Jonathan G. interviewed Geert Sillevis following a guided walking tour through Amsterdam conducted by Geert.
LMJ: You have Dutch-sounding names and you live in Amsterdam, and yet you were born and grew up in Portugal. How did that happen?
LMJ : The first thing anyone listening to you would notice is that you speak English articulately and with a pure Anglo accent, in very idiomatic English, and at great speed. No-one would imagine that you were not born and bred in the United States. But in fact you were born in Portugal to Dutch parents and later moved to Holland. Can you tell our readers more about that?
G.S.: I grew up in a very international community within Portugal. There were at least 5 English-language international schools in the area. The common language was English. My parents briefly attempted to teach their offspring Dutch, but it proved too confusing for the young brains that were at the same time learning English and Portuguese. Since Dutch was considered the least useful language at that point, it was dropped. My parents did retain it as their secret language, however. They would speak Dutch to each other when they had something to discuss that the kids weren't to know. I only began to learn Dutch after moving to the Netherlands for University (where my courses were also all in English).
Many people find the 'Dutch boy born in Portugal but speaks English' story to be amusing and confusing, but it was very common where I grew up. We all watched a lot of American television and movies, which gave us the idioms. As for the high speed at which I speak, I suppose that comes from being the youngest of four boys. It was the only way to get my piece in!
LMJ: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have the strongest possible command of English or of any language other than that spoken by the local population?
G.S.: Something many people notice when they visit Portugal is the relatively high level of English spoken there, especially when compared with neighbouring Spain. The main reason for this is that Portugal doesn't dub English language television or movies, whereas Spain does. That means that the Portuguese have a lot more contact with the English language. So my advice would be - watch television!
LMJ: You moved to Utrecht at the age of 19. Which studies did you pursue?
G.S.: I attended University College Utrecht. It was the first American-style Liberal Arts College of the Netherlands. There are now University Colleges in many Dutch cities. My studies centered around History, Literature and the Performing Arts, with many little things on the side. My Major was Humanities.
LMJ: Can you rank the languages you know, in order of your spoken and written command of them?
G.S. : English is first, native in speech and writing. I am fluent (but not native) in spoken Portuguese, but I find it very difficult to write it. My Dutch is always improving - I would consider myself relatively fluent now. Again, I struggle to write it (written Dutch is quite different from spoken Dutch). I speak near fluent Spanish, or rather, Portuñol, which most Portuguese can speak. I don't have much occasion to write in Spanish. And last and least, I speak some French, at least enough to get by when travelling in Francophone countries.
In Amsterdam, it's possible to live for a long time without ever needing to speak Dutch. People here are eager to speak English.
LMJ : You work as a tour guide for a leading tour company in Amsterdam. But you are an independent contractor. Do you see this as your long-term career or as a stepping stone?
G.S.: I just turned 30, so these are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night. Honestly, I thoroughly enjoy the work. I enjoy meeting people from around the world and telling stories. The freedom of having my own business (the wonderful Get Lost Tours) allows me to pursue my other interests, such as writing, travel, acting and random bouts of creativity. I have written and directed a few film projects. I hope to continue to use my work as a way of funding my hobbies. Also, I like to use my background in guiding to create new things. For example, a partner and I set up Zeyto Games, and we design treasure hunt/escape room puzzle-type games that are played so as to explore Amsterdam and Lisbon, solve puzzles and learn the cities’ history all at once!
LMJ : As a tour guide you share many historical points about Amsterdam and Holland in general. How in-depth is your knowledge of Dutch history? Do you have to keep up reading on these subject?
G.S.: I love to read Dutch history, I love to visit museums and fortunately I have friends who love the same things so we're often sharing stories. I would say I have a relatively deep knowledge of Dutch history, although it's definitely Amsterdam-centric.
LMJ: What other professional activities have you pursued alongside your work as a tour guide?
G.S.: I have worked as a travel writer (which was not as fun as it sounds). I hosted a radio show for a year and I've done some work as a voice actor. Four years ago I was hired to set up the Lisbon operation of one of the tour companies I work with and spent 9 months doing that. As I said above, I started designing city-wide games. Less professionally (i.e. things I am not paid to do), I write stories and perform them, and I'm currently working on a children's book and very, very slowly working on writing a musical.
LMJ : How do you compare Lisbon and Amsterdam as cities to live in? Is there another city you would like to live in?
G.S.: Lisbon is changing rapidly so I might be very out of date in my impressions. It is becoming quite the tech hotspot - it's very cheap to live in, the people are extremely friendly and the food is the best in Europe. The climate is incredible and it is incredibly beautiful. I choose to live in Amsterdam because it is so international and the standard of living is very high. That means you have lots of creative people with the time and the resources to engage in their passions. That makes it easy for me to find illustrators, composers and designers to work with on my little projects. The only downside here is the terrible weather, which I can live with. Amsterdam is fun and friendly, unbelievably safe and very small. I'm a small town boy at heart. Honestly, I'm always surprised that more people don't come live in Amsterdam. It's as close to a perfect city as I've ever seen. That said, should the opportunity arise, I'd love to live in New York or San Francisco, both cities I've spent some time in.