Jenny Nieuwenstein
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If the Corona crisis makes something clear to us, it is that the solutions of the past no longer work for today’s problems. But in order to achieve those new solutions and create real innovations that benefit society, something has to change in the way we look at the world. Curiosity, the basis for everything we do at Innovation Origins, is crucial, as the research of Danae Bodewes shows. In a series of interviews, she talks to curious types who each in their own way provide the building blocks for a life filled with curiosity. Here’s the complete series so far.

Curious types: Jenny Nieuwenstein (89), former telephone operator, author of short stories, grandmother of 6 grandchildren

Jenny Nieuwenstein (89) is an elderly lady. She decided 18 years ago, after the death of her husband, that she did not want to become one of those elderly people who quietly sit in a corner. She is still very much alive. She radiates energy, is active and involved. And last but not least: she is and remains curious about what her life and the future will bring her.

What does curiosity mean to you personally?

To find out something. By the way, I think wondering about something sounds better than being curious about something. Being curious sounds a little negative.

How come curiosity has a negative connotation for you?

I know someone who’s terribly curious. Then I hear her talking and I think, how dare you ask? Actually, this is none of your business. Being curious about a gift, on the other hand, is being curious in a fun way. Or being curious about what the result will be of the house you are building. That is also a nice curiosity.

Do you find yourself a curious person in a nice way?

I’m curious about some things in the nice sense of the word. Especially when I’m planning something I’m curious how it will end. You can be pleasantly curious. That’s the opposite of just asking and asking. When someone does that to me, at a certain moment I don’t give an answer anymore.

Did you have a specific fascination at an early age?

I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I thought that would be wonderful. When nobody was at home I used to put on music and practice. Becoming a ballet dancer, that didn’t happen in our circles. I still like watching ballet performances on television. I wanted to become a radio announcer too. I picked up the radio guide and started practicing out loud. I was then curious about what I would become. I finally became a telephone operator. That looked a bit like it. As a switchboard operator, you’re always busy with people and talking. You’re talking to each other.

I wasn’t much of a speaker back then, I was quiet. This changed 18 years ago when my husband died. I thought: I shouldn’t just sit quietly in a corner. You have to join in, say whatever you want to say or you’ll be a boring old person. I still do all kinds of nice things. Yesterday I went out with my son-in-law, earlier this week I visited the Anton Piek museum with my neighbor, I still get quite a run-in at home and I write every now and then.

I have also been writing since I was a child. At school, I was already able to write well, you have to have a lot of imagination for that. For my final exam at the Mulo, I had to write a story about an umbrella. I wrote a story about a grandpa and grandma umbrella with their grandchildren who had all kinds of adventures. I got an eight for my essay. I had it already in me back then.

Much later I joined the Foundation Welzijn Ouderen Kampen for a writing course. I looked at their offer: I did not need a cooking course. But a writing course I thought would be something for me. There was a group of eight of us. On the first day of the course we got a lot of explanation, I didn’t understand a thing. The next meeting we were asked to tell our own story. For example, there is a man walking in the street. He then explained: it could also be about a sad man walking in the street. You could write fiction or non-fiction. I came home with my assignment and had written my non-fiction story about my husband who had Alzheimer’s within an hour. When I handed it over to my teacher he stuck up two thumbs and said: great story, you have talent. That’s when I got courage.

The following year I took the course again. The teacher had to stop at the foundation but offered to continue at his home. We continued with 6 people, we did that for two years. It was so much fun. He had a long dining table where we all sat together, beautiful crockery and his wife baked cake every week. I think back on that with a lot of pleasure.

Maxima’s concussion and the battery that was accidentally eaten

I write a story now and then. For example, I did one on King’s Day. My upstairs neighbor had gotten a cake from her daughter. It was delivered home, it was one of those cakes with a picture. It was the picture of Queen Maxima. Her husband took the cake but dropped it. The cake with Maxima fell on the floor. I wrote a story about it: the cake still tasted fine but you could taste that Maxima had a concussion.

Or recently when a friend wanted to eat candy, but at the same time wanted to replace the battery of her hearing aid. She did this in the dark and ate the battery instead of the candy. She was worried and called the doctor. He told her that she didn’t have to worry and that the battery would come out on its own. In my story I let the battery go through her whole body: over rocks and through deep valleys. On the sixth day, it finally comes out. After which it lies polished clean, waiting to be put into the hearing aid. Now I just write these stories in my notebook.

How do you see the relationship between curiosity and creativity?

When I’ve written a story and used my creativity, I’m curious about what others think of it. If they think it’s a good story. So I’m curious if my creative ideas turn out well.

How does curiosity feel to you? What or where do you feel this in your body?

I feel pleasantly tense. For example, when I go somewhere, like a performance, I’m curious how that will turn out. I feel all over my body: oh how will it go?

Can other people see this in you?

No, they can’t tell by looking at me. I often hear from others: you’re so calm, you don’t panic easily.

In the course of your life, have you become more or less curious?

More. When I was just married, someone said to my husband: well, that woman doesn’t talk much, does she? I’m more talkative now. I’ve changed. I guess because I’m alone. I want to stay involved and have my own say. That’s why I want to stay informed about what’s happening in the world. I still read all the papers. I keep wondering what will happen next. Like how things will turn out with Trump, that awful man. And there’s more. For example, electric cars. I wonder how that will go. I’m still pleasantly curious. And it’s easier for me to say what I think.

What’s the best way to arouse your curiosity?

They have to convince me it’s getting better. I’m convinced easily. I have to see first before I’ll believe it.

What dampens or limits your curiosity?

When people get too curious and ask things I wouldn’t ask others. I also want to keep something to myself. Then I don’t answer the questions anymore. You can embarrass someone else. No, that’s not for me.

It is said that technology limits curiosity. How do you feel about this? Have the technical developments during your life stimulated or limited your curiosity? And how so?

I’ve become more curious because of all those inventions. I’m especially curious about how it will turn out. They invented a lot of things that didn’t turn out what they expected. There are also inventions I don’t think they should have. Electric, unmanned driving, for example. I think that’s dangerous. Accidents have already happened. Now they want to make planes without pilots. It scares the hell out of me. I wonder how that will turn out.

I like to receive pictures of people on WhatsApp. But sending a text message makes me feel like not taking care. I think writing a letter or calling is a lot more sincere. You can hear each other’s voices.

What are the most valuable things your curiosity has brought you throughout your life?

It’s brought me a lot of good. Like with the kids. I’m curious how they’ll become, what will they become, how will they get into life? I stay so involved with them. Usually, they tell me what’s on their minds. I never tell them how to do it. I could tell them what they should do, but if I were them, I’d think, “What are you interfering with?

I don’t want to be interfering. We’ve all had to figure it out for ourselves in our youth. When they ask for help, I help. But they have to be tough. So did we.

Curiosity is also called a source of life energy. What do you think of this statement?

People around me sometimes ask me why I don’t want to use a delivery service for my food. They are worried and mean well. But I refuse. I want to cook my own food and do my own shopping. Then I’ll go out and have a chat. When I need help, I’ll tell them myself. I’m fine now.

Same with a walker. I’ve had it in my house for 10 years. But when somebody asks me why I don’t use my walker I say: are you crazy. I’m not ready for that. My neighbor often goes shopping with me. The other day I went shopping myself and wanted to bring large packs of toilet paper. I did go with the walker. I felt uncomfortable.

It’s different when I want it myself. I recently sat at the computer and saw a walking stick on the internet. One that is foldable and available in different colors. I managed to order it myself. The next morning it was in the mailbox. I did that on my own. I gave myself a compliment: how wonderful that you did it yourself.

I used the walking stick yesterday when I went for a walk in the woods with my son-in-law Bram. It was full of sticks you can trip over. When I really can’t, I ask for help, but I prefer to do it my own way.

What’s the most curious thing you’ve done in your life?

My husband came from a strictly Catholic family. I came from a more humanistic family. We really loved each other. He told me at home that he had a crush on me and that I wasn’t Catholic. I’ve never been in such trouble before. I thought, I can’t take him away from his faith. I wasn’t really religious. That’s when I became a Catholic, otherwise, we would have had to split up. My father said you can be Catholic if you do it right. I’m always grateful to my parents for that. My whole family came to the wedding even though there were a lot of Dutch Reformed among them.

When I first came to church, there was a beautiful boys’ choir and the sun shone beautifully through the stained glass windows. I loved that, I didn’t know what else it would bring. We soon had four children and we thought that was enough. But that was not allowed. Eventually we left the church. My husband first, me later.

What do you think people should know about curiosity?

I think it’s good for you to stay curious in life. Staying curious about how things are going, how the world is going to be. Now, for example, with the nitrogen. How’s that gonna work out? What are they trying to do with it? The farmers will suffer. I happen to know them. First, they were recommended to take as many cows as possible and to take larger stalls. Now they have to downsize again, which brings a lot of farmers in distress.


During the program Spring guests, I made an appeal that I was looking for 90 and 100-year-olds for my research. Former colleague Imke de Korte responded that her grandmother of almost 90 years old – Jenny Nieuwenstein – might want to cooperate. I responded enthusiastically. Both Imke and I had no idea what the unplanned side effects of this interview would be.

Imke indicates that she has changed her mind about curiosity. She always saw curiosity as something purely positive, but is now more aware that this can be experienced differently for each generation. Imke did not expect her grandmother to experience curiosity as a less pleasant word beforehand. The fact that she sometimes felt that communication with the family via WhatsApp was less pleasant also came as a surprise to Imke.

In response to the interview, Imke started writing letters to her grandmother. “You invest more time and attention. But it also has more impact. My grandmother and I both tell each other more in a letter than in a telephone conversation. I now get to know my grandmother in a different way and I find it very cool what my grandmother does.”


The awareness, interest, and openness that this interview, but also other interviews have brought about; the love that speaks from Imke’s initiative to write her grandmother’s letters and Jenny Nieuwenstein answering them; the deepening of the friendship between me and Imke through this interview with her grandmother. These are just a few of the reasons why researching curiosity gives me so much satisfaction.

How has genuine curiosity affected your relationships? I would like to hear from you via the comments below or via e-mail: [email protected].