Spreading happiness, one pancake at a time
Adventures, travel and salted caramel are everyday terms to Willem Dieleman, a free-roaming adventurer bringing the iconic Dutch pancake (a little thicker than its cousin, the crepe) across the world. Jamie Sussman met up with him in the colourful, grafitti-adorned Görlitzer Park, located in the heart of Kreuzberg. Just that previous Saturday, Willem had hosted a “Pancake Adventure” at the very same park – complete with a DJ and a bunch of intrigued park attendees curious about the makeshift pancake stand. In this interview, he talks about how Pancake Adventures was started, his travels around the world, the philosophy behind the concept of sharing, and his upcoming book.
Can you tell us more about the story behind Pancake Adventures? How was it started?
Well, I left my previous job, my love life fell apart and I had to leave the house I was living in. So I gave everything up, went to Istanbul and thought to head eastwards – maybe to Beijing. The plan was to feel figured out after six months – or so I thought – but by then I was only in India. I was really frustrated at the beginning, constantly looking for a purpose. I had always made pancakes, as it’s the only thing I can cook. Everytime I hosted international friends at home, I would cook them pancakes. So I thought, why not bring a part of my culture with me when visiting various parts of the world, and give something back as a thank you for their hospitality? So my cultural profile at the time was, “Willem makes pancakes”. One time, when I was looking for a room in Dubai a girl said to me, ‘Wow, I see you that you’re traveling around the world with a frying pan in your backpack”. And that moment helped me create Pancake Adventures.
So what does sharing mean to you?
The sharing part for me is unconditional – that’s why pancakes are ideal as they are super small, easy to make and cheap. I have some pancakes with me now, even! (opens bag of pancakes)
If you share something, you don’t need anything in return – you can create something beautiful out of just the act of sharing.
That’s the basis of the human experience. Psychologists have said that sharing is the key basis of human happiness.
Do you feel like that in today’s digital climate we are super polarized? How do your pancakes break the mold?
Just traveling makes me realize how isolated I used to be. I thought I was an open-minded, worldly guy. But in Turkey, I was really afraid to talk to people and skeptical of everyone. If you travel, you have to talk to people otherwise you’re stuck in a hotel room or taxi all the time. You have to interact and open yourself up to people outside your bubble – and that creates an exciting experience and feeling. With the pancakes, there is an interaction and a form of sharing; through mutual acknowledgment, it’s a contemporary form of equality.
What was the most challenging place you visited?
Pakistan was the most challenging. Because we are a globalized society, we often think traveling is really easy. Fast food chains like McDonalds or Starbucks are key symbols in capital cities, because they’re something everyone can relate to. Pakistan, however, was a culture shock. While a lot of people spoke English, it’s a hard place for backpackers and tourists to visit, as there is no real infrastructure there just for the purpose of travelling. To stay at a hotel or hostel, for example, foreigners often need a particular international license or document. It was a dangerous country then, and I think it is slightly getting better now. There were certain instances – such as when I arrived and met my host, we had to walk to his office rather than take a motorcycle, because there were new laws in place due to shootings that had taken place recently. It felt very adventurous, and I often felt like I was the only foreigner in the country. But then I was in the mountain region, and while walking up the mountain I found 10 Japanese tourists who wanted to take pictures of people.
What was your favorite place to travel?
Iran – it’s a place where nothing is allowed and everything is possible. The people want change, and often attempt to do sneaky, very rebellious stuff. While the people there are liberal, the government is super restrictive, so that discrepancy makes for a very interesting experience. I also love Nepal, because of its beautiful scenery and landscapes.
Why was it important for you to come to Berlin?
I wrote a book after my travels originally published in Dutch, and it now has a German edition. I’m here promoting this work! I thought while I’m here, why not organise some pancake adventures? It’s a fun way of getting to know people and organisations, including Give Something Back to Berlin.
What’s your book about?
The book is about the first six months of travel. How Pancake Adventures started, and how I the process of soul-searching went. It’s also about the difficulties of finding yourself. Ultimately, pancakes are the easy part.
Did you find the meaning, then? Or do we have to buy the book to find out?
(laughing) The pancakes are free, but the book is not!
With 2000 followers on Instagram, what does it mean to share your passion for pancakes and sharing across the world?
I must say I am not very good at social media! It’s very good to share what I did last week. People love seeing instances of sharing that don’t try to make reality better, but are more real. I don’t like posting about normal things such as what I eat – I want my channels to be about sharing, and about beautiful moments.
How can anyone get involved in your mission?
They can follow me, and if I am in their city, we can organise an adventure together! My mission is not individual. I hope to inspire people to find a project that is simple and easy to do, and to open up possibilities for people to share something with others. In the end, I hope it will create many beautiful things. The book and my mission, ultimately, is about giving back by using something small.
Final and most important question: what’s your favourite pancake topping?
Cheese and salted caramel with pepper! When you make the pancake, you put the cheese on top and then flip it so the cheese is grilled, fried and folded on the outside. Put salted caramel on top and a crack of pepper, and enjoy your tasty treat!
I will definitely have to try that combination of flavours. Thank you so much for this interview, Willem!
Edited by Abeera Atif. Header image credits: Bregje van de Laak.