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Sandra, the wife of the President of Georgia

 

“Idealism must not leave this world. The key to success is in your own hands — a bit of self-confidence and self-criticism, angelic patience, openness, orientation towards a certain goal, and a firm faith in all-conquering honesty and justice. Plus humor and irony to add spice to all of these things. To achieve success means that one has to be, as far as it is possible, ready for it.”

Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs
(from the book “Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs —
the Story of an Idealist” published in 2005 in Dutch;
Ukrainian translation — 2006).

 

Mrs Roelofs is Dutch by birth and Georgian by destiny. In her childhood she had an ambition to become a writer, and later, when her first story was published, she used a penname — Ardnas Sfoleor. But in fact, it was her first and last name written backwards.

Her first visit to Georgia took place in the summer of 1992. She arrived at night which turned out to be very warm. And she had over twenty kilos of garden seeds brought with her from Holland.

She met her future husband, Mikheil Saakashvili at a students’ dining room in Strasbourg. She had her marriage to him registered in New York, USA, four month later. She had a church wedding in Tbilisi, Georgia. She spent her honeymoon in Kyiv, Ukraine, where her husband had graduated in Law.

Ukraine came to have a special significance for her. The Ukrainian words that she likes best are druzhyna — “wife,” and khlopchyk — a boy.

In May 2007, the public organization Zhinka III tysyacholittya — Woman of the 3rd Millennium, awarded its prizes to distinguished women in different categories.

Mrs Roelofs was the recipient of the prize in the nomination Znakovi postati III tysyacholittya — Significant Figures of the 3rd Millennium.

Mrs Roelofs has kindly agreed to answer questions put to her by Marysya HOROBETS on behalf of the Welcome to Ukraine magazine.

 

Mrs Roelofs, our magazine congratulates you on the Zhinka III tysyacholittya award and wishes you all the possible best. What does the Zhinka III tysyacholittya project mean to you personally?

Thank you. I’m happy to use this opportunity to express my love and respect for the Ukrainian people. Ukraine has a special significance for me. It is a big honor and it only brings our countries and people closer together. The Millennium has just started and there will be many prominent women personalities after me, and I wish all of them the best of luck.

What was it that made you fond of Ukraine?

Ukraine has always touched my imagination and fantasy. I heard many stories about the Crimea, about Kyiv, Lviv and Odesa... When I visited Ukraine for the first time — it was in 1994 — it immediately felt familiar to me, probably because my husband was so much at home here. It is very European to me, and Kyiv is a very green and pleasant city. I went back to Ukraine after 1994 several times, when I worked for the Consulate of the Netherlands in Tbilisi, and our Embassy was in Kyiv then. I was always warmly welcomed and felt at home. Now that we are so close with the Ukrainian presidential couple and even have forged family ties through the baptism of our youngest son Nikoloz, I consider our visits to Ukraine as very special and pleasant!

You visited Georgia for the first time when you were a young student. What were your first impressions? You did not know at that time that it would be Georgia where you’d be living, so far from your home country — but did you feel anything special during that first visit of yours?

I definitely did not know that but for sure Georgia made an unforgettable impression on me and I had a feeling that it would play a great role in my life — which turned out to be true. It is far from my home country but at the same time it has many similarities with it: Georgia is also small and near the seaside. It is a country highly dependant on its transit function just like Holland, it is very attractive to tourists, the population is highly educated, values are Christian and the mentality in general is European.

“I had a nice, sportive, many-sided childhood in a strong Roman-Catholic family in the southern part of the Netherlands. I gave preference to foreign languages and cultures, adding to it a healthy dose of civil activities, which I slowly but steadfastly kept expanding. The wonderful years of my youth, filled with love and security, formed the foundation of my grown-up life.”

From “Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs —

the Story of an Idealist”

You met a tall, handsome young man at a students’ dining hall. You first thought he was French, but when you talked to him, it turned out he was Georgian. What was your reaction to that? And, personally speaking, who was the first to fall in love, you or him? Was there a feeling somewhere deep inside you that this was the man destined for you?

The first thing Mikheil said was, “I am from Georgia, but not from the state of Georgia in the USA.” I reacted with surprise and recognition because I had been in Georgia the year before, as a tourist with a humanitarian mission and I had liked it a lot! I even remembered some words, phrases. We both liked each other from the beginning. Some sort of chemistry began working immediately, like in a Madonna song. After a while I understood that this was the man for whom I wanted to radically change my life, emigrate, quit my job, learn a new language, live far away from my parents and a brother...

“As a Roman Catholic, I was prepared to convert to Georgian Orthodoxy. I wrote about it to my father’s uncle, Adrian, who is a priest, and asked him for advice. He wrote back, blessing me and saying that the main thing was to remain a Christian and live by the Christian principles…”

From “Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs —

the Story of an Idealist”

Was if difficult to get adjusted to the new lifestyle in Georgia?

All these questions are fully answered in the book “Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs — the Story of an Idealist.” I wrote about the first ten years of my life in Georgia…Naturally, it takes a lot of effort to adjust to each other in a mixed marriage. You have to come to know the inner world of your spouse, and yet retain your own principles. It’s a never-ending challenge. Sometimes you have to give up certain things, and often you have to seek compromise. But it’s always nice to know that you complement each other just because you are of different ethnicities and were born in different countries. It is a great joy to see how harmoniously different traits of the parents have merged in our children. The longer you stay with your spouse, the more you live through and share, the better you understand each other.

“The Dutch are not too inclined to changes. They go slow from one thing to another, whereas Georgians impetuously jump over to something completely new. The Dutch would feel quite at loss at such impetuosity…”

“Once, when we were visiting Mikheil’s uncle Temur, Mikheil picked a book from the shelf, gave it to me and said I should read it. The book was The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, the Georgian national epic, written in the twelfth century by Shota Rustaveli. The poem was translated to English. Mikheil also said I should read it before we got married. Thanks to this wonderful piece of Georgian poetry, I learnt a lot about Georgian passions, about strong ties of friendship among Georgians. And I saw what this friendship really meant when once Mikheil lent a hundred dollars to a fellow student, also a Georgian. When I asked when he’d get the money paid back (at that time we were in a tight financial situation), Mikheil told me in a stern voice that Georgians never ask questions like that, adding that if we needed some money urgently, we would always be able to borrow from his friends . For me, a raised in Holland, it was difficult to understand.”

From “Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs —

the Story of an Idealist”

What does your son Edward like most? Is he more like Saakashvili or Roelofs?

He is more a Saakashvili, he is a studying type, reads a lot, likes to be the first, and cannot stand injustice. I try to make him more sportive and musical and succeed in what he wants to achieve.

And how would you assess your own character? Are you tough? Easy to forgive? When you have arguments at home who is the one to start peace negotiations — you or your husband?

Christians are always ready to forgive, but I am not the type that will forget. I am sensitive, demanding both to myself and to others, responsible and try to be just and consequent in raising my boys. The Ukrainian president’s wife, Kateryna, is by the way, an excellent example of being a perfect mother and at the same time a very committed, patriotic, responsible, hard-working and successful first lady!

There are no families without arguments, or sometimes conflict situations arise, but as we both of us intelligent and responsible, we always find ways out. I try to teach my boys to express their emotions in different ways, it is important they learn to think in a logical and constructive way and to avoid conflicts in their future life. Boys amongst each other in Georgia can be quite tough!

Georgia has become a second motherland for you and you take an active part in the affairs of the state. Could you say a few words about this side of your life?

I am not involved in politics but I am supporting the executive branch of power to implement the reforms especially in health, social and educational and sometimes cultural spheres, establishing bridges between Georgia’s government and Georgia’s population, I am especially busy promoting a healthy life style and fighting against the use of drugs and tobacco. I am working on prevention and better care of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. I take a special interest in improving reproductive health issues and giving young mothers and newborns better care and full information on health issues.

As I have been involved in health projects and charity for the past seven years, my interest for the medical science has increased and now I am studying to be a medical nurse, next summer I will enter the Georgian labor market!

And one of my dreams has come true: I have set up radio MUZA: the first classical music radio station!

Does Mikheil Saakashvili turn for advice to you? Or does he do what the old Ukrainian saying advises, Listen to what the woman has to say, and do the opposite?

No, he does not do that. If I give him some advice, it is always based on my own experience and things I have been seeing and analyzing with my own common sense and logic. He gives me advice as well and most of it, I have to say, is very useful!

Did you ever want to go back to the quiet Netherlands, particularly when there was trouble in Georgia?

Holland might be a safe haven at some moments but for me, as a country to live in, it is no longer that attractive. I’ve already put down roots in Georgia, and I prefer to solve problems here, be supportive if necessary and help the Georgians whom I love so much, both for their charms and shortcomings.

What kind of books do you read? Are you writing a new book by any chance?

When I want to better my knowledge of foreign languages I read classics in the original not in translation, if possible. In that school in Brussels where I studied (the State Economic Institute for Translators and Interpreters) we were often told, “To translate means to deceive a little.” I could speak Dutch, English, German and French like most Dutch people of my generation before I came to live in Georgia. I learned Russian and Georgian later. Mingrelian regional language is also not foreign to me. I sing more in this language than I talk, I have to say! I would love to learn other languages as well, but later…As a matter of fact I am writing a new book — not about myself but about the events in an Imeretian village in Georgia of about 90 years ago, and I am making a novel of it based on historic facts and own experience.

Have you changed much in the past ten years? Have your values, approaches and likings changed in any way?

I am in the middle of my life, enjoying good health, intellect, experience and physical strength, what more do I want? Values stay more or less the same. Likes too, just some are being added like singing or like hiking in Georgian mountains.

“When I pondered about the sense of life or experienced the bitterness of parting with someone, I read poems by Phil Bosmans, a Flemish priest. He advises to accept life’s tribulations with resignation and equanimity because there will always come a time of joy, which, in its turn, will also fade. A person who understands it can enjoy life deeper and more consciously.”

From “Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs —

the Story of an Idealist”

What can you say about Ukraine and the way it is going?

Ukraine is a very special unique country, rich in agriculture; it has access to the sea, mountains, many holiday resorts, forests, in brief. It has so much to offer! I think Ukraine should keep its beautiful cultural traditions and stick to its European mentality, to the principles of democracy and freedom, perseverance, zeal and love for patriotic challenges, it should not be afraid to take risks. It is a beautiful and huge country. I’m sure it will become more united and more prosperous than ever and bear the fruits of its very intelligent and hardworking citizens...

What’s your opinion about Ukrainians? Ukrainian women?

Ukrainians are hard-working intelligent people — ladies are especially beautiful and famous for looking like models. Why do you think my husband went to study to Kyiv?... Giving some key words for Georgian, Ukrainian and Dutch women I would say: “Georgian women are mysterious, Ukrainian — attractive and Dutch practical and pragmatic…”

Now a little bit about womanly things, if you don’t mind, could you say a few words about your preferences in clothes and fashion? What perfumes, jewelry do you prefer?

Clothes: practical but elegant, more classic, not too short, not too dark, sometimes I do follow fashion. I especially like accessories and jewels, but not too precious. I prefer silver to gold and natural materials most of all. I have some perfumes I use a lot, but that is my secret of course!

I know that your husband does not eat tomatoes. Do you? Do you do some cooking? What is your family’s favorite dish?

You cannot argue about tastes and preferences. Everybody has his or her likes. I eat almost everything, but not too much meat and if possible no pork, as it is bad for the skin. I love fruit, salads. I cook at the weekends and sometimes bake cakes or cookies in the evenings. It so happens that we entertain guests at our home and I cook part of the dinner of which I am very proud!

“When Mikheil cooked buckwheat for the first time, I thought it was rice that got burned. Only much later I came to like boiled buckwheat with a bit of salt and butter — it is nutritious, easy to cook and good for your figure. Georgian children like buckwheat gruel. In the west, buckwheat is used mostly for stuffing pillows with it — it is said to be good for relaxation.

From “Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs —

the Story of an Idealist”

What do you do to unwind and where do you go when you feel like traveling?

I travel more on business than on holidays and even if I have holidays, I work every day, even if it is just for an hour or so, reading, phoning, studying, to get ahead, to organize and to be in touch! Holiday is nice if it is not too stressful and in a hurry. I like calm places, close to nature, with nice views and good weather, who does not? I prefer an active rest — hiking, wandering around, seeing what is interesting nearby.

Another way of relaxation is my hobbies: swimming, classical music, playing tennis, I love sports and music...

Are there favorite places in Georgia, the Netherlands or Ukraine?

Favorite places in Georgia are many, but I love the place called Kvetera in Akhmeta region. I also love Batumi. I love Gelati, Racha, Sioni lake, Guria, Gudauri, Borjomi, many places... I do not know too many places in Ukraine but the places I visited in the Carpathians and in the capital I like a lot.

In Holland I like Utrecht, Maastricht, seaside, the islands in the north, my home region (also seaside).

Other favourite destinations are Italy, France, Austria...

Would you care to tell a few words about at least one experience from your travels?

Unusual travel story would be that I travelled with my 16 year old brother when I was 18 for one month by train to Italy, Greece and Turkey. We had the greatest time visiting our pen pals and on the way back we spent 72 hours in the train non-stop from Istanbul to Gent in Belgium. We were dead by then, but I had made many friends on the way back. Because we had no penny left, we just ate some bread and melons...

“If you do not analyze or think over an event or a trip, you have not really experienced it. This process is made up of several stages — talking about it; laughing at it; crying over it; dreaming about it; feeling fear again; describing it, and then saving it in the memory or in a photo album. When I look at such photographs, I think to myself, Look, even if it was a mistake or a disappointment, I’m still glad to have experienced it. And what it has taught me or what I have learnt thanks to it will always be useful for me. I have no regrets because I’ve lived through it and come out alive. I’m happy, cheerful, optimistic and full of pep. I am ready to storm the heights again! I want to become a queen or a heroine of Georgia, to contribute to its historical development, I want to pass my joie de vivre to my children, and if I manage to do that it will mean a lot…”

From a letter to her parents in 1993,
cited in her book “Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs —
the Story of an Idealist”

In my opinion God has made you the wife of the President, but the President has been so lucky to have such a beautiful, wise and active wife. Georgia was lucky to have the first lady like you. And to conclude this interview, a few words about your plans?

You are making too many compliments in one question! What can I say: Beauty is not forever, to be active is the result of my love and feeling of responsibility for the fate of Georgia, and wisdom is something that I do still need much more! My plans? I’ll do my best to help reduce the infant and maternal mortality rates in Georgia and convince the young generation that a healthy lifestyle is the most important thing they can invest in. In fact, young girls of age 12 to 18 are playing a key role here and I want them to realize that they are the norm-setters — if they ignore unhealthy, drug addicted, smoking and lazy irresponsible young men, there will be not a single one left! Give people hope for a future depending on their own initiatives and merits. I hope I’ll be able to contribute whatever I possibly can to Georgia’s achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by 2015, to reversing the demographic trend in Georgia, and, of course, to achieving the territorial integrity of the country. I personally want to become a good caring medical nurse, raise my boys as real Georgian patriots and responsible citizens with European values, and support my husband in his crusade to make Georgia realize its great potential!

 

Photos are from the archive

of Sandra Roelofs

 

Two Presidents — of Georgia and of Ukraine —
with their wives and children who are good friends.
Also, Viktor Yushchenko is the Godfather
of Saakashvili’s younger son. March 2007.
Photo by I. Gedenidze

 

Sandra E. Roelofs and Kateryna Yushchenko
at the presentation of the book in Ukrainian
translation “Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs — the Story
of an Idealist” in Kyiv. March 2006.
Photo by M. Markov

 

Sandra E. Roelofs at the Miss
Georgia Beauty Contest. July 2006.
Photo by Agency “Image Center”

 

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