Integrating with introverts


Recently, Cursor columnist that I am, I've been feeling a little like one of those elderly neighbors who keeps an eye on their street. With digital eyes, I've been noting what happens at TU/e - do you guys still have open-plan offices in Atlas? - but I have no influence. I am only a curious outsider, a frivolous voyeur yearning for Dutch directness.

I've got other matters on my mind. A month ago I started working in Bergen (Norway) as a postdoc. I haven't yet fulfilled my aim of making friends with a Norwegian, and I don't mean a blonde girl from Leeuwarden named Noor (which is Dutch for 'a Norwegian', ha, ha). No, I want to get to know the local people, and Norway has some 5.5 million of them. An abundance of choice, I hear you say.

However, Norwegians of my age tend to have got their lives pretty much shipshape. Back in primary or high school they formed their friendships, and now they like to hang out with their family members in remote cabins some five to eight hours' drive from the city.

All this makes for a contented life, and one of the knock-on effects is that nobody tends to strike up a conversation with a newcomer. During my first two weeks at the university, barely a ‘hei (hei)’ was said to me, only if I was introduced, in fact. Not all Norwegians are introverts, not all introverts are Norwegian, but there are a helluva lot of Norwegians who are anywhere from a little to majorly introverted.

They need time, I've been told. And that, for my part, I need to keep walking the corridors of the university building, need to hang around in the pantry and need to patiently keep on saying ‘hei’. That I must gradually come within the aura of the Norwegian. That when a Norwegian man likes you, he stares not at his own feet, but at yours.

I decided to take a more direct approach. Despite being mouth-wateringly expensive, alcohol (the local, Bavaria-like ‘Hansa’ tends to cost between €7 and €9 in bars) is the lubricant of hearts being opened, the WD40 of spontaneous conversation, and the duct tape of social cohesion. On an inebriated evening, introversion seems mythical and Norwegians like physical contact. What's more, if you think women take the initiative in bars in the Netherlands, you should see how far they go in Norwegian bars. Here, men even get catcalled.

All well and good, it's a nice way to pass an evening, but don't expect them to speak to you at length the next day. Conviviality fueled by alcohol is a sort of Norwegian one-night stand; you are fun for an evening, but afterwards our ways part.

It's a challenge to integrate as a postdoc. As an Erasmus student I had a round of parties to go to, but my 29-year-old self is a little more reserved. Making friends, something I've been doing in Eindhoven pretty much all my life, becomes a lot more difficult beyond the city limits.

To add the cherry of naivety to the cake: only now do I realize what foreign students and expats at TU/e go through. Of course, Dutch people are more direct in their style of communication and are perhaps more open, but we've also got a bunch of friends we picked up when we were sixteen, eighteen or twenty and who we aren't about to throw aside for an Erasmus Spaniard or an expat from Estonia.

Perhaps there are open-plan offices in Atlas to make Dutch people finally interact with their foreign colleagues (ha, no way: as a rule even fewer conversations are held in open-plan offices). Or perhaps there isn't such a big difference between the Dutch and the Norwegians, and there are plenty of expats in Eindhoven who are feeling lost, searching for interested locals.

In view of all this, this interfering distant neighbor was made very happy yesterday. Cursor reported that in the Christmas vacation the SSC and Hubble are going to take care of foreign students and employees who find themselves alone. They will make sure that there is something to do on the campus while the rest of the Netherlands is sitting down to Christmas dinner. It may not solve every integration problem, but if an initiative like this were introduced in Norway I would be delighted. And you would be too, if you were far from home.

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