I am the daughter of a butcher, the best one in South Rotterdam, I was always told. Since we lived by the harbour and all the sailors would come into the shop for a good piece of meat, I have always believed it to be true.
I was born and raised until I was 6 in a proper working-class district, with pubs at every corner, with a bakery, a greengrocer and our butcher shop at number 8. We lived at the corner, at number 2, over the pub, up one flight of stairs, with our neighbours above us and another flight of stairs to the coal loft. It was very exciting up there. Once a week, the coalscuttle was filled there, so the coal could be used in the coal stove in the middle of the room.
A stone’s throw from De Kuip, the Feyenoord Stadion, my father and everyone who came to the house would listen enthusiastically to the matches, but I do not think he ever actually went to De Kuip. He did always fill in the football pools and would sometimes let me help.
When I came back from a farewell trip with my kindergarten, when I was 6, I was picked up by an aunt. My mother had been found at the bottom of the stairs, dead from heart failure, and I remember being told she was still holding the vacuum cleaner. She was 51 years old.
My life was transformed. My father owned the butcher shop and could not look after me during the week. There was some wrangling (I later heard) about which aunt I could live with during the week, but ultimately, I landed with my otherwise childless and not very young aunt and uncle. They lived in a tiny ground-floor flat with a little garden in Kralingen. On weekdays, I was there, and at the weekends, I went to my father. There was a world of difference between my father, the butcher, and my uncle, the office clerk, who did not always agree about my upbringing, leaving me to find my way between them.
In my adolescence, I worked as a barmaid on the weekends and put in long hours at the pub my father frequented, and during the week, I was the respectable, timid schoolgirl. My father closed his butcher shop. He was unable to find a good hand and the work was too physically demanding. In his abundant free time, he frequented the pub even more often and started to drink far too much, and he died at the age of 65. I was 18 and taking my final exams that year.
After secondary school, I trained as a secretary at Schoevers, because although I could have attended university (with A-levels in languages and history), I had no idea what subject to study, due to a lack of passion or talent. I sailed through Schoevers, but it was so much like a kindergarten with girls only, that I decided then I certainly did not want to go to university, nor did I want to become a secretary in a suit at a solicitor’s office. In fact, I was not yet ready for the big, bad world. (Much like Annie MG Schmidt’s poem ‘Aan een klein meisje’ (To a little girl), which is still on the wall of my office at the University of Technology.)
What did make me happy was a job as a secretary at Delft University of Technology (TU). No suit, just jeans, and as a counterbalance to the girls at Schoevers, a genuine man’s world. As a true girlie-girl, I quickly learned to appreciate the men’s sense of humour and after 40 years, I still take great pleasure in working there. Meanwhile, the number of women at TU has increased considerably and in some jobs, the men have almost disappeared. TU has also become very international, and I still find it very interesting to work with people from various cultures, with different ideas. I have never felt inferior as a woman and have always been able to be myself there.
After 64 years, I do think everyone is a cog in the wheel and makes a contribution, however small, to an age and to the world. My motto for people is: try to understand each other, (almost) everyone is nicer once you get to know them better.