April 2020: Turbulent times, intense feelings

Xavier Martiáñez Vendrell


Back in 1573 and 1574, during the Eighty Years’ War (also known as the Dutch War for Independence), the city of Leiden was besieged twice by Spanish troops. The second siege was particularly relentless; to the point, legend says, where Leiden’s mayor Pieter van der Werff offered his arm to the citizens to eat, rather than surrender out of hunger. Any expat who stays long enough in Leiden gets to know about such glimpse of the city’s history, as each year, on the third of October, a big celebration takes place in order to honour the day the city was liberated from the siege.

Today, in the beautiful city centre of Leiden, you can find a park named after van der Werff. It’s located in front of a canal and it is a common spot for friends and families to gather, as soon as the weather permits. This year, spring has brought plenty of sunny days to the Netherlands, and van der Werff park still has some visitors who want to enjoy the good weather.

However, the picture is different from that of previous years. Loud and happy crowds have become small cautious groups. The measures taken by Dutch authorities are not as restrictive as those taken in other countries such as Spain and Italy; they allow for such small gatherings. They have termed it “intelligent lockdown”, a strategy aiming to minimize the effects of SARS-CoV-2 pandemics on Dutch society and the economy.

Thanks to such policies my daily routine has not been altered to the extent of others. In addition, I work in a laboratory that has focused for years on several aspects of coronavirus research, including molecular virology, virus-host interactions, vaccine and antiviral development. Because of the urgency to study SARS-CoV-2, the laboratory remained active and I have been able to go to my workplace by following some prevention measures, such as social distancing. As a new member in such a laboratory, I feel excited to be part of a group that can contribute its bit to ameliorate the situation, hopefully, in the near future. Sometimes, though, I cannot help but feel the limits of my expertise compared with the brilliance of more senior scientists in the lab. My excitement sometimes gives way to feelings of being useless.

At some point, I began to accept that the point of me being here is to learn; so, each day I get to know something new and feel more confident. However, the feelings of being an expat do not change, in fact, they become worse, despite the warmth one receives from colleagues and friends. How did a farmer under siege in Leiden whose beloved ones lived in a town two hours away feel? When will it be possible to embrace our loved ones back home? The enemy that has us trapped cannot be seen; the time of our relief unknown. Then, I try to repeat to myself this Catalan saying “la paciència és la mare de la ciència”, which translates as “patience is the mother of science”. Sometimes it works, others not.

Xavier Martiáñez Vendrell is a Spanish PhD based in The Netherlands