Celebrities in Indonesia, exhausted students in Singapore

‘It’s snowing and freezing cold outside. All trains are delayed,’ I read as I scroll through my ‘morning’ notifications – that is my friends reporting, as per usual, the current meteorological situation back home. Not skipping a beat, I am ready to evaluate the weather here, on the equator, with the command time UTC +8. ‘Unusually cold, only 26 °C, had to put on my hoodie.’ The reaction of correspondents had to be removed to maintain a higher literary style (author’s note).

But seriously now; after a month of winter holidays, in the mid-January, I immersed myself in the waters of the educational process at the National University of Singapore once again. As it turned out, returning to at least partially familiar environment is much more enjoyable – one has people to sit with for breakfast or dinner, and doesn’t have to wander around the dining hall looking for another lonely soul.

Even so, there is this ever-present feeling of isolation. Living ‘in the future’, seven to eight hours ahead and far away from everything and everyone close and familiar, is quite challenging. Last semester, despite all my efforts, I came across some deeply introspective thoughts and occasional absurd doubts about my own Singaporean existence and the existence of the world back home. The whole idea of returning to Europe seemed a bit fictious back in December.

On Monday, a few days after finishing my exams, I was still lying on the beach at 30 °C; on Tuesday morning I was freezing down at the Prague airport, wearing only light sneakers and summer sweatshirt, at minus two – with wet swimsuit in my suitcase as a memory of nearly five months spent in tropics. And on Sunday of the same week, I was already skiing in the Giant Mountains at minus ten. Strange, isn’t it… For the first time in my life, I was able to enjoy a winter vacation with a completely finished semester – no homework to do, nor any exam to prepare for. With a detailly planned every day schedule, I have been able to spend a valuable time with my family, meet up with my friends, go skiing to the Alps, and of course visit my second home – London – and be a part of the annual tradition of Natural Sciences programme with my classmates at UCL – ice skating at Natural History Museum.

One of my Christmas presents this year was also receiving the examination results from the first semester. It turned out much better than I expected. Still, the greatest benefit of my time spend here in Singapore is that I am more and more reassuring myself that doing particle physics at academic level is something I want to devote my life to. And, in a less nerdy way, I have been given a unique opportunity to travel around and learn about different cultures.

In this semester, I decided to take a bit of a risk and sign up for a module that is intended for higher year students – very theoretically oriented introduction to the Standard Model and Quantum Field Theory, describing all interactions and elementary particles forming the mass. One of the first sentences in the main recommended literature was a ‘warning’ that the content may seem inappropriate for undergraduate students. Ha, ha. But I do not complain, I keep discovering such gems as the fact that apart from the October Revolution, there was also a November one (which has November in its name and wait (!), actually happened in November) when finding the particle J/psi led to the formulation of the quark model as we know it today. The end of fairy tale.

Except spending time in the library and in the lab, because I was forced to take an experimental physics module this year (which is not ‘just’ programming simulations), I have been already able to travel this semester. During the Chinese New Year celebrations, we packed our backpacks and recommended reading, and took a ferry to Bintan, Indonesian island. In the end, quite surprisingly for us, the biggest attraction of our whole trip turned out to be us. We almost felt like celebrities – children and even adults kept coming to us, timidly asking if they could take a picture with us, and when we agreed, others joined them enthusiastically. We were rewarded by receiving an invitation from one of the photo groups to join them for an unforgettable barbecue on the beach.

It is rather obvious that the return to reality was quite challenging after this adventure. However, at the beginning of March – during spring holidays (recess week) – I have another one waiting for me. This time, I am going to Hong Kong, the city of extremes, and to Borneo, one of the last two places where one can still see wild orangutans living freely in nature. Simply put, all the hard work and the constant sleep deficit are definitely worth it.

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