What brought you to the Czech Republic in the first place – were you looking to move abroad?
I knew I would have to move abroad to stay in my field, because I study a very new topic, and more or less the only places you can work on it are in Berkeley, Dublin, Hobart (Tasmania) and Pardubice. The recession hit Ireland pretty badly, and when I finished my doctorate in 2012, it was very hard to find a post-doc position relevant to what I had studied. I had met someone at a conference a few years ago who knew there was a position coming up here, so he suggested I get in touch with the professor, and that’s how I got the job here. It’s been a great move; we are having a really good time here.
I’m pleased to hear that! When you realised you were going to move to the Czech Republic, what did you expect?
I was looking forward to moving away, because living on an island there’s only so far you can go, and I knew it was going to be completely different. Before I signed the contract, I came over for a weekend with my parents. Prague was beautiful, and then we came out to Pardubice… once we got beyond the train station, I realised it is actually a really nice town! My partner had never been to the Czech Republic before we moved here, so that was a bit of a transition for him.
Had you travelled much in Europe before?
Yes, we had travelled around a fair bit, but we’d never gone beyond Berlin, let’s say.
And when you arrived, what was it like? Were the people here welcoming?
Definitely, Irish people are apparently very well known for being friendly and open to people coming into their country, and I found the very same thing with Czechs. Even with the language barrier, you could feel we have something in common. Maybe it’s the beer! Moving here was strange at the start, but it was really great to see something so different. That was something we definitely needed to experience.
Do you find the research environment is different as well?
It’s a little bit more relaxed, although when you need to find a piece of equipment for example, it’s a bit more difficult here than at home to go through the procedures to get it; sometimes you don’t know who the right person is to contact, or when you do contact them it takes a few minutes before everyone understands what’s happening. I tried to learn a bit of Czech, but I just don’t have the time.
The work is very similar, but I think it’s a little bit more old-worldly – you’re working for the professor and you can’t deviate from what he has outlined, whereas in Dublin it was very creative.
Do you think that’s changing gradually?
Possibly. With new staff coming in and new funding, it will definitely change, but probably not for a while yet.
So tell me more about how you settled down in Pardubice? Did you find a place to live easily?
Yes actually the professor very kindly helped us with that, because there are facilities on campus for staff and their families. It’s a big change from where we used to live in Dublin, and a very small apartment, but we make do with what we have, and we are still living there now, eighteen months later.
Do you think you’ll eventually move somewhere else? How do you see the future?
Well, I’ve been offered a job in Australia, so we are leaving Pardubice next year. But we’ll definitely come back here, we’ve really fallen for Pardubice. It’s like a village atmosphere in a small town. That’s a big difference from the suburban life we used to have, and much nicer!
So have you found it easy to make friends here, and get a feel of community?
Absolutely, we have several Czech friends, especially my partner’s colleagues, and a few expat friends as well. They’re mostly friends through work, because that is the only way we meet people.
So you haven’t got much involved in sports or other activities here? I guess you don’t have much time?
Everything’s in Czech! There’s nothing in English, and I would be intimidated to go into an aerobics class or something like that, I wouldn’t understand what’s happening. I have only really been involved in things within the English speaking community.
Is your partner’s work also in English?
Yes, it’s an English speaking recruitment company who have an office here. It was a lucky story, really. He had trained to be an English teacher, but didn’t get a job here when we arrived. He always wanted to be a writer, journalist, and he ended up working this company because they found him through his blog! He now he does a lot of their marketing and social media work – there seem to be a lot of journalists doing that type of work these days - and he is very happy.
So even despite the language issues you still feel at home here?
Yes, absolutely! In fact, as part of my post-doc I had to study abroad for three months, so we went to Berkeley for part of this year, and we couldn’t wait to get back to Pardubice! People can’t understand that.
Do you think if you came back, you would want to learn Czech?
Probably not. I wouldn’t move back here permanently, to work. I would buy a small cottage by the Labe, or something, just for holidays, and you can get by with English here, so I wouldn’t invest too much time learning Czech, I think.
How was the paperwork when you moved to the Czech Republic? Did you find the people in the offices and banks speak English?
It all went fairly smoothly. One of my colleagues came with me to the bank and helped me get everything set up, and now we know there are a couple of people in the bank who speak English so we liaise with them directly if need be. In the post office, it’s all in Czech – that’s an interesting adventure! I have a small Czech phrase book, and by now I know what I need, and I can understand more than I can speak, so I usually understand what they’re saying to me, I just can’t react to what they need! Some procedures weren't clear, and I heard that the office for foreigners was quite difficult for some people, especially as the staff only spoke Czech. Restaurants are no problem – I have even been complimented on my Czech there!
Have you been to see a doctor here at all, and how was that?
Yes, I had to do a medical check for my work here, before I started, so that was interesting. Compared with home, there’s not much privacy. When you have to do a urine sample, you might have to walk through the waiting area with an open cup. It’s very open, not so compartmentalised as it would be at home – so that was a bit different.
How do you like Czech culture, food, maybe theatre if you’ve been?
There is a certain dignity to it. For example, people still dress up to go to the theatre, which is something that doesn’t happen any more in many places, but did happen when we were growing up. And I just love the food! When we came back from the States I went straight to a restaurant here for goulash – it’s real comfort food. But the culture is certainly different, and sometimes you can see there is a bit of a difference between men and women, and between Czechs and foreigners too, especially outside Prague, where they are not so used to foreigners. A friend of mine came to visit last year. She’s very Irish looking – pale, freckles, fiery red hair – and everyone stared at her when we were walking down the street, it was very strange! But in everything else, I have to say the Czech Republic is friendly, very warm, and the Czechs really encourage you to visit the country, which is lovely.
So have you had the chance to travel around the country a bit and see some places?
Not as much this year as last year, but last year we did a lot of travelling. We’ve seen a lot of the country I think. We have yet to go skiing though, as there was no snow last year.
I hope you’ve got a warm coat! Do you have a favourite place, from those you’ve seen?
I really liked Karlovy Vary, for a short stay. We usually go to the motorbike races down in Brno, that’s probably one of my favourite things to do. And I really like Prague, but I have been there so often, with visitors, and when we travel abroad.
Do you miss Ireland?
Yes, sometimes. We are both from towns beside the sea, so we miss the sea, and the sea air is something you can’t replace. And we miss our friends of course, but what’s great is they’ve been to visit, or we have been on group holidays, so we still get to see each other. Family have visited – it’s a short distance, which has been great. But we miss some things, especiallyvery fresh sea fish. That’s something you can’t get here very often. It seems so ridiculous, but when you grow up on it, you miss that. I had never been so far away from the sea for so long, so that was a big change – I really felt it.
Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t come to Pardubice? Where you would be and what you’d be doing?
I don’t think I would have stayed at home. I had taken up a job after my PhD there, one I’d done before as a student, and it wasn't for me. So I would have found something else. I probably would have tried to find something in England, or I might have looked at Canada as an alternative, because that’s somewhere we’d eventually like to move in the future. I probably would have had to leave science altogether, because it’s very hard to get a job there. But the lifestyle is great!
Did you always think you would be a scientist, or was that something you discovered only while at university?
Well, I had a really good teacher when I was fourteen. She really inspired me and made me feel how much I appreciated maths and science, and I knew then that I wanted to do science. At university, I didn’t know I wanted to do a doctorate until I was in my second year, and then I thought, yes, I definitely want to stay in this, so I stuck at it!
Are there other foreign researchers in your lab here?
In the faculty, there are a lot of Indians, some Germans, some Ukrainians, and a lot of Erasmus students too. But in my lab I’m the only non-Czech person. It can get a little solitary sometimes when everyone is speaking Czech around you, and you have to try to figure out what’s going on… sometimes they try to translate the jokes and it doesn’t work!
When did you discover about EURAXESS, and how did EURAXESS help you?
I only really found out about it through the university. They offer Czech lessons, I’ve dabbled in those over the last two years, but I don’t have that much time for it. There have been several trips and so on organised, which is great, especially for people who don’t have a partner here with them, but my partner is a photojournalist, so we travel all the time anyway.
Do you use the trains, or do you have a car here?
We use the trains. They are great, the trains are fantastic, and you can go anywhere for next to nothing, compared to the prices at home. Also I love the RegioJet trains! They have free coffee, oh it’s great. Just once some of the staff at the ticket office were very rude to us, which was disappointing especially because my brother was here that day, so it gave him a bad impression. But we are used to asking for tickets in Czech and it’s never usually a problem!
Do you think there’s anything more that EURAXESS or the university could provide for people in your position?
I think probably an orientation at the beginning of projects with the European Union would be useful, to solidify what we need to know, who we need to talk to to get this or that done, and so on.
So tell me more about your partner, you said he found it quite difficult to get a job when you arrived?
Yes, he did, for about a month. It was the first time he had been out of work for nine years, so it was a very difficult transition for him. We expected that he would be able to teach English here,since it seemed that there were a lot of English speaking schools and English teaching schools in Pardubice, but the jobs he found were for two or three hours a week, which wouldn’t be enough. So he was very anxious about it. He started a blog about our journey, because leaving Ireland was such a big thing for us, and so new – and the owner of a company found his blog, and asked him if he wanted a job. It was amazing! The company has expanded massively in the last year, their workforce has quadrupled, and my partner was the runner-up employee of the year, next to a guy who made a million pounds for the company! This year he has been helping the company with some brochures, so he is getting a bit more into graphics, which is helping him develop his career path, which is something he hadn’t been able to do before. He had been working in retail in Ireland, because he couldn’t find any journalism work there either.
And he’s been able to continue his photo journalism a bit on the side?
Absolutely. He’s never really been employed to do it, but he’s trying to get more experience, improve his portfolio, and when we move to Tasmania, there are a lot of magazines he wants to get involved with, so hopefully that will help him. He’s won some awards on his blog as well, he’s doing very well.
Have you been to any photo exhibitions here, while you’ve been here?
Quite a few actually. There’s a photographer who does Humans of Pardubice, something like Humans of New York if you know it. My partner interviewed him a few weeks ago, and was invited to the opening of his exhibition, which was great. And we’ve seen several Czech artists, and some friends also had an exhibition in Hradec Králové.
How does he feel about the next move?
It’s taken him a few years to get used to the idea, but he’s really excited now! Once he started to investigate what it’s like there, he started to be more excited about it. Breaking the bonds with Ireland to start with was the most difficult thing I think, but now that he has done that, he is keen to adventure further.
It sounds like he’s very open to following you around the world!
Yes! We always knew our careers were likely to lead us around the world, and it just happens that so far the destinations have been more determined by my work, but eventually that might change, and of course traditionally it would be the other way around. Indeed when we first came there was a bit of an attitude of “oh, you came with her?”, and I think that was a bit embarrassing for him, but he really supported me through my PhD, and now I’m returning the favour a bit. If he hadn’t left Ireland, he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in now, and wouldn’t have had this experience.
What advice would you give to someone who was going to come from Ireland to the Czech Republic?
Bring your teabags! We usually get them sent over. In fact, recently there was a tea company that had a competition “fly a friend home” because that’s how bad the situation in Ireland got – so many people were leaving, I think 100,000 a week, or something – and there was a code for the competition in a box of tea my Dad sent over, and we won a free flight home!
Is there anything else you want to say about life here in the Czech Republic?
The pace of life is slower, which is a little more enjoyable. There is a great coffee scene too. We have a favourite café bar on the main street – the one that is being renovated at the moment –you can just walk through the construction works, though. That is refreshing – in Ireland, Health and Safety destroys everything, whereas here it’s just common sense – don’t walk in front of a truck, and you’ll be fine.