Leaving home for science

On the many things nobody told me when I decided to move abroad for a postdoc.

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I grew up in a family with strong roots in my little home town of Spinea, in the Veneto region in Italy. The farthest we would travel when I was a kid was to Cecina, Tuscany, for our yearly summer holiday. We would reach this marvellous place, no more than 400 km away, exclusively by car (in the 80s this would take almost an entire day through the Apennines). This for years was my concept of “abroad” (of note, in Tuscany they speak a different dialect compared to mine, so I felt a bit like a migrant). I didn’t even move much for my undergrad, since I studied medicinal chemistry at the University of Padova, no more than 20 km from home (I was lucky enough to have one of the best Italian universities close to home, though).

I didn’t know what I was embarking on in 2003 when I started my PhD with Luca Scorrano, in Padova. In the first year, Luca asked me to get a passport (why do I need a passport?!) and a credit card. I was preparing for my first international conference, my first real experience abroad. I took my first ever flight in 2005, off to a conference in California, Long Beach. It was one of the longest flight I have ever taken. What an experience that was. Besides opening my scientific horizons, it gave me a taster of how life can be in a different country. Encouraged by this feeling, at the end of my PhD I had long discussions with Luca about whether I should do a postdoc abroad. The dilemma: should I stay, or should I go? At the time, I really didn’t think about all the implications of this question. At the time, it was a mere technical question about my career, ignoring the repercussions that this would have had on my personal life. Forever.

After months of considering, together with my-wife-to-be Alessandra, we decided to move to Scotland. Luckily, Alessandra was also finishing her PhD and her supervisor just moved to Glasgow. It was the perfect match, the stars aligned. We saw this opportunity as a mere, although very exciting, work experience. I started my postdoc with the implicit assumption that after my 2-year EMBO fellowship we would go back home. How wrong we were!

We left our home country one morning of June 2008, driving all the way from Castello di Godego, where Alessandra lived, to Glasgow. Unknowingly, every mile we drove was taking us further away from our previous selves. When we arrived there, we realised that the situation was going to be different, much tougher, than we anticipated. We immediately realised that our “scientific English”, which made us proud and feel like we were mastering the language with some jargon, was not enough to explain ourselves when looking for an apartment, calling a supplier for electricity or gas, or at the supermarket looking for items that didn’t even exist there. Where were our beloved pasta, biscuits, or tinned tomatoes? We were suddenly living in a different country, without references.

This realisation scared us but we really wanted to enjoy our time here: the plan was to stay in Glasgow for a couple of years, so let’s make the most of it. This is exactly what we did. We enjoyed our time, probably too much, to the point that we started liking the society we were living in (besides the work). We started making comparisons with our home country, noticing differences. We realised that things can be done differently, that people can have different moral rules and ethics, which once we thought were universal. In other words, we started cutting an invisible umbilical cord that tied us to Italy for the previous 25 years. We also noticed that our new colleagues and friends, most of them also from other countries, were experiencing the same. And we were bonded by this experience, making friends for a lifetime.

Suddenly, our 2-year experience became a 4-year postdoc and we decided that it wasn’t time to go home yet. We moved to Cambridge, where I started a lab and bought a house. The last years flew by, and all of a sudden, we are celebrating our 12th year in the UK. I remember the first time I heard another fellow migrant postdoc saying to me: “I have been here for 12 years”. It gave me a sense of hopelessness and of incredulity: how can one stay away from “home” for so long? Now that person is me. And trust me, I feel that hopelessness. I feel that, although I still call home the little city of Spinea, I do not know where my home is. Where are my roots? I became a hybrid: I can dream in English, think in English, speak English (somewhat, yeah!), yet I still feel my Italian roots, speak Italian at home and eat Italian food. We still say “let’s go home” when we are in the UK and want to go back to Italy. Surprisingly, though, we also say “let’s go home” when we are in Italy and we want to go back to Cambridge. The most confusing aspect of this all is that here in the UK I still feel a migrant (a feeling inevitably exacerbated by the Brexit palaver, and by the fact that I will never lose my Venetian accent) despite having spent more adult years here than in Italy. Yet, I don’t feel at home in Italy anymore. I am seen as a traitor by some, I am laughed at since I cannot speak proper Italian anymore, and whenever I raise some concerns about Italy I am told that I don’t understand the situation since I am not living there anymore. Frustrating to say the least.

Nobody told me that such a simple decision to do a postdoc abroad would be lifechanging and, to some extent, irreversible. I feel that I will never be the person I was in 2008 when driving up to Glasgow. I would have not believed this, even if somebody warned me! And, I am now back to the same question: should I stay or should I go? The difficult bit here is that we don’t know anymore where home is. As someone said, the answer is easy: where your phone Wi-Fi connects automatically.

Christian Frezza

Programme Leader, MRC Cancer Unit, University of Cambridge

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