I was born in Wageningen, but soon afterwards, we moved to the Congo, where we stayed for a year. When we returned to the Netherlands, we went on to live in the village where my grandparents on my mother’s side also lived. They played an important role in my upbringing; they were committed atheists, vegetarians and socialists. My granddad’s family history was quite interesting. His parents were theosophists, they wouldn’t eat meat (which, at the time, was very exceptional), they were teetotallers (after, by the way, my great-great-grandfather fell into a ditch and drowned while drunk) and committed atheists.
In 1923, my granddad’s brother, Uncle Piet Blijenburg, co-founded the weaving mill De Ploeg, which began as an idealistic agricultural commune where everyone was paid according to need. Ploeg fabrics later came to be known worldwide. De Ploeg was engaged in a sort of Corporate Social Responsibility avant la lettre. De Ploeg was a cooperative where all employees were able to achieve their potential as much as possible. Both of my granddad’s brothers refused to serve in the military, which meant my granddad was excused from conscription.
Things like vegetarianism, yoga and emancipation are quite normal these days (my granddad did a lot of the housekeeping). They definitely weren’t then. Certainly not in the area where we lived. My parents were idealists, too. My father did developmental work and my mother wrote letters for conscientious objectors via Amnesty, for example. For children like us who were not ‘mainstream’, growing up in a rather traditional, Catholic village in North Brabant was not always easy. We didn’t really did fit in. At school, for example. There were advantages too, however, because we were very close to the people in the area who lived and thought as we did.
Both of my grandmothers are very strong women. Physically as well as mentally. My mother’s mother was an extremely intelligent woman. She went to university when she was eighty and earned a degree in mathematics. She lived to be 98. My other grandmother, my father’s mother, did not have an easy time of it. Her husband, my granddad, was not easy to get on with, according to tradition. Nevertheless, my grandmother, did not allow herself to be pushed around. Quite the opposite. She was a member of the Rooie Vrouwen, the feminist organisation within the Labour Party. When my brother and I were children and went on holiday to Sri Lanka to visit my father, the airline lost our luggage on the way. Our suitcases, with cheese, among other things, were not returned to us until months later, they were full of maggots and everything was spoiled. However, the insurance refused to pay damages. ‘Wait’, said my grandmother, ‘I’ll ring them’. And so it came to pass. We got our money back in no time. This grandmother is now 102 and until a month ago, she still lived on her own.
I think the common thread is that there is an unwritten rule at home, in our family, not to blindly toe the line, but to think out of the box. Not to take authority for granted, but to keep thinking for yourself. This applied to the men, but certainly also to the women. I am happy about this now and I think it has made me and my relatives into self-confident, authentic and rather independent individuals.
I have been living in Delft with my husband and two children for more than 15 years now. I feel very much at home here. I think the old city centre is lovely, for example. We lived in Sudan for four years, in the meantime. To be honest, that country did not appeal to us before we actually went there. Still, I came to love many things about it and its people. We met so many very kind, very hospitable people there.
What I would like to pass on to the next generations is: believe in yourself. Follow your own path. Go for what you want. And in addition (and this I learned especially during the time I spent abroad): try not to pigeonhole. Try to engage in dialogue, also with those who think differently from you. It will result in the most valuable and unexpected conversations. Honestly, a world will open up to you.