Catalans Abroad

Ester Gea

Ester has a PhD in Virology

Life in a fairytale city

Why did you leave Catalonia?
I’ve left Catalonia three times in the past 12 years, all of them career related. The first was to study abroad, the second because I found better opportunities and conditions to pursue my PhD, and the third because of a lack and delays in financing of a research project I was meant to start in Catalonia. So, the last time was the most painful, because in my mind I had settled for good back home and after a while I had to change my plans, accept how research is treated there and pack again. It really felt like a failure, but I am very happy I did it.
Why did you choose Oxford?
For academic reasons. I hesitated between going back to Paris or moving to the US, but I had a good opportunity here with a professor. I read all her works during my thesis and love what she does. Also, this is closer to home. I’ve been here for a year and half now.
Are you happy with the job opportunities you found in your adoptive country?
I’m very happy to work with a great team. I’m passionate about my work. Since I was a child, I wanted to do research on infectious diseases and on HIV in particular. I’m happy to say I achieved my dream. Oxford is an amazing place full of very bright people. Workwise it is giving me space to grow as a scientist. I do feel very valued here and the environment is very empowering. I’m working on fundamental research questions about the interplay of viruses and the immune system. Obviously, the pandemic has been really stimulating intellectually for someone trying to understand this complex interaction. It’s likely that most researchers abandon academia at some point due to a very narrow bottleneck to become a principal investigator. Although I would like to have my own research group, I do consider that the UK can give me very interesting opportunities also outside academia.
Are you hopeful about the vaccine for Covid-19 and do you think 2021 will be better a year?
Although I’m not working on the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, I’m very hopeful; having vaccines in good time is vital, and as a researcher, I think it is also rewarding to see how science can collaborate in people’s lives. One important thing we should keep in mind is that the vaccine is not only for vulnerable people: we all need to get the vaccine for everybody’s safety.
Is there a Catalan community in your new home?
There are quite a lot of Catalan researchers here, and there’s a great sense of community. We try to get together once a month, this way the families make sure their children practise their language. I used to be in a human towers group in Vila de Gràcia. Then I was active in the groups in Montreal and Paris, and here I try to do the same.
How is the situation in Catalonia seen in the UK?
The dynamic here is very different from Canada or France. In Quebec nobody questioned us, while in France just the opposite, they didn’t understand why I feel Catalan and not Spanish – this is often associated to right-wing nationalism, to an idea that doesn’t correspond to reality. In the UK, they have more experience and information, with the Scottish situation, they see it as a different reality, but they respect it even if they don’t share it.
What do you think is the best thing about living there?
I’m in love with Oxford. You can understand why so many great minds were here. This is a bubble: you have high level academic life, there’s extraordinary culture on offer, you are located in a fairytale city where the colleges and the university are from other times, and you are in the countryside. I’ve seen deers near my house, and cows and horses can be found in the fields and paths around. Ah! And I also love the fact that you can cycle everywhere. There are cycle paths everywhere and cars are very respectful, so it’s a very convenient way to move around.
What would you most like to change?
The fact that days are so short in winter really cuts your day off and pulls down your energy. Now, it’s fully dark at four pm, and you just feel the day is over, which is quite depressing.
What do you miss most from home?
Family and lifelong friends, but I’ve been living abroad for so long that I’ve got used to the solitude and my friends and family have also got used to reaching me by a screen. I do not miss Barcelona itself; it has changed so much since I left the first time, I no longer recognise it as home and I feel more at home in Paris. But I do miss the sea and the Pyrenees, especially here around Oxford everything is so flat! And they swim in a very muddy river!
What characterises your neighbourhood?
It’s close to the river, but really all Oxford is, which means I can take my kayak and get into the water quite easily. I am very central but still surrounded by fields, so it is easy to go for a walk in natural surroundings (always wear wellies, as you’ll find yourself deep in mud). What I really like is that we are very organised and there are lots of initiatives that bring people together. We recently collected money in my street to get a Christmas gift for the postman. And all summer neighbours have been giving me plants for my allotment.
What is the best experience you had in your adoptive country?
I found English people very warm and welcoming, and I did not expect that. I like their sense of community. I was born for the Castanyada (traditional Catalan holiday in October), so I usually bake panellets (traditional cakes). For my last birthday, I went to a fancy supermarket because I knew they sell moscatell (sweet wine) that I wanted to have with the panellets. I was about to turn 35, so it made me very happy when the cashier asked me for my ID to buy alcohol. I told her so, and when she realised it was going to be my birthday, she offered me the bottle. I’ve had some other episodes like that, I just find people here are so friendly and kind.
Do you plan to go back to Catalonia?
Going back is something that was in my mind for many years. Sometimes when Im here I miss Catalonia but when I go back I miss here. The last time I decided to leave Catalonia it came with a promise to myself not to try to come back. It would be great if that happens, but I won’t actively pursue that. Also, more and more, every time I think about it I’m not sure I will be happy if I went back home. Ideally, I would like to stay here or go back to Paris. As a researcher it is exhausting and frustrating to see how science is funded and organised in Catalonia and in Spain.

CATALANS ABROAD Oxford, United KIngdom


Where are the best places for visitors to stay?
I would choose any classic bed and breakfast in a Victorian house, in Jericho or Summertown next to the meadows, but also places near the historical university colleges.
What do you consider the highlights for any brief visit for the first time?
Oxford is quite small, so one day or two would suffice. I would visit any of the big colleges, Magdalen or Christ Church (especially if you are a Harry Potter fan), and the Botanical Gardens. A must is to visit the Bodleian library, enter the Blackwells bookshop and then take the small corridor from under the Bridge of Sighs to the Turf tavern. You can’t miss the Covered market and a walk on Uni Parks. Going up St Mary’s tower is also completely worth it if the day is clear. If you are brave enough, try punting (a classic Oxford activity). If the weather is not nice, you can visit the Ashmolean or the Natural History Museum. But if you are lucky and it is sunny and nice, my favourite thing to do is to walk the Thames Path, either south from Christ Church meadows to the Isis Farmhouse or North up to a very lovely pub called the Perch. If you walk further you can visit Woodstock, if you happen to be a Tolkien fan, he was buried there.
And if visitors have more time or make a return visit?
I would definitely recommend a visit to Blenheim Palace and its estate. The birthplace of Winston Churchill, it is said to be one of the most beautiful stately homes in England. Nearby Blenheim, the Cotswolds are full of picture-postcard villages.
Can you recommend a place to have lunch with friends?
The Perch is one of my favourite places for a Sunday roast, but you need to book in advance. The Magdalen Arms is also a charming and beautiful pub. I would say English cuisine is very underestimated, the savoury pies and the pub food can really surprise you. It is definitely not the most healthy food, but it is tasty and good!
Where would you have a special dinner for two?
Gee’s is a very beautiful restaurant with a Victorian glasshouse that makes it very romantic.
When is the best time of year to plan a visit?
Definitely late spring or summer, the days are longer and the weather is kinder. There are activities like punting (if you want to get the full Oxford experience) that can only be done in summer.
What is the best kept secret about the area?
There are plenty of hidden paths to find, even just to go to the supermarket! I find it lovely to go exploring a lot but they somehow remind me of the Red Riding Hood story. There are also plenty of walks and nice woods nearby. Hopefully soon I will be able to discover more things!
What do you take with you as a present from your new home when you go back to your own country?
I usually bring tea (how classic!) but I did bring some Scottish wool scarfs last Christmas. I haven’t been home much since I am in Oxford due to the current situation with Covid, but I think tea makes my family very happy.
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