Starbucks and other things that remind me of home

A funny thing happened the other day.  I was in Starbucks to get some to go coffee for an afternoon break down by the river on a particularly sunny afternoon with my Swiss colleague (don’t judge me, I swear Starbucks is a rare occurrence.  But sometimes I just have a yen for that filter coffee).  I asked the woman behind the counter in German what the difference between 2 types of coffee was, and she gleefully went off a long catalogue of frothing and milk proportion differences.  It dawned on me quickly that this woman was American, which is not a normal occurrence in service jobs- to get a work visa as a non-EU worker you need to have some seriously sought after skills, and as important as coffee brewing is, there are quite a few qualified candidates right here in Switzerland.

So after her little monologue, I politely placed my drink order and then, switching to English, asked where she was from.  Florida, as it turns out.  She didn’t seem surprised by the question, either- she had clearly also realized I was American, although I had only spoken one sentence, and that in German.

We exchanged a little small talk about how we ended up here, but she had to move on to the person behind me in line, and my friend and I moved on to the little coffee doctoring station where we did our usual pre-coffee rituals.  My friend was amazed, however.

“How did you know that she was American?!  Her German was perfect!  I never would have guessed from what she said that she wasn’t a native speaker.”

I didn’t really have a good answer, and it is certainly not the first time that such a thing has happened.  I can often tell another American, particularly if they are my own age, just from walking down the street without a word being spoken.  After this little encounter, I conducted a brief survey of my colleagues of various nationalities to see if they have the same experience, and it seems many to some degree have.  (Although I did get some protests, particularly from my Australian and British friends, that they avoid their fellow countrymen like the devil and so largely can’t make any comment.  I will not overinterpret this statement ;))

Humans are just humans no matter where you go in the world- the same hopes, fears, petty grievances, gossip, and laughter.  This is absolutely true, and I think a lot of our societal problems would disappear if we all could just grasp that on a fundamental level.  But where we grow up DOES influence us, does affect the way we communicate, our sense of humor, our outlook on life, even the way we look to some degree.  Why are we able to recognize our compatriots, sometimes without even knowing why?  Why have so many people told me that I have “an American smile?”  There are so many unnameable things that go into making a person who they are- sometimes I wonder how much of any of us is a product of where we grew up, the commercials we watched, the newspapers we read, the shape of the world we lived in.

Starbucks and other things that remind me of home

At home.

Zurich is really a beautiful city.  I feel like I don’t talk about that enough- traveling is fun and all, but inhabiting the place you actually live is also fun.  And I love the place I live, even if it’s a bit of a rarity that I’m actually there on a weekend.  It’s a quaint little city perched on the lakeside under the towering shadow of the Alps, filled with cobblestone streets and soaring church spires and ABSOLUTELY NO trash or homeless people.  I still don’t know how they manage this last, but it often leads to the sensation that I am living in a happy little bubble far distant from the problems of the world.  I don’t know if this is good or bad for the psyche.

It’s no great secret that I love the mountains, but there’s a quieter sort of beauty to the rolling countryside around Zurich that I also love.  There’s no end to walking or running or cycling paths, all marked out with the usual Swiss perfectionism.  There are over 65,000km of marked trails in the country, which is more than the distance around the world!  And it’s very diverse- my natural inclination is to make a beeline for the glacier strewn mountains farther south, but the local “mountain” Uetliberg” is wonderful for a midweek hard jog or walk upwards through the woods, a wonderful view over lake Zurich awaiting you.  And it seems no matter where you go, you run into local farmers selling their wares, often by the honor system where they list the prices and leave self-serve homemade cheese and jam out in a little hut next to a bucket where you can drop the cash.

Last weekend was a pretty typical weekend “at home” and I thought for once it might be fun to record what a normal weekend in my doctoral student life in Zurich is like.  At almost three years in, Zurich is truly home for me, and it is so nice to have made a little circle of friends and acquaintances to relax and enjoy the springtime weather with.  One of my favorite parts of living here in Zurich (NOT in Switzerland as a whole, this is definitely not true in the countryside) is how international working life here is.  In just this weekend my friends mentioned here were: German, Swiss, Italian, Australian, Mexican, French, and Spanish.  No Americans at all on this particular weekend, although usually there is a smattering of them.

The blow by blow:

Friday

A normal 9-5 working day, although when the weather is so nice it can get hard to stay alllll the way until 5pm.  Every week a rotating group of PhDs at my institute gathers at 5pm for after work beers, and today a group of 5 or 6 of us go down to the river and have panache (lemonade and beer mixed, also known as Radler in high German) at a little open air bar. My friend has brought her toddler along, so we spend a lot of time blowing bubbles and quacking at ducks in different languages (animal sounds in different languages is one of my favorite conversational topics).

Afterwards a couple of us eat burritos and then head to my friend Dayra’s birthday party.  She has rented out a whole bar in the Langstrasse district, a part of Zurich known for its hard partying and (ahem) ladies of the night.  She has provided open bar, bowls of gummy bears, unicorn balloons, and even a homemade tres leches cake- A+ birthday party.

Saturday

I have a mission today.  That mission includes reviving my bike.  See, I don’t cycle in the winter for various reasons that boil down to the fact that I’m a wimp.  One December day I biked to work and then decided it was just entirely too cold to bike back.  It’s been there ever since.  I haven’t really checked on it, but I suspected that 1) the tires would be flat or even possibly have holes in them, as I already had to patch one last fall, and 2) it is covered with dust from the construction site next door to my office.

It was also a beautiful spring day in the 70s, and I decided to kill two birds with one stone by taking a meandering jog to the office by way of a trail by my house down to the lake. This turns into more of an obstacle course once I reach the lake, as approximately 3/4s of the mobile population of Zurich has decided that this is the place to be and are walking around sunning their pale winter legs.  Nevertheless, I make it to the office, drag my bike to a nearby bike store, and purchase two inner tubes for my tires.  Then I stare at my bike for a while, a little bemused.  I am just not the Fixit Type. Luckily I have friends who are.  I call my friend Heidi and show up at her door, dusty bike in tow, still in my sweaty running outfit and no makeup.  We have an awesome relaxing afternoon on her rooftop with her, her boyfriend, and another friend Anne while we hose down my bike and repair the brakes/tires.  After a full day of relaxing in the sun, I pedal home for the first time in 2017, pondering how nice it is to have friends who accept emergency calls from sweaty runners who need bike first aid.

Sunday

This same friend Heidi has now organized a bike tour for five of us along the Sihl river into the countryside.  I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to kick off biking for the first time with a full day 70ish km hilly tour, especially as I was already a little sore just from 40 minutes of biking home the day before, but overdoing it seems to be a general theme in my life.  Let’s just say, sore bums are the worst.

At home.

earthquakes & uncertainty

Last night there was an earthquake in Switzerland!  Random, petite, and only the second one of my life.

Besides earthquakes, my thoughts have been swirling a bit lately around uncertainty and how we humans deal with it.  Uncertainty is particularly rife in academia, for better or worse my current endeavor.  You become incredibly specialized and invest years in your education, betting that 1) your area of science will continue to be funded, a gamble that depends on a whole host of factors ranging from the political and economic climate to media coverage, and 2) that there will magically be a senior position in a good university open when you finally finish all of that onerous training.  The path to professorship in my field looks something like bachelors>masters>PhD>postdoc>second postdoc>assistant professor>full professor(with tenure??).  Less than one half of 1% of those PhD students make it to the professor level, and even fewer of those lucky PhD students are women (another topic for another day).

An added complexity here is that normally there are only a handful of universities doing really top level research in your area of expertise, so you must be willing to move almost anywhere to nab that perfect professor job.  And even before that, geographical mobility is rewarded on the grant level (to get top level postdoc grants in Switzerland you MUST leave Switzerland).

That, of course, leaves me in my current position.  I’m finishing up my PhD this year, which is both exciting! and means I am right smack dab in the middle of all that uncertainty again.  My preferred method of coping is premature nostalgia.  I found myself sitting at my desk last week, messing around in R with some really cool geospatial analyses, and thinking I LOVE MY JOB HOW CAN I LEAVE. I love my job- I mess around dreaming up and answering cool scientific questions and then writing it up for publication.  When I get stuck I have no end of brilliant colleagues to bug for help, and they are always willing to help me because 1) they are incredibly intellectually curious, and 2) they are also my very good friends and friends help friends.  When I want a coffee break or am not feeling excited by my work there is always someone who wants to take a walk with me through the lovely streets of Zurich to grab a needed afternoon dose of chocolate, and I almost always have time for social life and sports.

Maybe I would also have this if I left research and became a consultant or worked for a pharma company, to be fair.  There’s no guarantee either way.  And if I did go that route, I would at least be able to choose my geographical location and in some ways my future much more securely (I’m pretty sure pharma will be around for a while).  But…when I talk to other researchers about our projects, that’s when my heart beats a little faster.

I think that ultimately this year of uncertainty will be much more fun than in the past- one perk of getting older is that both my confidence in my own abilities and those actual abilities are exponentially higher than say right after university.  But in some ways, I think my decision this year will be a big one: whether I want to keep choosing the path of adventure, or choose the “safer” route.

earthquakes & uncertainty

I can’t pronounce my street name and other reasons I desperately need pronunciation help.

Funny story time.

I guess first a little background.  German has some extra vowel and consonant sounds and let’s just say that I did not exactly take to them.  At first I couldn’t really even hear the difference between ö and ü and ä.  Turns out these are kind of key differences so I’ve put some effort into differentiating them and might even say that I have mastered ä and ü.  Ö is still a crapshoot.

In July I moved to a new apartment with a long street name containing (you guessed it) the dreaded ö.  Looking back, I probably should have considered this as an exclusionary factor.  What followed is a string of phone and in person conversations where I seemed incapable of making the person on the other end understand where I live.  It doesn’t help that it is just as unclear what letter I am pronouncing when I attempt to spell it.

I was eating burritos the other week with a few friends and decided to relate the latest tale of confusion, which involved me trying to open a reward account at my favorite mountain sports store, fielding strange looks from the sales clerk, and finally ended with me finally going around behind the counter and typing in my address myself.  A Swiss friend said, “well, tell me your street name and I’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong.”  Turns out I was (of course) mispronouncing the ö sound yet again, but in such a way that made my street sound like the part of a man’s anatomy that I would prefer not to be volunteering as my street name.  This guy was in tears, seriously.

Anyway, today I presented something in German and afterwards was pointed to this video which is a lifesaver for another of my old nemeses and agents of confusion, the “ch” noise.  Which as you will see below is actually about five different specific noises depending on the vowel before it, 500 exceptions, and the position of the moon.   They have so many good other videos for all my pronunciation needs!!  I would like to pass it along to anyone else attempting to climb the German tower:

 

I can’t pronounce my street name and other reasons I desperately need pronunciation help.

ye gods, september!

So when did this happen?  August has flown by like a lovely sunsoaked afternoon on my balcony.

In an effort to remember what on earth it is I have been doing for the past month, here is the August highlights reel, in no particular order.

  1. Changed my first bike flat tire!  I felt quite accomplished.  It happened while at a small lake with two very cycle happy friends, luckily, and they had the kit to patch ‘er up.  Did you know that there is an inner tube inside your tire?  And that you have to make it blow bubbles to figure out where the hole is? (or holes in my case)  And that every single person walking by will stop to put in their 2 cents about the most optimal repair methods and wax nostalgic about the flat tires of their youth?  Yeah.
  2. Am completely dunzo with the first paper on the study I was running the first 1.5 years of my PhD.  Whoop.  Approved the final proofs last week and am I happy to see that sucker out the door!
  3. Discovered the added adrenaline thrill of Via Ferrata.  Via Ferratas date back to the WWI era in the Dolomites between Italy and Austria, where they were used to help everyday soldiers scramble over passes that normally only expert climbers could scale.  The essence of them is that there are a bunch of steel pegs or ladders stuck in crucial places, along with a steel cable in segments that you can attach your climbing harness to to avoid plummeting to your death.  DO NOT fall though, this is not like normal climbing where you have a partner to catch you painlessly.  This is gonna be painful.  Obviously there’s a whole scale of difficulty here- I’m hoping to graduate to the tough stuff soon!

via-ferrata1-lafouche

4.  Relatedly, staged a return to indoor climbing and bouldering!  I finally found some new partners who are around my level, and am slowly building up my strength.  Nice to do something other than running.

5. Discovering my inner OCD…for better or for worse.  I’m loving having my own place, and as I’ve gotten settled over the past month have realized that I LOVE cleaning.  But only when I’m cleaning my own stuff.  I love coming home to a spotless apartment 🙂

I’m sure there’s more, but for now I am done with my workday and off to IKEA.  This is the last time.  I swear.

 

 

ye gods, september!

meanwhile, back on the farm

Despite all evidence to the contrary, this is not a travel blog.  I am supposed to be describing my “expat” (not a huge fan of that word, but that’s another topic) life as a PhD student in Switzerland.  But even though that’s the whole point of this writing exercise- me living in the moment and remembering the ups and downs of adjusting to life abroad and the academic life, somehow I find it difficult to tackle.  It is way easier to talk about the tasty burrata I ate on a weekend trip to Rome than to ponder what I think about the PhD experience.

So, about that whole PhD thing.  I hit the 1.5 year mark this month!  Which means I am halfway through the whole shebang.  Am I on track?  My answer to this varies a bit depending on the day.

2
…this is a joke, i promise.

My first year was pretty consumed with a bunch of things related to setting up a study.  It was really cool to be part of the whole scientific process from dreaming up the conceptual framework to testing questionnaires to getting ethics people on board to actually enrolling my first travelers.  Because really, that’s all that science is- a bunch of dreamers trying to ask some cool questions.  I learned a lot, took some interesting classes, picked up a couple new statistical packages, and enjoyed getting to know the scientific community in Europe better.

phd072413s
why my contract says 60% and I am there 100%

Most importantly, though, I have collected the data that my thesis is to be based on, and it looks really cool.  Which means it is GO TIME.  There is a whole culture in academia that is called “Publish or Perish,” and I am acutely aware that I need to start publishing.  And I’m on it!  But there are definitely days where I sit down and stare at RStudio and the 951 observations of 236 variables I need to weed through and wonder if I should just go back to bed.

phd050714s

It’s kind of tough to describe, because this is simultaneously my favorite phase of the PhD so far and the hardest.  There are sooo many questions I want to ask, but I also need to figure out the right questions to ask quickly so I can get something interesting to write up.  Scientists could dawdle in minutiae their whole lives if they aren’t careful, but my priority is to find something that contributes to the scientific body of knowledge in a novel way.

phd011514s
i really like phdcomics.  they get me.

Beyond these big scientific questions, there is just simple time management and burnout. For example, to do the cluster analysis I want, I need to go through all 236 of those variables, decide which ones contribute to a clinically relevant picture of travel health and don’t overlap with each other, and then reformat all of the variables I want to include into something appropriate for a cluster.  Also, I’m documenting all decisions I make when for purposes of a later methods section.  This is tedious, but necessary.  I’ve fallen back on a handy time management called the Pomodoro Technique, which I often resort to when getting into these periods of time sucking tasks.

how-grad-school-is-just-like-kindergarten-28103-1267712284-21-553x590

So I guess that’s my general sum up of how I’m feeling now: a little overwhelmed, but excited.  Time and work output don’t correlate quite as linearly as when I worked a normal office job, which is why I’ve also found it helps to have a weekly routine of tracking tasks and accomplishments closely.  It might take several days to wade through a pile of literature, but it’s just part of the scientific game.

On another note, my dad comes tomorrow!  I’ll be wandering the ski slopes of Switzerland with him and Ryan, and I CAN’T WAIT!!

 

meanwhile, back on the farm

the state of affairs

Egads, I have so many things I want to talk about!  First of all, I am no longer a resident of Habsburgstrasse, the street of kings.  By hook or crook (or actually a couple trips in my wonderful friend Sarah’s teeny tiny car) I have managed to jigsaw puzzle my various belongings into my new place of residence.

Discovery: wine makes bed disassembly much more enjoyable
Discovery: wine makes bed disassembly much more enjoyable

Side note: how can I possibly have accumulated so much stuff after arriving here with 2 suitcases last August?

After a celebratory dinner of Thai food, I came back “home” to this mess last Thursday:

Every time I walked into the room I promptly ran back out
Every time I walked into the room I promptly ran back out

Where it has remained since then.  The thought of wading into that pile was exhausting, so instead I distracted myself with science aperos (also known as free university happy hours), where the below happened:

Who says scientists aren't cool?  They also use these to paint the inside of cells or something.
Who says scientists aren’t cool? They also use these to paint the inside of cells or something.
Abentuerzelt/Adventure Tent
Abentuerzelt/Adventure Tent

Oh, and also food festivals and trips to the zoo, where we got the side eye from a baby elephant.  And a trip to the circus today!  Finally, though, I ran out of distractions and was forced to do what I could tonight.

Now only mild heart attacks on entering the room
Now only mild heart attacks on entering the room

I have a conference all week (wish me luck on my talk!), so most likely the IKEA reassembly factory will have to happen later this week.  I tried my hand at the clothes hanger and got only half the pieces to fit back in where they are supposed to, so am feeling somewhat dubious.

I have more recent adventures to share, but for now must get back to reviewing my conference presentation.  Much love to all those who read these posts, even when it is just inane moving photos xoxo

the state of affairs