She’s calling from her holiday home, a small cabin on the beach. Judith Maas (42) lives in Mexico City with her husband and their four children, but they’re on holiday in the southern state Oaxaca this week. “We’re in a rather remote place. There are three restaurants here and they all serve the same dish: shrimp and oysters, cooked over a fire. Having a strong stomach seems to be required. Tomorrow is Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.”
“Hold on, Katootje, I’m on the phone… someone in the Netherlands…”
Alumna Judith Maas studied Arts and Sciences in the late nineties. She wanted to become a writer. As a child, she devoured books written by beloved Dutch children’s book author Thea Beckman. Maas even named one of her children Hasse, after one of Beckman’s characters.
She’s a determined person. After secondary school, she worked as an au pair for Marc Leijendekker,correspondent for the newspaper NRC in Rome. While at university, she wrote freelance for Observant. And after completing her master’s degree in journalism, she sent out two job applications: one addressed to daily newspaper De Gelderlanderand one to the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. De Gelderlander hired her straight away to work at its office in Nijmegen.
This all happened shortly after she met her now husband Jan, who studied medicine in Maastricht and was living in Nijmegen at the time. They immediately moved in together, but they wouldn’t stay in Nijmegen long. Six months later (that’s how long the hiring process at the ministry took), Maas learnt she’d been accepted into the diplomatic training programme.
Journalism or diplomacy? Cutbacks in spending at the newspaper encouraged her to opt for the latter. Yes, she wanted to write, but she also wanted to explore the world.
“What’s wrong, honey, why are you crying? Did you get a bug bite? Jan, could you take a look?”
After working as a spokesperson in The Hague, she was stationed in various countries around the world. She first decided to go to Madrid, partly because her husband would be able to work there as a doctor. The approval process turned out to take two and a half years, though, so he opted to do research instead.
Not long after that, she ended up in Afghanistan – in Uruzgan of all places, the poorest region of the country, where Dutch soldiers fought the Taliban and attempted to achieve political stability between 2006 and 2010. Maas moved into a military compound and worked there as a development consultant. “We established a network of GP centres, among other things.”
Then Uganda. Then back to the Netherlands. And then, two years ago, Mexico.
“It’s a well-kept secret that life in Mexico City is fantastic in terms of not only culture but also restaurants and nightlife. It’s not all positive, though, as the gap between the rich and the poor is very big. We talk about this a lot with our children. We live in a rich neighbourhood with constant patrols. That’s another thing: we have to keep safety and security in mind at all times. We did this when we drove to Oaxaca, too. We chose a safe route and avoided areas where a drug war is raging, to name just one thing. And we made sure to arrive at our destination before sunset.”
By now, Maas has risen to the position of deputy ambassador. “During the day, I talk to high government officials; after work, my time is consumed by mundane family matters like wiping my children’s buttocks and cleaning their noses. I love that contrast.” She’s also the head of economic affairs, which essentially means she mediates between Dutch industry and the Mexican government. “The new president wants to develop a corridor between the two oceans, for example. We’re looking for opportunities for Dutch industry.”
In other words, she realised her dream of exploring the world.
One thing she didn’t necessarily dream of as a student was having a large family. “When I was a child, I saw how much work I was for my parents.” Despite that, she and her husband have four children. “We gave it serious thought beforehand. But once I’ve made a decision, I really go for it.”
Unfortunately, that’s when she found out how difficult it can be to become a parent. She had seven miscarriages. “I’ve had more pregnancies than my Catholic grandmother. We never found out the cause. It was incredibly hard – I was in despair. But I was overjoyed when we managed to have a family through adoption and IVF.”
I have just one last question: what happened to her dream of becoming a writer? “It’s still alive. I was actually thinking about it just last night. It’d be fun to write a book someday after all.”