How one person made a difference

Paul van den Heuvel moved to Ljubljana in October 1989, to boldly start a three-year course in Dutch language. The initiative was his own (inspired by a similar course offered at the time in Belgrade); he talked the Ljubljana Faculty of Arts into it (as a ‘side subject'; without credit points); and got some Dutch Language Union subsidy to help get the project started.

This was at a time when Ljubljana was well behind the Iron Curtain, and Yugoslavia was growing more chaotic day by day, to finally disintegrate two years later. Paul nevertheless came, and stayed.

He had never taught Dutch as a foreign language before, and gave himself to this new endeavour completely: he spent all his evenings and weekends working, preparing, improving … I joined this first class back in 1989 out of curiosity – and soon got hooked. I realised I was learning much much more than just a language; through Paul’s presence, I was learning a new, deeply humane way of interacting. 

Once I raised a question about the usage of ‘er’; an awkward word that I could not quite place in my mind (or, well, in a sentence). That was on a Tuesday. On Thursday, each of us received a two-page elaborate on how to use ‘er’ (typewritten and copied, as it was the norm at the time). Short, clear, and very useful. I was flabbergasted. Never before (or later) had any teacher responded to any of my questions with so much care and respect. For the first time in my life, a teacher took me seriously, as a partner on this learning expedition.

In early December that first year, Paul invited us to a true Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) celebration at this home (another first – to be invited to a teacher’s home in those communist/socialist times). We all duly came; and brought along our clumsily written poems (in Dutch!) as is the custom on such an occasion. Trust started to build; and in February, I finally managed to drag Paul out of his severe working routine, to take him hiking on the Pokljuka plateau.  He saw deep snow for the first time in his life (then aged 38); and marvelled at it like a child. After that, he would gradually start exploring the rest of the country. More than in tourist sights (in which Slovenia abounds), he was interested in where we came from and how our families lived. Joining us on our weekend visits to our families, he would gradually get to know various faces of this land and its people. He truly cared.

As soon as we got the very basics of the language, Paul believed the language capacity of some of us was good enough to begin the project he was perhaps most passionate about: translate Dutch poems into Slovenian. We struggled; yet he sat with us for hours if needed: we talked how the poems lived in us, what was what was the essence; and how best to convey it in Slovene …, in a true spirit of deep listening and partnership. Having been raised in a very hierarchical school system myself, this was yet another experience that true collaboration is possible also across ‘fixed’ roles such as student – teacher. Long after Paul left Ljubljana in 1996, the Dutch-Slovenian poetry workshops still flourished. Some of the finest Dutch – Slovenian translators of present time (Anita Srebnik, Tanja Mlaker; Katjuša Ruńćigaj and Mateja Seliškar Kenda) were all Paul’s eager students, changed for good by his love for language, poetry and teaching.

Poetry workshops were not enough for him; he soon started conceiving international Dutch language summer camps. The first two were held in coastal Herceg Novi (now Bosnia), and then in Piran (Slovenia); the tradition in some way continues to this day. He invited us into co-creating these camps from the start; we talked animatedly about what to do, whom to invite, where to get funds … Yet he did most of the work, including regular, unrelenting visits to the International Affairs representative at the faculty, who ultimately broke down, and applied for some international money that Paul insisted was available (he was right and we got it – much to the surprise of the international lady!). He practically coached us into project management well before I heard anyone else talking about it. Some of his maxims still live in me, and evoke my courage when needed ('A 'no' you already have; a 'yes' you can still get - provided you ask', ''As long as we have only financial troubles, we are well', 'You must be able to present any new project idea clearly and consisely - fitting one page (A4)' ; 'Marjeta - young mother: your flat is not messy - it's being lived in!'.
He also got us a number of scholarships in the Netherlands (three in my case); some official ones and some based on his personal connections with Dutch universities. Who could resist such an enthusiastic spirit? Again, that was in communist Yugoslavia, well before any Erasmus scheme.

After two years in Ljubljana, the Dutch Language Union money was up; and he had to live on the pay that the Faculty of Arts was willing to give him. That was in 1991, when war started to rage in Yugoslavia. 
His net salary was about 300 German marks then; roughly equal to the costs of the flat he rented. He wouldn’t give in; instead, he spent his summers in the Netherlands, working and saving money for the study year ahead. This was when I learnt about giving oneself unconditionally to one’s call.

Paul left Ljubljana in 1996, after he had realised that, despite his continuous efforts, there was not enough interest at the faculty to offer the Dutch language as a full-fledged subject, and not just ‘bijvakje’ (one on the side). To this day, the tiny Dutch language department is still very much alive (and still ‘on the side’); one of Paul’s first students, Anita Srebnik, is stewarding it under Paul’s guidance.

Within those three years that I took the course, I did learn Dutch (enough to easily pass the highest-level Dutch Language exam offered by the Leuven University) – yet this was somehow ‘on the side’. What I really, really learned then – through pure experience – was respect, dialogue, partnership and collaboration. And quite a bit about intercultural differences. All these threads led me to the career I chose later: partnership-based communication, dialogue facilitation, intercultural competence.

THANK YOU, Paul. That  ‘on the side’ Dutch course has in fact become my key learning path.

This blogpost was written on the day I learnt of Paul's untimely death, in early July 2015.


How one person made a difference

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