Famous expats in the Netherlands, past and present

Have you ever wondered which expats came to the Netherlands and not only thrived but became famous?

How did their time in the Netherlands change them? How did it affect their careers?

We take a look at seven interesting and well-known expats who did well in the Netherlands… because it’s always interesting to know the company you keep.

Marina Abramović, artist

Artist Marina Abramović, famous for her performance artworks featuring tests of endurance, called Amsterdam home during the 1970s and 80s.

Originally from Belgrade in then-Yugoslavia, Abramović moved to Amsterdam in 1976, where she lived and worked with West German artist Uwe Laysiepen, also known as Ulay.

During their time in the Netherlands Abramović and Ulay cultivated their artistic practices, performing at venues around the country including the Stedelijk Museum, Theater Carré and Museum Fodor, the building which presently houses Foam photography museum.

In one of her performances in July 1975, Abramović swapped roles with a prostitute in Amsterdam’s red light district for four hours.

While Abramović sat and smoked in a red light window (did she accept clients?) the sex worker hosted the artist’s exhibition opening at De Appel gallery.

Irvine Welsh, writer

After his iconic first novel "Trainspotting" was released as a film in 1996, and subsequent books "Filth" and "Ecstasy" topped bestseller lists, Scottish writer Irvine Welsh was so overcome by press attention that he moved to Amsterdam to escape the hype.

In Welsh’s own words, "I took off for two years. I went to Amsterdam and got a flat by a canal and lived there quietly."

From his time in Amsterdam, Welsh remembers the rowdy groups of British cops who would blow off steam taking drugs and wandering the Red Light District.

Welsh moved back to Dunfermline in Scotland two years later when his wife returned to study, and after the media attention had died down.

The city of Amsterdam also features regularly in Welsh’s writing, popping up at the end of "Trainspotting" when Renton runs away to the Dutch capital.

Yotam Ottolenghi, chef

Yotam Ottolenghi is an Israeli-born British chef and restaurant owner who put delicious vegetarian cooking on the map with his books "Ottolenghi" and "Plenty". Ottolenghi lived in the Netherlands in the 1990s after political tensions drove him to leave Tel Aviv for Amsterdam.

Moving to the city in 1995, Ottolenghi and his boyfriend lived in a small apartment on the Herengracht, indulging in plenty of parties, drugs and a carefree feeling after tense times in Israel.

In an interview with Vrij Nederland, Ottolenghi described his expat life in the Netherlands: "It was a wonderful time, without stress, the first time I lived somewhere where madness didn’t reign, where I didn’t feel in danger… The people on their bikes, drinking wine on the steps in front of your house. Amsterdammers were nice and hedonistic in the best sense of the word."

Although not yet working as a chef, Ottolenghi was already cooking, mostly for friends. Shopping at Albert Heijn, he memorised all the Dutch vegetable names. His favourite Amsterdam restaurants were Toscanini and Kantijl & de Tijger.

Did Ottolenghi gain any culinary inspiration from his two years in Amsterdam? A fascination with croquettes, it seems, which he channelled into a recipe for aubergine croquettes.

Obviously even a culinary sophisticate like Ottolenghi was not immune to the greasy appeal of Febo after a late night’s drinking.

Dave Clarke, DJ

Dave Clarke, an English DJ and producer also known as the Baron of Techno, relocated to the Netherlands in 2008 in order to advance his career as a DJ.

Originally from Brighton, Clarke fell in love with Amsterdam after performing at the Richter club on Reguliersdwarsstraat in the 1980s. He hoped that he might live in the Dutch capital one day and, after his career took off and feeling that he couldn’t grow in the UK any more, he decided to make the move.

What does the jet-setting DJ like about his newly adopted home? Clarke told DMCworld magazine that Amsterdam "has so many great things, an amazing way of life in the most beautiful setting, with a bloody great big and reliable airport 15 minutes away."

Since settling in the lowlands Clarke has become an important part of the local music scene. He ran a weekly radio program, White Noise, on Dutch radio from 2006 until 2012.

The DJ is also closely involved in the Amsterdam Dance Event, appearing on discussion panels and hosting "Dave Clarke Presents", a regularly sold-out night at the Melkweg.

René Descartes, philosopher, mathematician and scientist

Born in the Touraine region of France in 1596, Descartes joined the Dutch States Army (Staatse leger) at age 22 with the aim of becoming a professional military officer. While stationed in Breda Descartes studied military engineering and advanced his knowledge of mathematics.

After leaving the army and travelling to France and other European countries Descartes returned to the Dutch Republic in 1628 at the age of 32 when he joined first the University of Franeker (now disbandoned) in Friesland and then Leiden University where he continued his studies.

It was during his time in the Netherlands that Descartes produced many of his major works in mathematics and philosophy such as the texts "Discourse on the Method" and "Principles of Philosophy" in which he presented his famous proposition cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am".

During this period Descartes had a relationship with Helena Jans van der Strom, who worked as a domestic servant in Amsterdam. In 1635, while Descartes was teaching at Utrecht University, they had a daughter, Francine, who sadly died at the age of five from scarlet fever.

After 20 years in the Netherlands, Descartes moved to Sweden, where he briefly resided in the Court of Queen Christina until his death in 1650.

Steve McQueen, film-maker and artist

Born in London to parents from Trinidad and Grenada, Steve McQueen started out as a video artist making short films and winning the UK’s Turner Prize, before moving on to direct feature films "Hunger", "Shame" and the award-winning "12 Years a Slave".

Not unlike many expats, McQueen came to the Netherlands for love, moving to Amsterdam in the mid-90s to live with his partner Bianca Stigter, a journalist and former editor of the NRC Handelsblad newspaper.

It was Stigter who came across the original 1853 memoir by Solomon Nothup that formed the basis for "12 Years a Slave". She was so struck by the power of Northup's story that she dashed up the steep stairs of their home in de Pijp to tell McQueen this book contained everything he needed for the film.

When it was released "12 Years a Slave" won Academy, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards and sparked renewed interest and debate worldwide about the history of slavery.

Besides being his partner’s hometown, McQueen enjoys living in Amsterdam thanks to its "human scale" and "because it’s not London, it’s not LA, it’s not New York".

Queen Máxima of the Netherlands

Last but certainly not least, the Netherland’s very own Queen Máxima is also an expat, hailing from Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Before coming to the Netherlands Máxima Zorreguieta Cerruti studied economics and worked for international finance companies in New York and Brussels.

It was in 1999, at the Feria de abril de Sevilla in Spain, where the 27-year-old Máxima met 32-year-old Willem Alexander. When he eventually told her he was a prince she thought he was joking.

The couple started a tentative long-distance relationship, with the prince making regular trips to New York. When it became publicly known, their connection drew controversy as Máxima’s father had served as a cabinet minister during Argentina’s last military dictatorship.

Fortunately the couple eventually received the support of the Dutch royal family, and that of the Dutch nation. On March 30, 2001, Queen Beatrix announced their engagement and they married in Amsterdam on February 2, 2002. They have three daughters: Catharina-Amalia, Alexia and Ariane.

Upon the abdication of Queen Beatrix in 2013, Máxima became the first Dutch queen consort since 1890. She has become a popular and involved member of the Dutch royal family.

Over the years Máxima has built a reputation as an advocate for financial inclusion, working with the UN, the G20 and other organisations to increase access to financial services and education for the economically marginalised.

Did we miss anyone? Contribute to our list by adding any other well-known expats in the comments below.

Beatrice Clarke


Beatrice Clarke

Beatrice is a native Melbournian who moved to the Netherlands in 2009. With a background in independent publishing and fashion, Beatrice honed her understanding of Dutch language and culture working...

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