An Australian in The Hague: Another View of Expat Life in the Netherlands

Living in The Hague in the Netherlands has been quite an experience for Australian expat Meg so far. She describes liking aspects of life there, such as the open political culture, the ease of traveling to other countries, and the architecture. But she also gives a straightforward account of what she doesn't like so much about living in Holland. Read on to learn more about her thoughts and observations about the people, the culture, and the importance of learning the language.
 

Meg

-Where were you born?

 Australia.

-In which country and city are you living now?

The Hague, Netherlands.

-Are you living alone or with your family?

With my husband. 

-How long have you been living in the Netherlands?

Two years and nine months. 

-What is your age?

Thirty-one. 

-When did you come up with the idea of living in the Netherlands?

My husband was offered a job at a MNC based in Den Haag (The Hague). It was a good offer and we were both keen to spend some time in Europe as we'd not done the traditional gap year before or after University that many Australians spend over here in Europe. 

-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?

It was very easy as it was facilitated by my partner's company. We are both on Knowledge Migrant visas, which we received within approximately 4 weeks of application. 

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

We had international medical insurance provided by the company until we had arrived and had the visas granted, which prevented the circularity problems that some time pop up in terms of medical insurance being required for visas. 

-How do you make your living in the Netherlands? Do you have any type of income generated?

I am studying a Masters degree by distance from my home country.

-Do you speak Dutch and do you think it's important to speak the local language?

Whilst I can now read quite a lot of Dutch, I speak only basic Dutch, just the stuff one gradually picks up from the locals. Our intention was to only be here for a few years so we felt we could attempt to get by mostly in English. We were told prior to our arrival by my husband's company that speaking Dutch was not necessary to get by here comfortably, and I have to say after a few years in the Netherlands I very strongly disagree with this. Outside of Amsterdam I would say it is vital to speak Dutch. Whilst many of the locals do indeed speak English, many would clearly prefer not to, and will treat you very differently if they must speak English with you. If you address them in English a certain "glazed look" comes over them and they suddenly become cold and distant! There is currently a government campaign entitled "one must speak Dutch in the Netherlands" - contrary to some reports, the locals do take linguistic integration seriously.

It is also an exaggeration that everyone speaks English in the Netherlands. In fact the older Dutch (over 50), the Dutch outside of the Randstad, and the less educated Dutch (tradesmen, mechanics, etc.) very often speak only Dutch. All of your mail will of course be in Dutch (and being a very bureaucratic culture there are many letters you will need to translate!) 

So if you are planning a move over here I would say it is vital to learn Dutch from the onset. It was a mistake on our part not to, even though our planned stay was quite short.  

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?

Yes, it is impossible not to miss one's family and home to some extent. In particular we miss the wide open spaces of Australia, the ample potential for getting out into real nature, and the much lighter cuisine. 

-Do you have other plans for the future?

We intend to move to home or to the U.K. within the next six months. 

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?

We have bought a home here as an investment, which may or may not have been another mistake unfortunately. Mortgage repayments are deductible here, so the option of buying can look very tempting.  Our plan was always to rent the property out when we left the Netherlands, and we had to get special permission from our bank to be able to do this when we signed the mortgage. We have heard some horror stories about renting properties out here, however, and are not looking forward to the process. The Dutch are very, very kind towards the tenant when it comes to landlord/tenant rights so we will have to be very careful. Having learned the things I now know about Dutch housing culture I would not make the same choice again, it is not a place to purchase an investment property. On the other hand we have managed to save around 20,000 euro in two and a bit years compared to where we have been had we rented an equivalent property, thanks to a low variable interest rate and the mortgage deductions. 

-What is the cost of living in the Netherlands?

It is not too bad. Food is very cheap compared to Australia. Getting things fixed is also a lot cheaper. Clothes and restaurant meals are the two things that seem a lot more expensive. Financially, we are much better off here than how we were in Australia. 

-What do you think about the Dutch?

Sadly as much as I would like to say positive things it is very difficult to do so. I think it's important to preface what I say with an acknowledgment that it is always dangerous to generalise and you should take each individual on their own terms.  I have met some good people here. Overall though, my experiences with the Dutch have been poor. I was not surprised to see that in the 2010 HSBC Expat survey the Netherlands came up as the hardest country in which to get on with the locals. It is very hard to make friends here as social circles are formed at a very early age and foreigners have difficulty breaking into these cliques. The Dutch also often seem to regard the non-Dutch as inferior beings.

They are very traditional, very set in their ways, impervious to external innovation and change, and surprisingly conformist. 

They are a cold bunch and prone to fits of temper, particularly in the depths of winter when everyone is at their crankiest. I'm a polite, law-abiding sort of person but have been verbally abused by virtual strangers on a number of occasions for some of the most ridiculously trivial things. People blow up about small things as a way of releasing their day-to-day unhappiness I think, and there does seem to be a lot of unhappiness in the Netherlands.

They are also prone to staring bug eyed at anything remotely unusual. This can be a bit offputting. For example if I take my camera out to the park with a longish lens on it (I am a keen photographer) they will gape at it as it's something slightly out of the ordinary. Wear a bright coloured coat in winter and they will stare at you. It's quite bizarre. 

Customer service is non-existent here. This has been covered by others on here so I won't elaborate.

They are very money focused and as long as they expect money out of you they will be as friendly as they can muster. As an expat you will be treated well by service providers right up until you hand over the cash, at which point you will be at best treated indifferently, and at worst like slime. Expats are regarded as cash machines, to be milked as much as possible. 

So yes, not good things to say. Bit by bit the general unfriendliness and the occasional receipt of unprovoked abuse or blunt inappropriate comments will wear you down. I suspect my experience has been somewhat coloured by not being a fluent Dutch speaker. 

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in the Netherlands?

 Positives:

* As a non European it has been great to use the Netherlands as a base to explore the rest of Europe. Having said that, it's always painful coming home as just about everywhere else in Europe has seemed cleaner and friendlier! Also airfares and train tickets are expensive ex the Netherlands. For cheap airfares try driving to Dusseldorf of Brussels and flying from there.

* The quality of the fresh fruit and vegetables is good compared to home.

* The open political culture - even if it has given oxygen to the likes of Geert Wilders, you have to respect the open political culture and political engagement in this country. 

* The architecture is very beautiful. If you can, try and live on a canal. 

Negatives:

* The people (as discussed).

* The food. Very oily. And all of the supposedly ethnic food is ruined by it being changed to suit Dutch tastes which are very non-subtle (i.e. too sweet, too fatty). It's hard not to gain weight here.

* The weather. You won't see the sun much in winter, and often you won't see much of it in summer either.

* The litter. In Den Haag in particular the streets are full of rubbish.

* The pollution. Whilst not anything like Hong Kong, the Netherlands has the worst air quality in Europe (it has special exemptions to pollute more due to its concentration of heavy industry).  

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in the Netherlands?

You must have a thick skin or you will find it very tough here. If you're a sensitive soul give some serious thought as to whether the move is worth it. The place will either make or break you. The Dutch don't respect the timid or shy. 

Learn Dutch early on, even if you are planning a relatively short stay!  

Budget for a trip to somewhere warm and sunny in winter. The unrelenting grey skies for 4-5 months will get you down otherwise.  

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about the Netherlands?

http://dutchnews.nl/

http://www.expatica.com/nl/main.html 

I have been here for 4

alba's picture

I have been here for 4 months already and I can see the reality of the above interview. I hope I can see the bright side of moving here. :)

Alba