‘The Dutch are the tallest people in the world, with the smallest houses’
Fiona grew up in Washington DC and first came to Europe as a student. She now lives in The Hague and is a speaker, author, blogger, YouTuber, leadership coach, and comic book illustrator in addition to working as a senior culture and engagement manager for a large multinational. She would like to meet the people behind Droog Design and recommends tourists spend a day on a Texel shrimp trawler.
How did you end up in the Netherlands?
Well, it was by marriage a way back. We’ve been married about 25 years and we’ve been living here for the past 15. I participated in a study abroad programme my junior year of college and never really came home. I did my studies in Italy and Vienna and fell in love with Europe. I decided then and there that I would spend my life here.
I went home, graduated, liquidated whatever I had, and went back. I lived in Vienna, Budapest, London, and Amsterdam before finally settling down in The Hague because it’s better for kids
How do you describe yourself – an expat, lovepat, immigrant, international?
I guess I’m technically a lovepat since I married a Dutch-American. We have a handicapped son and we came here for the care we needed for him. That’s what will keep us here as well, not that there aren’t wonderful reasons beyond that to stay. The care is excellent for him, not just for schooling but for the rest of his life.
Coming to Europe originally was a combination of running from and running to. For me, America started to become a corrupt and toxic place, from the politics to the way people are treated to the way your lifestyle is led entirely by work. That struck me as not a good way to live.
At the same time, I loved the density of Europe and all these cultures and incredible history packed into such a tight space. I loved old architecture mixed with brand new modern design, the high tech aspects, and all the languages. I’m still a real language buff.
But I also love the working lifestyle. You can work and have a life. You can have actual vacations. You’ll work hard, but you can also raise a family and have a private life at the same time.
How long do you plan to stay?
We will always have a foothold here. Once the kids go off to university, we might minimise it so we can see more of Europe and work flexibly from other cities. Because of our son though, we will always be around here.
Do you speak Dutch and how did you learn?
Yes, I do speak Dutch. My writing is not as good as my speaking. My work right now is about 50% in Dutch and about 50% in English. The writing part is about 70% in English, though. How did I learn? Dutch stubbornness. I had to be incredibly tough about speaking Dutch every possible moment I could, even though I was making mistakes and kind of awkwardly driving through conversations. I finally got to a point where I didn’t have to insist with people anymore and it became very natural.
I took lessons in the early years as well. People would switch to English on me when they heard my accent, so I worked to get rid of it. Now they usually think I’m from somewhere in Brabant, but it gives me the advantage of not having to quibble about which language we’re going to speak. Now they stick with Dutch.
What’s your favourite Dutch thing?
The PGB, the Persoonsgebonden Budget. It’s a programme that helps people who have special requirements and will need assistance for the rest of their lives. It provides them and their families with an annual budget to purchase care for them according to what they need.
When we came here, we had a complex situation because our son is an English speaker with special needs. The country has amazing care for children with special needs who are native Dutch speakers but, for him, it was much more complex because he didn’t speak very good Dutch.
Thanks to this programme, we’re able to purchase extraordinarily individualised care for him and allow him to transition into Dutch culture and a Dutch school. Now he has access to an entire life ahead of him where he’s going to be in a very protected environment. This is something that I think is a gift for people who have kids with special needs.
How Dutch have you become?
I would say I’m 50% Dutch and 50% Italian. I’m Italian by extraction and Sicilian by my roots. My household was quite Italian growing up, my last name is Italian, and I kept it. Much of my life is based on an Italian social model; strong family, strong social ties, lots and lots of food, and the enjoyment of life as much as possible. We own a house in Italy and try to go there as much as possible.
I love almost everything about the way of life here. The politics, the density, the infrastructure, and the choices the society makes to provide a proper life for everybody. I respect how this culture invests in those who need it the most. We’ve also seen this with end of life programmes. My husband’s parents both went into eldercare. Compared with how my own parents in America are approaching old age with tremendous anxiety, there’s a huge difference.
It could be part of the density here. Everybody’s so packed together and you need to create some space for yourself. Maybe this is a psychological tool to deal with the crowding. It’s something I’ve been puzzling over for years. But if you could add up everything in the Netherlands and mush it together with Italy, you’d have the perfect society.
Which three Dutch people (dead or alive) would you most like to meet?
Boyan Slat. He’s the CEO of Ocean Cleanup. I love this organisation and I’ve been supporting them since the beginning. He was a student at Delft University when he said there was too much crap in the ocean and decided to clean it up. He and his colleagues used their brains and talent to come up with a brilliant organisation that removes plastic from the ocean.
Gijs Bakker and Renny Ramakers. They’re the founders of Droog Design. They’re fascinating people. I’ve been a creative designer for years and simplicity is difficult to get to. The hardest thing in the world is to come up with something that is not added to in any way. They have a wonderful way of combining everyday objects and creating a new use or context for them. I love how they’re able to reimagine them.
Carice van Houten. She’s a wonderful actress I would love to meet. She did a fantastic rendition in Komt Een Vrouw Bij de Dokter. Ever since I saw that movie, I’ve thought she’s extraordinary. She’s also ageing gracefully.
What’s your top tourist tip?
They should ride a shrimp boat over at Texel. Keep in mind this is only fun in the summer. In the winter it’s not fun. They have these actual shrimp boats up there that collect tiny, tiny shrimp that are fabulous. You ride out with them in the early morning and you watch them use massive nets to bring up the shrimp.
Then you learn how to peel them and eat them and then you peel and eat some more. I don’t think they’ll make it back to the docks with any shrimp left in the boat after you’ve eaten them all, but it’s an awesome way to spend a day. You’ll get to see some great nature and the seals that live there.
Tell us something surprising you’ve found out about the Netherlands
The Dutch are officially the tallest people in the world, but they live in some of the world’s smallest houses. I’ve always found it to be very puzzling. They create these houses where they always have to bend over to get through the doorways. Why did they build them that way? I understand why old houses here were built like that because people were shorter back then. When they build new buildings though, it’s the same thing. The stairwells have the same problem. They have to crouch to get up and down them.
If you had just 24 hours left in the Netherlands, what would you do?
I’d go to the Leidseplein and smoke grass and have a party. You don’t do that sort of thing when you live here. I’d go to a coffeeshop and experience the nightlife of Amsterdam. Before that though, I’d probably take a boat ride through the canals. It’s a very romantic and nice thing to do, but you never do it unless you have a tourist visiting.
You can order a copy of Fiona’s new book ‘Handbook for Post-Covid Engagement: A Comic Book for Executives’ via this link.
Fiona was talking with Brandon Hartley.
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