I was contemplating whether I should write the 2-year reflection post first or the Toronto vacation post, and decided to go with the former. There was so much circling in my mind as I was preparing to write this, all these mixed thoughts and feelings flying in from every direction. Yet…it’s harder and taking longer to write than I had expected. How do you organize two years worth of experience into one post?
Two years of being away from any family. Two years of wanderlust. Two years of getting lost over and over again and waking up in epiphanies in the midst of my academic journey that’s supposedly going to lead me somewhere. Two years of calling a land once foreign to me, “home”.
Well, let’s take a look at some quick figures.
Total number of months since starting PhD (as of end of September, 2012): 24
Number of months in Bordeaux: 11.5 (48%)
Number of months in Louvain-la-Neuve: 10 (42%)
Number of months in Canada: 2 (8%)
Number of months in China: 0.5 (2%)
At two years, I am more than halfway through with this PhD program, which was the reason why I stepped onto European soil in the first place. France and Belgium – I’ve grown to love both of my host countries day by day. Doing science in such exotic lands has never even crossed my mind say, five years ago. Of course, this European adventure brought me so much more than just academic advancement. After all, what would I have gained if I stayed only in Bordeaux and Louvain-la-Neuve – odd combination, now that I think about it – without expanding my reach beyond the horizon of possibilities?
School and work
Being in a co-tutelle, I am involved in a collaboration between two labs in two cities, meaning I hop between the labs fairly often. In terms of time spent, the Bordeaux-LLN ratio is much closer to 50-50 than originally planned, which surprises me even today. At the beginning, I was anticipating something like spending 80% of my time in Bordeaux and 20% in Louvain-la-Neuve, but in reality, I’ve spent almost an equal amount of time so far in my labs in both cities. People ask me if I ever get tired of switching cities every few months, running around, packing and unpacking and repacking over and over again. To be quite honest, yes, I get tired, but strangely, I enjoy this mobility, even if it means having to look for housing in Louvain-la-Neuve in advance every single time (so far, 5 different places).
I’ve seen some of the best sunsets in Louvain-la-Neuve, one along Rue Charlemagne as I was walking home from work. Yes, even a little place like LLN has its charm.
Then the next question that I hear quite often these days is, “What are you going to do after your PhD?” or rather, “Are you going back to Canada after your PhD?” Reasonable questions, because I really only have less than a year left, ideally. Wow. What is going on? Where did all my time go? My standard answer at the moment is, “I don’t know, we’ll see where God leads me.” The answer applies to both questions, but we can take a look at them separately.
In terms of what I’m planning on doing after my PhD, I had originally wanted to stay in academia. You know, the usual route – get your PhD, get a faculty position (preferably without doing a post-doc which is extremely improbable), teach and do research, and bam, great career. I used to naively think that this would be a straight path and as long as I work hard enough, I can and I WILL stay in academia. Not so sure anymore. The idea of going into industry or even starting up something new crept into my mind throughout the years, and it made me wonder why I had shunned the idea of industry for so long. Perhaps I had been too used to the shelter of a school environment that I don’t ever want to leave, but there’s a whole new world out there to explore, if I’m not afraid of being eaten by hungry competition. Then again, I speak as if there is no competition in academia, which is completely false. So this leads me right back to the beginning – I haven’t got a clue. (Or I can take my dad’s suggestion and open up a pizza store…highly likely.)
True story, this happens every morning before I can begin to think about working.
As for whether I’ll go back to Canada, I’d like to think I’m open to possibilities in terms of where to go. Wherever there are opportunities, I wouldn’t mind going around the world, so I’m not confined to Canada or North America. Well, this notion changed slightly after my trip back home this year. Somehow when I returned to Europe, I felt more homesick than usual, and usually, I’m not homesick at all. I’m not sure what it is. It could be my family, so well settled in Canada and unlikely to move anywhere. It could be the familiar environment, especially the English. It could simply be a calling of Toronto to just go home already, the REAL home, not Bordeaux or LLN. Toronto.
So, this is where I am right now, wondering where I will be and what I will be doing in a year. Of course there are struggles in the nitty gritty details of actually being a PhD student, which you can read about here and here. Still, it’s time to look at the big picture, and look beyond today and tomorrow. Check back in a year. I’ll let you know what happens.
Europe is amazingly beautiful. I am stating the obvious, but one does not simply cease to admire the beauty of this compact yet diverse continent. No matter how many times I’ve been to the Grand Place in Brussels, I marvel at the magnificent architectural structures around me every time I stand in the center. No matter how many times I’ve visited the Miroir d’Eau in Bordeaux at night, I fall in love with the dazzling Place de la Bourse over and over again as it is reflected so perfectly in the mirror.
Silhouette of the Brussels Town Hall taken on a Sunday afternoon before I headed back to LLN from the church in Brussels. Wandering through the lively streets in old town Brussels has become a habit of mine. I pretend to be a local, but who am I fooling, with an Asian face, a camera bag, and a strong accent?
My absolute favourite travel destination so far is without a doubt Switzerland. Oh dear, Switzerland. It was a 4-day trip and already I fell for this country like no other. Putting aside the outrageous cost of…everything, Switzerland is the embodiment of charm. Turquoise waters and green fields of passion, trains that creep between roaring mountains while discovering enchanting little villages hidden within, blinding beauty that knows no end…can you tell that I was super impressed? I’ve only been to Basel, Interlaken, and Zurich, but there are so many other places in this gorgeous country that I’d still like to visit – Geneva, Lausanne, Lucerne, Bern, Montreux, Rhine Falls. When will I see you again, Switzerland?
Many small villages like this one were spotted on the way from Interlaken to Zurich, wrapped around by lakes and mountains. It was probably the only morning train that I ever took where I was wide awake the entire time.
I have yet to visit a city – in Europe or not – that I don’t find beautiful in some way. A friend once told me that he has seen enough of the same types of architecture in Europe that it has stopped putting him in awe. “This beauty doesn’t excite me anymore,” he said, and I thought it was slightly unfortunate that he’d say that. Yes, you may have seen similar types of buildings in different cities, but beauty is beauty, no matter where you find it! Even in tiny Belgium, just look at Ghent and Dinant! Neither well-known nor touristy, but such precious gems! Granted, I don’t necessarily LIKE all the cities I’ve been to, but in the end, I can’t deny that they ARE beautiful (Paris and Amsterdam, I’m talking about you again).
Of course, there are some places that took me awhile to like, best example being Louvain-la-Neuve. I loathed this place in the beginning. I found it boring and quiet and I couldn’t wait to get back to Bordeaux. I think I started to love – not an understatement – this place during the autumn of 2011, when I saw the fall colours that painted the entire campus in a glorious sea of red and orange. That feeling was unforgettable and the beauty was indescribably real. From then on I began to enjoy the quietness of the city, something that I couldn’t get even in Bordeaux.
Autumn in Louvain-la-Neuve was lovely when the leaves were still attached to their branches. Wait a few days and all we have are balding trees with a sea of foliage on the ground!
You might think I’m “forcing” myself to like a place, only because I am obliged to live there for a long time. I would refute by saying that “forcing” is the wrong wording. Rather, travelling has taught me that it is only with an open heart and mind that you can learn to appreciate your surroundings. I often take places for granted (Toronto, for example), missing it only after I leave. Knowing that one day I may very well leave Europe permanently, I am making the most of my time here by enjoying every moment I spend in Bordeaux and LLN, being thankful for every street I walk on, every strange I pass by, every leaf that falls, and every sunset I see. To put it in another perspective, if I’m going to be living in a city for a relatively long period of time, rather than complaining about how it sucks, why not look for things that make a city unique and beautiful, and enjoy it to the fullest?
Ah, my dear Bordeaux, I’ve missed you. See you very soon ❤
Well, I’m in my third and final year. In my studies, at least. Maybe I will stay in Europe afterwards. Maybe not. We’ll see. With the remaining year, it’s time to crunch, crunch, crunch! Work hard, play hard, and my role model Geoff says, “Do now. Regret later. Then never regret.” It’s gotten me this far without screwing me over, so I say let’s continue charging forward. Year 3, here we go!