“In the Netherlands you can just be yourself, do what you want”

Tetiana Gulei grew up in Vinnytsia, Ukraine and moved to the Netherlands to study engineering when she was just 16. She now lives in Eindhoven and works as an instructor and senior UX designer. She likes the work-life balance here, wants to meet Victoria Koblenko, and has grown accustomed to her very Dutch daily schedule.

How did you end up in the Netherlands?
I came to the Netherlands in 2013 when I was sixteen years old to study and pursue a Bachelor’s in engineering in Groningen. There were other countries I could have gone to like the UK or Germany, but the Netherlands was more attractive because there are many English language programmes and scholarships. I also liked the university.

In Ukraine, you usually graduate from high school when you’re seventeen or almost eighteen but, for me, I had the chance to get a scholarship a year faster than that. I had the choice to wait and maybe get to come here and study or finish everything faster, which I did.

I would typically have two years to pass all my exams, but I only had one year. It was quite intense, but that’s what I decided to do. It was a great opportunity. I was still a bit young and my parents were worried that it wasn’t a reasonable thing to do but, eventually I just went for it. In the end, it was a great decision. I have no regrets.

How do you describe yourself – an expat, lovepat, immigrant, international?
I still consider myself an international even though I’ve lived here for 10 years. Expats come here only temporarily. They’re usually here for work and they’re still not sure if they want to live here forever, maybe move back home, or live somewhere else abroad.

Even though I feel like I’m quite integrated into Dutch society and speak the language, I still have this kind of Ukrainian flavour, you know? So that’s why I choose to consider myself an international.

How long do you plan to stay?
I actually really love the Netherlands, so I want to stay forever at the moment. I have a house, my job is here, and I have a lot of friends. Honestly, even before the war started in Ukraine, I would go back to visit and I would feel like my life was really settled here. I have fewer friends and connections in Ukraine, but more connections in the Netherlands.

Photo: DutchNews.nl

Over time, people like me get used to the way of life here. You work here and you live here. My parents also moved here because of the war. They’re staying with me. That’s another reason why I’m planning to stay long term in the Netherlands.

Do you speak Dutch and how did you learn?
At the moment, I would say my Dutch is quite good. I use it at work and I’m very proud of that, but I still sometimes make mistakes. I was motivated to study Dutch during my student years even though my degree was in English. At the time, I was living in Assen and there weren’t many international people. When I would go to get groceries or to the dance studio where I practised, everyone would speak Dutch. It was quite difficult for them to switch to English.

That was my wake up call. I felt like I really needed to learn the language to integrate better. I started studying by myself, but it was quite challenging. Eventually I decided to go and take some courses. That gave me much more confidence with speaking. I could read and understand people, but I wasn’t confident enough to talk to them. The courses really helped me, but I think the real improvement came from the progress I made once I started working.

All my colleagues would speak to me in Dutch in the coffee corner and during meetings. It pushed me to learn faster. In the beginning, it’s really hard because your brain is hurting from it. It would even give me headaches but, in the long term, it was worth it.

What’s your favourite Dutch thing?
There are a number of things. In the Netherlands you can just be yourself. You do not need to prove anything to anyone. You can do whatever you want, pursue whatever you want with your career, wear any kind of clothes or makeup you want, do your hobbies, and no one will judge you. In Ukraine, it’s a bit different. You have to fit society’s standards. People have expectations for you. Here, you can decide for yourself what you want to do.

It’s 5.05 pm. Photo: Depositphotos.com.

I also like the work-life balance. I work four days a week and it’s enough for me to remain financially secure. I also have time to rest, do my hobbies, and see family and friends as well as travel. It’s funny, at 5 pm my office is empty. Even if you want to work until 5.30 or 6.00 pm, a security guy comes and says, ‘Hey, go home!’ He’ll kick you out. This sort of thing actually forces you to go home and use your vacation days. Your manager will even come and say, ‘Hey, do you know you still have vacation days? You should use them.’

People are much more relaxed here. They’re not as stressed or easily burnt out. In Ukraine, my friends work until 9 or 10 pm. You can very easily wind up having long office hours and no life. Work, that’s all there is.

And I like how sporty everyone here is. You can cycle everywhere. You can bike to the supermarket, to work, and to see friends. Even if the weather is bad and it’s raining, they’ll still go jogging or cycling. Even if you’re at the beach and it’s cold and there’s a crazy wind, people are still surfing and kite surfing.

How Dutch have you become?
I think I’m quite Dutch, to be honest. If you look at practical points, there’s my actual nationality. I don’t even have Ukrainian nationality anymore because I had to give it up to get Dutch nationality. Ukrainian laws and Dutch laws made me give it up.

But inside I still feel Ukrainian because I was born there and lived there until I was 16, but I still have a newer Dutch mentality. Lunch is at 12 or 12.30, dinner is at 6 pm, and this is a routine that I do every day. I’m also more direct now and straightforward. I can share my opinion and Dutch people don’t get mad.

I can easily say ‘no’ now as well. In Ukraine, it’s hard to do that, especially at work or with your family. Here, you can really be direct and not even explain why you don’t want to do something. It’s very nice to be able to be honest and transparent.

Which three Dutch people (dead or alive) would you most like to meet?

Victoria Koblenko. She’s a Dutch actress, but she has Ukrainian roots and she’s also from my hometown. Right now she’s in many movies and she’s quite famous. I like her a lot because she has many stories similar to my own. She came to the Netherlands when she was 12 or 13 years old. She’s also been invited to talk about Ukraine and has brought awareness of what’s going on to many people. In general, she seems like a person who would be nice to have a chat with.

Rob Jetten (caretaker climate minister) I really like his views on climate change and energy. He really wants to help make the Netherlands more sustainable. He also has very nice views on education and international people who live here.

King Willem-Alexander took this photo of his wife to celebrate her birthday. Photo: RVD – Z.M. de Koning

Queen Maxima. I think it’s quite a cliche since a lot of people want to meet her. I like her story. She might be from Argentina and an international but still a very important person here in the Netherlands.

What’s your top tourist tip?
I always tell people to go to Amsterdam, but they should also go to Scheveningen, the beach near The Hague. I really love the promenade and the pier there. There’s plenty to do. You can eat, you can shop, or go to the Ferris wheel for a view of the water and sea on one side and the dunes and the city on the other. If you want some adventurous stuff, there’s the zip line if you’re into that.

They should also go to Rotterdam. It’s different from other Dutch cities. It’s very modern and the river there is quite beautiful. I also recommend the Euromast tower. You can see the whole city. One more thing would be the highest point in the Netherlands – the Drielandenpunt – where you can stand on the borders of three countries; the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. You can also climb the lookout tower and see all three.

Tell us something surprising you’ve found out about the Netherlands
When I first got here, I was surprised by how friendly everyone is here. I still think so. When I first came here as a student, I knew nothing. I rented a room to live in, but I didn’t know it didn’t have any furniture. I’d had a long trip and I didn’t even have a bed to sleep on. I talked with a worker at the university and she immediately stopped what she was doing. She cancelled her meetings and took her car to a second-hand shop to get me furniture. She didn’t even know me. She’d just met me and, five minutes later, she dropped everything to help me.

Another thing, people have jobs but, after work, they volunteer. They just do it to be helpful and it feels good and it’s not for money. Many people might say they have better things to do than work for free, but I think it’s nice that they’re willing to help others. 

If you had just 24 hours left in the Netherlands, what would you do?
I would go to the National Opera and Ballet in Amsterdam. I’ve been here 10 years, but I still haven’t gone there and it would be great to finally see a performance. After that, I would probably take a walk through Vondelpark, grab some coffee, and have a great time with family or friends. But if the weather was really good, I would just get my dog and go to the beach.

Tetiana was talking to Brandon Hartley.

You can learn more about her work and the LinkedIn Learning courses she leads via her LinkedIn account.

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