by Janice Nigro
I left San Francisco, California for Bergen, Norway. In late fall. As a single woman. A few weeks before Christmas one year.
Norwegians in San Francisco. Do you need to know how to dress for winter?
Thanks, but I grew up in Chicago.
Light cycles of shadow and dark on a backdrop of constant rain greeted me as I first breathed the air in a city so near the Arctic Circle.
The force of waterfall dropping down rain reshaping the mountain carved out in the ice age as I walked to work. Rivers of water ran past the no longer in California me, carrying bits of the mountain, rocks and soil, out into the fjord and then the sea.
It was a hair-brained idea. Not thought out. An impulse decision. Led by my heart and only a small part of my head. The seduction of a European adventure. A mishap. A distraction in my otherwise projected trajectory as a scientist in academia or biotech. Graduate student, postdoc, professor. Or staff scientist. Blah.
There was no wild story to tell when asked, Why Norway? No Viking kidnap. No one had stolen my heart. I went to Norway for a sabbatical. I was a cancer biologist. And they, in this small country, were experts in experimental models for human tumors.
I never in a million years would have expected to be in Bergen. A few latitudes away from the sunny, volcanic, mineral- and cultural-rich island on the Mediterranean Sea which nurtured my DNA over millennia until it was transplanted to the USA. An island where I might learn my father’s mother tongue.
I just jumped at the chance to live and work in another country. The chance to learn a second language. The chance to find a romantic partner on another continent. The chance to explore new possibilities. The chance to change.
In one of the happiest countries on Earth.
A safe place. Isolated. Off the beaten path.
A virtual cocoon.
But I felt free in Norway.
Free from convention. Free from expectations. Free from the intensity of the latest trends in cancer research in development all around me at the cancer center in San Francisco.
The change in my attitude was immediate. I bounded into the Norwegian environment with a new sense of independence. No family. No friends. No academic system to tell me what I can and cannot do at the lab bench.
The mundane became important. I noticed the beauty of the winters. Candles lit even in the hospital cafeteria at breakfast. The moonset at 9:30 am. The beauty of summers. Where brief darkness each night emphasized the magic pull of this country. Why this country is not the USA.
Neurons sprang to life. Science says it’s so. You become more creative when you live abroad.
Moving to Norway was forgetting to pack that part of the brain regulating impulse control. I had left behind everything I knew in my life creating an opportunity for change. To be different.
Go for it. Go for what is important. To me.
The sense of fulfilling my own desires was immediate. I went for it. I applied for funding for my own projects. Which worked. I designed the projects. I got the grants. The experiments worked. Even though I had left everything behind.
All except the rigors of academic review. Publish or Perish.
I hadn’t published. Yet.
My head was exploding with possibilities. I could see the future. My next experiments. Future collaborators. Future answers to questions. I was reaching my potential. My momentum. My orbit.
I had made a small step forward on an idea that had never worked before in human brain tumors. To the reviewers, I hadn’t been productive.
The balloon popped. My grant did not get renewed.
I loved my work. I loved my project. But would I be happy to live in Norway forever?
I could have made the project work. I needed just one more year. But would it simply be another year of chasing after the wrong dream? I had to be honest. Nothing was going to change for me in science. Not in academia. Not even in Norway.
My Viking adventure was over. Like a relationship, I had grown a different direction from my partner who was Norway. I wanted to move on. I could no longer deny the call to start the rest of my life.
I didn’t perish. Back to my home of the USA. Back to the world of turning up the volume in your face science.
But that’s not what happened. In the middle of a job interview, a powerful feeling, a wave of nausea, overcame me. That I no longer wanted to be a scientist working at the bench.
I can no longer perform experiments at the lab bench.
I can no longer mix molecules in test tubes.
I didn’t understand that feeling in the interview. My mind telling me no more. Overriding years of neuronal hardwiring. It was an epiphany. A turning point. I’ve read an MRI would have detected it. Even moments before the thought would have entered my consciousness.
The understanding came only later, during a casual conversation with a Colombian woman in a flower shop café in Germany. The where are you from, what are you doing here, I don’t speak the language type of conversation.
When she told me that she was from Colombia and had been living in Germany for over 15 years, the conversation switched to one of those incidences of serendipity that make you believe there is a god just for moving people around the world so that they can meet.
I asked about the cultural shift from Colombia to Northern Europe.
At first I didn’t understand her musical South American response.
Boring? The furrow between my eyebrows asked.
As she spoke with her hands and her eyes, I realized. In Colombia, she considered herself to be quiet. In Germany, she felt another way. Bold, colorful, expressive, maybe even loud. The cultures were reversed. Like a seed in the right soil, her petals came out.
Lightening bolt. Americans are free. Aggressive and competitive. Norwegians don’t talk to strangers. Stripped of my own American culture, I too came out as less of an introvert. I asked people questions in the elevator in Norway. At the bus stop. I took painting classes. I assumed equality with my colleagues where there was an unspoken hierarchy. I told them what they could do better.
What you will do away from your kryptonite. Away from how you know you should behave.
I understood what had happened in Norway. Reducing the static. The static from friends, family, the system. An unconscious exercise forcing me to question all the values in my work and personal life. Giving myself permission to test. To experiment. Did they represent my true feelings? Or were they just those of everyone else around me?
Norway could have been any country. Only when I arrived did I realize nothing there was holding me back. Any failures would be my secret. If things didn’t work out, I could pack and leave the failures behind.
But the realization that things were different, didn’t hit me until I returned to the USA. Until that job interview.
I no longer see myself as just a cancer biologist. I am a traveler. An expat. A speaker of more than one language. A painter. A photographer. My own boss.
The unexpected results. That in Norway, in Bergen, a provincial Norwegian town, I might find a different version of myself. That living in Norway might be the trigger causing me to abandon working at the lab bench. To acknowledge that there’s more inside me than the scientist.
Janice flew over to Norway. Janice 2.0 came back.
©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com
Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.