Intercultural relations in Holland

Intercultural relations in Holland

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Portuguese expat Elizabet Fernandes enjoys the international atmosphere in her multilngual European company, but finds that people get 'lost in translation’ and inherit one another's linguistic mistakes.

Name: Elizabet Fernandes.
Nationality: Portuguese.
Residence: The Hague.
Date of birth: 3 January 1953.
Civil status: Widow.
Workplace: Eurojust.
Position: Secretary to Portuguese desk
Education: Degree in Portuguese languages and literature (French-English) and masters degree in intercultural relations.
Living in the Netherlands since 2003.

Elizabet FernandesIn Portugal I was working for the Prosecution service as a translator (legal court documents mainly). Basically I have the same job here at Eurojust. I came to the Netherlands on special leave, so it was a pretty safe way to go abroad. The environment however is much more international. More than 27 nationalities work here, representing every EU country and there are at least two people per Delegation. Eurojust is a new European Union body established in 2002 to enhance the effectiveness of the competent authorities within Member States when they are dealing with the investigation and prosecution of serious cross-border and organised crime.

I really enjoy this international atmosphere, moreover, because I have a master’s degree in intercultural relations and I am able to use my skills. I wasn’t expecting anything special from Holland or from living abroad. I just knew it would be different and I was prepared for a change. Many people I know complain about the Dutch and about their lives here, but that’s not my favourite game; I prefer to accept the differences and I like to learn from them.

Lost in translation

English is the current working language but too often people ‘get lost in translation’ because the level and the knowledge of language amongst us varies from person to person. We also inherit each other’s linguistic mistakes and end up speaking a kind of ‘Euro-English’. I like to speak as many languages as possible so I prefer to speak Spanish, French or Italian depending on the nationality of my colleagues. Besides, with this job I can also use and develop my skills as a translator and that’s perfect.

Unfortunately it’s too hard to use Dutch on a daily basis as the Dutch immediately respond in English to foreigners even to Flemish people!

 Culture games

Although Eurojust is a very multicultural environment it is still not very intercultural. My colleagues often don’t understand each other or tend to ‘over-react’. I have been fighting for intercultural training because it helps you to realise that different people (from different cultures) may react differently in similar situations and to respect that. I followed this training myself in Portugal so I know the impact and the benefits.

For example, one of the ‘games’ we play on such a training is: People are assigned to different groups and start playing cards according to certain rules. Then the coach tells some of them to change group and start playing again. What they don’t know is that every group has its own rules. Societies are just like this you need to understand and adjust to the new ones.

Another ‘game’ is: People are divided in pairs and they introduce themselves to each other. After that they introduce their partner to the group and it is clear that people ‘forget’ things and ‘add’ others according to their own ideas or first impressions.

Through these games people realise how prejudiced they can be. Here, we have 27 nationalities, we have 27 working styles but we also need to work together and understand each other. Unfortunately my proposal to get these trainings didn’t pass. It’s a pity because people assume too easily that they are tolerant and that they don’t judge!

Doll’s houses

When I first came here I found that Dutch houses looked like dolls houses and I wasn’t used to houses which you could look through: from the front side to the back garden! Because of the lack of curtains some houses look like shops! Fortunately my house isn’t like that and has more privacy.

Drink over food

Another funny thing is that when you go to a restaurant the waiter first asks you “What do you want to drink?” Instead of: “What do you want to eat?” For us ‘Mediterranean’s’ the meal is the most important and the drinking goes with the meal. When I came here, the organisation was just starting up and the canteen was serving mostly Dutch lunches; bread rolls. They had so many complaints that now warm meals are served and also a lot of Dutch colleagues are having them!

Crossing barriers to friendship

In my neighbourhood I say hello to people and they are very friendly but that’s it. When we try to cross that barrier, it’s really hard. It’s easier to blend in with the Non-Dutch than with the Dutch. In Portugal it’s the opposite: people welcome foreigners and they are even friendlier to foreigners than to Portuguese because they are guests. Perhaps it’s because of our fear that Portuguese might interfere in our life and foreigners won’t!

A great advantage of living in Holland is that it is much easier travel from here and indeed I travelled a lot. The Hague has plenty of cultural events and I did also profit from that. The ballet at the Nederlands Dans theater is my favourite!  

Why bike?

I bought a bike but I’m not cycling, it’s just not my habit. I walk a lot and I use public transport, which is perfect here: the transport workers don’t strike much and transport is normally on time.

Grey skies again

When I came here it was a really hot summer, which surprised me because I had been told otherwise! Now I know that it was exceptional. I don’t miss the hot weather of Portugal but I do miss the light. It’s often so cloudy and grey here. When I was in Portugal lately I had to wear darker sunglasses because of the brightness, which I wasn’t used to anymore!

Within a couple of weeks I’m leaving the Netherlands to go back to Portugal. I’ll have the same job as before because I’m a civil servant. I prefer to be close to my two adult children.

I am sure that I’ll miss The Hague and I’ll definitely come back to visit my friends.

Elizabet Fernandes told her story to Nicole van Schaijik, who owns and operates Talent Taaltrainingen (Dutch Language Courses), based in Amsterdam (
(Tel: 020 420 66 59or email:

11 September 2007


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