What brought you to the Netherlands?
I came to the Netherlands via Singapore. That’s how I found out about the master’s degree I came to pursue in the Netherlands. In Singapore, I arrived via the Politehnica University of Bucharest, which has a student exchange agreement with the National University of Singapore. A so-called student exchange program, because only students from Romania were going to Singapore for six months to finalize their research thesis project. One of my lab colleagues was another Romanian, Mihai Lupu, and through him, I met a teacher who knew Andy Tanenbaum, the one who wrote the computer science “bibles”.
This is my field, my PhD is in cloud computing and my master’s degree in high-performance distributed computing. Now, I am a lecturer at the software engineering group. I am in charge of 50 students who are part of the software engineering group and whose master’s theses I coordinate. In addition, I teach several courses, like software testing. I am involved also with the Amsterdam University College, where I teach advanced programming for 2nd and 3rd-year bachelor students.
I had a four-year merit-based scholarship at the Politehnica University of Bucharest, then an excellence scholarship in the last two years. I can say I was one of the top people at the Computer Science Faculty. The only reason which led to this decision was that I was going to work closely with Andy Tanenbaum. At the university, thanks to the fact that I was one of the top people, I had translated a substantial part of his books, the first editions to be translated into Romanian. I knew almost by heart his bibles and, when this opportunity arose, I told myself that “yes, absolutely, I will try this opportunity by any means.”
I came to the Netherlands through my Computer Science master’s in 2004. It was very difficult, because for a month I stayed home and waited for that precious sticker that allowed you to get a Dutch residence permit. If you entered the country before getting that sticker, you would be liable for being deported without the possibility to return. Due to this, I even missed the first month of my semester because I had to stay home and wait. Eventually, that moment came on a rainy and very ugly day, when I arrived in the Netherlands.
What is etched in my memory is that I was telling my mother that the Dutch are probably a little backward because they smile at you on the street without knowing you. You raise your eyes, you meet their gaze, we don’t know each other and they have a broad smile. I didn’t understand. Going to Nemo [science center in Amsterdam, ed.], where they explain what personal space is and how you feel your privacy being threatened by interactions with people who are too close physically, I understood that this is a mechanism that means it is OK for our eyes to have met, I don’t feel threatened by you, everything is OK.
How was it in the beginning?
It wasn’t easy. The issue was not my motivation. Adapting was awful: to the weather, to a culture completely different from ours, the people seemed very cold. They smile on the street, but they are very cold. I didn’t understand.
Then, bit by bit, the situation changed. I had many Dutch colleagues in the master’s program. It was a leading master’s, with 14-15 students. They were trying to select from those the future PhD students and prepare them in this respect. So, a significant part of the master’s program had to do with studying the references, with researching, and even with some amount of creativity; one of the courses was on writing a research project.
And because I got to know these Dutch people, I began to better understand their personality and culture. There’s a lot to say here. I had a Dutch boyfriend. I met his grandmother and she seemed extraordinary. At some point, he told me that he would relocate her to an asylum. My heart sank, I even told my mother on the phone about it. Some time went by and, looking for a house in the Netherlands, I found out that there are certain apartment buildings specifically for people over 60. In actual fact, that asylum was such an apartment building, where his grandmother had bought an apartment at a very low price, with facilities included in the monthly payment. Some kind of service costs of about 600 euros, with your shopping delivered to your door and entertainment activities two-three times a week. Then I understood that it wasn’t like the asylums in Romania. It was more like a hotel where you can enjoy yourself together with people your age and where you don’t feel isolated.
My adjustment began by talking to many Dutch people around me and trying to look for explanations for those things around me that seemed abnormal.
What kind of anomalies?
Shock and dismay when I found out that mothers go back to work six weeks after they deliver. In Romania, they stay at home until the children turn two.
The Dutch have a saying: “We want to raise children that adhere as much as possible to the Dutch culture and society.” First of all, you need to feel good in society and this needs to start as early as possible. Everybody has their own idea about the formative years, but we need to provide children with an interface. Children from the Romanian culture or the Moroccan, the Surinamese, the African, they all meet within the Dutch society, they have to have a dialogue based on the same values. From the experience of my Romanian friends that have children here, I’ve learned that they were glad they were able to also do something else instead of just staying home. It’s also freedom for mothers. This has also to do with women’s emancipation, which happened here in the ’70s.
Another aspect is related to the outstanding conditions that are provided for children in the Dutch kindergartens. It is amazing. An assistant for two babies, no more. It is a different way of planning child care hours. The system is much more centralized than the one in Romania. That’s also noticeable in the administration of your documents. For instance, you don’t get to keep your birth certificate at home. When you need to prove it, you go to the city hall of your place of birth and they issue an extract that you were born, valid for six months. And so forth, whenever necessary. In Romania, everybody is their own little city hall: you have to keep you birth certificate and any other certificate.
After all the cultural shocks, I decided to stay here for an undetermined period of time, but without becoming a Dutch citizen. I don’t think it’s necessary. I believe that the EU is a place where you can explore various societies and cultures and keep your own nationality. In the political context of the elections [general elections, March 2017, ed.], I had conversations with my mother of the kind: “If Geert Wilders [right-wing, nationalist, populist, eurosceptic and anti-Islam politician, ed.] wins, what are you going to do?” If Wilders wins, I will most likely move to another country, because this would mean that the Dutch no longer want to have people around them that come from other cultures. Who am I to tell them any different? It is, after all, their society.
What do you like about the Dutch society?
What I like: that you don’t have to mince your words in order to say what you want and what bothers you and the fact that, if you were to say what bothered you, it would not be perceived as a personal attack. Here, you can say that something could have been done better, that this is where you were wrong and where I was wrong, and so forth. Here, you can be yourself and find new possibilities and interests. Not necessarily to reinvent yourself, but to develop new skills and talents. You feel at ease as long as you don’t bother someone else. I like the fact that you don’t have to tiptoe around and bend over backwards in order to get what you want. You don’t have to say in a very convoluted way that you don’t want tea if it’s water that you want. In the long term, such an approach would be tiring.
On the other hand, I believe that the Dutch society should show more empathy. If the Dutch visited places that are less touristic or that are farther away, they’d become more empathetic, they would understand better and provide more refined feedback, instead of being so straightforward.
I also like that here a public official will never expect to receive a graft from you. Never! If I think that something could be solved easier, I offer them an alternative and we have a dialogue – “Have you thought about this solution?” “Oh, yes, of course, this would be good.” Or: “No, this is not possible.” Here, problems usually get solved over the phone, not via emails, they’re not too fond of that. Over the phone, a lot can be solved. If you don’t like it, you call again.
I’ve learned a lot. My German mentor in the Netherlands taught me that chances are much higher that a person is incompetent and not necessarily that they have something against you or a diabolical plan to ruin things. And the same goes for you. It’s better to work on your skills than to self-sabotage. That helped me a lot, because he told me about these things in the beginning, when I arrived here. And that helped me to put many things in perspective. I’m mentioning this because I find it important to all those coming from Romania, where, sometimes perhaps with good reason, we still have the feeling that it’s a personal attack. And by that I don’t mean foolishness, but simply the fact that maybe you didn’t have the best idea at some point, you had a momentary lapse. There is a tendency to interpret such a lapse as a malicious intervention, either of an individual or of some deity, who obviously has time to hinder you instead of saving the children in Africa. If you hear this advice several times, the process gets simplified and you begin to understand that there are, in fact, solutions.
Is Romania in your future plans?
I’m not sure I don’t want to return to Romania. For now, I feel better here, in my daily life. Of course, I miss my family a lot, because I love them very much and I enjoy spending time with them, but we have at least five ways to communicate digitally, and sometimes we don’t know which one to choose. But you miss the warmth of your home, of the people who care. A return to Romania is not excluded. When we retire, maybe we’ll do what the Dutch do: go to Curaçao or to the Republic of Moldova, where the wines are tasty.
What did success mean to you before leaving Romania and what does it mean now?
When I started going to university, success for me was to get to work at Sony Ericsson, because my first phone was a Sony Ericsson. The phone seemed super cool to me! Later, I started flirting with the idea of working in Switzerland, in the computer field. I arrived in the Netherlands where success got defined differently: finalise my master’s degree, then get my PhD degree.
While I was working on achieving my PhD goal, I realised that success is the freedom to discover a new adventure every day, something new that I enjoy, to discover how it works, if it works, if I like to keep this hobby in the long term, but without turning it into work. What relaxes me a lot, for instance, at the workshop where I make small jewelry, is that I can stretch the idea to the max, without necessarily being concerned about its utility. It is a purely artistic and arbitrary thing. It is an excellent outlet for daily stress, wherever you may be, just because you breathe. Everybody’s stressed. This is how I have changed my definition of success. From realization to exploration.
What’s your relationship with the Romanian community in the Netherlands?
I like to get involved when I think I am absolutely needed, there where I feel I could contribute. For instance, I try to do as well as I can what Cătălina tells me to [Cătălina Negru, Romanians for Romanians in the Netherlands Foundation, ed.], without this being imperative to me. Wherever I find positive values around me, I get involved. Without positive values in a normal society, the future would be bleak. In the Colectiv project [an initiative to provide support to those accompanying the victims who were transferred from Romanian to Dutch hospitals after the fire at the Colectiv nightclub, which killed 64 and injured 147 people, ed], for instance, I owed my contribution there substantially to the Romanian feeling; I got involved in organising. If I’m honest with myself and say that I’d like, at some point, to return to Romania, I also have to contribute to a society that I would enjoy returning to. It is a moral duty that I have towards my family. They’ve raised me and given me the freedom and the prerequisites to achieve what I wanted.
What would you advise those who would like to relocate now to the Netherlands?
For students, it is very simple to find their way in the Netherlands, because the state is interested in helping especially students who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and working part-time while they study. There are many financial advantages, there are many support networks in this respect. If they contact the Romanians for Romanians in the Netherlands Foundation, they will access a large resource of practical advice.
It is an open society, but reluctant to accept something under any circumstances. I find it normal that they protect their values, because they are solid, proven values that have turned the Netherlands into a model in terms of human interaction.
It is always recommendable to come here via a network of people you know personally. This way, you avoid traps. Also here there are traps, they’re everywhere. Like this, you find out what kind of work options there are here. In general, it is easy to come for a short while, to work for various temp agencies. There are many ads on Facebook, in various groups, in various cities in the Netherlands. It is also recommendable to try in the beginning to find accommodation at other Romanians so that you adapt easier. They will teach you how to manage your daily activities. It’s easier to learn all these things from someone who has lived here for at least a year or two.
And one more thing: pay your taxes! It is very important. I had serious arguments with other Romanians on this topic. Do you see the Dutch highways? You understand then why you pay taxes. Here, the state is not your enemy and it doesn’t wonder why it should do something for you when it suits you. It is citizen-oriented, it benefits the citizen. Including the Dutch monarchy benefits its citizens.
An interview by Claudia Marcu and Alexandru Iosup
translation by Alina Marginea, proofreading Mihaela Nita
Photo-portrait by Cristian Călin – www.cristiancalin.video
photos from the personal archive, edited by Alexandru Matei