For a gal with a green thumb, Robyn Devine couldn’t be living in a better place. On her way home from work, she is constantly captivated by the colourful displays of flowers at her neighbourhood shop. The vivid scene draws her in for a vibrant take-home bouquet. “You can buy fifty tulips for 7.50 euros,” she said.
Robyn is from St. John’s, Newfoundland, so she’s accustomed to a very late spring. Sometimes crocuses don’t fully bloom until June in Canada’s easternmost province. But in The Netherlands, fields of crocuses, tulips and hyacinths start to pop up in March. Robyn says it’s a powerful treat for the senses.
"The beautiful and intense smell of the hyacinth fields is an experience like no other, especially when there is a nice breeze that sweeps the smell your way.”
Now, Robyn isn’t just spending her time admiring blossoms in The Hague. This 41-year-old is helping cultivate growth of Canadian businesses in The Netherlands. She's a trade commissioner at the Canadian Embassy.
The seeds for Robyn’s interesting career in international affairs were planted in Newfoundland with a political science degree at Memorial University. When she graduated in 1995, the chilling effect of the 1992 cod moratorium was still hanging heavy on Newfoundland and Labrador's economy. "There just weren’t any jobs at the time,” she recalls. “You needed experience to get experience and I thought, what am I going to do?” What Robyn decided to do, changed the course of her life and gave her a taste for international commerce. Robyn took advantage of the SWAP - Student Work Abroad Program at the university’s student office and went to work in London, England for 4 months. She enjoyed it so much, she returned to work there the next summer as well. “If there had been summer jobs in Newfoundland, I probably would have stayed,” she said. But the move was a welcome adventure. “It was so exciting.”
Robyn’s curiosity for international travel and business might stem from her family roots. Her grandfather, Maurice Devine, worked as a General Manager for a UK-based shipping company called Furness Withy. He was also the Honourary Consul to Sweden and Denmark in Newfoundland. Mr. Devine and his family made many trips to Europe and the United States over the years. “I grew up hearing fantastic stories about international adventures that they undertook over the decades, which was a great inspiration to me.”
When Robyn returned from her stint in London, she went back to university with an eye on a career in foreign affairs. She did a masters degree in public administration in the international stream at Carleton University in Ottawa. Before she graduated, Robyn scored a 6-month contract at the then Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. It was her foot in the door.
She began working on foreign direct investment attraction to Canada, later market research and eventually commercial relations in the European bureau. By 2012, all of Robyn’s hard work had paid off. She received a diplomatic posting abroad and would go to live in The Hague in the Netherlands for four years. She began work in the Canadian Embassy as the First Secretary and Commercial Trade Commissioner for Science and Technology. The commercial section of the embassy helps Canadian companies export products and expand their businesses to the Netherlands.
“It feels fantastic to be able to help them. You’re able to come together and come up with good information for companies and it can make a difference in terms of making or breaking their international endeavour.”
TRAVEL IN THE NETHERLANDS
Robyn gets great satisfaction from her job and then there is the obvious other perk - location, location, location! Robyn and her husband, Blair Gowan, have been able to jump in their car, or on a plane, and be in a neighbouring European country in a matter of hours. Robyn has had a chance to research the Devine family roots in Ireland and popped over to Paris for a weekend cooking course at the Cordon Bleu.
But, when Robyn first arrived in the Netherlands, she was given some valuable advice from an outgoing trade commissioner. “He said you’re going to want to be traveling abroad, outside the Netherlands, but make sure you get to know this country too.” Robyn took the advice and knows the country well. “I can get in my car and I can drive from the north of the country to the south in about 3 hours and from west to the east in about 2 and a half. Despite the short distances, there are so many interesting sites, and small quaint Dutch towns to visit.”
Canadian travellers will find a special welcome in this country, according to Robyn. Canada liberated The Netherlands in WWII and that has not been forgotten. “You might think that loyalty might wear off over time, but I tell you, it hasn’t.” Robyn says she experienced this allegiance most sincerely in a place called Breda. The city is about an hour and fifteen minute drive south of The Hague. On Liberation Day, May 5th 2014, Robyn was invited to lay a wreath at the war memorial in Breda. “That was the greatest honour of my career here so far.”
The City of Holten’s Canadian war cemetery in the eastern Netherlands is the final resting place for more than 1300 Canadians. Every year on Christmas Eve there is a special ceremony in the cemetery to mark the Canadian contribution to freedom. “Just before dusk, school children bring white candles and they light one on every single Canadian grave to honour fallen soldiers. It was incredibly moving to view this site as a Canadian. The Dutch are forever grateful,” says Robyn.
The Canadian-Netherlands historical relationship is a big factor in successful business relationships between the two nations. Robyn says there is a high level of trust between Canadian and Dutch companies. “Whenever we’re trying to get into a door, it’s not that difficult for us.”
The sense of trust made it easier for Robyn to adjust to a new country but she was warned there might some significant cultural differences. The Dutch, she was told, can be very blunt. “Everyone was saying you're going to be caught off guard sometimes. Canadians are so diplomatic and that's going to be a huge culture shock for you.” Robyn says she kept waiting and bracing for the impact but it never happened and she thinks she knows why. "I understand the mentality well because Newfoundlanders are blunt too so I felt like it wasn’t so much of a shock for me. Newfoundlanders say what they think and there’s no beating around the bush.”
Robyn says the bluntness is a little bit of home away from home and so is the Dutch spirit of cooperation.
“It’s a consensus building society and it’s really interesting in that regard. They do not like hierarchy. You respect everyone’s opinion. I think that historically Newfoundland has had a cooperative culture too. I’m always told that I’m very good at consensus building and a team player. I strongly believe that comes from the Newfoundland way, that in order to progress, everybody has to work together.”
As for what else Robyn admires about the Dutch culture, it’s that everyone rides bikes and everybody loves soccer. Thankfully, those are two of her husband’s greatest passions. “He has fit right in here not to mention the fact that he is really tall like the Dutch, they are the tallest people on the planet.”
Robyn says she and her husband have also grown to admire an overall approach to life in the Netherlands that many in the western world have forgotten. “The work-life balance is completely ingrained in their social system. Generally, people work hard but must be home from work on time for the family. The Dutch have been measured to be the happiest people in the world and I understand why.”
Robyn appreciates that there is time to smell the roses in The Netherlands. But as you’ll recall, it’s The Hague's hyacinths that have charmed this Newfoundlander. Lucky for her, spring is here and floral fragrances fill the air once again.
To see more photos of Robyn Devine's adventures in The Netherlands, please go to the gallery.
(The opinions expressed by Robyn Devine are her own and do not represent those of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.)
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE NETHERLANDS:
The Netherlands is the most densely populated country in the European Union. There are 16.5 million people living in a geographic area the size of New Brunswick.
The Netherlands is the world's second largest exporter of agricultural products, after the USA.
The Dutch are some of the tallest people in the world. The average American man stands 5 foot 9 inches tall. The average Dutch man stands well over 6 feet.
75% of the world’s flower bulb production comes from Netherlands.
On average a Dutch person cycles 2.5 kilometres a day, 900 a year. It is the bicycle capital of the world with more than 18 million.
Netherlands has more than 4000 kilometres of navigable canals, rivers and lakes.
Herring chopped with raw onions and pickles is the national dish
The Dutch are the world’s biggest coffee drinkers at 3.2 cups a day
86% of the population speak English as a second language
Are you a Newfoundlander or Labradorian living life in an interesting part of the world? Email me and let me know about your story.
Until next time, rove on.