Sunday 05 December 2021

‘In the sunshine, the free ferries over the IJ are a great tourist tip’

Tudor Lomas grew up in the UK and spent more than ten years in the Middle East before moving to Amsterdam with his family. The former BBC journalist and presenter now works as a media and development consultant. He has just released a book titled about surviving the lockdown, says he has become very Dutch and will only leave the Netherlands in a box.

How did you end up in the Netherlands?
We didn’t have a lot of choices in the end. My wife is Dutch, and she has a son who, back in 2009, was in his early teens. At that stage, we were living in Jordan. We had reached a point where we determined that this young man needed to come back to Europe. One afternoon, he rang us up and said, ‘We’re sending my friend’s driver over to collect my swimming trunks.’ It wasn’t the first time either. We realised it’s a different way of life over there. It’s great and you can enjoy it, but you shouldn’t get used to it at such a young age. That isn’t a normal or reasonable thing to do.

We were running a media development project based in Jordan and made the decision to return to Europe. We looked at the options. The UK, at that stage, was a possibility, but certain parts of it are very expensive. We looked at France, which was quite enticing, but the reality in the end was that Amsterdam is the best city in Europe, if not the world. So we decided to settle down in Amsterdam and get on with it.

How do you describe yourself – an expat, lovepat, immigrant, international?
I’ve thought about this quite carefully. I consider myself an international. One of the huge appeals of living in Amsterdam is that you can be an international person. One of the categories you don’t have listed though is European. I also consider myself a European, which is quite subversive for a Brit to say these days. I feel very much at home in Amsterdam and the Netherlands.

Part of me genuinely feels that Brexit was designed to screw my life up. We were living a life that was absolutely wonderful. We were spending part of the time in the UK, part of the time in the Middle East, and part of the time in Amsterdam. A lot of people talk about the Dutch being standoffish and distant and all the rest of it, but that’s not what we’ve found. We have wonderful friends here and a way of life among people who try to get on reasonably well with everyone.

How long do you plan to stay?
I think they’ll be able to take me out of here in a box eventually. This feels like where I belong, it’s very simple. You can argue that the food is better in France, that the views are better in Italy, and the alcohol is cheaper in Spain, but I just feel completely at home here.

We have no plans to leave. We still have plans to travel a lot, but we’ll always come back. We’ve got a lovely apartment, great neighbours, and a nice way of life.

Do you speak Dutch and how did you learn?
No I don’t and that was part of the deal at the beginning, quite amusingly. When we were looking into where to come, I agreed to come to the Netherlands on one condition: that I wouldn’t have to learn the language. With the work we were doing, my Arabic was at a reasonable level. My French is still sort of okay if I get it up to speed. I didn’t see Dutch as anything I would particularly want or need because the Netherlands was going to be a base for us.

The original plan was that the country wouldn’t be the core of our entire existence. We’d be travelling a lot and living in the Netherlands. I also used to get frustrated back then because the Dutch we encountered were less good at English than they kind of pretended to be. But now the Dutch have given me permanent residency, I feel the need to work at the language finally. The people I know kind of understand and say that the kind of conversations I would want to have in Dutch would require me to study the language for ten years.

What I have is a good defensive argument against learning Dutch. When I wasn’t here all the time, it didn’t make a lot of sense. Now I have been here all the time for the last 18 months, but I was writing a book and doing a bunch of other things. I’m coming to terms with whether or not I should be learning the language.

There is some guilt there, of course, but what do you do when you have limited amounts of time? I also have the real problem of, if I start speaking a bit of Dutch, people will reply to me in Dutch, or they won’t understand a word I’m saying. I think it’s better to be very straightforward and honest. I’ve been more focused on my Arabic and French.

What’s your favourite Dutch thing?
Polderen, because I think the Dutch have so much to teach to everybody. Polderen is about accepting the best deal for everybody and putting up with something that might not be perfect but it’s good enough. At the end of the day, that’s more important than self interest and grabbing your own success and your own victory.

I think the Dutch are very good about that. Look at what’s happened in Britain with Brexit and its impact over the past two or three years. I recently saw some figures that state that only 37% of the electorate voted in favour of it. That’s not much more than a third and they destroyed a country by doing it.

That couldn’t happen in the Netherlands or another country with proportional representation. Here there’s such a strong belief that we’re all in the same boat together. If the dikes start looking a little crumbly, we all go over there and we will all start digging. It doesn’t matter if you’re a king or god knows what, you make sure that things are safe for everybody. This is, by far, my favourite Dutch thing.

How Dutch have you become?
I think I’m very Dutch. One example is that I was utterly and strongly in favour of and defending the whole concept of an intelligent lockdown, even before it was voiced as such.

You give people the facts and you give them the information, accept that this information will keep evolving and changing, and keep informing them. Then you leave it up to them to make the right, sensible decisions for themselves while taking into consideration the safety and security of everybody else. That, to me, is an indication of how Dutch I’ve become.

The other side of it all is much more mundane. I don’t get too irritated when people answer the phone in precisely the same way. I’m supposed to say ‘met Tudor.’ I never say that. I typically say something different pretty much every time. We’ve never eaten a meal, day after day, at precisely 6 o’clock in the evening, although my wife has explained to me that this is done to keep families together. Everybody has a meal together, which I think is wonderful. That regimented side of the Dutch way of life doesn’t have a massive appeal for me, though.

We live in Amsterdam, so we can skirt around the regimented bit, but be understanding of it, because there are over 16 million people all living on a river estuary. You need a few rules to make things work one way or another. I think I’ve become very understanding and appreciative of the Dutch and very grateful to them for everything they are and have embraced me with.

Which three Dutch people (dead or alive) would you most like to meet?
Desiderius Erasmus.
He was a humanist even back in the 15th and 16th centuries. He saw that the whole business of dogma was no real answer to anything. You need to create a philosophical framework for individuals and give them freedom and decency and a way forward. He wrote a book titled In Praise of Folly and that seems to suit me quite well. We make mistakes, we’re human, and we do the best we can. He was a foundation figure in Dutch society. 

Baruch Spinoza. His wisdom on the Enlightenment was way ahead of his time. He refused to get dragged down by dogma at a time when there was a hell of a lot of intolerance around. He was an advocate of using your brain to open up ideas and encourage people to think and have confidence and be decent human beings.

Vincent Van Gogh. There was a dogma and a way of doing things in the art world that he blew apart. He put on the canvas what he saw. He had the confidence to trust himself and his own understanding of what was going on and conveyed something that was mind blowingly liberating for everybody.

What’s your top tourist tip?
Assuming there’s a tiny bit of sunshine around, I would tell them to take the ferries on the IJ. They’re free, and you can get on one over at Amsterdam Centraal. When you get off one, you can get on another, and just cruise around. They’ll take you up and down the IJ, and you’ll get to bump into Dutch people. Some of them are very busy but others will have time to have a little chat. You can get off the ferries, walk around, and you can begin to realise that Amsterdam is clearly a city where the water is absolutely central to what it’s all about. You’ll also get to see the film museum and NDSM, and it’s absolutely glorious.

Another idea is to walk around the islands nearby. There’s Prinseneiland, Realeniland, and others. You’ll find tiny little gardens that are open to the public. You can sit there, calm as can be, and right in the middle of a city. It’s a fantastic contrast from a busy city and the peace and tranquillity that you can find very easily here. It’s quite special.

Tell us something surprising you’ve found out about the Netherlands
It’s the second biggest agricultural exporter in the world. That’s absolutely mindblowing. It never even occurred to me that it might be. The United States is the biggest and the Netherlands is the second biggest.

If you had just 24 hours left in the Netherlands, what would you do?
Very calmly. I would sit in the window of our apartment for at least a quarter of that time, because we look down over the river and we can see straight toward Amsterdam Centraal. From around 11 in the morning to 3 or 4 in the afternoon, if the sun is shining it comes straight through the windows. We can sit there and sunbathe, which I did a lot of the time during the lockdown.

I would also spend some of that time just walking in our own little neighbourhood. We’re very lucky. People tell me it’s very, very unusual. We care about each other as a community here. Every few months, we have a little corridor party spontaneously. People make some food and we have drinks and chat. We know what each other is doing, but without being intrusive. It’s that wonderful balance between being supportive and giving people scope to do whatever they want and not feel in any way constrained. That, I think, is very special and quite un-Dutch, so we’ve been lucky with that.

With the other bit of time, I would drive up to Heerhugowaard where we have a little storage unit. It’s big sky country. It’s open and the light is different. It kind of shimmers. You realise how close the countryside is to the centre of Amsterdam. More than anything, I’d want to reconnect to the places here that mean a lot to me and I care about. We’ve also got a very nice pub here in the neighbourhood. I wouldn’t mind popping in there as well.

Tudor’s book, Just Drink the Bleach: Surviving One Year of Covid, Lockdown and FalseNews, is available via the Island Bookstore in Amsterdam.

Tudor was talking to Brandon Hartley

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