At the start it’s all very harmless: four months of Erasmus in the UK, nine months of Leonardo in the Netherlands, and suddenly you wake up with a Swiss doctoral degree, an Italian husband and an Austro-Italian daughter. Of course, your next step is obvious – no, not to Stanford, which improves career prospects no end, but to Linz, which shortens the distance to grandparents dramatically. One year and a half and a traumatic (at least for an Italian husband) winter later, it should not come as a surprise, therefore, when in answer to the question: “Darling, where would you like to go next?” he replies: “Well, after a decade in the Alps I’d like to see the sea – Sardinia!” Gasp – think positive – he might have said Tahiti or Libya. So, how do you organise a research project in Sardinia? A walkover for marine biologists, but for mathematicians it requires a diabolical mindset.
Paving the way
First of all you need a host institution that is cutting-edge in what it does. It’s a good thing if a friend once met someone at a conference who worked at a Computer Vision Laboratory near Alghero. Hours later you have found the laboratory, hidden away in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sassari, with a research focus in biometrics. That’s a lucky break, for I once toyed around with face recognition and would like to continue working on dictionary learning. Hence step 2, the application, is at hand: “Dictionary Learning for Biometric Data”. Steps 3, 4 and 5 are: sell the project to the head of the lab (easy), write it down (awful) and wait to see if it gets accepted (nerve-wracking). And then, two months before my maternity leave ends, and with the prospect of having to look for a job breathing down my neck, the good news arrives: we are going to Alghero. Polish up your Italian, pack up the kids and your belongings – Sardinia, here we come.
Adjust to surroundings
Initial problems such as having no water in the house or administrative hitches are overcome with calm and autocertificazione (self-certification). The fact that the lab boss is never around is no problem either, since the second in command is always there to sign things, and you have the whole group for working and chatting with. So the only things keeping you from research are slow computers, occasional internet breakdowns and a bicycle ride of 18 km from Alghero to Tramariglio. Once that has been successfully navigated you do your research 200 meters from the beach and 5 kms. from Capo Caccia. In case of rain and wind you can also cheat a little and work from home.
Speaking of rain and wind: never before have I endured so much of both as last winter, not even in the Netherlands. To make matters worse, the Sardinians are convinced that they live in a hot country where insulation is unnecessary, which results in indoor temperatures being equal to outdoor temperatures, despite a heat pump, and makes the winter traumatic (for everybody). In summer, the locals are right, of course. Hence daddy, the kids and visiting friends and relatives enjoy the beach, while mummy sits in the air-conditioned lab with a bunch of penguins writing up projects and filing applications. After about a year, when you have finally built yourself a nice social environment with colleagues, parents of other children, climbing buddies of your better half and the hiking club, it is high time again to think about what happens after your fellowship ends. This is when you wonder: would Stanford have been better for my CV despite the good results here? Or is it time to settle down, even if it means the end of research? The answer to both questions is probably yes, but we still have nine months left in Bella Sardegna until final decisions have to be made.
*Sardinian for: Here we go!