American Robert Chesal (50) is a journalist, writer and university lecturer. Three decades ago he followed his heart to the Netherlands and never looked back. Now he lives with his wife and children in Zutphen, eats koolpot with passion, but still doesn’t feel 100% Dutch.
How did you end up in the Netherlands?
I came to Utrecht on an exchange programme in the mid-80s. Eight months later I returned to the US and met a Dutch girl who was on the same programme, only in the other direction. We fell in love, and when she had to go home I saw no reason to stay in America. So I came to the Netherlands on a wing and a prayer.
At the time I had no Dutch so I enrolled in the only suitable course at Utrecht University – English. During my studies I became a journalist and never looked back.
How do you describe yourself – an expat, lovepat, immigrant, international, etc?
I would describe myself as an international, but with a desire to put down roots. As a child I moved a lot within the US, but I feel comfortable to settle here with my family.
How long do you plan to stay?
It’s hard to say. I could see myself spending the rest of my life here, but if the opportunity to go somewhere else and do something great came to me I’d take it. As long as it suited my wife and children, I could follow an opportunity tomorrow if it came.
Do you speak Dutch?
Yes. I learned by reading Dutch newspapers, watching Dutch TV, and listening to Dutch radio. I’m a news junkie, and I found that if I knew what was happening in the world in English, I could follow it in Dutch. Basically I learned through over-exposure to Dutch media.
Now, I’ve written a book in Dutch and am married to a Dutch woman, so everything from lovemaking to arguing happens in Dutch.
What’s your favourite Dutch food?
It’s called koolpot. It’s made from mashed potatoes, onions, cabbage, ground beef, and a blend of spices including hot pepper sambal – perfect served with some peanuts and a nice cold beer. The recipe has been in my wife Mischa’s family for generations, and I like the contrast between the typical Dutch mashed potatoes and the hot spices.
How Dutch have you become?
Between speaking the language, eating the food and raising a family here, I’d say I’ve become as Dutch as I could. However, as a foreigner you can do everything possible to integrate but there’s a kind of glass wall that prevents you from ever becoming truly Dutch. You can be a familiar outsider, but there’s something about Dutch society that never really lets you 100% of the way in. I think that comes only with being born and raised here.
Which three Dutch people (dead or alive) would you most like to meet?
I’ve thought about this, and first I’d have to say Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam (New York) in the mid-1600s. He must have seen a raucous time with drunk Dutch sailors and colonists making trouble all over the city. I’d like to ask him about keeping the peace in that wild time.
Second, I’d ask prince Bernhard, husband of former queen Juliana, about the corruption scandals he implicated himself in. And finally I’d like to interview Mata Hari, the dancer and spy. I’d like to find out about all the behind-the-scenes intrigue she was involved in.
What’s your top tourist tip?
Go to the Kröller-Müller museum in Arnhem. For so many foreigners it’s unknown, but it’s a real hidden gem. It’s in the middle of a large forest, so you borrow a bike and cycle through a strange landscape before arriving at this amazing collection of modernist art. The collection features everything from Van Gogh, to Mondrian, to Picasso.
Tell us something surprising you’ve found out about the Netherlands.
I was surprised to discover how conservative the people are. Before I came here I thought the Netherlands would be a wild and free wonderland, but the people are much less adventurous than I expected. Thankfully there’s some forward-thinking people in government here, and the laws here are very progressive, but the average Dutch person doesn’t like change.
If you had just 24 hours left in the Netherlands, what would you do?
I would go back to the first neighbourhood I lived in in Utrecht, cycle around and rediscover all the places that made me fall in love with this country 29 years ago. After taking in how much the place changed over the last three decades, I’d stop for a cold beer and maybe relax with something that wouldn’t be legal in my home country.