Sharing the Expat Wealth… (Part I)

of info and experience, that is.

Today I’m going to do something a little different.

I was contacted by a reader who is an inbound ‘expat-to-be’. (Yay!)

She’s a young mom of a one-year old, relocating to Amsterdam soon due to her husband’s work, and asked for any advice.

Briefly I told her the following:

  • As she has already recognized, you’re definitely embarking on an adventure. The most important thing, at least in my humble opinion, is try to maintain a good attitude (which she definitely seems to have).


  • You’re dealing with physical and emotional upheaval as you prepare to relocate, then you arrive and BAM, you’re faced with…MORE CHANGE. It can seem unrelenting. (Actually, it really is unrelenting.) So depending on your personality, it really helps to maintain a sense of humor or Zen-like acceptance. Better yet, both. (If you don’t have either, well, you’d better start cultivating them.)


  • Things will go right, things will go wrong. That happens anywhere, whether you move to another town or state or region, or you stay put. It’s just a bit intensified because you’re doing it in a new country and culture.


  • Try to carve out some time to take a look at expat websites here in the Netherlands. Certain sites you can use now to prepare for your move, others focus more on info for after arrival. Just knowing they exist and what they offer will help you once you get here. Check out my list of sites offering expat info/support. I suggested ACCESS, AngloINFO, Expatica, Expat arrivals and IAmExpat to start, and go from there.

Then I promised to mull it over and provide additional thoughts in today’s post.

I do want to say upfront that I’m just one source, and these are my views. There are lots of other expats out there who have great ideas as well, and I’m hoping they’ll jump in and share, too.

So let’s get started.

As indicated above, you’ll encounter not only a new country and language, but a different culture as well. Obviously there is a lot in common as the US and Netherlands are both developed western countries. But there are definitely cultural differences.

I really don’t like the concept of ‘stereotypes’, but for the sake of discussion I think it does help to share observations or tendencies.

  • Netherlands is the country (well, technically The Netherlands), you’ll be living in the province of North Holland. (The whole Holland thing is a marketing ploy for their beer and cheese.) The capital is Amsterdam, but the seat of government is in The Hague in the province of South Holland. Hence, the Queen, Parliament, government Ministries, foreign embassies and international organizations are in The Hague. They’re the only country that separates the two. And believe me, Amsterdam and The Hague are two entirely different cities!


  • When I first arrived, a long-time fellow expat told me: ‘If you want things to work and to operate relatively smoothly, you’ve come to the right place. But if you want passion, well, that’s not here.’ Keep in mind that she was Brazilian-French, and passion was clearly important to her. But her point that the Dutch value an orderly, functioning society is well taken. They are very law-abiding, and follow rules. Lots of rules. (For examples of some of these rules, have a look at Wordgeyser’s recent post on leash laws and dog wardens, and my similar brush with the long arm of the law.)


  • Some rules/laws may be different than what you’re used to. Don’t be swayed by their more liberal drug laws. Contrary to popular opinion, most Dutch do NOT smoke pot, and actually frown on it. Usually it’s the tourists who take partake. The Dutch tolerate it because as a society they clearly differentiate between the use of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs, and they are also trying to keep organized crime out of the picture.  Their country, their rules.


  • Some things will be similar, some will be different. It helps to remember that different doesn’t have to mean ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ because it can be easy to lapse into judgements (e.g., ‘why do they do it this way?’, ‘In the US we always …’, etc.). Check out my post on keeping perspective about differences.


  • The Dutch do tend to be very direct and matter of fact. Some may perceive this as abruptness or even rudeness; it isn’t meant that way, so do NOT take it personally. My perception of any trait in others - fill in the blank here, whether positive or not (e.g., tolerant, rude, loud, lazy, hardworking, polite, etc.) – is based on seeing others through the lens of my own cultural experience. Living abroad cannot help but open your eyes to cultural differences. It helps me to remember not to waste emotional energy feeling offended for something that is not meant that way in another culture. Besides, for any instance in which I really felt uncomfortable with someone’s penetratingly direct exchange with me, I can easily think of a dozen moments of kindness or someone cheerfully taking the time to help.


  • The Dutch do tend to move at a slightly more relaxed pace (certainly relative to parts of the East Coast US!, and perhaps even more so outside the Randstad – the densely populated area comprising the cities of Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht and their environs), but they are hard-working when at work and get things done. When they are not at work, they are 100% NOT AT WORK. Work/life balance is very big here, mainly because they’ve never allowed themselves to slip into the ‘workaholic’ mindset. The Dutch are very family-oriented, and like getting outdoors and being active. Very healthy!


  • I’ve not only read this in several books AND been told this by four separate Nederlanders under a series of different circumstances, but also observed this first hand with Daughter’s Dutch voetbal team: the Dutch value team work above all else and are self-effacing and understated. They abhor anything that smacks of arrogance, bragging, showing off.


  • Many Dutch speak English, and are happy to do so. (Again, especially in the Randstad. Less so the further north, east and south you go.) The children learn it from television and then study it in school. In keeping with the previous bullet, ask just about any Dutch person if they speak English and they most will answer with some variant of ‘a little.’ Then they proceed to speak fluently or at least highly proficiently.


  • That said, they do appreciate if you at least try to learn some Nederlands. Here’s an article I wrote about learning Dutch Ten Reasons to Learn Dutch (pp.14-15), and a post about the most important Dutch phrase you can learn and another on a few other key phrases. (You can see other posts under the Learning Dutch category at the right side.) I took two intensive courses, live in a Dutch neighborhood and make an effort to practice speaking Dutch on a daily basis, and I’m still just an intermediate with a long way to go to hit true proficiency. Others pick it up very quickly, others not so much. It’s all good. A great website is Dutch Word of the Day, I’ve learned a lot from it. And hands down the best blog I’ve found on learning Dutch words, sayings and customs is likeasponge, written by an expat turned permanent resident, so check it out.


  • Living in a small, densely populated country (at least in the Randstad) has translated into less personal space than Americans are used to. So don’t be surprised when people crowd you in the grocery store or in line. It can be a little disconcerting when you’re trying to transact business and someone’s right at your elbow! It isn’t meant to be rude, it’s just what they’re used to. You won’t hear ‘excuse me’ or ‘pardon me,’ either. I say it anyway, that’s just me.


  • There tends to be less eye contact and greeting people on the street unless you actually know them. Being an extroverted American, I tend to say hello (now ‘Dag’) to people in my neighborhood, and they’ve gotten used to it. Now at least 50% respond. Again, don’t take it personally. Lots of cultures find it odd to greet someone you don’t know, yet many Americans are raised to understand that saying hello (and making small talk when waiting with others – for the bus or in line for something) is the polite thing to do.


  • Customer service. Ahh, that’s an interesting one. It tends to be very to the point, and less emphasis on the American ‘the customer is king’. There’s a tendency to be rather literal – answering the question you ask as opposed to trying to figure out what you may really mean. That said, I’ve usually gotten great service in the smaller stores (winkels!). Being polite and friendly usually is rewarded with the same. And definitely wait patiently in line to be waited on: the Dutch believe firmly in giving their undivided attention to the person they’re dealing with, and will NOT entertain anyone trying to catch their eye or jump in (even politely) for a quick question.

Okay, wheww! That’s a lot to throw at you. I’ll save the rest for tomorrow’s post. Hope it’s helpful.

 Fellow expats, feel free to jump in and add your comments/insights!


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