Ever since I finished my PhD, or maybe even before that point, I knew I had to write this book. However, this is not a diary of my time as a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Having said that, it is not quite a work of all-fiction either. If it were, I would probably have added some Frankenstein-like personalities and mad, sleep-deprived, eccentric geniuses, as beloved by atmospheric old movies. Or I would have described secretive, non-ethical research taking place in dank basements beneath cloisters, proving that scientists are amoral psychopaths. I did meet some people I could imagine creating a three-headed sheep for shits and giggles but I never actually saw anyone trying it.
However, I saw stuff that was dramatically dark, barking mad and hilariously ridiculous, but in an everyday way. I saw the monsters beneath the meniscus of human nature surfacing in a supposedly sedate world; of frustrated egos the size of Africa, where competition is pathological, volcanic rages seethe and tin pot dictators are drunk on oh-such petty power. It’s a world where glory is the goal and desperation is the order of the day; a world where young adults are forced into roles that make Lord of the Flies look like Enid Blyton.
It was an education. And it taught me to be wary of education.
“A new novel about academic life is not a ringing endorsement, to say the least. But it will make you laugh. And that’s the point.” (Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, February, 2018)
“The story is immersive, and I felt like I was there with our hero every step of the way.” (Chemistry World, chemistryworld.com, January 2018)
“Karin Bodewits’ partly autobiographic book ‘You must be very intelligent – The PhD Delusion’ is a revealing, tongue in cheek tale about PhD life.” (Ulrike Träger, Metior Magazine, November, 2017)
“PhD novel is ‘wake-up call’ on supervisor-student ‘power plays’” (Times Higher Education, November, 2017)
My parents are sitting opposite of me at an authentic ceramic table. We are in their new garden. They moved into this urban environment quite recently, leaving behind the economically dead village in which I was raised. They rather like it here. We drink wine and talk, about their new neighbours, their jobs, my travelling, the economic crisis…. Suddenly, my mother announces: “We organised a party to celebrate your PhD graduation.”
I felt my eyes enlarge, my body stiffen and I pressed my hand to my mouth to keep the wine inside while I swallowed with effort. Then I burst into uncomfortable laughter.
“Why on Earth would you want to celebrate that?” I blurted out.
My mum looked surprised.
“Well, it’s worth a celebration, isn’t it?”
Almost four years earlier I had graduated with an MSc degree in molecular biology, with good marks, and I had started my PhD at a high-ranked university, like a good girl. At the time, I truly believed that researchers in the ivory tower were idealists driven by the desire to make the world a better place through the advancement of knowledge. My faith in the university system, as the crucible of meritocratic refinement, was absolute: only the extremely knowledgeable and wonderfully intelligent would ever hold chairs and professorships. If you are not smart enough you would have to leave.
I believed in the goodness of people, I believed in the goodness of the ivory tower. I was ambitious and energetic, manically driven with the desire to become a scientist. I saw professors as intellectual role models. I would follow their path, as far as I could…
But four years later, in my parents’ garden, that seems like another person in another life. I was a disillusioned and defeated doctor now, without any future plans, to whom a degree from a famous university meant marginally less than a Girl Guides’ camping badge. I was drained and bored, run-down physically and spiritually. Ifelt useless and asked myself over and over again how my presumptions about the PhD could have been so naïve.
My parents knew little about my PhD. They knew that on the first day of my PhD it turned out that I did not have a desk or a computer- which even they were incredulous at. They also knew that I had a domineering supervisor. But my parents remained unaware of the full grimness of the situation – and were oblivious to my lack of research results.
They didn’t know that the rigidity of academic hierarchies would make Medieval Japan look like a hippie commune, and this would be writ large in the size of the lab and the equipment therein… not all group leaders at the university have the same academic status and not all conduct ground-breaking research. And if you were conducting unfavoured research in an unfavoured lab, it would be made plain to you on a daily basis that, in science, you ranked somewhat lower than the slime on a snail’s belly.
They didn’t know that I was sharing a tiny office – that would just fit a small car – with nine PhD students, a postdoc and several undergrads, like chickens in a battery cage. Not all of our grants had money for consumables, and the resultant financial stress was compounded by a nasty element of interpersonal power-plays.
They didn’t know that my boss wasn’t a mentor, as I expected him to be. That he was a foul-tempered, unpredictable megalomaniac whose mood might swing on football results.
They didn’t know that I was never even asked what drives me. My supervisor never showed the faintest hint of interest in the person carrying around four limbs, two of which could hold a pipette. It was other professors who helped me finish my degree, not him. I think my parents never realised how it felt to work for him and be dependent on him for all those years.
They didn’t know how I struggled with failure after failure, being tossed from one research project to the next, without ever seeing any light at the end of the tunnel.
They didn’t know that this was a world where unreachable glory was the goal and desperation was the order of the day.
They didn’t know I saw a world of collaboration of course, but also a world of brutal backstabbing. Or that the conferences I attended were mere talking shops, where discussing unpublished results – to advance the greater good of humanity – would bring punishment.
They didn’t know that it was a world where integrity was regularly slaughtered on the altar of financial desperation.
They didn’t know that research theft was unremarkable, and career advancement can be based entirely upon getting your name onto a paper… possibly for your great contribution, possibly as an entirely unmerited act of back-scratching.
They didn’t know that I had a profound lack of research results and, daily, I witnessed my life as a researcher go down the drain. My self-confidence dropped like a meteorite hitting Earth.
But they also didn’t know how I had met many hilarious personalities in the ivory tower. That those characters made me feel like sitting in a slapdash sitcom set and made me smile every single day. That I knew exactly which lab had the best coffee machine or the best espresso. That the last year of my PhD I mainly spent in the pub. That I made friends for life. And that I met good, beautiful intelligent lecturers and professors who fought hard on my behalf. People with the door wide open…People other PhD students in similar situations might not meet…
Ultimately, I was lucky.
But that day in my parents´ garden… My parents were still on cloud nine about their daughter having finished a PhD at a highly-ranked university, doing ground-breaking research on cystic fibrosis. They were talking about it as if I had been on a wonderful, noble mission which would – in the long term – save and enrich lives. I knew my dad would beam like a Cheshire cat whenever someone enquired what his daughters were doing. They probably did not have to enquire; he always contrived opportunities to brag about us as children. He is, like any good dad, embarrassingly proud of us. How could I tell him his youngest daughter, who just graduated with a PhD, has not generated one remotely significant result, nor learned anything scientifically useful, but had discovered that her passionate faith in the education system had been pure folly?
For them the title was still worth something; the two letters I had once craved made them proud. I have a PhD. I am a doctor – though that day in the garden I felt much closer to a tormented lab rat that survived against the odds.
I looked my mother in the eyes and said, “Okay, I come to your party.”
Written by Karin Bodewits, author of the campus novel ‘You Must Be Very Intelligent – The PhD Delusion (Springer Nature, 2017),’ speaker and co-founder of NaturalScience.Careers
“No scanning, please!“ There is heartfelt outrage in the voice, which belongs to the woman in front of me in the supermarket queue. The cashier at the checkout was just about to scan her first item when she let rip with the hysterical shriek.
Now he looks at her, just briefly, then at the clock, then back at her, his big eyes imploring; ‘Please do not be serious… not at this busy time…’
We are in ‘a bio grocery’ shop, a prime port of call for know-all neurotics and, alas, the only supermarket close to campus. The women shows no mercy. The casher sighs, shrugs his shoulders and looks at all of us in the queue. Defeat and pity are writ large in his wearied manner. I can’t tell if he feels pity for himself or for all of us, or both. Clearly, we will all need to wait an eye-wateringly long time while he attends to a task of Herculean dullness. He turns the bag of bio Gummy Bears over and starts to type in every single digit below the barcode. I look at the checkout stand’s conveyor belt; at least thirty items lying before the ‘next customer’ sign. I check my watch, and instantly regret trying to score a quick breakfast before running to the research institute. I am definitely going to be late for my meeting now, and I can forget about taking my cells out of the incubator beforehand.
I contemplate leaving but I am sandwiched between Laser-Looney and a kid’s buggy hosting a restless one-year old. With loud grumbling noise, the tiny child tries to strangle himself out of the safety belt in order to pull stuff from the shelves. The tot grows more dissatisfied with every passing second. It will not be long before he reveals the full capacity of his lungs. The child and his young, tall dad are familiar to me. Apart from a friendly greeting in the morning, we have never exchanged a word. However, we regularly share a train compartment on the way to campus, as we did today. We shared a train that had been delayed.
The buggy has a flag on its handlebar from the University’s day care centre; ‘Bio kids,’ it reads, in colourful letters; a name that evokes, in my head, an image of drooling toddlers dissecting frogs. The dad has placed two half-litres of natural yoghurt and a kilo of fruit muesli on the conveyor belt. It is clear that he too has only rushed into the store to purloin a breakfast. His eyes nervously shoot back and forth between his watch, the ticking time bomb in the buggy and the achingly slow progress at checkout.
His son makes a particularly convincing and vocal attempt to escape from the boring confines of the stationary buggy. I quickly pull off a quarter of the pretzel I have on the belt and put it in the hands of the child. He immediately sits back on his nappy, chews on the pretzel and sticks out the empty hand. He looks at me with pleading eyes and I give him another quarter of my pretzel. He is temporarily placated by having half of my breakfast in his chubby hands.
“That saved the supermarket,” the dad laughs.
“And my ears,” I say jokingly.
Laser-Looney is expressing her deep displeasure that the Vegetarische Würstel on the belt are called ‘würstel’. The cashier soldiers on keying in the numbers, doing his best to minimize conversation. Of course Laser-Looney will not be stymied. As if the cashier was in some unknown way connected with the nomenclature of this product, she discourses about the moral calamity of products which remind her of the unnecessary cruelty we expose animals to every day.
I would love to tell her that the word, “wurst”, has a Germanic root meaning “to mix up”, and it is therefore perfectly apt for a blending of vegetable, fat, salt and flavouring. Since it is textured and packaged to remind us of the flesh-containing version, surely the name is doubley apt? But I know better than to believe you can trump her type; her etymology may be bunkum but somehow she will still be right. And she will explain why at great length.
Naturally, the cashier cannot focus efficiently on typing the digits whilst also dealing with her block-headed whinging. He mistypes several times and more minutes of our lives slip sadly away, never to be experienced again.
“I’m late, so could we just let the cashier focus on the product codes?” an impatient voice inquires, and I quickly realise it is my voice.
Laser-Looney throws an irritated look in my direction but keeps her lips firmly together.
“Is the scanner broken?” asks the dad soon after.
“No, but the lady doesn’t want scanning,” I say, loudly, clearly and exasperatedly in order to convey the blithe insanity of her wishes.
“She doesn’t want scanning?” he asks, utterly bewildered, as if I just told him his mother was a giraffe.
Laser-Looney turns towards us. “That way I save your son a lot of radiation!”
She sneers with a critical look as if the dad were a brute ignoramus who habitually neglects the health of his child. She turns away from us without waiting for an answer.
“Are you nuts?” he asks the back of the lady’s head.
“Of course she’s nuts,” I chip in, as if his question didn’t need asking.
“If you want to save my son from harmless radiation then you shouldn’t expose him to the cell phone in the butt pocket of your trousers for all this unnecessary time!”
He points at the phone outlined in her denims. She turns around again, glares at him and announces victoriously; “It is on Airplane mode!”
Suddenly I am very happy that I will soon be surrounded by scientists.
However, as I stride briskly to work, I find myself wondering if we scientists are doing enough to engage with the public? To inform and enlighten people? I read recently that two-thirds of Europeans don´t know that cucumber contains – oh horror – genes?! And a similar number believes that red light can be harmful? Our failure to communicate sometimes appears boundless.
Written by Karin Bodewits (author of You Must Be Very Intelligent – The PhD Delusion)
Wednesday afternoon, 4 PM. Just after teaching a third semester molecular biology class I notice in the corridor that the light is on in my boss’s office. Professor Lous has been travelling so much that her presence in the department is a rather rare event. I don’t want to talk to her but I don’t know when she will deign to grace her place of work with her presence again. I take a deep breath and knock on the door.
Lous’ slightly high-pitch suggests irritation at being found at work. I enter her office to be told, not in so many words, ‘oh get lost, I have so many more pressing matters to tend to than you!’ She says this in her tone. Her words are polite but direct, to deflect any possibility of small talk. “Miriam, nice to see you! What can I do for you?”
“I wondered if you already have news about my contract.”
A frown quickly forms on Lous’ forehead. It would seem my simple words are rather puzzling. “I don’t quite see… you still have about three months left… and then I will try to extend it.”
There is a short rhetorical pause. I grind my teeth, softly I hope, while looking around the small office with its beautiful plants and old wooden cabinets full of books and papers. I am thinking about what to say next. I do not want to leave. I do not want shooed away as if me and my life plans are but a trifling irritant. After a few seconds it is Lous who comes up with some words; “You do want to stay, right?”
Again, this is well-trodden and very dull ground.
“Yeah, yes, I do,” I say quickly. “It is just that…. How sure is it that I can stay?”
“I am optimistic, but I can’t promise you anything. I am waiting to hear back from the Head of School. The School needs to partly fund you.”
“I know. I just would like to know when the decision will be taken, that’s all.”
“These things never are as easy as you imagine. There are many factors. Many last minute decisions… But they all know that we just submitted our paper to Cell and there is more in the pipeline. Seriously Miriam, I am optimistic.”
“I know. But I just think that if I am to leave, it’s only fair I know sooner rather than later. I would need to start applying for other positions now. Probably I should even have started applying months ago… And anyway the insecurity drives me nuts. Uncertainty is an enemy of concentration, isn’t it?”
Lous nods understandingly. “I know. It is. I will ask if a decision can be made in the next few weeks.”
“Good,” I say, trying to live into the modicum of relief to be taken from Lous’ dubious intention.
“I will let you know as soon as anything is decided. But until that time, don’t worry too much, focus on the next paper, okay? Every result will enhance your chances.”
“Okay,” I say, a bit happier, smile weakly and leave the office.
I pass the mailboxes on the ground floor and pull out all free magazines, advertisement and college announcements that have piled up over the last week; out of my own mailbox and close colleagues. Slightly out of balance, due to carrying a tree of paper waste, I waddle to the other end of the building.
I open the door of our office with my shoulder and I drop the pile of unreadable waffle on the small table next to the entrance. I walk to
“Mail for you,” I say handing him an envelope.
“Receiving letters in the hashtag era is never a good sign,” he sighs from behind his desk, which is straining under the astonishing piles of scientific papers, books and student reports – an accidental monument to academic slavery.
“Yep… either a bill or a rejection,” I suggest.
He tears the letter open, with haste, and reads it, with a frown.
“What is it?”
“Oh, just a spot of excellent news to take home with me for the evening.”
I raise my eyebrows. Marcel sighs and reads the letter aloud, saying that he was thanked for his application and interview as a Junior Professor in Darmstadt but that they have appointed someone else to the post. He is welcome to apply again should anything similar come up.
“Oh nooo… you were set on it. Weren’t you?”
“Well, set on it… set on it…. only in so far as the application took a hell lot of time, and it would have been nice to get away from Uncle Scrooge.”
Uncle Scrooge is his professor, and a penny-pincher par excellence. Eleven months a year Uncle Scrooge invests vast amounts of time and energy ensuring no atom is wasted in his lab. Then in December he splashes cash like Oliver Reed at an Irish stag do. This is, of course, because no academics want to give money back but usually there are limits. However, not with Uncle Scrooge; all sorts of chemicals, plasmids, cells and you-name-it are purchased with gleeful abandon, and without due consideration to their actual usefulness.
“I suppose you were really keen on it then?”
“That’s right. On a positive note…at least I don’ t have to move to Darmstadt.”
“True. I don’t think anyone ever moved to Darmstadt out of free will.”
“Right. No one does.”
“There’ll be other positions, won’t there?”
“Hmmm… at some point. There are suitable openings in academia maybe twice a year for me…”
“You will get extended, right?”
Wednesday 5:45h, Munich airport. I am at gate 16, Air Berlin. Life is grey, blue, black. Mostly grey. So many men. So many suits. So many shirts. So many shiny shoes. A few pairs of jeans, below a practical Jack Wolfskin coat. Tech staff or engineers I presume.
I am sitting, staring at the passengers I will soon share an airplane with. I smell Axe, Adidas, Chanel for men. Some look at me, flirt. I wonder if they find me attractive or if it´s just the lack of alternatives. I am the only woman between so many men. We sit, we wait and nip from our coffee.
The stewardess starts to call for boarding. First all the people having something to do with the frequent flyer or Sky programme. All of a sudden I see purple. It is lively, beautiful, refreshing, business…feminine. High purple heels, tights, a purple skirt, a yellow top and a purple blazer. Oh what beautiful clothes. You make this picture shine! My eyes move up. A wrinkly skin, heavy lipstick and eyes looking annoyed. You express misery. A grumpy man I would not have noticed, but you are in the spotlight. A light of misery in the dark. A purple dot in a sea of grey. Poor you!
I am boarding the aircraft. Row 26, seat B. Seat A and C are occupied by men. One helps me out of my coat, the other stores my backpack in the luggage compartment. Daddy instinct or potential sex partner? Age-wise both possible. A sporty stewardess is elegantly walking from the front to the back of the aircraft. Every step is followed by two clicks of closing luggage compartments. She pauses at the row in front of us. It is empty. She comes a bit closer and looks over the seats into our laps.
“Anyone with long legs?”
The man on the aisle jumps up.
I struggle to keep the sip of coffee I just took in my mouth, pressing my lips together, swallow. A few drops still run out. He looks at me. Playful, friendly, surprised.
“You call that long?” I ask him.
He shakes his head, smiles, lifts his arms sideways.
“What? I am not that short!”
“No, but long is just different,” I reply.
My other neighbour is laughing, entertained. He looks at me, curious. One minute of silence. I feel he is searching for a question, a comment.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“I think we all have the same destination” I reply. Realising that my answer is an absolute small talk killer I say: “You tell first.”
“I am having an appointment today to sell something to a potential customer.”
“Are you a salesman?”
“What do you sell?”
“Plugs” he says slightly insecure.
I laugh. “You sell plugs?”
“What do you tell people at parties if they ask you about your job? Do you admit you sell plugs?”
He laughs. “It is not that bad…”
“Well, it is,” I reply. “But what is so special about your plug that you need to fly to Hannover for it? It is not a normal plug right?”
“No, it is not a normal plug. But it is too technical to explain.”
“Really?” With a half-smile I briefly look him in the eyes. “You think I do not understand it?”
Slightly embarrassed he tells me about his plug. A special plug that adapts to the position of cables attached to moving medical lights in surgery rooms. It takes him a while to explain. Smartarse me, I say: “You should write a pitch. An “explain your plug to dummies” pitch. For parties and so on.”
“Probably” he says. “Now it is your turn. What do you do?”
“I am traveling to a research institute to give a seminar to women in science. A career seminar.”
“Why for women?” he asks. “Is that topic not done yet?”
I lift up my head, stretch my neck, look over the seat in front of me, to the front, to the back. I look at him. Mockingly I say “It is a grey, grey world here, dude.”
“Yes”, he says. He lifts his shoulders and nods his head. “You are right.”
Written by Karin Bodewits (Originally published in Laborjournal, 05-2016)
When I saw you at the party I wished we could just run away together
Run away from the lunatics
Run away from the physicists
Run away from the cynics
Then I realised you are one of them
That I am one of them
And I just said ‘hi’
Written by Karin Bodewits
Wednesday morning, 11 AM. I walk out of the lab, through the corridor where plenty of undergraduates are hanging around between lectures and enter the large office at the far end of the building. At this time of the day, there is bright light shining in through the large windows. It is quiet inside, everyone is working concentrated. The white board next to the entrance announces that Max’s Nature paper got accepted for publication. Well done, Max! I think and sit myself behind my desk. I open the internet browser and immediately click on an email with ‘Your grant proposal – 308846LG’ in the subject line. I only read the first two sentences and feel my face loosing colour. The energy leaks from my body like streams of water disappearing in an open sink. I shortly close my eyes, wipe my hand over my face and stretch out as if that could bring vitality back into my body. But it doesn’t. I lean heavily against the back of the office chair and stare passively around the office.
The remaining ceiling-high brown wooden bookcases against the walls give the room the old character of the library it used to be. Every fifth shelf of the bookcases is sloped (rather useless for today’s usage) suggesting that scientific journals were displayed here at times they were only available on paper. There are fifteen desks spread randomly over the room. No one sits too close to someone else, but the distances between the desks are by no means large enough to have a conversation that can’t be overheard by others. In the middle of the room there is a round table with five chairs neatly placed around it. It obviously has been placed there to hold meetings, but no one in the office dares to use it. It is one out of many unwritten rules this office has: If you have a meeting, find a different spot in the building. Don’t talk loudly on the telephone. Tell visitors that they should not knock and just walk in. No music without headset. Don’t disturb the other inmates (unless this person is clearly not doing anything concentrated). Don’t ask how someone else’s research is going and be reserved about your own successes. Definitely don’t enquire if the grant proposal your office mate has been working on for weeks has been successful. Happy messages like papers in high-class journals, acquired research funding or the landing of a professorship position, can be announced on the whiteboard next to the door, but please don’t rub it in to the others. Rules that all inhabitants of this old library understand. Newcomers in the office, all in the post PhD phase of their careers, don’t need long to learn them. I learned them within two weeks after arrival.
Not everyone in the office is a researcher. Or to be more precise, not everyone in the office is still a researcher. It is an office in which one either grows from being ‘the ugly underbelly’ of academia to a long-craved-for professorship at a university somewhere on this globe or you give up. Most of the people who give up find jobs somewhere outside of the ivory tower, but a few are being soaked up by the academic system and fulfil coordinator positions or become helping hands of one of the more prestigious professors in the department. It is easy to tell who in the library was once a researcher and who still is a researcher. The people in the ‘still are’ category have more emotional ups and downs in their facial expressions than the people in the ‘once were’ category, whose muscles usually relax after a short period of bitterness. For most it is only a matter of weeks [sometimes months] between giving up and being forced to settle for something that was not quite their first choice of a career, and seeing the bright side of their new career path; the joy of a predictable job and having free time. On average the ‘once weres’ are older than the ‘still ares’, but despite still having little job security and temporary contracts they are smiling more than the others.
I want to become a professor one day and find myself lucky being in the ‘still are’ group. But on days like today when I just receive an email saying that my grant proposal has been rejected, I sit at my desk staring at the ‘once weres’ wondering at what point they decided to give up. How did it happen? Was it age? Was it when they saw their 40th birthday approaching and still not seeing the light and the chance to land a professorship? Was it when they saw one of their office mates announce the acceptance of a Nature paper on the white board? Was that the moment that they realised they could not compete? Or was it when they started waking up in the morning and lacked the energy to go to work? Were it family obligations and financial concerns behind their decision? Did they lose faith in their own abilities to become a good researcher? Or was it mere self-protection- not having to handle another rejection? How on earth do you know when to stop? I would like to know, but there are certain things you don’t ask- not in this office.
Would I ever have the courage to give up and be able to love a new career path I could not imagine to pursue? Not for now, that’s all I know. I take a deep breath, open a blank Word document, and start writing a new grant proposal.
Written by Karin Bodewits
7:00 AM, Frankfurt airport. I am queueing at the check-in counter of Lufthansa airlines. My mother-in-law is standing next to me, humming the slowest version of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” I ever heard. My tired son, Sam, is sitting on one of her arms. On the other she holds an outsized wicker picnic basket covered with a tea towel. I am wearing a blazer, carry a large backpack, a laptop bag, a poster tube and a changing bag stuffed with diapers, wet towels, bottles of milk, changing clothes and God knows what else an eleven month old might need on a three hour flight and a four-day stay in Barcelona. I push an empty buggy in front of me.
I feel physically and mentally drained, I am sweaty of dragging the luggage and the buggy with Sam in it up and down the stairs of train stations. After a full week of long days in the lab and evenings behind my laptop (Yes, I had desperately, and unsuccessfully, tried to get a few more results to present before heading to this conference), I got up at 4.00 A.M. this morning to be at the airport in time.
Despite it having been so early with a stressful week behind me, consciousness had been upon me as soon as the alarm went off. Maybe I hadn’t been unconscious in the six hours before that anyway. During the night I had only worried about the conference; how on earth was all of this going to work out with Sam AND Granny… what if he screams like a suckling pig on the flight? What if he would get sick or doesn’t feel like spending time with Granny? What if he wakes up three times during the night before I have to give a talk? What if I don’t have access to a microwave to warm up his milk during the night? What if….? What if…?
I got out of bed and went to the bathroom.
“You are okay?” Martin asked looking concerned in my direction, while I chewed on a toothbrush. “You have been kicking around the whole night. I couldn’t sleep,” he added.
“I know. I am just so worried I forgot something for Sam. And then going on a trip with your mum…” I sighed.
“I would NEVER go on a trip with my mum!” Martin said jokingly to cheer me up.
“I bet she brings tons of soggy food.”
“Yep. And, a thermos flask with her famous filter coffee.”
“I think this is the worst idea my boss ever came up with…”
“I think so too,” Martin more sings than speaks.
“We still have money left in the gender pot. Bring Sam to Barcelona, will you?” My boss, Markus, had asked me six weeks ago.
“I don’t think it is a good idea. Sam doesn’t sleep much and he can only sit still while he eats a Pretzel… and there is only so much Pretzel you can stuff into a kid,” I had carefully tried to argue.
“There are child care facilities.”
“I am not sure he will stay a full day with someone he doesn’t know.”
“You can visit him during the breaks.” Goodbye meaningful conversations and clean clothes! And he will scream every time I leave….I visualised him pulling himself up on the white tablecloths with his chubby and greedy hands all across the buffet…
“The word ‘break’ got a totally different meaning, just now.”
“It is important to show young scientists there is space to be an academic and a mother.”
“But I have child care at home. I don’t need to bring him.”
“Please, try it once. Bring your partner or a grandparent along if you wish, as babysitter” Markus had said with begging eyes. I guess he was so keen on his idea because it would enable him to beef up the section “gender” in his follow-up grant proposal.
So here I am with Sam and my mother-in-law, very slowly moving forward at check-in. Sam is wailing. I guess if I were him, I would wail too. Being woken up so early, dragged to an overcrowded airport, where you find yourself hanging with your nose over a picnic basket containing smelly cheese sandwiches, while a 65+ granny continuously hums the same tune too close to your ear. It sucks!
“You have got a hat for him?” Granny asks in her default judgemental tone.
“No. It is late spring and we are flying to Barcelona. I don’t think he needs a hat,” I say, moving one step closer to the counter.
“He’s got cold ears, though,” she says, irritated, and places the picnic basket into the buggy so she has a hand free to untie her own neckerchief and wraps it around Sam´s ears. He looks grumpy, lifts his chubby baby arms, rips the neckerchief off his head and throws it on the ground.
I struggle to suppress a smile and say: “I think his ears are warm enough.”
The stewardess scans our passports and prints our boarding passes. Secretly I hope Granny and Sam are sitting on the other side of the aisle, so I can have a nap, knowing that my chances are small. We get boarding passes for two seats next to each other and walk through security. Granny tries to negotiate her freshly brewed pancake soup and coffee through, but is clearly on the loosing track. Both her coffee and her soup fly into the large bin where they probably belong. Even if terrorists blow our airplane up, the security check wasn´t worthless.
This is such a different experience than the conference in Berlin I attended two months ago. I got to network and enjoyed to be freed from family obligations for a couple of nights and relished the first uninterrupted nights’ sleep since Sam was born.
Written by Karin Bodewits (Originally published in Labourjournal, 2017)
It is a warm summer evening 1999. A grey-haired man is sitting opposite of me at an authentic ceramic table. We are in his garden. He hasn’t been living there for long yet. “I always wanted a garden with large trees, now I have it.” We drink wine, he talks. He tells me a story about one of his seamen having an accident on the open ocean. He fell, he broke a leg and there was blood, lots of blood. They are hours away from the closest port, and he needs medical treatment. The adrenalin is pumping through his body. He is afraid of losing a man, a colleague, a father, a human being. He is the captain of the ship; he tries to stay calm and changes direction. Singapore is the new destination. They make it. They make it in time. His colleague is weak but still mostly conscious. He needs a blood transfusion. But Singapore, at that time, did not give blood to foreigners for free. Blood needs to be paid with blood. No pay, no cure. Four needles enter four seamen’s arms. When they collect enough the treatment starts. He recovers. After several days of hospitalisation the ship can continue its way to the next harbour.
He hands me over a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. The package isn’t decorated with black lungs and scary massages yet. The text on the pack is Russian. “I got them today while piloting a Russian ship in the port. There are more in the wardrobe.” For months already I am smoking cigarettes produced in countries of which I neither understand the culture nor the language. He is bringing them for me, and I smoke them while he tells me stories about his life on sea, crossing oceans, entering ports and the occasional inland holidays he connects with it.
On warm summer evenings we are sitting in the garden under a large birch. During the other seasons we chill on the old green sofa next to the fireplace. I listen to how he travels with small boats through storms to reach large ships. How he climbs rope ladders swinging through the wind to get on board and how he pilots the ships into the local harbor. He tells me stories about warm welcomes from Russians, Chinese, Philipinnos… How he bridges the language barriers and experiences the cultures.
I am 16 years old, dating his son. I am coming from a small village in an economically dead part of the Netherlands. My parents have a middle class income, and we live in a typical free-standing family house. My sisters are both studying, I just changed schools. Apart from our yearly holidays in the Alps, we don’t see anything. I know nothing. I am a teenager, doing things that teenagers do.
He taught me about cultural differences, about life and about how to cook rice and pasta in the same pot. He showed me how to be creative and be happy with the things you possess. He inspired me, broadened my mindset and opened my eyes. He gave me a goal. I wanted to see and experience the versatility of the world. I wanted to travel and work in other nations, so I did. I just made one mistake: I never came back.
It is the year 2000, I finish school, leave the village and start to study. Most evenings I would still take the train back to listen to his stories and smoke Russian cigarettes. I studied Biology and started to plan my trips. First a few months travel in Asia, then an innocent semester in Spain. A year in Shanghai, thereafter the UK. I learned how life is when you can only communicate with hands. I ate three meals a day with chopsticks. I drank Vodka with Polish friends, supported Spain in the World cup, the Scottish rugby team in England, and Bayern Munich in a pub in Edinburgh. I learned British insults, Chinese politeness, and later on, how to complain like a German.
I got addicted to moving. Addicted to meeting new people, learn new languages and find my way around in a new town. I felt free, being anonymous somehow. In the beginning I was still coming home a few times a year, but as the years passed by my trips got shorter and less frequent. I felt more and more detached from my home country, my family, my friends. It was not that I wanted to detach from all of that, but I simply wasn’t there to stay in touch. I missed parties, dinners and could not offer “real” support in times of need. People started to point out language mistakes I made when speaking my mother tongue and their understanding of me staying abroad faded.
After my PhD I had the decision between coming back home or traveling to my next destination. Something inside me wanted to go back. Living in a country where I can vote and where the pub culture and food is how I like it. Where people live the life I want to live. A country where I know what to buy where and can easily find my way around. But the thought of moving back made me scared as well. Scared of losing my anonymous status. Scared of what people would say about my spelling mistakes. But mostly scared of being a misfit in my own country. Deep in my heart, it was probably my fears that made me decide against this move. I simply felt safer to move somewhere else. Continue to live anonymously, being the strange Dutch girl in the street.
For the fourth time in 6 years, I left everything behind, including most of my belongings and made a move.
Now it is 2015, and I’ve lived in Germany for a few years. I learned another language and live in a different culture. I speak Dutch to my children, German to my friends, and English to my partner. None of the three languages, I feel, has developed to 100% proficiency. I can write and read, but somehow feel analphabetic. When I talk to strangers the first questions is “Where are you from?” The first few years in Germany, people often guessed I came from the UK. I probably brought the Scottich accent I gathered. Now they hear straight away that I am Dutch. I pay taxes, but can’t vote. I struggle to find clothes I like and which fit a Dutch body. My children are learning songs I do not know. I dress them up for festivities I do not have any emotional attachment to. They say things I would never say. My children are being raised in and by a country where I do not belong. I like it here. I have my work. I have my friends. I learned to get around in a new country. I have no problems supporting Germany in the World Cup and loved it when my children spoke their first “foreign” words…. But I miss something as well. I miss my “old friends” who live all over the world. I miss people and a nation I associate with. I miss belonging to a place.
Last weekend I traveled to the Netherlands, to my sister´s wedding. As always, I realised at the airport that I find Dutch guys attractive, that people wear things I like, and that their direct way of communication is something I am familiar with. At the party I see faces I have seen before. For one evening I have a name and an identity. I am not anonymous. I feel uncomfortable and at home.
Written by Karin Bodewits