How did you end up in the Netherlands?
The story is rather long but I’ll try to make it short for you. It all started 28 years ago when, after the “famous” Romanian revolution, we found ourselves finally free to travel, to go abroad. My girl-friend at that time, and my current wife, wanted by all means to go to Europe, to see the West. She managed to convince me so, just like that, we set foot for with the four of us: me, her, and two university colleagues of mine. The idea was to reach the West in July, travel as much as possible, see as much as possible, take in what we could and return for studies in Romania. Easier said than done.
We took a flight to Berlin. There, we travel by train through Germany, but, at some point in time, we started to run out of money, which was not much anyways. We arrived in The Hague and one of us had the idea to request a visa for South Africa, to go there and see what apartheid was all about. It may sound naïve, but I’ll tell you what happened. We went to the Consulate of South Africa by taxi – one of the reasons we were actually running out of money; we didn’t consider a bus to commute. At the Consulate, they started to question us: why we wanted to go there, what’s our business there for people only 21 years old – we were pretty much around the same age. We could have had a secured trip had we been cops or doctors. When we realised we couldn’t leave on that very day – foolish of us –, we considered returning to Romania. Walking on the street, we came across some Romanians who engaged us in a conversation and took us to their home. They realised we didn’t have much of a clue of what we were up to so they advised us to go to the police and ask for asylum. “And then?”, we asked. “Well, you are provided with shelter, food, you are registered for the asylum procedure and, in the meantime, you have time to balance what you want to do next,” sounded their advice. It became obvious we were still not ripe enough in our minds. We balanced our options; as July 20 passed by, we’d been roaming around for about a week and money was wearing thin. To return to Romania we had to take the train back to Berlin but we didn’t have enough money for the tickets.
I’ve got to give you some context. It was back in 1990. When I saw the place of our hosts, it all looked so out of the ordinary, although it was just a common place. It kind of made us think what it took for us to be able to be in the same reality. Then, we had to consider the stakes of us returning to Romania. Two of us had exams to retake. Had we returned, we were supposed to take the exams, so we chose the asylum advice and entered the system. We were assigned in a immigrant camp in Nijmegen. We were give train tickets for the route The Hague – Nijmegen as well as a deadline for us to reach that place.
How was your life in that camp?
Everything we had been told was true: people there took care of us, fed us, gave us a shelter while we were not allowed to work. We didn’t stay too long there but it was definitely a shock for us, as Romanians. We were not used to seeing so many foreigners in one place, especially coloured people, from the North of Africa. It was difficult to mingle in the crowd, so we just stayed close to our group. Actually, our group stayed intact for much longer afterwards.
During the procedure, two of us found their life partners in the Netherlands. In our case – mine and my wife’s – things took a different turn. My wife got pregnant with our son, who was born and raised in the Netherlands. Thanks to our son, the mother was granted humanitarian support and I stayed with them. The outcome of our love gave us also our residence permit.
I’ve noticed many people I interact with that they have the tendency to define their moment “zero”. “I’ve started with a clean plate” is something I’ve heard many times. This “zero” is very relative. If I consider our own situation, then, for us, “zero” was really zero. We had absolutely nothing. We stayed here from July 1990, but my first office job started in March 1996. I’ll never forget.
What happened when you left the camp?
A lot of farming. I’m a doctor in leek, mushrooms, and the like. You do anything to survive. Especially in Limburg, where we were located – and still are -, a place that doesn’t offer anything except for agriculture. After 2-3 years of farm work, I managed to find work, eventually, in a luxury restaurant and that felt like my golden ticket. That’s how one should feel with a roof above one’s head and no worries about bad weather.
I’ve got to say that the people from the Employment Agency were fantastic. They were of great support. With their help, we completed language courses or specialised training in one area or another.
What did you study at the beginning in Romania?
In Romania, I started with Land Improvements. Now, the name has changed into Environmental Engineering. That one year of study was good for nothing here.
In the Netherlands, with the support of the Employment Agency, I first started technical design on a computer. My wife had a job – she did not spend too much time on the field, she found work in various factories – so I was the one spending more time at home with our son. Given my free time during the day, I started to learn on my own computer, as a self-taught person that I was. This was just a step from what I used to do at home to the technical design school. I started to learn to draw on a computer. The course took one year, but in my ninth month I was already doing great which made my teacher proud of me; he recommended me and I got recruited directly by Xerox. For me, this was a dream coming true.
Ever since that moment, my situation got better; I overcame that unstable stage, fuzzy and full of searches. And we did everything on our own, with no support whatsoever. We took our son everywhere, including to the club. Let’s not forget that when he was 2-3 years old, we were still young, 23-24 years old. A hobby of mine was to be a DJ so we used to go to clubs; at that time, it was still common to take a baby to such places. Today, this is practically impossible.
My wife started to study mechanics at Fontys Hogescholen in Eindhoven. Meanwhile, like I’ve mentioned, I started my own job at Xerox, in 1996. I had a period of about three months when, during the day, I was a technical designer at Xerox and, in the evening, I was doing the dishes for my former employer; I worked there for about two years and a half and I couldn’t let him struggle without any household help.
When did you learn the language?
I paid no attention to it at the beginning since English was key. And to our great amazement – of Romanians, in general – even the truck drivers we worked with could speak English. Nevertheless, after Bart was born, in 1991, I told myself that if we stayed here it would be good for my son to be familiar with the language. When he was two, we managed to take him to some sort of kindergarten so as for him to interact with other children. It was at that time that I thought it would do me good as well to learn the language.
I started with the Romanian method: bought myself books and started to slave away, on my own. If grammar was piece of cake, phonetics was more difficult especially when one lacks the talent for languages. My wife learned faster because she already worked in a Dutch environment. Only in 1994 I managed to attend some language courses, in a special university (volksuniversiteit, institution that provides training for adults); I was dissatisfied with this university due to the diversity of people attending classes, namely different levels, different worlds. Some would not even grasp letters. My luck was that, by working at Xerox, where English was largely spoken, Dutch was no longer necessary. Anyhow, learning the language took a long way, in my case.
What followed after Xerox?
Xerox was a great platform for me. I was sent to Gouda, a special centre for the Netherlands, known under the name of NVC – Nederlands Verpakkingscentrum. It was a school where people in the packaging sector got trained. I was sent there to learn about packaging materials – glass, metal sheet, cardboard, etc. – so I converted from a designer to a packaging engineer at Xerox.
However, I was still stuck on computer work and I continued to learn various programs. My managers in Xerox saw my passion and proposed that I would study computer science. I accepted instantly, so I went back to school in Eindhoven, in 1999. I did, of course, evening studies. My desire was to become a network architect. Those were two difficult years; my wife was also studying and she needed six years to complete her studies.
At the same time, a former colleague who started his own company to recycle toner cartridges, made me a proposal to work for him and be responsible for a branch of his business in Romania. I got attracted by the idea, I wanted to help him but, at the same time, I was thinking of being a linking pin between the Netherlands and Romania. So, in 2000, I left Xerox and accepted to work for my former colleague.
This way, I entered another stage of my life, which involved heavy travelling in Slovakia and Romania, to Câmpina. Well, in Romania, I was confronted again with Romanians and the Romanian way of being, pulling strings, paying off for things, misusing relations. In a matter of speaking, my former colleague was right in his choice to employ a Romanian for that job since I knew perfectly the way of the world in Romania.
I spent a lot of time away from home. My school continued, I had homework to do. My absences were challenging for my family. There were too many plates to keep in the air. I had to take a decision, make a change and still continue in a domain I loved and love, computer science. So I got a job in a care organisation for people with mental disabilities (geestelijke gezondheidszorg) as a network architect, a job I’ve always wanted and that I still currently perform.
How do you look at all these 28 years?
I’ve always picked my road with my homework done and I’ve never failed. Maybe I had a lot of luck or was with someone very lucky, but I have no regrets.
The only regret may be that our group of four from the beginning fell apart. We haven’t stayed in touch even if all of us still live in the Netherlands. The chemistry of the group has vanished.
How do you feel in the community you live in?
I like it. I like how everything is organised, I am even afraid of things starting to alter around here.
At the beginning, when you come from another culture, with other customs, you come across many aspects that you like, you admire, but very quickly you get confronted also with the differences, things you’re not familiar with. Many Romanians complain that it is hard to make Dutch friends, that they are colder than us, Latins, that you cannot knock on someone’s door. Until you learn this, you need plenty of energy, and after you learn it, you need time to accept it, then you start to get used to it and even admire it, because you start applying it yourself. If I’d wake up with a Romanian friend at my door, out of the blue, it would be very difficult for me to show him or her a “welcome” face.
I like it very much for its continuity. When they start something, they finish it; this helps me a lot, especially at work. When you shake hands with somebody, the deal will happen. It is so much different from how things used to be in my mother’s neighbourhood, in Romania. When I visit her and she asks me to solve a problem with the administrator, it is very difficult and it takes a lot of of my time to explain and convince him, not to mention the lack of guarantee that the situation would be fixed.
I have adopted much from the Dutch. Now, I’m a mix of Romanian and Dutch but I’d like to believe that I have not lost the Romanian fondness and spirit.
What is success to you?
For me, peace of heart is everything. Many Facebook users give you various definitions, happiness included: “You’re happy as long as you do not search for happiness.” I like this, it is something to print on a slate (the Dutch have their sayings printed on slates). To paraphrase this: I’m not looking for success, which means I must have got it already!
I’m pleased with what I see, the air that I breath, I like what I do! If I went back to that “zero” moment, on my way from the bottom to the top, I realise that there comes a moment when you overcome the stage where you are still in need. If you overcome this stage, nothing else matters but peace of heart.
How do you relate to the Romanian expat community in the Netherlands?
At the beginning I was not looking for Romanians, quite the opposite, I tended to avoid them. I wanted, at all costs, to get integrated and that meant for me a lot of time shared with and among Dutch people. Later, a platform was created – www.romanians.nl, where I used to be one of the moderators – which offered me something magical around 2005: I could easily make friends online. I noticed that such interactions did me good, and my wife even more. From virtual interaction we passed onto real meetings, we started friendships that are still going strong. The platform no longer exists but some of the friendships have survived.
After that period, I seemed to no longer have to fill gaps in my life, I was no longer alert for new relations, I no longer looked at getting closer to other Romanians. I do not take active part in actions or activities.
What’s your advice to a Romanian who’d like to relocate to the Netherlands?
In general, I don’t give advice or speeches. But, nevertheless, to give an advice to someone, I need to know the profile of that person so as to help him or her. Of course, there are also general recommendations such as “learn the language because it is important.” But, I’d like to say that it is just as important to be prepared to embrace the mentality of people here, be open, because otherwise it will be very challenging.
If you come as a tourist, it doesn’t matter how you are, but I kindly ask you not to throw paper rubbish and spit sunflower seeds on the pavement!
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