People say, ‘Barcelona is wonderful. Why would you buy a house in Ballincollig?’

New to the Parish: Dr Paola Chavez arrived from Peru, via Spain, in 2020

Paola Chavez with her dogs Chola and Dana. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Paola Chavez with her dogs Chola and Dana. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

 

When Paola Chavez’ husband, Juan, moved to Ireland in January 2020 to work in paediatrics at Cork University Hospital, she presumed she would follow him soon after. Also a doctor, Chavez needed to finish work in Barcelona and arrange for the couple’s two dogs to be transported to Ireland. It was supposed to be straightforward and the couple would be reunited in April. But then, Covid hit.

“The company that was supposed to take the dogs cancelled, the ferry was cancelled, I had told my landlord I’d be gone from the apartment by April but then all the flights to Ireland were cancelled. I didn’t know when I could fly, what to do with the dogs and what to do about my apartment.”

To make matters more complicated, Juan had to undergo emergency surgery for appendicitis. “It was scary because he didn’t know anyone in Ireland. But that was also the moment I realised Irish people were amazing.”

With very few contacts in Cork city, Juan’s colleague offered to drive him home from the hospital while the colleague’s wife did a grocery shop and dropped the food at his house. A neighbour made him lunch while another put the rubbish out. “They didn’t really know us but they were so kind. I felt more confident being away because of them, I knew he was in good hands.”

Both originally from Peru, Chavez and her husband met at medical school in Lima in the early 2000s. Chavez was brought up in the capital and loved the noise and chaos of the city.

“Lima is a crazy place; we use the phrase ‘Lima the horrible’. I always planned to travel outside Peru and get to know other places. But I missed Lima when I left. I learned to drive there and I’m proud of myself for that. I can drive anywhere in Europe now and it feels so easy.”

Chavez’ father insisted that his daughter study either medicine or law after school. “I was interested in anthropology or sociology but that doesn’t make you money and my father said either medical school or law school. I wasn’t sure but in the end I liked medicine. It was a good idea.”

In 2010, after four years working as doctors in Peru, the couple decided to move to Spain and found work in the northwest city of Valladolid. “It’s a small city and the culture was very small-town,” she says. “I missed crowded and crazy Lima. But we got used to it.”

Four years later they moved to Barcelona so Juan could study for a master’s in paediatric allergies and pulmonology. Chavez had been working in occupational health since leaving Peru and continued in this field when the couple moved east. Around this time they adopted their two rescue dogs, Chola and Dana.

In 2019, the couple started investigating career opportunities abroad while they waited for their new Spanish passports to be issued. “Our main reason to move was work conditions. Spain is a great place to live but it’s not a great place to work as a doctor. And we like to travel; we didn’t mind moving.”

They first considered Dubai but Chavez immediately crossed it off the list when she read about the status of women in parts of the Middle East. “It’s insane what you can earn in Dubai but I would need a letter from my husband saying he was allowing me to work. I thought, ‘I already come from a sexist country, moving to one which is so much worse, no thanks’.”

Then a friend suggested they try Ireland. “For us it seemed so far away, like a place of Vikings and Celts.” But after researching several Irish cities, the couple decided to apply for jobs in Cork. They visited the city in November 2019 and Juan quickly secured a job . Chavez found a new position soon after with the occupation health medical practice Cognate Health.

When Juan moved to Ireland in early 2020, the couple could never have imagined the challenges they would face in the months that followed.

Chavez spent most of spring 2020 trying to find a way to get their dogs to Ireland. She also had to negotiate an extension on her lease with her landlord until she secured a flight out of Spain. She eventually found a man in Barcelona who was driving across the country and taking a ferry to deliver two dogs to Dublin and he agreed to take two more.

“I was so worried. It was summer, it was hot, I thought they might die on the journey. I’d always said as soon as the dogs arrive in Ireland I’m buying a ticket whatever the price. Aer Lingus were still cancelling flights, so I flew to Frankfurt and then to Dublin and arrived on June 3rd.”

While Chavez spoke English, she worried her language skills had become rusty during her years in Spain. “The first month was scary. I felt like I was starting from zero and understanding the west Cork accent was tough. But my patients were really good and supportive.”

Chavez now works with fewer patients on a daily basis than she did in Spain and often uses her native language for consultations with Spanish speakers. “With mental issues, people are always more comfortable speaking their own language.”

Being so far from loved ones during the pandemic has been extremely difficult, Chavez admits. Juan’s mother recently died following a long illness and he travelled to Peru for the funeral.

“I’ve been so worried about my family in Peru. Everything was collapsing over there, even if you had the money there were no hospital beds. Fortunately, no one in my family got Covid and they’re safe. We’re planning to go to Peru as soon as we can, hopefully next December or January.”

Despite these challenges, the couple are happily settled in Cork and recently bought a house in the suburb of Ballincollig. “People say to us ,‘Barcelona is wonderful, why would you buy a house here?’ But we like Ireland and feel welcomed here. We quickly realised this could be a place where we can live for a long time. My husband is delighted; he says it’s the best job of his life.

“I love Peru but the way people think here is different. In Peru, they have the American influence of work, work, work. We want to enjoy our lives. And we’re planning to have kids soon – that’s why we bought a house.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish