Is this your first post-doc position?
Yes and no: after finishing my PhD I worked in my lab in Greece for a couple of years, but this is my first official post-doc, and it’s the first time I’ve moved away from my home-town, and my country.
So it must have been a big change for you?
It was! But I really needed it – the situation in Greece is not that good, and it’s not getting better any time soon, so as long as I wanted to be in research, I had to go somewhere else.
Did you know which country you wanted to move to? How did you find the job here?
I wanted to stay in Europe, and to begin with, when I was more enthusiastic and more certain that I would get a position, I only looked in certain countries – mostly in the Mediterranean, and the UK – but when I saw that I wasn’t getting far, I started to send applications out everywhere I could. I found a post advertised by the institute here, in a different group. I applied for it to see what would happen, and they passed my CV on to another group, who were also looking for someone, who gave me the job! To be honest, I was a little bit puzzled, because I didn’t know how good the research was in the Czech Republic, but then I found out that my professors in Greece had collaborated with some people in Brno, and they told me “you can’t imagine the level of research there”. And when I told them it’s Prague, they were all amazed, and told me “it’s a great city, you should go – you should at least try it”. I was ready to try something different, to see how things work abroad, so I came.
Had you ever been to Prague before?
No. I had heard many people telling me it’s a great city, a beautiful city, and that I should visit it, but I had never been here. And it’s really worth it! Prague is very beautiful.
Before you came, what were your expectations?
My first thoughts were that it would be a cold country, with bad weather, and that I would not be able to communicate with people much, so I would focus on my job, and try to make some progress to lead to something else. But I was quite lucky, because before I came here I met some Greek people who were already working here, so I had some people to talk to, somewhere to start from. The weather is still bad, but you can get used to that. The language is a challenge though!
Is your research in English?
Yes, though I’m in a group with Czechs and Slovaks, and I’m the only foreigner, so when they speak to each other it’s in Czech, and I don’t understand. When they make jokes, I have to ask them to translate! But we try to do things together, and when we do things together, they speak in English. I can understand that it’s difficult when they’ve not been used to speaking English to one another – it would be the same in Greece. It’s not bad, and I’m getting used to it.
Have you been taking Czech classes?
I started last year, but then I had to go to Germany for a four-month training period. And now I have so many things I have to work on, it’s not very convenient to attend the classes. It’s not the easiest language – I’m still trying to learn how to pronounce “Thursday”! The other thing is my contract is fixed term, so I am not entirely sure how long I will be here.
So are you already thinking about what next?
Yes, for the training I was in Heidelberg, at EMBL, which is a great institute for what I’m doing, so going there or staying here would both be good options. I don’t think I really want to move to a new country and start all over again, and my PI has said that he will try to find a grant for me. I really love Prague, and could certainly stay here for a couple of years, if maybe not my whole life. I’m still not sure if I’ll stay in research long term – so that is what I’m trying to figure out at the moment.
At what point did you come across EURAXESS, and how has EURAXESS helped you?
I knew about EURAXESS from the time I was searching for a job – from EU websites. When I came here, I needed some paperwork for some things in Greece, and they were really helpful. I couldn’t do it myself because no one at the ministry spoke English.
You mentioned you wouldn’t like to move all over again – was it easy to move here, how did you find somewhere to live?
Before I moved, my PI recommended staying at the guest house near the institute, so that I could take my time and visit some flats before I rented anything. So I spent just over two months there, and visited a few flats. It wasn’t very hard. About three days after I arrived, a friend took me for coffee at a place close to Náměstí Míru, and as soon as I came out of the metro I said, “wow, I really want to live in this area!” Also I wanted to be in a convenient place, where I could get to work easily, but I didn’t want to live very close to my workplace, because it’s not very close to the city centre. To get to know the city, I wanted to be able to walk, especially by the river. I grew up in a city with water, by the sea, and so I need this element in my life. The first couple of months in the guest house I lived a two minute walk from my office, which was good because I hate mornings! But the closest night bus was a twenty minute walk from there, and during the weekend only one bus went to the metro station. So when I was searching for flats, I looked mostly in Vinohrady. I found a great flat, the landlady is really good, and she can speak English, not very well, but enough. Another good thing is that all the bills are included in the rent, so I didn’t have to make any separate arrangements with companies here.
Do you think that the fact there’s no sea here will influence how long you want to stay in the Czech Republic?
Well, it comes to what you want at each stage of your life. In Greece I have the sun, the sea, nice food and so on, but I can’t enjoy them if I don’t have a good job there. Here, I have my house, my job, and I can be happy with other things. And I can still go and visit Greece when I get the chance. But maybe you are right that that’s one of the reasons I don’t see myself staying here for ever.
Do you manage to get back to see family and friends in Greece fairly often?
Yes, I try to go regularly, although it takes me about half a day to get back. But technology helps, too – I chat with my friends and my family on Skype when I am not there. I do miss my godchildren, because they are babies, so even though we talk on Skype, it’s not the same. But it’s much easier to be abroad now than it would have been several decades ago, and also I’m in the middle of Europe here, so it’s very easy to visit other places, and have other experiences, which is a great advantage.
Have you made lots of friends in Prague?
Well, most of my colleagues are married and have children, so they don’t have much free time, but I go for a beer with a couple of them sometimes. I was lucky to meet other Greeks in Prague too, through some friends, so I go for coffee or dinner with them, and to some of the food and wine festivals, but most of the time I enjoy just having a long walk by myself here, and enjoy the buildings, enjoy Prague. It’s not bad being alone, sometimes!
How do you like the Czech food and wine?
There are some good things, and some things I’m not used to. I don’t say no to a nice gulašová polévka, and I really like the beer here. I have tasted some good wines, too, but not all of them are as good as Greek ones.
Do you have a favourite place in Prague or in the Czech Republic?
Vysehrad. I first went there for a picnic to celebrate the birth of a colleague’s daughter - we just took some wine and food, it was a very simple thing, but relaxed and fun. As we were walking down towards the river afterwards, I found a place in the back side of Vysehrad that reminded me a lot of my home town. I took some photos there and uploaded them, and my friends from home who saw them said “when did you come back to Thessaloniki?!” So whenever I feel homesick, I go there. I really like the whole place, it’s a nice park, with a great view of the castle and the river, and it’s not crowded, so you can always find a nice spot to sit and relax. Also it’s not much of a detour on my way from work, so I often walk through there, and then by the river for a bit, on my way home.
Have you found that the Czechs are generally welcoming to you?
Well, before I came, a friend who is a biologist here told me “don’t be very enthusiastic, and try not to hug or kiss them, because they are not very open to that” – in Greece that is a very normal thing. But I guess I’m quite lucky, because my colleagues are all very open and very enthusiastic too; I’ve heard from other friends that their colleagues are not so easy-going. I think it’s the same in every country – some people are more open, more welcoming; some are maybe more afraid, or don’t want to socialise with foreigners. I understood from some people I met that they feel embarrassed about their knowledge of English, so they prefer not to speak in case they make mistakes, even when they speak very good English, and though I am not even a native speaker! It would be better for all of us if we can speak English - not the whole time, but for some kinds of discussions it would be more productive.
What about outside, so in the shops, or when you’ve been to the doctor, how have you found the people generally are?
I think that the closer to the city centre you are, the better it is for communication. There were cases when I didn’t know what I wanted to buy, in Czech, so I just used some sort of sign language, or tried to learn a word or two, and it was really fun, because there were some people who tried to understand what I wanted, and help me; but there are some other cases where you try to ask something and they don’t understand, and don’t even try to make an effort.
As for doctors, I have only been once, and it was quite difficult to find someone who speaks English, but thankfully it worked out OK when I did.
Apart from the language barrier, has the paperwork here been fairly easy?
Yes the residence permit was very easy – EURAXESS took care of everything, and if I hadn’t needed some special papers for things I had to do in Greece, I would have had no trouble at all.
Can you think of anything EURAXESS could help with, which they don’t already help with?
Maybe some events – not just the trips, but gatherings, times when people could just come here and spend an hour talking to each other, have a beer together, or something like that, to get to know other people who are living here too, other foreigners who are experiencing the same thing.
What advice would you give to someone who was thinking of moving to the Czech Republic?
If you want to be happy in Prague, you can be happy in Prague. You can never get bored here, I think. So far there hasn’t been a single day when I’ve thought “what can I do today?”. The weather gets really cold in winter, but you can get used it, even when it snows the streets are clean, and the metros and buses work properly – so it’s still a good experience to come and work here. Of course, there are some barriers and troubles to get over, but if you want to, you can do lots of good things here. Also, the locals are getting more used to having foreigners here, so things are getting easier and easier for us to be here, and I think in a couple of years things will be even better. So yes, I would recommend to someone to come and see what it’s like here.
Do you find you can get the ingredients to make traditional Greek food?
Some ingredients I can find, some I just replace with the best alternatives I can get, and some things I bring back with me when I go to Greece, or get people to send me from Greece! There are some Greek shops here but I’d say they’re overpriced.
If you go out for dinner, you can find different cuisines, you’re not restricted to just Czech food – you can have Italian, or there are even Greek restaurants here.
What would you say is the most beneficial thing for you of having moved to the Czech Republic?
For me, it is the new city, new people, places to explore, and the interaction with different nationalities, getting to know people from different parts of the world. Also I had never moved away from home before, so I’ve grown up here, and learnt how to cook!
And the biggest challenge was the language?
Yes. I was afraid of the weather, at the beginning, but I think my body is getting accustomed to that now, you just have to pretend it’s not raining and get on with life.