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…

The Weirdest Wanting – Baby Season

Here’s a weird thought: what if your mind and your body are ready to have a baby, but your life isn’t?

Lately I’ve been seeing babies everywhere. No one told me the end of summer is baby season! It’s like an invasion! They’re taking over the world! And on top of that, for the first time in my life, people in my group of friends are getting babies too! Even my childhood friend whom I’ve known since we were 4 years old. She’s like super pregnant. And I’m ridiculously excited to meet her mini version any time now. And also, I notice myself daydreaming more and more about starting our own family. Huh?!?!?!?!

Obvious question: then why don’t I? Well, because I’m only 25 and my life hasn’t really settled yet. The boyfriend and I have been living together for over a year now and it’s been bloody amazing. So that part is definitely settled. But we live in a smallish rental apartment. I mean, it’s not small now, but I think if we add a baby to the mix it’ll start feeling small real soon. We don’t have the money to start thinking of getting our own place any time soon. Let alone the money to support a child and then eventually a second one. Oh yeah, and I still want to get married first and turns out that also cost money, because secretly I think we want to do it right. And did I mention my current work contract only runs for another two years? Quite likely, I’d be pregnant and unemployed with a toddler at home. I think anyone would agree: not the best plan.

Not to forget: I still want to travel. One more big one. Before we take our foot of the gas for at least 18 years, I’d want to have one final race. And I really don’t want to make any life-changing decisions like starting a family knowing that I might regret not having done everything I wanted to before the boyfriend and myself stop being the most important people in my life.

But also: I really want a baby. A tiny little human to show  the beautiful things in our world. To want to make the bad things in the world disappear for. To love and care for with my amazing boyfriend. To cuddle and laugh with. To share our wonderful life with.

Why do I want something I know is such a bad idea! I mean, it’s not like wanting that new sofa that’s really too expensive. Or wanting seconds even though you’re quite full. It’s a baby for god’s sake! Can the mother instinct please go into hibernation now so I can focus on what my life is supposed to be like the next two to five years?!

 

Our Hike of 2016: Val Gardena and the Dolomites

When we were talking about our 2016 holiday last year, the boyfriend and I were thinking of a camping-mountain holiday: three weeks with the car and the tent to Austria, finding maybe three or four fun camp sites and hiking around the mountains and lakes. But with our work situation of this year, three weeks was just not an option unfortunately. And then I arranged to go to Bolzano for work, so we figured we’d take a week off after the work thing and spend our holidays in Bolzano. A random turn of events, but one we are now super happy about. Because our holiday was absolutely spot on. And of course, one important thing to cross of our list last week, was that mountain hike we had been craving for. So we took a bus to Val Gardena…

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The bus ride itself was a good way to ease us into the different landscape. The Bolzano vineyards slowly disappeared, the mountains became higher and the deciduous forests made place for pine forests and eventually tall rocky peaks. The Dolomites.

We got off in Santa Cristina, the middle of the three villages of Val Gardena, and headed straight off to the tourist centre to pick up some maps. (Which, from now on, we will probably try doing before we actually leave on holiday so we can spend our time maximally on hiking and not on figuring out which hike to pick.) We went for a hike up to the edge of the Sassolungo, a pretty impressive peak. There was also a hike around it, but for that we’ll have to continue training a bit and try again another time.

First, we had to take two chairlifts up to the start of the hike. The boyfriend had never taken a cable cart before, let alone a chairlift, and it was hilarious to make him nervous. Every time the chairlift slowed down to let someone off, I told him it’s what they do when someone falls off. Hehe. But soon he was too distracted by the amazing views to worry about the swingy ride.  The clouds were slowly fading away and in the distance we were starting to see more and more mountains. And more. And more. They just kept coming as the sky was clearing up. By the end of our second chair lift, we found ourselves on a big grassy slope leading up to the foot of the mountain. Which is where we went.

We hiked all the way up to the Vicenza hut, built at the end of the 19th century and now still a popular spot for hikers to take a break. From way down below, we could see the tiny hut standing lonely between all the rocks. And all the little specks of hikers making their way towards it. It was a busy path, felt like playing leapfrog with other hikers: we overtake, stop to take a photo, they overtake, we overtake,… But I didn’t mind too much. I was a woman on a mission: I was gonna be the first one on top of that hill. I don’t know if you remember from my previous blogs, but when I got back into the gym, I gave myself a challenge: I wanted to be the first one on top of the mountain when we would go hiking in Austria, and prove to the boyfriend and mostly to me how much fitter I’d become. And booyah I did it! (The boyfriend would tell you it was just because I happened to be walking first at the time and that he was right behind me, but I’ll take it :p At least he didn’t have to wait for me and stuff!)

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We sort of spoiled ourselves in the hut: espresso and Kaiserschmarrn please! With a view, of course 🙂

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The way back was very different. We soon left the gravel path that we took up and walked along the side of a mountain, until we found the little path down that was going to take us into the valley. It led through a little pine forest and for the first time since we started hiking, it was just us two. Lovely hiking! When we got out of the forest, we found ourselves in troll land. You know, these kinda trolls… (Sorry for the Disney reference :p) Perfect spot for lunch. Sorry, lunch number two. We had a drink and a sandwich and just enjoyed the view. I think that’s the main reason we never manage to go on truly long hikes. We like to “enjoy the view” extensively around every bend. Which we did for the rest of our hike.

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It was gorgeous and so much fun. I totally love it when we’re adventuring. Adventuring our way. Just us against the mountains. Mission accomplished.

 

Bolzano Evenings – Easy Surprises

Our time in Bolzano is coming to an end! In fact, we only have one full day left! And we just got back from our second last night in town. And let me tell you, our nights in town have been wonderful.

Since we’re staying in a hotel, we have been going out for food every night. In some towns, that can be a bit challenging depending on how picky you are. Right atmosphere, right kind of food, right price, right location, etc. But in Bolzano, it’s easy as pie. There are restaurants seriously everywhere and, unless you go onto the main square, they are all super decently prized (at least compared to Belgian food). They generally offer a wide range of Italian and Tiroler food: pizza, pasta, and deliciousness such as knödeln, spinatspätzler, schnitzel, etc. And with drinks and sometimes even starters, it never comes to more than 40 euros for two people! I’m impressed. And also super well fed. Our favourite so far: the Paulaner Restaurant. Excellent food, excellent service, and a nice variety of both wine and beer! We’ll be going back tomorrow for our last night 😉
We also sort of pigged out on pre-dinner drinks this one time (or like they call it here: aperitivo). There is this hotel, the Grifoncino Bar, that has an outside cocktail bar on their first floor where they make you feel so super fancy! Which they really should, for the price you pay. Let’s just say we spent more on our aperitivo than on the meal we had after. But it really was perfect. The staff was so very friendly without being pushy, and as soon as we sat down we received the drink menus, some water with fresh strawberries and a little bowl with olives and crisps. The cocktails were impeccable. The staff definitely wasn’t stingy on the alcohol or the quality of the ingredients, and the flavours were perfectly balanced out. For example: my first cocktail contained amongst other things ginger, but it totally didn’t overrule all the other flavours. And the boyfriend had a fruity cocktail as his second one, which I usually avoid since I’m not a fan of fruitflavoured liquors, but this one had actual real passion fruit and real raspberries, no cordials or grenadines! De-li-cious! Of course, I stole the half passion fruit that was floating around in it before the boyfriend could even blink. Tasty! The atmosphere of the bar totally finished the picture. I’d call it a lounge bar: comfortable outside longchairs, plants and cheerful lights everywhere, and some lounge music in the background. Even though I would never consider spending all that money for cocktails back home, it did make for a perfect holiday experience and it was totally worth it.
But the best part by far was the random music we found in town. I think we might have just caught the end of some Bolzano festival thingy? In any case: we’ve been having good fun! Yesterday, there was a cover band on the main square, playing songs like Mustang Sally, Jailhouse Rock, and Freedom. The band looked like they were having so much fun on stage, with little dance routines amongst the musicians and some fancy tricks here and there: proper rock ’n roll performance. Naturally, the boyfriend and I boogied the night away. Tonight, after food we went for ice cream on the main square, secretly hoping we might catch another show. No luck this time, there was only a dj playing some unimpressive dance. But then we heard some trumpets in the distance and guess what we found on a nearby square: a Tirol brass band! They were all dressed in the traditional Tirolian attire and played a wonderful variety of songs: from a Mary Poppins Medley to a Benny Goodman tribute and the Game of Thrones theme tune. And also some classical gems of which I really should’ve written down the names!
We’ve really had some amazing nights in Bolzano, without really trying to! Thank you for surprising us, Bolzano!

Bolzano The Holiday – Some Hikes

Our holiday is three days in now and they have been wonderful! So far: two hikes, a picnic, a museum, a pool session, some ice cream, a lot of espressos, and not to forget some wining and dining.

For our hikes we have stayed in Bolzano up to now. (Tomorrow, we are taking a bus to Val Gardena for a new challenge.) Our first one was super cute. I had planned it meticulously in the previous weeks when the boyfriend was still at home and I was filling up my free time between the classes at summerschool with scouting for our holiday.

In the afternoon of our first day, we walked along the river to the Runkelstein Castle. Sadly it was already closed, but we admired the outside and marched on. We went up quite steeply between the vineyards and had some insane views of the city, but didn’t dilly dally for too long since we were on a tight schedule: we had sunset plans. A little bit before sunset, we arrived at our planned picnic destination: a viewpoint over the city, with bench, on the Oswald Promenade. The sun was slowly sinking behind the hills, battling heavy with the clouds for an impressive sunset. We opened a bottle of Lambrusco and got out the bread cheese salami ham for a picnic Alla Italiano. We watched the sky go dark and Bolzano go light as the lights in the city came on. When the first stars came out, we put on our head torches, packed up, and headed home (where we got to enjoy a well-timed lightning storm above the hills from our hotelroom window).

For the second hike we went to the other side of town, to the Haselburg Castle. Sadly, also closed! Note for self: check castle opening hours before you plan a hike. But nevertheless, the hike was totally worth it. Very different from our picnic one. The path was a lot more challenging, and the views more forresty and less vineyardsy. And which better way to celebrate our new achievement than to head straight for ice cream on the town square: raspberry and straciatella, don’t mind if I do!

For our third one, we’re heading to unexplored territory! The Mountains of Val Gardena! I’m so super excited, I’ve been training so hard for this in the gym… We haven’t really picked a hike yet but we’re hoping the tourist office on site will sort us out. Bring it on 😀

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 4-6: A Little Bit of Everything, and Venice!

Bolzano has been treating me well. A little bit of work here, a little bit of tasty food there, a little bit of outdoor swimming, a little bit of park reading, a little bit of running and walking, a little bit of pub quizzing, and a lot more of espresso. Oh, and also one day in Venice!

Yesterday the summerschool organised a day trip to Venice. Or more specifically: they organised the transport to Venice. That meant three and a half hours on the bus, and another half hour on the boat. For about six hours there. I was a bit annoyed at myself for booking the trip, as I figured it wouldn’t be worth the long travel time. But boy was I wrong.

See, this is what people told me about Venice this time of year:

Too hot. It was hot indeed, but who the hell cares when it’s that stunning!

The canals smell. I didn’t smell anything out of place. Liars.

Italians go on holiday in August so everything is closed. Really? We didn’t have any trouble finding fun places to have a bite to eat. Like seriously, there is one, no even five, on every corner!

Too expensive. We were advised not to grab food or drinks next to the main attractions. Which we didn’t. Breakfast for 5 euros: a delicious piece of foccaccia with mortadella and brie and an espresso. Lunch for 13 euros: carpaccio with salad, ice tea, and an espresso (and airconditioning!). Gelato for 2,5 euros: two scoops of the most delicious ice cream I have ever tasted! Seriously! You might not believe me, but holy cow that was good stuff! Expensive my ass.

Too many tourists. Fair enough, some places were super busy. I wouldn’t have wanted to queue up to go in the Palazzo Ducale on the San Marco square, and getting a photo spot on the Rialto bridge was a bit of a challenge, but Venice has so much more than the main tourist attractions! So many of the streets and squares we ended up on had no one there except for us, and at some points it even got scarily quiet.

So my conclusion: people are so wrong! Venice was absolutely A-MA-ZING! The architecture on the San Marco square was like nothing I had ever seen before, and it was big 😮 So very big! And who the hell cares about a mass of tourists when everyone is just there in collective amazement? Fair enough, there may be better seasons to go to Venice, but as day trips go, this was by far one of the best day trips I have ever done.

The water in the canals has this odd light greenish colour that kept surprising me. The view on every tiny little bridge was adorable. The houses are so colourful and the green shutters finish the picture perfectly. Venice has a-thousand-and-one sights to see, and we only checked maybe two off the list, but Venice is also a great city to get lost in. Left right left right left right… You can keep going and keep loving the sights. Alleys and little canals, wide shopping streets and the grand canal. A bustling city and quiet tucked away squares. Souvenirs and gelato. As diverse as the city might be, not a thing feels out of place.

For me, Venice has been added to the list of cities to go back to. I would absolutely love to learn about the history of the city, and just get lost day after day in this city like no others.

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This is Venice too. (You might expect a picture like any other from the San Marco square or the Gran Canal, but this is the Venice I fell in love with.)