Lost in Translation: A Home for a Researcher

Danilo Bertagna (ESR6)

Internships, exchange programs, mobility periods, training courses, seminars, conferences… this used to be the academic world pre-corona. Students and professors moving around all the time, everywhere, carrying their posters and powerpoint presentations. English being spoken in a multitude of accents. Fancy coffee breaks in nice hotels… all this came to a halt recently and we don’t know when it will get back. However, this text is not about what has changed in 2020 but about what remained the same for most of us in the NOWELTIES program.

The overwhelming feeling of getting into an airport and changing your life completely from one day to the other. The excitement and affliction of accepting a new job and having a list of scientific milestones to achieve at a given deadline in someplace you weren’t even capable of pointing exactly in a map before. Having to deal with dozens of issues such as getting all your paperwork right, finding a house to rent, and dealing with the available cooking ingredients, transport system, and a foreign language. Events unfold at maximum speed in front of your eyes and are over before you even had time to get used to them.

Add that to the fact that most of us are in our 20s, just starting our professional lives and understanding how the world works. We are full of energy and uncertainties. Much more than just having a “good job”, we crave socio-emotional security and (self-) acceptance. And this is very difficult to get when you are just temporarily in a place. Craving for good friends and partners is completely normal when arriving in an unknown city, but to be aware that all the new relationships you find have an expiring date can be harsh and even cause psychological damage. I would be lying if I said that this lifestyle hasn’t made me more cynical and numb about personal relationships. Even so, I always advice people to cherish whoever they find across their paths with as much intensity as possible because, in a way, life is temporary, so we might as well make the most of it anywhere we are.

It is a fact that we live in a globalized world, and at any time, someone living in Peru can find a job in Bangladesh via Linkedin because s/he has the perfect curriculum vitae for the position. But often, the CV does not account for the cultural sensibilities one should acquire to have a fully integrated life in the new place. Values, customs, habits, religion, history and sense of humor can drastically differ. Much has been said nowadays about racism and xenophobia, and I’ve seen it displayed in two different ways: the first, and more obvious, is when the foreigner is completely shut down and ignored from social circles. The second, and more subtle, is when the foreigner participates in social life, but in the role of an exotic attraction, whose customs and ways are considered funny or antiquated for the hosting country. The solution here is to understand that each one of us has a background and a reason to think and act as we

do; to know that even with the best intentions of trying to make someone feel comfortable, we can be causing the exact opposite result; to respect each other’s personal space and rhythm. This is a two-way street. The person arriving in the new country should be aware of sensitive topics and language barriers. If care is taken, living abroad can be the most decisive, enriching, and positive experience in one’s life. If things are done wrong, it can result in isolation, frustration, and loneliness.

You could say that I’m used to all that by now. By the time this project ends, I will have lived in 6 different countries and 11 cities for the past 10 years. Honestly, I love this lifestyle, I try to make the most of it and wouldn’t like it to be any different. I notice how it shapes me and gives me some advantages compared to my childhood friends who never left my hometown. They have more immediate worries, have seen less of the world, and would definitely suffer a great deal if they tried to do what I do. Nevertheless, they have something I felt that I’ve lost years ago and am eager to find again someday: a place to call home.

Picture source: screenshot of the film “Lost in Translation” (Sofia Coppola, 2003)