Thursday, April 14, 2016

40 year-old intern (origins)

We moved to France on the cusp of 2014, making it now more than two years since leaving Sweden.

While Sweden was good to us - career advancement for each, nice Skeppshult town bikes, a solid property investment, couple kids - France has been less generous.

That's not a complaint: as most know, the bread, cheese and wine are amazing (and I assume the basis for most of Hemingway, though I've not read Movable Feast); public healthcare, transport, and free education are benefits an American never, ever takes for granted (even if they were easier to define in Scandinavia); and we're enjoying the proud French culture and heritage (even the sewer museum kicks butt).

But Sweden gave me a work visa on arrival as an "emotional dependent" of my wife (whose research project and visa brought us to Sweden in the first place), even without kids (or being married!). France, par contre, has (inadvertently I expect, there is an issue with numbers of immigrants in the EU just now) made it tougher on this family of four; I can't legally work here, limiting us to my wife's income. In fact I am asked to write a statement each year that I will not pursue activities for economic gain. This would put us under the poverty line in many countries, certainly in Paris, and maybe should have sent us back to Sweden; but after selling lots of stuff (like my mom's house and our Swedish flat) we did math/s, figured we'd invest heavily in France, and are making a go of it. We're lucky to be able to try.

So I enrolled in school. I've often thought about a Master's degree, have even been told my lack of a graduate degree holds back my work performance (ahem), and - dammit, I told myself - now I'm out of excuses. Well ... except I didn't speak French. And French degree programs in geology and related fields are not offered in English.

I took a year of French. It was hard. Our boys were 3 months old and 2 when we arrived; my wife was a first-time-ever professor creating lots of new coursework; and suddenly I was commuting to Orsay each day, watching Top Chef with sous-titres, and doing conjugations until 2am each night, with a dozen motivated Chinese engineering students. I passed, mostly because I have high comprehension - certainly not because of my pronunciation, nor solid control of group 3 verbs...

Which meant last year I could start the degree program. Rather the sitting in with first-year masters students I'd found a way to do the degree in one year ... so began immediately year two (M2) of a hydrology, hydrogeology and soils program (okay, hydrologie, hydrogéologie et sols). Turns out (relatively) high comprehension and 20 years' experience doesn't make things easy!

But somehow I'm nearly through with coursework, and just finishing my first month as an intern (stagiere) at IRSTEA, a French research institution; our Antony office is full of really, really well-regarded numerical modelers who've written various hydrology forecast tools for rivers of France.

I'm not a hydrologist but a hydrogeologist - or geohydrologist (some prefer to exaggerate the geology underpinnings of our science) - with background in groundwater flow and cleanup; my first (and last) class in hydrology was last fall. This takes me back to winning the Renaissance Man award at Occidental some 20 years ago -- an early crisis of personality, distilled to majoring in music while taking a science-heavy geology course load. It's an easy cheat to suggest the reason I don't understand some relationship between meterologic and hydrologic model feedback because it doesn't exist in my universe - but that's not true. The systems are a continuum, and understanding detailed interplay is important for a system perspective.

Finally, motivation. I'm firing up this blog to try to keep myself moving and motivated: on my thesis, pending exams, on visa and reunification applications and reapplications, and on continued language learning. I'll publish some learnings as I develop something called a Verification Scorecard or Scoreboard; discuss my github efforts; and generally try to be productive.

Here's hoping my posts get shorter.