(Editor’s note: All images are courtesy of George Gottl and UXUS. Please send us your nominations for future Dispatches expat profiles at [email protected])
After 18 years of living in Europe, how does California-born, U.S.-resident George Gottl feel about ever returning to America?
He half-sputters, half-guffaws, “Hah!”
I think I heard the words, “I will never go back to the U.S.” (And this was before the election!)
Really? What is it about his current situation in Amsterdam that he prefers to the land of his birth?
Let’s begin with the medical system. Then the gun laws. Then the civility of his adopted city. The ease of transportation. The tax system. The urban infrastructure. The cost of living. The open and accepting lifestyle. The value system. The proximity to the major capitols of the world.
Following a dream
Gottl, now the proprietor of Amsterdam-based UXUS, an international retail design and consulting firm, was born in Orange County, Calif., and in 1998 was working in Beaverton, Ore., the creative director of Beaverton’s largest employer – the one with the swoosh on its buildings.
The opportunity opened up for Gottl to head up Nike’s new European operations, in Hilversum, about 20 miles southeast of Amsterdam.
How did he feel about the transfer?
“I asked for it!”
Apart from the fact that it was an interesting opportunity to create a new category of Nike apparel for a new market, Gottl was following a dream.
“This was an opportunity to go and explore the world,” he says.
Explore the world, he did. He set up residence in Amsterdam, commuting for 40 civilized minutes twice each day. After a while, Nike moved Gottl to London for a few years. Then he went to work for Mandarina Duck, the Italian leather-goods company based in Bologna.
In 2003, Gottl decided to open his own design and consulting firm. And he chose, as his launching pad, not New York or San Francisco, not Seattle or Columbus, Ohio – but back to Amsterdam.
“We could have gone anywhere, but we chose Amsterdam,” he says. “They made it easy. The country is very entrepreneurial and company-friendly. It has some of the lowest tax rates in the world if you’re incorporated and, as a result, a lot of big companies are headquartered here.”
The international investment world loves Amsterdam, partly because of the fluency of language. “I still don’t speak a word of Dutch and I get around,” says Gottl. “In fact, I’ve been living here for 10 years and barely notice any language differences.”
So Gottl got his permanent residency status, and settled down as a Dutchman. He set up his office on Keizersgracht (“Emperor’s Canal”), around the corner from the Anne Frank House. It’s in a building erected in 1910 for the first insurance company building in Holland. He called his firm UXUS (“you times us”).
UXUS works in a surprising number of verticals including hospitality, fashion, design and travel. But the unifying value proposition is style … personal style, brand distinction and user experience. UXUS clients run the gamut from high-end hotels to global apparel brands to Volkswagen and even Ikea.
Gottl goes home to Bloemgracht (“flower canal”) – I guess it’s difficult to avoid canals in Amsterdam – in the area where paints used to be made and sold. Rembrandt was a customer.
“I live on a beautiful canal with gorgeous trees, surrounded by buildings that were erected in the 1600s,” he says. “I suppose it’s a cliché, but there’s a houseboat right outside my front door.”
The building itself is a converted industrial warehouse built in 1763. “I have an open loft plan, 2,600 square feet and my mortgage is $1,500 a month.”
So the quality and standard of living are better for Gottl in The Netherlands than in the U.S.: “With a lower income, I have a better life – it’s pretty much worry-free,” he says.
In other words, an easy-breezy transition from the West Coast of the U.S. to the West Coast of the Emperor’s Canal?
Not entirely, he warns:
If you’re a certain type of American – conservative, down-home, born and bred, the kind who insists there’s nothin’ like the good ol’ USA – the transition could be quite shocking. You won’t get a lot of what you always thought of as conveniences, like big supermarkets with aisles and aisles of products. Everything smaller’s, fewer brands, a lot less convenience foods.
I also had to get used to not having a car. I’m from California, I was born with a car attached to my hip. In fact, cars are very expensive here and the taxes to own and drive a car are high. But the public transportation is great. You can get around anywhere in Amsterdam by train – and, in fact, anywhere in Germany or France on trains. And I don’t have to show a passport every time I cross a border.
The trains are efficient and easy and go everywhere. And when you get off the train, taxis are easy – even in small provincial towns. “Or you can walk to wherever you have to get,” Gottl says. “Most European towns were built when people didn’t have cars, so they’re built to human scale, and everything is built around a convenient central square.”
And if you have to fly, he says, airports are all well-connected and beautifully built and designed: “Schiphol is a dream, an incredible hub, you can fly anywhere in Europe on a direct flight, and the KLM flights are always on time.”
Superb medical care
The biggest impact on Gottl’s life as a European has been medical care. A few years ago, an annoying black spot on the back of his thigh was viewed suspiciously by his neighborhood general practitioner, who sent him immediately to a dermatologist, who put him in an operating room that afternoon, where the melanoma was removed and autopsied.
“Three weeks later, the diagnosis returned ‘positive’ and the same area had to be entered and cleaned out,” he says.
And the cost of all that?
“Zero out of pocket,” Gottl says. It’s a subsidized medical system, and your primary physician is based on where you live. “It works like a dream. I pay $100 a month and am completely covered for no matter what happens to me.”
Plus, he says, “it’s nothing but friendly, attentive, efficient service. All the docs spoke English, all the nurses spoke English, and all the medications, antibiotics and painkillers came to me as needed. The hospitals are first-class, very modern, mostly brand new.”
So, Gottl says, don’t tell him about “the superior U.S. medical system.
“All that crap about socialized medicine is absolutely wrong. In fact, Americans have the shortest life expectancy of any developed Western country. And the U.S. has the highest mortality rate for women giving birth.
“You tell me that makes the American system better!”
The Dutch approach to life
He attributes much of that to the approach to life taken by the Dutch.
“Holland is very much the group mentality, a collective. Practically the entire country is built on water, so historically everyone had to contribute to holding the whole city up. If your neighbor’s building is falling apart, chances are your building will fall apart.”
He says it’s similar to the thinking in Scandinavia, where the climate is so extreme that anyone without resources, anyone left outside and not taken care of, will die. “So the thinking has always been that every single individual matters to the society and needs society’s help – the help of all of us.”
Oppose that, Gottl says, to the “rugged American individualism.”
“America’s DNA is built on the pioneer, the individual, sink or swim, make it on your own or the Indians will get you.”
As a result, Gottl says, Dutch cities are safe, with practically no crime, the streets are clean and there’s no homelessness.
For Gottl, the laid-back, tolerant Dutch view of the world was very important. “The Dutch were the first to accept gay marriage, back in the 1990s,” he says. “They’re light years ahead of everyone else. My partner and I don’t hide our lifestyle, we hold hands and hug just like any other couple. And the Dutch people just accept, it’s no big deal as long as nobody gets hurt.
“There’s not a scrap of prejudice here in any shape or form.”
In fact, he says, “When we go to the U.S., I have to tell my partner, “we’re not in Holland anymore, you don’t know who’s carrying a gun.”
Cutting-edge design … part of the European tradition
There’s much about The Netherlands that contributes to Gottl’s business success, too. “I’m in the design business, a creative endeavor,” he says. “Over here, they’re open and accepting of new ideas, so cutting-edge design has become very advanced and refined. It’s part of the European tradition – it’s seen as aristocratic.
“Europeans admire not money but education and refinement, a tradition that has been passed down for centuries. Here, a well-dressed, aesthetic sense is honored. Aristocracy bases itself on education, it’s in the DNA of the culture. Doing refined work is highly respected.”
There are practical aspects to his doing his business out of Amsterdam, as well. “We’re located in the center of our world,” he says. “All the European capitols are a couple of hours away. Dubai is six hours away, Beijing eight hours.
The longest business flight I’ve had to travel has been 11 hours to – guess where – San Francisco.”