Arcadi Navarro looks out over Edinburgh's New Town from Calton Hill, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site | ® Santi Trullenque
Núria Jar (Edinburgh) | November 2018
He chooses a whisky distilled in 2006 and matured for 11 years in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead cask, from a distillery on the southernmost Inner Hebridean island of Islay. From a selection of 300 different whiskies, all similarly bottled, the tasting note for Navarro's choice is Engaging, exciting or just plain fun. He takes in the aroma, then tastes it, breathes out and smiles. “Ah, I can feel the happiness coming out.” As he puts the glass down on the table, he says that whisky means water of life in Gaelic. A water that cures everything. He jokes, "As you can see, change is essential."
Arcadi Navarro became a whisky fan 20 years ago during his first trip to Edinburgh. Back then, he joined the The Scotch Malt Whisky Societyand is a member this time around as well | ®Santi Trullenque
TRANSCRIPTION. “The region is Islay. It was distilled in 2006 so it's now 12 years old, although it was only barrel matured for 11. And it was kept in an old bourbon barrel, which is used several times. [sigh] Lovely!"
The last time we saw each other was in Barcelona. On that afternoon in early July, he was dismissed as the Catalan Government's Secretary of Universities and Research and the next morning, he was packing up his things. Arcadi Navarro was in the job for two and a half years and during the period, he had no time to read any scientific articles. Now, the break makes him feel "slightly uncomfortable" about going back into research, but he knows what it's like to get back into a career. This is his second expedition into life outside science.
Arcadi Navarro walks around the streets of Edinburgh's Old Town | ® Santi Trullenque
Almost two decades ago, Navarro moved to Edinburgh to carry on with his PhD in population genetics following a period in industry. His first stay in Scotland's capital lasted three and a half years, until he had the chance to return to Spain with a contract from the first edition of the Ramón y Cajal grants, which is the Spanish R&D system's leading talent recruitment programme. “I've always come back to life in Edinburgh," he confesses. "I'm like Pavlov's dog. I get here, I smell the smell and start to get into science mode," he says.
TRANSCRIPTION. “My heart is divided between Edinburgh and Barcelona. It's very difficult to choose between my home and here. This is my second expedition into the world outside science. I've always come back to life in Edinburgh. I'm like Pavlov's dog. I get here, I smell the smell and start to get into science mode.”
We meet at 10am on a Monday at The Elephant House, the bar where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter. He is wearing a check shirt and a hat, two typical Navarro garments when away from public office. He looks more relaxed and has even gained some weight. He arrived in Edinburgh at the end of August with his wife, who works from home, and his son, who is in his first term in a Scottish high school. He has an office at the University of Edinburgh, where he sees some former colleagues and some new ones.
He is spending his days getting up-to-date before returning to Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, where he continues to teach a specialist subject remotely—on analysing databases of human genomes and phenomes—on the Master's programme in Bioinformatics for Health Sciences. Most of the time, he reads studies recommended by colleagues and takes a closer look at the new developments in his lines of research, especially human ageing. When he previously returned to science, he did not notice the gap, but now everything is progressing faster and three new genetic sequencing techniques have emerged in the time he has been away.
Arcadi Navarro walks along the Royal Mile, with its tens of alleyways, known as closes, which lead to different courtyards | ® Santi Trullenque
On the weekends, he rests. But, in actual fact, Navarro has had visitors every weekend but one since he arrived. He knows the city well; he has a story for every corner. When he crosses the road without having explained about the next one, he asks himself out loud what other stories he can share. He walks quickly, with his head down and his hands together behind his back. Apart from science and politics, he also talks about architecture, history, books and TV series. Right now, he's watching the second season of The Crown on Netflix.
We visit the city with the weather on our side. It rains briefly and then the sun comes out. We visit Greyfriars cemetery, walk along the Royal Mile, cross Princess Street, go up Calton Hill and enter the National Museum of Scotland, where the stuffed sheep Dolly is on show. He is fascinated by the fact that the city's great statues are "three Scotsmen from the Enlightenment period who made great contributions to the world": the empirical philosopher David Hume, the economist Adam Smith and the inventor James Watt. At the end of the day, his mobile has registered 18,000 steps and around 12 kilometres.
Dolly the sheep was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell in 1996. Now, the animal is on show in her stuffed form at the National Museum of Scotland | ® Santi Trullenque
Over lunch, we get a chance to talk more about his recent time as a politician. He says he hasn't thought much about it in recent weeks and that he is making "a conscious effort" not to follow the news from home, although he admits it is difficult to remain detached. He says our visit has reminded him of that time and that today is the day he has thought about it the most. "You have to metabolise everything you have created and realise that some of the things that happen are no longer your problem," he says of his double sorrow: his experience as Secretary and the application of the Spanish Constitution's article 155, which took control of Catalonia's autonomy.
Arcadi Navarro at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, where he usually goes for a walk with his family at the weekend | ® Santi Trullenque
The responsibility he feels on the inside is somewhat diluted in Edinburgh. "Here, I feel like part of the place, I feel strong. I feel I am part of a large scientific project that has been taking place for generations in a friendly, continuous and successful way. In Barcelona, we scientists know that we couldn't have even dreamed of what we have today and seeing it breaking up in our hands is making us suffer terribly," he opens up at the end of the day, over a glass of whisky.
TRANSCRIPTION. “I Here, I feel like part of the place, I feel strong. I feel I am part of a large scientific project that has been taking place for generations in a friendly, continuous and successful way... instead of feeling that I am part of a spectacular success story that has taken place over the past two decades, which is marvellous but which brings with it a lot of responsibility. In Barcelona, there are scientists and university students who know that back in the 1980s we couldn't have even dreamed of what we have today, and seeing it breaking up in our hands is making us suffer terribly. Here, in contrast, you are relaxed because it does not depend on you."
The waiter at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society knows Navarro by name and shakes his hand as they greet. Last Saturday, he came here for dinner with some friends who were visiting and he'll be back again next Saturday. He was a member of the society when he was first in Edinburgh, when he first got into whisky, and he's back as a member now. He is also living in the same neighbourhood and comes across the same neighbours as 20 years ago. Despite its name, New Town is a residential suburb of elegant houses built in the 18th century to the north of Edinburgh's Old Town.
Arcadi Navarro in the window of a second-hand bookshop in his neighbourhood | ® Santi Trullenque
His colleague Clara Ponsatí lives an hour and a half away. She was Education Minister during the last period of Carles Puigdemont's Government and Navarro has seen her a couple of times since being in Scotland. The Spanish courts are accusing the University of Saint Andrews Economics Professor of rebellion and misappropriation for her involvement in the unilateral independence referendum in Catalonia. In July, however, the Spanish Supreme Court judge withdrew the European arrest warrant for her extradition after the German courts refused to extradite former President Puigdemont to Spain on charges of rebellion.
Now, Ponsatí is among those most critical of the pro-independence politicians for their lack of strategy. "I share all of Clara's statements," agrees Navarro. Beyond any reproaches for his former Government colleagues, Navarro also remembers that in the summer of 2015 he went on holiday with his family to the Scottish Highlands. "Back then, no one knew what was happening in Catalonia. Now, everyone knows what is happening and they say we are right," he says while taking stock. "At least we are present in the offices of the European Union," he says, consoling himself.
Núria Jar is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. Currently, she writes for La Vanguardia, Muy Interesante, SINC Agency and she has written for the Spanish edition of Scientific American. She also runs a weekly radio section for the most popular radio programme in Catalonia, Via Lliure at RAC1. In addition, she coordinates radio lessons at Master’s degree level in scientific, medical and environmental communication at Pompeu Fabra University.
Arcadi Navarro became Secretary for Universities and Research of the Government of Catalonia in January 2016, when Carles Puigdemont was sworn in as president of Catalonia. It was the first time he had held a political position. Professor of Genetics, he was ICREA Research Professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), where he led a research group in Evolutionary Genomics within the Programme of Evolutionary Biology and Complex Systems of the Department of Experimental and Health Sciences, a Department of which he was the Director.