“I was always the one who was going to pursue the big career,” says Ilonka Vlot (1971, Wormerveer, NL). Vlot is on Skype from Singapore where’s she’s just returned from a short holiday to The Netherlands with a suitcase full of towels. “I still haven’t figured out where to go for those kind of things here, so why not rely on HEMA where the offer is sturdy, affordable and well designed?” Vlot’s ’ main occupation these days is running a household of 4,5 (I don’t have to tell my husband what to wear, she laughs), but it hasn’t always been like that.
Ilonka Vlot is specialised in supply chain; inventory planning to be precise. She started working for a global tobacco company in 2000 and when her son turned one she started commuting between Utrecht and Southampton, England every week. “My husband and I always wanted three children, but I had a lot of trouble getting pregnant. When our son was four we sort of gave up on that dream and decided to pursue another: seeing the world.”
Vlot’s parents were partial expats (“We lived all the way in Belgium for four years”) and she had paid them regular visits when, during her twenties, they were living in Singapore. The city had a great appeal and Vlot decided to apply for a job there with her own employer. Unfortunately they opted for an Asian candidate instead of flying in an expensive European. The dream of going abroad hadn’t evaporated though, so when in 2010 an opportunity to do a project for her husband’s company in Geneva arose, the family decided to take it.
Life as a Trailing Spouse
“I then applied for a job with my company’s office in Lausanne and they offered me a position. We were discussing the details of my contract when I found out I was pregnant.” They’d never given up trying and after acupuncture the very last IVF treatment miraculously succeeded. “I told my employer ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t fill the position after all’,” says Vlot. It seems strange for a career woman to put that career on a side track, “but,” Vlot argues, “I don’t think it’s fair to either employer or child to be involved only part time. That’s when my life as a trailing spouse began.”
“Instead of both of us having jobs and sharing all responsibilities, now all of a sudden Jelle had the lead career, whereas I was always the one who enjoyed working the most. He used to have this vision of working within cycling distance and leaving with his lunch box on his transporter every morning.”
Vlot, true to her ambition: “I did want to make myself useful in Geneva, so I registered as freelancer, which took me over a year because of the bureaucratic swamp, and did a project for my former employer during my pregnancy. When my daughter was three months old I wondered what I’d do next. That’s when the next opportunity came along: Argentina.
We packed up to live in Buenos Aires for ten months. Our son could go to the international school, my husband’s work was easier as he was managing the same project as in Europe, and the abundance of public holidays gave us the opportunity to travel the entire country. It often felt like a holiday.”
The Logical Next Step
Standing on a Berlin street corner, Christa Baltzer-Bakker (1964, Haren, NL) shares her motivation to swap countries over the phone. “After twenty years Amsterdam had become all too familiar. My husband owns an internationally oriented scientific publishing house. He mainly works online, so location is not of great importance. Besides, from a perspective of growth and considering the international character of most editorial boards in the business, Berlin seemed a logical next step.”
Baltzer enjoys living in Berlin where she has been able to settle into a pan-European circle of friends. Her two sons, the eldest working as a cook in a star-restaurant, the youngest finishing high school this year, have lives of their own. After working alongside her husband for three years, Baltzer reinstated her former career: “I worked as an interior designer in Amsterdam for twenty years and felt it was the right time to start offering my services again.”
It makes a lovely scenario for the next stage of a professional career. Alas, the economy turned out to be as changeable as the weather and Baltzer saw herself confronted with some of the same challenges Ilonka Vlot was facing. “It proved to be quite difficult to realise a proper business model, so my husband decided to apply for a job with a large medical publishing company. In Switzerland.”
Handicrafts and Jewellery
“We knew there wouldn’t be a next job in South-America, so we started talking about the next move soon,” says Vlot. “Our son was tired of moving and hoped to go back to the Netherlands, but my husband and I wanted to do one more.’” After turning a down a job in the US (“We weren’t sure we would be happy in an average American city,” says Vlot), opportunity came knocking: a three-year project in long anticipated Singapore. “We were relieved. It meant our son could finally start making friends and I could get back to work.”
Once more Vlot got in touch with her former employer. Once more she registered as a freelancer to realise a project, because once more she turned out to be pregnant. “We hadn’t done anything to prevent it after the successful acupuncture treatment, and this time it happened spontaneously.” Vlot is overjoyed by seeing her dream of having three children come true, but she does feel now it’s time for her side-tracked career to start moving again. “I don’t need to work for the money, but I do need an activity of my own. I don’t really have hobbies – work was always my hobby – and I’m not the type to be involved in charity apart from donating,” she confesses. “I did join a group of mompreneurs (mothers with small businesses mainly in handicrafts and jewellery – ed.) but we don’t have much in common apart from being a mother.”
Sweet Home Switzerland
Building a steady client base is a challenge both Ilonka Vlot and Christa Baltzer face. But where Vlot is experiencing trouble establishing one because of differences in culture, the fact that Baltzer does have one is causing her headaches. “I have to carefully consider whether or not I will join my husband in Basel. I have work here in Berlin and will have to start from scratch if I move. I feel reluctant to slow down what I’ve only just built up. Plus, Switzerland isn’t what you would call welcoming to foreigners. Then again, renting two houses is expensive and, more importantly, it’s not very nice not living together.’
Baltzer chooses to look at things on the bright side: ‘My husband is Swiss-German and he has lived in Basel before. The city and its museums, restaurants, a few friends, they’re all somewhat familiar. That was a consideration when looking for a job.”
“I think I have the resilience to start over somewhere new again. As a child I’ve had to move quite often and I’ve learned to form new social circles quite quickly. Of course the experience of moving to Berlin helps, and the fact that I have a creative profession too; I can always find something to do. Even financially it’s possible to take it slow and just work on a new client network for six months, although I’m really enjoying working on a couple of projects for a Polish manufacturer just now.”
Vlot has less experience to rely on. “I never took to networking,” she admits. “But, after a year and a half of befriending potential clients I finally have some actual leads that might result in an assignment. In the mean time I’ve continued developing myself by organising lectures for the Dutch Chamber of Commerce. It’s satisfying to wear high heels and make-up again, taking the subway with a laptop under my arm instead of pushing a stroller. It gives me the energy I need to give to my family.”
Like Baltzer, Vlot has another change coming. “It’s very probable that by the time my leads actually solidify, I’ll be back in Geneva again,” she laughs, “but at least I’ll have practised building a network. I’ve really enjoyed what we’ve done, but I’m also looking forward to settling in one place for a longer period if we get the chance. We would be lucky to get to live in Geneva again, we really enjoyed our time there…”
On a day like any other, Warre wanders off into the rolling landscape to go bird watching. When he decides to look down instead of up, he finds a creature under a bush that his bird guide doesn’t feature: a tiny creature, something between a girl and a bird. Warre and his wife Tine decide to raise her as a human child, hiding her wings and forbidding her to eat with her mouth or fluttering to the ceiling in public. But Viegeltje, who has a fondness for worms, sautéed beetles and bread with peanut butter, follows her adventurous nature and heads out into the world, while the people she encounters frantically seek to keep her from possible harm.
Dutch peanut butter, a Walloon landscape and two archetypical Flemish first names; add a challenged yet hopeful and resilient character, giving you a picture of Joke van Leeuwen’s personal experiences. She grew up as the daughter of a reverend who moved around The Netherlands, family in tow, before taking up a position as professor in Theology in Brussels. Van Leeuwen was thirteen, tired of cycling to the nearest town to go to school and ready for a change, because surely ‘it couldn’t get any worse.’ But despite lots of good will, going to high school in Brussels turned out to be quite the cultural shock.
“Even the teachers were unaware of the scope of our many differences, great and small. Little things that can really throw you off such as your place in morning roll call. In Belgium the prefix is written with a capital, so I got up when all students’ names beginning with an ‘L’ were called but was reprimanded for not paying attention; I was supposed to rise at ‘V’. Everything I’d ever considered a certainty was pulled out from under me like a rug.”
Besides the puzzling Flemish meaning of familiar Dutch words, life outside the walls of school and home meant she also had to deal with people speaking French. Like the time she went out to buy a pair of tights (‘maillot’ in Dutch) but was presented with an array of bathing suits (‘maillot de bain’ in French) instead. Van Leeuwen translated several of her experiences from this period into a series of poems (‘Kind in Brussel’ (‘Child in Brussels’) from ‘Four Ways of Waiting for Someone’, 2001) in which feelings of frustration mingled with sheer amazement are positively tangible.
After finishing high school, Joke van Leeuwen studied graphic arts at the Royal Academy of Art in Antwerp and the Saint-Lukas Institute in Brussels and history at the University of Brussels. She made her idiosyncratic debut as an author and comedian in 1978 after winning the Delft student cabaret festival, expanding her talents into many fields. Later she returned to The Netherlands because of her husband’s work, but after their divorce and her son had left the nest, she ‘voluntarily returned to Belgium.’ Van Leeuwen: “I felt stifled in Amersfoort, the small city where I lived. People thought it arrogant to talk about experiences of living abroad. I discovered I feel more at home in places that are a melting pot, like Brussels.” She chose to live in Antwerp for practical reasons: “I have regular engagements in The Netherlands.”
A hybrid backdrop of Flemish and Dutch phenomena
Frustration, the ability to wonder and a determination to get it right (“At home there would be a dictionary where I’d look up the right word”) are pretty useful qualities for a writer-in-the-making. “It had a positive influence,” Van Leeuwen agrees. “I was a creative child already and language and imagination were stimulated by my parents, but the experience of moving to a different culture as a teenager taught me to improvise and think in detours at an early stage.”
The new culture provided her with a subject and a whole new array of words and images to add to her vocabulary, writing proved a means to process the experience. It made her contrary, meaning that in her opinion nothing’s true and everything’s possible. It’s a trait you will find in many of Van Leeuwen’s characters that crowd her stories set against a hybrid backdrop of Flemish and Dutch phenomena. “It happens naturally,” says Joke van Leeuwen. “I simply choose what suits the story best – it enhances the fictitious character.”
Perhaps one of the most important aspects however, is the ability to see things from a different perspective. In daily life, her bi-culturality is as much of an influence as in her work. “It would be beneficial if everyone would live abroad, even if it’s just six months,” Joke van Leeuwen believes. “You should however make a proper effort to encounter that new culture and not stick within a colony of compatriots. Only then you can experience how relative your own habits and values are, even when it’s just a neighbouring country.”
“I see a clear role for myself, within my work but also in my private life. An example I like to give is when a Flemish jury labelled a Dutch author ‘merkwaardig’. In Dutch that means ‘strange’, but in Flemish it means ‘remarkable’.”
Ultimately you can even play a role in helping others understand and familiarise themselves with that culture. This was my main reason to accept the position as Dichter der Nederlanden (Poet of the Low Lands). With this honorary position the Algemeen-Nederlands Verbond, a foundation that encourages a greater familiarity between Flanders and The Netherlands, celebrates the fact that 200 years ago Belgium and The Netherlands were a single country for a period of fifteen years.
In her acceptance speech, Van Leeuwen refers to herself as a ‘two-legged bridge’. “Sadly not many people are interested in this assignment; remarkably less then when I was Antwerp’s city poet. There’s especially little attention from The Netherlands, which seems to be more and more oriented towards domestic issues. I’d say that’s quite worrisome in an age when mono-cultural thinking is impossible to maintain. The situation illustrates what a disadvantage it can be when people haven’t spent any time in a different culture – they keep thinking inside the box.”
Joke van Leeuwen is concerned but determined as well. “I see a clear role for myself, within my work but also in my private life. An example I like to give is when a Flemish jury labelled a Dutch author ‘merkwaardig’. In Dutch that means ‘strange’, but in Flemish it means ‘remarkable’. The author was given a compliment and he wasn’t aware of it! I was able to translate, and he went home feeling satisfied, but when you think about it, it’s wrong that we don’t understand each other even though the foundations of our language are the same. On both sides of the border television programs from the neighbouring country are subtitled. The problem with that is: you stop making an effort to understand each other. But it’s really not a problem if every now and then you come across an unfamiliar word!”
Helping Iraqi and Syrian writers settle in
It becomes clear that there is also a political motivation involved when promoting bi-culturality, also outside the Flemish-Netherlands realm. “When you’ve been part of two countries for as long as I have you should be allowed to have two passports. I’m not really Dutch anymore, whatever that may be (“I haven’t eaten an ‘oliebol’ on New Year’s Eve for years,” she jokes), but should I turn my back on a country that awarded me a state prize? (Theo Thijssensprijs, 2000) At the same time I’d like to be able to vote on a federal level in Belgium. I live here, I pay my taxes, I participate. But apparently it doesn’t work like that.”
Language can be a creative tool, but a political one as well. Learning a language can help understand a culture and enable communication. As chair of PEN Vlaanderen (PEN defends writers and the freedom of speech around the world, both through direct and indirect support.), Joke van Leeuwen is well aware of this notion. “We’re promoting Arabic writers that came here from Iraq and Syria for example. We enable them to do their work, but if they really want to settle here, they’ll have to be given the opportunity to learn Dutch as soon as possible. An asylum seekers’ centre is the worst possible place if you want to integrate and gain wider recognition.”
Van Leeuwen illustrates with a personal memory. “I remember the Bosnian family that came ‘on holiday’ with me and my husband and son. They fled Bosnia because of the war and stayed in a camp. They hardly ever went out. Their four-year-old daughter lit up during her time with us because she could play, learn, interact. We told them ‘You’re not going back to that camp’. So they stayed with us until they could make a life of their own.”
Joke van Leeuwen’s ‘Belgium for Dummies’ tip follows quite naturally: “Listen, watch, don’t judge a book by its cover and don’t put all Belgians in the same category. Of course that applies to everything. More specifically? Don’t call Flemish a funny or even charming dialect – it’s degrading.”
Steering my bicycle through familiar lanes and unfamiliar alleyways felt like being madly in love. We had no jobs, few friends and lots of ‘goesting’ to try everything the city had to offer. More specifically we were looking for a new balance where work and play would produce the perfect breeding ground for all those artworks, articles and books that were slumbering in the back of our minds. Writing is my business and observing my second nature – surely those ingredients would make a fine cocktail from which to capitalise on my experiences.
When you first arrive somewhere new it feels like an extended holiday. Knowing you’re not returning home any time soon makes all the difference – there’s no need to go looking for bread and cheese during a Thai holiday because you’re perfectly content to have rice every day. But a trip around the world is nothing compared to dealing with insurance companies, Flemish landlords, looking for work, trying to make friends to explore foam art coffee places with instead of staring out of the home-office window at a lonely weed trying to prosper in a crack between the bricks of the house opposite.
Once the excitement of the new started wearing off, gloomy days and mornings thick like cold mush settled in its place instead. My previous experience with Antwerp and the Flemish only helped so much – it was very different living there with a Dutch partner instead of a local. While he was away (and he was half the time) I was trying to make sense of the seeming lack of logic in supermarket layout (we’d never start with the wine), a leaking roof and a hysterical landlord, a debit card that only worked in half of the shops I frequented. And those were merely some of the practical issues.
Though utterly scared of failure, I started to gather evidence to help me write about why my attempts to make sense of my new surroundings – and my place in them – made me feel like a wind-up toy in hot quicksand. Crossing just one border had turned me into a migrant and that status changed everything. Where in Amsterdam I had found myself doing silent battle with my computer, stressed by lack of inspiration and full of regret for not grabbing the opportunities for internships I was offered, in Antwerp I suspected depression from information overload lurking around every corner.
During my research I learned that there’s a word for this kind of stress, an entire research area even: ‘Acculturation Psychology’. Batja Mesquita, Professor of Psychology at the KU Leuven and ‘hands-on’ expert: “The range of changes one encounters when switching cultures is very wide: from emotions to how you perceive the world. Stress, the ability of handling all the novelties or not, are also part of that,” Mesquita explains. “An international move doesn’t only mean a material change, it also means losing one’s social network. Acculturation can make you tired because everything, even the appearance of a milk bottle, is different from what you’re used to. In very severe cases acculturation can cause exhaustion, anxiety or depression.” Mesquita confirms that this also applies to a seemingly not-very-drastic move from The Netherlands to Belgium.
So there it was, a label for my condition. While attempting to find certainties in Belgium, I discovered a profound Dutchness within myself. Apparently my desire for order and planning weren’t merely a question of character: I could’ve given that example of the milk bottle myself. Something seemingly trivial like how the isles of a supermarket are arranged proved to be essential to my wellbeing. So when late last winter the supermarket around the corner sprang from its makeover as a blue and white Albert Heijn, I found myself grinning from ear to ear amidst the isles of familiar products glistening in the tube light.
I can’t say which effect Albert Heijn has on my writing so far, but I do know I’m feeling more at home.
When I first got here I swore to never visit the Dutch grocery giant, but I reached the point where wellbeing prevailed over principles. Apart from the fact that they were the nearest grocer, they were also cheaper and open until eight PM.
I’m over the moon to have my favourite peanut butter again, to be able to find the fresh milk with my eyes closed and vinegar and oil together on one shelf. I have to confess to choosing the soothing comfort of being surrounded by ‘vla’, ‘drop’ and ‘stroopwafels’, even though I never eat them, over the thrill of a foreign supermarket – for daily business at least.
I can’t say which effect Albert Heijn has on my writing so far, but I do know I’m feeling more at home. And yes, I found a job, I found that coffee place I can hang out with new and old friends and a proper chunk of Dutch cheese only a brief walk away. Maybe it’s finally time to start writing that book.
by Lise Lotte ten Voorde – www.cultuurcocktail.eu