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Czech Republic

Carles Noguera: I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my career here

Carles Noguera:

I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my career here


How did you end up moving to Prague?

After my post-doc in Italy, I came back to Barcelona in the hopes that that was enough international experience, and I got a three year contract in Barcelona. But then the economic crisis was getting worse, and it was very precarious in Spain. So I started looking around, and I saw the opportunity to come here.

How did you find this opportunity, were you looking on EURAXESS Jobs?

No, at that stage I didn’t know anything about EURAXESS. The thing is, I had a long term relationship with Prague, because one of the top researchers in my area, Petr Hajek, was working in Prague – he retired quite recently – and my PhD advisor collaborated with him, so he encouraged me to come to visit him and his group, and from that time I came every year for a short visit. So I knew several people in Prague, and when a vacant position came up at one of the Academy institutes, they thought of me and let me know.

Are you working on a particular project here, or can you work on what you like?

That’s actually a good thing about my arrangement here: I’m free to do pretty much whatever I want in my department, so I am continuing in the same line of research. The other thing I’m very happy about is that shortly after I arrived I was able to obtain a GAČR grant, which is something that couldn’t possibly happen in Barcelona currently - there are very few projects funded, so only the very big guys get them. For me, as a relatively young researcher, this is quite a good thing. So now I have my own project, and am a member of another one too.

Was it difficult to write the project?

Paperwork is always complicated. There are two other researchers involved in the project and one of them in particular helped me a lot with understanding the paperwork, and of course we did the scientific part together. I’m trying to learn Czech, but at that time I knew absolutely nothing!

What is the project about?

In mathematical logic, we try to explain how it’s possible that we can communicate knowledge in a logical, consistent, adequate, correct way, so that when we claim something it’s supported by what we have claimed before. This was explained in several ways many many years ago by the ancient philosophers – but usually the historical accounts were restricted to the very simplistic paradigm in which everything is either true or false. Which is in fact very restrictive, because in everyday communication things are not so straight and easy, and we manage to speak about many things that aren’t clear, aren’t black or white. And still we persuade people of things, and communicate vague notions. So the challenge is to explain how this works, not only for the sake of knowledge itself, but in the hope that we can then implement some automatic procedures that can reason as successfully as we do, in some particular areas, and in this way we can help the whole artificial intelligence enterprise – in a nutshell!

Fascinating! So you already knew some of your colleagues, and Prague. When you got here, was it easy to settle in - did you find it easy to find somewhere to live?

This was actually easy, because the Academy has a remnant from communist times (one of the good things!) which is a set of residences for researchers and visitors. I was in one of these, Mazanka Hotel, where many of my foreign colleagues have stayed at least for some time. I came with my wife, so we managed to get a small apartment in the residence, and a bit of autonomy. After some time there, we found a normal flat in the city, and moved. Now we are in the centre, in Prague 2, and that’s a totally different experience – we can walk anywhere, enjoy the cultural life. So it worked out very well.

Great! And what about the other paperwork?

Yes, sometimes that can be difficult, and in fact this is where I was told about EURAXESS, because although I had several friends and colleagues in the Academy who were willing to help me, there were some things they didn’t know how to solve. One of them knew about EURAXESS and said to me that we should try contacting them, and that was extremely helpful: they helped me with the foreign police registration – signing up as a resident and getting the resident’s card – and also with my wife’s insurance.

How did your wife feel about the move?

Well, she is originally from Bolivia, so she had already moved a long way! She had been living in Barcelona for seven years when we met, and then another two years before we got married, and we had been planning this move to Prague for a few months. We knew that she would give up her job – it was not such a great job, so it wasn’t a big loss – and that she would move here with me, where I would have better career prospects. We had hoped it wouldn’t be so difficult to find a job for her here, though, but so far we still haven’t managed.

What is her profession?

She has a degree from Bolivia in something like economy and administration and had worked in that area, but she also used to be a swimmer, so for some years she was an instructor at a public swimming pool - we had thought that maybe in Prague this would be possible, but the language barrier is the main issue. It’s been quite a challenge for her, first to consolidate her English and now to learn Czech.

So have you been going to Czech classes?

Yes, we go to the EURAXESS classes – that’s another great thing about EURAXESS, that it offers free Czech lessons. Only once a week, but better than nothing. We love the teacher, it’s fun, and it is useful. But it’s not enough, for sure, so we have been using a private teacher who is teaching us the grammar. The EURAXESS classes are more conversation than grammar, but we do need to understand the structure, so we do that with the private teacher, and sometimes I try to practice speaking with people, but it’s difficult.

Have both of you been able to make some friends and contacts here, both through work and also perhaps outside of work?

Outside of work we are making a lot of friends, because I managed to meet other expats from Catalonia, quite coincidentally, and because there was no structure for those people here – other national communities have groups, and there was one for Spain (that is a delicate issue!) but there was nothing for Catalonians – we created it. So that’s one of my pastimes!

So what have you been doing with them?

We have this so-called Casal, a Catalan House – it’s a virtual house, we don’t physically have our own building (at least, not yet) – so people can meet together on a regular basis. We meet once a week in the same pub, the same day, the same time, so everyone knows, and if someone new comes, they can find it on the internet and go there to meet some fellow nationals. And then we organise cultural activities, in fact we insist a lot on cultural exchange, in Czech we call it the Česko-katalánský spolek, the Czech Catalan society, and we like to include both elements, because we are in a different country – our aim is not to create a ghetto, and close ourselves off with our own people – but on the contrary we would like to welcome any Czech people who might be interested in Catalan culture, and there are some!

That sounds like great fun! And I’m sure they are helping you with learning Czech, too.

What do you think have been the best things about living and working in the Czech Republic so far, for you?

The best thing is that I’ve been given opportunities that would have been next to impossible at home, like having my own project. I also had more possibilities to combine research and teaching. In Barcelona for some ridiculous bureaucratic reason, this was not allowed – I was based at the Spanish equivalent of the Academy of Sciences, but my contract explicitly forbade me to teach. I don’t agree with that, because teaching helps you to stay in touch with non-specialists. Otherwise you only speak to those who already know what you do, and that’s very bad. At least if you are in contact with students, you constantly have to rethink the things that you usually take for granted when doing your research. It’s also essential that the students get to know you, because that’s the only way you will get a PhD student later on.

I quite like the way science is organised here, although of course it’s not perfect. I like the fact that the institutes are quite autonomous and they have their own appointment policies. In the Spanish and Italian system everything is rigid and depends on the ministry or the central government. The centre of decisions is far away, you don’t have control over anything. Here it is much more flexible. Of course that also makes it more competitive too, but so far it is going ok.

And what do you think the most difficult thing was here?

Well, we mentioned insurance before and there was another thing I didn’t like – the insurance company didn’t assign us to any doctor, they expect (and this will seem normal to Czech people, because they are used to it) that you will find your own. Well, maybe if you are Czech it’s easy, but we had the language barrier, so we wanted a doctor who we could speak with. So we went to the VZP client centre to ask, and they didn’t even have a list of English-speaking doctors. It’s probably just a sign that the Czechs are still not used to people coming from other countries, but maybe they should start getting used to it, because it’s already happening – especially in Prague.

The other thing is that I changed my address. I assumed I should update my residence card in the city district where I live, so I went to the Prague 2 office, and the lady understood what I wanted and told me if I was Czech, they would do it there, but as I’m not I have to go to the foreign police. So I went there, but the funny thing is that even though they are the “foreign” police, they don’t speak English, and unlike the lady at Prague 2, they didn’t understand me!

How do you find the Czech culture? The food, the way the people are, their sense of humour?

This is one of my favourite topics actually, especially in this Catalan Czech society. There are surprising similarities between us and the Czechs, which is interesting. For instance, in both cultures people love to go out and collect mushrooms in the forest! That’s a Catalan craze, and I didn’t know that any other country does it, but the Czechs are crazy about this too! Also the tradition of walking a lot in the forest is very similar. In the Czech Republic it is so well organised, I love it, the national parks make up a large percentage of the country and the ways are always so well marked. I like how the Czechs are very orderly, at least in Bohemia (they tell me I shouldn’t extrapolate this to Moravia!).

Some things I don’t appreciate so much, of course. I feel they are rude to unknown people, in general – you can expect that they will not smile at you in the pub, will not be patient if you drink slowly, and so on. But I try to take this on the bright side, so I don’t assume they will be nice to me, and the day they are it’s a good surprise! It happens quite often in fact. I also realise that means that if someone smiles at you in the street, they really mean it!

Food is one of the problems, too. I find the Czech gastronomic tradition very tasty, but it’s not something I can have every day. In the first months here I gained weight like never before, and for the first time in my life the doctor found some cholesterol. So I really had to change my habits – I had been eating every lunchtime in a pub with my colleagues, and often going to the pub in the evening, or cooking pork meat at home, which the Czechs love so much and it’s so cheap in the supermarket. So we were eating like Czechs but that had to stop. I also missed the Mediterranean cuisine. I love so many things from other countries and cultures, I love travelling, but when it comes to food, Mediterranean really is the best. So now I try to choose the healthiest option at the pub, and keep the traditional Czech food for special occasions!

Can you find ingredients for Mediterranean dishes easily?

We can, but it’s not easy. Some things are not available – maybe there are some things the Czechs don’t like. And of course fish and seafood is not so readily available here, and when it is, it’s lower quality, and expensive. That’s understandable, we can’t expect to have everything everywhere all the time. But one of the things that helps is that one of our Catalan colleagues has a shop with produce from Catalonia, so we can buy things there.

And do you go to the farmers market?

Yes, my wife goes to the market at Náplavka and I’ve been there with her. The fruits and vegetables you find there are hugely much better than what you find in the supermarket, which is really poor quality. It gets more difficult in winter, when there is less at the market.

True – how do you cope with the winter here?

I cope with it quite well. My wife finds it more difficult in that respect, especially as she comes from sunny Bolivia. The first winter here was very cold and there was hardly any sunshine - but I don’t complain too much, because it’s well organised, and the heating is so good everywhere, at work and at home.

Catalonia is famous for its films – do you go to the cinema here?

Yes, I do quite regularly, and in fact we’ve already been to two or three Catalan movies in Prague, with Czech subtitles. Whenever there is something like that we try to organise a group to go along. Once we wrote to one cinema, because they were showing a Catalan movie, and they were advertising that it was in Spanish, which was actually false. They immediately corrected it and thanked us for pointing out the mistake. In fact Prague is a paradise for a cinema lover: there are many cinemas, and it’s very cheap, and there is a wide selection of movies, usually in the original version (I totally hate dubbing in any language). I also like the musical offer here, there are so many genres, you can find almost anything.

Do you miss Barcelona?

Yes I have to admit I do. I enjoy Prague a lot and I love it here, but it’s so different. I still think that Barcelona is the best city to live in. It’s a pity that some things don’t work there the way they should, but I still love it. Of course, I always enjoy it when I visit a new country, and see the differences, there are always things you can learn from others. But if I could go back to Barcelona, I would. Why, I don’t know exactly… I guess it’s a combination of the sea, the weather, it’s so lively, there are so many festivals, the cultural life is very intense but in a different way from Prague – you have the classical music scene, for example, but we have many other things instead.

Do you get back to visit Barcelona sometimes?

Yes, not as often as I would like, but I go at least two or three times a year – for Christmas and a couple of other occasions during the year. Getting to Bolivia is more difficult, it’s expensive and it takes a lot of time and planning. My wife is feeling a bit homesick, because we haven’t been for nearly two years.

Do you think that you’re likely to move again in the future, and if so do you have any idea where?

Well… I would move if it came to that, if things get worse. So far, if it stays like this, I’m happy to stay and I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my career here. If the situation gets worse, which could always happen, because science is a delicate, fragile thing, then I will open my perspectives again. And of course, when there is a good opportunity to go back home I will consider it. But I don’t see that coming in the near future.

What advice would you give if another Catalan person was thinking of coming to the Czech Republic?

I would encourage them to learn Czech. I have some friends who have been here for years and don’t speak a word of Czech. And yes, you can survive. But it’s surviving – and I don’t want to survive, I want to live in Prague! There are so many aspects of Czech life and of the Prague experience which you just miss if you don’t speak the language; I am realising this more and more, the more I learn.

And then I would tell them to be patient with the Czechs, they are not as bad as they seem! In fact you can make great friends here. Enjoy that it’s a very well organised country, and don’t be aggressive… sometimes cultural shock can make us aggressive – people behave in a way you can’t understand, and you get mad at them. But remember that you are a guest here, in a certain way, so if you’re doing something that might be offensive, you should think about it.

What else would I say? You don’t have to have smažený syr and koleno every day! Enjoy all the possibilities, and the cheap public transport – the Open Card is great! You pay once, then forget about it and travel all year! Also the trains and buses to move around the country are quite convenient.