Nomadus scientificus

26 January 2014 by Alex Brown, posted in overseas science

Whether it's collecting data in a specific environment, presenting results at a conference, or simply having to change jobs every 6-18 months until you get tenure, a life in science can mean moving around a lot.

Credit: Jorge Cham,

A while ago I cam across a listicle on Buzzfeed, "29 Truths About Growing Up In Multiple Cities". Although I only grew up in one city, I have since moved around a fair bit, for university and work. So there are quite a few of these I can relate to...

Before I go through them, I should point out that I am not complaining here. I fully realise how ridiculously privileged I am t have had the experiences I've had. Nor do I want to show off. But one of my objectives for Do You Speak Science? is to share what it's like to live & work in the worlds of science, languages and internationalism. Some of the issues raised in the Buzzfeed post about being a "third culture kid" are part of that.

So here we go...
1. These are the three most difficult questions anyone can possibly ask you.

  • a/ Where do you consider home?

This is a tricky one. I have often found myself saying "I'll drive home for the weekend, to spend some time with my family before coming back home again."

I refer you to George Carlin on the matter:"your house is just a place for your stuff with a cover on it".

  • b/ Where are you from?

WHAT DO YOU EVEN MEAN? Please define "from".

This one is usually followed up by an attempt at being more precise, which typically just leaves everyone more confused:

"Where were you born?" - well, I was still a baby when we left that country.

"Where did you grow up?" - well, I haven't lived there properly in 6 years and my parents aren't from there...

"Where did you go to school?" - AMERICANS! School for us Europeans stops at age 18 (at most). You don't got to "school" at MIT. That's a univeristy, call it that. But anyway, that would be 3 unis in 2 countries. But again, I felt foreign in all of those.

"Where do you live now?" - OK, maybe now we're getting somewhere. Though for the first year I lived on one side of the border and worked on the other. In an international organization. Where most people who work there don't work for that organisation. Don't get me started.

Let's just say that my birth certificate, driving license and work permit are all from different countries.

Americans are sometimes surprised by this diversity of countries, but the space these places all cover is barely bigger than Texas. So it's just like changing between States a couple of times (unless you're from New England).

  • c/ Which is your favourite city?

I can't really compare them. School, uni, work... I know different aspects of each of these cities.

Score: three thirds Running total: 1/1

2. All your stories about your childhood start with “When I lived in…”
This one, not so much. All of my childhood was in one city. Most of my moving was either as a baby or an adult.

Score: nought Running total: 1/2

3. You have irrational attachments to random numbers because your life is cataloged by postcodes.
Sort of. But then again, lots of French people have a weird attachment to their department number (I'm a 67, for instance).

Score: 67. OK, 1/1 Running total: 68, or 2/3

map of French departments and their numbers

4. When Facebook asked you to list a “hometown,” you had a panic attack.
Nah, mine is just where I grew up. Easy enough because i just have the one.

Score: nul points Running total: 68, or 2/4

5. You don’t get it when people speak fondly of their childhood bedrooms, because you had too many.

Just 2. So no.

Score: 2. But really zero. Running total: 70, or 2/5

6. You have several close friends, because every new city requires a new crew.
Definitely this. If I ever have a massive party for a wedding or something, it'll be tricky to find somehwere that everyone can get to. The barycentre is probably near enough to Paris though. That being said, I'm not sure I'd call them a "crew". Maybe I'm just not cool enough.

Score: a bajillion, because my friends are worth more than 1 point. But for the purposes of counting, 1. See what you make me do, Buzzfeed?!

Running total: 1070, or 3/6

7. The downside is that a significant number of people you care about are always too far away.

Yep. Though in some cases, "too far" just isn't a thing. You know who you are.

Score: another gazillion. Running total: 2070, or 4/7

8. Your speech incorporates slang from all over the place.

It's gert lush. This is especially true of my French and German, which are heavily influenced by my English, Alsatian, German and Swiss experiences.

Scorezwo, but really einzi. Running total: 2071, or 5/8

9. And your accent fluctuates daily.
Again, in French and German more than English, though even that can get a bit of a Brizzle twang on occasion. It depends on which language I've been speaking a lot of recently, and the accents of who I have been speaking with.

Score: won. Running total: 2072, or 6/9

10. So every new acquaintance’s favorite game is trying to guess where you’re from.

Again-again, it depends on the language. My British accent is pretty obvious, as is my tendency to exaggerate every single thing I say. Guesses about my French have included Australia, Ireland, and Canada (but not Quebec). In German, some Swiss people think I'm Dutch, while I've known Germans to say I sound Swiss.

See also 1.b/ about where I'm actually "from".

This stuff definitely never gets tedious. Ever.

Score: Yet. Another. One. Running total: 2073, or 7/10

11. You constantly crave foods that aren’t available in your current city.
Marmite. Black pudding. Pies. Choucroute. Spatezle. Currywurst. Fondue. Raclette. Tartiflette. Sometimes, several of those combined. Great, now I'm hungry.

Score: NOM. Running total: 2074, or 8/11

12. You either have a physical version of this, or you can easily envision one in your head.

I didn't want to replicate Buzzfeed's possibly slightly somewhat questionable sourcing of pictures by re-nicking all of the pictures in the original post, but I can't really avoid it here. Apparently the source is "", which of course tells us nothing.

A map of the world with pins.

So many people in so many places...

And yes, totally. In my case, the pins are mostly in Europe, but there are a few more exotic strings in there as well. I don't have a physical map (part of the "problem" of moving so often is that wall decorations tend to be very temporary), but instead I get people to send me postcards (by sending them postcards).

Score: another bajillion. Running total: 3074, or 9/12

13. You get incredibly excited when you meet someone else who has moved around a lot.


14. Especially if they’ve been to one of the smaller, more obscure places you’ve lived.

There isn't a secret handshake, but there's certainly a knowing look amongst the well-traveled that says "been there, done that".

Score: wink, wink. Running total: 3076, or 11/14

15. Packing quickly and efficiently is your superpower
I can see where this could come from, but in my case this is a big "Haha, nope." I always have to start from scratch to make sure I have everything, and I need a different set stuff for each trip.

Score: fail. Running total: 3076, or 11/15

16. You’ve taken whole vacations funded entirely by frequent-flier miles.
Also nope. Too many different airlines, too many different programmes. Also Europe isn't really that big, and I used to get the train a lot.

Score: TGV. Running total: 3076, or 11/16

17. You have equally strong allegiances to multiple sports teams, which can be extremely confusing.
Watching Strasbourg v Annecy at floorball was conflicting. France v England at football depends on where I happen to be at the time (usually I support "the other one"). And England v Wales at rugby leads to the closest thing we get to proper arguments in our house at "home".

I even found myself cheering for Germany once. That was weird.

Score: Two world wars and one worldcup, do-dah, do-dah. Running total: 3077, or 12/17

18. You were the last of your friends to get a driver’s license, because you were never any one place long enough to do it.

Nope, I got that out of the way before leaving. Which was handy.

Score: le va-va-voum. Running total: 3078, or 13/18

19. You’re a weary veteran of the long-distance relationship.
*Le sigh*.

Score: It's uncountable how much I hate this quiz right now. Running total: 3079, or 14/19

20. You have yearbooks from six different schools.
I'm from Europe. What is this "yearbook" of which you speak?

Score: Not six, that's for sure. Running total: 3079, or 14/20

21. You have unreasonably strong opinions about different airlines.
When trying to get to London, why pay extra for baggage on EasyJet to an airport that's sort of near Cambridge, when, for the same overall price and less hassle, Swiss will take you to a DLR stop and give you chocolate for the trouble?

Score: That'll be ten quid. Running total: 3080, or 15/21

22. And you have a mental ranking of the best and worst airports.
"Never change flights at CDG" is like "never change tubes at Bank".

Also, most "London" airports aren't in London.

You'll never wait more than 10 minutes to get through security at Geneva.

"Karlsruhe Baden Baden" is very good for Strasbourg, but Ryanair probably couldn't get away with naming an airport after a destination in a different country.

Score: all the scores went on ranking airports Running total: 3081, or 16/22

23. You get restless if you’re ever in the same city for too long.
You don't need a monthly pass on the local bus if you're never there to use it.

Score: one if you're around long enough to catch it. Running total: 3082, or 17/23

24. You’re pretty much immune to culture shock
If anything, lack of cultural diversity in Bath was my version of Kulturschock.

Score: un point. eh, tiens, il parleun autre langue! Running total: 3083, or 18/24

25. And, at this point, you’re pretty great at making new friends.

Score: there aren't enough points in the world Running total: just stop counting, or 19/25

26. This is your official theme song.

Can't say I'd heard it before, but yeah, I can see why. I'd generally think of something like this:

But probably only until I make it to New York.

Score: 1 Running total: just stop counting, or 20/26

27. People have tried to give you several labels, but nothing quiiite captures your experience. Transplant? Third Culture Kid? VAGABOND?
European TCK pretty much works for me.

Score: half a point. Running total: 20.5/27

28. But, although it was tough at times, you’re glad to have so many different experiences under your belt.
This is defintiley a case of #firstworldproblems, which aren't real problems. So yes, I'm pretty stoked about and very thankful for the things I've seen/done/eaten/drank/ridden, people I've met/etc, and places I've been, despite the relatively minor stress that sometimes comes with them.

Score: this goes beyond scores. Running total: 21.5/28

29. Because, at the end of the day, you’ll always have the best stories to tell.
Here I would disagree. I've met people who were born & bred in a single, small town, having never verntured much further than their nearest big city for the occasional shopping trip. They seemed just as fulfilled and happy as me, if not more so in some respects. They had never had to say "have a nice life" to anyone significant, for instance. Sure, the travel tales are fun, but I'm also conscious of missing out on other things back at "home". It's a compromise, like many things. You gain in shenanigans what you lose in stability.

Score: like I said, we're beyond point-scoring here.
Over to you:

  • Which of these points do you relate to?
  • Are you a TCK?
  • Did you move around a lot as a child? How did that affect you?
  • Do you move around a lot for your science?



3 Responses to “Nomadus scientificus”

  1. Hussy Reply | Permalink

    I've started to answer the "where are you from" question with just "everywhere". That just about covers it.

  2. Erika Reply | Permalink

    No, I haven't moved around so much but still one question always gets me and that is "Where are you from?" I never know if ppl want to know where I live (come From now) or where I grew up.
    Even if ppl living all their life in just one place can be as happy or more so than travellers, having lived in another place/country does give you a broader point of view.

Leave a Reply

3 × = nine