‘The Dutch work hard, but coffee time is coffee time.’

Credit: Eddo Hartmann for Patrick Johnson
Photo: Eddo Hartmann

Patrick Johnson (55) from Massachusetts, USA is an Alexander Technique teacher and the co-manager of Smartbody, Amsterdam’s first fully-equipped Pilates studio. He loves the Dutch bike culture, Dutch art and the work-life balance here and says his home country feels increasingly ‘foreign’.

How did you end up in the Netherlands?

I came here originally to do research in Physics in 2000 as a postdoc at the University of Amsterdam, doing experiments with lasers and new materials for controlling light. My wife, Jelena, was a dancer and choreographer at the time and she was also interested in living in Europe.

It was a combination of the fact that some of the most interesting research in the world was being done here in Amsterdam and also being fascinated by living here and doing something completely different. Both Jelena and I were kind of smitten with Amsterdam, so the stars sort of aligned.

I did some further research at the University of Utrecht and then back in the States, and Jelena started the Pilates studio on the Prinsengracht in 2006. In this year I was offered another job in a research institute in Amsterdam called AMOLF, and at the same time started training in Alexander technique. I had been interested in Alexander technique since 2002 when I was suffering from intense back pain. I was able to get a research position here and at the same time train to teach Alexander Technique, which could not have been done in the States.

People say you can do whatever you want in the States, but actually we felt like we had more freedom here to try something different. I didn’t feel so locked into a single career path. There was more flexibility in the work and it felt like there was more opportunity for us to do what we wanted to do.

How do you describe yourself – an expat, lovepat, immigrant, international or what?

I still don’t know for sure what the future holds, but I would say I’m an expat in that we are rooted here. We have a house, fulfilling work and our kids are born here, grew up here and speak Dutch – we’re fully embedded in the Dutch world, but we still have US citizenship. I haven’t ruled out becoming a Dutch citizen. It could happen. I don’t have such strong feelings either way.

How long do you plan to stay?

We plan to stay for the foreseeable future. This is where we live, this is where our home is. To me, Amsterdam has everything. It’s small, so it sort of feels not intimidating, not overwhelming, like a neighbourhood almost. But it’s international and diverse. We can afford to own a house close to the centre of an international city and bike to our business in ten minutes. It just was easier to build a life here.

Do you speak Dutch?

I do speak Dutch. When I came here, I started taking courses. I’ve had various tutors. It’s been a long process. I’m not great with languages, but I will say that I have persistently stuck to it. Some people come to a new country and they are totally enthralled with the process of learning a language. I’m not that. But I also always continue to try to find new ways to improve my Dutch.

One of the best experiences was to have a private tutor who later became a pretty good friend. Now I teach in Dutch and I socialise in Dutch as much as I can. I can navigate pretty much everything. The most challenging thing for me is spreektaal (informal Dutch) in a group, but I just came back from a little party in the park and it was great. We were all chatting in Dutch and I felt comfortable.

What’s your favourite Dutch thing?

The bakfiets (cargo bike). It has been a major part of our life. We got a bakfiets when out first child was one year old and we put a Maxi-Cosi [car seat] in it and biked around. And then we had our second child and our first child could sit in the stoel (seat) and the second child was in the Maxi-Cosi.

Sometimes I would take four kids in the bak and go to the park or a playground. Of course, you can use it for shopping and all that. Later, we got a dog, a big golden retriever, and now we take the bakfiets to the Amsterdamse Bos and she loves that and we go running. Recently, we got an electric motor installed on it because my youngest son trains far away at Ajax. Now he’s got his own electric bike, but we still use it. To me it’s like the perfect substitute for a little car.

I have a little game that I play with myself: have I seen every kind of bike [scenario] that I can imagine? And the answer is always no. Like, how many kids can you put on a bike? You can have four kids in the bak and then there’ll be a kid standing on the bike rack on the back – and this is before the big electrification of bakfietsen. The other day, I saw a man biking a bakfiets and a woman was in the front breastfeeding.

I started playing this game after living in Amsterdam for around 10 years and seeing a bike that literally had a piano on it as part of the bike, and I just laughed out loud and I thought, OK, now I’ve seen it all.

How Dutch have you become?

I’m not Dutch, but I’m closer to Dutch than American, I would say, at this point. I think it’s because when I hear stories about the United States, it starts to feel more and more like a foreign country that I don’t quite understand.

When I worked in the Netherlands, every day at work we’d meet for lunch together, the whole group. You’d have maybe a 30-minute lunch, then you’d have coffee, maybe go for a little walk… When I went back to the States to work for a while, everybody was literally eating their sandwiches at the computer! I once suggested to the department head that we go for lunch and she sort of looked disoriented. And we did go for lunch and it was kind of fun, but also a little bit strange for everyone. I think the Dutch work very hard, but there’s a structure to it, and when it’s time for coffee, it’s time for coffee.

Which three Dutch people (dead or alive) would you most like to meet and why?

The first thing that jumped into my head was three Dutch artists − Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Mondrian as my favourite painters are probably all Dutch. You think of artists as flamboyant, emotional and sensual, but the Dutch are not really like that, yet they have been tops in painting in several different eras, which is kind of remarkable.

I was picturing a sit-down meeting together where they were all comparing notes and talking about painting. I think the meeting would have a very strange atmosphere. They were very different artists, but they were all building on each other, so I think – going backwards – they would be very reverential of each other; but they are all very quirky in their own ways, so it might just fall apart!

I think I would ask them: What is it like to do what you do? What is the experience like of making a great painting? Are you experiencing a lot of frustration? Is it great for the viewer, but terrible for the painter, or are you having these incredible experiences because you are so deep in the process?

What’s your top tourist tip?

My top tourist tip would be camping in Zeeland, for the overall feel and the endless wide beaches – just so much water and so much coastline.

I went camping with my son and our dog on the north coast of Walcheren a few years ago. When I think of the trips that I’ve taken, that was maybe my favourite. It’s a very touristy place, I think, in the summer, but we went there off-season. The beaches were basically empty, but it was still warm enough that we could camp and we went to restaurants and took long walks and it was very nice.

Tell us something surprising you’ve found out about the Netherlands.

I’ve been happily surprised about how many ways kids can connect to other kids, at least in Amsterdam. My kids have many different social circles: their friends from basisschool, from their football club, from middelbare school, from the neighbourhood. Because they can easily bike around, all of these different groups intermingle.

If you had just 24 hours left in the Netherlands, what would you do?

I’m not sure I would do anything different than what I do on a daily basis. I really like my daily life. I like getting up and going for a run in the park, going to the studio, teaching… I just really like the feel of living here.

Find out more about Alexander Technique and Pilates classes at Smartbody.

Patrick was speaking to Deborah Nicholls-Lee

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