‘To me this Dutch planning culture is rather suffocating.’

​Zelda Euler is a senior researcher in the field of immunology at Janssen Vaccines and Prevention, a biopharmaceutical company in Leiden. She's doing research on HIV vaccines, something that relates closely to the health issues in her country of origin: "This way I can still bring something from South Africa."

​"I was born in South Africa," Zelda says. "I always had a mind to study abroad. When my parents wanted to set up a company in the Netherlands, I joined them. It turned out that my secondary education was not sufficient to be admitted to a Dutch university. Then I discovered the University College in Utrecht, where I was allowed to start the Bachelor Programme in Medicine on the basis of an interview."

"A lot of people leave South Africa out of fear," Zelda says. "The political climate isn't very healthy. But for me it was more of an adventure. Eventually I stayed in the Netherlands. I met my husband and found a PhD position in the field of HIV research at the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam. This research relates closely to current health issues in South Africa. This way I can still bring something from South Africa, I thought."

"When I came to live here, I thought the Dutch culture resembled that of South Africa more closely," Zelda reflects. "Initially I had difficulties getting to know the Dutch. In the weekends I wanted to do fun things together, but that was when everyone went home – I thought that was all so curious! In South Africa going to university means you have finally left your parental home; a time to hang out with your friends."

"The conversations in South Africa are rather more shallow, but people are more friendly," Zelda says. "In the Netherlands you meet up one to one. That feels like having a job interview: 'how is this going? And that?' They are genuinely interested, which is nice: you know where you stand. In South Africa people say they would like to meet up, but don't always mean it."

Planning culture
"To me this whole Dutch planning culture is rather suffocating," Zelda notes. "In South Africa people are much more spontaneous. You just go and do something on a Friday evening, like having a barbecue together. If you ask a Dutch person, they would say 'No, I've already got plans.' Dutch people want to plan everything well in advance. Now I refuse to plan anything more than two weeks ahead."

The first time Zelda came to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) was fifteen years ago, to apply for a residence permit. "At the time I thought it was difficult to get information," she remembers. "This has changed since then. Compared to my first application, IND employees now take more time for me. They give suggestions and sympathise if something doesn't work out. I like that. This human, emphatic aspect is clearer now. Recently I was in touch with IND again: I'm going to try and become a Dutch citizen. A few years ago I couldn't because of a gap in my right of residence, but now I've returned from my postdoc, I'm going to try again."