Thursday, October 30, 2014

West to East: Berlin reloaded

Again in Potsdam and Berlin (see the last time). Honestly I didn’t believe it could be possible, but then… a course about a complex analytical technique was organised and I got funded by the science foundation of Flanders, so... let's go to Germany and meet again some friends there!

Day 1: the molecule of happiness
At the beginning everything went wrong. My flight was delayed of about one hour and a national strike of railway drivers in Germany led to the cancellation of the S-Bahn connecting Berlin with Potsdam. This made my journey from Brussels to Berlin incredibly long. Nevertheless, enjoyable. First  the guy sitting next to me on the plane started talking and we had an interesting conversation about science, medicine and the future of humanity. Then, while waiting the bus in Spandau (as alternative to the S-Bahn), I met a kind lady, who was also going to Potsdam and who had just arrived from some vacations in Sardinia, and J., a former colleague. The journey seems shorter chatting in (my worsened) German and English. Just after arriving in a dark (because of the early sunset and the poor street light) Potsdam, two girls stopped their car just to help us finding the way to our respective hotels.

Actually I’m staying in a “pension” and I have a small apartment. Following the hints given in the morning phone call, I could find the key of my room. What a lovely place! An old building that probably has seen J.S. Bach when I met the king here, with internal design recalling a mountain hut. My cosy room is furnished with a small kitchen and the necessary for cooking, two beds, a table with chairs, a tv, and one of the smallest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. For dinner, as expected, I found a kebab place just at the corner and I had a tasty borek with spinach and cheese.

Final thought: as soon as I crossed the border, my negativity disappeared and nothing could annoy me. I was smiling all the time. I wonder if Germans have invented a secret molecule for happiness. No, many locals do not look happy at all. So… it’s just me.

Day 2: a providential bike
For breakfast I went to a supposed viennese bakery. I love the atmosphere of these places where you can take tea (and different infusions) or coffee (different sorts) and delicious sweets. It took a while to realise that I’m in Germany and none would probably understand words such as Krapfen, Marillen and Melange.

The course is held at the GeoForschungsZentrum, my dream place. It is a research center located on the top of a hill, surrounded by a thick forest, far from any distraction. Going from a building to another requires walking in tracks buried by leaves in autumn, hearing no noise except that of your steps and of your thoughts. In addition, the center is full of fancy analytical instruments, operated by some of the most brilliant brains in the country (not only Germans). What a beautiful place for doing research! The teacher is American but since 15 years lives in Germany. The colleagues are mostly students, many of them coming from the universities of Potsdam and Berlin, but there are also other foreigners like me, including a Bulgarian, a Polish, a Japanese, two Chinese, an Italian and… a “Belgian” (myself, at least officially from Belgium, although clearly Italian).

At lunchtime I had to run back to the pension for the finalising the registration and the payment. To be back on the Telegrafenberg (BERG! It means running uphill) on time I would have needed a bike… Well, the owner of the pension was kind enough to rent a nice bike for free! Too nice!

Day 3: meeting Padova in Potsdam
I always wake up early in the morning and I like hearing noises from the street, suggesting that I’m not the only one who begins the day early. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen in Belgium. Supermarkets that here open at 7 in Brussels do not open before 8:30, when they are not on strike.

In the afternoon, after the lecture, I went to say hello to the microprobe operator, who has conserved some of my samples. Samples that I'm investigating since my PhD in Padova. For dinner, S1 and S2, two former colleagues from the University of Padova and who have been working in Berlin, came to Potsdam for meeting me and J., who S1 had met in a previous workshop. S1 suggested a cute kind of pub (better, a kneipe for young people), where we had german beers and dinner at the german time (that means my usual time), while chatting about our temporary careers abroad. What a great evening!

Day 4 and 5: If I only didn’t screw up an interview.
A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to be interviewed for a job position at the GFZ. A post-doc, not a permanent position, but for 6 yrs. That was my first time here and I had no confidence in myself. I screwed up the interview, realising that I wasn't good enough for a place, where also Einstein had worked. Today I went to say hallo to the kind colleague who helped me the day of the interview. While I got a temporary position in Brussels and changed completely my research topic, going even further away from tectonics, he got a permanent position, has married and got a baby. Anyway, he waited 8 years after his PhD for having a stable situation. Well, I don’t complain for still being temporary, it will last even longer for me because I’m a foreigner wherever I go, but if I must wait too long for having a family… it might be too late for having children then. Advantages of being woman.

Day 6: exam.
Funny feeling: going back to the school time (ehm, more than 10 yrs ago) when I did my last exam. We had 90 minutes for answering not trivial questions about the machine. Things that perhaps even some operators cannot correctly calculate, but other questions were more basic. However, this test brought me back to my first feeling at the GFZ: intimidated by the smart people working here and by the many things I don’t know but at the same time curious and enthusiastic for the research facilities that are available.

Day 7 and 8: Bach in Berlin.
Wedding. That’s not a marriage, but the name of a district in Berlin now included in Mitte (Centre) where I’m staying since early afternoon. This is one of the poorest areas of Berlin, once cut in two by the wall. I’m in the former western side, in a Youth hostel probably of the 60s. Not bad, I must say. The streets in the district are named after belgian cities… uhm, not a good sign. Nevertheless, although highly multiracial, this is still Berlin, Germany, with clean streets, bike lanes and overall respect for the rules.

The reason for extending my stay in Germany was science… but also music. As previously (4 years ago), I was lucky enough to catch a Cantata by J.S. Bach performed at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche during the Lutheran service. My opinions about the performance are here. For dinner I met a former colleague from Padova and his wife, who moved to Berlin one year ago for a (temporary, again!) job in science. We ended up in a fancy italian restaurant in the posh district, as common in Berlin as in Brussels, but we paid half price than in the capital of Europe.

Sunday morning, at breakfast, I've realised that many guests of the hostel are much older than me! Obviously, Germans or from Northern Europe. After working a bit in the room that recalls a cell in a prison (better, monastery?) or  hospital, I went for history: an exhibition about the 25th anniversary of the Mauerfall and the Museum of German History. I met again my friends and we had a wonderful hot chocolate in the centre, next to the Konzerthaus. I didn't know this part of Berlin, it recalls Vienna, but honestly I still prefer the old version of Alexander Platz. I cannot believe that after demolishing the Palast der Republik they are building again the Prussian Castle. As said for Potsdam: the old buildings are modern and the new things are ancient.

Day 9 and 10: at the Museum für Naturkunde.
Finally at the MfN! The last time I’ve been here was probably more than two yrs ago. I had a good day of measurements and conversations about science. I shortly went back to the Museum the day after for a meeting with a professor who is a kind of good uncle for all of us young scientists and a wise and expert scientist. We talked about many things, possible projects, life of the museum, etc. but at the end I considered for a while what will I do next. I can invest my resources for teaching and writing proposals for an academic career (in Germany as I dream but also everywhere else), I can continue looking for post-docs, with less responsibilities but more time for pure research, or I can try to work in the curation of geological samples that is what I’m learning in Brussels and that attracts me because provides the opportunity to do some research but without the academic pressure. Honestly, I don’t know. I like all these possibilities. The least appealing is the continuous postdoc migration. I wouldn't move again to another country for a 2-3 yrs contract, having to learn the basic of a new language and the local bureaucracy. We’ll see.

As reward for these heavy thoughts and for the day of measurements, I went for shopping and I found the jacket I was looking for. I’m afraid that the leaders of the Socialist Party in the former GDR wouldn't appreciate the capitalistic evolution of Alexanderplatz, though.

Day 11: “When an Italian doesn't know something, he teaches it”
I was offered to give a talk in the traditional seminars series but this time I couldn't recycle something already presented because most of the people from the museum had already heard it at the last conference in Casablanca. Therefore, I decided to put together some slides about a past project and a new one, both with a crazy and doubtful interpretation. I didn't expect many people attending the talk, but instead there was a big crowd for this kind of event and many students. The following discussion was extremely interesting, as always, and continued in the afternoon, with new ideas, projects, explanations, etc. A real exchange of science as I like. Let’s hope to have such an opportunity again, in Berlin or even in Brussels.

Day 12: back to Brussels

It’s time to pack my stuff, with a suitcase much heavier than when I arrived, flying back to Belgium. I’ll miss Berlin. I love this place, I love its intrinsic sadness and its beauty. Anyway, it’s really time to go back. I cannot say I miss Brussels but I miss my colleagues and my work (I have already an appointment this afternoon). Furthermore… I'm leaving again in less than a week!

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