Three decades in America, a personal journey
I’m going to open this essay with an apology for its self-indulgence. Today marks the 30th anniversary of my move to the United States from Italy, and as arbitrary as such dates surely are, it seems to me that the occasion calls from some self-reflection. Which I hope might be useful to others as well.
It was 17 August 1990, and I was 26 years old when I landed at JFK airport in New York, to be picked up by my future PhD advisor, Carl Schlichting — a man who has had a profound impact on my life, and who I am still lucky enough to call my friend. Carl drove me to the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where I spent the following four years working on a dissertation under his guidance. In terms of career choices, my decision to leave Italy and work with Carl was one of the best of my life (eventually, we managed to co-author a whopping 13 technical papers and a book).
Yet, that decision turned out to be costly from a personal perspective. I had to leave my family, which means that I saw my mother, father, brothers, and sister only at best once or twice a year ever since. And I couldn’t be present when my father died, though I managed to be there for my mother. Moreover, I was married at the time, and my wife remained behind for a while, which led her to be increasingly unhappy about the move, and eventually to leave me.
But I was (relatively) young, and my dream of pursuing an academic career as a scientist was all-consuming. It was only significantly later in life (about age 42, to be precise) that my priorities switched, with my career — still important — taking a back seat first to quality of life (I moved to New York City, which I consider one of the most fascinating places on the planet), and eventually to my relationships (when I finally married the right person, in my 50s…).
Initially, I made a point of noticing the most glaring differences between American and European culture. Americans truly are a highly optimistic population, something that has been shown also by quantitative research in social psychology. When asked, they aren’t necessarily too happy about their current predicament, but they are very hopeful that things will soon change for the better. Europeans are the other way around: not optimistic about future improvement, but pretty happy…