To Federico Cheri, the Netherlands is the European equivalent of the American Dream: the Dutch Dream. If you come to Holland and you work hard, you can become anything you want.
In High School on Sardinia, Federico met and fell in love with a Dutch girl. When, at age 22, they were still in touch and she invited him to come and check out the Netherlands, he did. Now, six years later, he is on the staff of the -Corporate Banking Department of ING Barings. And he owes this to no one but himself and the bosses who hired him from the day he started working – one month after arriving in the Netherlands.
Getting a job
“Getting a job is so different here, from in Italy,” he says in amazement, “In Italy, thousands apply for a particular job, you have to write an essay and this and that and show how knowledgeable you are and two months later, they tell you that someone else was hired for the job, who just happens to be the director’s son. Here,” he goes on to say, “it does not matter whether you have the right education, or whether you are the director’s son or not – they give you a chance. They are willing to make something of you!” Federico was amazed that, even though he had no experience or any education in the area of banking, they hired him, asking him what he wanted from life and what he thought he could contribute to the department and stimulating his voluntary choice to follow various internal banking-related courses. In Holland, if you are entrepreneurial, you can become anything you want, says Federico.
Dutch with an accent
Federico is every schoolgirl’s fantasy of an Italian, dark hair, dark brown, lively eyes, and an enthusiastic story teller with an accent that would make the reading of the annual accounts sound fascinating. “Oh dear,” he says with a dismissive wave of the hand and an apologetic smile as he hears himself on tape, “that accent.”
But “that accent” speaks perfect, faultless Dutch. In fact, upon the question what he would recommend anyone coming to the Netherlands to do, it is to learn the language. After arriving in the Netherlands, he took a 30-lesson course in Dutch and from then on went to the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam to take two more courses in Dutch. “After that,” he says, “you learn every day, working in Dutch and going out with Dutch friends.”
And that is another thing Federico does with a passion. Go out. His colleagues are amazed at the things he finds to do and wonder how he knows all that’s going on. He particularly loves the North Sea Jazz Festival. “I go there every year!” he states enthusiastically. Our photographer looks at him with curiosity, “How long have you been living here?” he asks. “Six years,” says Federico. “Oh,” says our photographer with consummate Dutch logic, “So you’ve been there six times.” “No, no. Okay,” answers Federico, atoning for his enthusiasm, “I’ve been there three times now. The last three years. But this year I will go again!”
The weather gods
Federico loves living in the Netherlands – except for the weather. “Last year,” he says, “we had no summer! And the rain! If it is raining, you take an umbrella, only the wind is blowing so hard, that the umbrella blows out of your hands or turns inside out. It is as if – you know – there is someone up there who is playing with you. And he is saying ‘If it is raining, you will get wet!’” And he points an admonishing finger at the imaginary umbrella-toter. The perfect world would be a mix of Sardinia and Holland, according to Federico, “The Netherlands, with Sardinian weather. It is 25 degrees there now, you know,” he says, as he turns up the heat. However, Federico does think that the Dutch owe their culture of “gezelligheid” (a word that has no equivalent in the English language and that means cozy and homey) to the climate: they don’t live out in the streets, but at home, where it is warm and cozy and pleasant.
Making an appointment
What is totally alien to Federico, is the need for an agenda to make a social appointment. “You don’t just call and say ‘hey, let’s go to a movie tonight’, no, you have to take out your agenda and make an appointment – most likely for two or three weeks hence. ’Over twee weken heb ik wel een plekje’”, he quotes (I can make a spot for you in two weeks). “In Sardinia, if you make an appointment to meet in three weeks, you forget.”
What is it like to work with the Dutch? They are very direct, Federico answers. In Italy, if you make a mistake, no one wants to tell you so. Here, on the other hand, they are quick to point it out – and they mean it well, it is just that they want things to go as they should. But if you come from abroad, this can be difficult to deal with as you might take it personally – on the other hand, if you have been living here a while, you start to do it too. And it has its advantages: things are clear and though it makes the Dutch seem critical, it also means they are willing to discuss the matter when it comes to criticism of their own work. They want to know what the points of criticism are and do not become angry as they would have in Italy. Things are not too black and white and they are willing to search for a solution as they are very flexible and easy, Federico continues. Things are very different in Italy and though he rather likes the resulting vagueness and chaos, it is the rules, clarity and honesty that make him feel at ease in the Netherlands. And Federico feels so at ease in the Netherlands, that he considers himself to have become Dutch “Ik ben gewoon een Nederlander,” he states matter-of-factly.
Another thing that pleasantly surprises Federico, is the manner of communication between superiors and their employees.
A few weeks ago, there was a video conference with the Head of ING -Barings. This man had spoken to his employees in a manner that was understandable to all: direct and simple. Though the man is English, Federico attributes this approach to the Dutch business culture. In Italy, says Federico, the boss would have made no such effort: he would have spoken for an hour and no one would have had any idea what he said. “The man would have said absolutely nothing. No one would have understood what he said. I wouldn’t have understood what he said. And I speak the language.”
What Federico likes about Amsterdam is the fact that though it is a big (and international) city, it feels like a town. He has never felt threatened here, contrary to big cities such as Rome, or London, or Milan. “You can do and be anything you want,” he says, “and you will not be judged on the fact that you are different, as there as so many ‘different’ people in Amsterdam.” If Federico is offered an opportunity that he should not miss – in terms of career – to go back to Italy, he might consider it. Otherwise, for the time being, he is here to stay.
Making friends is easy in Holland, says Federico. “Maybe that’s because they are amused by my accent,” he suggests with a self-deprecating grin. It is easy to make contact in the Netherlands, though Federico has to admit that he thinks it might be easier for those who speak English and appear to be of English-language origin than for those who have a different accent. He has not always been approached in a very friendly manner, but – says Federico – not all foreigners who come here are very courteous themselves, so that he can understand the attitude of the Dutch. Federico simply makes an effort to prove that he is not like they might think he is and he feels this is best achieved by being honest and clear – and level-headed. “I am from a different culture and I should not take their reactions personally,” he says. “For instance, I like to talk, but the Dutch do not always have time to listen to my stories and they might give me the feeling that I should not hang around too long. That’s okay. And if they ask ‘How are you?’ I should say ‘Fine,’ and leave it at that. In the beginning, I did not know that: I actually answered their question. And if they say ‘Hey, Federico, pizza-baker!’, well, I laugh: they are making a joke … Which is nice.”
Rijksmuseum and kroegen
As always, our last question to Federico was what he advises you to do, to become acquainted with the Netherlands. “First of all,” he said, “Visit what you know is there and what you feel you should visit: the Rijksmuseum – I am talking about Amsterdam now, of course – the Van Gogh Museum… you know, that which is Holland and is unique for Holland and that you should see. Then,” he smiles broadly, “You visit the kroegen (bars). And not just once. Again and again. That’s how you make friends. That’s how you find out what is going on. That’s when you start to have fun.” Well, if there is one thing you can say about Federico; it’s that he is having fun. ■