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Monday, 14 August 2017

Sojourn in the Netherlands

Image may contain: 1 person, standingTwo weeks in the Netherlands*, my lucky break this year. "How come, Maria?" I was often asked, as if it isn't common to travel abroad for work purposes. The short version of the story goes something like this: It was being increasingly noticed by various people that I have special skills, which were deemed useful enough and good value for the money I would be paid, so that I could be borrowed for a short period of time from my Greek work space by another EU member state. I spent two weeks based in Leiden from the last week of July to the first week of August.

On arrival at Schiphol Airport, I noticed my hosts were wearing coats, stuff we cast aside in Crete sometime in May, and don't use again until September. Cool, I thought, no more roasting in my own skin. My family was most jealous of this aspect of my working holiday. After settling into the hotel (a room of my own! no cooking - or even cleaning! - for the next two weeks!) and tucking into a lunch snack of satay, I visited my new work environment, which my boss explained was a short two-stop bus ride from the hotel (something like €2.20 return). "Can't I walk?" I asked. I was 'warned' that it was a 15-minute walk. Walking in Holland (which is not the same thing as saying 'The Netherlands' - there is an important difference: click here) is a breeze: cool weather, no hills, clearly marked paved roads linking the whole country seamlessly. (Pavements in Hania often come to an abrupt end, leaving you wondering where to walk, when there is clearly plenty of land ahead of you.) Being holiday time, the traffic was light, and there were fewer walkers and cyclists on the road, which meant that I often felt I had the whole place to myself. It sometimes rained when I was on the road, but if you are Cretan, you will find such Dutch summer weather very refreshing.

My work environment was a very peaceful one. You would not have suspected that there could be ten people working in the half dozen rooms of our office space in the Van Steenis building. Again, it may have had something to do with summertime; the university cafes and restaurants were closed, for instance. But generally, people don't create a lot of noise while they're working. They keep their voices very low. Even laughter is 'contained'.  It helped that my boss liked peace and quiet enough to make sure the environment was always as peaceful as a library. It made my Greek work environment sound more like a 'laiki agora'. (Είμαστε για κλάματα 😂 )

Office hours were not as rigid as I had initially feared. The people I worked with were mainly PhD students and professors, so work hours are more fluid. But there was a tacit agreement that hours must be put in, so a physical presence of at least 6-7 hours was required by all concerned; in other words, not much different to how we work in my own environment. The boss liked to see this kind of self-discipline in his team, and he expressed his appreciation. Some people happily stayed on until the building's guard came round to throw them out (at 11pm). They were mainly the ones that were feeling the pressure of needing to finish their PhD soon. Remembering my own study years, I suspect there are also other good reasons for staying on in the office: it's warm in the winter, the coffee is free, there are cooking facilities (microwave), and in this way, you can reduce your expenses in many ways. Student life is not cheap in our times. 

My new work routine entailed a fresh start with a huge hotel breakfast where I could also make a sandwich for lunch, which proved quite useful because, as I mentioned earlier, most food outlets in the Leiden University campus area were closed for the summer. After freshening up, it was time for a brisk walk, taking a new route as often as I could, before arriving at the office by 8.30am. I took advantage of the long daylight hours (the sun rose at about 5.30am) to see as much of the area as I could (urban, suburban, forest, recreational). I mostly left the office some time around 5.30pm, making my office hours in Leiden possibly the longest that I have ever worked; this mainly had to do with the project we were working on and the time pressure (we had two weeks to complete it - and we did). I also liked to come into the office early, before we began the project work, because I was able to finish some of my online Greek tasks (meaning that I had caught up with most of my Greek work by the time I returned home). During the day, there was also an obligatory coffee/lunch break. This was deemed very important by my boss because it meant we could catch up on non-work news. So the work day was broken into 'parts', and I still had plenty of time after work to do some exploring because it got dark just before 10pm. (Imagine the trip taking place in the winter - I'd be leaving for work and returning to the hotel in the dark, and it would have been quite cold.)  

One thing that surprises me was that no one actually left the indoor office space during the working day. So they didn't go out for 'fresh air' (not even on the day we were in the office from 8.30am to 8.30pm to meet our deadline) and they had no contact with the world outside the office, apart from the views from the office windows. If they smoked, they would have had to go outside. But smoking is definitely frowned on in the Netherlands and this is probably why I never saw any of my colleagues smoking. In the Netherlands, you get the feeling that smokers should not even be seen. For those who desperately need a cigarette (or is it a joint?), 'drop pits' are strategically placed outside buildings and many public outdoor spaces have 'rookzone' cubicles. Not that everyone obeyed such smoking 'laws' - cigarette stubs are found on the road (as are laughing gas canisters), and I saw people smoking right outside the rookzone. It is said that laws are made to be broken, but these ones in particular are just too easy to break: they make smokers look like pests (which is probably how most non-smokers regard them anyway), which probably has some backfire effect.   

I was based in a spacious room that was filled in a highly organised manner with very old books and journal articles on anthropological/ethnoscientific matters, most of which had been saved from destruction in the second world war. Some of the material contained in the room required the wearing of gloves and masks in order to use them. In the middle of the room were three large antique tables which were salvaged when another department wanted to renovate its installations and decided to throw them out. My boss asked to take them; to get them into our work space, the partitions of the office walls needed to be removed and put up again. A fair bit of recycling took place in the process. I felt very privileged to work in this room, especially when another professor asked me why I was placed here! It just seemed to be the most convenient room for the trio that made up our team to get the work done. 

My Dutch boss is a professor who had been born in a concentration camp during WW2 when Indonesia was under Japanese rule. He returned to the Netherlands with his parents in his early teens but due to his work interests, he has maintained long-term contact with Indonesia. One of the most memorable things I heard from him was that whenever he visits Indonesia, which is quite often, he always feels like a stranger in the midst, even though he speaks the language fluently, has an Indonesian wife, and is well known and highly respected: "The white English-speaking man enjoys unfair advantages wherever he goes," he told me. Together with the professor, I also worked closely with an Indonesian university lecturer. Every day we worked on our project together, and every day we measured our progress. We agreed on many things, and when we didn't agree, we still managed to work out an amicable functional solution: it's a Dutch quality to be very open-minded and to explore alternatives. So in essence, a mix of four cultures cooperated on the project: I had clearly brought in a double dose with my very Greek looks and my very native English accent. I was constantly asked about that. For some reason, it made a very clear impression on people. They were always wondering: "Which part of the English speaking world does she come from?" And generally speaking, it often came as a surprise to them that I would call myself Greek. I can't work that one out exactly; it may have to do with the unfair advantage that the professor had mentioned earlier. 

My team shared many qualities, among which I would include a cooperative spirit, a hard working nature, a disciplined work regime, and a rare highly prized human trait: humility. Some of the most influential people in my life were very humble. The supervisor of my Master thesis would tell me never to use university degree abbreviations after my name because it would detach me from the people I would be involved with in my research work. The point was not to use our privileged background as a way to open doors. Likewise, my uneducated mother who was very proud of her university educated children never let me hide behind my degrees. She never praised me about this in front of friends and relatives: 'It doesn't make you a better person than the rest of us', she would often remind me. She was aware that as a family, we didn't actually have any connection with university educated people, and her anxiety probably had to do with the fear of her children losing contact with the world she had brought us up in. So in my family we never bragged about being highly educated. When I mentioned this to my Dutch boss, he told me I was also a humble person, which I found to be a humbling experience - until I realised that our team all shared ths trait, and it is probably what made the team successful. It was a source of pride for me to be included in the company of such people.

It rained almost every day I was in the Netherlands, with cloudy grey ominous skies to match, but being summertime, it wasn't really cold. I had packed clothes I would normally wear in Crete in spring. The rain did not bother me, as anyone in Greece during the summer would tell you. Water is life, and the Dutch clouds are quite spectacular to look at, especially in combination with a view of a windmill. (In contrast, the burning Greek summer heat is hell. The average Greek will agree with me: most of us are very tired of the heat by now.) The way that the Dutch constantly battle with water against all odds probably explains their progressive outlook, and the way they embrace the future and the technological advancements it brings. The past is a history lesson for them, not a way of life (like it is in Greece, where people still fear losing their past, something that cannot be lost in the first place).

Food was an interesting concept in the Netherlands. You could eat all kinds of food you wanted to eat. But food in the Netherlands is not just for eating: food is business. The Netherlands is so highly urbanised that it is nearly impossible to 'grow/raise your own' food. Business provides you with food both to sustain you and for your pleasure. It's rare to hear someone say - like we often hear in Crete - that they were given food grown directly by a friend/relative. Everything you eat comes from a shop. In essence, you can only know about the origin/contents of your food if it is labelled. This raises the question of whether you trust food labels, which, increasingly, we find we cannott. But we have to eat to survive, so we will buy and eat food whether we trust the source or not. As an example of this, the Dutch egg scare broke out while I was in the Netherlands. My friend texted me over breakfast: "Don't eat the eggs!" As I left the breakfast room, I noticed an egg picture on the first page of the morning newspaper. And when I went to work, my boss also told us not to eat any eggs until the end of the week. Never mind the eggs you have already eaten, or avoiding whole eggs which is easy; but what about egg as an ingredient? It goes into so many ready-to-eat foods which have been prepared a long time ago: mayonnaise and mustard, cakes and biscuits, processed meat products and ready-to-eat meals. The whole country must have already ingested toxic eggs in some form well before they were warned about the batches which had the toxic substance (fipronil) identified in them. This kind of problem shows the hazards of leaving all food production to business; in a highly urbanised society, it is unavoidable anyway.

I didn't really miss any food from Greece while I was in the Netherlands, except perhaps our evening summer meal of watermelon, paximadi and mizithra, and mainly for sentimental reasons.  I could eat anything I wanted in the Netherlands. The hotel breakfast was based on international hotel food and included Dutch treats like poffertjes, hagelslag, ginger cake, and raisin bread. For lunch, I bought something from the supermarket which could be eaten at room temperature or heated in the microwave oven in the common room of my work space. (In my Greek work environment, we have fresh warm meals and salads, all cooked by a resident chef, who also cooks for dormitory residents and conference attendees). I found supermarket food democratically cheap enough for all pockets, and there was a wide range of prepared foods to choose from - but not necessarily very tasty; it had a certain 'sameness' about it. Not being able to prepare food in the hotel (I didn't have a kitchenette or even a fridge), I wasn't able to keep food in the room for too long, so a lot of my food was heavily packaged. I was quite surprised by the lack of recycling facilities in both the office and the hotel. Greeks are often berated for our lower level of recycling in general - I didn't expect to encounter a lack of easy recycling options in a highly urbanised north European country; I thought this kind of thing would be a priority here. I think it's safe to assume that 100% recycling is not really happening anywhere in the world.

I enjoyed tasting whatever took my fancy as I exploring the town, like frites (€2.50), 'kapsalon' (€3.50) and Thai takeaways (€8). The most memorable weekday meal I had was after a visit to Leiden's Burcht: a meal of mussels at a restaurant right in front of the castle steps (€27.50 with wine). I was also treated to a home-cooked meal at Den Haag, where we ate on a rooftop, it being such a lovely warm evening. Every Friday in the late afternoon, our department had a communal meal (highly unusual in this kind of work environment, or so I'm told), with contributions by all members of the department, including wine. I got to taste a lot of Indonesian delicacies here. I always carry Cretan specialties (mizithra, paximadi, olive oil) with me when travelling, so I was also able to take part in preparing something for this meal. My weekend meals were had in various parts of North Holland: fish tapas in Hoorn, Chinese stir fries cooked by a friend in Bergen, 'bitterballen' for a lunch snack at Alkmaar, dim sum in Rotterdam, tuna melt by the North Sea at Egmund ann Zee. This really was a working holiday for me, as I made the most of my new surroundings.

Dutch hospitality is not the same as Greek hospitality, but it is a great form of hospitality nonetheless. The Dutch are an incredibly well informed race, and everyone speaks English. So when you ask for information, the Dutch will share it with attention to detail, and always with a smile. They aren't snobs, and see you as their equal. They like 'direct' talk. They also believe that they are a fair society. They celebrate diversity and for this reason, they treasure assimilation - in the Dutch people's eyes, we are all subject to the same rules. I felt quite safe in my new surroundings. Privacy and personal spaces are well respected in the Netherlands, as are cleanliness and tidiness. Working towards the common good is of greater priority than personal interests; this cannot be said for all societies. Last but not least, it was quite surprising for me to discover that the Dutch are quite family-oriented, something not always associated with highly Westernised societies.

Image may contain: 1 person, ocean, cloud, sky, beach, outdoor and natureFlat spotless Holland and hilly dusty Crete could not be more opposite to each other. The landscape makes you in some way: the Dutch live in a highly interconnected small densely populated country, in contrast to a sparsely populated Greece with highly concentrated populations in only a few major urban centres. The Netherlands are only slightly larger than the Peloponnese, yet the population is more than one-and-a-half times that of Greece. Grassy, cloudy summertime Holland stands starkly against brown-dry, blue-skied Crete. But the starkest difference would have to be the peace and quiet of a country where law and order are regarded as a sign of civility and highly regulated. If you're Greek, the concept of a quiet peaceful coastal road in summertime is stuff made of dreams. Cars and motorbikes screech past you, horns honk at the drop of a hat, people shout at each other, the neighbours' hens cackle all hours of the day, children's cries fill the streets in summer (even Dutch kids sounded 'quiet!), dogs (both homed and homeless) can be heard barking even in the wee hours of the morning, and cicadas chirp well until the late evening. You also have to put up with everyone's different tastes in open-air music. Greece is a very noisy society. This made me wonder: how do northern European tourists tolerate us given that they are used to such quiet surroundings? One answer could lie in the old adage that opposites attract. Then again, maybe things are peaceful up there now, because half the population is on holiday - in Southern Europe!

*Sorry, no photos, because it takes ages to upload them! I have posted some on facebook if you care to see them.

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