We are celebrating our 75th anniversary as British Council in the Netherlands in 2020-21 by sharing 75 personal stories from people who have a special connection to both the UK and the Netherlands. Read the 75 NL-UK stories and join us in celebrating our 75th anniversary. Watch the personal stories from Lucy Winskell and Anne-Sophie Andela and expand the boxes below to read the full stories by Sybrand Buma, Claire McNulty, and Alexander Rinnooy Kan.
75 UK-NL Stories - Education
It was the 21st of September 1989 still in the morning when I arrived after a long trip by boat and train at the gate of a castle-like building in the center of Cambridge. The building was Sidney Sussex College, my home for the next year. I reported to a man in a black three-piece suit with striped pants and a bolar hat. It was not the master of the college, nor was it a professor, it was a man who was much more important in daily student life, it was the porter. It was the first of many times I had to fully spell my impossible name: Sybrand-van-Haersma-Buma. The porter replied dryly: my name is Easy, easy to remember.
This day was the first day of a lifelong love for Britain, for its people and its habits. A country where curiousness for the future goes hand in hand with a crave for times long past. In 2009 I joined the steering board of the Apeldoorn Conference. During a decade I attended the NL-UK conferences until its demise in this form in the Brexit turmoil. Today bilateral relations will have to be rediscovered again. For example, will students be able to study in each others’ countries in the future as easy as I did in the past? It is all written in the stars, but what we do know is that the friendship of the past 75 years should be the guide for cordial relations for the next 75.
My route to the Netherlands was pure serendipity. The only thing I knew as I was looking for a post-doctoral research position, was that it had to be in Developmental Biology and, more importantly, it must be outside the UK. I had a hankering for travel and, without even really knowing where Utrecht was, I ended up there after seeing a position advertised on a poster. I soon fell in love, in more ways than one…
The Hubrecht Institute on the outskirts of the city was a perfect mixture of the rich historical science of embryology (complete with a mini museum of weird and wonderful creatures in specimen jars) coupled with cutting-edge laboratories and new technology. I learnt how to unravel the secrets of the first steps of life – why and how different bits of the body are formed in those early moments after fertilization – and how understanding these processes can help us to treat medical disorders, from heart disease to neurodegeneration. The Hubrecht was an inspirational melting point of ideas and people – made stronger because of the international mix of staff and students that worked there. Utrecht too felt like an international city, with all the cultural diversity and openness of Amsterdam, but thankfully fewer drunk British tourists! And as I grew to explore more of the Dutch culture (even gaining my NT2 qualification in Dutch!) I also reconnected with my own culture, through the work of the British Council. I began to appreciate more and more the importance of international science collaboration as a means to connect people across country and cultural barriers. Working with my friend and mentor, Joanna De Jong Keogh, I helped with the Next Generation Science project, which connected schools in the UK and Netherlands through a shared language of science. Some of the students had never been abroad before and their experiences in the programme helped to broaden their horizons, awaken a love of science, and instil a passion for using science and technology to solve some of our most pressing challenges, like climate change and global health.
Working as a scientist in the Netherlands set me upon my current path, where I champion and support global changemakers and National Geographic Explorers to illuminate and protect the wonder of the world. But it also made a much more important impact on my life – for it was in Utrecht where I met Joao, my Portuguese husband; where I lost my first child but was then blessed with my son; and where I made friends for life. I last returned to Utrecht in 2016, with Joao and my two wonderful children, to celebrate the centenary of the Hubrecht Institute, and I am sure we will return again. It was serendipity that first brought me to the Netherlands, but love and affection for the country and its people that will keep me coming back.
Alexander Rinnooy Kan
It is no overstatement to say that I owe my very existence to the British Council. Had it not offered my mother an attractive position in The Netherlands in 1946 and subsequently paid her so poorly that she was forced to offer lessons in English conversation to survive, she would never have met my father. He was her first and only pupil, and benefited greatly from her coaching throughout his professional life. More importantly, they quickly got married and led a very happy life together in The Hague. I was their first child.
But that is not all. About fifteen years later, the British Council intervened again and, at my mother’s request, arranged for me to spend a semester at a Grammar School for Boys in Birmingham, hosted by an English family. It did wonders for my English, but more importantly equipped me with new selfconfidence and motivation. It is no overstatement to say that this experience transformed my life and put me on track to where I find myself today.
About forty-five years later, I was asked to chair the Anglo-Dutch bilateral Apeldoorn Conference. What little hesitation I might have felt disappeared instantly when I saw who would be responsible for the logistics of this meeting. It had to be the British Council, of course, which, somewhat less dramatically than on the first two occasions, again made a real difference in my life.
Long may it prosper and continue to share the best of Britain with the rest of the world!
Alexander Rinnooy Kan