This post is a sequel to my previous post “Growing Smaller“.
~ April 20th, 2013
I had been in Italy for nearly two months. I had grown accustomed to my Italian life – to my quiet neighborhood on the bank of the Adige river, to the melody of Italian filling my ear, to the resounding church-bells that sliced each of my days up into half-hours, to the kitchen drawers and cupboards and supermarket aisles, to my bicycle Isabella, to the yellow house on the hill that always caught my eye as I’d wait for the bus in the morning, and to all the faces — of strangers, and colleagues, and new friends – I would see on a daily basis in the small town. Reluctantly, I also grew used the way the weather would go from sun to rain in fifty seconds, the way the mountain-tops were destined to remain snow-capped in this impossible spring, and the sight of the shivering vineyards, desperate to become green and full, and to keep their promise of wine and life. I had even grown accustomed to the towering mountains, standing like an edgeless backdrop to the scene. They had become my anchor, so much so that I noticed my posture had changed, and I walked much straighter, looking ahead rather than down.
Two months in Rovereto and by then I had begun running my EEG (electroencephalography) experiments on language processing. I had jumped through all the necessary (yet so unnecessary) bureaucratic hoops, I’d been trained in the lab, and finally, after much anticipation, I had begun recruiting and testing participants. From the first minutes spent in the lab, I felt thrilled about my choice to do part of my PhD research there. My colleagues were people I would have loved to have ample, uncounted time to learn from. I felt blessed to have such a unique opportunity to collect data in another country, at another University, and to have – in a sense – two supervisors, two sets of lab-mates, two ways of doing things, and to belong to two places at once.
I felt happy, grateful, excited, and proud of having made it happen.
On some days, particularly in early April, I felt nervous. It was a big challenge. Bigger than I’d imagined. Possibly bigger than what my supervisor had imagined, or at least we had never talked about it explicitly. It wasn’t only about having to adapt to another apartment, neighborhood, city, and country. It was also about adapting to another research setting and another supervisor’s style. The equipment was different, the methods of testing were different, the naming convention for the electrodes was different, the language I had to use with my participants was different, the programs used to analyze the collected data were different. I had a lot to learn, and very little time to learn it in. What’s more, I had to learn the new stuff without overriding what I already knew, and what I would have to revert back to once I returned home. And, I felt – I knew – there were a lot of expectations.
When I began testing in Montreal before my trip to Italy, my supervisor told me with both a teasing smile and a serious tone, “You’re allowed to make one mistake”. I had felt blood rush to my cheeks and I thought to myself, “Wow, I’d better make it a big one, then”.
In Rovereto, the first testing sessions were rough. My hands felt unsteady. A research assistant who had recently graduated from the department was helping me, and it took a little while for us to find our rhythm and synchronicity when working together. My Italian supervisor observed the first couple of sessions and stood quietly next to me, watching, only speaking to offer advice or to correct me. I made a mental note of everything and, when I had time, I wrote little hints down in my notebook. This would become second nature to me soon. I hoped.
There were days where we had strange technical difficulties. There were days where obtaining clean EEG data was a real challenge, sometimes for reasons out of our control. There were days where my Italian supervisor would think the questions I’d ask were irrelevant or not well thought-through, and I could sense him losing patience with me. There were days where I would not hear at all from my supervisor at home, and where I thought that the saying “out of sight, out of mind” was probably the truest saying in the whole wide world.
One day, a couple of weeks into the testing, I returned to my apartment – which felt uncomfortably foreign to me on bad days – and I called home. What is it about hearing your Mom’s voice that brings it all out, like something you cannot hide, as desperately as you try to stuff it deep into your pocket? I remembered all those times when I’d call home from elementary school to tell her I wasn’t feeling well and needed to be picked up. I’d have been brave with the school nurse, yet my wavering voice would immediately betray me with my Mom.
She gave me the best advice of all, that night. To remember that I am human and that setbacks and mistakes will happen, and more than just once. To remember that this is research with the public, and that I cannot completely control what others do or how the data will come out. To take care of myself and to give myself a chance to rest, so that I will be able to cope with challenges. To keep things in perspective. “You are doing it,” she said, “you are living it. ‘IT’ being exactly what you planned and dreamed of doing. Now you are there, making it happen.” And, finally, to trust myself. “You are GOOD. You cannot look for reassurance in your supervisors or your colleagues. They will not give it to you the way you want them to, every time you need them to. It has to come from within you.”
The next was a morning fit for rainboots and a giant umbrella. I pushed the heavy gate leading into the Department courtyard, exchanged a wave with the secretary at the Portineria, and brushed the raindrops off my sleeves. When I passed the floor-to-ceiling windows separating me from a small garden, I noticed gorgeous red roses beginning to bloom under the leaking sky. I smiled, grateful for how little I require in order to be cheered up.
This PhD journey and much of life seems to be akin to roses blooming in the rain. There are dark, gloomy, irritating days to deal with, but even during those times, beautiful things come to fruition.
Soon, I grew accustomed to the lab and to my Italian research life. My hands were suddenly steady, my interactions with participants and colleagues were light-hearted and suddenly in a more confident Italian, and I tested 32 participants in just over a month’s time. I was still unsure of what my two supervisors thought of my progress, but at least I had met my own expectations.
Gradually yet inconspicuously, the rows of vines had grown green and full, the snow-capped peaks were snow-capped no more, and flowers of every kind had bloomed along the river and in the mountains.