Another year and a half to go in his PhD research: Ezra la Roi is our staff member of the month. Linguist and cheerful colleague with a taste for the good Belgian beer (discover which one is his favourite below), Ezra even knows how to explain his research to a lay audience – the biggest challenge of all! Tine Scheijnen talked to him during his stay in Cambridge.
Ezra, as we can see online, accessible research is important to you! You work on a very specific case of Greek linguistics. Could you explain it to us in layman’s terms?
Yes I think that providing access to your ongoing research and interacting with other scholars about it along the way is even more important in pandemic times. My PhD topic is the history of counterfactuals. Think of the famous song titles Wish you were here (Pink Floyd), What could have been love (Aerosmith), If I were a boy (Beyoncé). Such phrases all deal with events that can or could not take place for some reason. So you might wonder: why would you talk about such things at all? The fact is that we actually talk and think counterfactually all the time (if I were you, I would not do it or if he had passed the ball more often, we would have won the game), and likewise did the Greeks. It is up to me to map how such expressions were used in various periods of Ancient Greek and chart their changes over time.
We talk and think counterfactually all the time, and so did the Greeks
You are in the UK right now for your research. Why Cambridge? How are you getting on with your work? Did you meet any interesting colleagues yet?
I chose Cambridge quite early on in my PhD because prof. Geoff Horrocks was in my advisory committee and he is an expert on the diachrony of Greek (incl. on the verbal system). Cambridge also has quite a unique mix of well-known specialists on early Indo-European languages as well as Post-Classical Greek, something which, apart from lovely Ghent of course, is quite hard to find. It is truly inspiring to be allowed to work in Cambridge, a beautiful town with many quaint places to walk to on my breaks. I’ve met quite a lot of different people so far, but the most recent (and decidedly daunting) encounter was probably the linguistics seminar that I gave on my findings. It was the first face-to-face seminar in a while so the pressure was on, but there was much discussion which is always good, also when there are differences in view.
There is more than one challenge to travelling to the UK nowadays: there is corona, there is Brexit… Has any of this interfered with your travel plans? How is the situation now?
My exchange was planned way earlier in my PhD but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Brexit did not really interfere, apart from making it much harder for me to travel to the UK during the pandemic in general. However, the UK has removed many restrictions quite early so that I can go to the pub as “normal” and meet more people than I would have before.
It has been fantastic to catch up on some time lost due to the pandemic
A little bird told us you are very happy to be in the UK for another reason, too! How are you spending your free time?
The ulterior motive for the UK was indeed to see my girlfriend more. She lives and works near Nottingham, which is about 2 hours from Cambridge. It has been fantastic to be able to spend the weekends with her, exploring Cambridge, the countryside around Cambridge and go on small weekends away to catch up on some time lost due to the pandemic. It will be hard to go back to long distance visits every month after this for the remainder of my PhD, but I’m sure this Cambridge experience will only increase our motivation to find a place together as soon as possible.
And a final question: Easter is almost upon us, and Easter (in Belgium at least) means chocolate! What do you miss most from Ghent, now that you are in the UK?
Needless to say, of course I miss my friends in Ghent and my many lovely colleagues. When it comes to things that are delicious but bad for you, I normally have zero self-control. I tend not to buy chocolate or, even worse, liquorice for that very reason… Still, I would love some strong Belgian beers, for example my favourites Chimay blauw or Gouden Carolus, although I guess the fact that English ales have less alcohol is a healthier alternative. Nonetheless, few things beat Belgian fries, a spicy crizzly and then washing it down with some Belgian beers.
We will see if we can convince a take-away service to deliver some to you in Cambridge. If not, we are looking forward to welcoming you back to Ghent to enjoy them together! In any case, we wish you a very fruitful time in the UK, and plenty of enjoyable weekends to go with it!