Abraxas Lifestyle had recently met the former Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, H.E. Alphonsus Stoelinga at his residence for an exclusive interview.
How long have you been in India?
I’ve been here since August 2012, so it’s been almost 4 years now.
How long have you been in India?
I’ve been here since August 2012, so it’s been almost 4 years now.
Is this your first visit to India?
It’s my first visit to India for work but I have been here twice before. I first visited India in 1990 for a meeting in New Delhi as a part of the Dutch delegation. The second time was in 2005 when my wife and I came to meet our son who was in India as part of a one year exchange programme with the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow. So he was studying for a year in Lucknow. We visited him during Christmas and then we took the train from Lucknow to Agra and then to Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Jaipur and India. So yeah we did travel a lot.
How was the experience?
It was very special. First of all, we were sleeping in the train so we got to meet lots of people.I must say the architecture of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Agra, Jaisalmer with all of the forts was absolutely fantastic. I had already been to Agra before but this was the first time for my wife. Also, it was very nice because initially there had been some mix-up with our bookings and we could not board the train. So we had to buy new tickets for another train and after asking about what would happen to the money I had already spent on the Train ticket for the train that we missed, I was told that the money had already been transferred back into my account since I had paid by card. Sure enough, when I got back to Holland the money had been refunded as soon as I had bought the new ticket. I was pleasantly surprised since the money isn’t refunded this quickly even in Europe.
What sort of picture did you have of India before you came here?
We didn’t have a picture or any set idea when we came here. Our son had chosen well when it came to the cities we visited and instead of picking the big hotels he picked the haveli kind of hotels – very nice and quiet places. Even in the case of the restaurants – in Agra we went to this restaurant that had only two tables! The place was very small and the electricity went off in the middle as well but the food was absolutely fantastic.
So you wanted to experience the tradition and culture ofIndia…
Yes, without being too touristy. That’s why we took the train. Out of the 15 days, we spent about 5-6 nights in the train and one time I remember that before we boarded the train, some people came to us and said “Do you mind that the whole train has been booked by our company for an outing?” I said “No I don’t mind”. So the people of that company were with their families and friends and there was even an astrologer.
Did he predict something nice?
He told me that I would come back to India – which turned out to be true because we did come back in 2012.
What else did he predict which you think has come true?
I don’t remember. He said that I would become very rich, but that didn’t happen (laughs). I am still waiting for the rich part, but the coming back to India part happened.
What other changes did you observe, especially in the case of the people?
One of the things I didn’t realise back in 2005 was that half the population is younger than 25 years old. That was still the case when I returned in 2012. So if you go to Connaught Place and take a look around the metro station, most of the people are between 20-25 years of age. The average age in India is 29 years old so it’s a very young country and young means change. The people who vote now, vote for performance. They want the government to create jobs for them. They want to start a family and what do you need for that? A job. This is one of the main things that I have noticed.
Normally when we talk to people from overseas, they tend to say that India is all about spiritualism, yoga, etc. Did you have any specific picture about India?
Yes many people think like that. But it is changing now. If you look at Holland, we have many big companies from our country that came to India in the last 100 years like Philips, Unilever and Shell. But after 1990, India started to free up its economy and by the year 2000, big companies from India came to Holland like Tata Steel, Infosys, Apollo Tires and the like. Many of them are there now. Secondly, there are a lot of students – Indians are the second largest group after the Chinese. There is a lot more exposure now.
What about the cultural differences and similarities between the two countries?
I think in terms of family, if you compare India with Holland, family plays a big role. Holland does differ from Greece and India in the family aspect.
But now changes are taking place…
In India the family structure and infrastructure is changing. But we should not compare the two because how can you compare how we live in Holland to how we live in India or China? Why should we compare in order to say that we should be like you or you should be like them? Let everybody have their own culture, which is fantastic. Diversity is amazing because it would be very dull if you go from country to country and everybody thinks the same way. The call of India is so different. If you come as a tourist, you don’t see a lot. You see the outside and that’s it. Our case is different as we have lived here for 5 years. So we have an enormous advantage to try and understand what is happening behind the façade. But it is still difficult.When you live here, you can say that things will happen in a certain way. That way, you can predict things because you understand how things work. But understanding what is inside the head of a person is still difficult. You have to be an Indian to understand how it works. And then if you practice art, you can also give your own interpretation of what you think it is.
Which other places in India have you visited?
I go to many places for work. We have also visited some of the old Dutch ports in India. We once went for work to the Kumb Mela in Ujjain – that was very interesting. We did a research project on crowd control on how to prevent a stampede. Sometimes people go over to one side and 30 people are killed because of the dynamics of the crowd. So how do you predict the crowd’s reaction and prevent people from being killed? This is our project and we did it with drones, satellites, tracking devices and had a lot of students involved in it. It was very nice to see all of them so motivated by this project. But it was even nicer to see the peaceful gathering of 60 million people. The day we were there, there were about 2.5 million people. We went to the police station and saw how well they were keeping things in check and all of the preparations.
Everything was very well thought out. And because they were collecting the waste in such an organised manner, nobody was throwing any of the waste. Everything went smoothly because everybody was involved.
Do you like Indian food?
I love the food in India but you have to be careful not to eat too much (laughs).
Do you have any favourite restaurants in Delhi?
Yes quite a few. One thing that is really nice is this bike tour in old Delhi. They always start at 6 in the morning and you get to see everything being prepared – be it the spices or the textiles in that area and the tour ends at Karims. That is a really nice restaurant. We also tend to eat at a number of restaurants in the neighbourhood; there are so many nice restaurants around here. I also like Cyber Hub in Gurgaon. It is like Connaught Place with a lot of restaurants.
Do you know about Indian fashion designers as well?
Well there was a fashion show with (designer duo) Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna. We know them because we had a fashion show on the Embassy grounds. What was very nice was that we have trees in the compound and they had put denim around the trees so it was like a huge pair of jeans standing there. It was really great and there were a lot of other designers there too.
If you were not an ambassador, then what would you have been?
Well I would like to be an architect (laughs). You know, what I like about the job of an ambassador is that you come in contact with so many different people. However, if you’re an architect, you will be talking to people about structures, engineering and money all the time which is also interesting.
When did you become the ambassador? How did it happen?
I started my journey as a diplomat in 1980. I first studied architecture then graduated in economics in business school and then I worked for Orcomm for 3 years. It was very limited as a job and I thought of breaking out. I was looking for other options like the World Bank. In the end, one of the options was to go for diplomacy which I did. I spent a year in training and then they send you every four years to a different country. Then I became an ambassador in 1995. I had already been in Ghana as that was my first posting. Then we went to Athens.
When did you get married?
I got married in 1978. I joined the Foreign Service in 1980 and our first posting was Ghana for two years. Our postings were very short. Of course when you are young, they want to put you in many different embassies to see how you are. I was in Athens for 3 years where our son was born. I went back to Africa and Zambia and subsequently to the Netherlands where I was responsible for the World Bank Ministry. Then I was in Brussels with the Netherlands embassy to the EU and then my first ambassador posting was in Mali. After that I was in Jakarta where I was the Deputy Secretary General and then the temporary acting Secretary General at which point I had to manage the ministry. After that was Rome and then India.
What would you say about your journey? How have you evolved as a person?
Well Dutch people are very difficult to change (laughs). It has been a fantastic journey. We always say that we are literally gypsies. We jump from country to country and that way, you see much more that the tourists of course. I’ve met Mr Modi, other ministers, decision makers, people in companies, journalists, Indians on the street… So you can compare all the information about India that comes to you and can make a fantastic picture for yourself.