Like an alien in Holland: my experience of integration
I step out of my home, I see a neighbour, a lovely older lady, the one that brought us a present when Aveline was born. I smile and chat shortly about the weather. I pick up my city bike, a cheap one because, you know, they get stolen here more often than wallets, I personally lost 5 of them this way in my 7 years in Holland. I cycle to the center: only using the special red paths, stopping at every traffic light – also the special ones, for cyclists. Because I have to be more attentive on the road, my husband says. And my Russian background replies: “Come on, you’re careful enough, you know that.” But I know that it’s a lie, I’m never careful enough for the Dutch, I had to do my car driving exam 4 times before I got my license! Because I was too hasty on the road. I mean, I didn’t think so but unfortunately my examiner did. And that while having a legitimate Russian driving license. Passing by centuries old charming houses that stand in tight rows shoulder to shoulder, I arrive to the Saturday market to buy some farm cheese. I have to hurry because it’s almost the end of the day, I still need to do some shopping and then get to the supermarket and stock up for tonight and tomorrow. Dutch shops get closed early, and even after so many years here I can’t get used to that fact and regularly forget to buy breakfast for the next day on time. I bump into a friend, we kiss three times on the cheek according to the Dutch tradition and plan our next meet up at ours. Planning, the term, without which no Dutch lives a single day. Whenever you say “Let’s go drink something or have a barbecue at my place”, along with the words “Let me check in my agenda” your Dutch friend takes out a phone or a notebook and checks the free dates in the coming month. Afterwards, I cycle back home under a rain shower, one of the many per day even in summer, with bags full of fragrant Dutch flowers, fresh biological veggies of any sort you can think of and old cheese, – our typical purchase set at a Saturday market.
The text above, that’s me now. That’s not me 7 years ago. Back then, I landed at the Schiphol airport with two suitcases, which were supposed to carry the leftovers of my 21 years of life in Russia. I arrived to the tidiest streets and the greenest grass I had seen in my life, to the fresh smell of white rooms resembling Scandinavian design so dearly admired in Holland, to no single street dog or cat, to the smiling faces of strangers that greet you passing by (“why would they do that? I don’t know them, right?”), to the plentiful life that was so totally different from what I knew back in Russia. It was a brand new, bright and cheerful world in my eyes.
When I came here, I was aware of the 3 stages of cultural shock: the “honeymoon”, when it’s all great, it’s your “la vie en rose”; the crisis, when you suddenly get a dip as your realize it’s not all that perfect and what you are used to is left behind for good; and, finally, adjustment and adaptation, when you get used to the state of things and get back to your normal life. However, against my expectations, I didn’t experience them that pronounced. It might have been due to the fact that I was not alone, or that I was busy with my studies, which caused me a major headache and distracted me that way, or that I was somehow familiar with the culture and language by then. In any case, I had expected that I’d miss my old life back in Russia much more than I did.
At the time, the only heartbreaking issue of emigration for me was (and it still remains) my family that lived far away. My fellow student from Mexico once shared with me that her biggest fear – it was at the time when the situation in her home country was terrifying – was to pick up her phone one day to hear the worst news about her family member and not be able to get there immediately. Well, it surely is the nightmare of any immigrant, and sometimes when this fear strikes, you play such scenarios in your head and realize how helpless you are. And that’s one of the many things you have to learn living with.
Generally, the Netherlands are an easy place to immigrate to as nearly everyone speaks English, people are open-minded tolerant to other cultures. So I set a goal for myself: I wanted to integrate, preferably as fast as possible. When I looked around, I saw a lot of foreign students and employees that lived in Holland for many years and didn’t speak Dutch. Those people talked about the Dutch as “them” and the foreigners as “us” and were making all kind of bitter jokes about life in Holland. Well, I have to say I couldn’t help laughing along at some of them – surely, any country has its peculiarities and here there are some hilarious ones too. However, at some point it felt too sad to live this way, not understanding your new home (and not even trying to) and despising the place you live in. I rather strived to follow the example of the foreigner friends of mine that could speak Dutch fluently, had a number of local friends in their circle and enjoyed all the sides of life in Holland.
So my first integration milestone was the language, I aimed to speak without any accent what so ever. (Let me tell you right away that 7 years later I still haven’t reached that perfection but at least people say they can’t distinguish the country of my origin based on that, which is my little victory!). During my first internship, my boss asked me, which language I preferred to use. I hesitated for a moment in panic: it would mean not just speaking, but actually talking science in Dutch! But I replied: “Dutch”. And that was probably my best decision on the way to adaption. Ever since, the whole lab spoke no English word to me, and it improved my poor skills greatly. Later, when I met my future husband, he also spoke only Dutch to me, and this last bit of implementing it in the everyday life appeared to be crucial for me to “feel” the language. It’s funny and pleasing to me to hear myself use the colloquial expressions of my husband that I unconsciously borrowed from his speech. My Dutch is still far from perfection, and my husband along with some close friends keeps correcting me. However, now I can easily make phone calls to strangers – which used to be an intimidating act earlier – without fearing that I will forget a word halfway or won’t understand a question.
It took me some time and a lot of observation not only to see the obvious differences between the Dutch and Russian mentality but also to understand the underlying reasoning. As it usually happens, the greatest origin of the differences lies in history and geography: Holland got rich in the golden age, it became a developed country, from which Peter the Great, the Russian Emperor, borrowed a great deal of Russian knowledge. At the same time Holland is a tiny country so space was and still remains the biggest problem for many aspects of life. Russia was rich in sources, people and space, and therefore never saved on any of that, at the same time development and knowledge were following European years later. Sovjet Union didn’t indulge people in a variety of choice of what so ever, starting with freedom and ending with food in the fridge. Having that little in the pocket and realizing how little depends on ordinary people, for centuries Russians found refuge in thinner matters. If you know all that, you easily understand why the Dutch can afford fooling around and studying until they turn 25 or so, while the majority of Russians start thinking about their earnings for life and family much earlier. Those differences also explain why people in Holland are all about ecology, sustainability and technology, while Russians are mostly concerned either about practical matters of their own welfare or completely ethereal questions like philosophy.
Observing helped me to understand, and understanding helped me to accept what I saw around. I got used to the fact that the seemingly friendly Dutch are not very eager to make new contacts (I used to live in the North of the country, and this fact explains why this characteristic was so exaggerated) unlike Russians. However once a Dutch person finally entitles you to being a friend, your relationship really has a meaning in his eyes, and you start truly appreciating it. With time, I got to like this feature of the Dutch character. Now I don’t have many friends here but I can fully rely on the ones that I consider that.
When I really made an effort to understand people that were raised in a different regime, surrounded by other symbols and idols, praising different values that I did, I could see that deep inside we’re all the same. The conditions we are put in make us so diverse from one another. Now, looking a Dutch person, I know that there is often a vulnerable, open and well-wishing heart hidden under a seemingly impenetrable Northern aloofness.
There is still so much for me to learn about this culture, this community, and I would like to continue doing so. I would like to know the background my best friend and lover comes from. I would like to understand my daughter both when she speaks Dutch and she acts based on what was inherited from that half of her origin. I would like to feel home where I live, to call myself Dutch because it was my free conscious choice to come live here by their rules. And even if I know that the last part will probably take quite some time, a friend of ours has recently claimed she considered me Dutch. Just like that, I got some more food for thought.