a little ball of frustration, takes on additional power from the stress from the day before and the fact of not having finished the paper and the fact that there are still three and a half days to get through in what I am increasingly identifying as a hostile environment.
After fifteen minutes of walking in the wrong direction, I hit a main street and reevaluate how to get to the hotel that I can no longer find in front of me. Seeking momentary solace, I duck into a phone booth to call Nicolas. Surprise: the phone doesn’t work. Surprise: neither does the one next to it. Fuming, I hit the road, arriving sweaty and out of breath at the hotel at the same time as another woman, who looks at me queerly when I mutter “putain j’en ai marre de cette merdique ville” under my breath. I later learn she is one of the distinguished French Woolf scholars I had planned to seek out at the conference.
Thursday night. I skip the evening reception, forgoing socializing, free booze and snacks to hole myself up in my smelly hotel room working on my paper. Pay T-mobile 5 pounds to check email on the only Wifi available for miles. So stressed that I feel like a Sumo wrestler has me trapped beneath his massive loins. Actually, that’s pretty much what my hotel smelled like.
Friday afternoon. Success: I have finished my paper by morning, and though it might not be the most profound meditation on the influence of Lawrence on the fluidity of gender in Woolf’s work, I believe in it and damn it, I think I’m right. The woman giving her paper before me reads from Cesare Lombroso. She has the audience in stitches. Turns out she’s my opening act: by the time I’m wisecracking about Lawrence and his tree-phalluses, they’re rolling in the aisles. Our panel on Sexuality was reputed to be the “trendy panel,” but it’s actually turned in to the comic relief in a conference otherwise preoccupied with such earnest topics as Victorian mothers and daughters and tangentially related talks on obscure Bloomsbury figures.
Afterward, we are treated to a wonderfully insightful talk on the queer coding in 1920s British Vogue by art historian Christopher Reed, the author of Bloomsbury Rooms. Vampy, campy, and as gay as a lark, that magazine was while it was edited by Dorothy Todd (under whose auspices Woolf wrote for the magazine). Not overtly so– that’s the thing about queer codes, you have to know them to recognize them. And no, dears, you don’t have to be gay to know the codes, just someone who went to graduate school in a post-Eve Sedgwick/Judith Butler era.
However, a rather militant member of the audience took the opportunity of the question-and-answer session after Reed’s talk to castigate him for the crime of attempting to decipher those codes. "As a lesbian, I can tell you, those are our codes, and they are very complex, and there’s a lot that you don’t know," so don’t even try, she didn’t need to add as she chased him away from "her" subject matter and "her" people’s cultural heritage. I exhaled a silent prayer of thanks that she hadn’t attended my panel– she probably likes straight girls doing queer theory even less. Reed looked out at the audience for help, but no one in that crowd was going to pick a fight. Everyone I spoke with afterward, however, agreed that the woman who spoke out was entitled to her opinion but was out of line.
Friday evening. Relieved that my paper is over and no one attacked me for caricaturing Lawrence or being reductive about Woolf, I’m ready to meet people and enjoy the rest of the conference. Dinner at a restaurant in the ultra-trendy Mailbox with new friends Katie and Ana; we gossip and talk shop and have a grand old time. I’m deliriously happy to be among Anglophone academics again. After listening to me kvetch several times about my hotel, Ana generously invites me to crash on her extra bed the next night.
Saturday morning. At breakfast I catch out two fellow Woolfians discussing Deleuze before I’ve had my morning coffee. Feel inferior; must read more Deleuze; must sleep less. Check gleefully out of unbearably smelly hotel. Drag suitcase to conference feeling lighter than air.
Saturday afternoon. Somehow I find myself having lunch with Ruth Gruber, one of the most phenomenal people I’ve ever had the honor of speaking with. [Do follow the link and read about her; she's astonishing]. I skip off afterwards to buy books at Waterstone’s down on New Street, which is followed by a complete meltdown when I try to make contact with the outside world by telephone. Have finally reached the point where not speaking to Nicolas or my parents has affected my ability to function, I am desperate to hear one of their voices, but every credit card I try to use–three of mine and two of my parents’– to call them is declined. Worse, it appears someone has hacked into my bank account and taken all my money.** The only people I can reach on the only telephone I find that works are the operators and the people at the toll-free number on the back of my credit card. I came to learn about Woolf but find myself trapped in Kafka. All I want in the entire world is to go home. I get the concierge to help me call British Airways but there are no more flights to Paris until the one I’m scheduled to take the next day. I’m stuck and defeated: all the credit cards anyone in the Western world could hope for and I’m cut off from civilization.
Saturday night. Decide to make the most of the place while I’m stuck there. Ana and I head to Ladywood Rd, in the Balti triangle, a part of Birmingham not even on my map. Something possesses us to walk home instead of taking another taxi. We have a great time bashing Birmingham, and we take advantage of the permissive UK open container law to buy a couple of those flourescent alcopop drinks for the road. Back in the room we try to decode "Meet Joe Black," as we miss a ten-minute chunk fifteen minutes into it.
Sunday morning. Wake up after dreaming that Leonard and Virginia Woolf have hosted a party at their flat and me and the other conferenciers are hanging out in the basement smoking pot and dressed in scrubs like the cast of "Grey’s Anatomy." That’s after Virginia took me for a ride on her scooter to get the booze.
A few more panels and back on a plane to Paris. Many hours later, when I get home I fall into Nicolas’s arms and sob rather dramatically for a few minutes.
So, an educational weekend overall. In addition to hearing some really excellent scholarship on Woolf, I learned some other things: 1) I’m not going anywhere without my boyfriend for awhile. 2) I’m not going anywhere in the UK for awhile, except maybe London. 3) Flourescent pink alcopop gives me weird dreams. 4) Next time I’m speaking at a conference splurge for the higher priced room in the same hotel as the conference. 5) Finish the freaking paper before arriving at the conference!
**Luckily, this turns out to be a computer glitch and not true in the slightest. Whew.