International

Project pairs Stadjers with internationals

My local friend

The best way to get to know a city is through contact with the people who live there. My Local Friend matches internationals with Stadjers, so they can practice Dutch and go on fun outings. ‘I got to know the city so much better because of Coen.’
By Tamara Uildriks

You’re an international student trying to learn Dutch. Unfortunately, your entire study programme is in English and whenever people hear your accent, theyswitch over to English too. On top of that, your international friends are just as unfamiliar with their new city as you are and they can’t teach you anything about Groningen.

That’s why second-year literature and linguistics student Hannah Feller (from the United States) is so happy that she met Coen van Uhm, her own local friend. ‘I got to know the city so much better because of Coen. Once you know the language and the history of a city it’s easier to feel at home.’

Hannah got to know Coen, a retired bartender, through My Local Friend. This organisation, run entirely by volunteers, matches Stadjers – locals – with international people who are new in town, such as refugees, expats, or international students.

The original idea was to help the internationals with their Dutch, but the local friends also fulfil a need for social contact. Making new friends can be hard for people who just moved to a different country. The locals, in turn, get to learn something about a different culture. ‘It’s a win-win situation for both’, says MLF founder Eva Magnuskova.

Fatherly

Hannah and Coen clicked the moment they met. ‘It’s interesting to see how an international student is faring in a different country that has a different culture’, says Coen. ‘I’m also invested in how she’s doing in school. It must be a fatherly thing.’

The age difference between the two is substantial. Coen wanted to be matched with a woman around the age of twenty, preferably from France or Italy. ‘I realise that might sound iffy, but I have daughters that age. So I know what goes on in their world.’

The pair usually visits special places in the city and do cultural things together. Coen has a great knowledge of history and is an enthusiastic storyteller. He gives Hannah tips on books to read and recommends television programmes. ‘Next week I’ll bring Heimwee naar Nederlands, by Martin Bril. You should read it.’

I’m not just teaching her Dutch, but also our country’s customs and the history of Groningen

The two have only ever spoken Dutch, which means that Hannah’s proficiency has improved a lot. But, Coen emphasises, that’s not the only point of their friendship. ‘I’m not just teaching her Dutch, but also our country’s customs and the history of Groningen.’

Practice

Coen ended up at City Central, the small café attached to the A-kerk, by accident. He was looking for the Hanzehuys, which had been there previously. ‘Inside, they told me about My Local Friend. It sounded like fun so I signed up right there and then’, he says.

But City Central organises more activities than just MLF. It’s also a meeting place where internationals and Groningen citizens can get together. It’s run by Eva Magnuskova, originally from the Czech Republic, and Marian Counihan, from South Africa. They know, personally, all the challenges internationals have to overcome in a new, strange country.

‘When we first came to the Netherlands we participated in a similar project. It really helped’, says Magnuskova. She speaks fluent Dutch. Her local friend ended up becoming her neighbour. ‘I was looking for a place to live and he tipped me off when something opened up next door to him.’

Extra grandma

Counihan matched with 84-year-old local Lien. They developed a relationship that has lasted for years. Magnuskova: ‘Her local friend became an extra grandma for her children.’

Hannah and Coen have also become great friends over the last eighteen months. Coen has even met Hannah’s American mother. ‘She’s coming over again next week’, says Coen. ‘Maybe we’ll do a tour of Groningen, show her all the interesting spots.’

Her local friend became an extra grandma for her children

The success of My Local Friend depends on a good match. Magnuskova is very meticulous about this process. After people sign up, they have to come in for a thirty-minute interview to give the matchmakers insight into who they are. This allows them to match people who are similar. They have been successful so far: all seventy pairs they have matched so far are still in contact with each other.

Coen and Hannah, for example, share a love of culture and history. They visited the Maritime Museum and the Ploeg exhibition. ‘The other day we took a long walk through the Helpman neighbourhood, and we also visited the various little courtyards in the Celebesstraat.’ They also went on a cycling tour past traces left by the Second World War. ‘You can still the bullet holes in the walls around here’, says Coen. ‘It’s fascinating.’

Architects

Some‘couples’ get together over coffee to talk about politics, while others enjoy reading newspapers. ‘We once matched two architects’, says Magnuskova. ‘They go on trips throughout the country to visit different cities.’

Magnuskova hopes her project will help people get over their negative ideas about internationals. ‘Once you get to know someone personally, it becomes harder to judge them’, she says.

Now that the project has proven successful, Magnuskova wants to start organising events for those participating in My Local Friend. She thinks it’s important that the participants mingle and broaden their network in town. ‘The original idea was for the couples to rotate and change partners.’

But because the pairs said they wanted to stay together, she has been looking for an alternative. ‘I would love to create a community with locals and international friends.’

Interested? Check out mylocalfriend.nl or drop by at City Central

Nederlands

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