No place like home in times of crisis

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No place like home in times of crisis

Not long ago you were spreading your wings and stepping out into the world, leaving the parental nest behind. Then, out of the blue a pandemic comes knocking at the door of your student house. What are you going to do? Do you stay put in your new ‘household’ in Eindhoven, or do you return to the bosom of your family - without a clear idea of how long you may be there, and with all the settling in and adjustment that is going to involve? Cursor spoke to five (of the many) students who have gone back to live for their parents for the time being.

photo Privécollectie Anne Jenster

“I think my dad likes having someone else in the house again”

Alexandra de Boer is a third-year student of Electrical Engineering. Since Friday March 13th she has swapped her Eindhoven studio for her parental home in Friesland.

Whether to stay in Eindhoven, where even so the campus would be off limits to her, or to go back to the countryside with, if nothing else, the prospect of stress-free trips outdoors and no problem maintaining physical distance. “It wasn't a difficult choice,” explains Alexandra. She is probably not the only one to have left her student house, she thinks. “With things as they are, Eindhoven now has little to offer most students.”

She had been living in the city for almost three years. Commuting daily between Boornzwaag (between Joure and Sneek) and Eindhoven was deemed, “Not very realistic”. She was used to making the trip back home, admittedly she made it most weekends, but when she traveled to Friesland on 13th March she was carrying more than her usual amount of baggage. “I think I'll stay a while,” she had already told her father. Her room in the large farmhouse was as she had left it; Alexandra could move straight back in.

It already feels like home again, she explains. “I am an only child and I've lost my mom, so there's just the two of us, my dad and me. During the day we each do our own thing, and we come together for our evening meal. We tend to stay out of each other's hair. But I think my dad likes having someone else in the house again and not having to cook every evening.”

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She admits that she feels quite privileged, “I'm in touch with others who have their parents breathing down their neck the whole time.” That's not something she's ever experienced, up there in the wilds of Friesland, this student tells us. “My mother was always waiting for me at home with a cup of tea at the end of the school day. She was very involved and interested in my life, but my parents have always given me a pretty free rein.”

This freedom doesn't stop Alexandra giving her days in Friesland as much structure as she can. “On weekdays I'm at my desk by nine o'clock in the morning, that's when I do my stuff for uni. Besides this work, I also work now and then for the student information team and the Study Check Days.” Her father, attached to the University of Groningen and now, like her, working from home, fills what free time he has doing jobs on and around the farm, “with the help of my granddad”. The goats living on the farm are all pregnant right now, “so hopefully we'll soon have a number of baby goats”.

Alexandra has adapted to the idea that whatever happens longer term, for the rest of this academic year she will be staying in Friesland. “I imagine I'll go to Eindhoven one or at most twice more to pick up some things I forgot.” Her boyfriend, also a Frisian and currently busy completing a qualification in secondary vocational education (mbo), will also be coming to Eindhoven to study after the summer, “so we wanted to live together. But perhaps we can bring that plan forward, so we are going to start looking more seriously for a place”. Now, in Friesland, they are seeing quite a bit more of each other than would have been the case were she still in Eindhoven, “which I certainly don't mind”.

“My mother didn't want to go back to India alone”

Sanjeeth Premkumar is a first-year master's student at the Department of Mechanical Engineering. His mother had just arrived for a visit here in the Netherlands when coronavirus broke out and she would agree only to travel back home if he accompanied her.

Having untied his mother's apron strings and settled in Europe only nine months ago, he now finds himself back home in Chennai, India - the place where he was born and raised. His homeland has been in a state of complete lockdown for a couple of weeks already; residents are allowed out only to get essentials, and must be equipped with a face mask, gloves and disinfecting hand gel.

Sanjeeth and his mother had to spend four weeks in strict quarantine after they flew back to India from Europe. His mother had just arrived in Eindhoven for a visit when coronavirus cropped up in the Netherlands “and the cases of infection were rising by the day. It made me a little fearful having this new responsibility for the both of us, and my family was worried too.”

Even so, his request to his mother to go back to India alone, as they had planned, was not met with enthusiasm. “I was convinced that I could look after myself perfectly well and, besides, exams were about to start. But she was adamant that she wasn't travelling alone.” Sanjeeth let himself be persuaded and booked another ticket to India, this one for himself. Days before their departure on March 14th, TU/e issued its statement that the campus would in effect close down and that education would move online.

It was with mixed feelings initially that he returned to India, Sanjeeth tells us. “I was really enjoying myself in Eindhoven and the Netherland, had just got really used to the system of education at TU/e by the end of first quartile, had joined the rowing club. No way did I want to leave. But now it feels good to be in India, with my family. At least they don't have to worry about me now.”

'This is my home'

For the time being, he is living under one roof with his parents and older brother. “Actually, it's as if I've never been away. In fact, when I left India last year, I made it perfectly clear, ‘this is my home, this is who I am’. It is good to be back here again. My parents and brother cannot work from home, so everyone has plenty of time to sit down together, to chat and catch up or play a game.” And, as he laughingly says, “It's great to find your dinner always waiting for you.” But having said that, he now often pulls his weight in the kitchen. “After I moved to the Netherlands, I had to be self-reliant, and I started cooking for myself. So I've continued doing that here, now and again.”

When does he expect to be able to travel back to the Netherlands? Sanjeeth couldn't venture to say. “India is in lockdown, as is Dubai where I would have a stopover. There's still too much uncertainty.”

“In a house full of guys you behave a little differently”

Mark Dullemond, a first-year master's student of Chemical Process Technology, is currently biding his time at home with his mother and younger sister in Dieren, near Arnhem.

An Eindhoven student house has been Mark's home since the second year of his bachelor's degree. As he was used to going home to Dieren for a visit at least three times a month, he says he is not finding it all that strange to be there again.

Early on, says Mark, corona developments were a topic of discussion in his student house, although, he says, who exactly would be going home and who not remained “a little bit vague” for a long time. “We spoke to each other fairly often, we ate together every day. So we certainly talked about it: what are we going to do if everything shuts down? Are we going to stay here, or are we going home? Will I still want to be here with the six of us?”

The appeal made by, among others, Prime Minister Rutte to the Dutch people to stay indoors as much as possible sealed the deal for the students. On March 21st, Mark packed his bags and set off for Dieren. In the back of his mind was the knowledge that this option was what his mother (Mark's parents are divorced) would most prefer and he could move back into his old room without any ado. “Though I did move a desk into my bedroom. Normally, when I was here for the weekend, I didn't do much work and if I did, I'd sit at the kitchen table.”

His sister, three years younger than him and still living at home with their mother, likes having him around “for the company” he says, now that he's back temporarily. In fact, his return to the parental home was, in all respects, “pretty smooth. Of course, it takes a bit of getting used to. Normally I'd be sitting in my student room on my own with no one to take care of me, so to speak. I'm a bit calmer here too, I think. In a house with a group of guys of the same age, of course you behave a little differently.”

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His mother gives him plenty of space, brings him the occasional cup of coffee while he's working at his desk “and she does like us to eat together”. At the time of this interview, he is chiefly occupied with his exams and with his case study for a trip to Australia this summer. For the rest, he fills his days with “a bit of gaming” and he runs regularly in the woods. Mark says he doesn't find the situation hard to accept, “it is what it is”. The biggest challenge he faces at home in Dieren is staying focused. “In MetaForum I can spend the entire day learning and working, it's a lot tougher to do that here.”

He is looking forward to the next press conference (tonight, Tuesday April 21st) and only after seeing that will he start thinking ‘what next?’. “But for the time being, I think I'll simply stay in Dieren.”

“In my mom's eyes I'll always be a child”

Harsh Jethwani is a second-year bachelor's student of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry. For the past few weeks he has been back with his family on Sint Maarten, where the meager WiFi was an initial source of irritation.

If it turns out that we all have to get through a period of crisis, then we'll do it together. This was the decision made by the Jethwani family, whose roots lie in India. And so not only Harsh but also his brother studying in Amsterdam traveled back to ‘the islands’. He had last been there in December.

A good eighteen months is how long he had been living overseas. Some time earlier, his older brother had also flown the nest and headed for the Netherlands. It was certainly not Harsh’s intention to follow his brother, he is keen to point out. “Quite the opposite,” he says with a laugh. “But in terms of curriculum, Eindhoven simply came out on top.”

Sharing a room again

Not that the two of them don't get on well, it should be said. Which is just as well given that, at home on Sint Maarten, the brothers are currently sharing a room, just like they used to. In fact, he expected to be staying there for only a week or two, Harsh admits. “The plan was that I would return to the Netherlands on March 27th; on the 30th I had an exam. But when it became clear that all exams would be held online and all flights were canceled, I had no choice but to stay here.”

This was a development that eased his parents' minds; right from the start of reports about coronavirus in the Netherlands they had been very concerned, the student tells us. “‘Why would you stay there, with some many cases of infection?’ they asked. At that stage, there were no known cases of COVID-19 here on Sint Maarten. And they also said, ‘If this turns into a worldwide crisis that we all have to get through, then we'd rather do that together’.” And adult or not, “In my mom's eyes I'll always be a child, her child.”

In the meantime, Harsh has settled down well at the family's home, on an island that, at the time of this interview, has been in full lockdown for two weeks - including even the supermarkets. “Everyone here knows everyone else. If ten people here have coronavirus, there will be another two hundred, three hundred cases of infection before you know it.” At the time of this interview, Sint Maarten has about seventy registered COVID-19 cases, among a total population of island residents numbering some seventy thousand. “One in a thousand, that's quite a lot.”

The temporary lockdown was announced in advance, it must be said, so that everyone could buy at least two weeks' worth of groceries, Harsh explains. Thus at the moment he is enjoying not only the sun on the family's patio, but also the fruits of his mother's culinary skills. “I must have put on at least three kilos since I've been here.” Only the WiFi was a source of irritation, originally. “From 100 Mbps in the Netherlands to 2 Mbps here. Thankfully it's now improved a little.”

Missing the cold

So Dutch WiFi is one thing he is missing. Another is the weather. “I know it doesn't sound very logical for someone from the Caribbean, but I miss the cold. I have always loved the cold.”

When does he expect to be able to return to his student house in Eindhoven, which he shares with a handful of other internationals? Harsh does not know. “It seems at any rate that the number of COVID-19 cases in the Netherlands is no longer growing exponentially, but more linearly. Still, I think TU/e will keep going with online education for the rest of this academic year. Besides, I was planning to come to Sint Maarten anyway this summer, so I think that, all in all, I'll be here until August.” He laughs, “So a planned two-week trip is turning into nearly six months.”

“Luckily we can resolve any frustration by talking it over”

Anne Jenster is a student of Industrial Design and Commissioner of Education at study association Lucid. She is living, together with her brother who is in the same boat, back with her parents in Nieuwegein. While the family's reunion did give rise to some frustration, it has chiefly borne fruit, including an upbeat video.

Time for a quick chat with Cursor? Not a problem, even though she says she is super busy, now of all times: “With more things going wrong in our education, more input from students is needed.” And, of course, Anne hopes that this corona pandemic is soon over - although she admits she is enjoying the instructive glimpse behind the departmental scenes which, as a member of her association's board, she is now being afforded by this period of crisis.

Being so busy was partly the reason why a few weeks ago she swapped, fairly readily, her student house in Strijp (that she shares with three others, all pretty self-sufficient) for her parental home in Nieuwegein. Her student room, says Anne, is simply too small for a longer period of quarantine. “Especially now that I'm doing a board year, I need space around me and I have to be able to focus. Besides, because both my parents work in healthcare we are pretty strict about the rules at home. If I'd had to stay away from home for a long time because I was in contact with housemates or friends in Eindhoven, I'd have found it a real shame.”

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Still, it did take some getting used to, after two-and-a-half years of leading an independent student life in the south. Her 24-year-old brother Bram, who is studying in Rotterdam, is also living back home temporarily. “On the whole I have a good relationship with my family and I'd often come home for the weekend. To be honest, my parents do actually like that we are now living at home.” But at the outset agreements were made, Anne tells us, for example over each person's share of the housework.

“My brother and I are obviously used to living in a student house and being able, for instance, to do things in our own time. Now we might be expected to do something at a given moment, or to eat our meals at an agreed time. We had a bumpy start with that and it caused some frustration, but luckily we can always resolve this kind of thing by talking it over.”

For the rest, the family members mostly do their own thing, says Anne. “Now and then we'll all watch a film or do something like that, but otherwise I wouldn't say we really do things together.” An exceptional and rather striking coproduction was the short film the family made recently, entitled ‘Quarantine with the fam’. “Somewhere or other we'd seen a film made by another family, and found it a bit boring. Making videos and being comical is really my thing, and I was in the middle of writing a rap when my parents said, ‘We want to join in’.”

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Video | Anne Jenster

'Quarantine with the fam'

Video | Anne Jenster

Over the Easter Weekend, the storyboard and a script were written, the recording was completed and Anne spent a whole day immersed in editing and applying all kinds of special effects. A mountain of work, “but actually I learnt a lot”. That her parents lent their services for the video isn't something that surprises her. “We're all a little bit mad really. My father is known for it among friends.” The film scored a good three thousand views; yet, sadly, this family production thrown in its virtual lap was not embraced by Dumpert website. And it must be said that the likelihood of a sequel is not great, “my dad and brother have a short attention span.”

Anne expects to be back in Eindhoven for a quick visit before too long, mostly to pick up some more of her stuff. For the rest, her chief hope is that the corona quarantine “doesn't last a really long time. I'm a very social person, find it difficult to be completely isolated from friends - although, of course, we talk to each online. Actually I hope that in the summer I can get back to seeing some people in Eindhoven. But if the situation remains as it is, I'll think I'll stay in Nieuwegein. There wouldn't be anything for me in Eindhoven anyway.”

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