What brought you to the Netherlands?
My story is pretty long, but I consider it to be special. It all started in 1997, when I came to the Netherlands for the first time, together with the Chorale Allegretto from Sibiu. At the time, I was studying music and piano as a main instrument at the Art High School in Sibiu. I was often going abroad with that Chorale, especially in Austria and Germany, and in 1997 we came to the Netherlands. It was a very beautiful week, we happened to be here right on Queen’s Day (Queen Beatrix, ed.) and we had many concerts. We, the children, lodged with Dutch families from Deventer, a place I hadn’t heard of up to that point. I was 17 and at the time, and it didn’t matter whatsoever that we came to this small town in the east of the country, instead of going to Amsterdam or the Hague. I managed to spend quite a lot of time with the family that accommodated me. I got to know them and I was surprised by how open and friendly they were with each other, but also with us. I was in awe with the tall windows without curtains, it was so different compared to Romania.
We stayed for a week, and after we returned home, I kept in touch with that family via letters. A year later, the family even did us the honor to visit us in Sibiu. In turn, they then discovered with surprise a different world in the east of Europe.
Meanwhile, I graduated from high school and I sat the entrance exam for the French-English department of the Faculty of Applied Modern Languages at the “Lucian Blaga” University in Sibiu. I spent a wonderful year there, perhaps one of the most beautiful years of my life. During that time, I found out that the granddaughter of a neighbor was studying in Paris. After I found out what she had to do in order to get there, I decided to take the same route, although I was doing really well in Sibiu and I had a merit scholarship.
After having prepared a comprehensive file – my first encounter with French bureaucracy –, I went to the Alliance Française in Bucharest and I sat five pretty difficult exams. My file was sent to Paris, at the university that I had chosen. I wanted to continue the same foreign languages major, only I had to replace French with German, a language in which I only just managed. I was counting on the fact that the French are not that good at foreign languages and it seems I was right. The answer from Paris didn’t arrive in April, when it should have. May and June had passed, and only in July did the long-awaited letter arrive: “Congratulations! You’ve been admitted to Paris 7 Denis Diderot University, to the English-German section of the Applied Modern Languages Department. You are expected at the enrollment day on September the 4th.” “Great,” I said to myself, “but how do I get there?” We’re talking about 1999, when we still had to apply for travel and residence visas. After many complications, I managed to find a French family that sent me all the documents necessary to get my visa. And that’s how I went to Paris, with a suitcase and 200 Deutsche Marks in my pocket. I had just turned 20. All in all, I spent five years studying in Paris, including a master’s in International Relations and Foreign Operations at the Sorbonne University.
I have to say that the first year in Paris was extremely difficult for me. It was a year with so many trials. On top of studying, I had to work a lot in order to be able to support myself. It was the year when I discovered what the day-to-day reality entailed: humanity, humility, responsibility, and a really strong character. I felt like a soldier on the battlefield. I collapsed many times, both literally and figuratively – I missed my family, my friends, the beautiful student life in Romania –, and just as many times I forced myself to get up with a smile on my face and continue. Why was I pushing myself? Because it was my choice to leave, I was the one who wanted to get a diploma abroad, I wanted to have that experience, to prove to myself, first of all, that I was capable of completing that university degree in Paris. Obviously, not all five years were as intense as the first one. I never regretted taking that decision and I’m very proud that I managed to earn those degrees. Thanks to those studies and the experience I had in Paris I’ve become the woman I am today!
Well, perhaps we’ve strayed away a little from the topic, but it’s with a reason. During all those years when I stayed in Paris, I went to Deventer on a regular basis, at least once a year. The friendship I kept with the Janssens helped me escape for a few days from the Paris life and go to Deventer. It was much more difficult to go and visit my home town, as today’s possibilities didn’t exist back then: flights, open borders, etc. So, instead, I went to Deventer, where I’ve always felt at home.
As part of my International Relations studies in Paris, we were required to do internships abroad and I went to the Netherlands. In 2003, I did an internship at the French Chamber of Commerce in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, I began to learn more and more about the connection between Deventer and Sibiu and I also understood why we had gone to Deventer in 1997. In order to finish my master’s, I requested an internship at the Deventer City Hall, with the Department of International Relations. It was an extraordinary internship. In just eight months I managed to go twice back home, to Sibiu, obviously for work purposes, but that also meant I had the possibility to see my family again. During that time, I gained experience from working in a team, which I hadn’t yet done in France.
After that internship, I returned to Paris full of energy. I graduated from my master’s and I asked myself what’s next. I happened to get a phone call from the Deventer City Hall, which offered me an employment contract for three years. That was in 2004, when it was already known that Sibiu was going to be the European Capital of Culture in 2007, a special year for Romania, when the official accession to the European Union happened. The Dutch partners needed someone to help them with a major project which was supposed to be implemented in Sibiu at that time. It seemed like an unique opportunity, a chance to stay a bit longer in Western Europe, to be involved in the cooperation between Deventer and Sibiu, and to contribute to the development of my home town while on Dutch land. I repeat, this was in 2004, when Romania was not yet an EU member and it was very difficult to stay in Western Europe. The Deventer City Hall took the responsibility for the administrative drudgery – it was difficult for a non-European to find work and the employer had to justify why they chose me and not somebody else – and I was helped to obtain all the documents required for my employment. I rewarded them by learning Dutch during the four months that it took to complete the procedure. And so I began to work at the Deventer City Hall, initially as an assistant, because I’m currently an International Relations Manager.
2005 was, therefore, the year when you settled in the Netherlands. What was the beginning like?
Compared to the beginning in Paris, here everything was much more simple. I came from Paris with life experience, but, of course, I found myself in a different situation. I was no longer here on holiday to visit friends. I had to rediscover myself, to rebuild a social network, and to discover the Netherlands as my second home.
At work, I was fascinated by the level of transparency. The transparency of the buildings, but also the open manner of communicating. Then, I was fascinated by the teamwork and the cooperation on an equal footing between the public administration and the city partners, something which I hadn’t seen in Romania.
In the day-to-day life, even if it was more simple than in France, there were moments when I felt very lonely. It wasn’t easy to find my spot, so to say, but, just like in Paris, I said to myself pretty much the same thing: the choice is mine, nobody forced me to come here, so the effort should be entirely mine. Well, unlike in France, in the Netherlands there is life after work hours. There’s volunteering, there are courses, and I chose a dance course – salsa – together with a few colleagues from the City Hall. That’s how I made other friends and my life became more and more easy. It was there that I also met Alex, the one who was going to become my husband. Now, we have two sons together, whom we’re very happy with.
How do you look back at all these years?
I got to know different worlds. In Romania I was a child and an adolescent, in France I was a student, but I also learned to be independent and responsible, while in the Netherlands I started making a living. I don’t regret any decision made during all these years.
What do you like about the society in which you live now?
I already mentioned the transparency and the open way of approach. On top of that, I like the open manner in which children are being educated, without constraints. Then, the civic engagement and the political involvement, if you will, the number of those who vote is very high. People get involved a lot in local, neighborhood initiatives, which I find extraordinary. From a professional point of view, I appreciate the trust that an employer has in their employees and the lack of an institutional hierarchy, which facilitates and accelerates the decision-making process.
If we’re talking about cultural differences, I think I was mostly surprised by the way in which the Dutch celebrate their birthdays. Everyone mutually congratulates each other with the occasion of the birthday person’s anniversary and they all sit in a circle and socialize. Many years my birthday meant music and dance. The Dutch were rather reluctant in the beginning, but, eventually, they got to have a great time. At some point, however, I’ve adapted to the social norm and now I’m also among those who sit in one of those less noisy circles.
I try to pick what’s best out of each culture and to respect any potential differences. That way, I think it’s easier to get over difficulties, if they exist.
I believe I’m very well integrated. I’ve adapted well to the Dutch society and I’ve adopted many of their values. The Netherlands is a small country, but from many points of view it could be considered the land of all opportunities. It is, in any case, the country where it’s very normal for the prime minister to clean up by himself the coffee he spilled in a public space. That fantastic, right?
Where would you say “home” is?
It’s a very difficult question. Next year I’ll reach my life’s “equator”: I will have lived abroad just as much as I’ve lived in Romania. In Romania I was a child and an adolescent, I’ve known the communist period and partially also the post-communist one, while here, in France and the Netherlands, I’ve grown up, I’ve discovered the real life, with achievements and disappointments, but most important of all, I’ve created my own family. So where is home? There, where my family is, or here, where I’ve created my own family? The compromise is that I’ve got two homes. Even the job at the City Hall has helped me to always navigate between these two homes. I often catch myself talking about us, referring to Romanians, or us, referring to the Dutch. Personality crisis? I don’t think so. I think I identify with both worlds and I’m part of both. In fact, I consider myself a rich person from this point of view.
Tell us a little about this connection between Deventer and Sibiu, which has basically brought you here. I have the feeling that you have more ties to Romania than to the Romanian community in the Netherlands.
Yes, you’re right. A long time I was more in touch with the people in Sibiu, due to the collaboration between the two cities. I took part in many projects in Sibiu, aimed, for instance, at improving the social services, the assistance for people with disabilities, at trainings about accessing European funding. The cultural collaboration exists especially thanks to the Netsib Foundation – you know Jan Achtereekte, he’s been involved in this bilateral relationship ever since 1989.
The heydays, so to say, of this partnership were between 2005-2010, as there was also funding provided by the Dutch Ministry of External Affairs through the Association of Dutch Municipalities for these projects of experience exchange between public officials from the Netherlands and Romania. After 2010, these funds were gradually decreased, until they were ceased.
Between 2010 and 2015, there was a stand-by period, so to say. There were many changes, both in Sibiu and in Deventer. We saw that as a period to redefine and rediscover ourselves, to analyze our relationship, which began by providing humanitarian aid, and it evolved to an equal partnership. Ever since the beginning, this aspect was very important for the Dutch partners, to be equals and to have an exchange of experience: we’re not the only party to provide knowledge, we’re also learning from you. In 2015, we celebrated in Deventer 25 years of cooperation and we invited our partners to Sibiu. The young people who were students in Sibiu at the time of our projects, had now become professionals, managers, and were very enthusiastic and eager to continue this partnership.
At the same time, we realized that it would be good to develop the network in both countries. Also in 2015, we met with the ROMPRO Foundation at the Romanian Embassy, when we celebrated Romania’s National Day. Meanwhile, we also found out about the Dutch branch of the League of Romanian Students Abroad (LSRS, ed.), and there were also some contacts, albeit not so concrete, with the Dutch Romanian Network (DNR, ed.). So, bit by bit, our network in the Netherlands grew. And I somehow rediscovered the Romanian community here. Of course, I knew Romanians in Deventer, with whom I’m still in touch even today – it so happens they’re colleagues from the same Chorale Allegretto –, but I didn’t know other Romanians outside my own circle of acquaintances. The situation changed after we discovered all these parties that I mentioned. So, as of 2015, we are very involved in different activities organized either by the Embassy or by the ROMPRO Foundation, we also collaborate with the Students’ League and with DNR.
What does success mean to you??
I think the concept of success evolves over the years. Now, for me, success is more of a fulfillment and an internal gratefulness. Specifically, in my case, it’s the combination between personal and professional life, and I’m content with both. I have an understanding husband, two sweet children, and I have the most beautiful job at the City Hall, even in the entire city. It allows me not only to keep in contact with Romania, but also to develop in several areas, it doesn’t make me feel bored.
What would you advise a Romanian who would like to come to the Netherlands now?
If the decision is theirs, then I think that everyone should make an effort to adapt, to try to understand the Dutch culture, without prejudices. They should learn the language, because it will come in handy. And, of course, they should allow themselves the time to adjust!
Interview by Claudia Marcu
Translation by Mihaela Nita
Photos from the personal archive – credit Viorica Cernica. Edited by Alexandru Matei
Photo-portrait by Cristian Călin – www.cristiancalin.video