In which Wanderlust wanes

I have just arrived in Heidelberg for my month-long sabbatical at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, following up on the groundwork I laid when I was last here in February 2008. Although London is not far away as the Airbus flies, I am worn out from the day’s travelling and happy to be settled into the Transit-appartement on the top floor of the ISG Hotel, just down the road from the Labs. I find myself in a four-room penthouse surrounded by roof terraces. From the Bauhaus-inspired living area, I can see the wooded mountainside looming upward, and from the bedroom window, there is a good view of the vineyards and the wide, flat valley stretching out below into the sunset. The air is warm and stirs the net curtains, and I can smell lilac and hear the singing of nearly familiar birds.

These rooms seem extravagant, but the EMBL got me a good deal and assured me it was the most cost-effective way to be accommodated at this time of the month for the length I needed. I’ve bought some groceries from the local shopping plaza, where the baker remembered me and managed to charm me into buying cumin bread even though – typical American – I was after white. I’ve unpacked and had a simple but satisfying meal in the restaurant, along with a glass of excellent Spätburgunder. The waitress, too, remembers me, and seems happy to see me back.

As trips go, then, this is more than usually comfortable. I know the neighborhood and have worked with the lab before; it’s a tranquil setting and I anticipate getting a lot of writing done in my free evenings, going for long runs on the steep paths that snake around the mountain, so convoluted that you can never go the same way twice. I am looking forward to performing my big timelapse screen, and am suffused with nervous buzz I often get just before a major experiment.

But I have to confess something that, years ago as a green PhD student, I would never have dreamed of: I am weary of travel.

The itinerant existence is often touted as one of the rare perks of the profession. In my day, I have taken full advantage, having performed research stints in three countries and attended meetings in many dozens of exotic locations all over the world. When I was younger, I thrilled to these adventures and was always pining for the next one. I loved the rituals of airlines and the monkey-puzzle of foreign metro systems, trams, trains and buses. I loved that feeling when you open a hotel door and discover exactly what sort of room is on the other side. I loved meeting new people, bonding in that instant way of youth with students and post-docs from all walks of life. Things seemed less heavy then: we were all going to become lab heads, we were all going to be friends for life. Now, of course, I know better. And hand in hand, after wandering the earth for more years that I ever thought I would, I have a deep appreciation for the value of a stable home.

I have no doubt that travel is good for scientists, even ageing ones. It stimulates new ideas and keeps the thought processes from ossifying into conservatism. It forces you out of your comfort zone and ensures that you never become complacent in your routines. And though I am enjoying sitting in front of the laptop in solitude, drinking Fenchel tea and nibbling vollkorn biscuits in this spotless expanse, there is a little ache in my heart for the apple trees and cow parsley I’ve left behind, whose blooms will be faded by the time I get home.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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52 Responses to In which Wanderlust wanes

  1. Stephen Curry says:

    Hope you’re not feeling too homesick. I’m sure it’ll disappear once you get stuck in to your experiments.
    I know what you mean about the wander-fatigue. Though still enjoy the thrill of new destinations, I don’t like to be away for too long these days. But less can sometimes be more: I had a one-night stopover at a meeting in Cambridge last week, and it was still tremendously stimulating.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    A month is a long time to be on your own. But fortunately I am quite good at it — I’m entering the home stretch on my third novel and this is exactly that time and space I need to sort it out. It’s not just the lack of company — it’s the living in a minimalistic environment with just a suitcase full of possessions that tends to focus the mind.

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    I do hope you brought a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow with you…! 😉

  4. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ha! I managed to find a copy for my eBook Reader, so fortunately it did not break my Lufthansa luggage allowance.
    I’ve read the first few pages and like it so far, so there must be something wrong with me.
    (For those watching at home, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon — famously “turgid and obscene” — is the Fiction Lab selection for June. I’ll post more about it later!)

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

    Sid is sad (Eva?) but in the meantime here’s an apple tree you might recognize:

  6. Eva Amsen says:

    Sid is sad (Eva?)

  7. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Nope, I don’t recognize that apple tree at all, Richard. Is it the Emperor’s new one? (Let me guess — dodgy iPhone ftp app?)
    Meanwhile I’m boiling water in a saucepan on an electric hob and about to crack open the only ground coffee they had in the little shop – Lavazza. Could have been worse — could have been (sorry, Eva) Douwe Egberts.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ah! Now the picture is showing. Only took 30 min to load…
    Many thanks, Richard.

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    Slow Australian servers. Must sort out something a little more local.

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    cow parsley

  11. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Beautiful – and some people call them weeds.

  12. Heather Etchevers says:

    Wistful and well-expressed as usual, Jennifer. I wonder if some of what you feel – I’ve been through exactly that – is due to our age, not just our career experience? Though the two go together, I suppose. A month’s sabbatical at EMBL does sound dreamy, but the older we are, the more enrooted we become, and thus I think it no accident that you write about the plants you miss.
    I spent a lovely summer in nearby Darmstadt long ago. If you have a wee bit of time on the weekend, you might appreciate a walk among its representative Jugenstil architecture.
    The home stretch on a new novel! Fantastic – am looking much forward to it.

  13. Henry Gee says:

    As Crowded House never said: everywhere you go, take your Marmite(TM) with you.

  14. Richard P. Grant says:

    bq. I think it no accident that you write about the plants you miss.
    One of the things I missed most about being in Australia was the flowers. These, for example, are hard to find there:

    and these certainly don’t grow:

    I love the names nearly as much as the flowers themselves. Cowparsley, bluebells, cowslips: a kind of poetry.

  15. Eva Amsen says:

    “Could have been worse — could have been (sorry, Eva) Douwe Egberts.”
    D.E. is what coffee is SUPPOSED to taste like! Everything else tastes bad.

  16. Richard Wintle says:

    Lovely post. You’ve made me wish I was traveling – my schedule has dropped off recently. I could go for inhalaling some damp and misty English air, redolent with cow parsley and whatnot, right about now.
    A colleague is off to the DECIPHER meeting at the Sanger Centre next month – I am jealous.
    Third novel? I must have missed the second one. Unless Experimental Heart (still on backorder, BTW) is your second.

  17. Richard Wintle says:

    Inhal-la-la-la-ing. Powerful vapours off those flowers, I guess.

  18. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Heather, I agree that it is age to some extent that makes it harder to fit in in new places. Given the choice between a random beer with a few friendly strangers, I might be more inclined to choose curling up with a book. When I was younger, I threw myself into all sorts of social adventures when traveling in the name of science — for example, I have a hazy recollection of blowing off a CSH final dinner to go clubbing in Manhattan with people I’d met just that evening — got back home at 6 AM, and had to leave to catch a plane at 7. I can’t see me doing that now.
    Henry, everywhere I go, I always specifically leave my Marmite behind.
    Richard W., if you ever need a place to stay in London and can operate a bread machine, the spare bed is yours.
    Eva — I am praying that your comment about D.E. was irony. And please don’t tell me you also like koffiemelk.

  19. Jennifer Rohn says:

    p.s. Richard W., my second novel is ready for publication (after perhaps a final spit and polish) but I won’t know who/when is publishing it until we see how book 1 goes. I will keep you posted, obviously! So far it seems book 1 is earning its keep, so I am quietly optimistic.

  20. Åsa Karlström says:

    Richard G> Cowparsley, bluebells, cowslips
    I guess you have a lot of cows in England then…. Thanks for letting me know the English names for them though. We call them ‘hundkäx’ [Dog biscuits/cookies], ‘Blåklockor’ [blue bells] and ‘gullvivor’ [golden ..wavy things?] or St Pers nycklar [the keys of St Peter – in heaven who opens the gate].
    Jennifer> I understand if it feels a bit long and a bit hard to relocate for a month. It is long enough time to miss the spring, right? and still short enough for not being able to bring all the stuff you might need/want to feel at home.
    I think it is kind of cool though, third book and collaboration in another place where you can work. guess that is the Wanderlust that hasn’t gone out of me since I haven’t the opportunity…. Good luck!!

  21. Eva Amsen says:

    Koffiemelk is gross, but I’m serious about D.E. It’s what I’ve learned to recognize as “coffee”, so anything else tastes different.

  22. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Don’t worry, Eva, I still respect you. 😉 Especially if you have renounced the weird yellow milky stuff of your native land.
    Asa: you are a Swede living in Tennessee — how can you say you have not had the opportunity?

  23. Heather Etchevers says:

    I’m chuckling because when my husband asked me what those blue flowers were on Sunday, I told him wood hyacinths. Bluebells to me, were campanulae – which I suppose reflects my Scottish heritage in some remote way.

  24. Cath Ennis says:

    I miss travelling for conferences. My last job would send me off on a trip about 3 times a year, which is enough to enjoy it without it becoming a chore. I went to Boston, DC, San Diego, LA and Halifax (Nova Scotia) for the first time on those trips, and got to stay in some really nice hotels (I love staying in hotels, having spent most childhood and student/postdoc holidays in rented apartments and youth hostels).
    In my current job I’ve been sent to Calgary airport (seriously – the all-day meeting was in the airport, then we got back on the plane home after a quick beverage in the airport bar), and Vancouver Island, which was lovely. But I’d like to do more.

  25. Caryn Shechtman says:

    May I suggest checking out on of the omnipresent bakeries in Germany. Though is still won’t be home, I think the baked goods, especially the laugen croissants, will ease you mind.
    Now I’ve gone and made myself hungry…

  26. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny: I should have written it differently…. as in “moving to another place for a month at a time in order to persue research”. I was not complaining, more stating that I haven’t really moved from my home to another place for a shorter period of time and then back. (both times I left Sweden I have left my place to stay and haven’t got “my place” still there. If that makes sense?
    But no, in the other ways I have moved to another place. I am not sure it qualifies as Wanderlust … but maybe it does… have not thought about it like that as much. I probably should 🙂

  27. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Caryn, I am seriously addicted to bretzel — the coffee shop at the EMBL makes three kinds in the morning, including the ones smothered in melted butter, although I think my favorite is the one with huge chunks of sticky salt crystals. I’m going to ask about the laugen croissants — are those the sort of thin cheesy crescents?

  28. Caryn Shechtman says:

    No, they are actually similar in taste to the bretzel, only in croissant form. I couldn’t find a better description on the internet, mainly because everything was in German. However, I did find a recipe to make bretzel! Now you can have bretzel at home too, which won’t help too much with your travel woes. Oh well, I am sure they are better in Germany anyway:)

  29. amy charles says:

    Oh my. Me, I miss sassafrass. I can get dried sassafrass here but it’s not like the smell of the growing stuff. And I miss the damp smell of leaf litter and whatever lives in it in the Appalachians.
    Sometimes — not too often — I miss the smell of things that are illegal now, like that sharp mix of 1970s bus and car exhaust and garbage in New York, early on a bright morning. It’s a cheerful place, I don’t care what anybody says.
    As for travel, Jenny, I feel I’m just waking up again. I’ve had a long, long stretch without it — five years of a back injury that wouldn’t let me sit long enough to get as far as Chicago, then five years of baby and divorce. I’m out of my skin excited about the prospect of trips coming up. I find, though, that I’m much more excited about taking my daughter places than I am about taking myself. Can’t wait to take her over the Bay Bridge at night, when we go to Berkeley this summer, or to see the giant redwoods and go on a ferry. She’s never been on a boat at all. And she’s longingly besotted with Eloise (who’s very spoiled and doesn’t behave well at all), so sometime in the next year or two I think tea at the Plaza is in order. And, you know, my poor old whale. I suspect she’ll be more interested in the planetarium. Not to mention the steps at the Met.

  30. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I almost cried when I heard that sassafras had been declared a potent carcinogen. On my run yesterday up the mountain, I was noticing that the leaf litter smelled exactly like it did in the Allegheny Forest when we used to visit our little tin-roofed cabin as a child. (Germany reminds me a lot of Ohio and Pennsylvania– I wonder if that is why a lot of German immigrants ended up settling there? I always feel a weird sense of home when I come here — but that could also be genetics.)

  31. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Oh, I didn’t have my camera on my run, but saw lots of this growing (_Galium odoratum_), the essence of which apparently the Berliners put in their Weisse Bier. It only grows for a few weeks a year, so I was lucky.

  32. Richard P. Grant says:

    Mmm Weisse bier.

  33. Richard Wintle says:

    Jenny: thank you. I can’t guarantee operation of the bread machine though, but I can make a tasty dessert out of phyllo pastry and fresh berries. Would that do?
    I don’t think we get your cow parsley and bluebells here… and the term “cowslip” I think usually means the Marsh Marigold. I’d post a nice photo but I can’t see Flickr from here unfortunately – maybe once I’m home. Pretty things.

  34. Jennifer Rohn says:

    We have marsh marigolds in Ohio! I didn’t know that people called them cowslips. Who would have thought that Nature Network would have been so botanically educational?

  35. Richard P. Grant says:

    And that’s without the assistance of Mrs Grant, senior.

  36. Jennifer Rohn says:

    There is so much pollen floating around Heidelberg at the moment that one of the PhD students had to be given a shot of cortisone in the ass so that she could open her eyes wide enough to see down the microscope.

  37. Richard Wintle says:

    a shot of cortisone in the ass so that she could open her eyes wide enough to see down the microscope
    Now that’s dedication.
    I’m basing the marsh marigold/cowslip thing on Wikipedia (standard disclaimers, etc. etc. etc.) – my parents refer to them as Marsh Marigolds though (and thus, so do I). Of course, as a confounding factor, they’re English. My parents. Not the flowers. You see.
    /starts babbling

  38. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Our family always called those marsh marigolds too — I only knew the term ‘cowslip’ from pre-Raphaelite love poetry, until someone here pointed them out.

  39. Richard Wintle says:

    Ah, here we go…

    Neither a Cow Parsley, nor a Bluebell.

  40. Jennifer Rohn says:

    That’s lovely. Makes me homesick.

  41. Cath Ennis says:

    Isn’t that a buttercup?

  42. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny: I thought of homesick when there are smells that surprise you (like when you are out running) or seeing flowers (or birds) that trigger memories… sounds like the run was a nice one in the forest. Do you have any Wild daffodils over there? I missed them here at Easter although it is rare that we see them that early in the year since the snow might not have left yet 😉

  43. Richard P. Grant says:

    Certainly looks like Ranunculus on this small screen. I noticed this morning, walikimg in what I have to think of as Jenny’s woods, a custard cluster of buttercups.

  44. Richard P. Grant says:

    Don’t have a pic of the buttercups unfortunately but did see these too:

  45. Richard Wintle says:

    No, that’s a Marsh Marigold. Not a buttercup. This is a buttercup:

    The buttercup was in the backyard. The Marsh Marigold was in a marsh.

  46. Richard Wintle says:

    P.S. Image loading from was very slow… but worth the wait. Lovely flowers, Richard.

  47. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Marsh marigolds and buttercups are definitely not the same thing. Richard G, talking about Ranunculus is not very helpful, as there are hundreds of different species.
    Åsa, I’m not sure what you mean by wild daffodils. I didn’t think there were any growing that weren’t heavily cultivated. I love the idea, though.

  48. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny: I meant this one, according to wikipedia Påsklilja is “wild daffodils”:åsklilja in English
    they are by far the most common flower in flower beds around this time of the year…. and then people have them indoors for Easter etc… I was surprised that the translation said “wild” – guess that is wikipedia for you 😉

  49. Jennifer Rohn says:

    It looks like a Narcissus. But I’ve never seen one growing in a forest far from man’s influence. Beautiful.

  50. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny> I really don’t think they grow far from the hands of man…. which is why I shoud’ve picked up the translation as ‘wrong’ or unrealistic.
    I love them. There are some light yellow ones too… we call them “Pentecost lilys” as these ones are “Easter lilys” 🙂 simple names in Swedish

  51. Jennifer Rohn says:

    And of course the white ones with the very dark orange/red trumpets – those are my favorite.

  52. Richard P. Grant says:

    You know, as spam goes, there’s almost a beauty in that.
    Flagged, obviously, as inappropriate.

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