On “what if”s, forks in the road and also: how do waves work?

I started this blog about four years ago to deal with my post-travel blues. I always expected to kick out the travel blues by now, and get my backpack from under the dust again. But four years after putting the backpack in storage and the post-travel blues moving in, going on the road again is not what’s next for us.

Four years ago, I met my then-boyfriend-now-husband while on the road in Australia. (I still get SO excited calling him my husband!) We were both there on a working holiday visa and whereas he didn’t really plan to go back (or plan anything at all, as a matter of fact), I had a job waiting for me back home. My plan was to go home after one year so I could pursue a PhD, starting in October 2014. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and I just had to try it. And I did. And it wasn’t for me. But I’m not one for giving up, so here I am, almost four years later, absolutely and totally ready to move on from my life in academics. So after my one year down under, I moved back to Belgium and the husband came with. We always said that after my contract would finish, it would be up to him where we go next. We might go back on another working holiday someplace else, we might move to England (where he is from), or do something different altogether. But as it turns out, making plans, even these kinds of super vague ones, for something that is four years away, didn’t work.

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(I absolutely loved waking up in a tent to absolute nothingness when we were first on the road together.)

I am now 27 and the husband is 30. Yes, I think that is freakishly old. But it is definitely too young to make long term plans. Four years ago, I was a silly 23-year old! I thought I would still have all the freedom in the world after my PhD. And don’t get me wrong, we do. We don’t have a mortgage, no pets, no kids. Nothing really ties us down. But we have opportunities. Just like my PhD was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, the husband now has a very exciting job. It drives him crazy a lot of the time, the last month more than it used to, but we know that in this job, he will get opportunities he might not get anywhere else. He’s been there for about two years now and his job has already changed so much. The company is expanding super fast and he gets to ride the wave. And he’s riding it to the top! (Is that a thing? I think you might actually ride a wave from top to bottom, or maybe from side to side? But you get what I mean, right?) So if we pack up and leave now, we would always be wondering, what if…

Ah, the million dollar “what if” question. It’s how I’ve figured out every dilemma I’ve ever faced. Which decision do I need to make so that in five years time, I WON’T ask myself “what if”. If I do the One Thing, will I regret not doing the Other? Will I ask myself: What if I did the Other Thing? Or if I do do the Other thing, will I ask myself, what if I did the One thing? It works pretty well. It made me go to Australia.

Me talking to myself five years ago: “Fast forward five years in time: will I regret not having gone to Australia for a year because instead I chose to spend time with my grandparents, or will I regret having actually gone to Australia because I didn’t get to spend more time with my grandparents?” My grandparents thought it was a stupid question with an obvious answer, so I went and sent them lots of post cards. And after these five years, me as well as my grandparents are indeed super happy I went and found my now-husband. Not once did I ask myself the question “what if I would’ve stayed home?” Even writing down that question makes me giggle because it is just too stupid for words.

For the PhD, I asked myself the same question: in five years time, will I regret not having tried the PhD to travel for a bit longer, or will I regret not having traveled longer to try the PhD. Honestly, at this moment, I’m not so sure if I made the right decision. This PhD really changed me into a much less happy person. I’ve asked myself the horrid “what if” a thousand times already. But on the other hand, if I wouldn’t have tried it, I would’ve always felt like I let an opportunity slip through my fingers and still wondered “what if”. Seems like there was just no way to win there.

So I guess my “in five years time” method isn’t as failsafe as I thought it was. Which makes it so much harder now that we are stood in front of the next fork in the road! If we want to go adventuring again (and then I mean proper adventuring, just the backpacks and us, for a long long time, with no ties to come back to a “home” any time soon), we let a lot of opportunities pass us by. But if these opportunities turn out to be the same kind of buzzkill like my PhD was, then we might end up regretting not having taken the leap.

I’ve read many a blog of young couples like us, saying that nothing prevents us to pack up and leave now or at a later stage in life. But I don’t agree. There are other things in life we also want. And what these hipster travellers fail to mention, is that you can’t have it all. The husband, he is ambitious. The jobs you get on the road hardly are. Me, I like a little bit of stability. Just knowing that we have a place to come home to. When I was younger, that was my parents house. But now, for the husband and me, that wouldn’t be a home. It would be a short-term solution. And also, we want to have a family. Tick tock says the biological clock. One baby on the road, exciting! Two babies on the road, exhausting! Not to forget wanting to give your children all the opportunities you can, including a stable home.

Does that mean this is it for us? The last fork in the road where at least one of the two options involves a crazy travel adventure? I don’t know. And I won’t know. Not all the planning in the world can help me out here. We just have to ride the wave, whether it goes up or down or sideways or maybe it’s just a really calm day and there are no waves at all. Maybe it’s time I stop thinking so much of the future and of the future “what if” moments I may have. Because if there’s anything I learned during my four years of PhD hell, it’s that you just don’t know what will come next. So rather than picking the option you think you’ll be happy with five years from now, maybe we should just pick the option we’re happy with now?

DAMN THAT’S SCARY! And: what does it mean!

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One Month From Now…

In exactly one month, it’ll be March 11th. It will be a special day.

Let me run you through the next month. Tomorrow, it’s Monday. Which means, back to work. It’s been really tough, I’m in the last year of my PhD and I’m SO done with it! Turns out the PhD really wasn’t for me, and I’m really getting more annoyed with it by the day. I just really hope I can finish this thing sooner rather than later and move on to something new and exciting. And also, I really really hope that I won’t regret having spent four years of my life on this. I hate getting stuck in “what if”s, so when it comes to decision times I always try to think: “What will I regret the most?” Like when I was thinking of going to Australia for a year. “What will I regret the most? If I go to the other side of the globe and maybe something happens to my grandparents and I won’t be around? Or if I don’t go?” I figured I’d forever wonder “what if” if I wouldn’t have gone, so I did it. And thank goodness I did, because not only did I have a spectacular year, I also met the love of my life there.

So tomorrow, back to work. I made myself a deadline for the end of the month to have a first full draft of the dissertation. That is so not going to happen, but I’ll now try to have a first draft of the first part (out of three). The second part is roughly finished, and the third part still needs a lot of work. And then there’s the intro, conclusion, methodology, appendices, bibliography, etc. Worries for later I guess. Ugh.

The day after tomorrow, my students are coming round to look at their exams. January was exam period, and now that the students have gotten their results I’m getting emails left right and centre for them to come look at their exams. Now this year, my students were quite different from the last few years. They have this weird sense of “that’s not fair”. Maybe it’s to do with this whole millenial business, you know, the fact that millenials feel entitled and stuff (watch this super interesting video by Simon Sinek if you don’t know what I’m on about). Maybe that stuff has finally reached Belgium. I think technically, I’m a millenial too, but I’m not half as bad as my students this year! The course I teach is a tiny tiny course in the first year. Just some terminology of (Dutch) linguistics that’ll serve as a base for the next few years of theory. Really, it’s just getting a hang of the linguistic vocabulary. This is a pronoun. This is an adverb. This is a pronominal adverb (which is only called like that because linguists can’t make up their minds on whether they are adverbs or pronouns, I guess). Now, the grading for the course is a bit peculiar. During the semester, the students have to make tests online (with all their materials available to them), multiple choice. At the end of the semester, there’s also an exam, again multiple choice but this time without their course books and stuff. On a multiple choice test with 4 answer options, you have one chance in 4 that you’ll pass by guessing. So to control for that, students have to get 80% of the questions right to pass the course. Considering that it is such a basic course, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Also, they only have 7 classes and the course book consists of not even 30 pages. But yet, every class we spent about 15 minutes discussing the grading system. And they’re only first year students! I feel like one of the things you learn at school, is that in some cases, you just smile and nod! You need to learn to pick you battles, right? And battling with me over some silly tests about absolutely basic knowledge for your academic career, that’s just such a waste of time for all of us. So Tuesday, when the students come by, I’m not quite sure yet how to play it. Either I listen to their “concerns” and try to justify the grading system, or I calmly tell them to deal with it. I hope I won’t lose my cool!

Wednesday, I go to the gym and try again for the stupid dissertation. Thursday, same story. Friday,… You know what, I’ll just skip ahead. Friday the 2nd of March is my last day of work before three weeks of holiday. That’s why I wanted to get that first full draft done, that way I could just relax and wait for the reviews to come in with absolutely no worries because there’d be absolutely nothing that would need to get done. I’m annoyed it won’t happen, because it is my own fault. I can be so damn lazy and I stopped enjoying the PhD a while ago, so it’s really hard to motivate myself to do anything. And then I slack. And then nothing happens. And then I don’t make my deadlines. Ugh.

But back to the fun stuff. The 11th of March in particular. Because, the 11th of March will be the first day in my life being married to my soulmate! I’m so excited to start calling him My Husband, put that ring on his finger and show the world that what we have is truly something unique.

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How (Not) to Make a Fool Out of Yourself in Academics

 

As a second-year PhD student, I now have to attend as many conferences as I can and really get my research out there. I’m meeting a lot of fellow academics, from fresh phd-ers like me to the older heroes in the field. And every time again, I feel hilariously out of place. So if you are a fresh academic as well, or if you are new to a job and get the opportunity to go represent your work or company at an (inter)national workshop or conference: here are some tips of what NOT to do. Believe me, I speak from experience.

  • If you’re a nervous talker and people are talking shop, stay out of it. Before you know it, you have compared someone’s work on primate vocalisation to the Monkey News on British comedy stars Ricky Gervais, Steve Merchant and Karl Pilkington’s Xfm radio show. Don’t forget: you are not there to have fun. You are there to make people think you are smart. And stories about monkeys stealing cars or getting married are probably not ideal for that particular purpose.
  • Know what to talk about during the coffee breaks and dinner for at least one or two intelligent conversations. After all, it would be a shame if no one noticed you and your genius ideas because you were too good at blending in with the furniture. And no, your last holiday is not a good conversation starter. Especially not when you are talking to an established and highly prized researcher. Where other people manage to discus their own research with these very interesting people or ask intelligent questions about Mrs. Professor’s latest paper, I managed to steer the conversation to Mrs. Professor’s cat and knitting work.
  • Make sure you know who’s who. As in, it’s slightly to very embarrassing when that one time you are actually talking about your research, you try to make a point by quoting research actually done by the person you’re talking to. Do not say something like “In this paper of Smart Person 2015, he claims that …” to have that same Mr Smart Person give you a vague smile and look just as confused as you do by the time you start realising your mistake.
  • Make sure you know who’s important. Don’t go round asking “and what do you do” to the people who have been invited to represent the whole field and give the main talks on your workshop. They sort of expect you to know who they are, turns out.

I think a lot of problems can be solved by a good amount of pre-conference stalking. Look up who’s coming to the conference with you. Actually read the abstracts for the talks. I don’t know, rate them on a scale of importantness and also of relevance to your field? Oh, maybe go full on detective style, maps with pins and yarn connections or something. After all, don’t we all want to pretend we are not just boring academics? Or maybe, that’s just me and that’s where my ridiculous conference encounters stem from…

Bolzano Week 2 – Summer schools are hard work

It is now Thursday and I am quite ready for the summerschool to be over. As opposed to most people here, I don’t really take a lot of classes. I have two sessions in the morning this week, and nothing in the afternoon. But still it’s hard work. There are evening lectures that need attending, there are social obligations. You can never just relax an evening at home, since you have to go out every evening to find food and generally at least half of the evening is work talk.

Also, I’m sort of at that point again where really I can think of a-thousand-and-one things to do next at work. Revising what I saw in the lectures and seeing how it applies to my work, reading some material that sounds very relevant for my research, preparing a presentation for the conference I’m going to in September, and not to forget doing the actual research I was planning to do over summer. And rather than getting a move on, I tend to crash. Add to that the hot Italian temperatures and a sunstroke here and there, and I am very much ready for my holiday to start. But of course that won’t make the heavy work load disappear, sigh.

So I am now trying to get some stuff done in the library (only airconditioned place in town, Halleluja!) I figured I’d start with some small bits and bobs: making sure my new literature and notes are organised well so I know where to look for the info when I need it, making sure I understand everything I’m being taught, and trying to not forget all of the new info instantly. Hopefully tomorrow I can manage to tie up the rest of the loose ends and make a schedule for when I’m back at work, so my holiday can start properly! Because the second the boyfriend arrives on Saturday, it’ll be all hikes and trips and fun nights out 🙂

Bolzano day 3 – Un Cafè Delicioso

So today was a little more work and a little less touristing, but still it’s been a good day so far. I got some nice work done, and also managed to relax with some decent company and of course excellent coffee. The espresso here, my oh my it is amazing.

Back home, there appears to be this new trend where asking an espresso equals asking the strongest coffee ever. But espresso doesn’t get better by making it stronger. It becomes pretty hard to drink even, the flavour is way too strong and after one sip, you are left with an incredibly bitter aftertaste that doesn’t go away for at least an hour. But of course, here they master the art of coffeebrewing perfectly. Not that I expected any differently.

The espressos are balancing perfectly on the line between a beautiful and proper coffee flavour and a decent caffeine kick-in-the-butt. It does take some getting used to how absolutely tiny they are. Imagine the tiniest coffee cup. And then don’t fill it even half way. That is what one calls a “shot” of espresso. (Which by the way is just called a coffee here, un caffè. No idea where that very Italian looking word espresso comes from!)

For tonight, I might go out to grab some tasty dinner and afterwards some of my colleagues here might just go down to the Irish pub for some pub quizzing. As you do when your in Italy… ?

Bolzano Day 2: My First Bolzano Hike, sort of

So yesterday was fun. I did do a fair bit of studying and I think I have a good idea of what’s going on in class, and for today’s class I didn’t really have much work because it’s a lot less relevant to what I’m doing, so no need to go the extra mile. I even managed to do some other work, well done me! That’s work sorted, yay.

I also went for a long walk with my roommate yesterday, just along the river. Turns out the river splits at some point. So when we crossed the river to walk back on the other side, this  appeared to be less ideal than anticipated. Not the nicest walk, but at least I got those legs moving. You see, I’ve been working super hard at the gym and gave myself this self-imposed challenge: when the boyfriend and I go hiking in the mountains (which will be in less than two weeks now, can’t wait!), I will be the first one at the top. But now the cheeky bastard has really upped his game at the gym as well so I totally have to step it up. Which I really did today. I stepped up, up the hill, and it was gorgeous.

I didn’t have too much time because I was going for this hike between classes, so I told myself: one hour in and then you have to turn back. I decided to tackle the Oswaldpromenade. (Some statistics for you: I walked 1h20, covered 5,9kms with a height difference of 150m.) It’s a lovely little path at the side of the centre going up one of the hills between all the vineyards. There were amazing views of the town centre and the mountains on the other side, and the level of the walk was the perfect little challenge for an in-between-important-stuff hike.

The path was perfectly accessible, not too steep, and relatively easy to navigate. At the end of the path (or maybe it wasn’t the end, but it was as far as time allowed me to go), there was a massive super fancy hotel, the Eberle Hotel, with an amazing view of the city and I bet it would be the ideal place for an evening cocktail (but my glass of wine in town this evening suited me just fine). The map told me the way back would just be road, but really it was quite fun! The road was super narrow, therefore, very cute. And insanely steep! It took me almost an hour to reach the top on the way in, and only 5 minutes to go down because it was simply so steep you just had to run down to make it easier on the knees. That was fun 🙂 The last part of the walk I went straight through the bustling town centre, shops and Italians eating ice cream everywhere. Back nicely in time for a shower and back to the lectures I went.

So far, this combo of work and holiday is going quite well. Bring on tomorrow!

Bolzano, Italy: Arrival

I am back on the road! Well, not really, I just went abroad for work, but I’ll take it 🙂 I’m currently at a summerschool in Bolzano, Italy. I’m taking one class this week and two next week, and of course I do have to do a lot of reading and studying after class but I’ll also have a fair amount of free time to just enjoy experiencing new things again. And then in two weeks time, the boyfriend is coming to meet me for one week of holiday 😀

Yesterday was a travel day, and a lot of people always say travel days are wasted days, but this one really wasn’t. I flew from Brussels to Munich (with Lufthansa, complete and utter luxury after only flying Ryanair for the last two years) and there I had to take a few trains to be on my way to Bolzano. Bolzano is located in the north-east of Italy, in South Tirol. I’ve been to Tirol before, and also to other parts of Italy, but this is something else. The final train ride went from Munich East to Bolzano, through Austria. That means: through the mountains! What a view, my oh my, I absolutely love the mountains and it has been way too long since we last saw each other. The whole four hours on the train, I just sat and enjoyed the view.

Right before Bolzano, there were a few longer tunnels and every time we came out one, I was scared the mountains were gonna be gone. You see, I didn’t really google anything about Bolzano so I had no idea what to expect. But when we finally arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. Indeed, the landscape did change, but definitely not for the worse.

There are hills and little mountains on all sides, covered in vineyards. The architecture is more Italian than Tiroler, which I really didn’t expect. And the vibe is too. My hotel is right in the centre, and as I went for a stroll to find a bite to eat before I going to bed last night, I found all these adorable streets with restaurants around every corner and a constant smell of truffle and garlic. Just the thought of it now when writing this is making me so hungry!

This morning, I went for an early run. Early as in a bit after 7, just about early enough for the sun to still be behind the mountains. I loved it. Seriously, I’m already in love with this town. It has charm. And mountains. And wine and food. What more do you want?

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I just finished my first class and it was super confusing so I should really get to work now, I might try to find a nice coffee bar where I will blend in with the furniture for the rest of the day. Until it goes a bit cooler. Then I  might go off exploring, me thinks!