What brought you to the Netherlands?
Alex: I came out of love, I followed my wife. I’m an expat “by profession”, I’ve lived in a lot of countries: the US, France, Switzerland, Italy, Brazil. I left Romania in 1990. I lived for ten years in London, where I graduated from two universities. Right after graduation, I went on a holiday to Portugal. It was such a lovely holiday, that I didn’t return to the UK anymore, although I had a job as a university lecturer – I studied geology. I though that life in Portugal was far healthier.
After another ten years spent there, I met Raluca, at which point we asked ourselves: “Are you coming with me to Portugal, or am I coming with you?” The love was strong, so I closed my business in Portugal and I followed Raluca. She was working in a multinational and wanted to have a career. Wherever my lady went, that’s where I followed.
Raluca: Before coming to the Netherlands, he came along to Congo (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ed.). We met each other when I was working at the same company in Romania. My first international assignment was for six months in Africa. Towards the end of that period in Congo, I received an offer for the Amsterdam headquarters, at the regional office for Central and Eastern Europe. That’s how we came to Amsterdam in 2013.
What was the beginning in the Netherlands like?
Raluca: To be honest, I wanted to refuse the offer because the company wasn’t giving me a car. In Romania, everybody has a company car. In Congo, I even had a driver. In Amsterdam they told me that I wasn’t going to get that, but that there are bike racks. I thought they were making fun of me. Only after asking around I found out that you don’t actually need a car in Amsterdam. And it’s great to not have a car, to go to work on your bike. So the beginning was easy. After having experienced a great shock in Congo, here everything seemed just right. Sometimes, maybe even too normal.
Alex: Yes, I mean, after Congo anywhere would have been better. I think even in Romania it would have been easy. Life’s values change completely after an experience in Africa, regardless where in Africa.
Raluca: But what helped us a lot was the fact that the company has a special program aimed to help expats and their partners to integrate. We received help for anything: finding a place to live, registering at the City Hall, receiving our work permit – it was still compulsory back then, only a year later did the free market restrictions get lifted for the Romanian workforce.
Alex: We even had an integration course, where they explain exactly what’s going on, how the Dutch interact with you, how to understand them.
Raluca: We even did a test, to see how different we are from the Dutch. It was very interesting when at the end I was told that I’m more Dutch than Romanian. It takes a while until you understand how things work here. Let’s not forget that we come from a Latin culture. In Romania, for instance, I would spend my mornings chatting with my colleagues over a cup of coffee. Here, my colleagues would ask if I wanted a cup of coffee, I would say “yes”, and they would bring me one from the coffee machine, after which everyone drank their coffee by themselves, at their desks. Networking happens here in a different way and at different times during the day, not while having your morning coffee, but when having lunch, for instance, or when meeting individually with your colleagues. And if we know each other, we do our job better.
Alex: During the first year, I didn’t do any networking. Initially, I refurbished some furniture – I was making furniture in the parking lot. I was collaborating with two or three stores that sold my products. Also during that time, I began building a bike for myself and I managed to do it. One day, someone stopped me on the street and asked me where I had bought it from. I told him I had made it. He asked if it was for sale and I said “yes”. That happened three more times, so I began building them at home, on the balcony.
Raluca: He made bikes for our neighbors and our friends.
Alex: And then I started selling them on Marktplaats (an online market platform, ed.). When I got to making 20 bikes on the balcony, Raluca kicked me out of the house. She said: “Go and open a shop because it’s unbearable like this.” People would come to our place at any time, they would ring the door for the bikes. Besides that, it was too much even for the neighbors because we had a shared balcony. And that’s how I opened the shop (Second-Life Bikes, ed.). I told myself that instead of staying at home, better to do something I like. In fact, I’ve always started with this idea of doing what I like, of being happy during the day, but also when I get home, to my family. So that I don’t have to think every morning “Oh, I have to go to work again.”
At the moment, I’m the only one in Amsterdam who offers such personalized services. There are stores that have maybe better, newer, more expensive bikes, but there’s no one else in this niche. That means that anyone can come and say “I want you to make me a bike with such and such wheels and tires, with the saddle that I like, with my favorite frame.” On top of that, you can bring your rickety bike and I’ll give it a new life. Re-vintage!
In the beginning, I actually had more shops and even a business partner. I set course with this type of bikes, but he wanted to sell also regular bikes – omafiets (“grandma’s bike” – ladies’ roadster with a step-through frame, ed.) –, a range that had seen a tremendous demand and started to overshadow the initial concept. Two years ago, my partner went to Germany, then I sold all the other stores, and I only kept this one on the Overtoom, where I focus strictly on racing bikes, the way I like it.
How do you like the Dutch society?
Raluca: If you make comparisons, you’ll always find better and worse aspects. I think we’ve both accepted it as it is. We told ourselves that’s that and we’re not trying to bring it to other standards, irrespective of what those might be.
Take daycare, for instance: children go there from when they’re three months old. Even if in Romania mothers get to stay home for two years, I’m in the Netherlands now, and after three months since giving birth I took my child to the nursery and I went back to work. It broke my heart. I don’t think that I could have bared to spend two years at home, but I would have liked to see him get a bit stronger before taking him to the nursery, at least until he was six months. But if that’s how the system works here, I got used to it. Talking to my colleagues who also went through this, who also have small kids, I understood that this “different” is fine. And the child has developed very nicely: he speaks Dutch, English, and Romanian, he’s a sociable, open, and happy child, and it’s a child that has his roots here. He’s born here, in Amsterdam.
But also you, as a family, were “born” here.
Alex: Yes, we got married here, after almost five years together and after almost a year and a half since we came to Amsterdam. And Nathan is Dutch.
Raluca: Yes, he’s the most Dutch of all of us.
Alex: But to go back to what it is that we like here, especially when we’re talking about business, it’s the fact that you get a lot of help. It’s very easy to start a business, to find an accountant, you don’t come across the bureaucratic issues that you have in Romania, where you have to queue for signatures. You make an online appointment with the Chamber of Commerce and you can set up a business in 15 minutes.
Then, there’s the tax system, which is very good. You have control over your profits. You’re not restricted but encouraged to start a business. And even if the legislation changes, you have time to prepare, they give you more than a year to prepare. Nothing changes from one day to the next.
What I don’t like is the lack of care for the consumer. They’re all taught to do one specific job, a certain aspect, and they’re not interested in anything else. If you want to buy something and you don’t say exactly what you want, the answer will be “We don’t have that.” They don’t look for solutions right away.
Raluca: You have to know exactly what to ask if you want to solve your problem. I wouldn’t say it’s something I dislike. There are things I found harder to accept from the beginning but which I’ve come to appreciate over time. For instance, the fact that you have to plan even a meeting with your friends.
Alex: The agenda, which I hate. I lived in Portugal for ten years, it’s a super spontaneous country, where anything can happen even tomorrow, not right away. What do you mean by saying to your friend “Let’s meet for coffee.” and them saying “Let me check my agenda.”? Raluca keeps an agenda for the both of us.
What have you learned from this society?
Raluca: Precisely this planning. It’s extraordinary and it helps us a lot. I’ve also learned to say “no”. In Romania, I had to go to all the weddings and all the baptisms, regardless if I had a headache or no money. Here, I’ll simply say “no” and I don’t have to justify myself. And nor will anyone be begging you to say “yes”. And nobody will be upset about it. Like this, there’s a personal space in which nobody enters. You don’t feel the pressure of the family or of the society as I used to in Romania.
What does success mean to you?
Alex (laughing): To me, to be successful in life means living on an island full of coconut trees, catching fish on my own, and surfing from dawn to dusk. Anything else on top of that means success.
That means that right now you haven’t achieved success.
Alex: Yes, that’s right. But if we’re talking business, to me, then, success means having a business that I can live off, not get rich from, and that the person who comes to my shop leaves with a smile on their face. I see the bikes that I make as little works of art, I consider myself an artist, not a mechanic. I have to be sufficiently happy at work in order to be happy also at home. I know that for Raluca success is not that coconut island, I can assure you of that, otherwise we would have been there by now!
Raluca: I’m wearing the corporate hat. My career is important, but ever since Nathan is in my life, my family is equally important. To me, success means finding a balance between these two worlds, doing what you like, both in your personal and your professional life. In my case, when I say “doing what you like” that means leaving something for posterity. It’s not only about the goals of the company, but also about the people with whom I work on a daily basis.
Alex: Yes, to me, Raluca goes to work, where she gets to sit on a chair and talk to people. And that’s exactly what my two-and-a-half-year-old son thinks: “Mommy goes to the office and speaks to people.”
Raluca: At Heineken, I work in HR, a field that’s very dear to me. I really liked especially the career coaching and development aspects. I like to discover people’s potential and help them grow. I recently started my own business of career coaching and mentoring outside of the organization for which I work. I’m new on the market.
Where is home?
Raluca: Wherever your family is. That can be anywhere.
What kind of a relationship do you have with the Romanian community in the Netherlands?
Alex: I partially interact with the Romanians in the Netherlands, I don’t actively seek to meet Romanians. If it happens, it happens. On the other hand, I must say that I’ve also had negative experiences with some Romanians.
Raluca: I’m more involved. I’m a member of the Romanian Business Community (RBC, a project of the ROMPRO Foundation, ed.), I’m part of the education team. I get involved and I notice it’s important to keep in touch with those Romanians with whom I share common interests. At the same time, it’s equally important that I’m part of an international community and I want to take advantage of that – I go often to events where I can interact with different cultures and domains. We have a great deal to learn from each other.
What would you advise a Romanian who would like to come to the Netherlands now?
Alex: Know at least English. In my case, most of the customers are not Dutch, but internationals. I’ve started learning Dutch so I can communicate better with my son.
Raluca: Don’t think that there’s nothing but milk and honey here. It’s not easy to come here, to a country that you don’t know, without having something planned. Be very optimistic and stop comparing everything with what you used to have. That’s extremely important. If you cling to your past, you can’t find joy in the Netherlands or elsewhere.
An interview by Claudia Marcu
Translation by Mihaela Nita
Photo-portrait by Cristian Călin – www.cristiancalin.video
Photos from the personal archive, edited by Alexandru Matei