Wetenschap - 5 maart 1998

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The Dutch way: reminiscences of a scientific stay at WAU
The Dutch way of life can be summed up in three words: coffee, diary, bike
Wageningen is situated in the very heart of Holland where the northern Dutch sobriety is invigorated by a smile and a bit of chaos from the south of the country. Anyone who says Wageningen is really referring to the University, and not to the town, as half of the town's population are students and people of science. Around the Hoogstraat, the main street there are university buildings and scientific institutes that together form Wageningen Knowledge Centre. One thing is certain: WAU, the pride of Dutch agricultural science, is well known all over the world. I was lucky enough to have a chance to stay at the very heart of Dutch agriculture
The project I was working on consisted of experimental studies and a chemical description of the parameters for a model of binding (sorption) aromatic organic compounds with a similar structure to pesticides to organic substances. The results indicated a non-linear character of the sorption which resulted in a low concentration of the remains of these compounds in the soil solution. At this point, bacteria capable of degrading these compounds from the liquid soil phase came into action surprisingly quickly. We succeeded. Results could be published. To be honest, failure was not allowed. Only success counted. I sighed with relief
The WAU school is famous for creating models for describing natural phenomena. There are a lot of models for soil. If someone wants to conduct research on agricultural problems, a good background in chemistry, physics, or mathematics is useful. I was lucky, besides having a PhD degree in agronomy, I graduated in chemistry from the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, my home town. This meant I was able to accommodate chemical constants required for the interpretation of experimental results
Coffee time
Researchers start their work between 8:00 and 8:30. After greeting each other with Dag, which is an informal Good Morning, everyone starts working zealously, but not always fully awake and smiling. At 10 o'clock sharp all activities stop for coffee time. I am used to more spontaneity where I do my research work and in the beginning I found it difficult to plan my activities around these rituals. However, I soon learned that important scientific authorities have more time for exchanging opinions and experiences during coffee break than at any other times. It was not considered good manners to call on them without a prearranged appointment, noted in their diaries. This is a typical Dutch way of planning all meetings, not only business ones but also private
The Dutch rule concerning languages is simple: although many speak a few foreign languages they prefer to use their native tongue if possible. After a few months of my stay it was made clear that even though English was the language of science and it was very convenient that I could use it, it was time I started speaking Dutch as I was living in Holland! Fortunately I speak German well and Dutch is very close to German, so I did not have any problems with communication and acceptance in my neighbourhood
Official work time was until about 6:00 p.m., but researchers did not leave their institutes that early. Once someone had set up research equipment, he watched it with care at all hours of the day and night, hoping for desirable results that would guarantee happiness and a good mood for the next day. I also started to follow this pattern of work and often pedalled to the Institute in the middle of the night to replace some important samples
Bicycle
Do not go to Holland if you have not learned how to ride a bike. Rain or shine, you never part with your friend the bicycle. A bicycle was my first purchase, made on my second day in Wageningen. It was the only way to travel the length and breadth of Wageningen in 20 minutes. Other means of transportation were available only outside Wageningen. Some people used cars but only if they had far to go. A bicycle was the safest. All the other vehicles were obliged to give priority to these agile conveyances under penalty of a fine. The so-called fietspaden - paths for bicycles only - connect villages and towns throughout Holland
Evening was a very important part of the day for our Dutch friends. Dinnertime and everyone went home. If going to a friend's place, the date had been chosen a month before and put down in the diaries. The favourite dish was stamppot: boiled potatoes mixed with various vegetables. Dessert was an indispensable part of dinner, and most often it was the ubiquitous Dutch vla. This resembles flavoured yogurt and comes in litre packs. Production of milk in Holland is high and every citizen is aware that milk cannot be wasted and the farmer must be able to sell it. Perhaps this is the reason that this kind of dessert was included in the dinner tradition. Before the celebration of a cup of coffee after dinner, the invited guests or members of the family who did not take part in the preparations for the dinner, washed up with a broad smile. Only when this arduous and tedious task was finished, were they able to talk about the past day in peace
Women
Dutch women were a shock to me. Their ideas about equality are very special. They feel able to repair a broken bicycle, carry a heavy case downstairs, move a big wardrobe. They do not show any weaknesses. Men cannot even offer help. They must know that she can do it entirely by herself. What would a Polish woman say to that?
A year in Holland allowed me not only to gather new scientific ideas and build up international contacts, but also to look in a different way at the world of science and human relations in a foreign country. I made a lot of lasting friends. On the other hand, I also found out how very attached to Poland and the Polish way of life I feel. The Polish way of working and living is a bit different, but foreigners can learn a lot from us. Yes, it's true: I learned patriotism abroad! I brought Poland closer to my Dutch friends, and instilled them with curiosity. I hope they will come and visit the Department of Agricultural Chemistry in the future

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