What brought you to the Netherlands?
I think my case is slightly atypical for the 21st century, when the majority of those who leave their country temporarily or for good do so having a plan. I came to the Netherlands somehow against my will, and I never wanted to live here. The reason behind moving had to do with my partner’s career who accepted a job in 1998 at the ISS – the International Institute of Social Studies – in the Hague. From one day to the next, the die was cast… We moved to the Hague in October 1998.
How was it in the beginning?
The beginning was difficult, at least for me. During that period, I was the perfect embodiment of what is known as a trailing spouse in the Western bureaucratic parlance, meaning the wife who follows their partner, employed in the labor market, from country to country, from job to job.
In Romania, I had several careers, I knew who I was. I worked at the local TV station, where I was the editor of the German-language program. I taught at a high school – the first confessional high school in Cluj –, and I was conference interpreter.
In Romania, during the ‘90s, life throbbed in the fifth gear, and I was a part of it in Cluj, my native city. The civil society wasn’t in bud, but in full bloom, and I felt I was an integral part of the intellectual, cultural, and civic life of a multiethnic university city from Central Europe. Then, for a couple of years I lived in London, I became a mother, I had it good, among other thing also because I went home, to Cluj, on the spur of the moment, many times a year. As soon as I stepped down from the train, I would put on my Cluj identity and, just like that, I felt at home. Through phone calls, faxes, and letters frequently exchanged with relatives and friends, I followed everything that was happening back home: I had my finger on the pulse of the city, of the country, even from a distance. I was subscribed to the local and national press in Romania in Romanian, Hungarian, and German. If asked who I was or where I was coming from, I’d smile and say “Now, I reside in London, but when it comes to living, I live in Romania.”
Moving to the Netherlands caused a deep rift. Parting from London was far heavier than I could have ever imagined. Retrospectively, I think that move triggered the beginning of a complete recalibration of my identity, an extremely painful and very arduous process.
The Dutch seemed to lack grace in just about everything. They were excellent traders, but for the rest, nothing more. To me, the food here suffered from a lack of imagination and flavor, and the reflexes of the society seemed void of the most basic courtesy. I remember the moment when I was overwhelmed with despair, when everybody stared at me while I was trying – in English – to buy cheese in a store on Frederik Hendriklaan – one of the most select streets of a select neighborhood in the Hague. I said to myself that I’ll never be able to look beyond people’s eyes. Meaning, I’ll never have access to a Dutch person’s soul. My reflexes as a person who feels and even is at ease in several European languages and cultures proved to be useless. In my mind, I still knew who I was. But not for long. Years ensued, during which everything I knew about myself was questioned, eroded, and carried far, far away by the stream of feelings and dissonant thoughts.
From the outside, I was regarded as an expat, one of those privileged foreigners who refuse to learn Dutch, because of whom the rent prices increase beyond what an average Dutch person can afford, one of those who complain about the weather, the food, the lack of jobs, who expects to be served in English, German, or French. On the outside, I was, indeed, an expat. In my heart, however, I felt useless, invisible, and ultimately inexistent.
Were I to try to sum up those years in a few phrases, those would sound something like this: at home you have a past, you have memories that are partially shared and confirmed also by relatives, friends, or school and university colleagues. You recognize your roots in dishes, dress code, and architecture, in the rituals that mark births, weddings, and deaths. You know your lineage, you know where you’re headed, you understand the cultural codes and the cypher that underpins communication – both the private one, and the one with the authorities. Once you get to a country with which you don’t have any ties – neither linguistic, nor cultural –, you have nothing but the present. And nobody is interested in your present, which is natural, in the end. After all, it was you who came here, nobody asked you to come.
How do look back at all these years?
After twenty years and multiple fractures in my personal life, I’ve come to feel good in my Dutch life. I’ve learned a lot from my host country, and I think I’ve managed to change a thing or two in my own personal Dutch circle.
Oh, I almost forgot one crucial element: I learned Dutch, which gave me the key to the seven locks with which the Netherlands and everything that involved living here seemed – until then – to be locked up. I read, write, and work in Dutch, and I’ve learned to appreciate the dry, clear, and practical communication of the Dutch people. The Dutch language is the only one in which I can communicate pragmatically and without passion, and it’s good for me – for me and those around me. Okay, I don’t think this would be possible if I no longer had the opportunity to live simultaneously using all my other languages. I think I would go insane without my mother tongues.
I appreciate my life in the Hague, but I don’t know how I would feel somewhere in a small and clean town in Friesland, for instance, where I’d have to live predominantly using Dutch.
What does success mean to you?
To me, success means not to feel, not to feel any longer the need to justify myself every moment. Not to feel that I have to choose between here and there – it’s to simply be at home right there where I’m at. It’s to be able to live by the values which I deem important, without bothering anyone. Without anyone wondering “What is she doing here?” It’s understanding the processes of the society in which I live. It’s no longer feeling lonesome during important life moments, whether good or bad.
How do you feel now in the Dutch society?
I’ve come to be grateful for my Dutch life. I’ve had turning points, when the Dutch state systems defended me, in spite of not being a Dutch citizen. There were situations in which the Dutch social system evaluated an extremely difficult case in a very benevolent and empathetic manner. I was helped, not because I deserved it, or because I deserved it more than somebody else. I was helped because that’s the nature of things in a society in which nobody is abandoned or left in the lurch. The vulnerable ones are simply protected by the system because that’s what’s fair: to protect the interests of the vulnerable, not of the strongest.
I’ve learned here that explanations matter very little. What does matter is the result, nothing more, nothing less. It’s good to know what you have to do and deliver before the set deadline – whether it’s a translation, a payment to the Treasury, or an answer to a question. Here, nobody will pressure you, they won’t be invasive, they won’t nag you – you’ll be told once, possibly twice. But that’s it. The rules are clear, as are the consequences of breaking them. Punctuality is essential. Diva airs are not tolerated, nor encouraged.
The civil servant has considerable room to evaluate and take action, which they will use as they see fit, but in the strictest sense of the law. The Dutch official is not suspicious and will remain empathetic. They will treat you with respect from the very beginning. It may be that they won’t like you, but they will treat you with respect. Laziness, negligence, and invoking certain high-sounding names or functions won’t impress anyone. The civil servant will mind their business, they’ll take a half hour lunch break and they’ll go home at precisely the right moment, they don’t work overtime. If you’re repeatedly seen at work at the end of the day, it may be suggested that you go to a counselling session so you can manage your time better. It’s just not done to stay overtime. I have yet to meet one civil servant that says “Come, after my colleague leaves, we’ll find a solution!”
Defamation, gossip, speculations, and allegations are met with silence, in the best case. However, such statements disqualify from the start the person that issues them, whether in the private or the public sphere. Here, you don’t owe anyone anything and nobody owes you anything – whether at the doctor’s, the tax authorities, or your child’s school, this is a very unusual psychological juncture in the daily life back home, in Romania.
Stalemates are not solved with fights or threats. I saw people who calmly said, in a normal tone “You know, I’m mad. From now on, things will change.” And indeed, things, behaviors changed – the benevolence disappeared. A Dutch proverb, translated literally, says “Trust arrives on foot and departs on horseback.” Meaning, you earn it slowly and you lose it quickly.
For as long as I’ve lived here, nobody has spoken to me in an angry way or in a tone seasoned with verbal assault. The children are not being raised neither with threats, nor with emotional blackmail. Instead, they’re simply being told what is expected of them and which are the consequences if they don’t comply. It’s the deed that is assessed, not the character, both in the private and the public sphere. I find this sentence to be extremely important, so I’ll repeat it: it’s the deed that is assessed, not the character, both in the private and the public sphere.
The daily conversations are often characterized by elegant sarcasm, ultra dry humor, straightforward and logical debate, without politeness and flattery. Communication is done without insults, without nerves. Here, discussions are won by those who remain calm, mannered, and rational. I admire Dutch people’s ability to stay at the negotiation table until a compromise solution, somewhere in the middle, is found. Pounding the table is seen as a weakness – it doesn’t lead to results, it doesn’t scare people. I’m glad about that.
What kind of a relationship do you have with the Romanian community in the Netherlands?
I’m much older than the young people that come here now, and we live in parallel worlds. We possibly meet at the events organized by the community, by the Romanian Embassy. I have a couple of Romanian friends, most of them women, moms, from my generation. We meet at Romanian film screenings, at book launches, somewhat less at shows. I’m very busy, unfortunately, and I have very little spare time.
The Netherlands and the Hague have changed tremendously in the past twenty years and the Romanian community has become more diverse, more stable, and better organized. I’m glad everytime I hear someone speak Romanian on the street and I admire the self-confidence and easiness with which the young Romanians who study or work here show when navigating the labyrinths of the Dutch society. It’s normal, the majority of them are well qualified, they speak foreign languages, and they’re willing to adapt. They’re determined, ambitious, and free. I know, there are also exceptions, but most Romanians in the Netherlands are appreciated and recognized for their merits. The internet has deeply influenced the way in which you can manage your identities and biographies in parallel – and those who come here are, for the most part, digital natives, born in the 21st century. The Romanian communities throughout Europe communicate intensively, people get to know each other, even if only via social networks. Nobody has it easy and nobody will fuss over you just because you came out of the blue from Romania. At turning points, however, the spirits unite in a solidarity which I find striking. I’ve personally and intensely experienced this during the fire at the Colectiv nightclub, and in the months that followed.
What would you advise a Romanian who would like to come to the Netherlands now?
They should come well informed, well prepared, armed with curiosity and a dose of humbleness, like a guest during their first visit. They should be punctual and not promise more than they are truly willing to do. They shouldn’t judge their host country by comparing it with their home country. I, for instance, have wasted precious years, transfixed by my homesickness, instead of being curious and free, and having an open mind. I can forgive myself, reminding myself that in the ‘90s the world was very different – both here, and at home, in Romania. The borders didn’t have the same permeability as they do now and the differences in mentality were colossal. The internet had not yet made its entrance. Parting at the train station seemed to be much more final.
They shouldn’t try to be sly, because there’s no second chance to make a good impression, whether they show up to an interview, they want to sign a rental contract, or they want to woo a Dutch woman. Until proved otherwise, the Netherlands is a society that’s based on trust, not on control – and it’s good it’s like that.
They shouldn’t move to the Netherlands during the months when it’s darker, cold and wet – October to February. This could have a dreadful effect, in a completely unexpected way. They shouldn’t overload their work or study schedule, because mental and emotional exhaustion is much more probable when life is reduced strictly to studying and/or quickly making money.
They should learn Dutch as soon as possible, even if they don’t intend to stay here for the long term. A few Dutch words said in a calm and friendly manner can do wonders.
They should enjoy the extremely well-organized public transport and they should ride the bike as often as possible. They should buy a Museumkaart (valid for a year, ed.), which grants them free or discounted access to over 400 museums.
An interview by Claudia Marcu
translation by Mihaela Nita
Photos from the personal archive, edited by Alexandru Matei
Photo-portrait by Cristian Călin – www.cristiancalin.video