A legal alien: a Dutchman in Providence

By Peter van Heijster
Last summer, I made the move from my home country the Netherlands to the land of opportunity. After nearly ten years in Amsterdam, first as a master student at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and afterwards as a Ph.D.-student at the Center of Mathematics and Computer Science (CWI), it was time for something new and exciting. I was awarded a Rubicon-grant by the Netherlands Organisation of Research, the dutch NSF, which allowed me to spend the next two years as a Post Doc at a university abroad. So I packed two suitcases and left heart, home, and girlfriend for the big unknown: Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Immediately after I arrived in mid July I realized that I made my first big mistake: starting a new job in the middle of the summer. The place was deserted. There was literally nobody around: no colleagues, no students, nobody. The first month and a half were miserable: I started a new research project after a couple of months of doing nearly nothing, I missed my girlfriend, and I felt completely alone. During this period, I often wondered whether I made the right decision coming here. Fortunately, after a short time I found some local Rhode Islanders who where playing soccer every evening. This helped me get through the lonely summer. From the first day the students returned for their fall semester, everything became better (except the lines in the university cafeteria). The campus flourished; it was alive again, and so was I. I started to enjoy Brown, Providence, and my research.

Brown University is one of the oldest universities in the United States. Their property is amazing. For example my department, the Division of Applied Mathematics (DAM), is located in a 19th century mansion. The building has several stained glass windows, wall paintings, and other architectural ornaments. This can not be compared to my previous institutes, which where all fairly new and consisted mainly of bricks and more bricks. Also the campus is very beautiful with lots of trees, old churches and statues of important people. This campus makes you feel like you are in a special place doing something important.

I enjoy the social life at the DAM. Every Thursday there is `tea time'. At four, we all come out of our offices and enjoy some tea, cookies and conversation (not necessarily about mathematics). I also play in an applied mathematics soccer (not football) team. Our team consists of graduate students, post docs and even professors from all over the globe. We play a match more or less every fortnight, sometimes indoors sometimes outdoors, in the university intramural league. Unfortunately, last semester we lost the final in overtime (of course undeserved). Hopefully, we have better luck this semester.

Culturally there is a huge difference between the Netherlands and the States, or from a broader viewpoint, the `old world' and the `new world'. However, I do not think that you can say that one is better than the other, or more personally, that I prefer one over the other. I also spent a month in Japan and after experiencing these three completely different cultures, I would say that all have great positive aspects and some minor negative aspects. In the end, it is more a question of what you are used to.

After several discussions with my new friends here (some at tea time) about health care, politics, sports and everything else, I realized that people think and judge according to their cultural background: their education, their religion, their politics and so on. As an innocent example, I really enjoy the sports mentality over here but to have ten big screen televisions in every pub is a little bit too much for me.

Unfortunately, there is one aspect which I really cannot get used to here: the different food. Dutch cuisine is far from great, but it is what I am used to (and what I like). So far, I have lost 6 kilos in the States, which of course is an achievement on its own!

At present, things are great! I am working hard on two new papers, one on two-dimensional localized structures and one on one-dimensional localized structures in heterogeneous media. We are also exploring some new projects. I, of course, still miss my wife (we married in the meantime). Fortunately, there is also a solution to that problem: she has joined me here in Providence this spring. So, my adventure in the States can truly start, and I am looking forward to it!

Where will mathematics brings me after Brown? That is still an open question, but I am ready to experience anything anywhere!


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