Wageningen University & Research attracts researchers from all around the world. Sometimes they bring their partners along for the ride. Artist and writer Anna van Diepen — who also recently accompanied her husband to the United States for a period — spoke to five such ‘relocated partners’. On Western freedom, tasteless food and complex dilemmas.
text and photos Anna van Diepen; illustration Marieke van Diepen
I relocated temporarily just over a year ago. My husband, who is a development economist at WUR, wanted to go abroad for a while. He said it would be good for his academic career. The options were Oxford, Cambridge, New York, Berlin or Berkeley –he let me choose which. It took years for me to give in. Eventually I said OK, but let’s go somewhere sunny. So we went to Berkeley, California.
Before I knew it, he had found a position with the university and we were preparing to leave, together with our two children. Four lives temporarily turned upside down for the sake of one man’s career. I left my job, one of the children had to leave her school and the other his day-care centre. We waved goodbye to our friends, neighbours and family. Off to America!
We soon got back into a daily routine on ‘the other side of the world’. My husband went to work, my daughter went to school, while I tried to create a new home in a foreign country, with a toddler in my wake and our closest friends a mere 8900 kilometres away.
It was fascinating. It felt like I had to rediscover life from scratch, from figuring out where the supermarket was to deciding on a new temporary goal in my life. I felt like a new person, with no past or future. It was so fascinating, in fact, that I started searching for other relocated spouses, to learn about their experiences in ‘starting afresh’.
I spoke to people from all four corners of the world. None of us had an actual job. We were all searching for our own solution in dealing with this temporary life. A life that we had chosen out of love for our partners. We would often raise a toast with a smile: ‘All for science!’
After returning to the Netherlands, I quickly got sucked back into my normal life. I was happy to be working again, taking my own path. I didn’t miss the US, but I did miss the feeling of being relocated. That sense of starting afresh. So I searched for relocated partners in Wageningen. I wanted to record their stories as an inspiration for others, but also to generate more understanding and respect for them.
I spoke to five people who have moved to Wageningen from Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Iran together with their partners — and in some cases their children. This resulted in five different stories that have one point in common: they are here because their partner works for WUR.
Pregnant in Wageningen
Anne Morbach from Germany, interviewed in The Spot, Orion, on 28 June 2017
We meet in The Spot, the place where Anne has been coming almost every Friday for years to pick up her other half so they can spend the weekend together. She used to come over from Germany and she always felt like she was stepping into a different world: warm and welcoming. She has since moved to Wageningen, but her weekends still often start in the same place, with her husband and his colleagues. ‘I’m just the partner, but I still feel I belong.’
The Spot is quite warm and a tad stuffy, like a tropical greenhouse. Warm and welcoming, with a lot of plants. ‘You’ll recognise me by my belly,’ Anne said on the phone. Sure enough, she is sitting at a table with a huge belly.
Anne came to the Netherlands to be with her partner. She never meant to move in with her boyfriend without having a job, but that’s how it ended up. After years spent travelling 800 kilometres there and back during their PhDs, Anne came to Wageningen pregnant after a disappointing job in Göttingen, by which time her boyfriend was working for WUR. And that was the end of the long-distance relationship. ‘Problem solved.’
She loves it here. ‘The Dutch are so much more positive than the Germans.’ She dreams of having her own company, creating science movies for education. Bite-sized genetics for German children and teenagers. ‘I feel most at ease in German,’ she explains in perfect Dutch.
But first things first: the baby. She tells me the baby is due tomorrow. Tomorrow?! Yes. Anne is perfectly calm. Because despite her family living so far away, the oat flakes being too small and her initial dislike of those soggy Dutch croquette balls, she feels at home. ‘I can be myself here.’
His wife's career comes first
Sourav Chakraborty from India, interviewed in Bagels & Beans in Wageningen on 8 July 2017
Somewhat hesitantly, Sourav starts telling his story as he fiddles with his teabag. He is worried his situation will not satisfy the requirements for this article as he is a tenured professor in mathematics himself, but one who more or less voluntarily relocated by encouraging his wife to find a good postdoc position. So not your average story.
After a long-distance marriage of three years, Sourav’s wife came to ‘his’ university in Chennai, India, but her postdoc position didn’t suit her. When she got pregnant, he thought: she has to keep moving or she won’t be able to get back into the academic world. His wife found an interesting position as a postdoc in Wageningen and Sourav decided to take a sabbatical. He found a job for himself at the University of Amsterdam. Not ideal at this stage in his career, but it had to be done. And so they moved to the Netherlands for a year, together with baby Adrita.
‘And what do you like about Wageningen?’ I ask. He thinks, takes a sip of his tea, and then says, ‘Putting your finger on what you like is hard’. He laughs when I ask him to try answering the question not as a mathematician. And then he finds the words: how orderly things are in the West. He has travelled a lot and wherever he goes in the West, he can always find the same chains of shops, hotels and restaurants. He appreciates that consistency. And the calmness. No yelling, honking or chaotic traffic. Although Wageningen is a little too calm for his taste.
What is the next step? He doesn’t know yet. The best thing for him would be to go back to Chennai, but not for his wife. Is there a university, anywhere in the world, that would suit them both? In mathematics, this is called ‘solving a two-body problem’. It’s something he’s good at – at least, in maths.
Enjoying Dutch freedom
Zulfia Listyani from Indonesia, interviewed at home on 5 September 2017
Zulfia came to Wageningen together with her children and husband, who is doing a PhD here. They landed at Schiphol airport in winter 2016. Stopping only briefly at their still-empty apartment, they drove straight to the second-hand shop Emmaus in Wageningen. That’s when it hit them – they had absolutely no idea what they needed. ‘We had to learn to think independently.’ They were used to the situation in Indonesia where the community arranges everything for you.
Now, 18 months later, they have settled in completely. The smell of spices fills the house. Children’s drawings adorn the walls. Her eyes smile as she pours us sweet jasmine tea. Her husband helps during our conversation whenever our English proves insufficient. They sit next to each other and happily talk about their life in Wageningen and the freedom they feel here.
Zulfia does the housework and looks after the children. She also often cooks for friends in Wageningen’s Indonesian community, together with other women. Those occasions spent chatting, drinking tea and cooking together are what makes her feel at home here. ‘What does it mean to feel at home?’ I ask. ‘It’s the feeling of never wanting to leave this country.’ She smiles broadly. But when I ask if she would like to stay here forever, she answers decidedly: ‘No! Indonesia is our home.’ That’s where she belongs. Their time here is like a dream, but all dreams must come to an end.
Although Zulfia is sometimes unsure about her English (which is actually much better than she thinks), she is happy the dream will last for a while longer. With her husband and children, safe in the warm embrace of Wageningen.
No work and time is slipping away
Pily Monsivais Alonso from Mexico, interviewed at home on 13 September 2017
In Pily’s own words, her home is the place where biscuits, chocolate and tea are always available. So there we are, sitting at her little kitchen table, although no tea as yet. She starts telling her story.
Pily initially didn’t want to come along when her husband suggested going to the Netherlands for a year. She found the idea too nerve-racking, too unpredictable. But she gradually became more curious, and her employer’s promise to hire her back after the year was up eventually persuaded her.
The first few weeks were stressful. She was cold, had to search for suitable food at the market, got lost on her way home and longed for spring. But as soon as the sun started warming the Dutch soil, she began to relax. She enjoyed her peace and freedom. She would go for walks, learned to cycle, made new friends and marvelled at the extreme tastelessness of Dutch cuisine. Then, when the sun’s strength started to wane again, she began to feel homesick. That’s when the shock came: her husband got a one-year extension at work. They stayed in the Netherlands and couldn’t even go back to Mexico for Christmas due to visa problems.
‘Tea! Do you want tea?’ She had almost forgotten. She puts the kettle on and hands out chocolate biscuits. Pily is finding this second year a lot harder. She has had enough of relaxing and wants to do something. She would love a job, but her English isn’t good enough, and her teaching qualification and years of experience as a maths teacher aren’t worth much here. She cooks, does the groceries, goes for walks, cycles, meets up with friends … and feels time slipping away. She feels she is growing older while a safe, stable future seems further away than ever. But when she went to Mexico for five weeks last spring, after the fourth week she was longing ‘to go back home’. That was a very confusing feeling.
‘If you were granted two wishes, what would they be?’ I ask. Her first wish would be for her entire family to come to the Netherlands, to show them how big and open-minded the world is. Her second wish would be a good job for her husband. What about herself? She wishes she could speak Dutch fluently, drink tea with Dutch friends and joke along with them.
Waiting for a residence permit
Atousa Seif from Iran (who did not wish to be photographed), interviewed in her husband Omid’s office in the Leeuwenborch on 18 September 2017
Omid’s eyes light up when Atousa enters the room. Out of breath, her forehead slightly sweaty and with a big smile. ‘Isn’t she beautiful!’ he exclaims.
Atousa does not speak Dutch or English yet. We shake hands and smile. Her husband, Omid, will be our interpreter. It’s a weird feeling to direct questions at someone who doesn’t understand them. Words seem to hang in the air until Omid’s translation gives them meaning. Then you get a brief moment of contact. Just a moment, though. Until she answers and her words form sounds that mean nothing to me.
For Atousa, the situation is clear: she wants to be in the Netherlands. This is where she feels at home. It’s safe, the people are friendly and open, and the weather is nice and cool. She wants to study here and learn the language. Dance, sing, play sports. But to Omid’s annoyance, she can’t seem to get a residence permit. They have been married for three years by Dutch law, he has a Dutch passport and a highly respected position at a university. He raises his voice: ‘Why can’t this wonderful woman be with me?’
For now, Atousa travels between the Netherlands and Iran on a tourist visa, which isn’t easy to obtain. She will have to learn Dutch, then once she has turned 22 and after huge amounts of paperwork and patience, her dream might finally come true. She wants to become a designer. She cautiously pushes a lock of hair back in place. ‘What country would not want this gorgeous woman?’ Omid says indignantly.