Where do you come from and where do you live in the Netherlands?
I am from Edmonton, Canada. My Dutch husband and I met in Australia where we both were living with working holiday visas. We lived in Den Haag for two years and moved to Leiden in 2003.
What’s your job/business?
I teach literature and writing classes to children and teens. I have always loved reading, learning, writing, and helping people. My company, Tumbleweed Writers, gives me the opportunity to combine these passions.
What was your first time in the Netherlands?
My first visit was in 1996 while I was backpacking through Europe. Amsterdam was the only city I visited. Most of my time was spent meandering through the old centre and visiting the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum, and Vondelpark.
What is the nicest thing about the Netherlands?
I love how the country is so small and compact. There are many wonderful cities, villages, museums, beaches, and parks that you can comfortably visit in a day. And it is easy to travel from the Netherlands to the rest of Europe and the world.
This has been a lovely place to raise children. It feels safe. Our kids grew up cycling to the houses of their friends, roaming around the city centre, paddling in boats on the canals, and going on adventures with far more freedom than they would have had in Canada. During our visits to Edmonton, we drive everywhere. In contrast, we did not even own a car in the Netherlands when the children were young. We just used our bikes, cargo bike (bakfiets), and public transport to get around.
What’s the worst thing about the Netherlands?
It is small and compact and this has its downsides. When I lived in Canada, it was much easier to find a spot in the wild and spend the day feeling like I was the only person in the world. I am not sure I have ever had that feeling in the Netherlands.
Do you have Dutch friends?
Yes, I am fortunate to have quite a few.
What do you like about Dutch people? What don’t you like?
When I moved here, I noticed how my Dutch friends, family, and colleagues took really good care of themselves. If they were ill, they stayed home and rested. They did not bring their work home and took long holidays. They took the necessary time to be stronger and healthier. I admire this wonderful work-life balance.
In Canada, there was more of a culture of working through an illness or catching up with work during your time off. Once I had a fever and all I wanted to do was sleep, but I could not find a replacement teacher for my class in Montreal. Not wanting to disappoint my college or students, I boarded a four-hour flight and taught for five days. Since last year, the world is learning that this is not a good idea. But even before Covid, living here helped me have healthier boundaries.
It took a while for me to get used to the straightforward nature of the Dutch. However, it is something I have come to appreciate.
Do you have a favourite restaurant in your city?
I enjoy Waag. The restaurant is in the old Weighing House, a public building where goods were weighed. It was built in the 17th century and has gorgeous architecture.
Where do you prefer to relax in your city?
I like going for walks in Cronesteyn Park and the Hortus Botanicus gardens. Both places give me a sense of peace.
What’s your favourite Dutch store?
My favourite stores are bookshops. De Kler is one I visit frequently. If you have young children, Silvester is worth a visit. Mayflower is Leiden’s English bookshop.
What do you like to do on the weekend?
Trips to the beach, reading, watching movies, biking, and catching up with friends.
Who is your favourite Dutch person?
But if I had to pick a person in the public eye, I would say the historian Rutger Bregman. I like his inquisitive and positive view of the world. His perspective on William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies, a book about a group of British boys trying to survive on a deserted island after their plane crashes, was a heartening paradigm shift. In the story, the teens descend into selfish, cruel, and violent behaviour. When Bregman read the book as a schoolboy, he believed Golding’s dark view of human nature. But when the historian grew older, he learned more about the author and started to change his mind. Curious if there had ever been a real-life situation with deserted teens, Bregman unearthed an Australian article from 1966 about a group of six boys from Tonga that had been shipwrecked for fifteen months. In contrast to Golding’s fictional depiction, the true story of these stranded teens is one of cooperation, competence, and caring. Bregman writes about this fascinating story in his book, Humankind: A Hopeful History.
What would you recommend a visitor to do and see in your city in the Netherlands?
Roam the old streets of Leiden, visit the market (Wednesdays and Saturdays), see the Burcht castle, the museums such as Naturalis, the National Museum of Antiquities RMO, Boerhaave history of science museum, and the Ethnological museum, and the Hortus Botanicus. And rent a boat to see Leiden from the canals.
What is your favourite Dutch food? And what Dutch food do you dislike?
My favourite is kibbeling, fried battered fish. I am not a fan of bitterballen.
Do you celebrate Dutch holidays? What is your favourite?
We celebrate King’s Day. The activities happen right outside our house and my kids would wake up in the wee hours of the morning to claim their selling spot.
Where do you like to go out?
These days I like big open spaces like the beach and parks.
What famous Dutch place should you really go and see?
There are so many! It’s difficult to choose, but I’ll go with open air museums. The ones we visited most often were Archeon, Zuiderzeemuseum, and Openluchtmuseum.
Best-kept secret in your city?
When I first moved here, I did not realize the strong connection Leiden has with the American Pilgrims. Some of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower originally left from Leiden after having lived here for some years. There is even a theory that the idea of Thanksgiving originated in Leiden where the Pilgrims witnessed 3 Oktober, the annual Leiden festival celebrating the end of the Spanish siege in October 1574. On the fourth Thursday of November, the Pieterskerk church holds a Thanksgiving Service honouring this historical Pilgrim bond.
Photo: Simona Graszl
Interview: Marla Thomson