“The Netherlands is not as liberal as you think”

Photo: Dutch News

American journalist and author Nina Siegal has been in the Netherlands since 2006. She loves the joy and freedom cycling everywhere brings her, would have liked to meet Aletta Jacobs and recommends tourists absorb the old-school energy at Amsterdam’s former NDSM wharf.

How did you end up in the Netherlands?
I came because I had a Fulbright scholarship to write my second novel which was about Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp and I had a year of funded research with the world’s greatest Rembrandt scholar, Ernst van der Wetering. I immersed myself in 17th century science, art, philosophy and everything that was happening in Amsterdam in 1632 so I could reconstruct one day in the life of Rembrandt van Rijn and why he painted this portrait.

Then I got another grant to come for a second year and finish the book. I was about to go back to New York when I got offered the job to launch Time Out Amsterdam magazine. I did that for four years and by the time that ended, I had bought an apartment and I was having a child and so I became a freelancer and stayed.

How do you describe yourself – an expat, lovepat, an immigrant?
I feel like an immigrant sometimes because my daughter is constantly correcting my Dutch. I don’t feel like an expat because to me that is someone who came for two years and did not bother integrating. You know, I actually feel like a New Yorker who has been living here for a long time.

How long do you plan to stay?
I really don’t know. Sometimes I would like to leave.

Do you speak Dutch and how did you learn?
Yes, I speak Dutch. When I first moved here I took two years of intensive Dutch but then I realised  I did not need to know Dutch, so I stopped. Later I took a wonderful course with a guy who taught using drama and dance, so we learned a lot of conversational Dutch.

Then I had a relationship with a Dutch man and his kids did not speak English so I started using it at home. And a couple of years ago, when I enrolled in a PhD programme, I went back to the same school I started with. A private teacher helped me do a couple of book presentations in Dutch, which was insane.

What’s your favourite Dutch thing?
I love the fact I can bike everywhere. There is so much freedom and joy in that. You don’t need to own a car like in America. And I love the fact you can take your dog anywhere, into cafes or a restaurant. It’s a very friendly culture towards animals. When I go back to New York in the summer, I am always shocked at how you can’t take your dog with you.

How Dutch have you become?
Someone else would have to assess that for me. I would be very happy to be a Dutch citizen but it would mean giving up my American passport and I am not going to do that. I want to be able to go back there with ease.

I consider myself more an Amsterdammer than a Dutch person because to me they seem to be more internationally orientated, politically progressive, culturally experimental and open-minded. All the things I came here for.

Which three Dutch people (dead or alive) would you most like to meet?
At the moment I would like to meet Aletta Jacobs because I am researching a new book about contraception. She was amazing and inspiring, and one of the worldwide pioneers in the birth control movement.

Rembrandt obviously. He is one of the most inspiring figures in my life.

And I would have loved to meet any of the diary writers in my most recent book, The Diary Keepers. Perhaps most of all Philip Mechanicus, because he was, like me, a mid-career Jewish journalist when he was arrested and taken to Westerbork. He was able to put together one of the most incredible documents about the end of Jewish community but sadly died in 1944.

What’s your top tourist tip?
There are so many. Don’t avoid the Rijksmuseum. It seems like an obvious choice but you really have to go there. It’s a world class museum with the greatest collection of Old Masters, apart from maybe the Mauritshuis. I love the Mauritshuis as well.

I also send people to the NDSM [in Amsterdam Noord]. It’s outside the main city, its pioneering and crackling with energy. It feels more like the old Amsterdam than what you see in the city centre these days.

And rather than the Anne Frank House, I would send people to the Holocaust Names Monument. It’s so beautiful and powerful. The Anne Frank House is moving experience but I object to the way she has become such a tourist draw without any context.

Tell us something surprising you’ve found out about the Netherlands.
The Netherlands is not as liberal as you think. Certain elements of government policy are radically liberal like incarceration rates, drugs policy and prostitution. But then there is a fundamental conservatism to the way that Dutch people deal with diversity, inclusion and racial politics. There is not a consciousness about racial injustice here which I would have expected.

If you had just 24 hours left in the Netherlands, what would you do?
I would panic. What would I do with my dog, my house, my furniture? There is no way I could leave in 24 hours.

Nina Siegal was talking to Robin Pascoe.

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