Life as an Expat in the Netherlands
There are around 200, 000 Expats currently residing in the Netherlands, with a large proportion of these living in and around the capital of Amsterdam. Expats represent all corners of the globe, but there are particularly large numbers from the UK and the United States. There is also a large Japanese community in Amsterdam, concentrated in the suburb of Amstelveen, where a number of prominent Japanese companies such as Canon are based.
The Netherlands is considered an extremely desirable country in which to live, with an exceptionally high standard of living. There is a strong emphasis on a healthy work/life balance with the possibility of a four day week and long holidays, resulting in an excellent quality of life. This is highly attractive to workers from countries such as the US and Japan where long working days and few holidays are the norm.
Amenities such as healthcare and public transport systems are second to none and then there is the extra convenience of being within easy reach of the rest of Europe. Add to that, the fact that English is widely spoken and there are many prestigious international companies with head offices in the Netherlands, and you can begin to understand the appeal. Many expats are also enticed by the 30 percent tax ruling, which allows expats with scarce and specialist skills to benefit from a tax rate capped at 30% for up to 10 years.
So, if you are about to embark upon life as an expat in the Netherlands, what should you expect?
First of all, don’t underestimate the fact that Holland is a foreign country! This sounds obvious, but many Brits in particular, are quite blasé about a move to the Netherlands. After all, it is a only mere hour away by plane and even the cashier in the local Dutch Supermarket speaks fluent English, so it can seem like a home away from home. It can come as quite as shock, therefore, that there are still significant cultural differences.
Most expats find that their Dutch cousins have some peculiar habits, from toilets featuring the unique ‘display’ shelf (the least said about this, the better) to a range of unusual swear words and the infamous curtainless windows. Foreigners are fascinated by the many Dutch families who live out their home lives in full view of the neighbours, with no apparent concern for privacy. This is exaggerated all the more by the huge windows common in most traditional Dutch houses.
Finding a Dutch property can also prove challenging for the expat. Most Dutch Makelaars (estate agents) will only make appointments to view property from Monday to Friday and between 9.00am and 5.00pm. ‘The customer is always right’ is not a motto that the often brusque Dutch Makelaars live by and they will not disrupt their evening or weekend for your convenience. It is better to accept that you will need time off from your new job to secure the property of your dreams and, as Dutch working hours are generally very flexible, this should not present a problem.
Grappling with the Dutch Language
Many expats arrive full of good intentions and plan to tackle the complex Dutch language as soon as possible. Some, already familiar with German, believe that it cannot be that hard to master. However, Dutch is a notoriously difficult language to learn, a fact compounded by the Dutch insistence on answering your first faltering sentences in Dutch with English! This is of course well intended, but can put some foreigners off for good. Many quickly decide that they can just as easily get by with English and repeat the lazy mantra that it is too difficult to learn Dutch ‘when everyone speaks English so well’. This is actually a great shame, as learning the language is not only rewarding, but is essential for proper integration and to get a full appreciation of Dutch culture.
If you do plan to take up the challenge, there is plenty of help at hand. Most colleges and universities offer cost-effective study packages that you can fit in around your work commitments. And by studying ‘Nederlands als tweede taal’ (Dutch as a second language) you will meet plenty of other expats and gain an instant circle of new friends. You may also be ‘sent to the nuns’ by your employer - don’t worry this is not some kind of medieval punishment, but a crash course in Dutch at a renowned language school in Vught. Originally the courses were taught by nuns, but it is now run by a team of dedicated and exceptionally motivating teachers. Although expensive, many expats achieve remarkable results after just one or two weeks of intensive study here.
Often, expats moving to the Netherlands already have a job with a Dutch or international employer lined up – this makes the practicalities a lot easier, as the Human Resources department will often take care of all your immigration requirements and help you obtain the obligatory SOFI number (a social security number) and may even assist in finding suitable accommodation.
If you are going it alone you may struggle with the somewhat bureaucratic ‘gemeente’ (council offices) and the ‘belastingdienst’ (tax authorities), however, there are plenty of expat forums that offer help and support. Finding a job is somewhat easier with an abundance of international job agencies that specialise in foreign language roles.
Expats tend to work for international companies, but even if they work for a Dutch organisation, English is often used for business communication. However, if you work for a Dutch company, where your colleagues are all Dutch, office banter will almost certainly be in Dutch! Although this may seem intimidating at first, it is a perfect opportunity to practice your Dutch and meet real Dutch people. Your new Dutch colleagues might welcome you to the team with an after hours ‘borreltje’, where you will be treated to beer, wine and perhaps even a ‘jenever’ (Dutch gin). There will probably be a selection of ‘borrel hapjes’ (typical Dutch snacks) including the ubiquitous ‘bitterballen’ (meat croquettes) and ‘vlammetjes’ (spicy spring rolls) that you will grow to love. The Dutch don’t tend to linger long after work though, so don’t be offended when they all rush off at 6.00pm – the ‘borreltje’ is just intended as a gentle ice-breaker to make you feel at home.
One of the most common complaints from expats is that they find it extremely difficult to make Dutch friends. Most Dutch make close and lifelong friends at school or university and don’t socialise extensively with work colleagues, so this is always going to be tricky. Making an effort with the language is one sure way to win you new Dutch friends and once a friendship is formed, it will be enduring. Remember, it takes two to tango!
If you find this all too daunting, then you can start by visiting social clubs and expats forums where you will meet other lonely foreigners in the same situation. Head-off with them, to the local ‘eetcafe’ (bar serving food) for a delicious Dutch meal and a Belgian beer and you’re sure to make friends with the locals eventually!
Cycling – One Step Closer To Integration
One of the great things about living in Holland is the ability to commute and generally get around by bicycle - with an extensive network of cycling paths it’s so safe and easy to jump on your bike. You may feel a little unnerved at first by the huge swarms of cyclists during rush hour. They will give an indignant ring of their bell if you slow them down or shout some obscenity at you as they fly past, but that means that they see you as one of them! Once you have overcome your initial fear it is incredibly liberating and you won’t be able to imagine life behind the wheel of your car again. Purchasing your first Dutch ‘fiets’ (bike) is an exciting moment and cycling to work or dropping off your kids at their international school in a ‘bakfiets’ (Dutch bike with a large cart in front) is a real sign of going native!
Trying New Things!
Moving to any new country can be an overwhelming experience, but try and make the most of your expat years in the Netherlands. As Holland is so compact it’s easy to cram lots of tourist activities into long weekends. Visit the historic Dutch cities of Amsterdam, Maastricht, Delft, Den Haag (the Hague) and Utrecht. Take in the beautiful islands of Friesland or explore the green hills of Limburg and visit the picturesque heath lands of the Hoge Veluwe. If you are interested in art and culture you are spoilt for choice, with an abundance of world class museums such as the Anne Frank Huis, the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam alone.
You should also experiment with typical Dutch food products such as ‘hagelsag’ (chocolate sprinkles) on your bread at breakfast and ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’ a Dutch take on sushi, for lunch. Enjoy the fabulous ‘pannenkoeken’ (pancakes) or ‘poffertjes’ (mini pancakes) as a special birthday tea and warm up on a cold winters day with hearty ‘erwtensoep’ (pea soup) or a freshly baked ‘oliebol’ (a type of doughnut). Join in the lively celebrations of ‘Koninginnedag’ (Queens Day), and celebrate Sinterklaas with a delicious ‘chocolade letter’ (chocolate letter) or cheer on the ‘Dutch elftal’ (national football team) on their home soil and you’ll soon be wanting to put down roots in this unique land that has so much more to offer than windmills, cheese and clogs!