Ephs explore the world on Watsons, Chandlers

To many, free travel around the world for a whole year might sound as distant a fantasy as winning a convertible through a sweepstakes. After all, in a time when many graduates find themselves begging for jobs at Starbucks, the idea of strumming a mandolin outside a café in Rio de Janeiro or writing a novel while relaxing in the Mediterranean seems almost preposterous. But for Auyon Mukharji ’07, Ren Wei ’07, Casey Drosehn ’07 and Emily Button ’07, these idyllic dreams are a reality of their Watson or Chandler Fellowships.

Mukharji, Wei and Drosehn are all recipients of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which, according to its Web site, is “a one-year grant for independent study and travel outside the United States awarded to graduating college seniors nominated by participating institutions.” It offers $25,000 for the year. Button won the Class of 1945 Florence Chandler Fellowship, which is judged on similar criteria and has similar goals, but is funded by the College rather than the Watson Foundation.

But these aren’t your ordinary fellowships. Wei’s project is on exiled Asian artists in Europe and Australia, while Mukharji’s project “focuses on determining the balance between cultural fidelity and self-expression in traditional music in Ireland, Brazil and Turkey.” He has been in Ireland for the past three months, shuttling between more than six cities including Dublin, Belfast in Northern Ireland, and Galway, where he is headquartered. Mukharji especially appreciates Galway. “It’s easily one of my favorite places I’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s located right on the bay and the combination of rock beaches and loads of traditional musicians make it a little slice of heaven.”

His project certainly sounds heavenly as well. “The crux of my study involves [my] playing and speaking with musicians at sessions in Irish pubs,” Mukharji said. “A few musicians are paid by a pub to start the session, and then others can jump in and play for free. We often get free pints as well, to keep us well fueled. It’s a glorious country.”

Drosehn’s project is a little less light-hearted, but just as compelling – she is interviewing women in Eastern Europe born around or before World War II about their lives. “These women have endured a lot of economic and political exchange and have incredible life stories, but as a group they are largely overlooked,” Drosehn said. “Since arriving in Kiev, I have narrowed the project down to women in ethnic minority groups.” Drosehn has a wealth of heartrending stories to pass on, including one from the woman she is living with, 72-year old Delyara. “Delyara remembers Deportation – the soldiers coming in and hauling her father, who was sick, out of bed,” Drosehn said. “They had 15 minutes to pack, and then they were put on a cattle car. She remembers the people who died being thrown off the side on the way to central Asia, and arriving and having nothing, not knowing what to do.”

Surprisingly, Drosehn insists that while many foreigners perceive people in Eastern Europe as “a bit rude or hostile,” she has encountered an abundance of kindness. “When I have most needed it, people have helped me exchange train tickets at 4 a.m., have carried my luggage for a mile uphill, have given me rides from the train station in strange cities where the taxi drivers are notoriously untrustworthy and I didn’t even have a place to stay yet,” Drosehn said. “The moments of generosity have amazed me.” So far, Drosehn has visited several different cities in Ukraine, and in Romania, she has been living in Bucharest for the past two weeks, and will soon be moving north to Transylvania.

Further west, it’s a sailor’s life for Button – sort of, anyway. Her project focuses on “the meaning of maritime archaeology and history in contemporary culture in Greece, Turkey, Ireland, Denmark and Greenland,” Button said. “I chose these places because they share great time maritime epics – the Iliad, Odyssey and Viking sagas – but I’m finding that I’m less able to trace out the impact of those sagas than I expected, and also [becoming] more interested in the history and modern uses and interpretations of archaeological and historical sites.” Button was in Greece over the summer, spending about a month in Athens, learning how to do field archaeology and “how much a part of Greek identity comes from reaction against the Ottoman empire and identification with Western Europe.” She is now in Turkey, volunteering at the Bodrum Institute of Nautical Archaeology and trying to learn Turkish.

“It’s a wonderful situation in most ways,” Button said. “I get to work with Roman shipwreck artifacts and talk to professionals in the field . . . We also have daily potluck lunches, so I get to try a lot of local food and do some cooking myself.” Turkey also seems to have brought out Button’s inner novelist. “I have way more free time than at Williams, so I’m finally doing NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month], trying to write historical fiction set in the Mediterranean.”

Of course, the scholars have certainly had their fair share of rough times. “When I first got here, since I’m not allowed to get a job and am not in school, it was hard to deal with the isolation,” Mukharji said. But he passed over this phase quickly after three weeks, and has since had “an incredible time.” Meanwhile, Button struggled to figure out a way to stay in Greece – she couldn’t figure out any way of sustaining her project for three months there and her visa expired early, but she decided to move to Turkey and has been enjoying her time there. Button said that in Turkey, she is struggling with the communication barrier, but has been slowly picking up the language from her co-workers.

But Drosehn’s horror story takes the cake – while living in Yalta, she stayed with a landlady named Olya. “I remember one night her cat brought in some abandoned kittens and Olya went outside and found the whole litter,” Drosehn said. “She came back in, heated some water, and then took it outside and methodically drowned them one by one, right outside my window. Needless to say, this incident encouraged me to find a new place to stay.”

Of course, the fellows have simply named these bad experiences as minor setbacks, and they all seem to truly value their lively experiences so far abroad – even if it means witnessing drowning kittens.