I don`t know why exactly – maybe it is for no reason at all, maybe because it is “winter” here in Australia, or maybe because I came across the video below a few weeks back – but these days I found myself quite often thinking back to the half-year of my life in 2009 that I spent in the beautiful city of Bergen in Norway.
I was there due to the European exchange program “Erasmus” to study for one semester. So yes, classical exchange semester right there. No worries, I`m not going to bore you to death (I hope) with an account of my activities there.
While these memories are very dear to me, I know that they`ll – at best – will be of medium interest to you.
So I will not tell you about the awesome time I had with the group of people working at the local student club (Klubb Fantoft).
I will not tell you about the time when one of my best friends visited me and we ended up in an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day (where else?) and we had much too much Guinness.
I will also not tell you about my trip to Trondheim, a city with a wonderful city centre of old wooden houses in the shadow of an impressive cathedral.
I will not … well you get the point. I will not write about specific things that happened to me while I was there.
What I want to write about is what (for me) turned out to have the biggest impact in the long-term:
It all starts with a “negative” side of this exchange semester.1 At least something I considered negative months before I even got to Bergen. I had enrolled for the exchange while I was still in my undergraduate studies of chemistry. But by the time it came down to finalising the details, I had slightly changed course and was enrolled in a master’s program about mineralogy and material science. This program was set on the border between inorganic chemistry and geology. As the University of Bergen had both, a chemistry and a geology department, I did not expect big problems to find some courses to take.
Well, I was wrong. The advanced chemistry courses would have provided a rich source, if I would still have been enrolled in a chemistry program. The advanced geology courses required a geology background that I lacked. In the end I settled for an undergraduate course in Oceanography2, and graduate courses in Microscopy3 as well as Isotope Geochemistry4.
And there was another problem that I realized relatively late:
The new semester in Norway started with the new year, while the old semester in Germany was still running into February. This meant I couldn`t take most of the exams for the old semester and I would be back too late to catch up with the new semester at home. So that was how the situation looked for me before I even went to Bergen:
I would effectively lose two semesters at home and wouldn`t be able to compensate much of this time with the courses I could do abroad.
And that was the best thing that could have happened to me.
Why? Because it forced me to change pace. Until this point I thought this to be a bad thing. My CV was a neat sequence from school to military service to undergraduate degree without any unnecessary interruptions or prolongations.5 And stupid as I was, I thought I had to finish my master’s degree in two years while quenching an exchange semester in between, else … yes, what was I thinking would happen?
In retrospect it`s hard to say what really kept up this (mostly self-imposed) pressure: It was something along the lines of being intellectually not worthy of a graduate degree if you can`t finish it in the pre-set time6 and the stupid assumption not to be able to get a job or into a PhD program if you don`t finish all your studies exactly in time.
But the details that I worried about are actual not that important, it is more the general direction: I worried (too much) about the Undiscovered Country!7 And there are only so much things that we can know and influence about it. Accepting that there are a lot of things ahead that we can`t control takes a lot of your shoulders and sharpens the view on the things you can actually do something about.
Okay, I start to sound like a walking fortune cookie. The point I try to make is, even though something might be common (fortune cookie) “wisdom”, it might need an event that forces us out of our comfort zone, to get this “wisdom” really into our heads. And better we learn life’s lessons from small stumbling blocks than when the shit really hits the fan.8
And of course, these lessons will not completely change who we are!
I still worry about the future. I still feel imposter syndrome from time to time. I worry about getting my PhD done. At the moment I worry a lot about a paper I`m writing on.
It is not about having no fears about the future. It is about finding something to balance them out with. And for me these six months in Bergen are one very good counterbalance at hand – casted as a concentrate into the memory of a single evening:
2nd of January 2009 – Just a few hours after arriving in Bergen: I decide to walk to the city centre. The city is lit with thousands and thousands of window lights, reflected from the all-covering snow – filling the whole valley with a golden shine. The landscape was forged by the irresistable force of the ice ages long ago, while the city – that huddles between the mountains – seems a fragile construct from human hand, merely existing for the blink of an eye. And while I stump through the snow, time slows down. If feels like it`s not me who`s changing the pace, but the world around me.9
Of course this memory is massively pimped and distorted by my subconsciousness. But it is a place in my heart10 I can retreat to. A place that reminds me that the future might be an undiscovered country – but that the only thing we need, to forge ahead through whatever awaits us, is the willingness to change our pace from time to time.
1 Negative side of an exchange semester – yep, first world problem coming your way.
2 Visiting a renowned Marine Science University, it seemed a nice field to have a glimpse at.
3 The only one really fitting with my master program, and even though mainly taught in Norwegian (which I don`t speak), one of the best courses I`ve ever had – might have had something to do with the fact it was mainly a practical course, and you`re looking at beautiful minerals all the time.
4 Which I barely passed. Considering that`s one of the main things I do now in my PhD project … well, irony.
5 All hail to the neoliberal dogma of the perfect human resource!
7 For those of you who haven`t seen or don`t remember Star Trek VI: … the Future!
8 Ever since I first heard this saying, I tried to find a way to put it in a post.
9 Seriously, if you ever have the possibility to go to Bergen in winter, do it. It`s the most “magical” place I know of. Well maybe rivaled by Lisbon’s Baixa (city center) in a warm summer night at four in the morning …
10 Well, my brain …