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Sara Vernocchi, Luxembourg

Who are you?

I am a 29-year old girl from Italy. I grew up in Ferrara, a little city in the North-East of the country. Since childhood I have been always fascinated by the human body and science in general. My academic career started in my hometown with a bachelor in pharmaceutical biotechnologies and continued with a master degree in molecular biotechnologies at the University of Bologna. During my studies I had the opportunity to work in Cambridge (UK) for few months, my very first medium long stay abroad. At that time I thought it would be an isolated experience and my main goal was to learn English for a brighter future in science.Where, when and why did you move abroad?

During the last year of my master degree I started looking for a Ph.D. position. I was ready to move everywhere in Europe for few years only if I could find a research project fitting my expectations. I was mainly interested in studying the relationship between the brain and the immune system and only a couple of laboratory in Europe proposed projects on this subject. None of them was in Italy. The department of immunology (CRP-Santé) accepted me as Ph.D. student and in January 2009 I moved to Luxembourg, with a 3-year contract in my pocket. Surely the intriguing Ph.D. project was the main drive to leave my country. On the other hand, the upsetting situation of scientific research in Italy and the lack of working opportunities in my country left little space for second thoughts.

What challenges did you face during the move?

Moving from Italy to Luxembourg was really easy. No paperwork, no borders! I filled my tiny car with everything I needed and headed North. On arrival it was very quick to change the residence. Provided you have a working contract, you can get the certificate within an hour at the allocated municipal office. By law you get two days off, so you have time to get the paperwork done and settle down. The working contract allows you to easily open a bank account in Luxembourg and you are officially an expat before you realize it! On the other hand, it was hard to leave behind friends, family and the Italian cuisine for such a long period of time. Three years appear like an eternity at the time of moving, and at the first struggle you wish to have your loved ones around.

How did you find somewhere to live?

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My employer did not provide any accommodation facilities and living in a hotel in Luxembourg for few days or weeks could be quite expensive. Many advertisements for flats or rooms to rent are available at www.athome.lu. Finding a place where to live a thousand km away might bring unwanted surprises, but my personal experience was really positive. It took only a couple of weeks to find a single room in a lovely and spacious house in the outskirts of Luxembourg-Ville. I was in direct phone contact with the other expats living in that house (it is not always the case, many agencies post ads on this website). They sent me additional pictures of the room and I paid half of the rent to confirm my interest. I had a new home and new flatmates before leaving my country.

Are there many other expats in your area?

Luxembourg is a very small and rich country, so it attracts many foreigners looking for a well-paid job. Many young economists from all over the world come to gain experience in finance working for one of the countless banks in the country. The European Commission also attracts many lawyers, translators, students in political sciences and economy from all over Europe. Workers coming from the neighbouring countries (Belgium, France and Germany) generally prefer to live just on the other side of the border, where life is less expensive. The commuters are so numerous that the population of the capital doubles during the day. At last, the country also experienced massive immigration in the last decades and many Luxembourgish citizens are immigrants of first or second generation, mainly coming from Italy and Portugal. Luxembourg is indeed a very international environment.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

Generally speaking Luxembourgish people are not very warm and open. Many locals despise the usage of French, which is the easiest language to learn among the official ones for an Italian (or for a Portuguese) and either forgot how to speak French or simply refuse to do so. English can easily fill the gap, but they obviously prefer to speak their own language and if you are among locals you are rapidly cut out from the conversation. Personally, I spent most of my time among expats: the languages you speak define pretty much your social encounters. However, the few Luxembourgish colleagues I had were always kind and helpful and one of them became a dear friend of mine.

What do you like about life where you are?

The efficiency of the administration in Luxembourg is indeed what I like the most. I was amazed when the State transferred directly on my bank account the surplus of taxes I paid after only two weeks I sent my income declaration. In addition, working in Luxembourg ensures you a lot of privileges: high salary, maternity leave, medical insurance, 4-5 weeks of holiday per year… a very solid social security. Beside thefts in rich houses, criminality is virtually not existent. It is very safe to go around at any time of the day or night and I could leave my car open in front of my place without concerns. Streets are spotless and the public transport is cheap and efficient. The public research is very well funded and I had the opportunity to work with new equipment rarely found in the public universities in Italy.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

A common complaint about Luxembourg is that there is not much to do. Many expats fly away every second or third weekend just to escape boredom; young Luxembourgish people leave the country to study in foreign universities; and many workers go back to their country every day after work. During the weekdays restaurants are full at lunchtime and around 5pm pubs are animated for few hours by young businessmen in their suits for an after-work drink. The same places are closed or nearly empty during weekends and holidays. A kind of sadness and melancholy pervades people living in Luxembourg and this feeling was shared among many expats I met. Winters are endless, cold and grey if you come from the South of Europe and the lack of sunlight might affect the mood of the population. Personally, I had an example how a life in luxury doesn’t necessarily mean a happy one.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

First, learn a new language! It might appear challenging, but it is very rewarding personally and professionally. Avoid strictly the people able to speak your mother tongue and the process speed up exponentially. In a few weeks you learn more than in years at school in your homeland. Second, embrace the experience fully! Living in a new country is a rich and meaningful experience; you have profound insights on yourself, your culture and your traditions. Try to see beyond the differences and spot what makes us humans, you will soon feel like a citizen of the world. Finally, keep in touch with friends and family! The new life will adsorb your time and attention… there is so much to see and to learn. Do not forget to share it with your loved ones.

What are your plans for the future?

In January 2013 I obtained my Ph.D. in Psychobiology and I moved away from Luxembourg. Working there for few years allowed me to put some money on the side, which I am “investing” in a long-term travel around South-East Asia. My main interest is to visit resilient communities and eco-villages to learn a new way of living in harmony with nature and with fellow humans. I plan to come back to Europe and buy some land in the South, where winters are mild and start my own permaculture farm/eco-village. My experience as an expat gave me the confidence to explore this world further, while my personal experience of Luxembourg made me longing for a life with as little money as possible!

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