More and more international staff bring their partners along to Wageningen. But without the social network that comes with a job, it tends to take a long time before they feel at home. 'Wageningen is not very lively. If you don't have a job, you are pretty much on your own.'
Every morning, Maria has breakfast with her husband and then goes shopping by bike. In the afternoon she takes Dutch lessons or does voluntary work as the refugee centre. Once a week she goes to a flamenco class. And she reads a lot. This is the first time Maria has been out of work. 'I had always worked and had my own income and my own friends. When you have a job you integrate faster and you get to know people, as well as the language and culture. I don't care about status but I do want to keep on developing.'
So Maria is frustrated that it is hard to get a job. 'We used to live in Mexico City, a hectic, bustling city full of art, culture, good food and night life. Wageningen is not very lively. If you don't have a job, you are pretty much on your own,' she admits.
Maria is not the only one to go through this. 'More and more staff and students from overseas bring their partners along,' says Marijke Bouma, policy officer at Corporate HR. In 2011, the Corporate HR department International Advice & Support received a total of 60 applications from staff from outside the EU wishing to bring their partners with them. And then there are quite a number of Wageningen scientists - as in Maria's case - who met their foreign partners in far-flung corners of the world.
It is not easy for international partners of staff members to integrate in the Netherlands, explains Bouma. 'The image that you get from studies is that expats find the Dutch open, friendly and helpful. But at the end of the working day, that's it. People here do not automatically do sports or go out in the evenings with their colleagues.'
The Netherlands is a difficult country for partners because of cultural difference, agrees Astrid van den Heuvel, policy officer for internal internationalization. 'The Dutch are fairly individualistic. But if the partner and the family are not happy, the staff members do not stay long.'
In an attempt to help partners to start feeling at home in the Netherlands a bit sooner, Van den Heuvel and Bouma organize monthly get-togethers. They got the idea from Eindhoven Technical University, which has been holding get-togethers for partners for two years. Eleven people came to the first meeting in Wageningen in June 2012. Now the 'partner network' has 27 members from 14 countries, including Bangladesh, Mexico, China and South Korea. Most of the partners (21) are women.
'Some of the members were a little hesitant at first, but now they are relaxing. Friendships are developing, and people take initiatives to cook and eat together or to do sports,' Van den Heuvel reports. The meetings start with an informative morning session about topics such as health care, the Dutch language or job-hunting. Then, after lunch in the Restaurant of the Future, there is a cultural or sporting activity in the afternoon. This might be a walk around historic Wageningen, a tour of the campus or a visit to an art exhibition or the library.
Maria is grateful for the partner programme. 'The information about subjects such as working in the Netherlands is useful, and it is very nice to meet people who are in the same boat. I have made a Spanish speaking friend and we do things together now.'
Muna Udas (36) from Nepal has made friends too, including one from England, one from Germany and one from India. 'My husband is very pleased too, since I am at home alone for a lot of the time.' Muna's husband works for the Centre for Development Innovation so his work takes him abroad a lot. That leaves Muna, who has been in the Netherlands for a year now, alone here with her 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. She is in touch with her family in Nepal every day, on Skype. She is also on very good terms with her neighbours, who have children the same age. 'They help us with all sorts of things and we have lunch or dinner together regularly.'
Her husband's contract runs until 2015, so she is thinking of learning Dutch. 'I was happy in Nepal, but I am happy here too. My husband is doing well here, and that has an effect on me too.'
Keep on growing
Gabriela Ignacio (32) from Argentina has been living in Wageningen for over three years. Her husband had already been here a year, while she was still finishing her degree in Computer Systems Engineering in Argentina. In her first few months in Wageningen she brushed up her English by doing a course and she did freelance jobs for Argentinian companies. Then she soon found work as a systems engineer with a Wageningen company that develops software for research on human and animal behavior. 'It is a very nice company with a nice atmosphere. This is the best way for me to integrate. Nowadays I even attend Dutch language meetings.'
But she finds the social life in the Netherlands a bit disappointing. 'It is much easier to meet new people in Argentina. We occasionally eat with my husband's colleagues, but you have to plan that and it doesn't happen often. And I have made a Venezuelan friend at my Dutch course.'
Her husband is due to get his PhD this month, but it is not clear what their next step will be. 'We are following his career because it is much easier for me to find work. As long as I can keep growing professionally, that's fine by me.' Gabriela wouldn't mind going to a sunnier country though. 'We haven't got attached to the Netherlands, perhaps because we haven't got to know very many people.'
Partners get together
Every first Friday of the month there is a get-together for partners of international staff and students, at which they can meet each other and learn more about the Netherlands. The meetings are held from 10.00 to 14.30 in Impulse on campus. Partners can sign up by sending an email to Astrid van den Heuvel, firstname.lastname@example.org, or joining the coming event on the Facebook page: Wageningen UR Partner Network.