The Harvesters by the Netherlandish painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is part of a series of six works commissioned by the Antwerp merchant, Niclaes Jongelinck, for his suburban home. The paintings show the times of the year, and this rural scene of the Low Countries, painted in 1565, is identified as representing July–August. It is on view in Gallery 642 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue in New York, and it was here that Sarah Kendrew had a strong instinctive reaction to the landscape and the feel of the painting when she saw it recently, after spending four years in the U.S. “It felt so familiar!” she says. “It was a very jarring reminder that, while I’m very happy with my life here in the U.S., my home is elsewhere.”
Sarah grew up in the Pajottenland, a region in Belgium that lies between Brussels and the rivers Dender and Zenne, but she hasn’t lived in Belgium full-time since starting her studies at University College London in 1997. Although her first language is Dutch (Flemish), Sarah’s father is British, so she often spoke English at home with the family, and she has British as well as Belgian citizenship. She had a strong connection to the United Kingdom from a young age, and so when she decided that she wanted to study astronomy, which wasn’t available in Belgium at the time, she moved to Britain to attend university.
After completing her PhD in Physics at University College London, Sarah spent several years in academic jobs around Europe but, tired of moving and missing her life and her friends in London, she jumped at the chance when a postdoctoral position in her area of research opened up at Oxford University. She made the decision to settle there, and she bought a small apartment. But, as any immigrant will tell you, it’s just when you begin to feel that you’ve settled down that life takes another turn. As Sarah says, “The leadership of one of the projects on which I was working had some different ideas for my future.”
Some years before, when she’d been at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Sarah had started working on one of the instruments for the James Webb Space Telescope, which was to succeed the iconic Hubble Space Telescope in the mid-2010s. The launch date kept slipping but, around 2014-2015, Sarah learned that the European Space Agency—which had been overseeing the European involvement in the mission and was NASA’s official partner in the James Webb Space Telescope—was looking to hire some of the instrument experts in Europe to take their interest in JWST to the United States. They encouraged Sarah to apply, and she was offered a permanent position in Baltimore at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “As I was very happy with my decision to settle in Oxford and had just bought my first home there,” Sarah says, “it was a tough decision to pack up and move again.” But the position itself was very exciting. “Baltimore is a world-famous center for astrophysics and space science, so I knew I’d be working with some very smart people.” She decided to take the plunge, and she moved to Baltimore in March of 2016. In her current position, Sarah is an Instrument Scientist with the European Space Agency, working on the James Webb Space Telescope, which is now scheduled for a 2021 launch.
As the European Space Agency is an intergovernmental organization—like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund—Sarah holds a G4 visa in the U.S. “With my visa, I get to skip the immigration lines,” she says. She doesn’t have to answer any questions or provide fingerprints when she comes into the U.S. because her visa falls into the diplomatic category. “But no,” she adds, “I do not have diplomatic immunity, and I do have to pay parking tickets!” Having had her fair share of diverse immigrant experiences over the years, Sarah mostly feels exceptionally privileged here in the U.S. Since her employer is based in Europe, she is able to enjoy the many benefits, such as generous leave allowance (including parental leave), excellent health insurance, and great employee protections. “My experience here is very much not typical of most immigrants’ lives, and I’m treated with far more respect than most—I’m ‘not that kind of immigrant,’ a thing that my peers and I have all heard at some point!”
Nevertheless, an immigrant has to reinvent herself in any new place to an extent. Sarah says that she’s come to embrace the bewildered feeling of arriving somewhere new and seeing it with fresh eyes. “If I have a bad day at work, where will I go for a glass of wine? Which cafe will I go to read a book with coffee on a Sunday morning? What will I do to relax? When I’m sick and feeling vulnerable, having to work out who to call, where to go, how to get an appointment, and what on earth a co-pay is, is very confusing, even having excellent insurance.” After moving to the U.S. in 2016, it took a while for Sarah to adjust her expectations of being able to envision a longer-term future. She had felt very settled back in the UK, and that is where she feels most at home these days. But when her partner, Steve, was able to join her in Baltimore from South Africa in 2018, and they bought a home in the city, that sense of future began to feel more real again. “We have a lovely home and, since a year, also an adorable dog,” she says.
Moving to America in 2016, the year of the presidential election, had the effect of making Sarah more aware of where she is from. “I grew up in a pretty socialist country, which I hadn’t really given much thought until hearing ‘socialism’ routinely presented here as the antithesis of ‘freedom’.” And she has found Baltimore to be a fascinating city to learn about America. “I think its character and assets, as well as its problems, can be traced back through American history—in particular the legacies of slavery and racist policies of the 20th century are very much still a reality here in Baltimore.”
Something to which Sarah has responded positively in America is what she refers to as a “strong culture of individualism,” at least in Baltimore and in other larger cities. In Europe, she finds that there is more pressure in society to conform—dress, look, behave a certain way—as if society’s overall level of comfort is more important than the individual’s right to self-expression. “I’ve always been very independent and not particularly interested in living my life according to other people’s expectations, so this culture of really seeing people as individuals and being more accepting of how people choose to live their lives, is something that suits me very well.” The other side of this is that in some European countries there is more acceptance that “the common good” might be more important than the individual. “Health insurance is a good example of that,” she says. “In Belgium or the Netherlands or Britain, not many people question the idea that paying into a national healthcare system for the benefit of all is a good thing. Here in the U.S., healthcare is more a matter of individual responsibility.”
Learning about a new country gives Sarah a new perspective on where she was before, she says, on the differences and similarities, and she describes living in different countries as “incredibly enriching,” even if it isn’t always “fun.” And, because she has lived in so many different places, it’s difficult for her to say where home is, just as seeing that Pieter Bruegel painting in New York made her instinctively aware that her home is elsewhere. “Belgium is where I grew up, I will always love it and feel at home there. I appreciate its history and natural beauty so much more now than when I was growing up.” But if she were to choose where to move to, it would likely be London or Oxford. “It’s where I grew the most as a person,” she says, “experienced some of the best times in my life and survived the worst, and where I have many of my closest friends. And,” she adds, “in an ideal world, we’d escape the British winters for Cape Town, where my partner still owns a home!”