Interview with Sathi Basu from India
I have had two lives in The Netherlands. One began in 1981 and ended in 1991. The other began in 2014 and is still continuing, and the two lives couldn’t have been more different. It is as if I were born twice. In 1981 I was a mother of two, a wife, a just-graduated teacher, housewife and, for the first time lived in the heart of suburbia in Amby surrounded by Dutch people only who had their first encounter with a non-Dutch family in 200 years! Nothing had prepared me for the shock of the gobbledygook language, the weird food, the manicured gardens, spotless windows, and the national obsession with the bicycle and ‘’bitterballen’’ and ‘’oilieballen’’ and beer. This was a time for many firsts. I was a stay-at-home mom for the first time; I had a charwoman who came in twice a week; a husband who drove a spanking new Alfa Romeo and earned a fat tax-free salary; the social circle, what there was of it consisted of AFCENT military types, and the Canadian contingent palpably felt inferior to their American counterparts. The Brits were the Eaton/Cambridge lot, full of their own glory and superiority. Their wives were country gentrified, and all their children went to public (boarding) schools in England. I despaired. Feeling a fish out of waters both among the Dutch and the expat communities, I sunk into the world of motherhood and isolation. I remember taking great joy from cleaning my tiny son’s nose; seeing a whiter-than-white wash come out of a Miele washing machine. I learned to live the brain numbing life of the suburban wife. What had I come down to….
In 2014 I came back as a retired teacher, alone, with three grown children with families of their own in different points in Europe, a grandmother of two, and the owner of a remarkable 350-year old house smack bang in the ‘’binnenstad’’ of Maastricht, and a circle of friends who went back 30 years. This life I am loving. And cherishing. How did this dramatic change happen, you might ask. Some of it has to do with where I am in my own evolution. Some of it has to do with Maastricht itself. At 65, I am far more self-assured and comfortable in my own skin. I am not so touched by the slings and arrows of others’ opinions and pronouncements. I have enough things to do to keep me meaningfully busy all day long. I have a garden I potter about in. I have an old house with enough projects and to-dos to keep me going for a decade. I don’t have financial issues. I am in good health. I have no quarrels with life or with the world anymore. The country does not feel so different and other-worldly anymore.
In the 25 years I have been away, Netherlands and Maastricht have changed immeasurably as well. In the past whilst English was spoken by many the vast majority of shop girls, tradespeople, and home helpers spoke only Dutch and that too Mestreechts. There was only one cinema hall, no bookshops with English books, a single kiosk that carried a few English magazines and newspapers, and finding aubergines and mangoes were a rare treat. In fact I remember taking mangoes to share with the teachers at the Joppenhof and having to bring them back home, untouched by the teachers. Not a single teacher dared to taste such a fruit. You’d think I’d put something before them from another planet! In Amby the world came to an end at 10 pm every night. Everyone went to church on Sunday, and Albert Hein had only just come into being. Milk was delivered at home by a farmer who rode a horse-drawn wagon. Cream could be held in liter- bottles. There was no international school, no IWC, no Lumiere. The university was a speck on the map of Maastricht, insignificant, and tucked away in a corner of the city that was limited to students and profs alone. I was hardly aware of it. The Bonnefanten a forgettable excuse for a museum. It was still very pretty, but hopelessly provincial and dull. Save for a small clutch of decent restaurants one had to go to Belgium to eat, or fork out a fortune at the Princess Juliana in Valkenburg. If you were a foreigner here, you remained a foreigner, outside the mainstream, and as the expat community was small you had a limited choice of friends.
I am not exactly sure when all this began to change, but by the time I left in 1991 Maastricht was a very different city. EU summit happened. The Berlin Wall came down, Japanese investments began, and DSM began to expand, Philip’s started its downsizing forcing a demographic shift. The university was expanding aggressively and going global. Needs began to change. The International School opened, IWC started in 1984, Lumiere opened in 1990. Locals were exposed to a larger world. By the time I returned two years ago Maastricht was anything but provincial and narrow. I fell in love with its graceful lines, its buzz, its cafes and its restaurants. The people had become sophisticated, clued-up, and in the loop. There was an awareness.
My second life here is turning out to be exactly how I envisioned my retired life to be. And, I think, this is because I made the conscious decision to move back here, and it wasn’t made for me. At the end of the day living successfully in a country not your own depends on two things: whether we choose to live passively or actively, and whether we can communicate our feelings with others. My first round in the Netherlands happened because my then husband got a job offer here. I received the experience in a rather passive and haphazard way. I didn’t come with an immigrant’s mind-set; I came instead with a voyeur’s outlook. I watched, I observed, I judged, I kept at bay. I never did allow myself to become immersed in the life here. I marooned myself. I lived a passive life. The second round is turning out to be just the reverse. Now I have immersed myself in the life of Maastricht. I volunteer, I learn the language, I take classes, I go to lectures, I belong to social groups, and watch Dutch news on TV. I know all my neighbours- they come for coffee, for lunch, for dinner, they drop by, they wave as they pass by my window. I deal with tradespeople, with the ‘’gemeente’’, with the ‘’IND’’. I catch the bus, travel by train, eat Dutch things. In short, I am living as a Dutch person does. I am just the same as anybody else. And that is an extremely liberating feeling. In embracing life here as it is I have come to love life itself. And because nothing seems foreign to me, I don’t feel a foreigner.
We would like to thank the International Women-Club South Limburg for their support!