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Breaking preconceptions – building insights

The sweet sound of gypsy jazz, the fragrant smell of cheese, the sublime bouquet of a fine Bordeaux, all lingering leisurely in the gentle breeze of a warm May afternoon.  A relaxed town wedged between three imposing mountain ranges, offering scores of outdoor opportunities, more country roads than even the most avid cyclist could ask for, rocks to climb and slopes to ski.  Oven-fresh croissants, the delights of Arabic delis, infernal espressos.  These, and then some, were my expectation when applying for a Marie Curie fellowship to join the Institut de Biologie Structurale in Grenoble.  Only later would I find out about crazy drivers, summer vacations that bring the entire country to a halt and grèves générales that achieve the same throughout the year, impenetrable bureaucracy, and off-putting arrogance.  But initially I was nothing but thrilled.

Moving to a different country as such only added very little to my excitement.  After all, I had obtained my Ph.D. in the United States after living away from home for more than six years and had long made the transition from being a German to living the cosmopolitan life.  But I was ready to move on, ready to leave the US, and ready to come back to Europe.  It was as if the Marie Curie program had been made for me, especially since I was not particularly determined to head back to my home country.

The application process started simple enough.  A year and a bit before finishing my Ph.D., I visited the lab I was interested in on occasion of attending a conference in Europe.  My boss-to-be told me that I was more than welcome to join her lab but would have to find my own funding, a stipulation I encountered in several other labs in continental Europe, but strangely enough never in England.  Anyway, I decided to shoot for a Marie Curie fellowship, which tempts with prestige, rich remuneration, independence thanks to a generous travel allowance and lab overhead, and special consideration of those like me originating from disenfranchised regions of Europe.  The decision made, I spent one entire week trying to make sense of the Marie Curie website.  First sleep was lost over trying to identify the pages containing pertinent information and, once achieved, translating thick euro-bureau-lingo into comprehensible English.  Finally, all information seemed to be at hand to start the real work of preparing the dossier.

This was made easy by the great support I got from Andrea Dessen, my prospective host.  Over three intense weeks, taking advantage of eight hours time difference to work around the clock, we put together what we considered a strong application and wished for the best.  The day of reckoning, according to the Marie Curie website, had long gone by when the best came to pass after all.  I was awarded a Marie Curie fellowship exactly three days after agreeing to join a world-class lab in the UK.  What followed was not a week of overboiling joy but of self-tormenting contemplations and desperate agonizing over my future.  In the end, I bailed on a celebrated investigator because the UK just did not stand a chance against the temptations of France, as I saw them.  I was ready to go.

Who was not ready, though, was the European Commission.  My fellowship should have started on 1 February.  Two months later, I still had no idea when my contract would commence.  The worst part, truly incomprehensible, was that up until the middle of January, my host laboratory and I were completely left in the dark about the delay.  Here we were, having met all deadlines, complied with all rules and prepared a successful application, and yet, we were treated with what felt to me at the time like utter disregard.  My shock was compounded by the fact that I had already moved to Europe from the US and seemed at the mercy of the Commission with nowhere to go.

After a frantic month of trying to wring bridging money out of the CEA, a French government agency that oversees the lab, I was lucky to start working in March.  But the first two months at the job were spent advancing our cause with Brussels or simply trying to obtain information.  No explanation for the delay came ever forward, no excuse was offered, nor a plan of how things would proceed.  Emails were often simply left unanswered.  For a while, both Andrea and I felt like we were a mere nuisance to the administrators of the Marie Curie fellowship.

Like all nightmares, this one could not help but end.  Summer came, and with the sun and hot weather, optimism reappeared in my life.  My good mood returned as my fellowship started in July, four months late but with full force and all the perks it is renowned for.  I even managed to find a positive aspect in the delay.  On the first official day of my two-year contract I was already well into my project and really confident about the work ahead.

This work was never anything but exiting and fulfilling.  My host institute is rather small but extremely well equipped and fully integrated in the polygone scientifique, a cluster of research powerhouses including the ESRF and the EMBL outstation.  Once furnished with the appropriate gate passes, I moved around freely to take advantage of all kinds of experts in the fields of biophysical and structural biology who were just around the corner and always happy to offer help.  Another advantage of being part of a larger research campus is the quantity and quality of scientific seminars.  Prominent investigators stopped by on a regular basis, and their presentations led to stimulating intellectual interchange and challenge.

My boss gave me total freedom in exploring my research project.  She did not see me as the junior post-doc that I was but as a coworker on equal footing and even refused to be called boss.  This felt odd to me at first but helped me grow as an independent scientist.  With this lack of hierarchy, labwork was always give and take.  I picked up something new and taught my labmates how to do things better.  I ordered the tools that had helped me obtain my Ph.D. and learned to use those that were new to me.  Interacting was easy as there were never any closed doors.

The sole barrier was oftentimes the language, but that could easily be overcome if the effort was made.  Curiously, even though many students and post-docs were clearly proficient in English, most were reluctant to speak it to me.  Maybe they were embarrassed because they felt their skills were not up to par.  They also did not go out of their way to speak French to me.  For fear of embarrassing me, I suspect.  But after many years abroad, I have lost any sense of embarrassment regarding language skills.  I was keen on improving my French and interacting with my colleagues, but many seemed to be less outgoing than I would have wished.

One of the major benefits of a Marie Curie fellowship, in form of a virtually unlimited travel budget, is the opportunity to broaden one's training by attending workshops and conferences.  It took me a good year to get comfortable with the idea of just leaving lab for a week or two to attend a meeting instead of working tirelessly towards results.  But once this mental leap was made, there was no holding back, and I have now a full travel schedule lined up and am looking forward to exchanging ideas and reenergizing my motivation.

Institutional bureaucracy was the only dark shadow hovering over work.  Two big governmental organizations have a say in how things are run, the notoriously sclerotic CEA and the bloated CNRS.  It seemed to me that for almost every problem that arose, both agencies saw themselves responsible and inevitably offered contradictory solutions.  Navigating this jungle of incongruity was a genuine challenge and wracked my nerves during the first few months.  Our secretary did not speak the least English, and all documents were obviously in French as well, which did not make it any easier for me to find my way.  Sitting through the exact same tedious security session, entirely futile in all of its dreary eight hours, for the second time in three months, was the sad highlight of this initial period.  But once I was settled in, I had only peripheral contact with the powers that be, and was not bothered unduly.

Labwork is obviously only one half of the living-abroad experience.  Getting to know a foreign country and experiencing a different culture is the other.  I did not find it hard at all to feel at home in Grenoble.  France is a country that makes living well easy.  The food is of outstanding quality; the fruits, cheeses and wines kept me jumping with joy.  Excellent espressos can indeed be found at every corner, and divine pâtisseries made me to leave my apartment before breakfast every weekend.  Being a university town in the French Alps, Grenoble has an enjoyable laisser-faire attitude, and people are easygoing and laid back.  Many cannot be found in their city during weekends because they are out enjoying the mountains.

Everyday bureaucracy is not as bad as everyone says, but will confront the uninitiated with overpowering force.  For those lucky to hail from the European Union, the carte de séjour is a thing of the past, and with it the dreaded annual visit to the préfecture, this Kafkaesque maze of paper shufflers and humble petitioners.  A plastic European driver's license suffices as identification in most circumstances.  And yet, a number of mind-boggling paradoxes exist and might discourage the timid, but these can be nimbly outflanked with skill and resolve.  Normally, to open a bank account, an address as well as a contrat de travail is required.  However, in order to rent an apartment, one needs a bank account, and for me to sign my contract, the secretary was adamant about seeing a bank account number first.  I got away with not having an address or a financial history by approaching a bank that deals with foreigners on a regular basis, as recommended by my host institute.

One task that can turn out to be formidable is finding an affordable and well-kept apartment.  The current obsession of the French with real estate has bubbled up prices for anything with four walls and a roof.  Rents are trying to keep the pace.  Most apartments are managed by agencies that will charge you several hundred euros if you rent from them, while their only service consists of giving you the key so you can have a look.  They do not even take you there and show you around.  Luck is to find a "for rent" note on a message board.  In this way, I got a furnished apartment in the heart of downtown, owned by a lovely old lady who never misses to leave me home-made cherry jam when she comes to collect the rent check.

France takes great pride in the quality and accessibility of its health care system.  A green plastic card, the carte vitale, is required for benefiting from it.  Despite inexplicably possessing two identical copies of this card, I remain forever clueless about the inner machinations of this system with elephantine dimensions.  There is the sécurité sociale, a mutuelle, the doctor at work, the médecin traitant, the specialist, and probably many more players.  Since I was lucky enough not to get sick, I chose not to investigate this any further.

What about the negative sides?  Strikes were really annoying as I could never figure out why people were so enraged.  The world has changed a lot since my childhood spent living in a communist country, an experience that many French seem to dream of to this day.  August was stunning, and not because of the heat.  Everyone was on vacation, and I had the lab to myself.  The town was equally deserted, businesses were closed, and I had to hunt for bread finding a new bakery every time for weeks.  Every day on my way to work, pedaling along happily, I was stupefied by crackpot drivers who seemed willing to accept the loss of the occasional biker's life just to get to their destination a little faster.

But the worst disappointment, at least initially, was what I perceived as brass smugness and pretentious disdainfulness in ordinary French citizens.  In many of my early conversations in banks, insurance and rental agencies, even stores, I was asked a question regarding my origins.  These questions never arose because of heartfelt curiosity about the stories I might have to tell.  No, they always indicated, subtly but unmistakably, that I was not French.  I cannot say that I was treated inadequately in any way but being looked down upon because of your nationality is already bad enough.  Curiously, I have not noticed this much lately.  Either my command of the language has reached a level that is acceptable, or I am just not interacting with people predisposed to such behavior.  In any case, I have received nothing but sincere respect and warm affection in the lab and among my acquaintances.

My second year has just begun, leaving me 16 months as a Marie Curie fellow.  The first twelve months have been thoroughly enjoyable, in the lab and outside.  I have three goals for the next:  Translate hard work at the bench into results, become truly fluent in French to be able to participate in heated political discussions, and conquer on my bike the mythical climbs of the Alps.  My plate is full for the rest of my time here, and I cannot even begin to think of where to go next, but I know that many a country remain to be explored.

March 2006