The gap between Dutch & internationals #2
This is how you do it!
‘Stick it out’
Xhorxhia Peno settles into a booth at Holtbar. She is from Albania and in her first year of the International and European Law program. She is still struggling to integrate. Little things remind her she doesn’t belong: ‘Something I found strange – especially at the beginning – is that when you sneeze, nobody says “bless you”. In Albania, even a stranger says, “bless you”. It’s so weird; when I sneeze, I still look around.’
Dutch students are ‘polite, but not friendly’, and Peno finds it cold and awkward when they speak Dutch as if she isn’t there. It’s hard to know how to behave when that happens. ‘I try to follow the conversation but usually I just stay on my phone.’
But it’s not all hard; Peno has a kind Dutch housemate who explains new things like garbage bins and bike lanes. ‘I guess you could say I’ve made one Dutch friend!’ She hopes this will help her integrate. ‘It’s like a chain. You make one friend, and then she introduces you to other people, and it just happens.’
Is social integration a problem? Peno shakes her head. ‘I don’t think it’s a problem,’ she says. ‘People are different – like, Albanians have a lot of loud laughter, and sometimes people just look at you like: “you’re crazy, what are you doing?” But that’s my voice! That’s my laugh.’ People will learn to like it, she laughs, loudly. Nearby patrons glance at us askance.
Sara Seber blows into the UB Starbucks, breathless and apologetic — thanks to her rowing club, she’s late. She accepts a cappuccino with an expression of weary gratitude; it’s exam season.
Seber is German and has just started a Master of Marketing. Most of her Dutch friends are from rowing. She says everyone should join a sports or study association. ‘It really has to be very spontaneous – you meet over a committee and you’re like, “Oh! I really like that person.” And then you have to push a bit: “let’s do something.”’
But, Seber warns, you must act quickly before Dutch students establish friend groups. ‘Once they have that, it’s really impossible to get in.’ Beginnings are key, because everyone feels equally vulnerable – introduction week, or the first week of classes or sports. ‘When that window is over, it’s very hard.’
‘Dutchies’ can be insecure, Seber says, ‘especially the ones who have not been abroad and are not comfortable with English – they get super stiff, and they don’t know what to do with it.’ But don’t take that personally. Instead, ‘invite them over for something fun, so that they get out of their bubble and see it’s not just their safe environment that is nice.’
Seber’s closest friend is Dutch, and she says the effort to make a connection pays off. ‘I guess it’s because they don’t let lots of people very close. So when you make it, it’s also meaningful.’
‘Embrace something different’
Cantin Gillen wheels up to Spaak Koffie&Koers, as confident on a bicycle as any Dutch. Two years into medical school, the American has no plans to leave the Netherlands. He sits down with his coat still on, eager to explain why he loves it here.
‘I think Dutch people are inherently pretty cool. I don’t know why’, he says. He considers. ‘Things make sense here. There’s a lot of logic in the daily life. I think that gives them some sort of time and freedom from worry, so they can just enjoy things.’
This is true of Dutch relationships as well. ‘It’s part of the culture to just go to a café and have a coffee with a friend, even for half an hour in midday. It’s just: “this is how life is. I make time for you because you’re my friend and I like doing it.”’
Gillen owes a lot to Dutch friendship. He arrived alone in Groningen six months before classes began. Steven, a Dutch guy he once shared a beer with, found Gillen a room and even got him a job tending bar.
Gillen grins as he recalls his misadventures tending bar before learning Dutch. ‘You have to learn Dutch’, he says. ‘It’s just kindness, you know? It’s also a conversation spot. What’s better than making fun of yourself sounding like a toddler trying to speak a language?’
So why is integration so tricky for a lot of students? ‘I don’t think it’s a structural problem’, Gillen says. ‘It’s probably more a personal problem.’ He shrugs. ‘It’s much easier to go up to someone and say, “Hey, where are you from? I have no idea what the fuck is going on here.” And then you share in that discomfort.’
But international students should push past that. ‘Part of being an international is addressing that you’re uncomfortable. People naturally surround themselves with people that are similar; okay, fine – if you’re gonna find analogs to the friends you already have, why not just stay home? Embrace something different.’