Friday, November 20, 2015

Japan 4.0

4th time in Tachikawa, again for a symposium and in the framework of the successful collaboration between Japan and Belgium. A full experience, as always. This post will be partly in Italian, because some ideas would be too difficult to be expressed in a foreign language and because these thoughts are mostly of interest for my Italian friends.

Outbound Flight with Austrian and inbound with Lufthansa. It is was a very cheap combination, but extremely agreeable. A bit of nostalgia had hit me by seeing again pictures of Vienna and listening to Strauss’ music, as every time I board an Austrian plane. It didn't last long, though, because the usual manners of the flight attendants and the meals offered on board have reminded me what I did not like of Vienna. I had a tight connection in Vienna, but luckily the flight had 2h30 delay. On the way back, flying with Lufthansa, I was more comfortable. It is always a long flight (about 12 hrs to reach Europe) and I get easily bored, I don't sleep much, especially when my neighbor is snoring... Now there is a direct flight connecting Brussels with Tokyo, but it is still too expensive.

On the way to Tachikawa from Narita Airport, on the train, I met another Italian (I know, we are everywhere and we recognize each other immediately). This fortunate meeting offered me the opportunity not only to discover a part of Tachikawa I didn't know, but also to think about religions and the way we deal with them. (The following two paragraphs are in Italian).

La ragazza incontrata è un monico buddista ma anche una cattolica osservante, ossia ha abbracciato una filosofia di vita ed un cammino spirituale di tipo buddista che non solo non sostituisce ma addirittura sostiene la fede individuale, tanto che tra i suoi amici ci sono anche ebrei e musulmani. In sostanza, il buddismo da lei praticato non costituisce una religione a sé stante, ma un percorso filosofico. Ho visitato un tempio molto importante per questa scuola e lei pazientemente mi ha spiegato il significato dei vari riti. Il mio approccio alla religione, forse più “luterano” per certi aspetti che “cattolico”, ossia con dubbi, domande e ragionamenti (non ho mai amato il dogmatismo) non è cambiato, ma la sua esperienza mi ha fatto riflettere sul fatto che per lei il buddismo ha avuto la stessa funzione che per me ha la musica sacra. Il cammino è importante tanto quanto l’arrivo, perché la nostra vita non è altro che un lungo percorso verso una destinazione che forse mai raggiungeremo, ma che vediamo solo con la Fede.

Sinceramente consiglierei una chiacchierata con questa ragazza a tutti i miei amici estremisti, sia quelli tradizionalisti cattolici sia quelli rabbiosamente atei. Entrambi potrebbero imparare che la pace e l’amore fraterno risultano dal rispetto per il pensiero altrui. Rispetto significa anche interesse, perché c’è sempre da imparare e motivo di crescita. Sono onestamente stufa di moniti per le frequentazioni non strettamente cattoliche da una parte e commenti irrispettosi verso i credenti dall’altra. A tal proposito, vorrei ricordare che criticare l’istituzione è lecito, ma non deridere chi crede (o non crede), di qualsiasi religione si tratti!

Japanese style
Back to English, for something that has never happened before. On Sunday morning I overslept, despite the alarm! I was tired for the flight, but I always woke early. This time I almost missed breakfast in the hotel, after sleeping for about 12 hrs!

The Japanese experience has been dominated by food this time. From the traditional tea shop where the owner has explained with drawings the different varieties of tea, to the traditional restaurant for the final dinner offered by our Japanese counterpart, where four cooks were there only for us and we ate the famous fugu (puffer fish, pesce palla, lethally poisonous if not cut as it should). In between we had a delicious (after party) dinner in another restaurant, with a lot of food and sake, with Japanese professors and their students, heartily laughing and seriously discussing about science like in any corner of the world when among geologists. We had also a funny experience with a shabu-shabu place, due to the complicated order in Japanese. It is extremely difficult to communicate with locals, because even the gesture is quite different from the european style.

The reason for the journey was the annual symposium on Antarctic meteorites. Scientifically very interesting for both sides, even though a very few foreigners attended it. After the symposium, those of us in the established collaboration between Japan and Belgium had a private meeting to discuss the future of the collaboration and the strategy for investigating the samples we have. I must admit that my mixed Italian-German dedication to science is sometimes in contrast with the complex way of dealing with problems typical of Japan or the Belgian easiness.

Actually, I was a bit surprised when my boss proposed to extend my stay in Japan for a couple of days. I said no, firstly because I had already other commitments in these days in Brussels and secondly because scientific research is not more important than my life (it took a long time, but now I’ve learned). I’m always happy to work on Sundays or bank holidays, I’m flexible in changing my plans if possible, but not when I’m on the other side of the Earth, just the day (less than 24hrs) before the planned flight (booked months in advance). I love my job, but I’ve already given up too many times things that I love as well, just for prioritizing  (sometimes) useless tasks. The fact that I don’t have a husband and children waiting for me at home does not imply I don’t have a life outside the office. I thank my other boss, another woman in science, for having understood my point and having supported my "no". 
Paris and Brussels

Finally some thoughts on what happened in Paris on Friday 13th. I read the news only upon arrival in the hotel. Initially shocked for what they dared to do, then for the reaction. I don’t think that further violence is the best answer to a similar attack in the heart of Europe. I don’t think that religion has something to do with the behavior of terrorists. I don’t think we should restrain from living normally because of fear. Death comes always unexpectedly, for a bunch of causes. An increase in security check is due (like I saw at Frankfurt airport), similarly to our regular health checks, but cancelling events such as football matches or concerts is a bit too much in my opinion. However, I do find a bit weak the general behavior of Belgium with respect to the issue.

The reaction of Japanese people was also surprising. A colleague, temporary in Belgium, was reconsidering the idea of coming back. The lady at the airport desk asked me about Brussels, as she thinks that the place is not particularly safe in this moment, but she should come for working. I indeed consider Brussels not particularly safe in comparison with other european cities, but for completely different reasons (crazy driving style, number of thefts, rapes, etc.). If we consider natural disasters and even terrorism, Japan might appear even more dangerous.

In conclusion, even though the cultural difference is a bit shocking and the journey extremely tiring, I'm happy to come back to Japan whenever possible!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Eleven years ago

June 2004. My MS thesis was ready to be printed, my advisor was going on vacation, and my graduation was planned for end of July. I had used image analysis in my thesis, after a little teaching from a colleague who was just some years older than me. Therefore, I enrolled for a workshop on image analysis applied to Earth Science, held at the university of Basel, by one of the few woman professors in the field. I was young, inexperienced, I could hardly understand English, not mentioning German, shy, and never confident on my skill. It was my first time in Switzerland. As I was not insured and not reimbursed, nor I was used to travel alone, I went to Basel with my parents and we stayed in a camping site, from where every day I took a tram to the dept. of geology. I’m still in touch with some friends met there. After that workshop, I turned to Mac, leaving Win forever. Among the other participants, we, Italians, were the majority. Many of them also moved abroad. Someone has left academia. I remember also the two PhD students of Basel, a Dutch girl, who now works in Denmark with her husband, and a British guy, who eventually died on a mountain excursion.
October 2015. Again in Basel, with the same professor, for a workshop on advanced applications of image analysis. In the meantime, I have greatly improved my English (it's still pretty limited, but at least I can say what I'm doing in science), I learned German and a few sentences in French and Dutch. I got a MS degree and a PhD, and since almost six years I live abroad, first in Vienna and now in Brussels. Basically I'm still shy, but who doesn't know me might think I'm not. I’m used to travel alone and to be often on a journey. I'm ready to see Basel with different eyes.

The journey
Obviously by train. As always in Belgium, with a surprise. The booked train was cancelled and replace by a combination of trains, with a transfer in Luxembourg. The connection was tight and a delay caused by works on the railway has almost jeopardized the whole journey. I had no time to visit Luxembourg, perhaps next time. The French landscape is quite boring, especially if compared with the Rhine valley on the other side of the border (see post about Freiburg). The journey back was much more relaxing.

The accommodation
Let me say that I stayed in one of the worst and most expensive hotels I’ve ever been during my business trips. It was "on the other side of the Rhine", in a district mostly populated by foreigners and, therefore, more lively and generally less expensive. My room was extremely small, the furniture outdated and poor (no doors in the wardrobe), breakfast with limited choices, and problematic wifi for most of the time. The only good point was that after 9 pm everything was as quiet as in a cemetery, and I could rest peacefully.

 The workshop
The organizer was as enthusiastic as I remember. There was a small group, only 8 of us. I was the only post-doc (but not the oldest one) and the only woman. My classmates were mostly first year PhD students, coming from UK, Switzerland, France, and Sweden, but someone else was originally from another country. As help for the practical sessions, other that two current PhD students from Basel, there was a German post-doc that I met already years ago. The workshop has been extremely interesting. I greatly appreciated scientific but also trivial conversations with colleagues and professors. Especially at the last evening, when we enjoyed a cheese fondue, with a lot of alcohol... My mind went back to the good years of geology in Padova.

The city
Eleven years ago I was overwhelmed by the new experience. This time I could dedicate some time just for sightseeing. Basel is cute. Nothing special. Trams are perfectly on time, the streets are clean, the shops are super expensive. I was lucky enough to catch the “Herbstmesse”, a kind of Christmas Market in Autumn, with traditional sweets, sausages, and local handmade products. The language still sounds mysterious to me. I had no problems in shops and restaurants (my German is enough for these easy tasks), but when I happened to hear a conversation between locals I couldn't understand a word!

Basel, the sleepy Basel, is definitely a place where I can live without getting stressed. I like the fact that Basel is relatively small, at tram distance from Germany and France (people do say Merci and Adieu, mixed with German), tidy and clean like only Swiss cities are. I've loved discussing again of microstructures and of structural geology questions. I wish I have the opportunity to come back without waiting again 11 years.


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