Why are YOU in Frankfurt?

I get asked this question a lot. I mean a lot.  It’s always asked in an innocent, yet slightly confused, manner. Why are YOU in Frankfurt?

(If you didn’t know, Frankfurt, Germany has been my home base for the past year-ish.)

You see, the main reason I am in Frankfurt is because of a boy. Yeah, it’s so cliché, it hurts. On the surface, it’s the classic girl and boy meet–fall in love–do distance for 5+years–boy gets AWESOME job in Germany–girl moves over–story. Except, that’s not the whole story.

This is also a story about archaeobotany.

The iconic Römer of Frankfurt.
The iconic Römer of Frankfurt.

Over a year ago, I reached a point in my research where I needed consistent access to an archaeobotany laboratory. Charred seeds, burnt wood, aged microscopes – I needed all of it and my home university didn’t have it.

After some serious networking (aka: nicely asking, “Can I please come work in your lab? I’ll bring chocolate!”), I felt like I hit the jackpot when I found out I could work in the archaeobotany laboratory of the Natural History Museum of Paris. Charred seeds. Check. Burnt wood. Check. Aged microscopes. Well, not so aged. Even better Check. In Paris. Yay!

For two months I immersed myself in archaeobotanical pursuits. I took a xylology (a branch of dendrology that looks at the gross and minute structures of wood) course in French (If you’re wondering if I’m fluent in French, I’m not so that made things interesting). I met fellow archaeobotany students who guided me as I worked through my material. I also made significant progress on my dissertation. Throughout this whole process, one thing became quite clear – I needed to stay in Paris.

Spoiler alert: That was not going to work.

Why? Well aside from Parisian housing being ridiculously expensive (this is coming from a person who lived in New York City for years), the vibrant archaeobotany lab that I loved being a part of was fully booked up. The lab has a Google Document in which you can sign up to use each microscope. The reflecting light microscopes (ones that you use for wood) were booked for three months straight!

My dreams of daily slathering sea salted butter on everything were not going to happen. I needed a new plan.

Sorry to the makers of beurre au sel de mer. You will only get my money during visits now.
Sorry to the makers of beurre au sel de mer. You will only get my money during visits now.

As I was navigating my archaeobotanical pursuits, my then-German-boyfriend and now-German-husband graduated and got a job as a consultant in Germany. Initially, my thoughts were, “Wow, that’s great! Paris is closer to Germany, hence you, than New York.” After seeing the Google Document in Paris, my thoughts changed to, “Germany is closer to Paris, hence the archaeobotany lab, than New York and, hey, we get to live together now.” In my mind, when microscopes opened up, I could hop on a train and show up in Paris. Germany was turning into a travel-intensive, but doable, option.

As a consultant, my husband travels around Germany and, sometimes, the world from Monday through Thursday. He then works from his home office on Friday. Where is this home office? Actually, we got to pick.

The choices included many major German cities (and Vienna). Here was our thought process:

Munich? Been there, done that.

Berlin? YES!! But, no. I love Berlin, but it’s so far from Paris and the airport connection is crap. Just thinking about the airport makes me sad…

Frankfurt? Umm, maybe. I mean, there is a fast train that gets me to Gare de L’Est in 4ish hours. Also, the airport connects everywhere (well, almost)!

From the Frankfurt main station, it's only 4(ish) hours to downtown Paris.
The very convenient Frankfurt main station.

But what’s in Frankfurt? I’m still figuring that out, but Frankfurt possessed something that had been on my radar for awhile.

In addition to being a major financial hub and the birthplace of Goethe, Frankfurt is home to the Goethe University’s African Archaeology and Archaeobotany Working Group. This working group has an extensive wood slide collection. It’s a gold mine for wood anatomy nerds like myself.

Before leaving Paris, I spoke to my French supervisor about potentially reaching out to the working group. She thought this was a great idea (go me!) and they might even have space for me to work. Yay!

So at this point, the smart/practical/reasonable/sane thing to do would be to reach out and see what were the possibilities with the Goethe University and then decide to move to Frankfurt.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Now for the excuse: I was gearing up for a demanding field season (yeah, I know they all are) in Oman and I got caught up in the planning. Nonetheless, a decision on a home office location had to be made before I left for the field. So on the basis of a high-speed train, well-connected airport, and the slightest possibility of a laboratory collaboration – we moved to Frankfurt.

So fast forward a couple months. I am back from the field and I have a new home. Great! The next thing to do was reach to the Goethe University’s African Archaeobotany laboratory. Simple enough, right?


I was terrified. While I was in Oman, I had a lot of time to think and, as result, I had a lot of thoughts:

“Wow! This is a lot of material I’m floating. Where am I going to analyze all of this?”

“The reflecting microscope is still booked in Paris (sigh).”

“Travelling on a train for four-ish hours isn’t long, but it’s not short. That’s going to be a lot of time on a train (Reality hitting).”

“It would be nice to stay put for a little. I should’ve reached out to the Frankfurt lab before Oman. Maybe I should do it now? No, I’ll just wait until I get back.”

“I really hope they let me work in their lab. Crap, I’m sounding desperate, even in my head.”

So after getting back from Oman and psyching myself up for two weeks, I reached out.

The Goethe University aka home to the laboratory I wanted to work in.
The Goethe University aka home to the laboratory I wanted to work in.

I’ll be honest, the e-mail I first sent probably sounded a bit weird. I didn’t know how to succinctly explain all the events leading up to this e-mail. Here’s the not-so-accurate recap of that message: “I’m Smiti and I like archaeobotany. It seems like you do too. Actually, I know you do because I’ve read your entire website at least three times. I happen to be in Frankfurt for some time. Do you want to meet up?” Chill, yet slightly elusive, is not my strength. I wouldn’t last a day on Tinder…

After I sent it, I thought, “Well, that was awkward.” I’m sure people have gotten stranger e-mails, but I was still surprised (and ecstatic!) when I got a response. The response boiled down to a direct, “things are busy, but if you want something, let me know.” Yes! Yes, I did!

After divulging a little bit of my back story and my aspirations for desk space and potential microscope usage, a meeting was set. During the meeting, I explained my whole back story. Don’t worry, I was far less weird than in my e-mail. By the end of lunch, I was invited to work on my research at the Goethe University and that’s where you will find me on most weekdays.

Though I set off intending to work in Paris (and lunch on buttered baguettes), I’m now happily working in Frankfurt (and on the search for the best zimt-schnecke). If you ask me why I’m in Frankfurt, you see, the answer is mainly because of a boy, but also because of archaeobotany.

I made it in! A view from inside the Goethe University.
I made it in! A view from inside the Goethe University.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.



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