Today marks my 22nd anniversary in the Netherlands.
In three years I will have lived here longer than in the United States!
To commemorate, here’s a list of 22 things that I’ve observed, have been impacted by or love about my adopted country:
1. Cycling. The Dutch cycle everywhere. They cycle with one or two kids on their bike, with their shopping, with an umbrella and a phone or even with small furniture items from IKEA. They cycle with someone easily riding on the back of their bike, as if it’s nothing (it’s something; I still can’t transport anyone and don’t dare to ride on the back!). They are fanatical sports-cyclists but only the speed cyclists and small children wear helmets. There are tons of bikes here, in fact, there are more bikes than people in this country. As for me, I bike now pretty much everywhere and I have done so for a very long time. I don’t mind driving but it doesn’t occur to me to actually drive into town, hassle with parking and traffic and then even pay to park somewhere when I can just ride my bike. I also ride my bike when I physically feel like I can’t run. And I just have a “normal” hybrid bike, not a racing bike. I honestly don’t know if I could ever go back to a life without my bicycle. And – bonus – the bike theft rate is pretty high here yet, in the 20 years that I’ve owned my bike it’s never been stolen.
2. “Clean Eating” – although in the last decade or so, more convenience foods have become available here, it’s actually pretty easy to not eat crap here. We just don’t have the huge selection. When I first arrived in 1994 convenience foods hardly existed. Heck, the Dairy Guy was still coming round in a huge van selling milk and cheese products. Cereals available: 1, Corn Flakes. The rest was muesli and granola. The only frustrating part of not having as many convenience foods as in the United States (for example)? Many recipes I find call for certain products that just don’t exist here. So, I eat real foods. Minus the occasional fried thing. By the way, check out this OXFAM report – the Netherlands ranks #1 for having the most plentiful, nutritious, healthy and affordable food of 125 countries in the world.
3. Which leads me to the market; basically, all of your fancy farmer’s markets that sell really expensive beautiful fruits and vegetables? Here it’s where you buy fresh and organic (most is organic by default) and not so expensive stuff. Weekly. Sometimes even bi-weekly. Oh and you can buy more than fruit and veg. You can buy your dairy, nuts, fish, chicken at the market as well as herbs and spices. And if you can’t find what you want at the local market, you can go to the Asian or Turkish supermarket. At the market you can also buy supplies for your bike like locks, repair kits, tire pumps and bike carrier bags. I still have my tire pump I bought at the market in 1994!
4. Drugs – let me clear something up, most Dutch people are not smoking dope in the coffee shops all day. Yes, marijuana is tolerated and controlled but if you ask me, this is an income generator from tourists. Have I been to the coffee shops? Yes. Also the “smart shops”. However, it does nothing for me as well as nothing for the average Dutch person. You know who I see at the coffee shops? Americans, Brits and Germans…
5. Amsterdam – OK, we know, it’s the biggest city in the Netherlands. It’s the most visited by tourists and most expats (it seems) go to Amsterdam to work and live. However, Amsterdam is not all that. There are SO MANY cool places to discover in the Netherlands and it pains me that so many foreigners only stick to this area. In fact, I’ve been told by some that they’ll probably never come to where I live because there is no desire to travel that far (but it’s ok for me to travel, I guess). I never lived in Amsterdam, but I’ve spent enough time there (and worked there for 7 years) that I know enough. From my perspective it’s just too overcrowded from tourists and people are not as friendly as in other places. It’s also the only place where people will still respond to me in English even though I speak perfectly acceptable and understandable Dutch. There are good things there and I have good friends there, so I’m not slamming it; I’m just saying there are other cool places.
6. The Sea. I absolutely love living so close to the sea. I only saw the sea/ocean for the first time when I was 18 and have been in love ever since. When I lived in Den Haag I was very close and could cycle within 20 minutes to the dunes. I don’t go often enough but want to change that in the near future. And again, there is more coast to visit than north of Amsterdam. Like Zeeland! And again, not sure I could live somewhere that wasn’t within close access to the seaside.
7. Hills. Stop saying that the Netherlands is flat! It’s not! OK officially it’s the lowest country in Europe, but I swear it’s not all one level Yes Amsterdam (again) is at or under sea level. However in the East and the South there are hills. I promise you. I train regularly on hills. We even have a race called the Seven Hills in Nijmegen, I’ve mentioned it a few times on the blog. So, venture out of Amsterdam for a bit (or even the West) and come see what we have on offer here on the other side of the country.
8. Herring. This is really a thing that Dutch people love. Pickled herring with onions. “Hollandse nieuwe”. Every year a test is done to see which fish mongers have the best. I promised myself that before I was here 10 years I would try it. Believe me; I don’t need to try this again to know I do not like it. Bah. Fairly certain there is still a layer of oil on my teeth that can never be washed away now. Give me smoked eel instead (see, I have somewhat integrated), please.
9. Frites. All right who saw Pulp Fiction? At the beginning of the movie Vincent Vega is telling Jules about his time in Amsterdam and how they “drown” fries in mayo. I actually saw this film in Paris (of all places) only 3 months after I arrived in Europe. And I had to laugh because it’s so true. Not only that, it’s so yummy! And there are so many ways you can eat your frites. Make sure you know all the colloquialisms though – patatje oorlog can be different in different regions! You may actually want a patatje flip depending on where you order your frites.
*see #4 as well (and sorry, if you don’t like the f-bomb)*
10. Coffee. This country is ruled by coffee. If you make an appointment with someone (which you do, because we live by the agenda here!) many times it’s “for coffee”. If you pop ‘round to someone’s place you’ll immediately be offered coffee (but don’t pop ‘round unexpectedly! Agendas!!!). Out shopping on a Saturday afternoon? I bet you will stop for coffee somewhere. And coffee comes with a cookie. Just one. It doesn’t matter if your friend has a whole “trommel” full of cookies, you just.take.one. Also, don’t get coffee only for yourself in the workplace; you take turns going to the coffee machine at least once an hour to make sure everyone is sufficiently fueled.
11. Birthdays. If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s just go with the flow on this one. You don’t have to like it and you don’t have to agree, but going along with the birthday thing just makes life easier. There’s the dreaded “birthday circle” – basically, no matter how hard the host tries, chairs always end up in a sort of circle and you must balance your coffee on one knee and your cake on the other whilst chit chatting with the person next to you. Do not sit, however, until you have congratulated everyone in the room (even if they had nothing to do with the birth of the host). Take my word for it, just do this! If you congratulate everyone generically it could get you ignored, which makes the birthday circle quite unbearable! It’s just the right thing to do. Go around, shake hands and say “congratulations with the birthday of —“ Once you are seated with your goods you can commence chit chat. Usually your conversation will be about the weather, your/their vacation, work or kids. Unless you are like me then all conversations will be about running. When it’s your birthday you have the prerogative to not host a circle, however in some families this is frowned upon (i.e., the expectation is that you host something for your day). It is mostly expected, however, when it’s your birthday, to treat your colleagues at work to something nice (either sweet or savoury). Yes, it’s your day and you shouldn’t have to spend money on treats for everyone else, but this is just the way it is, folks. I spent about 10 years protesting this tradition and finally gave in. Check out this post Stuart wrote on Invading Holland about the Birthday Circle.
12. Dutch Directness. This is actually something that many expats complain about, that the Dutch are just outright rude sometimes. But actually, this is a directness that we just aren’t used to. It takes time and a bit of skin-thickening but eventually you understand that most of the time they aren’t meaning to be rude, they are just telling it like it is. Your response to this is also telling it like it is! That means you have every right to tell them that you don’t appreciate what they’ve said. I still struggle with this sometimes; my skin has become thicker but I still don’t like what often can feel like confrontation. By the way, dutch directness also means they may or may not ask some of the most private questions. You also have every right to tell them it’s private and you do not wish to talk about it with them. You may hear conversations within earshot about every subject under the sun, including childbirth details, poo (just how sick someone has been), vomit and other lovely biological themes.
13. Gezelligheid. There’s no way to describe this with an English word; gezelligheid is simply more than a word, it’s a feeling. It’s a night in with friends drinking beer and playing board games. It’s Boxing Day with the family all gathered around the table aan het gourmetten. It’s having your mates all together at the pub on a Sunday afternoon catching up. It’s an impromptu (difficult, because AGENDAS!!) BBQ because the weather is suddenly finally summer and you were able to get your family and friends to come ‘round. It’s an intimate dinner for two over candlelight. It’s more than “cozy” (how it’s often translated), it’s a deeper feeling.
14. Making Friends. By far the hardest part of living in the Netherlands. After 22 years I actually have a few Dutch friends. It’s not for lack of trying, but it’s just not like it is in the US. Here people have their friends from back when they were in pre-school. And they stick to those friends. They can be nice and pleasant and fun to be around – colleagues, for example – but they have enough friends, thankyouverymuch. Many of my friends are foreigners, however, since I joined a running group, that’s finally changed. Social media has also helped. Many of my Dutch friends actually have either lived abroad, travelled extensively, have a foreign parent or just are not “typical” (whatever that is) so if there are language issues then we can switch to English (or speak in Dunglish). To experience the real gezelligheid, it’s good to really be “in” with good Dutch friends.
15. Work – Life Balance. Here’s another thing that would be tough to give up. Here in the Netherlands I’m pretty sure the minimum amount of holidays you get per year is 20-25. That’s just holidays. If you are sick, then you stay home sick. And please stay home at least a week. We don’t want you bringing your germs here to the office! Sick time does not count against you and it doesn’t take away from your holidays. Need an operation and will be home a few weeks recovering? That’s fine. Your health is number one priority. Not only do you get vacation days but you also get 8% of your yearly salary as vacation money. So, here’s some cash, go take a few weeks off to refresh. (I have 41 days in total. Yeah. That’s almost worth never leaving the Netherlands).
16. Job Security. Here, if you don’t work for an agency or as a contractor, you usually have a contract. Could be 6 months. Could be a year. After 2 years on a contract you get a permanent contract. Even when you have a 1 year contract and things don’t work out, they can send you home, sure, but they have to pay you for the year or take you to court. Much cheaper to just pay you. Once you have a permanent contract it’s even harder to be fired. And it comes with a cost to the company unless of course you do something really bad. The thing is, when people have a secure feeling, they tend to not want to do bad things. They also don’t feel they are at risk if they do get ill or if they have to take time off. It’s normal. Companies just deal with it. Everyone knows the deal. Why should you be fired because you were sick? Or be told in a review that you were “unreliable” because you had a sudden illness (happened to me in Portland!). So, once you get a job, just do your best, be committed, take the time off you need, don’t take advantage and job security is one less thing you need to worry about.
17. Social programs and Health Care – let me just say I feel so lucky to live where I do. If I do end up without a job (in case my contract isn’t renewed) then I have good unemployment benefits. And health care, in my opinion, is amazing. While we do pay a chunk of change each month for health care, it’s nothing near what people in the US pay. From regular GP visits to physio, podiatrists, acupuncture, sports stress tests, the dentist and even surgery, I can honestly say I pay a mere fraction out of pocket compared to what it would be if I still lived in the States.
18. Weather. After 22 years I’m still surprised that this is a constant topic of discussion. Don’t we know by now that Dutch summers tend to suck? That’s why we have 25 vacation days. Go to Greece! The fact that I see people with their fall or winter coats on, though, when it’s not that bad, is simply ridiculous. But ok. I think they want to simply show off their coat and can’t wait until it’s really cold. And speaking of cold… I do have to laugh a bit when it’s winter here. After surviving several winters in Chicago, it’s pretty mild here. And every year we have the buzzing discussion of whether we’ll have the Elfstedentocht or not. To give you an idea… it’s not happened since ’97.
19. Flowers. A simple thing, but amazing how gorgeous they are here and how CHEAP. What you pay for tulips in the US is scandalous! Why don’t I buy flowers more often? Apparently the Netherlands provides 80% of the tulips in the world!
20. Travel. I’m convinced that I live in an amazingly central (maybe on the map it doesn’t look that way) place in Europe. It’s easy to pretty much get anywhere from here and not too expensive. Amsterdam is a huge airport hub for international flights, but I live an equal distance to Düsseldorf and have options from there as well as from Brussels. People wonder how I travel “all the time” and many times I do this by car or train. Also I know how to look for deals and am constantly scouring the internet for the best prices. If I still lived in the States I’m sure I would never be able to say that I went to Scotland, England, Ireland, France, Portugal, Greece, Belgium, etc., all in one year. And travel has really enhanced my life. It’s what I always wanted to do and I would have a very hard time accepting it if I couldn’t jump in the car and drive to Paris, for example, and be sitting somewhere along the Seine within 6 hours of departure.
21. History. I was in school a long time ago, so maybe it’s not fair to say that I didn’t learn much world history back in the day. I don’t think things I learned or certain events really had much impact on me. I don’t think that we really understand certain events until we actually see the impact it had on others. Maybe it’s just a personal thing. In the US we learn and we are told to “never forget” and we go back to our day to day lives. Being in the Netherlands, a country under German occupation during WWII, I experience it differently. There are more reminders. I go to the Czech Republic and visit Theresienstadt and, even though I knew it before, I get it even more. I go to Montenegro and I see buildings riddled with bullet holes. I meet people more often from Poland, the Baltics, Romania who tell me stories about what their lives were like growing up “behind the iron curtain” (and it’s not like what I heard when I was growing up). I go to places like Berlin and I see history all around me. This has really given me a totally different understanding and perspective.
22. My love. OK. So I’ve been in love before and I’ve had previous relationships and let’s face it, many people in their late 40’s have as well. There’s that cheese about finding the “one” or thinking you’ve found the “one” and going through loads of heartbreak (that you or others have caused; I’m not innocent) and thinking that you probably won’t actually find or even bother looking for the “one” anymore. Then they come along. So as long as I have my love, I will be where he is, I will go where he goes. If that means we stay here, that’s fine. Here’s to another 22 years. Everywhere with Ron is a great place to be!
Are you “from” somewhere different than where you live? Have you ever lived in another country?
i have spent most of my time in Friesland…but i loved what I saw! i cannot wait to come for a visit
come back soon!!!! I will show you all around Gelderland :)
Renee – this was SUCH an awesome blog post! I really enjoyed it and I learned a lot! As you know, I just moved across the country from everyone I know. I related to your #14 because it sounds SO much like Minnesota. Everyone has their friends from grade school on up and that’s that. We rarely let anyone else in and most people who are born in MN stay there with their friends and family for the duration. Most of my classmates still live in my hometown. However, coming to Florida, it’s so much different because no one is from here – everyone is from another (cold) state and it’s much easier to start up conversations and make friends. Anyway – I’m glad you found your spot :)
Thank you Heather!! I’m sure there can be a little culture shock no matter where you go, even in your own country. Even when I moved from Chicago to Portland, I had to learn to be a bit more polite (in Chicago we don’t stand in a tidy line to get on the bus, for example, but in Portland you do!), just as one example! Luckily many people still make this life change and figure their way through it. And it’s funny and interesting at the same time to open yourself up to new places, and even new countries!