Problems of Place: Research Trips and Resilience in Grad School

Over the past two and a half months, I have travelled to Geneva, London, Marburg, Berlin, and Cincinnati to conduct research for my doctoral thesis. I am tired. I am also incredibly fortunate that my doctoral research has enabled me to travel and see so many beautiful new environments, to experience so many things I might not otherwise have been able to. In total, I have been outside of Canada for 7 months out of the last 36 (that’s almost 20% for the statistically inclined). Looking back at the photos, I am so grateful that my degree and generous travel funding have allowed me to see places and environments I might not have had the chance to see otherwise. 

La Jonction, where the Rhône (teal, left) and the Arve (sediment-filled milky beige, right) meet in Geneva.

At the same time, leaving the country for months at a time is very challenging for me. Growing up in a small town, living in the same home for my entire life, and deeply enjoying routine have left me with a fear of uncertainty and traveling outside of my “natural environment.” I am happiest at home, with a thriving garden and my adorable rabbit to feed the fruits of my labour to. Even the 250 km move from Sarnia to Hamilton was a shock to my system.

So you can imagine how daunting traveling to an entirely different continent might be. I am never excited to go to the airport; not once have I ever looked forward to a research trip. Nausea, loss of sleep, panic attacks, general anxiety, tears, and often sheer disbelief describe my experience in the week leading up to a big trip. When I land in a new place, my goal is to get to my bedroom, shut the door, and watch movies until I fall asleep. A new land, with new customs and a new language takes an adjustment and I’ve never been very flexible. I’m working on it. But when the umpteenth German lectures me for some obscure societal norm I’m not following, I get a bit tired and I want to go home. I get through it, and I get more comfortable during my longer stays, but I don’t necessarily enjoy the day-to-day experience.

I’ve learned some very good ways to cope with my hermit behaviour. I make a list of all of the “important” things I need to see while I’m in each city, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I check each one off the list. Raised by “hippies” (self-proclaimed), I gravitate toward the outdoors attractions and the more “natural” elements of each place. Yes, I know “untouched wilderness” is a myth—I’m not buying into that charade. Still, I prefer a forest or a field of flowers to a museum or art gallery. As I walk around, I compare the wildlife to Canada, noting what is novel and what is similar. I appreciate the beauty of a golden field of wheat peppered with wild poppies and bachelor’s buttons, or a ditch filled with thousands and thousands of chamomile blooms, growing wild. I teach myself that every place has its own kind of beauty and I must learn to appreciate difference.

A patch of orange calendula, California poppies, and other flowers growing wild at the side of the road in Geneva.

My favourite tourist attraction in each city is the botanical garden—I have visited five cities this summer, and I have visited five botanical gardens. I will go far out of my way to experience each city’s interpretation and organization of plants. Each garden contains similar elements—a tree arranged to support Spanish moss in its ambition to snag the hair of taller visitors, a collection of orchids which put your houseplants to shame, and of course, the palm trees which soar above you, drawing your eyes to the architecture of the greenhouse roof.

Spanish moss at the Kew Gardens, London.

Each botanical garden contains unique elements as well. Geneva incorporated art into its entrance. I still am not sure what happens to the paintings during storms.

The entrance to the Geneva Botanical Gardens.

Marburg has a butterfly house hidden deep within the main greenhouse.

A small child handed me this butterfly and then giggled at my accent when I thanked her.

Kew Gardens in London had a glass artist, Dale Chihuly, create incredible works of art which were incorporated into their gardens.

Thankfully, Kew Gardens had a catwalk to take pictures from.

Last summer, Berlin-Dahlem reopened its Victoria Reggia water lily exhibit after ten years of construction. Unfortunately, patrons are no longer allowed to stand on the lily pads, but they are spectacular, nonetheless.

Rumour has it that my Oma has photos of my mother and uncle standing on these lily pads stashed somewhere in her basement.

Cincinnati combined their botanical gardens with their zoo, though I spent most of my time photographing the butterflies outside instead of the animals inside.

If you would like to see about 10,000 more photos of butterflies, I can facilitate that.

The combination of the familiar elements of a garden and the surprise of the more individual elements is perfect for me. I think in another life I might have been a historian of botanical gardens but then again, that might suck the joy out of my visits. For now, I enjoy the comfort of the tamed and manipulated environment, designed to reflect broader national cultures of horticulture.

My take-away? If you’re stressed out or lonely on an extended research trip, find the familiar in the new environment and build from there. If someone you know or love is on an extended research trip, support them! When alone in an unfamiliar place, where research may or may not go well (ask me about the archivist in Germany who ghosted me), getting a message from a friend at home asking for stories (or photos), or a supervisor making sure everything is running smoothly, is comforting.

Image Courtesy: All photos by author. The cover image is of Mont Salève, taken from the balcony of Sam’s apartment in Geneva.