What brought you to the Netherlands?
It’s a very long story. Initially, I did not know anything about the Netherlands, besides the famous Dutch painters and Dutch cheese spread, which turned out not to be Dutch, after all.
In 1991, while in my second university year, I enrolled for summer practice at a restoration camp where nobody from my school year wanted to go, in a Hungarian village in Transylvania. The practice was supposed to last two weeks, but I ended up staying there for five weeks that summer, that’s how much I enjoyed it. I was the only Romanian there, I was restoring an old citadel together with a group of young Hungarians from the village, a group of architecture students from Budapest and a group of students from the Netherlands. This was my first-ever contact with the Dutch.
Later, during my studies, together with Dutch friends, I organized on several occasions a few student exchange programs between Romania and the Netherlands. It was these contacts that somehow led to the idea of a postgraduate study in the Netherlands.
I applied for a scholarship at many Dutch and Romanian institutes, but to no avail, so I abandoned the idea, eventually. Because I had graduated from university with a very high score, right afterward I was invited to work for a pretty well-known architecture bureau in Bucharest, which, after only a few months, had sent me to Russia, to work as an architect on an entire building site.
In Russia I took part in building a small town, me being the only architect. From a professional point of view, it was an extraordinary fine-tuning experience. I worked there for a bit less than a year under extreme circumstances: 17 hours a day, including during the weekends, only 10 women among 2500 men, no radio or TV, no books, no free time, and many other constraints and limits.
At some point, from the secretariat, they told me that my parents had called on the phone, which was extremely unusual. My parents told me that I had to go back to Bucharest as soon as possible, because I had been awarded a six-month scholarship, which was due to begin in January 1997. Without telling me, some Dutch friends had applied in my name for a special grant and they had been successful. So I left Russia right away in order to prepare my departure for the Netherlands because back then a visa was still compulsory.
How was it in the beginning?
The telephone call happened at the end of November and the scholarship was to begin the following year, on January 1st. By the time I got back from Russia and I got my visa, more than two months had passed, so I arrived at the school in Zwolle only in February 1997, a month after the scholarship had officially started. I promptly went to school and, to my dismay, I found out something right from the first moment: none of the staff remembered I was supposed to come, and this wasn’t at all a postgraduate school, but an HBO [Hoger Beroepsonderwijs, higher professional education, ed.], and I had already done six years of university.
It took me a while to get to the bottom of what had happened. I bumped my head against all the walls and knocked at all the doors in that school, feeling increasingly frustrated. In the end, I asked my Dutch contacts for help. I thought, I will find something to learn even from an HBO, as there was quite a huge difference between the level of technical education I had enjoyed in Romania compared to the Netherlands. I just wanted to get permission to learn there. I looked for a mentor and together we went to the school’s director. Thus we found out, after weeks of confusion, that, because of an internal miscommunication, everybody forgot about my applying for a curriculum during that particular period. After the confusion cleared we put together a new plan: I would study a computer program for architects for a day a week, I put together a study about the design and construction of primary schools in the Netherlands (another day a week) and work for free – as a practice – in an architecture office for 3 days a week.
I went knocking to all architecture offices in Zwolle. I went to this last architecture office in Zwolle on a late Friday afternoon and I finally found a helping hand. These wonderful people helped me find a practice place, at a small and very interesting and dynamic architecture office in Rotterdam.
After the 6 months scholarship, I enrolled in a 2-years post-uni educational program for architects in Amsterdam. I still did not speak much of the Dutch language but I intended to force myself to learn it, as the courses were in all in Dutch. Just for laughs, I’ll tell you that I’ve learned construction law (first module, verification due after only two months) with the dictionary next to me. No google-translate in those days. I’d translate (and learn) word for word, page for page, sometimes I’d even have no idea which word was the verb. Thank God for multiple-choice questions, otherwise, I did not stand a chance to pass that exam!
Long story short, it was a very adventurous time and since leaving Romania for Russia, I’ve moved 23 times in 21 years.
At one point (in 2000), because of some administrative mistakes (not mine), I was forced to go back to Romania. I felt horrendous. I had a feeling of complete failure because I could not stay in the Netherlands. Hard to digest some of the people’s reactions: “why haven’t you been able to find a man and stay there”. I tried to explain that I didn’t leave Romania with such a goal but many people looked me like I was a failure.
After a few years, you were back in the Netherlands. What happened?
After a year back in Romania, a friend invited me to visit her in The Hague during the summer. The last day of that holiday I met a Dutch guy and it was love at first sight. In 2003 we decided to move together to the Netherlands. I have had 3 years of working internationally in Europe so I thought I would not have any issue finding work. I was also already speaking Dutch fluently at that time.
My first year did not go as planned, though. I did not get accepted anywhere so I’ve done a lot of weird jobs, including cleaning houses and working in a banket bakkerij, a confectionery cake shop.
All this time I was telling everybody I met that I was an architect looking for work. As I was getting increasingly desperate I finally got my chance and was accepted by an architecture and urbanism office in Amsterdam.
I loved working there but in the end, it was quite challenging because I was traveling more than two hours a day between The Hague (my home) and Amsterdam. I was also (again!) working very long hours. At the same time, I was beginning to feel that my work as an architect did not make me the happiest I could be.
When that contract ended and, shortly after, my relationship, I felt a change was coming. Soon after I moved into a meditation center in The Hague. The ones who live in such a place agree to participate in all the center’s group activities. This is compensated with a smaller rent than regular. The year I’ve spent there I’ve redesigned the whole center and we renovated it with our own hands. I’ve loved seeing the transformation, I was now living in a building in progress. I also had the occasion (and duty!) to offer guidance in meditation and organize fun things and theme parties for the center visitors, stand behind the bar, cook, etc. I loved it, I felt coming alive with a new sense of purpose, working directly with people. However, I still did not know exactly what I wanted. So I’ve decided to give architecture another go, as an architect at an internationally renowned office in Rotterdam.
After two months of working there, I was proposed to become a senior architect. After 6-7 months I realized that I could not continue to work in that rhythm. I asked my boss if I could maybe continue to work for them as a simple architect. They did not accept that. August 2008, when that contract ended, was the last time I worked as an architect. The same month I found out I was pregnant. A child that surprised me and at the same time, a child that I’ve always longed for.
After Victor’s birth, I was on and off very ill. There was this one moment when I started seeing a connection between the way I was eating and taking care of myself and my body – and my health. A short time after Victor’s second year of life I’d discover the concept of raw vegan food and soon after, the green fresh smoothies and juices. The detox and eating living foods helped me feel better so fast that I wanted to shout it out from the rooftops. Shortly after I extended these principles to the cosmetics. It seemed more than logical to me that we should also pay attention to what we put on our body, not only what we put in our body. Soon after I started making everything myself: from organic, pure materials I made soap, toothpaste, shampoo, all of it. Later I started working with the best essential oils on the planet. Around the same period, I also started selling my beautiful raw vegan chocolate and my art. I also had a few personal exhibitions and started giving workshops.
Thus Shining Mama was born – from combining all of the things I loved and loved to do. Now I can truly say that I every day do what I like, what I love, what makes me happy. My life’s value and my own value is not defined by how hard I work but by how much joy my work brings me and how many people I can support and help. In the same time, Shining Mama allows me to spend a lot of time together with Victor, which we would otherwise both miss very much.
How do you feel about all these years spent in the Netherlands?
For many reasons, the Netherlands is a much better match for me than Romania. I don’t regret any moment here, even the most difficult ones. Every step I made was really the only possible next step and nothing was wasted in the big scheme of things. I was permanently conscious that what happened in the past (and especially my experience in Romania) permanently helps me give form to the next moment and the future. At the same time, if the next moment is not to my pleasing, I am also aware of the fact that it is my responsibility and I have created it myself, regardless of the conditions around it.
In the Netherlands, I’ve had the opportunity to learn to be myself, which I actually never really was in Romania. Or rather, I did not choose to be. I consider that every step we take is a choice. Actually, through Shining Mama I try to continuously showcase for people that our choices are at the basis of everything, of life.
What did success mean to you before leaving Romania and what does it mean now?
Initially, the idea of success was related (falsely) to being able to stay in the Netherlands. When I had to go back to Romania in 2000 this first idea of success vanished. After that, success meant to be a good architect, to have enough money to sustain me and my life.
After I stopped working as an architect I had to redefine myself and my idea of what success. I became conscious that I had used “being an architect” as a defining identity. All of a sudden I started asking myself who “I” was in the absence of that status, of that identity, of that type of success. I started dissecting every fixed idea about “my” identity I could find in myself. This is how I starting letting go of many of my masks, amongst others the one of “being from Romania”. Personally, I’ve always felt as an international citizen, I’ve traveled a lot and I feel good everywhere. The Netherlands feels more and more like home to me, more than Romania ever did.
The idea of success is thus not related to my identity as a Romanian who “manages life in the Netherlands”, not related to being of not being “patriotic” or knowing what is going on in the Romanian political life. It’s not related to “where I was and how far I’ve come”.
In all awareness now my success is only related to me, to whom I choose to be, to do every day what I love, what makes me feel passionate and contributing to the bigger good. Is related to how much time I spend with my son and how much of a good mother (in my own eyes) I am to him. Success is to be related to how integrated we are in the society we live in, how good we feel with our lives and our every moment choices, wherever we are. It’s related to how consciously and aware we live our lives and how much good I can do with and through Shining Mama.
What’s your relationship with the Romanian community in the Netherlands?
I feel that there are a few big categories of Romanians here.
I see some who are and still want to be very much in a co-dependent relationship with Romania and everything that tara mama (mother-country) means, who refuse to integrate into the Dutch society, who continuously “miss home” and “how things were in Romania”. They would only call the Netherlands “home” by mistake. They might choose to stay here “for the money” and they only guide themselves by Romanian principles. I can understand these people but I am not one of them. So if you refer to these as being the “Romanian community in the Netherlands”, I am most probably not in it.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are also people like me. They have a different vision, they feel that we are all citizens of the planet, no matter the color of the skin or nationality; they see that at the basis we are all human, they feel themselves at home here, especially here. If the community you refer to is the people who participate in the life and society in the Netherlands with all their heart and soul, I am one of them. But I want to stress again that I feel I am an international citizen.
What would you advise those who would like to relocate now to the Netherlands?
I’d advise anyone to learn the language. It’s an issue I see many struggling with. They come here believing in the proverbial cainii cu covrigi in coada (the land of Cockaigne), arrive here and cannot find any work because of not knowing the language. Some of them do not even speak English!
Secondly, please don’t come here with the idea that the Netherlands is another Romania but “better and with more money”. There are other written and unwritten rules here, including how people move in the streets. In my opinion, one must (want to) integrate into the society here. Refusing to integrate is, in my opinion, the biggest mistake one can make. To come here and form your very own bisericuta romaneasca (Romanian enclave) and continuously complain about things: about the weather, the bikes, the taxes, the Dutch, the doctors or that there’s no good meat or cabbage for sarmale (Romanian for meat rolls in cabbage leaves).. To complain about the Netherlands and the Dutch and still choose to stay here is unthinkable for me.
An interview by Claudia Marcu; reviewed by Mihaela Nita
photos from the personal archive, edited by Alexandru Matei
Photo-portrait by Cristian Călin – www.cristiancalin.video