The full-body NO

After a short ride in a huge pickup truck we arrived at a small and seemingly deserted harbour. It was freezing cold, and rain drizzled down upon us, which did not make us feel any warmer. It was a Thursday afternoon in early June 2019. Although it was almost summer, it was hard to recognize it in the Swedish landscape. I had landed on Stockholm Airport a little over an hour earlier. Here I was, about to set sail with people I had never met before.

After preparing the sails, the small sail yacht left the harbour, carrying all seven of us to a small isolated peninsula in the Ekoln lake. There was hardly any wind. It was still pissing down on us and everything about this seemed like a crazy idea. The distance to the island was nothing. Even the slightest breeze would’ve gotten us there in ten minutes. Yet, the lack of wind ensured that we could enjoy the short trip to its fullest, all 90 minutes of it. We were absolutely soaked upon arrival on the peninsula.

Two of us disappeared out of sight, preparing a surprise. The rest went on to light the barbecue and prepare the rest of our potluck dinner. As if it is the most normal thing in the world to have a barbecue in the freezing rain. Luckily there was a shelter where we could all sit dry. As we finished preparing the table, the two men that had disappeared returned, smiling from ear to ear. “The sauna is heating up,” they said. Now that was a pleasant turn of events.

So there we sat, bellies filled with barbecued goodies, sweating our balls of and sharing one can of Indian Pale Ale in a small but very comfortable and hot sauna in the middle of nowhere, Sweden. The oldest two, a professor, the other an associate professor both Swedes, the third a PhD candidate, Spanish, if my memory serves me well. The fourth was me, a Dutchman somewhere in between jobs. The ladies had already taken their sauna rounds before us, and were waiting at the shelter. Now it was our turn to steam.

Three days earlier, Monday, just after lunchtime. I’m putting the final touches to my presentation in preparation for a Skype interview the next day with Riccardo Bommarco, an ecologist at the Swedish Agricultural University (SLU) in Uppsala. I probably would need another half hour to finish it, and then a few practice rounds. An Outlook push notification pops up, reminding me that I have a Skype interview in 15 minutes. I had imprinted the interview in my head for Tuesday, but it was scheduled on Monday. Time pressure can make you incredibly efficient. I finished my outline, booked a conference room at my institute, ran up and down a few times. Installed my laptop, double-checked my camera. Started Skype. Two minutes left.

“Hi Robin, are you ready?”

Of course I’m not ready! I’m one of the most punctual people I know. Yet, I mess up this one moment where punctuality is key. I would have been ready in 24 hours. Fuck! This is gonna stink!

“Sure, I’m ready when you are.”

Three people sitting at the other side of the screen. He would be joined by two colleagues from other departments. The next ten minutes are a blur. No clue. I somehow stuttered and mumbled my way through. My God, what an embarrassment. When I’m in my final slide, he cuts me short.

“That was very interesting Robin, shall we continue to the interview? We have a tight schedule, and the ten minutes are up.”

I blew it. Punctual guy is not so punctual if he did not practice and optimize his talk. Some questions follow. Softball questions, it seems. Maybe they wanted to make me feel better after delivering such a horrendous presentation. We finish the interview and I don;t know what to think. They seemed friendly. I think I saw smiles on their faces. Or was that wishful thinking on my part?

The next day, I arrive at work, to find one early e-mail in my inbox. Its sender offers me a two year post-doc position in Uppsala. They had had a most pleasant interview and were very impressed by my cv.

“What?!” I think to myself… How did I pull this one off?

It seemed that I would soon be moving to Sweden. Which is how I found myself sipping beers in company of three other butt-naked ecologists in a Swedish sauna. I had asked for a visit on short notice, as I would not accept a position abroad without seeing the area and institute first. Given that my wife was eight and a bit months pregnant, I was also in a bit of a rush.

“Why don’t you come by on Thursday? We will have a sailing trip for our lab outing. It would be great if you could make it,” he said.

And so I booked a return flight to spend 24 hours in Uppsala, for a sailing and sauna experience, a seminar talk the next morning, followed by a visit to an experimental site and a lunch with the research team. I would return to the airport late afternoon, to be back home by Friday evening. All went great. These were lovely people. I had a great – albeit short time in Uppsala.

I to this day do not fully understand the type of anxiety that overwhelmed me that afternoon, while waiting for my flight at Stockholm Airport, which was delayed by several hours. Anxiety is normal to me. It is part of who I am. But this one was different. I could in no way shake it off. I remember buying a copy of Jo Nesbo’s MacBeth, to keep my mind busy. I couldn’t read a word. It was really like my body was giving me a ‘full-body NO’. I have had a few of those before. I decided that evening that I would give myself a weekend to think it over. But the choice had been made. I wrote the email early Monday morning. I had to cancel the position. My body vetoed.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of one but almost two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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