“settling down”

I’ve been kind of puzzled by myself lately. I feel like I’m fighting a constant mild-mannered battle between two selves- the restless person who has moved no less than 13 times in the past 10 years (!!) and the person who is admiring my strawberry plants and spending Saturday mornings buying soil and fertilizer at the local home goods store. In some ways,  I made my decision on the way I want to live my life when I finished my PhD and decided to start genuinely putting down roots in Switzerland. There’s this whole other life I could be living doing field research in Thailand and trotting around Asia on the weekend, but I turned it down and felt nothing but relief. However, that doesn’t seem to stop me from daydreaming about exotic locations, from finally hiking to Mount Everest in Nepal to marveling at the pyramids in Egypt and scaling volcanoes in Borneo.

Is this just a weird in between phase everyone goes through? Or am I doomed to a lifetime of wondering what is going on on the other side of the world? I read an interesting book a while ago, The Fifth Extinction. The book posits that our need to explore is one of the defining characteristics of the human species (and also, coincidentally, what makes us so environmentally destructive). No other animal roams with the sheer scope and whimsy of a human. Birds might migrate long distances but they tend to stay on a defined path, barring changes in climate or natural disaster. We are the only ones with the urge to get into a boat and float off over the horizon. It was just an aside in a book otherwise focused on other things, but it has stuck with me.

The thing is, I am really happy in Switzerland. I love skiing and the Alps and the climate and hiking and my friends and work and my boyfriend, etc. There are things I don’t love, realistically (see recent post), but overall it is a good fit. But I just can’t scratch that itch to experience new places. And I don’t mean necessarily a two week holiday, but really dive deep into a totally new culture, learn the language and feel a little uncomfortable and learn some new stuff about the world. In fact, I’ve been feeling a bit disenchanted with the world of whirlwind weekend trips and superficial traveling of late. I hope to get to a point with my career where I can take prolonged sabbaticals at research institutes in other countries- I think that might be the best way to keep on exploring without losing a home base that I love so much. Meanwhile, I will practice being still(er).

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“settling down”

Thoughts on a very international postdoc experience

Wheww, just finished a rather large undertaking (writing the study protocol detailing the 3 year research plan of my massive new project, which lemme just say the hardest part is herding together all of the various people involved and getting them to tell me what their individuals plans are, SCIENTISTS ARE LIKE CATS), and now I feel like doing something ENTIRELY non-work related.

The problem is that I haven’t been doing much of that non-work related stuff, lol. I am a big fan of work-life balance. It’s part of the reason I moved to Europe, for god’s sake. But these last months have been an intense period for me professionally. It’s my first time supervising people, and I am starting with SEVEN. From SIX different countries, and I didn’t realize that would also make a difference. It is great and cool and I am learning so so much both personally and professionally, but the flip side of that is always that semi-overwhelmed feeling that accompanies periods of growth. I’ve kind of mastered how to be a scientist myself, but how do I successfully mentor others to be scientists as well? I’ve learned that I’m really bad at delegating something I know I can do well myself, and relatively good at smoothing over rough patches or personality differences to drive a project forward.

The cool (and at times frustrating) thing about doing a PhD, at least at my institute, was that you were in your own little bubble with total power over your own world and doings. When I wrote my dissertation, I did it in about a week of almost zero contact with the outside world, just lost in the zone. I went to random coffee shops to change up my environment and focus on writing. My study was completely MINE- I owned all its successes but also all its failures. Now, I am learning how to rely on others, how to collaborate, how to delegate, how to identify the strengths and weaknesses of not only me, but also those around me. And also how it feels to have time commitments to other people literally all day long. I do really miss sitting down at a computer and messing around in R, brainstorming research questions and answers of my own, writing up papers of my own ideas.

Luckily, there is a bit of a deadline in terms of this intense period of supervision and pushing. The PhDs head back to their home countries at the end of April to begin data collection, etc, which hopefully will leave a lot more time for me to hang out at my desk writing code. But it is bittersweet, as I will really miss them as well!

In that spirit, Benno and I spontaneously invited 5 of the leaving PhDs (or actually invited all of them, but 5 could come) over to our home in Baden for a Swiss style feast. On Wednesdays they’ve been taking a course at the ETH in Zurich, so afterwards we strolled around Zurich on a picture perfect day with the Alps positively smiling on us in the background. Then we took the train towards Baden, where I gave them a second little tour of the medieval city and the castle above our apartment (which promptly became “Andrea Américaine’s castle.” Long story on the name, but basically there are 2 Andreas on the team, and our colleague from Burkina Faso who has only recently started learning English needed a way to differentiate us, which has quickly spread through the team). In a way I think they got even more of a kick out of Baden- they are all from very large cities, and this tiny beautiful town with its storefronts and clock towers from the 1400s is not something every tourist sees.

Meanwhile, Benno was cooking up a storm back at the apartment, as per usual. By the time we made it back, he had whipped up a batch of spinach/ricotta and bacon mini-croissants as an apero treat, along with plenty of local Swiss wine. None of my colleagues from India/Africa had ever tried much Swiss food, so of course we had to prepare fondue and raclette. Unsure of whether that much cheese would fly in cultures that are often largely vegan, Benno also baked some wähe, which most closely translates to a cross between a quiche or a pie. One was with rhubarb and one with apple (they eat it as a main course, and often the savoury ones include cheese and not fruit). But we need not have worried! They all took to buckets of cheese like fish to water! Their reaction on us explaining the whole cheesy process was, however, one of my funniest cultural exchanges I have ever had.

Afterwards, Benno served a homemade nusstorte (cinnamony and walnutty pie that is DELICIOUS) and everyone sat around patting their bellies and drinking homemade schnapps before rolling off towards home. Let me tell you, a restaurant has got nothing on Benno. RIP to my waistline 😛

I was so so glad that we did this, because it reminded me how lucky I am to be able to sit and have dinner conversations over schnapps with people from all corners of the globe. We all have such different lives and experiences and perspectives- it is easy to forget that. But the one common denominator- everyone always loves to laugh.

I am happy to be part of such an interesting project with colleagues from all over the globe for the next few years. Even if it makes for a sometimes exhausting work environment or adds extra communication challenges, I think that overall international collaborations are incredibly rewarding and productive for the entire world. Especially collaborations involving lots of cheese 😛

Thoughts on a very international postdoc experience

Reboot

Today felt like a big day, my friends! I dropped 3,860 Swiss francs on a yearly unlimited pass for public transport and headed merrily off on the first day of the next three years.  After a little wrangling with the administration, I finally settled into my new desk, a quiet little spot on the ground floor with a view onto a garden where cats seem to be constantly pacing past.

Adding to my general sense of excitement is the ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE 2.5 weeks in Japan that my grandparents just showed me. Japan really deserves its own post, but I’m not sure I’m ready to capture it yet (or ever).  I couldn’t think of any better way to mark the end of three years of hard work, and am endlessly grateful to my grandparents for sharing with me this place that they love so much.  And in what I’ve decided is the true mark of absolute post-holiday relaxation, I’m not feeling the slightest inkling of jetlag.  Mind over matter is a lot easier when your mind has just been pampered by Zen gardens and peaceful temples for the last little while.

But back to today- in a way I feel like I am now embarking on phase 2 of my life in Switzerland. I’m living in a new town and working a new job in yet another new city, something not quite so different than when I first moved here three years ago.  But now the challenges are different.  Instead of moving to a big international city (by Swiss terms), I’m living in a quaint small town.  Instead of struggling to speak basic German, I am aiming to graduate to Swiss German.  Instead of struggling to find my own flat or roommates with minimal German, I am learning about how to cohabitate and live my life with a deeply Swiss person.  Instead of signing up for random meetups or filling my endless friendless spare time with things like baking bread (disaster, don’t ask), I am trying to learn how to balance the circle of friends I have, a circle that is becoming increasingly widely flung as a natural consequence of academia.

I find all of these things exciting, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that also come with a tinge of anxiety. I am committing to Switzerland heavily in a way that my initial PhD jaunt didn’t involve.  Also, a lot of things are just changing quickly in general.  All good things!  But I always do need to process change in my own way.  Japan was a wonderful opportunity to catch my breath- I will always be in agreement with the European idea that holiday is essential for the soul.

Reboot

My Top Ten Hikes

I am back this weekend from my very first Alps hut hike of 2017!!  You might think I’m lazy, waiting till mid-July for my first one, but the high alpine season is really only July-Septemberish, too snowbound outside those months. There is of course, the lower, quieter stuff, but those don’t steal my heart the same way a dramatic icefall or scrambling, butt-flopping marmot do.   This weekend was a great hike- relatively easy by alpine standards (only 900m/3,000ft), but with huge scenery payoffs.  It got me thinking, though, about my all time favorite hikes, and since I have a thing for a good listicle, thought it’d be a fun top ten.  I included via ferratas, even though they are half climbing, because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I wanna.

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  1. The Haute Route.  It’s not quite fair to cite this as one hike as it’s really 14 days worth of different hikes.  But man- this was incredible.  If I could pick out a couple days, the walk from Cabane du Mont Fort to Prafleuri was out of this world (we stopped to take so many photos that we almost ran out of sunlight, even after departing around 7:30), as well as the hike from Prafleuri to Arolla, where I ate a burger I still think about.  The hut at the Moiry Icefall still stands out as probably the most incredibly situated huts I’ve ever been in- I literally sat and listened to the glaciers for hours.  But overall it was just so cool to be propelled by my legs all the way from Chamonix to Zermatt, two of my favorite places. I don’t think I can overemphasize how physically exhausting this trail can be, though.  An uphill climb of 1600m/5200ft plus a usually more tiring amount of downhill was typical for a single day…now imagine days on end of this.

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2. The Inca Trail. Totally different thing- what made this the coolest was the cultural experience of hiking down this stony path made centuries before by a mysterious culture.  And of course the amazing crown of Macchu Picchu.  I think the right word is otherworldly.  Actual hiking was pretty easy and only made challenging by the fact that the passes sometimes hit 16,000 ft.

3. Via Ferrata Braunwald. Not too nerve wracking Via Ferrata with really incredible views.  And quite close to Zurich!

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4. Grindelwald to Schreckhorn Hut. This is another tough hike, one of the few T4s I’ve done (T4-T5 occasionally require specialized climbing equipment, but in this case only meant some extra ladders and exposed sections).  I think the signage said it would take 9 hours (remember without rest, normally I am above the markers), but I was with some strong hikers this day and I think we did it in 7.  I was dead afterwards though.  Much better to stay overnight at the hut and relax a bit.  Incredible views of the Eiger Glacier and the famous Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau peaks.

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5. Seealpsee Hike in Appenzell. Proof that it doesn’t have to be hard for me to like it 🙂  A beautiful hike to one of the most iconic lakes in Switzerland, together with a necessary visit to the Ascher hut tucked against a cliff.  Must have their famous rösti and a cider (moscht).

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6. Schynige Platte to First. Another epic (but easier) Bernese Oberland hike high above Interlaken, one of the most breathtaking views of the same Eiger/Mönch/Jungfrau mountains, in my opinion.

7. Franconia Loop Notch. Alright, it’s about time I threw some US in.  There’s less of it because I’ve had less opportunities to hike it!  While I’ve hung out a ton in CO, there’s not really one specific trail I’m thinking of right now that blew my socks off- I’m going for really dramatic views in this list.  The Alps, in my opinion, do have a bit the edge here, with dramatic differences in elevation instead of the gradual ones of the Rockies. But this ridge trail part of the Appalachian Trail has stuck in my mind for years.  I wonder if it would still hold up.

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8. Olympic National Park. I’m gonna lump all these together, too- although my memory is fuzzy of the names of the hikes.  Hurricane Ridge was beautiful, Hoh Rainforest, the coastline…I just remember that a lot of them looked like below.  There were also the most incredible beach trails- I remember us running for dear life to catch the most amazing sunset off the coast.

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9. Franz-Senn Hut and the Tirol in the Austrian Alps. Hut culture is THE BEST in Austria.  Maybe even better than Switzerland.  I definitely give them the edge on food- I think about käseknodelsuppe all the time.  Please bring that across the border.  The views are also incredible, and it is cheaper.  I need to explore more!

10. Aletsch Glacier Hike from Bettmeralp. OK, I ran this as a half marathon and almost died.  But this is truly an amazing view of the largest glacier in Europe.  It was surprisingly hard to come up with this last one- there are so many other things!  I’m still thinking about the Maroon Bells in Colorado, and the entire Engadin area in Switzerland, and Ticino…but this is my spontaneous, might change tomorrow list.

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Number 1 on my hiking desires list, though…the Hardergrat!  This is a trail that must be trail run, however, as it is 27km of knife ridge high above Interlaken with nowhere to descend if you get stuck.  But just look at these views:

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On a more distant scale, I am also dying to see the Himalayas.  Let me know if you want to apply to be a hiking buddy (I promise it’s an easy application- you want to go and are somewhat fit)   🙂

My Top Ten Hikes

Summer 2017 = Good Times

You guys, I’m kind of feeling stupid happy lately.  I know it’s really obnoxious to say so, but I am and sometimes it’s nice to acknowledge that and remember these times when the wheel of fortune feels at its pinnacle (I think a lot of that Shakespeare line: “Fortune is painted blind, with a muffler afore his eyes, to signify to you that Fortune is blind; and she is painted also with a wheel, to signify to you, which is the moral of it, that she is turning, and inconstant, and mutability, and variation. And her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls, and rolls, and rolls.”)  And then sometimes I wonder- will I recognize the happiest times of my life while I’m living them?  Or only after the fact, when I’m old and wrinkled and reflecting on my collection of memories?  It also helps to think of life as a wheel when going through the hard times- no matter how hard they’ve been, there has always been an upswing.  Eventually.

Anyway, I just got back from a really wonderful week in Croatia with some awesome humans.  I laughed so hard I cried, spent some quality time with some of my best friends from way back in Barcelona days, rented our own boat to pilot around the Croatian islands (still shocked I was allowed to do this), tipsily bought 20$ worth of candy at CAPTAIN CANDY CROATIA, took a midnight boat to a clubbing island, drank a whole bunch of schnapps with some Norwegians, practically died of heat stroke during a Game of Thrones tour in beautiful Dubrovnik, was “always the first” leaping off the boat into the beautiful crystal clear waters of the Adriatic, swam deep into a cave so dark that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, took a bike tour of Zagreb, roadtripped to the Plitvice National Parks where I pretended to be a mermaid, ate a whole lot of seafood and olive oil, and identified the differences between traveling at age 21 and age 31 (many and myriad).

But beyond that, I’m just so relieved that I finally have my life at least somewhat sorted.  I know I’ll be in Switzerland for the next three years, and I love my new coworkers and the research project I’ll be working on.  I don’t have to leave this place I’ve learned to love, along with the friends that I am sure will be lifelong.  And I can’t wait to get to know Africa a little better!  It will be a whole new continent, and I think that actually working there will help me to get a real perspective on this whole new (to me) part of the world.  I’ve already downloaded some Africa books to my kindle, but would appreciate any recommendations, non-fiction or otherwise (mainly Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso).

I’ve been working like a crazy person to finish my dissertation, and just got some great feedback during my holiday- seriously, the finish line to this whole PhD process is in sight.  It’s like I looked up and suddenly the whole puzzle is assembled around me.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a good chunk of work ahead of me, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Oh, and last but definitely not least, I met a really great guy.  That goes a long way towards putting a smile on my face 🙂  Fingers crossed this latest streak of good luck lasts!

Summer 2017 = Good Times

Senioritis, thinkingitis, & general excitement

I know I haven’t done much of a job at updating lately, but it feels like life has been coming at me at such a rate that I can hardly think my thoughts, much less organize them into a coherent blog post.  But since it’s these periods that are often later the most enjoyable for me to reflect back on, I thought I would jot down a few notes.  Gonna do this stream of consciousness “My Summer Vacation” style, though.

  1. Career stuff is similar to dating in that sometimes it just all falls into place and you wonder why you were torturing yourself with all those other options.  I have been ruminating over where to move next for probably the last year, but suddenly it just clicked that, hey, actually I don’t want to leave.  It’s OK to just do what you want instead of what Everyone Says.
  2. Said realization makes me really, really happy.
  3. I still reserve the right to change my mind later.
  4. Sometimes I was really in doubt about this whole PhD process- it can be a giant exhausting morass when you’re wading through the middle of it, and certainly nothing like any of the linear schooling periods I have gone through before (I discovered this comic this week that I think is a great summary of what a PhD really means: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/).  But the postdoc interviewing process has made me realize that I am a totally different person than I was three years ago when I first started.  I’m comfortable taking leadership roles and offering my “expert” opinion and defending my analyses to statisticians.  This might not sound revolutionary, but suddenly the idea of leading my own research team with my own ideas feels not sooo far off, something I’ve always found tremendously exciting.
  5. Getting older coincides with knowing yourself better and recently I’ve found that it has been affecting a lot of my decision making (in a positive way, let’s hope).  For example, for probably the first two years I lived in Europe I travelled like a crazy person to any spot I was invited to.  Now I know better what I like and what just isn’t worth the hassle and the extra carbon footprint.
  6. In fact, I’m pretty proud of myself that as far as I remember I have avoided any and all recreational flights for all of 2017- all of my holidays have either been via train or tacked onto a flight I would have had to take for work regardless.
  7. However, I can’t really can’t act like this was some selfless resolution.  I’ve really had to buckle down to finish this whole PhD thing and would have turned down a lot of trips regardless.  Looming deadlines have a funny way of curtailing holiday plans.
  8. I desperately want to take an extended period of time off after completing my PhD and before embarking on a new adventure, but it might be hard to finagle.  So I’m reminding myself that having a great job trumps exotic vacations any day 🙂
  9. I’m just a little bit scared of the new position.  I’m going to be learning a whole lot.

That’s it, a little sneak peek into my running brain as I’m taking a break from writing up my latest manuscript at 7pm on a Monday.  Wish me luck, there’s a whole lot to do in the next few months!

Senioritis, thinkingitis, & general excitement

those dangerous Italian goodbyes and other Easter misadventures

They say there are different seasons in a life, but I think there are also different lives in different seasons.  For about as long as I can remember, the advent of happy weather and longer days always corresponds to a desire to do ALL the things with ALL the people, and this year has been no different.  I’m curious if other people notice similar things at different times of year- plotting social contacts vs. season would be interesting.

ANYWAY, these past few weeks have been a real whirlwind- I genuinely can’t remember the last time I had no after work social event planned, and the weekends have had scarcely a down moment.  As a closet introvert I can’t usually keep up such a pace for long, but I’m riding the sunshine high 🙂  Writing about it all would not fit into the twenty minutes of down time I have between classes, but a short Zusammenfassung (I’m always entertained by the length of the German word for short summary :P):

Easter in Italy: My Italian colleague and her boyfriend invited me along with a couple of other friends to their parent’s home in Torino, in the Piedmont area of Italy.  Man, is visiting Italy with Italians a different experience than doing so as a tourist.

First, an aside: Italy is one of those countries that EVERY time I go I fall a little bit more in love, something I’ve no doubt mentioned before.  Some countries you visit once, get a feel, and think vaguely that it would be nice to go back someday.  Other places just sink into the bone, and drive you to wonder and read and come back over and over again.  Italy falls squarely in the category.  First of all, every region is so infinitely different than the rest that it’s like a different country!  Liguria, the region on the coast where Cinque Terre is, is all hearty potato dishes and delightful seafood, completely different from the perfectly al dente Cacio e pepe pasta and wafer thin pizzas of Rome.  And then there’s the tapas like food in Venice (maybe my least favorite food region so far), and the truffles and world class wines of Piedmont.  Oh, and the Verona Amarone, woof. And that’s just the food & wine differences, which to be honest is a huge part of the draw for me.  The range of history and art to see are incredible.

So, I jump at every return opportunity.  Torino was an amazingly beautiful city, almost Parisian in its feel, with chateaus around every corner.  Not that I actually SAW much of Turin.  I jumped off the train, toured quickly around Batali’s Eataly and the downtown, dropped my bags, and LET THE SOCIALIZING BEGIN.  We stayed at my friend’s parents’ house in the heart of the nightlife area of Turin, and it was a challenge to even walk down a block without stopping at least three times to greet a friend or acquaintance of our hosts.  We started with an Aperol spritz at a little corner bar next to his house and the next thing I knew it was four in the morning and we were dancing wildly in a club by the Po River, after meeting what felt like half of the adult population of the city.  The English levels were wildly variable, but luckily hand gestures are welcome and no language is needed for dancing on top of beer barrels 😉

After stopping for some delightful arancini and (some of us) doublefisting pizza, we arrived back at the apartment at around 6am.  Wow, what a night, you say!  It just gets better from there.  These Italians, they know how to celebrate Easter.

The next morning we struggled out of bed around 10 and piled into the car for a mini roadtrip through wine country.  We stopped and had a decadent lunch in a tiny town called Alba that is the wealthiest per capita in Italy (all those truffles and wines really add up, apparently).  I got to sample some of the typical dishes of Piedmont, which include beef tartar, a beef carpaccio with a yummy sauce, a type of quiche that reminds me of Spanish tortilla, and delightful butter sage ravioli (I can’t remember any of the Italian names….eeek).

Then we drove on past a few more little towns and up to Barolo, which is the CUTEST little castle wine town I ever did see.  After a few more glasses of wine, we headed back to dinner at her parents’ house (homemade pizzas) and a relatively quiet night because the next morning we were up at 7am for what ended up being the most epic day yet.  However, I did manage to record one of my most embarrassing Euro encounters yet-  the Italians give two kisses instead of the three typical in Switzerland (which I already knew), but that they also start on the OTHER SIDE, which ended disastrously for me with my friend’s dad.  I’m sure you can imagine the collisions that are possible.  I still cringe uncontrollably while remembering this moment :X

Back to the good stuff: we were up early for an all day BBQ at my friend’s grandparents’ place in the Italian Alps, along with around 30 of their closest friends and family.  When we were driving up I idly wondered what we would do all day- there’s no cell service or entertainment up there.  Well, who needs that when you’ve got unlimited wine and food + gregarious Italians.  After a beautiful sunset over the mountains and 7 hours of nonstop eating and drinking with the partiest of party folk, we dragged ourselves back home to catch a few hours of sleep before our train back to Zurich back the next morning.  I arrived back at the main station ten minutes before I was due to meet with my supervisor, sunburned and running on no sleep, an epic weekend under my belt.  THANK YOU ITALIAN FRIENDS!

I don’t know what I was thinking, saying I would give a short summary of the last few weeks.  Easter in Italy deserved its own post 🙂

those dangerous Italian goodbyes and other Easter misadventures