Her quest for peace and calm is a curious paradox; anyone who has spent longer than an hour ambling around the Student Sports Center will know Lara Hofstra as the hyperenergetic group teacher who jumps into the clear waters of the Dommel having taught a festive summer Zumba lesson. Or as the athletic teacher of groups who performs all kinds of stomach muscle exercises with ease while sport-card holders with well-honed bodies lie sweating on the gym floor in agony. Or as the motivator who throws open her office window and calls out: “Next time come to my lesson, no excuses!” But internationals know her first and foremost as the champion of the TU/e expat community. A community to which she feels she belongs.
Lara Hofstra | Student Sports Center Eindhoven | Group teacher | Internationalization | From Saudi Arabia to Eindhoven | aged 38
This is because although Hofstra is as Frisian as schaatsen (ice skating), Beerenburger (herbal bitters or moonshine) and eating drabbelkoekjes (crispy buckwheat butter cookies) sitting on a terp (manmade mound), she is anything but a creation of moaiste lân fan d'ierde (the most beautiful country in the world). Her Dutch citizenship is nothing more than passport paper. “Three months after I was born, we moved to Saudi Arabia. My father worked initially for Volkert-Stevin and later for the Saudi chemical company SABIC. As the compounds were only for expats working for foreign companies, we lived in a camp with Arabs. Hundreds of trailers in the sand, surrounded by industry. Yep, I'm trailer trash,” says Lara laughing. “But my parents made it a lot of fun and we had the ‘Hofstra jungle’: an enormous garden all round our home.”
She has been shaped by the Arab way of life and every day she still feels the sand of the Arabian Desert in her sports shoes. It is the country where she discovered that she does not come ‘from somewhere’, but rather comes 'from everywhere’. The country where she stood at the centre of the compass, but saw that no wind direction pointed to ‘home’. She was, as her hero Bob Dylan wrote, with 'no direction home’. Nationality was nothing more than a mirage.
I did play football once with the local children, but the police came along and forbade me from playing with them
“Our primary school numbered ten blond Dutch children, but as the only one who wasn't a ‘Shell child’, I often found that invitations to activities passed me by. Our summer visits to the Netherlands were fun but always involved getting used to things, especially because I didn't have any friends there. Even though the laws in Saudi Arabia are stricter and there's less freedom of movement, I felt comfortable in Saudi. I found it easy to connect with internationals and had strong friendships.”
Sport was the ideal catalyst for making friends, although convention on the Arabian Peninsula made taking part difficult for a girl. “I started swimming at the age of six; in strictly segregated swimming pools I swam lengths. Actually swimming was the only sport I could do competitively. I did play football once with the local children, but the police came along and forbade me from playing with them. When I was eight I got a racing bike but half an hour later the police brought me home with the message, quite literally, ‘When a woman cycles, you can see her behind and that arouses lust’. Contact with the male Arab population was not always pleasant and was at times threatening; I was always wary. Fortunately there were plenty of enjoyable things we could do, like sailing, water skiing and trekking into the desert. I experienced so much in Saudi; it would make a fabulous film.”
At the age of fifteen, Lara left home to attend high school in the beautiful Swiss city of Leysin. A voluntary but necessary choice. “In Saudi Arabia high school didn't go beyond the age of fourteen. Accompanied by my mom, I could have gone to the international school in Bergen (North Holland province), but I'd have split up my parents. Leysin was the right choice, my choice - not that I really had a choice. The boarding school was extremely strict; the teachers inspected everything, even in your bedroom. That's why I did so many things secretly. Jeez, I could have been kicked out of school dozens of times. Fortunately, Switzerland is a stunning country and with my friends I enjoyed the outdoors, hiking and snowboarding. Seriously, the first seventeen years of my life were a beautifully fucked-up nightmare,” says Lara with pride.
The next decade left Lara with less-happy memories. “I regard those as lost years.” After completing the International Baccalaureate, she went to Tilburg to study Leisure Industry Sciences (Vrijetijdswetenschappen). It proved disappointing. “I didn't understand my classmates and lecturers and they didn't understand me. Totally different world views. I'd never had TV or internet, for example. My life was all about telling stories and animated discussions with friends round a camp fire in the desert, not alcohol and going out on the town.” Another curious paradox: the extremely spontaneous teenager who can't connect with those with a different mindset. “There has to be adaptation, of course there does, but not at the expense of my personality. For me, nothing is more important than being and staying authentic.”
You can drink yourself under the table or go to bed with attractive men, but I find my peace in pushing myself to my physical limits
Only at the Academy for Physical Education did she find her way again, to some extent. “I got on well with my fellow students. ALO students are close-knit and open. Sport was a connecting factor; an easy way to make contact. And I met my ex-husband there, with hindsight the wrong choice. At the time I had little contact with my parents and was missing my friends. I felt lonely in the Netherlands, so lonely that I didn't even go to bed and would fall asleep on the couch. If you encounter an older, helpful person at that point, you welcome them. But he was too controlling and obsessive, I felt trapped in the marriage.”
During and after her marriage, Lara found sport to be the ultimate way to banish mental pain. “I need it to reach a balanced state. Without sport I can't get rid of mental anguish. If something is bothering me, I behave like a dying cat in a corner that doesn't want to trouble anyone with her problems. At times like that, sport is the only remedy. Of course you can drink yourself under the table or go to bed with attractive men, but my way of finding peace is to push myself to my physical limits. Unhappily, after my divorce, I continued cohabiting [with him] for another six months. Even though I had a car, I deliberately chose to ride my sit-up-and-beg bicycle from Goirle to Eindhoven for six months. Arriving worn out after two hours of exertion gave me peace for the rest of the day.”
The destination of those trips was the International School Eindhoven (ISE), where Lara had a full-time job as a gym instructor. “I went to the job interview and as soon as I opened the door, I felt at home. All the children were in my situation, complete kinship. The same messed-up stories. I taught gym lessons to ‘my kids’ for eight years and I experienced everything with them. I think it is important to keep on challenging pupils. To teach them that you can feel passionately and that winning isn't everything.”
“That, to me, is the ultimate form of beauty: showing your passion without shame. Just being yourself. I grew up in an environment where nothing is strange. In the Netherlands people are a little more afraid of being expressive. I never saw any Dutch guys in my Zumba lessons, but since internationals have been taking part in recent years, Dutch guys are also taking the plunge. It's a nice way we can learn from each other. As for what the Netherlands has to offer, I think the country's low power distance is terrific. What I like most of all is that you can shoot the breeze with anyone here; in the supermarket, on the street or when you're cycling. If you yawn, someone shouts out: ‘hey, girl, go to bed on time.’ Internationals can learn a lot from this kind of random conversation.”
Lara has been working at the SSC for ten years now. She teaches group lessons and is responsible for the theme of internationalization. Equipped with on all her life experience, she has the noble task of helping newcomers settle into life on campus and preventing their isolation. “My goal is to get the local population more interested in expats, and to increase motivation among internationals to learn the language and join in. Loneliness and depression still occur too often. I am keen to help people who are feeling miserable, especially those who have no one and need some loving kindness. Internationals sometimes have no one. If I could have gone along to the SSC in my difficult times, I wouldn't have had any ‘lost years’.”
“Sport is so important for international students and employees. The SSC is the only place where it is so easy to meet people. You are more likely to have a chat during a group lesson or a training session held by a student sports association than at a staged event. I hear some pretty harrowing stories, I can tell you. The SSC can't help with everything, but I usually have one piece of advice: keep on playing sport! For campus residents having a hard time, the SSC can be a real lifesaver. To be honest, without the SSC I would never have stayed in Eindhoven. Thanks to our sports center I have built friendships, even with Dutch people. I don't know what I'd do if you took away the SSC.”
And so as life went along it did offer the direction home that Bob Dylan was missing. “Eindhoven is my home now.”
Raymond Starke works at the TU/e Student Sports Centre, in the midst of more than 13 thousand sport card holders who frequently (or less frequently) do sports to their heart's content. Once every four weeks, he interviews a student or employee for Cursor on the topic of ‘the beauty and consolation of sports’.