Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs is undoubtedly the most famous Dutch Georgian-speaker who also sings Megrelian songs as if taught by her father from childhood. Fifteen years have passed since Sandra moved to Georgia and from the day of her arrival she has been actively involved in public life. One very unusual thing about Sandra is that one can hardly find a person in Georgia with anything negative to say about her, no matter how some may feel about her husband, the President of Georgia. “I am always in second place, in Misha’s shadow,” the First Lady explains.
Sandra has rarely been a focus of the Georgian media. She is not very fond of places where jewels sparkle. She almost always dresses in a quiet and modest way. When she meets with the population, she does not look showy. “When dressed up, you naturally feel uncomfortable talking to people who have numerous problems,” she says, but then adds with a smile that she never refrains from putting on high-heels when meeting with Carla Bruni or Mehriban Khanum (Ilham Aliyev’s wife).
It is not necessary to know Sandra personally to understand that her privileged status means nothing to her unless she lives up to the trust she has received, unless she expresses compassion she feels, and unless she fulfills the obligations she has set for herself.
The First Lady’s work schedule entails a flurry of daily activity, involvement and responsibility: a prenatal center; two healthcare councils; the SOCO Foundation engaged in various humanitarian and health-related causes.
In 2005, Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs published an autobiographical book – “The Story of an Idealist.” It is evident in reading her autobiography that she is an individual who ponders a great deal about her life and is fully aware of her objectives and the challenges she faces.
“Writing a book about a specific period in your life is a wonderful way to change to the next train. To me describing the turbulent last ten to twelve years means standing still on the platform, albeit just for a couple of months to take stock of everything, to get a broader perspective and to adjust my compass." Sandra writes in the foreword of her book.
Her story starts in the Netherlands with a happy childhood spent in a loving and diligent Catholic family in the provincial city of Terneuzen. In childhood she developed an interest in foreign languages and culture which in adolescence blossomed into a passion for missionary and humanitarian pursuits. She graduated from the Institute of Foreign Languages in Brussels, mastering the French and German languages. She had a natural aptitude for foreign languages, was especially fond of French, but did not want to stay in Brussels. She thought of pursuing her childhood dream of traveling to a francophone African country on an international humanitarian mission.
An internal calling – or destiny – brought 25-year-old Sandra Roelofs to Strasbourg for a month-long course at the International Institute of Human Rights. There, in a university cafeteria, she happened to meet a “French” student. The French-speaking student turned out to be, as she puts it, her “Georgian prince on his white horse with a rose in his hand.”
The couple soon moved to New York, where they lived a frugal student life: “At the end of a month we had to do with banana sandwiches.” Misha studied at Columbia University School of Law while Sandra worked. “My work in New York was rather dull,” she recalls. “And one day my mother wrote me about a vacancy for a French language teacher at one of the Terneuzen schools. I was sorry I could not go back to take up this job. Misha remembered my regret for quite a long time, often telling me if I had not met him I would have been now a teacher of French in Terneuzen.”
After Misha’s graduation from Columbia University and his brief stint at a prominent New York City law firm, the couple returned to Georgia. What happened thereafter is well-documented: the meteoric career of a young and ambitious politician in Shevardnadze-era Georgia; the fight to achieve meaningful reform; and the Rose Revolution. Through it all, Sandra stood next to Misha, learned to speak fluent Georgian and became a Georgian mother. She faced adversity and daily routine alike with equal parts shrewdness and serenity. “In Georgian language, the word for spouse is "meyoogleh" or fellow yoke-bearer. It is the way I feel: part of a team of oxen who pull the cart together and get it moving step by step".
“The Story of an Idealist” is an interesting book, but it is just a book. Personal contact with Sandra presents a different and more compelling picture. The First Lady’s intrinsic charm and naturalness is felt at the very first meeting with her. She has an innate ability to put people instantly at ease - this is her inherent feature. One need not be a student of human nature to discern her sincerity in both character and words; she is so genuine that it sometimes prompts reflexive smiles in those around her. This is how she met us – open-hearted, free-spirited, relaxed.
We met with the First Lady in Terneuzen. She visits the city twice a year – before each New Year and in the summer. Our meeting was shortly before this New Year.
Terneuzen is a small seashore city in southwestern Netherlands in the province of Zeeland, with the Western Scheldt estuary to the north and bordering Belgian Flanders to the south. The population of the city is 25,000. On this terribly cold December morning, the milky Northern sky hangs over the Scheldt estuary like a thin fog. A line of Antwerp-bound cargo vessels are silhouetted against the white veil. It is low tide, and the seashore is covered with black chunks of mud. This is the view from the Roelofses’ house. “High tide will begin in six hours and the sea level will rise,” Sandra’s father tells us.
It is pleasantly warm in a house well lit with daylight. We imagine the Roelofses have been waiting for us but have undertaken no “special arrangements” for our visit. Everyone and everything, including the early-morning arrangements, seem as natural as Sandra herself. Sandra’s mother, Magdalena, is packing her handbag as she prepares to leave for art school in nearby Belgium. Magdalena van der Poel is a painter, working mainly with water colors. One of her paintings hangs in the hallway: people with roses, a house of government and church in the background. As if echoing the theme of revolution, one can hear Marseillaise motifs coming from inside the house - Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is aired on a classical music radio station.
Eduard Roelofs, Sandra’s father, is a tall, handsome man of athletic build. A former broker, he is now retired. He is fond of navigation and bicycling and spends his free time on long-distance bicycle rides. Like his wife, he also travels to Belgium - twice a week for French lessons. Eduard is now preparing breakfast. Five-year-old Nikoloz is already having his. A kettle has boiled for the second time and Sandra invites us to the table.
We, the Georgian delegation, take seats around Nikoloz. His appetite seems tremendous – after a breakfast of oatmeal porridge he is now on his second serving of bread and butter with no hint of stopping there. Moreover, he is making noise – obviously intent on staying the focus of attention. “Nikoloz is much like his father, always wants to be in the centre of attention,” Sandra explains, “Educhi [older son Eduard’s nickname] is different; he prefers to observe.”
The hostess calls on us to take after Nikoloz: “Help yourselves. Why are you not eating?” she tells us in such a plain manner that we all feel embarrassed and begin making clumsy movements. Sandra quickly breaks our embarrassment. “How do you like the city?” she asks and then, as if knowing that the question is rhetorical, answers it herself. “This Terneuzen is very limited; it is a dull city. It has four hundred years of history but one can feel this nowhere. Everything is clinical here - the only compensation is the sea.”
Like many provincial cities, Terneuzen has one central street lined with stores and restaurants and a Catholic cathedral in the town centre. We obediently follow light-footed Sandra. Dressed in virtually every piece of clothing we had brought from Tbilisi, we still shiver in the freezing outdoor temperature. Sandra, in her red raincoat, is impervious to the penetrating winter chill as she merrily imparts the story of her childhood.
We spend the evening in an Italian restaurant. Ours is the only table occupied in the dimly lit room. Sandra is pleased that the restaurant is otherwise empty. She does not like excessive attention, but clearly appreciates our interest in the journey that has brought her from her family home here in Terneuzen to the presidential palace in Tbilisi.
“I don’t think I would have stayed here. I was preparing to go to Africa to work there,” she told us. She had thought about missionary activity since childhood: “My mother’s aunts were Catholic missionaries in Indonesia and Ghana. I was always excited about that. I thought we, rich Dutch, should help the poor.” In preparation for a mission to Somalia, she undertook that fateful trip to Strasbourg for a course in human rights law. By that time, Sandra had already traveled to several Eastern European countries - and even to Georgia. “My university years coincided with the 1990s when Eastern Europe was opening up. I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall. I became interested in what was behind the Iron Curtain and traveled to Romania, the Baltic States, Russia. At that time I already knew some Russian, and this gave me a chance to arrive from Russia to Georgia as an interpreter.”
She visited Georgia first in 1992. She did not know Misha then. She came on a train from Moscow and first stepped on Georgian soil in Sukhumi. She was serving as an interpreter for Flemish brothers who arrived with her at the invitation of a person from Kutaisi. They brought Dutch vegetable seeds to Georgia. The guests stayed ten days in Kutaisi and returned home without visiting Tbilisi. Even so, Sandra fell in love with Georgia. “I remember I thought, ‘What a nice people they are. How they love each other! Oh these feasts!’ I was at a wedding, christening and I was crying listening to toasts to parents, siblings, those who passed away or those who were waiting at home… Indeed, I was teary all the time. My host, who was quite a character, acquainted me with Georgia, the Georgian spirit that is expressed in traditions.”
It is interesting that she has not changed her opinion about Georgia after all this time, even after fifteen years of living here. She believes that the Georgian feast is still relevant today and will remain so in the future. “I am sure that a feast is an ideal means of alleviating stress. When there is a problem among friends or relatives, one feast is enough to settle everything. Feast makes even total strangers close to each other.”
At present, when hosting foreign guests and familiarizing them with Georgian traditions, Sandra recalls her first impressions. “Georgian traditions are a cultural shock for first-time visitors. They are surprised and always ask me, ‘So, I cannot drink this way, can I?’ You know, foreigners are so fond of rules! Or, ‘Why can I not raise a toast with a glass of beer?’” This reminds her of her own initial bewilderment, which now amuses her immensely. She also likes serving as a host.
Sandra acknowledges that adapting to the role of a Georgian mother was difficult at the beginning. She lived together with her mother-in-law, Giuli Alasania, for some time. Although they had a close and warm relationship, living under one roof proved to be difficult for her. She felt herself more like a guest. Especially difficult was dealing with agitated relatives when her child was ill. Diagnosis and prescriptions made on the phone – “injections in horse's doses of antibiotics” when the child had a slightly high temperature; recommendations from neighbors, relatives and close friends that "here, in Georgia, a newborn baby gets an enema every day during his first forty days” – were quite confusing for her.
She recalls such past events with a quiet smile: “37.2° C is not a high temperature. A child can be active, go to school. Such a temperature is a matter of worry in Georgia. I have fewer problems with "Granny's home remedies" like lowering fever with soaks drenched in vinegar”.
Sandra has her own attitude about education and physical activities of children. It is natural for her to adjust rules established by an educational institution to match the aspirations of her child. She believes that going out for music or sports is a serious load for a child. In Georgia, however, it is accepted for a child to engage in such activities several times a week in order to “become a professional.” Often children have less desire and time, and what is intended to please them becomes compulsory and. hence, a hated occupation. “I have no idea who wants it or why is such a compulsion needed. I remember one teacher’s surprise when I asked her to reduce hours of teaching. ‘I teach him wholeheartedly, and once a week will not bring desired result,’ she told me. And what is the result indeed? Should everyone become a sportsman or a musician? Now Educhi has piano lessons once a week, guitar lessons also once a week and goes for swimming twice a week.” Sandra also recalls with a smile how her mother-in-law told her, “‘Who knows, Educhi may also become a pianist,’ and not knowing what to say added, ‘Did anyone know that Misha would become a president?’ What should have I answered to my mother-in-law who raised such a son?”
When talking about raising children, the Dutch emphasize thriftiness. “The Dutch are thrifty people. They like to save money and think a lot before they spend it. In this regard they are much different from Georgians. I want my children to be thrifty as well. I do not know why, but in Georgia small change is not considered money. Much change together is money, is not it?!” Sandra recalls the lesson of her own childhood: “I had a bottle and I collected ten-cent coins in it. After a while it was reaching sixty Guldens, that is thirty Euros – it was a whole capital for me. And I used to rush to the bank to deposit it into my personal account or UNICEF’s account. That is how I was raised, to believe that small amounts collected become large.”
Sandra does not want her children to live with her after they become of age. “Educhi studies at the American academy and will probably go abroad to continue with his studies. Nikusha [younger son Nikoloz’ nickname] will have to think about it after thirteen years, and I hope by that time the level of education in Georgia will become better. It will be very difficult for me when Educhi leaves. I will cry. I want to give him as much as possible during the two and a half years remaining before he goes. It is little time, some eight hundred days.”
The First Lady is a volunteer nurse in one of the maternity homes in Tbilisi. It is a referral hospital which admits the most difficult patients with various complications. “Prenatal center is a mirror of the society. One ward may house a multi-children mother from Lentekhi giving birth to yet another child, a young woman from Tbilisi awaiting her first child and asking for Caesarian section, and a woman from Senaki who is awaiting twins.”
As Sandra explains, direct contact with patients allows to identify exactly what they suffer from, to see which sphere has more problems. Next are measures undertaken through two healthcare councils: a council for reproductive health and a council for infectious diseases. The councils are comprised of professionals engaged in these spheres, as well as representatives of Parliament, the church and non-governmental organizations. Council meetings are devoted to discussing problems, providing recommendations to ministries and coordinating the activity of donors.
Classical music is a favorite hobby of Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs. In 2007, she founded the radio channel Muza [Muse] and every Saturday at 10 a.m. she presents her authored program, “Sandra’s Muse.” Conducting a program in a foreign language is challenging at best, but here also Sandra copes with characteristic equanimity. Muza is an apolitical radio station that does not air any news or commercials. “Naturally, I want the circle of Muza listeners to broaden, with more young people starting to listen to classical music. Many people listen to our radio station during work, or have it turned on in cars. Our radio is listened to by patients as well as those who do not sleep at night,” Sandra says.
The First Lady tries not to interfere in the President’s activities. “There were people in the past – not only in Georgia – who interfered in their husbands’ lives and did some harm. Therefore, I am always cautious not to inflict any harm accidentally on my husband with my decisions. I always agree with him on any of my new undertakings.”
Sandra does not deny that the presidency was a conscious choice of the couple. “In New York we already knew that we were returning to Georgia for Misha to make his personal contribution to Georgia’s political life. Initially, I heard predictions that he would become president more from strangers. For instance, buying a newspaper at a news stall and telling a salesperson that it was my husband’s photo in the newspaper, asking whether she/he read his article, the reply used to be that, ‘He is the right man, such a person should be our president. Remember my words.’ When such cases became more frequent, I used to joke, ‘Who wants in current Georgia to have a clever man as the head of the state? Who will allow him to advance?’” Sandra frowns when she recalls “Georgia of those days” – kidnappings, blackouts, hopelessness and robberies. “Then I pondered, asking myself should not someone become a president and first lady? Who knows, that someone could be us.” She admits that everything happened earlier than they expected.
“I would say that Misha is now in his place,” Sandra says simply. We all laugh at such a straightforward and succinct statement. She continues: “It really happened that he found his place; he has understood that he is in the place from where he can do the utmost.”
We are talking about achievements of the Rose Revolution. Sandra believes that the success is apparent although the road to this success is very hard and often painful. “The important thing is that we are making headway. I am happy that gradual integration of various groups of the society is in progress. One can also feel increased individual responsibility.” She is happy that abandoned children are now brought up in small family-type houses; disabled people go to day centers and no longer need to conceal their disability. She sees the integration of psychiatric patients in the society as another important challenge: “Ergotherapy – treatment through recreational occupation - must be introduced. A psychiatric patient should take pills not only for the aim of staying silent. However, it is an achievement that the problem of providing medication has been solved. AIDS and TB, unfortunately, are still taboo topics. It is very important not to have marginalized people in the society.”
Sandra has her own opinions about ongoing processes and never shies away from discussing them – even with the President. “As a wife, I am frank. I choose the right time and tell him that this or that was not correct. It however turns out – and I often observed this - that his approach proves to be right and the result he wanted to obtain is achieved. We work and strive for the result.”
She does not differentiate between the husband and the president: “Misha is one person and this person is the President. He is my president as well. I respect him as my husband but no less respect him as my president. I know that he carries a heavy burden and, therefore, I try to create such an atmosphere at home that he can come and have a rest. I do not want to engage in self-praise and show that I am an ideal wife, but this is how it is in reality. When Misha comes home tired, I do not talk to him about problems as I know that it is not the time for that. I try to create as much comfort as possible – bring him a cup of tea or find his favorite shampoo when he cannot find it.” The President’s “favorite shampoo” provokes our curiosity and amusement but we do not delve into details.
“I am not totally immune from unfair accusations. Naturally, it hurts when we are offended undeservedly; very often accusations are mere lies,” she says with obvious pain, but then suddenly cheers up: “That’s nothing since the truth eventually wins anyway.”
On that optimistic note, we bid farewell to Sandra. Driving in our rented Renault Kangoo on the frozen road back to Amsterdam, we share our impressions. We are a bit anxious not to turn our article into a song of praise, but decide that’s tomorrow’s business… This evening, Amsterdam is waiting for us.