More Catch Up: May

May marked the start of our 7th month in France. By this time, we were both a little homesick (Sara a bit more than me.) Luckily, May was going to be full of travel for us, starting with a much needed trip back home to see our families and friends. I remember we were counting the days leading up to our departure. 

We started our trip back to the US with a train on May 1st to CDG airport in Paris. We planned to FINALLY spend a day in Paris, and stay in a hotel overnight before our direct flight to RDU. However, we ended up just spending the day in our fancy hotel, since 1) I was rushing to finish a journal article submission, which I of course didn’t complete before we left, and 2) May 1st was a national French holiday, La Fête du Travail. In the wake of the Gilets Jaunes protesting, there were violent protests throughout Paris that day. So, it was actually a good thing we didn’t attempt any sightseeing. Instead we decided to stay in, work, watch tv, and drink a bit too much before our morning flight… oops.

First, I’ll talk a little about what we did during our visit, and then I’ll get into what it actually felt like being back. 

It was a bit of a challenge to organize our short 2 weeks in the US. There was a whirlwind of activities I could type about for tens of pages, so I’ll try to be brief. We started off with a few days in Raleigh, which were fantastic. We scored a really good deal at the Marriott Hotel in downtown, which made it super easy to get together with all our friends. The first place we went to was one of our favorite drink locations in Raleigh: the Whiskey Kitchen. We were exhausted from the jet-lag, but couldn’t pass up the first chance to see some of our friends!

We crashed hard that night, and the next day felt pretty good about life. Asa Price agreed to host a big party for us that Friday! It was almost like the going away party he threw for us, but this was more of a “We’re Surviving” kind of party. Tons of friends came to hang out while we made drinks, did some VR, and played games. The next day, we did some shopping and went to play a session of GURPS in person with Wally and Andrew (it’s like D&D but with more flexible rules and world-building). Sunday was Cinco de Mayo, so we had another excuse to go and meet up with friends. 

On Monday, we headed to Washington for some long-awaited family time. We stayed at Sara’s parents place for the week, and spent most of the time visiting, petting cats, shopping, and eating nice family dinners together. We even got to go see Avengers: Endgame for a second time! This time with no French subtitles. We stayed on the east coast until it was time to return to Raleigh for our main travel excuse: NC State Graduation Weekend! Sara and I headed back on Friday to see a few more people before the event. We walked around campus to enjoy some nostalgia, then met up with Lisa Marshall and Asa Price to drink GunDog wine at a shop on Hillsborough Street. Afterwards we got to hang out with Leigh and Dan MacDonald on their birthday! Nothing says true friendship like losing games of Legendary together. 

Graduation day at NC State was well-worth the travel back. I technically graduated in the fall of ‘18, but by the time the semester ended we had already moved to France. Luckily, NC State was kind enough to let me delay my graduation ceremony attendance. It felt great to be able to come back and simply enjoy the “celebration” part of finishing the PhD, with all the pomp and circumstance and red and white. There was the big, university-wide graduation ceremony in the morning, in PNC Arena, followed by a smaller departmental graduation ceremony at the Alumni Center. Sara’s family came to the morning ceremony, and then my mom and Jeff came up to join them for the departmental graduation. It was really nice to have everyone there with me, just as they’d always been throughout my college experience. Sara was of course my top-tier professional photographer!

Even after a long day of two ceremonies with family, the day stretched on as long as possible. We got to introduce our families to Pizzeria Faulisi for dinner. Then we branched off from family to see Detective Pikachu in theaters with more friends! After that, we drove to stay and hang out with Seth and Shauna Rickerts. They’re awesome people, we wish we had been able to spend more time with them when we’d lived in Raleigh. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that. 

The next day was Mother’s Day! So, we woke up, got caffeine and Bojangles biscuits for breakfast, and started another drive back to Washington. We split off so that each of us could have some more personal time at home. I went shopping with Mom to put together a huge charcuterie dinner, complete with lessons on how to make two classic cocktails at her mini-bar. Sara went to Walmart with her family, wandered around and then cooked dinner for her mom with her brother. A perfect day for the Cowells, really. All in all a successful Mother’s Day.

Before we knew it, we only had one day left in America, and then it was back to France. The departure was tough, but this time there were no tears in the airport. We knew what was awaiting us on the other side of the world, and had reassurance of love and support whenever we need to return.  

One of the appeals of maintaining a blog is being able to record and express your feelings and reactions. So, let’s get into what our first trip back home actually felt like. In a word: comforting. Being able to fly back, even just for a short two weeks, did a lot to destroy this feeling of separation that had been growing for us.

For example, the first night we were back we had planned very little, so we messaged our friend group to see if anyone wanted to join us for dinner. It really meant a lot to us that so many people were willing to come and meet us with very little heads up. 

We felt missed. After ~15 minutes of catching up, it was like we were right back in 2018. It felt amazing and reassuring. Spending Mother’s Day with family, like we would have any other year, was also grounding. All of the visits helped us realize that we’re not as separated and alone as it sometimes feels. It seems obvious typed out, but, it does take some effort to internalize after being gone a while. Everyone is only a plane flight away if we ever need.

Anyways, back to some fun subjects. For stuff we missed, there was a lot! Mainly food I think. As fantastic as French food has been, there’s a lot of good-old southern American cuisine we’d been craving. (Note from Sara: I REALLY missed big breakfasts. Eggs, biscuits, hash browns and of course GRITS.) We even made a list! We checked off most of it.

Probably the funniest realization we had mid-trip was how much we kept talking to wait staff. We’d talk the ear off of our waitress at the Marriott, blurting out our life story every morning. Months of barely being able to converse with restaurant staff, aside from “Je voudrais une baguette, s’il vous plait” led to some withdrawal. 

One unexpected thing we missed: the first night walking through downtown Raleigh, we uttered the words, “Wow, I never realized how much I missed sidewalks.” Walking through small, crowded city streets alongside bikes and cars is quaint for a bit, but after a while you just want your own space back! 

Another activity we enjoyed on our trip was playing games in person. We have plenty of friends in Aix to play board games with, but haven’t found any serious video game friends here yet… Man, I missed playing Super Smash Bros. in person with Wally & Asa. 

Finally, at the end of the trip we were left with some regret. Regret for not spending more time with certain people while we had lived in NC for so long. There were friends and family members both that we saw briefly and had a great time with, which left us with the thought of, “Man, why didn’t we spend more time together?” I mean, I know that Sara and I have A LOT of people that love us, and love spending time with us. I guess it’s unavoidable to feel that way when time is finite and friends & family are abundant. Limited time really is the challenge. Since NCSSM, I’ve learned that sometimes you have to make time for fun. That includes finding time to spend with loved ones. It’ll be tough to do for any future trips home, but hopefully we’ll be ready to accept the challenge.

Ok. After the long US trip, we were back in France for a short 4 days before our next adventure. After doing some laundry and printing out a giant poster, we were off to Eindhoven, the Netherlands, for the 17th International Conference on Plasma Facing Materials and Components for Fusion Applications. It was a highly specialized conference. I was excited to present my first research results as a Monaco Post-Doc for ITER! Luckily, the short plane ticket was fairly cheap, so Sara and I went together.

There were a few full days of lectures, where I got to learn about the latest and greatest in the world of plasma facing materials. This was the first conference as “Dr. Coburn”, which took some getting used to. We met up with colleagues and friends from all over US, and went to many cool dinners and tours put on by the conference. Sara and I both got to see the Magnum PSI facility at DiFFER, one of the largest linear plasma device in the word. We also went to the Efteling theme park outside of Eindhoven! That was a blast, especially going around with other PhD students and postdocs from the conference. It was fairy-tale themed, but more on the creepy, Grimm side of tales. And not very PC… Sara in particular liked the fat-people trash cans that literally called to you to throw away your trash in their mouths. The kids seemed to like them. Finally, we ended the conference with a final dinner in a pop-up restaurant amid a white asparagus field! Apparently white asparagus is a big deal in the Netherlands, and honestly after eating the gourmet dinner of assorted asparagus dishes, we can see why.

Attending the conference also helped me realize how impressive the ITER fellowship actually is in my field. I don’t mention this in order to brag or anything. I know that working for ITER is a big deal. It’s just that some fellowships or postdoc positions are viewed as more prestigious than others, and it can be difficult to know if you’ve made a worthwhile choice when every fellowship is worded like it’s the best thing since sliced bread. It was nice to get confirmation from well-known scientists & engineers outside of the workplace that my skills, experience, and research goals have value. It was also fun to feel like a big shot walking around with Sara.

That’s all for now! Next update will probably get us caught up with our backlog! Trips to lavender fields, kayaking, Rome and Paris!