There are often things one wishes they knew before they moved to a new country. With a touch of humour and a hint of hindsight, Tracey Chalmers, a British expat living in the Netherlands, shares some of her insights about what to know before you move to the Netherlands.
Although my neighbours are all barbarians,
And you, you are a thousand miles away,
There are always two cups at my table
I read this many years ago in a poetry compilation that was supposed to save my life. I remember thinking how noble and romantic to live through such turmoil and still be offering the hand of friendship. Well, as an expat you get to live that poem, you get to be noble and romantic. Perhaps the Dutch aren’t actually barbarians (although those who have eaten bittenballens disagree), but your new home will become a place of welcome for friends who travel thousands of miles and for neighbours alike.
But, before you set off on your noble and romantic adventure to the Netherlands there are a few things you should consider first.
It is going to be stressful – Packing and organising a move to an unfamiliar land is going to age you. You will lose hair (if it hasn’t already gone), keys, your way, your temper and several photograph albums. You will want to blame those closest to you – don’t. Always, always remember to blame the situation and never each other. If you’re making this noble adventure alone, don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong, for you are already a hero just by tackling the voyage alone.
You need to be open-minded - Leave behind your addiction to Tetley’s Tea bags, Coronation Street and British pubs, the equivalent I guess of baseball and hotdogs if you’re American. Embrace the Dutch obsession with public celebration instead. Such as Queens Day ‘Koninginneday’ a national holiday held on 30 April, when everyone, including you, will wear orange. My favourite celebration is the South Netherlands carnival, ‘Vastenavond’ that arrives with the glacial air of February to alarm the newcomer. For several days the streets will be teeming with sparkling lights and flickering bunting. You will be surrounded by party people, dancing, singing, and drinking while wearing togas, or dressed as cartoon characters, some even encased in pea green lycra. The climax of this carnival arrives with colourful, flamboyant street parades. Don’t hide in your apartment, grab your camera, put on a silly hat and join in - even if you are British.
Learn some Dutch before you arrive – I suspect unless you are linguistically gifted you’re not going to master Dutch before relocating, but it makes sense to practise a few handy Dutch phrases. The ones I’ve found most useful and am now fluent in are:
- Dank u wel - Thank you (use it all the time)
- Alstublieft - Please (Keeping forgetting this one)
- Tot ziens - See you later
- Dag - Bye
- Het spijt me, ik spreek Nederlands niet zo goed - Sorry I don’t speak Dutch well (My best phrase)
- Je Engels spreekt? - Do you speak English?
- Ik begrijp ja niet - I don’t understand you
- Ik spreek Nederlands als een baby - I speak Dutch like a baby
The last phase is particularly useful when you’ve been in the Netherlands a while and your guttural accent outshines your vocabulary.
Be careful choosing accommodation - In Breda, for example, a two-bedroomed apartment rents for around 1,000 euros per month. The apartments are offered as furnished, unfurnished or shell. Beware, you get nothing with a shell, it’s what it says on the packet - no flooring, no white goods, not even a cooker, no light bulbs (remember your torch). You might assume you’re getting a bargain by renting a shell, but by the time you’ve finished in the Dutch equivalent of Carpet World, your relocation budget will be seriously depleted.
Take heed: A luxury apartment within your budget could be a mirage, as it could either be miles out of town or next door to the local drug rehabilitation centre.
One final warning: Check your prospective new home out at different times of the day. That quaint little café beneath the window might turn out to be the open mike venue for alternative music on a Friday night. Don’t assume it won’t happen to you – it happened to us!
Adjusting to transport in the Netherlands – The trains are good, if a little temperamental and pricey. The 50 euro discount card for train travel gives you and up to three travelling companions 40 percent discount and pays for itself pretty quickly. You can do nothing to improve the temperament of Dutch trains, although I recommend breathing exercises. I don’t think you need a car in the Netherlands, but if you do decide to drive you will need quick reflexes, the pesky bikes are everywhere.
It is the bikes that rule the roads; they also rule the pavements, the pedestrianized areas and some parts of the forest. It might take a bit of getting used to, but persevere and learn to travel by bike, not only will your fitness improve, you’ll be doing your bit for the environment and will within a few months start to feel super cool as you cycle hatless through the cobbled streets, shopping stacked in your wicker basket, mobile in one hand, umbrella in the other.
Should you import your car to the Netherlands - NO, especially if it’s a left hand drive, not only will you struggle to be able to sell it again, but you will have to pay a small fortune to have new right hand drive lights fitted. You will also have to pay a relocation company several hundred euros to help you with the mountain of paper work for the RDW, and the local RDW depot will feel like your regular hangout you spend so much time there. If you still think you’d rather keep your own car it is important to note that in the Netherlands road tax (Motorrijtuigenbelasting) is weight dependant, so if you drive a Land Rover, even a small one, well let’s say it’s not good.
How good is the healthcare – I think the healthcare is excellent, but you pay for it. The few doctors I’ve met speak perfect English and appear to allocate generous time slots for patients. Dentist, I’m told, are difficult to find, although we had no trouble and like the doctors their English is perfect. Be advised though that the Dutch are tough, it is uncommon to administer anaesthesia for a small thing like a filling. If you want pain relief you will have to pay extra for it.
Before we relocated I was advised to buy top up health insurance. Don’t bother, the insurance company will back date and charge you from the date you arrived in the Netherlands no matter how much you plead. While we’re on the subject of health insurance, check your policy carefully; sometimes it is better to pay slightly more in the long run as basic policies are exactly that, basic.
The Dutch are very straightforward – Be prepared. When you first arrive in the Netherlands it’s likely you’ll be welcomed into your local expat community. This is where you may make most of your new friends; you’ll find people like you who are experiencing the same challenges, who understand your jokes, your homesickness and your frustrations. Sooner or later though you are going to poke your head out of your little expat community and start making friends with the Dutch. Their candour can seem a little alarming at first, be assured that they are not trying to offend, it’s more a need for clarity, the Dutch like to get things right. The Dutch, as well as being candid, can also astonish with their openness, it won’t be long before all kinds of bodily functions crop up in conversation, including sex. When this happens, and it will happen, forget that you’re British (if you are) and don’t look at the floor. If you can’t join in the conversation, at least look interested and remember it is the 21st century!
How easy will it be for the trailing spouse to find work – I’m told, but I’ve not experienced it myself, that it’s not easy; the opportunities, however, improve if you speak Dutch or live in the larger cities. The Dutch have an excellent work/life balance. If you do work in the Netherlands try to adopt it along with the cycling and guttural phrases.
The unexpected – The shops in the Netherlands are usually closed on Monday mornings and the streets resemble a ghost town – I often wonder if this is to recover from the weekend parties – the Dutch do like to party.
The Dutch provide areas to use as dog toilets, they also pay a man with a special machine to go into the doggy toilets and suck it all up. If you own a dog you will pay 90 euros a year for this luxury.
You will learn to love bittenballens!
If some of this sounds a little daunting and you are thinking of putting your adventurers shoes neatly back in the box and hiding them at the bottom of the wardrobe under the plastic foot spa. Think about how you will feel many years from now as you watch your final sunset. Do you want to remember a mundane life or a life in which you had the fortune to be noble and romantic and drank tea with the barbarians?