An Italian in Berlin: A Tale of Bureaucracy, Scientific Freedom, and Cultural Exchange


My story begins on a windy afternoon as I was approaching the end of my Ph.D. at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy. I was thinking about joining a group abroad, to broaden my scientific interests and to experience something challenging and new.

I had met Erwin Frey, a German physicist interested in applying theoretical physics to the fascinating realm of life science, at a conference in Canada. During my poster session he shot me difficult questions and gave me a hard time, but then he told me, "If you're still interested in this topic at the end of your Ph.D., let me know." So I wrote to him at Harvard University. He replied that he was leaving Harvard to start a new group at the Hahn Meitner Institute (HMI) in Berlin and that he was willing to help me find a fellowship to join them.

The Application Process

By chance I had to go to Boston for a conference 3 weeks later, so we agreed to meet there and start writing a proposal for a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship. These fellowships are extremely generous and particularly difficult to obtain, because they are strictly based on an international competition. Other schemes would have been possible, but the Marie Curie Fellowship seemed to be flexible enough to give us a good shot and, more importantly, the deadline was in the middle of March, which is a particularly good time to set up a project following the same research lines as one's Ph.D.

Writing the proposal was both difficult and fun at the same time. For the first time in my life, I had to state my scientific interests and make a research plan. I had some ideas of what I wanted to work on, but writing a proposal while on a bus from New York to Boston was not the kind of thing I had ever expected to do in my life. This hard copy on yellow paper (jealously conserved in my records) proved to be simply a draft, and it would not have gone further without a huge amount of help from both Erwin and my Ph.D. supervisor in Trieste, Amos Maritan.

I may not have been in the same place (or even on the same continent) as my dream boss for most of the writing process, but God bless the Internet: The time difference allowed me to work during the day and send an updated version of the proposal to Erwin in the evening so he could work on that during his late afternoon (night in Italy). Our proposal underwent 24/7 work for about 2 weeks: When I closed the envelope with my application, I remember thinking proudly, "Even if I do not get the grant, it has been a good experience to try." Four months later, I received an e-mail from Erwin: "Congratulations!" That was enough to boost my enthusiasm, and I couldn't wait to get started on my fellowship.

My project is concerned with the application of concepts, theories, and models of statistical physics to motor proteins, amazing molecules that are able to transform the energy provided by a chemical reaction into mechanical work. Such an interdisciplinary effort requires a very open mind and the ability to interact with people from different scientific backgrounds, identify well-posed problems, and translate them from one scientific jargon into another. I am firmly convinced that my stay in Berlin has helped me develop all of these qualities and skills.

Getting Started and Getting Signatures

I moved to Berlin in January 2002. HMI helped me find accommodation for my starting period and, at first, things seemed to run smoothly. I knew I would have to comply with some bureaucratic procedures; what I did not know was how long it would take to get them completed!

Based on my experience, I am afraid that anybody who intends to come to Germany for work should be warned: Bureaucracy here is a nightmare. True, you get the services you need--health insurance, bank account, registration with the police--but you waste a lot of time in doing so. The height of my frustration came when, after 3 months, I was asked to apply for a work permit. Because I am an E.U. citizen, I pointed out that I am entitled to work in any state of the European Union. The answer came back, "We cannot deny you a work permit, since you are an E.U. citizen, but you have to ask for it anyway." I think this exactly sums up the German attitude to bureaucracy and administrative issues: useless indeed, but you have to pass through it.

And my work permit was only the first hurdle. Working in a scientific institution where administrative personnel represent a significant percentage of the total means that every step I make is accompanied by a burdensome, pointless bureaucratic procedure.

For instance, early on, in order to become a fully enrolled member of the HMI personnel, I was asked to collect 15 (!) signatures from people in charge of various administrative issues. At that time, understanding German was a dream, and some of these people could only speak German. So I spent hours running after them, fixing dates with their secretaries (whose number seemed to grow without limit) and hearing incomprehensible speeches, in order, finally, to get their signatures. I even have to collect five signatures every time I need to go somewhere in connection with my research, even though my fellowship comes with a rather generous travel fund. Two of these are understandable (my supervisor and the person in charge of our financial resources) and are easily obtainable at any moment. The other three are completely pointless and it takes ages to get them, unless I am willing to take a bike, whiz, from one office to the other and wait for people to get off the phone--good for my fitness, but hardly helping push back the frontiers of research.

Although German efficiency has proven to be a mere stereotype, many aspects of my experience in Germany have been extremely rewarding. For instance, the level of facilities provided by my institution, in terms of computers, office space, and consumables, is excellent, as is the help I have received from my colleagues. More importantly, during my stay I have experienced an unusual and total freedom in choosing how to run my project, in collaborating with different institutions, and in managing my fellowship. This has played a major role in helping me develop an independent line of research and a growing network of collaborations of my own.

My supervisor has always supported any scientific collaboration with groups inside or outside Germany, in particular in my home country. For instance, I was able to get in contact with the University of Bari, where I graduated with my laurea (first degree) in 1997. We have planned to set up a project and apply for a European Reintegration Grant (ERG), which implies a real commitment of my home university to reintegrate me on a permanent basis. The only problem is that the requirements to fulfil the eligibility criteria for ERGs are very difficult to apply to the Italian situation, where even a simple 2-year contract might require more than 15 months' planning. In Italy every position in the public sector (universities included) needs to be advertised in the Gazzetta Ufficiale and then made the subject of a contest at the national/international level. (I wonder who would ever come to work for less than ?12,000 per year.) This requires a huge amount of time, and the formal appointment depends on how you perform on a public examination. The university might have every intention to reintegrate you on a permanent basis, as required by the eligibility criteria for ERGs, but there would not be any means to prove it.

"Germans Simply Love Culture"

Finally, I would like to devote some words to the country in which I have had the pleasure to live over the last 2 years and the people I have met. It is not possible to describe a country, its culture, and its people in a few words, and my report will be partial and strictly based on my personal experiences.

Berlin is just an amazing place to live: There are so many cultural events (even in English), and the people are very multicultural and open-minded. As for Germany in general, I have found that scientific culture is highly regarded in its own right here, at least much more so than in my home country. There is a general feeling of respect for anybody committed to Wissenschaft in any form. Germans simply love culture, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes. They are very curious people, eager to learn about your lifestyle, your tastes, your food, and even your games. (My German colleagues are now able to play Scopone, a typical Italian card game.)

I must admit most of the Germans I have met seem simply to be in love with my country of origin. Although the stereotype describing them as cold, organized, tidy people does apply in everyday life, this is an obstacle only in the beginning: You need more time to start a friendship with a German, but once you melt the ice, it is more than likely that this friendship will last a lifetime. Living and working in Germany is an experience I would recommend to anybody and particularly to my compatriots: We have much to learn from each other.

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