My life as an acrobat, or my path to self-assertion in a new country
How did you end up in The Netherlands?
Sybille, a pianist friend of mine, who visited me some years after my move to Amsterdam, sent me a playful postcard with the following printed text: Is there no end to your talents? Below the text she wrote: “When I think of you I can’t help thinking that we are all acrobats. Especially you! You have to juggle with so much and with so many…” As I am looking again at the cartoon of that old card, with the unicorn acrobat walking a tightrope while holding an umbrella, it dawns on me that it reflects the essence of my new life in the Netherlands. At the same time, looking back at all my victories and defeats, I can’t help but wonder whether my journey could perhaps have been less stressful… But let’s have the facts do the talking.
I had my hesitations about accepting this interview for Road to Success, because I don’t find my life story relevant to this topic. I belong to a generation of illegal immigrants who were not driven by the idea of material and professional success in the more technologically advanced Western world, or by a higher standard of living. Romanians who came to The Netherlands in the 1970’s fall into three categories: legal visitors on scholarship or enrolled in exchange-programs who “forgot” to return to their homeland; spouses of western country nationals; and dissidents who could no longer bear the communist oppression and were ready to accept any sacrifice to be free. My husband, Mihai Gavrilă, and I belonged to the third category. We both enjoyed a good life in Romania, professionally and materially. Our two children were prohibited by law to leave the country with their parents. The decision to leave Romania was my husband’s. He found it impossible to tolerate the spiritual enslavement to which we were subjected. In addition, he was frustrated in his profession, as scientific research in Romania was hampered by political factors: any contact with foreign scientists was suspect and subject to punishment. Neither my husband nor I have ever been members of the Communist party a signal achievement given his status as a university professor and corresponding member of the Romanian Academy! I came from a family branded by the regime as “bourgeois:” my father, Florian Şerbescu, was an engineer; my mother, Silvia Şerbescu, was a celebrated concert pianist and a professor at the Bucharest Conservatory. My family had suffered under the communist regime (my father had temporarily lost his job, was demoted, arrested, and mistreated; our house had been confiscated by the State; we had relatives hunted by the Securitate (the infamous security police) or imprisoned; we were called “exploiters,” with few prospects of being accepted in universities or being employed in our fields. Nevertheless, I found it hard to accept the idea of leaving Romania for good. In spite of my “unhealthy” origin, I ended up being accepted in the piano department of the Ciprian Porumbescu Conservatory in Bucharest (my mother’s solid artistic reputation likely helped), from which I graduated cum laude. I then became an assistant and later a lecturer in the piano department. In addition to my academic work, I was building up my career as a concert pianist. In the 1950s, as a laureate of three national competitions for young musicians, I had the opportunity to perform recitals or play in concerts with all the 15 orchestras active at that time in Romania. As of 1966, I could also travel and perform in concerts abroad, but was not allowed to take along my child, who had to stay in Romania as a guarantee of my return. For every trip a prolonged struggle was needed to be able to obtain my travel documents.
My trips abroad helped me get a clearer idea about life in the West and realize what difficulties may be in store if I were to leave Romania for good. This is why it was only in 1975, ten years after our marriage, that I decided to take this difficult and painful step. I knew what consequences I would have to face as a fugitive. Following my defection, a return to Romania would mean imprisonment. My “treason” against communist Romania would mean having to bid my final farewell to my father, the rest of my family, and all my friends, who could no longer keep in touch with me. I would lose my parents’ house in the center of Bucharest, next to the Cișmigiu Park, three grand pianos, a large library, our valuable paintings. In addition, I knew it would be difficult or impossible to find a position as rewarding as my job at the Music Faculty in Bucharest. And the most tormenting issue was leaving my two children, who after my departure would be held in Romania, in my father’s care. The Romanian authorities wouldn’t let them go and kept on saying that having our family “reunited”, which was our goal, could happen just as well in… Romania!
Nevertheless, in January 1975, upon meeting in Stockholm with my husband, who had been in the U.S. on a scientific exchange program, I yielded to his pressure and decided to stay in the West. We started to focus all our efforts on having our family reunited, and starting a new life from scratch. Mihai obtained a one-year contract in Amsterdam, at FOM, the well-known Institute of Nuclear Physics, where he could start working in the fall. In the meantime we stayed first in Sweden, then in Norway, where Mihai could find temporary work. The accommodation in Stockholm was at the beginning very bad: we stayed in the Strindberg museum-house in the famous Blue Tower (Blâ Tornet), where our landlady, a tall, slender Swedish woman named Gita, showed only abstract feelings of hospitality. I had no piano, and to prepare for a forthcoming concert with the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux in the Paris Théatre des Champs-Elysées I had to hop from place to place for a few hours of practicing here and there. I came to be sorry of not being a flute, rather than a piano player!
In Norway, in Trondheim, not too far from the North Pole, we had another problem: there was no heater in our room. Our host was surprised by our concern over the lack of heat: “Why would you need a stove in your bedroom, all you need is get under the blankets! ”
How was your start in The Netherlands?
Once we landed in Amsterdam, in September 1975, we slowly started to get our lives back on track. The FOM Institute offered us a rented apartment, in a block of flats in Amsterdam North, on the 11th floor. We rented a Yamaha keyboard from the downtown piano store, so I no longer had to beg for a few moments of practice. One year later we had to move again, and lost our neighbors, who didn’t mind my playing the piano. I now had to put up with complaints from neighbors ringing the doorbell or knocking on the floor. I remembered the good old days when my Bucharest neighbors were quiet even when midnight would found me still playing…
The most tormenting experience was our fight to get our children back. This took two years, and meant a lot of turmoil and setbacks. At last, one of my husband’s American colleagues wrote a petition to the Romanian Embassy in Washington co- signed by 60 professors from various American colleges and by three U.S. Senators. In response, the Romanian authorities immediately approved “reuniting the Gavrila family” in the Netherlands. Romania was at that time eager to maintain its “most favored nation” status and avoid antagonizing the U.S. Congress. Our children and my father thus rejoined us. Meanwhile, I was able to get a teaching position at the Brabants Conservatory in Tilburg. Being accepted by my future colleagues was difficult. “We already have a foreigner in our department – the composer Alexandru Hrisanide – why would we get another one?” protested one of them. Of the many applicants for that position I was the sole candidate asked to play a long and difficult program for the committee. I thought it would be a mere formality before being told that I would not be accepted. But my performance of Liszt’s Mefisto – Waltz turned out to be convincing, and I got the job.
After our children’s arrival we had to make a decision on the elementary and high schools they would attend. As a matter of course, the children would continue the musical studies they had started in Romania. Later, as they reached college age, they decided on their own to study computer science, with music remaining just a hobby.
(photo: the Gavrila family in 1990)
It makes sense that in the midst of our multiple activities and worries I would experience moments of depression, mainly about being unable to find enough time for practicing the piano. I needed a salutary idea that would keep me afloat in my real profession, which was my career as a concert pianist I had in Romania, not only the teaching in Tilburg. The escape arrived early, in the very first year, as 1975 was declared by UN as –The International Year of the Woman. Back then, I already had in my repertoire a few pieces for the piano composed by women composers, but I was far from realizing the complexity of this field. In fact, music written by women was not a 20th century novelty as I used to believe, but it had a history going back hundreds of years. In my search for meaningful themes that would stir organizers of music events, I proposed in Sweden for that special Woman Year, recitals with music by female composers. The proposal was accepted and consequently I toured the whole country with the Kvinnor – Women program. This was just the beginning, the initial snowball continued to roll only to become bigger and stronger.
This lonely initiative taken in Sweden continued also in the Netherlands. A few years later, I came in contact with other people animated by the same goal: to discover and promote the music composed by women. So, I became a member of the “Frau und Musik” (Woman and Music) Association in Germany and “Vrouw en Muziek” (Woman and Music) Association in the Netherlands, associations that collected and archived the creations of female composers, and facilitated awareness and promotion by means of publications and concerts.
In 1980, the First World Festival of Music by Female Composers was organized in Bonn-Köln in Germany; I had the solo part in the performance of the Concerto for piano and orchestra by Clara Schumann, composed by her when she was only 15 years old. Later, also in Köln, an orchestra composed only of women came into being – the Clara Schumann Orchestra, where I was invited on several occasions to perform. I gave various lectures on the topic of female composers from the past and the present, did radio recordings in different countries, gave recitals with explanations (the so-called lesson concerts), published articles, edited volumes of piano music composed by women, released 6 CD’s with such works, attended international meetings and conferences, etc. All in all, I have put all my heart and soul into this cause. It can be that this commitment to a cause that was more important for me than my own success has helped me keep my head above the water, helped me not to become overwhelmed by all chores and incidental distress that no one is spared of. Actually, this was the safety valve for me, which helped me create a meaning, a destiny, an argumentation for my own existence. Looking again at the cartoon of the acrobat with the unicorn, I realize that the women composers theme was, in my case, the “little umbrella” that has helped me achieve a balance of mind in all my adventures and risky walk on a tightrope, high up in the air.
How do you relate to all these years?
As I contemplate the more than 40 years I spent in the Netherlands I am both astonished and seized by a feeling of tenderness. I almost fail to understand how I have managed to keep so many balls in the air at the same time, especially without having any household experience from my previous life in Romania. It may be that a juggler’s mastery can be learned on the way, when in need.
What does success mean to you?
For me, success was always a consequence and never a goal! I have always loved a job well done and have always done my best, with the patience of a craftsman, to create the final product to the best of my knowledge. Sometimes, the product of my efforts got the appreciation of others, I was “successful”, but this came as a consequence, and never turned into the reason of my actions. Quality is not measured by success, but it can lead to success, and the path always comes first for me.
Let’s also try to define what we usually understand by success. I believe that, generally speaking, success is an achievement that is acknowledged by others, and brings you material gains or a superior social status, prestige, or all of these things together. For me, success has also a subtle negative connotation: chance, drawing the lucky lottery ticket, which brings you admiration and envy from those around you. Anyway, in the Netherlands, the meaning of the word success is oftentimes different, so versatile that it can be applied even to the small and meaningless activities, and the wish for success is amazingly frequent. For example, if someone says “I’m going to clean the table now”, you can wish them “Success!”, yet this wish would not sound ridiculous at all.
How do you feel in the community where you live?
If you ask me whether I feel fully integrated into the Dutch society, my answer can be neither yes nor no, it requires several nuances. Let’s not forget that the handicap all immigrants share in their new home country is the language. Even if we “manage”, the foreign accent and the inability to express, with more subtlety, certain ideas can trigger a certain complex, especially to those who appreciate a correct and expressive communication. It is good to realize that we the outsiders , are those who came here , mostly uninvited, and it is up to us to conform to the rules set up by our hosts t: wipe our feet off when we enter their house or even leave our shoes outside and enter wearing our socks. We can even notice, in our social interactions with the locals, that other rules apply than those we got used to in Romania. New “codes” surface that we’d better understand and respect any moment soon because not everything is apparent. Our problems are the common problems of any minority in a country with a different majority: we are welcome in certain activities and jobs that the locals refuse, but we are not warmly welcome as managers or rivals in leading professions.
I believe that some of the Dutch virtues such as discipline, being on time, a thorough planning (the famous “afspraak” that is as solid as a rock!) are qualities that we, Romanians, do not really cherish. We excel in spontaneity and improvisation and master the word, but pay attention: these talents have to be used carefully so that they do not come across as lack of sobriety and playing tricks on someone else. Also, although the majority of the Dutch are nowadays atheists, their long Calvinist tradition makes them fear compliments or praises. So, do not expect that after a wonderful performance you may give, you will ever hear some appreciation. Instead, be prepared to hear often disagreeable comments such as “how bad you look today…”, even if you meet someone, by accident, on the hallways of the institute and you never ask for such an opinion. It is important to know that these manifestations are not signs of personal dislike, only fear that you would start to act high and think too highly of yourself. A small, kind gesture, such as offering someone a cup of coffee at the cafeteria, will be viewed as suspicious. After drinking their coffee, the Dutch would offer you a cup of coffee as well, so that they don’t owe you anything.
However, we need to admit that two cultures meeting up can enrich our lives, with some effort. For me, the biggest spiritual gain in my new home country was to learn to look at things in a relative light, to stop drawing a very clear line between the good and the bad when judging values or history. There is no gain without pain and vice versa. I owe this awareness, to a large extent, to the Dutch concepts on more tolerance. These qualities that strike you at the beginning while, slowly, they show off their face value, are civic patience and good spirits under mean circumstances. The Dutch are willing to wait without any bother in a queue, even when the person in the front cannot stop his or her interaction with the cashier. When they miss the train, they are still in good spirits, they laugh out loud instead of getting angry and starting to swear. We still have a long way to go to catch up with them.
What’s your advice for Romanians who would like to leave Romania and come settle in The Netherlands?
All of us who have left Romania for a foreign country, separated from our families and friends in our home country, feel awkward at the beginning. Some years may have to go by till some of us can fully or, at least, partially become integrated into our new communities, especially when we are no longer in our youth. I’d venture to say that those who are older than 40-50, settling abroad is a great risk that may not be worth it unless they have children and consider first and foremost their children’s future.
I cannot give you a universal recipe, because there are various types of immigrants, from unqualified workers, who work in menial jobs or in agriculture, to highly qualified professionals, who aspire to top positions. The creation of the RomPro Foundation (Romanians for Romanians in The Netherlands) is a big gain and represents a valuable community for the newcomers. Here, they can meet their peers, can address common issues, and can get useful advice, specific to the category they belong to.
However, I’d like to conclude my story with a last remark: do not listen to old people’s advice because their experience can rarely be of any use to you! Only through your personal experience, as in being confronted with failures repeatedly, such pieces of advice can be useful. Optimism and confidence in your achievement will help you more than all guidance. Robert Schumann used to say: “Without enthusiasm, nothing can be achieved in art.” I believe this is true in any domain”.
(photo: Liana Serbescu with Radu Lupu)
an interview by Claudia Marcu and Alexandru Iosup
translation by Alina Marginean
Photo-portrait by Cristian Călin – www.cristiancalin.video
photos from the personal archive, edited by Alexandru Matei