Two weeks after sitting my last Bachelor exam in Zurich, I moved to the Netherlands with my husband. As everyone who has ever moved house or changed universities – or even simply switched to a new shampoo brand – knows, fresh starts can be both daunting and exhilarating, and moving abroad is essentially the same, just on a much bigger scale.
A change of seasons later, I am still in the process of readjusting. It’s a little like the settling-in period after you’ve bought a fabulous new sofa, but don’t quite know which corner is the comfiest for you yet.
While I’m still busy shuffling from one end of the couch to the other, I have started piecing together a tentative image of my new surroundings – the people, the habits, the language. The following are some of the random observations I’ve made during the last few weeks.
When we first got here, my husband went to one of the many sports shops in town to buy a running top. When I needed a pair of running shoes a few days later and we went back to the same shop, the owner did not only remember him, but already greeted him like a good acquaintance.
We soon discovered that this kind of genuine cordiality is not confined to the local sports district. Whether we come across “our” ice cream man browsing through the shops of the little town we live in or have lunch in the busy centre of Amsterdam, people here are (mostly) extremely friendly and helpful. It’s not just the shop owners, though: The overwhelming majority of passers-by we’ve interacted with so far speak excellent English, and it’s not uncommon to find speakers of German as well. While this is obviously perfect for tourists, it makes learning Dutch rather difficult because everybody keeps switching to English when they realize our Dutch is still – to put it politely – fragmentary.
Being a speaker of English or, even more so, German already is tremendously helpful if you want to learn Dutch. Since the three languages are so closely related (that dreaded Old English class comes in handy here!), many words and turns of phrases are similar enough to be guessed, so understanding the odd supermarket leaflet is usually not a problem. However, things change dramatically when people start to speak: nothing sounds the way it looks on paper, and the words fly at such breath-taking speed that it’s near-impossible to tell where one ends and another begins. After a couple of weeks of Rosetta Stone and an incredibly charming little language podcast called “Laura Speaks Dutch”, however, I am happy to report that I’m getting better at untangling!
Most Dutch houses have no basement. Many do, however, have a rather formidable attic, and people take advantage of the resulting thermodynamic. Guess where the washing machine goes? Exactly. It’s quite something to hang up your washing in a pleasantly warm, wide space with a nice view of the nearby woods thanks to the generous skylight, let alone to watch your new front-loader being hoisted up two sets of stairs – something the two of us thankfully were smart enough to not even try to do by ourselves, as the stairs in our house (and every other Dutch house I’ve seen so far) are so steep we still use the handrail all the time.
First of all, there’s the cheese. Obviously. Tons and tons of it, practically everywhere. The sheer variety of gouda (which, as I’ve come to understand, is pronounced gow-da, not goo-da) on offer at the local supermarket is enough to boggle anyone’s mind. Low-fat, full-fat, ripe, semi-ripe, mild, freshly sliced, you name it. Then, there are the pastries. The Dutch seem to really love their sweets – the more cream and custard is in them, the better. A slightly less buttery (but still delicious) alternative are poffertjes – tiny convex pancakes that are usually dusted with powdered sugar and that can be found ready-made in any supermarket.
When it comes to eating out, the variety of restaurants is impressive even in small towns; in the central part of our neck of the woods alone there are no less than 3 Asian, 2 Mexican, 2 Greek and 2 Italian places, and most of them offer excellent value for money. Also, the best ice cream we have ever had was not made in Italy, but here! Our local ice-cream parlour is open every day from March to October and offers 20 fantastic flavours – all hand-made by the proprietor’s father in the back of the shop – for the even more fantastic price of 80 cents a scoop.
It’s a doggie wonderland – wherever you look, chances are you’ll see at least one canine taking their owner(s) for a walk, whatever the weather. There’s an abundance of greenery and parks of all sizes with walks to suit everybody’s taste and stamina, from tiny Chihuahuas zooming around the place to our neighbours’ huge Alaskan Malamute. That said, however tempting the green park lawns might look, stay on the path; Dutch dog owners have an unfortunate habit of not picking up after their darlings. The plethora of dogs has inspired us to get one of our own, especially after we borrowed our neighbours’ beast for walks a couple of times and discovered that walking your dog is not only an excellent way to socialize and get to know the area better, it also helps learning the language! I now know the words for “female” (wijfje), “male” (mannetje), “well-behaved” (gehoorzaam) and “handsome” (mooi), but still haven’t got a clue how to say “Excuse me, where’s the train station?”
After the cheese, this is another Dutch stereotype that holds absolutely true, and the recent news about Amsterdam being named the world’s number one bicycle-friendly city did not come as a surprise to us. Wherever there’s a decently paved street, there’s a bike path, and bike-specific traffic lights are the norm rather than an exception. In the case of your loyal eco-friendly means of transport ever breaking down, you also won’t be hard put to find a good bicycle workshop close by; when my bike had a roller bearing problem the other week, I could choose from three shops within 500 metres from each other. I also promptly got my bearings for free because it was such a small purchase – another example of what I’ve mentioned in the “People” passage.
One caveat if you’re planning on driving a car in the Netherlands: Always check the bike paths before intersections of any kind! Many cyclists seem to believe they have the sole right of way at any given time and are rather oblivious to oncoming traffic. Also, literally nobody wears helmets, so always remember to “watch the cyclist” (5:56)!
I like to imagine these little bits of observation and experience as border pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is my new home. They’re not the whole truth, of course, and only part of the real deal, but they’ll hopefully provide a tentative framework for what will eventually become the big picture of our Dutch expat experience.
We will move again next February, to the UK this time, and I’m already curious how my “outside view” will change when we do!