Having just returned from an academic conference, I know the rigors of professional travel. I boarded the plane in Philly and saw my former boss seated far down the aisle. He snickered when I shuffled close enough to see for myself that I was next to a young father with a toddler in his lap.
The father was a good-humored, exhausted scholar from Northwestern, who told me his twin daughters had been ill for several hours in the airport. To distract the little girl squirming in his lap, he gave her German lessons that couldn’t have lasted more than two or three hours: Watch? Uhr. Airplane? Flugzeug. Diarrhea and vomiting combined? Der Brechdurchfall. Eventually she fell asleep. Dad gulped a sorely needed scotch, and we talked about the conference and our families. Then she woke up and projectile-vomited milk on my pants.
My former boss was giddy at my misfortune by then. I told him to go ahead and laugh, since, as the father of two little boys myself, nothing bothers me, and besides, now I speak perfect German. Also, he missed six connecting flights and arrived in Inner Station 48 hours after I did, in a pouring rain.
Not all professional travel is like this. I know, because Mrs. Churm and I were backpacking in Florence one spring during a conference for American medievalists. We ran into them at every turn, their mouths full of gelati di riso, their arms laden with piles of Italian-leather wallets, their eyes red-rimmed with the madness of their freedom.
Further evidence: Philip Graham, a writer and teacher at the University of Illinois, is on sabbatical in Portugal and making it sound awfully good, in a series of dispatches for McSweeney’s. My father did a sabbatical in Paris, at a foundry for lost-wax gold casting. And of course study-abroad folks are the wiliest of all—to know their field, they must travel, which is originally why Mrs. Churm was drawn to it.
She passed my desk just now, and I asked, “Where have you been in the last few years? For your job, I mean.”
“Well, Portland. Montreal,” she said.
I started to type.
“Chonqing and Dazhou, China.”
“Right,” I said.
“Baltimore. San Diego. Philadelphia. Salt Lake City. Milwaukee and London.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, noting the odd pairing.
“Cork. Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield.”
“Nottingham, Norwich, Reading, Bristol, Swansea. Stirling, Aberdeen. Glasgow. York. Oh, Dublin. Wait. Did you mean in the last few years?”
“Forget it,” I said. (To be fair, some of those trips were paced at two cities per day, and she roomed in freezing dorms.) Obviously, if you’re a Russian linguist, you’ll wind up in St. Petersburg at some point. But did cognitive scientists go into their field because they thought the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping would be in Melbourne?
What’s the best (or worst, to make it interesting) place you’ve been on your employer’s dime?
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