How did you end up in the Netherlands?
It was a rather conventional reason and, actually, one of the few reasons to officially emigrate during communism: a marriage. In my case, it happened that, during my summer holiday at the seaside, I met a very nice group of Dutch people. These youngsters were in Romania for the second time, given that they had enjoyed it so much the first time. One of the young men in the group, tall, blue-eyed, became my husband – we got married with the permission of the state. We had to wait one year to get our marriage permit. We got married and came to the Netherlands, by train. I was acting childish back then, with little life experience, and, for the first time, abroad, a big challenge. Fortunately, I had the chance to meet special people who guided my first steps.
How was your beginning in the new country?
When you come from a country like Romania, your expectations are big, just as big as your dreams. The truth is that the beginning was difficult, from many points of view. On the other hand, it was emotional. I missed extremely much my home, my family, my dear ones, my mother with whom I had an exceptionally good relation. At night, I used to dream that I was walking on my dear street of Bucharest. Besides the difficulty of going for a visit to Romania, we could not afford – financially – to travel often, not to mention the slow communication – post took, back then, about five weeks, while calling was done once a month, a few minutes. It is true that my mother came to visit us, she was allowed to visit us every two years and stay maximum six months. When I left, Romania was still enjoying a certain openness, still had a liberal vibe, so to speak. Romania was seen in the Netherlands with good eyes, appreciated as the only communist country that opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia in ’68. Queen Juliana visited Romania, there were still tourists at the seaside. I cannot say we lacked substantial bare necessities, but we did face lack of fundamental freedoms.
Functionally, my start in the Netherlands was pretty good. The fact that I was, from the beginning, part of a Dutch family helped my integration, helped me learn the language, the local norms, and customs. When you go on your journey, you bring your own luggage of norms and values, your way of being, and all these elements can clash with your new culture. My integration ran pretty smooth. I had also the luck to meet wonderful people who helped me a lot.
The first time I made my acquaintance with Rotterdam, where I stayed – at first – for a couple of months, was a disappointment, in a way. I expected the city, known at that time as the largest harbour in the world, to be more lively, to be a melting pot type of harbour, with beautiful navy uniforms… but it wasn’t at all like that. It looked to me as a cold and empty place, especially in the weekend. Coming from Bucharest, where I was born, where I used to live in the core of the city – the royal domains, as they used to be called – with large, clean boulevards, old and diverse interwar architecture, the contrast deeply affected me. I am sorry to say that, in the meantime, my little Paris has become a chaotically developed place, unlike Rotterdam that has turned into a high-end metropole, an attractive city.
After Rotterdam, I lived in the south of the city, in a village. Personally, I have always considered this as a great benefit. It was a small community and I was, at that time, an oddity. Not everybody could point Romania on the map. When I went to the weekly fair – that I never missed – I was asked about my origins and I used to reply that I came from Romania; the reactions were instant and something like this “Oh, yes, Nadia Comăneci”. Then, everybody wanted to learn me new words, especially when I went shopping. It’s true that they also used to learn me less decent words, but those came in handy, too. I was an oddity because I used to go weekly to the hairdresser – as I used to do at home – and this was something unusual for people in the village.
What did strike me from the beginning was that most women stayed at home, didn’t go to work, as in Romania. They stayed home and waited for their children for the 15:00 o’clock tea when they returned from school. Just as odd it was the fact that few women studied. Meanwhile, things have changed substantially, women being now part of all professions.
Another unusual aspect was related to clothes. At home, my mother was active in the fashion world, she used to make beautiful suits and costumes, also for the theatre, and just as often also for me. When I came here, I used to dress up nicely, smartly, wearing deux-pièces, as the fashion was in my home country. It was clear to me that my fashion style made me stand out from the crowd, so I had to adapt. However, I have never accepted to go to work dressed in jeans.
I noticed a tolerance towards foreigners from the very beginning. I have to say that when I arrived here, the Netherlands had a population similar to nowadays (13 million inhabitants in 1972 as compared to 17 million in 2018) while the number of foreigners was not high. Those who relocated here were even invited and welcomed because they contributed to the economic development of the country. The situation has changed in recent years.
You came here after your high school graduation in Romania. How did you continue your professional development?
My professional integration was done in steps. I wanted very much to study law. I couldn’t do that instantly because studies were only in Dutch at that moment and for university studies, you needed to speak the language at an advanced level.
After some courses in the medical domain and some years of work as an assistant in a private practice and then in a hospital – Franciscus Gasthuis – in Rotterdam, I got to the level of knowing Dutch very well which allowed me to apply for the law faculty.
Although I enjoyed it very much and was proud of being able to study in Dutch, many times I had the impulse to give up because it was very hard. We had to read a lot, write on a typewriter with carbon paper, without the techniques of today. For example, we used to analyse sentences of 1800, in a very old language, difficult even for my Dutch colleagues. Jan (the husband) was of great support for me; he did the same studies and he motivated me to persevere. As I was too shy to ask questions in class, I returned home with tens of questions. Studying law means that you master very well a certain type of language, which is your tool, in combination with having a thorough knowledge of the social context where that applies. Besides professional know-how, I also acquired many life lessons and, fortunately, many friends. I completed my studies successfully and, as far as I understood, I was the first Romanian with a master diploma (LL.M) granted by the Erasmus University.
After my studies, I had the chance to stay and work at the university, in the post-graduate education. A new world broke open for me then, with many challenges. I had the honour to work, side by side, with Dutch personalities.
My great satisfaction was the chance to build bridges between Erasmus and Romania. I recall the Monetary department, founded by Erasmus at ASE Bucharest, and the first course of international private law and commercial law that I organised at the University of Bucharest with two famous professors from Erasmus, immediately after the revolution, in classrooms with no heating, students dressed in thick clothes but so determined! There’s a lot to tell.
When did you feel that the image of Romania in the Netherlands started to change?
Romania enjoyed a great deal of good will from the Netherlands, especially immediately after the revolution. There were extraordinary moments of solidarity. Hundreds of organisations got involved then and they are still active now. Romania continued to enjoy the friendship of many people from the Netherlands.
I have noticed a change of image in the last 10-15 years. There are many factors that, I believe, have contributed to this change: general circumstances, economic circumstances, the substantial growth of the population and human density in the Netherlands, which requires a high level of absorption. Then, the attitude of society to foreigners has also changed, the tolerance level has decreased, the way the media is chasing and pushing negative news.
I often get questions from various publications due to the nature of my activities that bring in contact with people and institutions. With regret, we have to admit that we are not always seen in a positive light and there are also actions that do not honour us – you see, for example, the theft of those paintings from the Rotterdam museum that was heavily broadcast, etc. For the rest, besides all the positive things happening in Romania, the evolution of the country is not as we wish it were on all levels, leading to high impact actions. We cannot deny this aspect.
I’d like to emphasize that, as to what Romanian expats in the Netherlands are concerned, based on my experience, their valuable contribution is much appreciated in the communities they belong to. It cannot be but this way; the Netherlands enjoys the positive impact of the Romanian brain drain, an aspect less brought to the attention of the public, unfortunately.
How do you look at all these years spent in the Netherlands?
This is a somewhat very challenging question. It makes me think more about what it was. I cannot say but the following: I look happily at my life in the Netherlands, with its highs and lows, as most lives. I can say I had my luck and I don’t feel sorry for my decision of coming here.
How do you feel in your current community?
I believe that 70% I am Dutch since it’s been here that I have lived most part of my life and have learned a lot. I appreciate the direct and open manner of the Dutch. This polder model (the method that decisions are made in joint agreement) in which we live here seems to me to be highly functional, meaning you reach a solution through consensus. For example, when I used to work at the university and I ran into a problem, we wouldn’t separate until we reached a solution, everybody contributed with something – water bij de wijn (Dutch saying, literally: “to pour water into the wine”, to make a compromise) – so that everybody can relate to the result, without winners or losers, but with a common ground, beneficial for the work process.
I’ve learned to stop labeling, to make things relative. I’ve learned that you’re not the only one supposed to win, but you need to let the other one win as well; and that you need to think in perspective. I’ve learned you cannot accomplish anything on your own.
I have to say that I have not yet fully adopted the way of Dutch people expressing themselves in short sentences, which comes in handy. I still have some problems. I recall my first homework assignments at the university with our lengthy style of expression, seven pages for five ideas. It took long until I reached from seven pages to two.
I cannot say that I have the feeling I’ve found my place, 100%, every day. Where is home? Roughly, it is in two places: I feel very much home here but just as well in Bucharest. Especially in Bucharest, as this city lives, I feel like a fish in the water.
I’m happy to live in the Netherlands, I love this country, it is a fantastic point for me. Somehow, I am Nordic in my pragmatic way of thinking, but I feel closer to the Latin culture, emotionally. I feel European, wherever you travel in Europe, you discover so many things in common.
What is success to you?
Success is something relative. As for me, emotionally, success is always connected to people around me, to love and be loved. Success is when you do something which changes things for the better when what you do means something for someone. We have the Hope Foundation that lets us achieve many great things for vulnerable children and young people. I saw how much it meant to get involved, support a cause or someone, a relatively small gesture that can change lives. For Christmas, we have received the most beautiful bread I’ve ever seen, made in the social lab we initiated and supported – this is success to me. I appreciate volunteering a lot, an activity that is so much stimulated by this foundation.
Professionally, I can say I had my share of success. It didn’t just happen, but my work has been, fortunately, acknowledged in all the stages of my life
What’s your relation to the Romanian expat community in the Netherlands?
First, I have to say that I was very happy to find out that, shortly after I founded the Carmen Sylva Foundation, the RomPro Foundation – Romanians for Romanians the Netherlands – was set up. I value the activities of the RomPro Foundation, which, obviously, were triggered by a need; the community of Romanian expats has grown substantially in the last years. Just as much I value the Romanian schools here. It’s so beautiful to hear children of other nationalities speaking Romanian, here, in the Netherlands.
With Carmen Sylva Foundation, a fully private initiative, we try to promote the rich and less known Romanian culture in the Dutch space. I have noticed that Romania is known only from a certain angle, so we try to broaden the perspective. Through art and culture, we can show the beautiful and current face of Romania. We should never forget the economic impact that art and culture can trigger for a country.
For a couple of years, you’ve been the honorary consul of Romania. What does this function involve?
As the title says, it is an honorary function. It is an honour to be invited for this title, which is a voluntary activity for those taking this role. This function is apolitical, and the honorary consul is not an employee, the entire activity not being remunerated. To successfully fulfill this function, it is necessary to have a good knowledge of the two countries that you would bridge culturally, economically, and socially. In addition, it requires commitment, availability, professionalism, and integration in the society you live in. Personally, I focus especially on the development of cultural relations, on high-value landmarks that Romania can be proud of and can bring out in the spotlight, in particular.
What is your advice to a Romanian who’d like to relocate to the Netherlands?
When you go in Romania and see how much beauty is there, I’d be happy for Romanians to stay in our home country. But, of course, everybody is free now to choose a place of their liking.
I’d say to come here prepared, learn the language, apply for courses – it doesn’t matter the level or the age. In the Netherlands, there are many opportunities for study. Get involved in voluntary work. This will open new perspectives, your chances to get an integrated increase as well as your chance for a decent and interesting job. Education enriches you also socially. I still have friends from my first courses in the Netherlands.
Do not bring your prejudices that the Dutch are cold and distant because it is not true.
And something else: try to be modest. It is a quality that is highly valued here. I’d like to emphasize this because I know many people who got confronted with this. We, Romanians, have lived in a very competitive society and we have always had to show that we are the smartest and we know the best. Look around you: you don’t need to assimilate but adapt.
For the rest, try not to criticise your country blandly because, indirectly, you criticise your ancestors and the beautiful people who still live there. Try to share your beautiful experiences you bring along or, at least, try once to do something for the place you left behind.
An interview by Claudia Marcu
Translation by Alina Mărginean
Photo-portrait by Cristian Călin – www.cristiancalin.video
Photos from the personal archive, edited by Alexandru Matei