Magazine article American Scientist

The Buzz of New Beginnings

Magazine article American Scientist

The Buzz of New Beginnings

Article excerpt

Rigging up a new life abroad can be revitalizing

Why do scientists move around so much? There are of course the obvious reasons: to work at a prestigious institution, to join the lab of a top scientist or to explore a new field. But moving to a different country also brings many non-scientific rewards - and can be a lot of fun.

Doing science and moving abroad have a lot in common. There's the excitement of discovering something new and the thrill of the unexpected; the frustration when things don't work out as planned (or not at all); the improvisation needed to overcome sudden obstacles; and there are the helpful strangers who, like good supervisors or friendly colleagues, find themselves in a position to help and don't hesitate to do so. Some years ago, I experienced a memorable episode that illustrates how finding yourself in a foreign country can be both challenging and great fun. And how just approaching people can make all the difference.

It was my fifth day living in Madrid, Spain - a Saturday. With the exception of a mattress and a suitcase full of clothes, my flat was still largely empty. So I had set out to buy the essentials for my new home. Not speaking Spanish, what had appeared as a routine task quickly turned out to be no slight challenge. I had chosen a large, out-of-town department store and was particularly looking forward to exploring the food section with its trove of Mediterranean specialities. With huge offerings of traditional Spanish ham, Rioja wines and Manchego cheeses, buying food indeed turned out to be fantastic.

But then the tricky bit began. While most food packaging had pictures of what was inside, this was not true for the more mundane goods I was after. How do you guess from a breaking wave whether you're looking at dish soap or mouthwash? Having left my dictionary safely at home, I resorted to pantomime, trying to enact the various tasks I needed products for. I was soon the center of attention for a growing group of shop assistants and various well-meaning fellow shoppers who - in a supreme collaborative effort - attempted to divine what I was trying to mime. A particular highlight came when I started to explain that I required a toilet brush. When, after a good while of wild guessing and various creative efforts on my part (all while trying to preserve some dignity), they finally understood, we were crying with laughter and very nearly embraced each other in relief.

After a solid five hours - my unbeaten record for grocery shopping - I had finally managed to get all I wanted. In the process I had likely done my bit to dispel the myth that Germans are a stiff bunch (they are, of course, but not when buying toilet brushes abroad). My salad was beginning to show signs of fatigue after a long time out of its air-conditioned display, so I decided it was time to go home. However, that was easier said than done. I had come by bus, but now I was pushing a trolley overflowing with stuff that needed to go home with me. There was no way I could haul 12 crammed carrier bags to the bus stop, keep them secure during the ride and then drag them all the way to my flat. I needed a taxi. To my dismay I found no taxi stand outside the shop, and even though I waited for a good 20 minutes, not a single one drove past.

By this point I was exhausted. I hadn't eaten in a while, and despite the fun of miming kitchen utensils, not being able to just grab what you want off a shelf can be tiring. …

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