“The straightforwardness I’ve acquired is not welcome back home”

Kélian Somon is a Cameroon-born French citizen who grew up near Paris. He now lives in Amsterdam, admires Dutch resilience and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last summer to raise funds for charity. 

How did you end up in the Netherlands?

During my studies in France, I heard about an opportunity to study abroad for a semester through the Erasmus programme. I thought it would be a good opportunity to improve my English and also help me avoid the difficult first semester of the second year some friends of mine warned me about.

My first choices were the US or the UK, but those destinations were reserved for students from another department. My second choice was the Netherlands because I knew the Dutch were quite good at English and I’d never been there. And this is how I ended up studying at Saxion University of Applied Sciences in Enschede.

How do you describe yourself – an expat, lovepat, immigrant, international?
I wouldn’t mind calling myself an expat. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I’m not getting the 30% tax ruling since I came here as an Erasmus student. But as a Cameroonian from France and having spent most of my 20s in the Netherlands, I like to call myself an Afropean.

I also recently registered with the KVK, so I’m now a zzp’er. That’s something I’m proud to call myself since March when I founded a conscious and fundraising clothing brand called We Are Glocals, which advocates the activist philosophy to ‘Think Global, Act Local.’

Shelter suits ready for distribution. Photo: Sheltersuit

To begin, a symbolic €1 from the profits was donated to a non-for profit. For now, the fundraising is dedicated to the Enschede-based foundation ShelterSuit, which manufactures coats that turn into sleeping bags for homeless people and refugees.

How long do you plan to stay?
Because I spent most of my 20s here in the Netherlands, it now feels like home, but I’m willing to be based in both in Amsterdam and another place. I have a partner and we would like to have a bi-coastal lifestyle because of the weather being quite capricious over here.

I would like to share my time with a different place and eventually even go back to Africa but ideally also keep a pied-a-terre here in the Netherlands. So it’s quite hard to say a number of years, but I’d say about a decade. 

Do you speak Dutch and how did you learn?
Een beetje. I have a love/hate relationship with the Dutch language. I feel that immersion is the best way to learn any language. It’s how I learned Spanish and English, for instance, but it doesn’t really apply here. I got some lessons from classes and have used Duolingo. My partner, who is Dutch, has been helping me so ik spreek een beetje Nederlands.

What’s your favourite Dutch thing?
It’s not really a thing, but it is something I’ve seen a lot in Dutch culture and it’s resilience. Biking to where you need to be whether there’s rain, hail, or whatever, I think that requires a lot of resilience. This is something that I truly admire and could or should be inspired by because this is a good quality to possess in sport or life in general.

Photo: Depositphotos.com

This was proven to me on my 30th birthday when I finally reached the summit of  Kilimanjaro. I was climbing to fundraise for ShelterSuit. Because Kilimanjaro is 6,000 metres high, I decided to raise €6,000 for twenty Sheltersuits that could be delivered to people in need. So far, €1,000 has been raised and I am planning on creating more content online for people to help fundraise either through my GoFundMe campaign or We Are Glocals.

How Dutch have you become?
I like to call myself Afropean but I would say that I’ve managed to extend my ‘Europeanity’ by living in the Netherlands because it has also given me the opportunity to live for a year in Spain. So being in the Netherlands has definitely influenced me, but I turn down my Dutch side whenever I’m back in France.

The straightforwardness I’ve acquired here is not necessarily welcome in my hometown. Some of my family now consider me a bit more rude because I’m less patient with playing the ‘beat around the bush’ game that is a big part of most French interactions. So, along with the resilience, I would say this is how Dutch culture has most influenced me.

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

Pieter van der Does. He is the founder of Adyen, my current employer. We have had two introductory conversations, but I would love to pick his brain and ask him about the journey he has undertaken, which could help me further prove my entrepreneurship skills now that I’m a zzp’er.

Gloria Wekker. She’s an Afro-Surinaamse-Dutch professor at the University of Utrecht and a writer who has focused on gender studies and sexuality in the Afro-Caribbean region and diaspora. I’ve seen her a couple of times since we happen to live in the same area and she’s basically a neighbour of mine. But I would be quite shy to approach her. I know how knowledgeable and charismatic she can be, so I would love to have the courage to actually interact with her.

Gloria Wekker. Photo: Jan Boeve ANP

Afia Anim. Last but not least. She’s a multi-talented artist who also advocates for active healing awareness in the community. She founded something called ‘Freedom Through Healing.’ It was a benefit concert that also gathered a group of healing experts as well. They had their first session at the Noorderkerk and it was amazing, so insightful. I was just so inspired by her work and her presence. I’m looking forward to the next one. She also has a GoFundMe campaign to help improve access to therapy and healing community spaces in Ghana.

What’s your top tourist tip?

This really depends on who is in front of me. I will only speak for Amsterdam in this case. I think there’s an Amsterdam for everyone, but I would advise anyone to go and meet strangers at one of the events hosted by the School of Life two Sundays of every month. It’s a place with a great vibe, very gezellig.

It’s a great place to meet people and they have card games with very insightful and well formulated questions that will help you talk with strangers. After that, I would say they should go enjoy a drink at Zoku in Amsterdam Oost. It’s not too far away and they have a rooftop greenhouse and bar on the sixth floor with a great view.

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

The remaining not so well known difference between Holland, the Netherlands, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. That’s something I learned during my studies in Enschede. So wherever I go in France or elsewhere around the world, I bring this with me. In France, they tend to use Holland and the Netherlands interchangeably, but that’s not technically correct. I’m surprised it’s not better known.

Willemstad harbour on a sunny day
Curacao is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Photo: Nelo Hotsuma via Wikimedia Commons

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

Because the Netherlands is so dear to me, I thought of spending those 24 hours in different places. I would have my breakfast in Enschede, my lunch in Deventer, and my dinner in Amsterdam with some walking around, obviously, in those three cities. When it comes to Amsterdam for the end of the day, that would include a homemade ginger beer from Waterkant and an apple pie from Winkel 43.

I would begin the day in Enschede because that’s where everything started for me in the Netherlands. Deventer is where I completed my bachelor’s degree and it’s a really cute town. Amsterdam is where I am now and I think it will be the last chapter of my stay here. It’s where I began working for Adyen, it’s where I became an Afropean, and it’s where I became a zzp’er and a homeowner. I also met my partner here. There’s been so many different things, so I would definitely need to end the day here.

Kélian Somon was talking to Brandon Hartley.

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