Utrecht is home to many nationalities. Every week, DUIC features an Utrechter with a different background. The concept was inspired by ‘180 amsterdammers’.

In Jakarta, I had a secretary; here, I was a cleaner.

Foto: Robert Oosterbroek

“Only if we get married.” This was the condition Vara set when her Dutch partner Jean Pierre asked her to join him in the Netherlands in 1996. They’d known each other for three years in Jakarta, the capital of the Indonesian island Java where they both worked. They’d met one evening through a friend of Vara’s, who had sat next to him on a flight.

Vara’s different from her family and background; she’s more modern, studied in Australia, for example. Having said this, the condition she set her boyfriend is traditional in her own Muslim culture. It’s ‘unclean’ to live with a man you’re not married to. “If things had gone wrong”, she explains, “No-one in Java would have looked at me. I’d have been used goods. It’s different if you’re divorced.”

Jean Pierre was happy to get married. They had the choice of a big house in the ‘bush’, or a smaller house in town. Vara didn’t have to think twice. The bush was too sharp a contrast to bustling Jakarta – she wanted to feel part of a community. So they chose Utrecht, Kanaleneiland Noord. She came to the Netherlands as a tourist and applied for a residence permit, which wasn’t a problem in those days. The municipality of Utrecht welcomed Vara with open arms, offered her a language course and she and Jean Pierre got married. A few relatives from Java came to the wedding, bringing traditional Indonesian bridal clothing.

Dream come true
Once Vara had learned Dutch, she took a full-time one-year course to train as a communication and administration assistant. She’d been a successful saleswoman in Indonesia with a secretary. Her job entailed attending the odd gala. In Utrecht, she earned money serving and cleaning in a restaurant. She didn’t mind. “I did whatever I could! It was fun.”

She found a job in Diaconessen hospital, but resigned in 2008 to sail around the world in a yacht ‘Senang’ (happy) with Jean Pierre and their sons, then 8 and 9. It was a dream come true. They visited forty countries in three years. Portugal, the Canaries, Cape Verdi, the Caribbean, Colombia, the Galapagos islands… They crossed the Atlantic non-stop in sixteen days. The Pacific took them three weeks. When the boat ran adrift on a coral reef in Fiji, the children were thrilled; they were rescued by a real life boat with life jackets. The voyage came to an end in the Netherlands when it was time for the boys to go to secondary school. They had been taught by their parents throughout the trip.

The family moved to Oog in Al, Vara’s favourite district. She found a job in a dental practice. “A lot of people dream about travelling the world, but are too scared to give up their job. Just do it! You’ll always find something else.”

Vara returns to Jakarta every year, but can’t stand the chaos and congestion. She now prefers friendly, vibrant Utrecht. Relaxing on Soia beach in the summer, and she’s made lots of friends, including two from Indonesia who share her love of Indonesian food and memories. She sometimes misses the natural Indonesian warm-heartedness (“you have to arrange to visit someone here”), but thinks that Utrechters are slowly getting there. “Someone just started talking to us in the Buurten café in de Fabriek recently. Super!”


Name: Vara Cantor
Date of birth: 19 August 1967
Place of birth: Jakarta, Indonesia
Motto: ‘Just do it!’ (‘Example: tell your loved ones that you love them before it’s too late’)

Allemaal Utrechters is a series of interviews with people who moved to Utrecht from another country. We ask them about their background and their impression of Utrecht, revealing the true diversity of our city. The ‘Allemaal Utrechters’ series is a collaboration between DUIC and Culturele Zondagen, and has been made possible with help from Stichting Dialoog and the Municipality of Utrecht. We hope to showcase every nationality in Utrecht.

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