Interview with an expat

What’s your name and where do you come from? Can you tell us something about your hometown/country?
My name is Selvei Topping, that’s the easy part. Where I come from is a more difficult question to answer! I was born in London, to South Indian parents. I also spent a lot of time living and working in Cyprus. Everyone knows something about London, but Notting Hill, where I grew up, I love because of the diversity – a beautiful blend of different characters, cultures, all shapes and sizes. And everyone is made to feel welcome!

Where do you live in the Netherlands? What is one of your favourite things about where you live?
I live in Wassenaar, and I really appreciate that it’s peaceful, quiet and green. It has a village feel and I can get just about everything I need without venturing further afield.

What’s your job or business?
I’ve over 25 years’ experience in HR and now head up the People, Talent and Culture team at CC7 Europe, a global EPC+ company based in The Hague. I really enjoy the fact that I’m helping a really diverse team to come together and realise their potential. It’s very rewarding.

When was your first time in the Netherlands? What were your first impressions or what was special about that first trip?
Surprisingly, I first visited the Netherlands on the day I arrived here to live, in February 2015. Having come directly from Cyprus the first thing I noticed was how dreadfully cold it was, but over the first few months I also began to really notice and appreciate the greenness of the Netherlands, compared to the arid landscape of Cyprus.

What is the nicest thing about the Netherlands? How does this compare to your country?
I don’t really have a single country to compare the Netherlands to, based on my upbringing, but what I really appreciate about the Netherlands is the directness of the people, and the freedom we can give our children as they grow up. Giving the same freedoms in the UK would be a real challenge. Opportunities, such as being able to cycle everywhere, we just couldn’t give our children in London. Also, being part of mainland Europe means we can jump in the car and go anywhere without the same level of planning as when you live on an island.

Besides the weather, what is your biggest pet peeve about the Netherlands?
I’m used to spontaneously catching up with friends in the evenings, but restaurants and cafes close so early!

Do you have Dutch friends? How do you meet Dutch people?
I don’t really like to choose friends based on their nationality. I do have a really international network though, as the people I’ve got to know are from my children’s school, my work and my very expat-heavy neighbourhood.

What do you like about Dutch people? What don’t you like?
I feel they are a tough egg to crack, but once cracked they’ve a soft centre. While this gives the impression that they are not welcoming, when I interact with the Dutch community I often find the opposite is true.

What’s your best advice for new expats to make friends?
Sign up to classes, take up new hobbies, participate in school-parent activities, volunteer. Take opportunities as they come up, even if they push you out of your comfort zone; but by being in a new country you’re already a little out of your comfort zone so I expect that means expats are generally open to this.

Do you have a favourite restaurant in your city?
I love Paco Ciao in Leiden, Encore at the beach and in Wassenaar, I also really enjoy eating at the Italian restaurant Brunello.

What’s your favourite Dutch store?
De Bijenkorf because it reminds me of Selfridges in London. I could happily lose a whole day, and a whole lot of money there!

What do you like to do on the weekends?
Sleep. My weekends are usually taken up by watching my son play football, catching the odd concert, dinner with friends, hanging out with friends. In the evenings I like to watch horror movies too!

Who is your favourite Dutch historical, cultural or famous person?
It has to be Van Gogh because he led a very gothic, tortured life. And of course I love his artwork. My favourite piece is Undergrowth with Two Figures because it’s so haunting.

What would you recommend a visitor to do and see in your city and in general in the Netherlands?
Take in the culture, the architecture, the history, the museums, the galleries and the greenery. There is so much to do here! Great concerts too, which has really surprised me. I really take advantage of what’s on offer!

What is your favourite Dutch food? And what Dutch food do you dislike?
I love Luciano’s ice cream (which I suppose is Italian, but I really enjoy eating it here!). Herring, on the other hand, I can’t imagine anything worse. I know many people really enjoy it, but I don’t like fish in general, and herring just seems to me to be the fishiest of fish!

Do you celebrate Dutch holidays? Which one is your favorite?
King’s Day is absolutely my favourite. I enjoy browsing the items for sale, but it’s mainly about the good vibes that come along with the day. And invariably the weather is good, and if not, everyone seems to have a great time anyway!

What famous Dutch place should new visitors or expats definitely go see?
The town of Leiden is so beautiful and varied. It’s nice whatever time of year you visit. It’s got history, music, canal tours (which I’ve done several times), or you can even hire a boat yourself and enjoy a slow trip through the canals – you just have to remember to duck under some of the super low bridges.

Best-kept secret in your city?
I’m still waiting to be let into the secrets … either that or I’m keeping them a secret! If pushed, I’ll say ‘the beaches’.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew before you moved to the Netherlands?
The logistics of sorting the health insurance and systems, but you live and learn. Also, if I’d known I’d have been here this long, I’d have learnt the language straight away. Now it’s almost embarrassing to say I need to learn beginners’ Dutch. The longer you stay, the harder it gets to take that first step! I’ve lived there for 8 years, but my Dutch is still “niet goed”.

What are a few things you recommend to new expats here in the Netherlands?
Well, based on my last answer, I’d say trying to familiarise yourself with the language is actually pretty important; it helps in so many ways with integrating into a new country. And reach out to make new connections and create your own network, so you have support and don’t get too lonely. Get to know your neighbours too; invite them over for a drink when you first arrive, that way you show you’re open to new friendships.

Thanks for the interview, Selvei.

Interviewed by Marla Thomson