Spotlight on a contributor

What is your name and where are you from?
My name is Benjamin Roberts and I’m from the United States.

 What is your business or what do you do?
I am a historian, translator and writer. I teach history and journalism for an international summer school program at the University of Amsterdam. Also, I write for tourist magazines and translate books. Next to my ‘sitting’ work, I also teach indoor cycling and yin yoga classes. It’s a little bit of everything, but I really enjoy the diversity.

 When was the first time you were in the Netherlands? Was it fun? Was it an adventure?
My first visit was when I was sixteen years old. My family came for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary (my grandparents are Dutch), and we took a candlelight cruise through the canals of Amsterdam. It was love at first sight. During that two-and-a-half-hour boat trip, I decided that I wanted to live here and study this country’s fascinating history. Three years later, I arrived at Schiphol Airport with all my worldly belongings stuffed into two suitcases.

 How long have you been writing for The Holland Times?
I have been writing for Holland Times since January 2013.

 What attracted you to be a contributor to The Holland Times?
After publishing my last book Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Dutch Golden Age, I wanted to write for a wider audience on being an expat in the Netherlands. Even though I’ve been here a long time (since 1985), if you haven’t grown up in this country, you can still feel like a foreigner. But it’s a good thing. I have the privilege of viewing things as an outsider, but with inside knowledge. The Holland Times is an ideal way to share that.

 What is the best thing about writing for an expat magazine with such a wide circulation?
Besides the diversity of getting to dive into completely different subjects, The Holland Times is a great opportunity to write more in-depth and informative articles. Unlike a daily newspaper, in which the journalist can only sketch the mayhem of the day, sometimes leaving the reader feeling helpless and bewildered, The Holland Times provides readers with more background information in its articles.  

 Do your friends/family in your home country read your articles?
I don’t know, but more family members are asking me how they can move here

 What subject is your favorite to write about?
Writing about Dutch culture and art. I can literally go into trance staring at Vermeer’s paintings.

 Is writing a hobby or an aspiration for you? Do you write for your regular job or studies?
I write every day. Currently I am finishing a history book entitled The Other Dutch Golden Age. Fatherhood in Times of War, Pandemics and Lousy Plumbing that I hope to publish next year. It addresses how fathers raised their children during the many wars and numerous plagues of the seventeenth century. The similarities with the plague in seventeenth-century Holland and the current Covid pandemic are uncanny. Amsterdam alone had 23 major outbreaks! And after every lockdown ended, people came out with new ideas, and the economy soared. That is one of the reasons why it was the golden age. I predict the same will happen after the current pandemic. We will experience a new golden age. Oh sorry…. I’m getting off track… yes, writing is more than a hobby for me.

Who is your favorite writer? What genre do they write in? Or are they a journalist, scholar, etc.?
Hands-down, my favorite writer and scholar is Simon Schama. His sentences are like Baroque architecture, ornate and grandiose. They should be read out loud like poetry. And his analysis of Dutch culture is still spot on. I highly recommend The Embarrassment of Riches. An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age.

What do you like best about the Netherlands?
It never ceases to amaze me how practical the Dutch are. It permeates all levels of society, from social interaction and being brutally honest to the sciences, with a group of students from the Eindhoven University of Technology coming up with the first solar camper van, and Boyan Slat’s Ocean Clean Up, to rid the world of its plastic soup.

What do you like least about the Netherlands?
I know it’s a cliché, but it’s the endless months of overcast skies, when you look out the window and don’t know if it is 10am or 5pm. That gets me down. Maybe the tech students in Eindhoven can come up with something?

Where do you recommend a new expat or visitor to see here in the Netherlands?
The major cities are musts, but also the off-the-beat places like Hoorn and Enkhuizen are hidden jewels.

Best kept secret in your city?
Amsterdam, where I live, unfortunately doesn’t have any secrets, but I can tell you what is ‘the cherry on the cake’. Strolling at night along the Reguliersgracht when the houses are all lit up. Pure bliss…

Looking back, what do you wish you knew before you moved to the Netherlands?
When riding a bike, stopping at a red traffic light is optional. Having said that, look twice, three times, and even four times before crossing.

What are a few things you recommend to new expats here in the Netherlands?
With more than 400 museums in the country, get a Museumjaarkaart (Dutch museum card), and knock yourself out. This country is an art mecca. Not into art? Join a gym. In most major cities, classes are taught in English. Sports is an ideal way to connect with other people would normally not meet.

Interview by Marla Thomson