Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Voilá mes pensées.. Hier sind meine Denken...Qui sono i miei pensieri!

“Where is the ‘Treffpunkt’ please?” A young Ukrainian on his way back home ushered me to the Meeting Point of the Train Station/Mall/young-people’s-24-7 hang-out. Ten minutes ticked slowly as I took in the ebb and flow of Swiss and internationals rushing to and from train destinations, greeting their friends with three kisses, and coming out of the underground stores with groceries, fresh-baked bread, music, and clothes. The aroma of waffle cookies drifted behind me in a sample display but I hadn’t yet recovered from my plane ride enough to lug my big suitcases over with one hand and gesticulate to abet my poor German with the other hand. Welcome to Bern, head of Bern County and capital of Switzerland.

My first roommate eventually found me and took me on a disorienting taxi-ride to my new Swiss apartment (the first of four, but that’s another story). In those initial twelve minutes, impressions from the taxi window broke almost every stereotype that I had heard of Switzerland.

- Switzerland is the land of organization: the first view of the city I had was of bike riders darting every which way regardless of stop signs, cars, or pedestrians around a huge construction site for train station improvements in anticipation of the EuroCup2008 Austria-Switzerland.

- Switzerland is a land of rich businessman handling millions of dollars every second: the population around me on a mid-day weekday, presumably a representative sampling of Bern in general, included slightly punk/too-cool-for-you teenagers, some sparse adults in elegant suits balancing briefcases precariously on their bike racks, and mostly youth and adults in Berkeley, CA hip-casual clothes walking, biking, and riding the trams.

- Switzerland is a land of punctuality and perfect transportation: that stereotype held fast until the my visiting mother’s last Swiss train ride, ironically, when we spent an unheard-of 60minutes stock still in a hot train which stopped a few minutes from Zurich airport (thank God, we didn’t miss her plane!). As someone from a rather disorganized culture, I was amused (and understanding) with how anguished the clockwork Swiss were to see their usually dependent schedules evaporate.

- Switzerland is a made of apple-cheeked smiling Swiss faces, cows, and cheese: the first Swiss resident I met in the plane from London was a young Russian working in Ticino, the Italian-Swiss region; the second I met was the helpful Ukrainian returning home from a year of Swiss work, the third I met was my Kurdish roommate, now a Swiss citizen. I didn’t actually meet a Swiss-born and bred person until my first day of work where I met my Swiss mentor and his British-Chinese wife, my second mentor. I did however have lots of dairy (lactose-free, three HUGE cheers for COOP, whose lactose-free milk products I’m trying to import to my local grocery store), and found fields and cows (and llamas and rams!) five minutes from my fourth residence, in Wabern on the edges of Bern.

- Ah, yes, the most anxiety-inducing stereotype: Switzerland is so orderly and rule-bound that you shouldn’t even flush your toilet after 9pm. Yes, someone who traveled in Switzerland (and many other countries) actually told me this. So perhaps my Dutch workmate did have to sign up to do her laundry on the 9am-9pm only schedule, but after two days of tip-toeing around my apartment, I felt unrestricted enough to answer nature’s call at any hour, turn on faucets, and even play soccer inside.

- The most unsuspected stereotype for a capital city, in my opinion: the Bernese are the slowest and most closed-minded of Swiss citizens. This turned out only half-true. The Bernese speak and act at a slower pace than even here in good ol’ Texas, but closed-minded they are not. It might take a Bernese guy three months to decide if he likes the fast-talking American visitor, especially if that visitor is a young, single girl… but he and his male and female officemates will welcome you with smiles and words of advice from day one. Even if the Swiss-Germans call their friends and acquaintances alike “kollegen/ colleagues,” they will extend you courtesy and respect from the beginning and will offer more if you have the patience to win their friendship.

My expectations of how I would interact with the Swiss and how I would experience life as a beginner Swiss epidemiologist for three months drew entirely on the stereotypes I heard, the experiences of about three Swiss people living in Houston and at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, DC (Andrea Buetler was exceedingly helpful in providing information, advice, and her own excellent analyses of Swiss vs. American culture, for which I am very grateful), and my own brief communications with my mentor, Dr. Matthias Egger, director of the ISPM, and with potential and actual roommates. I expected to encounter a quiet city with lots of nature, an extremely challenging project with information and methods almost entirely new to me, a language with which I was only mildly proficient but which I hoped to improve quickly, and people who worked to live instead of living to work as in the medical culture which surrounds me.

What I did encounter matched perhaps eighty percent of my expectations. Bern was essentially, much too quiet for me and for some quirk of weather, cold, rainy, and grey for at least two thirds of my time there. The absolute best train system in the world took me gratefully away to greener, sunnier pastures (and mountains, and snow, and small castles, and…) on the weekends and holidays. My research project, still in progress, was a huge learning experience and I spent much of my time learning how on earth a systematic review and meta-analysis is conducted and the differences between such things as an odds ratio and a risk ratio. Many people in my institute worked much longer hours than the other Swiss leaving around them who I could see coming and going through my street-view windows.

I expected to have consistent teaching and mentorship throughout, and I received exactly that, although more from my surprise main mentor, Nicola Low in addition to Matthias Egger, which turned out very well. Working with them as a co-author and not as the lowly medical student on the bottom rung of the medical hierarchy (which I had experienced with humbling results but not without respect for the previous three months on my medical school Surgery rotation) required self-evaluation and a change to perceive myself as a yes, new and naïve but also valuable part of the epidemiology team. I also had to change my expectations of the outcome of my three months and I counsel future mini-scholars to set realistic goals for their research including realizing that researching, analyzing, writing, submitting, reviewing, submitting again, and having your article published takes perhaps up to or more than one full year and can only be organized and started upon in three short months. Every minute in conversation with my mentors and experienced colleagues reminded me of how little I understood about the complexities of article submission and publication and of the politics and etiquette which color the research microcosm.

Perhaps Bern’s medieval charm and EuroCup host-status didn’t completely capture my heart, but the lessons I learned both about myself and more specifically about simple statistics, systematic review and meta-analysis, the world of research, the life of an epidemiologist and wonderfully the friends I made—real friends in the full Swiss sense underlying that strangely distant persistent use of “kollegin”—gave me full reason to value my three months in Bern as an excellent experience. The Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine offered me world-class epidemiology in one of the most naturally-beautiful and visitor-friendly countries in the world, and I thank the Swiss Embassy’s ThinkSwiss Scholarship Program for allowing me to make the ISPM and the multicultural and surprisingly laid-back Bernese a part of my life and identity. Hopp Schweiz!

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