Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Few Days In Boston

We're spending a few days in Boston, well, Cambridge actually.  Entering the US after several years felt a little strange especially during immigration (which is always strange, no matter how pleasant the officials try to be).  Standing in line after exhausting flights, watching the US 'welcome show' on television sets that are hung everywhere.  These programmes show how happy everyone is, living in this country, and how welcoming they all are, smiling and saying "Welcome" in different languages.  All very well but they seemed to overlook that Sanskrit is not a language that is spoken in any part of India (a bit like welcoming people in Latin).  Nonetheless, in the absence of anything better to do, we all stood there and watched it many times over.

The immigration official asked us how long we would stay in Boston.  "Until the 23rd," we replied, "And then we will be in the US for another ten days."  The man appeared puzzled and definitely unhappy.  He leaned back, scratched his head and said,"Yeah, that's like sayin' 'the sky is purple but we'll paint it blue today.'"  He glared.  We could think of no answer to this and offered none.  "I know it's been a long flight," he continued, "But do you have a problem with this system?"  "No," we replied.  I believe that was the correct answer but I am not sure for there seemed to be some glitch.  I was whisked away with some burly Russian to another room for another round of fingerprinting, but when I reached the people didn't seem to want to do it again.  I was able to leave after answering the same questions, repeated a few times for effect.  I don't know how the Russians fared.  As I was leaving, I could see that the officials were having trouble with Vladimir whose papers they had mixed up with another Russian's (whose name seemed to be harder to pronounce than Vladimir's).

We managed to walk down the corridor without anything eventful happening.  Reached the baggage claim to discover that Lufthansa had forgotten to load one of our bags (despite the five hour transit).  Oh! Oh!  German efficiency had broken down and the Americans were not going to answer for it.  The lady behind the counter wanted to continue her prolonged romantic talk with the guy who was going off duty and eventually came to the point at hand.  No bag.  No compensation.  No number available to contact the head office.  There was a local number (but when we called the next day, it turned out to be wrong).

Anyway, we walked out of the airport into the free American air, reached Cambridge and just slept out our exhaustion.  It's certainly nice to be here, close to Harvard and MIT, and to meet our friends and family once more.  To be with old friends, talk about ups and downs, meet new scientists and watch them working their minds and hearts out, to sit down after dinner and watch a Celtics match with my uncle and aunt and their golden retriever, Pumpkin.  (Apparently the Celtics, the Boston basketball team, has players mostly from Kentucky.  One of the mysterious ways in which this country moves!)

These are hard days for academia and it is heartbreaking to see top of the line people having to cut back on their work or sometimes to quit altogether because most of the time is taken up in writing for money.  Only 10 to 15% of grants in science are funded (the figure may be even lower for the arts) and the process is arbitrary.  So it ends up being a number crunching, networking game, very different from the serious job of running a lab and focussing on good science.  This naturally affects students as well as they are pushed harder to generate results and crack deadlines.

Fortunately we live not through work alone, but through personal interactions and through the physical environment around us.  And this drizzly morning, I get ready to stroll down to Harvard bookstore with my nephew.  I have just finished my breakfast - a large plate of summer fruit and a warm croissant from the market next door.  I will walk down, past the rose and iris filled gardens, cross the large green Harvard yard and breathe in the cool, moist, delicious pre-summer air.  And have crab cakes for lunch (which are of course, nothing like cakes).  Walk along the river and soak in the Boston/Cambridge atmosphere for a few days.

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