Five years ago theoretical physicist Greg Stephens, fresh off the plane from New York, presented himself before his new employer the VU. His boss was startled. “No need for you to be here right away”, he said. “Take it easy, go home, get yourself settled, relax and take a shower. Tomorrow you can start at your new job.”
“I thought ‘wow, this is not New York’”, Stephens said at the kick-off of the newly founded International Staff Network (ISN), yesterday in the Auditorium of the main building of the VU.
Stephens realized that life in Holland was vastly different from that in the US. Not just more relaxed, some things proved to be considerably more difficult. Making friends, for instance. Networking.
“I found out all my Dutch colleagues went right home after work, at six o’clock. There was nobody to have a drink with, or dinner. I didn’t know how to get in contact with people, how to build op a circle of friends, a new network.”
Econometrician Katarzyna Lasak, who is from Poland, had a similar experience. Although she had studied and worked in several different countries before coming to Holland, she too proved to be less prepared for her life as a foreigner than she imagined. “I had lived in Denmark and Spain and thought nothing could surprise me in Holland. Soon I said to myself: ‘Katarzyna, you couldn’t have been more wrong’.”
The pair found out life became easier thanks to the different meetup groups for foreign staff that were organized randomly at the VU. They decided to set up the ISN for international VU workers to better integrate into the VU society, to help each other with practical matters, for instance the rather inaccessible Dutch bureaucracy, to organize workshops, practice Dutch and of course also to just socialize.
The ISN is even getting its own room (no small feat at the VU campus where space is costly and management is obsessed with the concept of flexible workplaces) at the first floor of the main building, 1A-36, which is now being restyled for that purpose.
Stephens told the people present everyone had a say in how the room would be furnished. “I for one am very much in favor of a cocktail bar”, he said. “Who else wants a cocktail bar too?”
The VU has 1500 international employees, when the 500 guest researchers are included. This number is growing swiftly every year, director Frans Snijders of the VU International Office said. According to him it was high time something like the ISN was set up.
Snijders was a bit disappointed by the low turnout at this kick-off. About forty people where present. To make things worse rector magnificus Vinod Subramaniam, appointed as ‘patron’ of the Network, had to call off due to illness.
A short lecture was given by behavioral psychologist Paul van Lange about the heritability of values like trust, which is much higher in countries like Switzerland and Holland than in for instance Brasil or South Africa, which proves it’s mainly a cultural difference.
After this comedian Bob Maclaren, a New Zealander living in Holland, concluded the session with a series of embarrassingly bad jokes. “Homosexuality used to be prohibited in Amsterdam, now it’s legal and soon it will probably be compulsory”, he said. “NS stands for “No Service”.
“The Dutch speak with a hard ‘G’”, Maclaren explained, pronouncing ‘G’ as ‘gay’: “harde gay”. “What do you do with a harde gay? You put him in the back of your throat.”
Because his first name is Bob, he said, in Holland that means he has to drive everybody home.
One joke was slightly decent. It was about the nationalist political party PVV, “The fascist PVV”, according to Maclaren. He is going to vote PVV these coming elections, “because they promise to send all the foreigners home and I want to go home, but can’t afford a ticket.”