The aesthetics of acceptance

By Sophie Pizzimenti

Kimberly Crossley, a friend and co-worker, was working on a project on visibility of transgender people, when we talked about what I called the ‘aesthetics of acceptance’: the idea that when one grows confident and happy with their own identity, in an accepting environment, the person doesn’t only flourish in the inside, but also their outside appearance changes.

It’s a phenomenon I have observed with all of my friends, in their process of understanding and accepting their gender identity. I then decided I wanted to learn about people’s relationship with their appearance, their gender identity, with Groningen and its spaces of acceptance. Joining forces, Kim let me stick around while she was working on her own project, so that I could interview the people she took pictures of.

I asked all of them questions about the same three main topics: their journey in their relationship with their gender identity, their relationship with their appearance and their aesthetics, and the relationship between their identity and the space around them and the city of Groningen. Their answers were all different from one another, and I decided to simply present them to you as they were presented to me.

Thomas Grant

Thomas is a transgender man whose relationship with his gender identity today is “pretty chill”. He says that for him, his identity was never really a question, and that he knew who he was all along. He remembers that when he told his father he wanted to finally transition medically, his father looked at pictures of young Tom and said “yeah, it makes sense.”

What was the most important thing for you in the process of becoming ‘pretty chill’ with your gender identity?

“It differs a lot for everybody, but for me medically transitioning was important… Shortly after I started taking hormones one of my friends was saying that I didn’t change a lot, but that I smiled a lot more. It was those kinds of things that made the biggest difference.”

Concerning his social transition, Tom explains that it was totally unplanned. At 16 in the UK, students change schools, so Tom found himself in a new environment with new people. The teacher went around asking people’s names. “She comes to me and says ‘what’s your name?’ and I went… ‘Tom’.” Tom laughs with a huge smile, remembering this moment when he spontaneously socially transitioned.

What is your relationship with clothes since the transition, both medical and social?

“The first thing I said I was gonna do when I was gonna get top surgery (breast removal) was to wear a white t-shirt.”

Because he was bearing items to constrain his breasts, which could be seen under tight or white clothes, Tom always wore oversized t-shirts. “I really became a master in the art of subterfuge,” he says. “When I came back home (after the top surgery) my dad bought me a white t-shirt and it fit tighter than anything I ever wore before, which is not to say it fit too tight, it just fit properly. The biggest shift in my wardrobe was probably that I started wearing clothes that fit.”

How do you experience Groningen as a space for you?

“As a member of the general population, I have experienced it as being a super safe city,” Tom explains, referring to his masculine appearance, which help him feel less threatened.

“Growing up, I was still socialized largely as female, there was a lot of ‘you can’t go out, it’s dark, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Because you know, what if a man…’ I still have that kind of hangover, in the sense that I am still very much aware of what’s going on around me.”

“On the flip side, if I am walking on the streets behind a woman more or less the same age, I am aware that I am a 1.95m not small individual walking behind her. So, I cross the street, and I will remove myself from this because I know now, what it is like for women.”

“So for Groningen, personal space of acceptance, yay! General space of acceptance… there is room for improvement.”

Nicholas Sledzin

“I identify as a man, and my gender pronouns are he/him,” Nic says.

Nic walks me through his personal story with his appearance. From being a kid wearing ‘masculine clothes’, to wearing more feminine clothes in middle-school years due to outside pressure. “Most of the time that was tiring and uncomfortable,” he explains.

Then, when he came out as bisexual, and then transgender, he started wearing very masculine clothes, but that also didn’t feel right.

Recalling the period in which he felt like having to dress more feminine, Nic says, half laughing, “conforming to gender roles brings a lot of social acceptance, it’s very easy.”

What were the main issues in this process of externalizing how you felt?

“The biggest one was the fear of regret. I sit here now, and I don’t regret anything I did, but I was very hesitant to make decisions along the way. It was actually only three years ago that I threw away all of the clothes that I didn’t like wearing, that were feminine but in a way that I didn’t like. It was very freeing, but also very scary to let go of them.”

Did you have a moment where you thought ‘yeah this is me’?

“Well, the great thing about figuring out your identity is that you feel that way every day at some point. Of course, there are bad days, but I think figuring out your identity means that over time there are more and more days like that.”

“I feel like when looking at the media, it is very easy to think that being trans is primarily about all the medical stuff. But the truth is, there is so much more going on inside your head, in your own home, way before you even think about any medical transition, if you even think about it.”

How do you experience Groningen as a space for you?

“I am defiantly more comfortable in the Netherlands than I was in Poland, and Groningen feels more diverse. But maybe it’s because I have the chance to interact with people I wouldn’t interact with in Poland.”

Michiel Teeuw

“I am pronoun indifferent, any pronoun is good, he/him, she/her, they/them, I don’t mind. I feel like my gender identity, and my general identity is very fluid. I feel like my body is more of a constant, and my soul is constantly changing, also with the things I am learning. I think it is it very natural to change,” Michiel explains me.

For Michiel, all effort to define and fix one’s identity is forcing a stable and fix shape to something in constant change and mutation. We engage in a very philosophical discussion, where I am taken through ideas of post-modernism and the importance of understanding that there is no such thing as one’s true nature . While in high-school, Michiel started exploring the possibility of gender fluidity. In this process, the clothes and style of Michiel also changed.

What is your relationship with your clothes? Do you feel like your clothes are an expression of yourself?

“Sometimes yes, sometimes I would also experiment with wearing clothes that I feel they don’t fit me.”

“I feel like nothing is neutral, everything has associations and meaning, and so there is no point in dressing neutral or normal, because it still has a meaning, you cannot escape that. So, with everything you wear, people have associations, and I like to play with that association.”

How do you experience Groningen as a space for you?

“After all, in this place I feel very safe during the daytime. Mostly when I wear weird stuff I get stares from people, which I think it’s very funny and amusing. During the nighttime, when there are parties I don’t feel safe at all, people are saying weird stuff to me. There are often older men making remarks about how I dress, and also when I was together with my ex in the streets, people were making remarks about this, which feels very alienating.”

The process of acceptance is not easy, Michiel explains. The more one is confident about their identity and clothes, the more people around them perceive that person positively, which reinforces confidence. However, it is not easy.

“I feel like a lot of confidence, especially if you are a marginalized person, is also in accepting that you’ll have to be alone sometimes, because there are a lot of people that won’t respect you and won’t respect your identity. I think there is also the risk that you can be abandoned, and you’ll have to cut out people that won’t respect you. And I think that if you go for that risk and find a community that really supports you, then everything will be alright.”

Tessa van der Horst

“I identify as non-binary, or queer, and my pronouns are they/them but I am also ok with she/her.” Tessa takes me back to their experience in growing up in rural Friesland, where their unique clothing style made them stood out in the middle of people who “all looked the same.”

“I was very into fashion, but not into the fashion everyone was wearing. I made my own things, and went to alternative shops, always wore way too many necklaces and boots that were too high.”

Tessa made their passion for fashion and making clothes their career. “I wear very feminine clothes, and very pink things and make most of it myself. I am a fiber artist, I am really passionate about creating my own thing and what I like.”

For Tessa, being artistic is a fundamental part of their identity. They remember fighting their clothing style, and especially their attraction for the color pink. Eventually, they found themselves wearing only pink, and felt good about it, so they just continued.

How do you experience Groningen as a space for you?

“Groningen is so much bigger (than Friesland) and so much younger than where I am from, but there are still many things in common. I never really feel like they (the people) see me, but they impose a lot of their things on me, they expect me to be this shy, bubbly person, because of how I look, and then I turn out to be not a woman. I curse a lot, so, I am never what people expect me to be.”

What was the most important thing in your process with your identity and your clothes?

“When I saw Alok on Instagram, I felt like, dressing fem (meaning dressing very feminine) doesn’t say anything about your gender. I do notice that dressing fem and dressing feminine makes it easier for me to be misgendered, everyone just assumes I am a ‘girl’. When I saw Alok, I thought, it doesn’t have anything to do with gender, it’s just fashion, and that you should be whatever the fuck you want.”

The senate effect

By Anne de Vries and Hannah van der Wurff

The Dutch provincial elections of last Wednesday ignited a discussion on the political polarisation in the Netherlands. The Stand went out on the streets of Groningen to ask those who voted, for their thoughts.

In the elections on Wednesday, 56.1% of those 13 million people eligible, voted for the Provinciale Staten and waterschappen (provincial states and regional water authorities). Some view voting as their civic duty, some don’t. The other group is comprised of those who have no idea what voting on the provincial states and regional water authorities actually means.

The provincial states, of which there are 12 in the Netherlands, have seven core tasks to execute over their four year period. These core tasks range from urban planning, regional economy, transport and climate regulation, as well as electing the Dutch senate.

The elections for the regional water authorities, the regional institutions that decide over water management, were linked to the provincial elections in 2014 in the hope the voting percentage would increase.

The results

The outcome of the recent elections shocked left-wing Netherlands, as political newcomer Forum for Democracy (FvD) collected 14.4% of all votes nationally. This unexpected political surge led to a tie in senate seats between FvD and VVD, the neoliberal conservatives who have been heading the government since 2010.

“I wonder where this is going to take us,” says an elderly woman when stopped in front of the Groninger Museum. Holding back tears she says: “We had a very important period of peace after the war [WWII] and for me that feeling is fading.”

The crossing in front of the museum is crowded with trainloads of people passing into the centre from the central station. Even with all the noise, the woman’s message is clear. When asked what she wanted her vote to mean, she says she wants “peace, human connection and integration.”

FvD’s new prominence on the Dutch political stage didn’t go unchallenged. Some call their standpoints on the political system, race, climate change, the EU and immigration ‘controversial’, while others laud them for nestling between the conservative and globalist VVD and the radical anti-Islam PVV.

In Groningen, a miscalculation cost the green party PvdD one seat, after the FvD managed to manifest five provincial seats instead of the preliminary four, when the polls closed. While the greens GroenLinks dominate the municipal council in Groningen’s last election, the recent provincial elections granted them a mere one seat advantage over FvD.

The turnout

This year, just like the years before, the turnout for the provincial elections is low when compared to that of the national parliamentary elections. This isn’t unusual, and it’s rather a trend that doesn’t only go for the provincial elections but all elections, as the figure below shows. For the past 10 years the parliamentary elections have drawn out most voters.

What is especially interesting, as visualized below, is the difference between the national turnout, and those of the province and municipality of Groningen. While this follows the general trend, it overtakes national numbers on occasion.

“Turnout is an indicator for the importance the electorate attaches to certain levels of government,” says Eddy Habben Jansen, the director of the political educational institution, ProDemos. He predicted that the turnout for last Wednesday’s provincial elections would be relatively high compared to previous years because “there is quite a bit of focus on the cabinet majority in the senate,” which are in turn elected by the provinces.

When we consider the turnout for the Provincial Elections in Groningen this year and those for the past ten years, this does show. It’s a small increase, but it’s there.

Habben Jansen introduces the ‘senate effect’ as an indicator for sudden higher turnouts for provincial elections. Political tensions and a near cabinet majority show how these abstract elections can in turn “be transformed into national elections instead”.

On the Gedempte Zuiderdiep in Groningen, these sentiments were affirmed by a young man, who told The Stand that the electoral power of the provinces was the precise reason he went to vote to begin with. But, the elections “felt less important than the parliamentary elections”.

This senate effect, in combination with FvD’s growing supporters-base of dedicated voters frustrated with the current political climate, prompted the current senate construction.

“An excellent opposition party”

In front of Groningen’s synagogue on the Folkingestraat, The Stand speaks to a FvD supporter. He considers the election’s outcome “outstanding” and embraces the “countermovement against recent years of political foul play.”

Although he wouldn’t want to see Thierry Baudet, the highly controversial party leader of the FvD, behind the prime minister’s desk, he says “Forum is an excellent opposition party, as they call out the elephant in the room for what it is.”

Criticising the VVD’s vision for “managing the country as if it were a company” he calls out VVD’s stable voter-base for “structurally giving the rest of the Netherlands the finger.”

“That is why I think it’s good that someone like Baudet stands up. But still, I wonder if anything will change, because people like him aren’t wanted in the Netherlands.”

Connecting through storytelling

By Sophie Pizzimenti

When I am about to leave the Grand Theatre after breakfast with Christina Mercken, where we talked about the ‘Offstage – World Storytelling Day’ event from the night before, she stops me. “There is one thing I wanted to add,” she says. “You know how comedians often say they create the illusion of connection? Well, with storytelling you actually create the connection”. She then gives me a hug and heads off.

From Amsterdam to Groningen

Christina Mercken is the woman behind Mezrab in the House, a storytelling event inspired by the Mezrab group from Amsterdam. She is a storyteller, spoken word performer and much more. Along with a few other performers, she brought storytelling to Groningen.

Mezrab in the House came to Groningen around a year ago. It hosts free storytelling events once a month, where local storytellers and performers from Amsterdam join together to offer their stories to the audience.

Compared to Amsterdam, where there is a multitude of storytelling events, Mezrab events are something new to Groningen. Christina explains that, as there was no such event in the city before, people had no pre-conceived notion of what stories fit the idea of “storytelling”.

“No one had a box to think in. So, the storytellers that started coming [to Mezrab in the House], started telling science fiction stories and horror stories. You never hear those in Amsterdam. When we brought some storytellers from Groningen [to Amsterdam], the audience was saying ‘what! You can do science fiction? You can do horror?”

Where do stories come from?

All about the connection

After attending a few of their Mezrab events here in Groningen, I fully understand what Christina means when saying storytelling creates a connection. When going to a storytelling evening, one has to be prepared to laugh, cry, and talk with strangers who will feel oddly familiar.

“Story telling is not just telling a story or an anecdote, but it’s really trying to also get the audience along and get them to also feel with you. Not to tell a story to them, but have them join you in your story,” explains Marjon Kamp, host of the latest Mezrab in the House edition. “It’s the connection,” Chistina adds. “I think that’s also why I find it so important what we had with Abhishek’s performance: a circular set-up.”

Abhishek’s performance

Abhishek Thapar is the performer that opened the Mezrab ‘Offstage – World Storytelling Day’ event, a special paid edition organized by Storytrooper and Mezrab in the House. A multisensorial story, starting with Abhishek sharing with the whole audience, a piece of lemon pickle made by his grandfather in the 1990s, taking it out of a big jar, the last object left of his home in India.

After this introduction in the hall of the Grand Theater, everyone walked silently to a room where we were asked to take our shoes and socks off, and led to sit in a semi-circle on a floor covered with grains. There, the multimedia performance of Abhishek takes the audience through his family history, intertwined with the history of the Sikh uprising.

Abhishek with the audience

The room is dark, only a gloomy light is shining over the performer and the audience. The silence is pierced only by Abishek’s voice, and the sound of the seeds on the floor when someone moves. The light allows Abishek, who is sitting just half a meter from the audience, to look us in the eye. There is no physical barrier between performer and audience, and among the audience members.

As Christina explains “in theater, when you are next to each other you are in the dark. You might have a connection with the performer, bur your emotion is a very private thing that you feel. With storytelling, because you see each other, and because there is a light on the audience as well, you see the other person cry, you see the other person laugh, and you are actually sharing their emotions and feelings at the same time.”

“We call it connection, I think it’s love.”

The role of the audience

Marjon and Christina say the importance of storytelling in today’s society is its power to create connections among people. Christina explains how in storytelling events, you see people taking their phones out only to take picture as they are all captivated in the present moment of the story. Christina believes that “you can’t dislike people if you know their story. There is a saying: ‘your enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard yet’.”

Storytelling, to Christina, is about honesty, and recognizing common feelings, “you [as a storyteller] show yourself, not to show yourself, but to show the audience a mirror.”

Another aspect of storytelling Christina is enthusiastic about, is the possibility of playing with the roles of the audience and the performer. After Abhishek’s performance of the ‘Offstage – World Storytelling Day’, the audience was split into groups.

The audience joins in

The one I was in, walked up a lot of stairs, through the backstage, and technicians’ rooms, to reach a stage. We, the audience, were made to lie on big cushions on the stage, while the performers appeared on the chairs. At the end of the act, we were asked to share our emotions, while silently, the other groups sat on the audience’s chairs, looking at our conversation as if we were performing for them.

The evening continued with storytelling from locals of Groningen for the usual edition of Mezrab in the House. More people joined, who had not been to the paying event, and the room was soon filled with chatters. In between performances, a music duo called Tamanduà, meaning anteater in Portuguese, formed by Beatriz Oliva Teles and Roberta Spigola, were singing in Portuguese and Italian. Despite the language barrier, the music was felt through the audience, creating yet another connection.

The mixture of internationals and Dutch people, young and old, is what is so special about Mezrab in the House. “Groningen is a very international city, you have a lot of international students, and students in general, I think this is the perfect way to connect these people.”

Tamanduà’s performance

Built 2 Last is built to encourage

By Rebekah Daunt

At first sight, the fitness centre on Turfsingel street might seem like just another gym in Groningen. But make no mistake – this is not your regular health club.

More than a job

When I step into the lobby at Built 2 Last, I suddenly forget that I am in Groningen, almost 30 kilometres from the coast. The room is warm and inviting, a change from the harsh, bitter wind that whips past the front door. A large canvas promoting a sunny beach scales the aqua blue wall.

I shiver as I remove my jacket and adjust to the change of temperature. Build 2 Last owner Mizra Bouwland (37) instantly greets me. “First things first,” she starts. “Get comfortable, relax, you have only just arrived. Here, have a drink,” she says while flashing her perfectly white teeth in a charming smile.

Moving further down the corridor, I find scarce evidence of state-of-the art equipment, saunas or luxurious dressing rooms. Instead, I see bustling fitness studios and a team of trainers who are committed to producing some of Groningen’s strongest competitors. Their special touch? Getting to know each and every one of their members on a personal level.

“I like being here and I love coming to work. When I am not at the gym, I miss the people who are here,” Mizra tells me. Dressed head to toe in sporty loungewear, her blonde hair frames her tanned face. “This a big part of my life.”

Health as a lifestyle

Built 2 Last began its story in September 2017 after a former gym on the same site, named Construction, went bankrupt. “This is a completely new business, a fresh start. We have new members and new rules,” explains Mizra.

With so many gyms in the area, competition for new members has been a concern from the get-go. “We have only been open for a year and a half and we do not have the same expensive equipment and facilities that TrainMore or BasicFit have. So rather than investing more money, we invest ourselves in here.”

“The Built 2 Last name is a huge part of who we are” she says, sitting at a chrome finished table back in the lobby. She slouches back on her chair comfortably, sipping on a fruit tea. “In order to grow a healthy lifestyle and a healthy body, you have to build yourself up. But you also have to stick with it and you have to make it last. When it comes to health and fitness, there is no quick fix,” says Mizra.

She gently twirls the label attached to the teabag in her glass. “It is indeed a lifestyle.”

To my right stands a dinky clothing store, fully stocked with gym wear and sports equipment. A surfboard balances above the clothing rails next to a snowboard and a pair of skis.

Images of a surf shack somewhere on Australia’s east coast pop up in my head. “That is the vibe we are trying to create here,” nods Mizra.

A reception-bar hybrid takes up the back wall. The receptionist turned barista starts up the coffee machine and grinds some beans. The shrill of the coffee grinder momentarily drowns out the low drone of chatter. “I want people to feel chilled and relaxed in my gym,” says Mizra. “As if they were at home.”

Friendship over membership

But aside from the aesthetic, what is it that makes Built 2 Last different from the many other gyms in the area? Mizra thinks it´s the philosophy that revolves around creating a community. Her fitness centre focuses on individual members rather than being blinded by a corporate business model.

“Our members are different from regular gymgoers. They come to get away from the crowds that you might find during peak hours someplace else. They do not want to wait to use the machines and they are not interested in these huge industrial sized complexes,” Mizra describes her clientele.

The team at Built 2 Last know their members by name. They know their story and their fitness goals. Whenever a member celebrates a birthday, the gym celebrates too by surprising them with a birthday cake and by throwing a little party.

“This is a small gym and our members are not just a number. Everyone who comes here is sociable, they are nice to each other and they communicate well with each other. More importantly, they help each other out”.

Mizra stops mid-sentence to greet an elderly man who has just entered the lobby. He is about to leave after completing his workout. They chat and laugh together for a few minutes before he exits the building.

Built 2 Last specialises in small group training and incorporates exercises tailored to their members´ needs. No two classes are the same. The team of trainers here do not follow a predetermined workout plan and strive to make each class original.

Membership fees are all inclusive. Each member can avail of the personal trainers to help them meet their fitness goals with no extra cost. “We help our members in any way we can. If we are available, we will train them personally free of charge,” Mizra explains her methods.

Challenge accepted

Mizra and her partner, Bob Boekweit (50), who is a personal trainer at Built 2 Last, host year-round fitness competitions for their members. These challenges are held four times a year and participants begin training five to six weeks in advance.

Those brave enough to join must take on cardio based workouts combining high intensity interval training and weight training, all against the clock. Whoever completes the challenge within the shortest time, wins.

The training sessions and challenges are followed by coffee mornings, lunch dates and barbeques, depending on the season. These social events allow members to celebrate their fitness achievements and to build friendships. Members sometimes team up spontaneously to compete in other races. 

Last summer, Built 2 Last won the ‘Burpee Mile’, a high intensity challenge that required participants to complete a mile of burpees.

This year, another team will be competing in the Strong Viking Challenge. They will grapple with a 7km, 13km, 19km or 42km obstacle course through the mud. This gruelling challenge, held in Nijmegen on 30 March, attracts competitors from all over the Netherlands.  “Our Viking Team train together in our gym two times a week. They are well prepared for this event,” says Mizra.

We are family

Mizra and Bob have made many friends at their gym over the past 17 months. Unfortunately, a big chunk of their members are students who eventually move on after their studies. “There are a lot of students at Built 2 Last, but the problem is that many of them are leaving. They don’t want to go, but their qualifications take them elsewhere outside of Groningen. This makes me sad because we are not saying goodbye to a member. We are saying goodbye to a friend,” explains Mizra.

The two owners have invested a lot of time and energy into keeping their gym alive. They are hopeful that the inclusive environment that they have created will attract more members and lead to financial stability.

“We value all our customers and we are thrilled when our members decide to settle in Groningen,” finishes Mizra. “These people are so inspiring and bring so much energy and positivity to this place. This is not just a gym. This is a family.”

Groningen’s philosophical gardener

By Valerie Scholz

An air of tranquility seems to be emanating from the man standing in front of me. His fingernails are dirt crusted and his kind eyes are filled with excitement as he introduces himself. “I’m Gijs! Founder of Haren’s self-harvesting garden.”

A fresh spring breeze carries the earthy scent of the surrounding fields. The sun is low in the sky, reflecting off the greenhouse rooftop and the large puddles, remnants of the past rainy weeks.

“You can walk over there,” Gijs advises, with a side-glance on my light pink shoes. He points to a dry path through the garden, made of wood chippings. We slowly snake our way through neatly arranged rows of farmland and past small greenhouse tents.

Gijs´ garden, in which the customers themselves harvest the ripe produce, is part of the De Biotoop community in the village of Haren. This property, once the former biological department of the University of Groningen, now comprises an area of over eight hectares of living and working space. It houses more than 300 people and 80 small businesses. “It’s a very nice place to be,” Gijs says, “people here have more or less the same mindset.”

“My own boss”

Gijs Nauta is a native of Groningen. He quickly discovered his knack for tilling and received a 3-year education at an organic farming school in Dronten, in the province of Flevoland.

Having worked at a small organic farm specialized in cultivating herbs, and later as a dairy farmer for several years, he suddenly found himself jobless in 2013.

“This is when I decided to become my own boss,” Gijs says proudly.

He entered a municipality-initiated program that aimed to help unemployed citizens become entrepreneurs. He learned how to write a business plan, do administrative work and find a suitable location for his business.

Gijs also received considerable funding. “It’s a win-win,” he explains. “I am out of social-welfare and the municipality makes a little profit off my earnings.”

The importance of self-harvesting

He then used the money to set up his self-harvesting garden. “I started sowing in January 2015,” he remembers.

Gijs set up his gardening business as a response to the shrinking appreciation for food among people. “We live in a time where everything is getting impersonal, anonymous, faster and faster,” he remarks. He thinks that the experience of buying food has been reduced to rushing through crowded isles and mindlessly throwing plastic-wrapped products into the shopping basket, before scanning and paying at self-checkout stations.

“It’s the opposite here,” Gijs smiles. “Here you can calm down.” Harvesting vegetables in the field turns food consumption into an experience for the customer. “It gives the client a lot of satisfaction to see the growing vegetables,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a long time to wash off the snails and dirt,” he laughs, “but it’s more real.”

A sixth sense for gardening

On three days of the week, Gijs gets up at 5:30 in the morning and distributes flowers for some extra income. Then he goes into the garden and works until sunset.

In his first seasons, he strictly followed a gardening guidebook, “my bible”, he says jokingly. But over time he has developed a sixth sense for his vegetables.

“Each day, I decide what I am going to do by looking at the garden,” Gijs explains. Sowing seeds, picking weeds and planting vegetables are part of his daily routine. “Today, for example, I have to plant a lot of beans!”, he gestures towards tiny plantlets stacked in the greenhouse.

Gijs plants organic vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers according to season. He regularly sends out newsletters to his customers, letting them know which vegetables are about to ripe and become ready for harvest.

A walk around the garden

More than just a customer

“This concept is very much based on trust,” Gijs says. The production process couldn’t be more transparent, because “it’s very direct from producer to consumer”.

Payment is organized on a subscription basis. Customers pay a yearly fee of 275€ in advance. “My goal was to make it available and affordable for a lot of people,” Gijs says.

Most of his customers are quite well-off, partly by virtue of the location. The village of Haren is the wealthiest area in the province of Groningen. “Most people are richer than I ever will be, I guess,” Gijs laughs.

His customer base is a diverse crowd, currently made up of 65 people. From young families with small children, for whom self-harvesting has an essential educative purpose, to elderly people, who just love to come by for a coffee and a chat.

Gijs’ customers are friends to him and his garden is his home. “We are like a community.”

The gardening community also holds regular get-togethers where the business is discussed over a nice meal and some wine.

A risky business

It was during one of these periodic meetings when some of Gijs’ customers decided to voluntarily donate 75€ on top of their regular yearly payment. “They couldn’t accept that I am working that hard and have no regular income,” Gijs says gratefully. “People care about me.”

The appreciation he receives motivates him every day. “You know what you are doing, why you are doing it and what you are doing it for,” he explains.

Still, the advanced payments, as well as the trust and care of his customers make his income more secure than that of an ordinary farmer. Agriculture is a risky business, he explains. “Weather changes or pest infestations can ruin an entire harvest.”

His colleagues, who have contracts with supermarkets, can easily go bankrupt if anything goes wrong during the season. “Of course, I always give my best, but I don’t have to worry so much about that,” Gijs says.

But Gijs has never been in this business for the profit. “I don’t have much money,” he says with a smile on his lips. He pauses to think. “But I am rich not with money, but with doing what I do – that’s my happiness.”

Nature, freedom, people

Gijs is beaming when he feels wet earth beneath his feet. Nature is his safe haven. “It brings me quietness and comfort,” he says.

He chuckles and admits that he even enjoys working in pouring rain. “In the depth of my heart I like it better on a quiet field than being in a group of loud people.”

Maybe that is the reason his volunteers call him the “philosophical gardener”.

Why does he love this job? “The nature, the freedom and the people I meet,” Gijs says.

He shields his eyes from the sun and his gaze wanders over the garden. “I never had any regrets that I started this, not a single moment,” he smiles and looks back at me. “I want to do this all my life.”