American expat Toby is living in Amsterdam, the REAL sin city

American journalist Toby is nearing the ten-year mark as an expat in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where he lives with his family. Read on for his (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) words of wisdom about the culture and the people; and if you're planning to move to the Netherlands, learn from his experience and advice on how to go about it.
 
The Dutch wear Orange to celebrate Queen's Day
Toby Sterling

-Where were you born?
I was born & raised in Palo Alto, California, USA.

-In which country and city are you living now?
Amsterdam, Netherlands

-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my Dutch wife, who's pregnant with our second child. My family is scattered around the U.S.

-How long have you been living in the Netherlands?
It'll be nine years in October.

-What is your age?
I'm 35, but feel (and look) like 50. Frown As Indiana Jones said, "It's not the years, it's the miles."


The Koningsplein, or square, where a picturesque building has been "squatted" by students. Squatting is a funny quirk of Dutch culture, and a sign of the housing shortage in Amsterdam: the banner reads: "I study, therefore I squat."


-When did you come up with the idea of living in the Netherlands?
Actually, I passed through while backpacking through Europe (in 1995), and thought: man, if I ever get a chance to live in Amsterdam, I'd do it in a heartbeat. The chance came three years later. The decision was maybe easier for me than someone who's never lived abroad since I'd already lived briefly in Paris and Rome, and so I had some idea what I was getting into.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
No. It was a lot of paperwork, but not difficult otherwise. However, things have changed greatly due to a backlash against (especially North African) immigrants that began here in 2001. It escalated after Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh (a distant relative of the painter) was murdered by a Muslim fanatic in 2004.

The regime is easing up a bit again after elections last year brougth a centrist government to power. I should add: violent crime is extremely rare here. Murder and rape rates are a tiny fraction of what they are in the U.S.

Museumplein Amsterdam
The Museumplein, or square, home to the Rijksmuseum (national museum), Van Gogh Museum, and U.S. Consulate


-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
No. Assuming you're here legally, healthcare is mandatory, and costs are shared between you, your employer and the government. It's much cheaper than in the U.S. - at least from the "consumer" perspective.

-How do you make your living in the Netherlands? Do you have any type of income generated?
I'm a full-time reporter for an international press agency. It was extremely easy to find work here when I came (October 1998) because the economy was booming, and there were labor shortages, especially in financial journalism. I actually was only visiting, put my application in at a few places, and was hired on the spot, despite not having a great resume.

Nowadays, it would be more difficult on the bureaucratic side: you MUST apply for a job here in your country of origin, unless you already have a visa/work permit for some reason. But there's still a lot of demand for skilled workers, and English-speaking workers, so I think it's fair to say that if a company really wants to hire you, they will find a way. The Netherlands is a hub for international tax experts and accountants. There are a lot of big Dutch multinationals and many U.S. companies choose the Netherlands for their European headquarters. As in so many places, computer programmers, engineers and designers are always in demand.


The "Gay Pride" boat-float festival on the historic Prinsengracht, or "Princes' Canal"


-Do you speak Dutch and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
Yes, I speak Dutch, and yes, I think it's important to speak the language as much as possible wherever you go. It's possible to get by on English in the Netherlands, since almost all adults born after WWII speak some English, and most are fluent. But, I would always endorse learning the language (or else you're not REALLY being exposed to the culture you're in). In addition, due to the immigration crackdown I mentioned before, the Dutch government is making language classes mandatory for people who intend to stay for more than a year or two. In fact, depending on your situation, you may have to learn some Dutch before you're allowed to come! But take heart, despite its fearsome reputation, Dutch is one of the EASIEST languages for an English speaker to learn (scientifically proven!).

-Do you miss home and family sometimes? What are your favorite recreational activities?
Ah, I missed home and family very much when I first came, but now that I'm becoming a long-term expat, "the falcon cannot hear the falconer."

That is, home and family are also here. I'm not sure what you mean about recreational activities, but there's lots to do in Amsterdam.

And of course there are "national" organizations for Americans, Brits, Spaniards, Germans, French, etc.

-Do you have other plans for the future?
I'm at something of a crossroads: professionally, I feel the need to leave the Netherlands, and as a journalist I have some good fortune in that it's pretty easy for me to seek work in another foreign country.

On the other hand, I'd also like to go home (to San Francisco, near home). It's a difficult choice, because of course my wife's family is here. That's the pain of a trans-Atlantic marriage.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
I'm glad you asked this question. My words of wisdom are: you will find a good job in the Netherlands much easier than you will find a good place to live. The housing market is extremely tight in desireable areas (especially of Amsterdam and The Hague, and Utrecht, where expats are most likely to want to live). Rent control systems are common here, with the effect that once in, you can get a great deal on an apartment (say as low as EUR200/US$300) but waiting lists are very long (as in 10 years or more), so it's not realistic for a foreigner. Instead, you end up paying exhorbitant rents for the few houses that are not rent controlled (so EUR2K/US3K per month) for 100 square meters (yards). Then there's the black market, where people illegally rent out their rent-control houses - but that's a dicey proposition, since you must be able to declare a legal address to authorities, and that's not possible if you're renting illegally.

In the end, I bought a house - the mortgage was less than my rent. However, because of taxes you'd probably only want to consider doing that if you were going to live here for several years or more. Houses are generally much smaller here than Americans are used to, which is funny: the Dutch are statistically the tallest people on Earth.

-What is the cost of living in the Netherlands?
If your housing problems are resolved, living is pretty easy in the Netherlands. How do you define the cost of living? Subtracting housing costs, we get by with a family of three (my wife's not working right now) on about EUR1500/US$2000 a month, and even save a little. Some things are cheap (food basics, good public transport), some things are expensive (clothes, gasoline), but in the end, it's not bad and there are a lot of subsidies for things like childcare, heathcare, the arts, etc.


A windmill, of course, along the banks of the river Amstel, which gives Amsterdam its name


-What do you think about the Dutch?
I love the Dutch. I married a Dutch. I think that in every country, you will meet great people and jerks, and each culture has its annoying aspects and its wonderful aspects. I think Americans are basically more friendly and open; Dutch are very honest and direct, and open-minded. Of course, those are GENERALIZATIONS about both countries. As far as how they treat you: at first they may ignore you! Don't be offended. Not being naturally so talkative themselves, most Dutch enjoy meeting outgoing people, and foreigners.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in the Netherlands?
Pshew. This is a broad topic, no? As I said, once your housing problems are resolved, there's a lot to see and do in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. It's a great place to be a young adult, or a parent.

The people are beautiful (if you like a lanky, David Bowie-type of androgynous look), and things are well-run. Dutch engineering enjoys great renown and rightly so. Some things you might like or hate about Holland depending on the kind of person you are: it's more egalitarian than the U.S., so higher taxes for the rich, and ostentatious displays of wealth are frowned upon. There's a more generous "welfare state" (despite recent cuts), but there's also a lot of people who abuse the system.

And of course, some people would love the generally tolerant (or indifferent) Dutch attitude toward things like sex on television, marijuana use, legalized euthanasia, legalized prostitution, and gay marriage. Many conservatives would despise those things. There are certainly many Dutch on both sides! One more ambivalent thing: if the Dutch had a national motto, it would be this: "Doe normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg." That translates as "(Come on!) Just act normal, that's already crazy enough." The weather is an obvious downside, and the Dutch have their own chauvinism (not as strong as Americans, in my opinion). If I had to pinpoint one negative thing about the Dutch, I'd say their tendency toward being critical, which, while generally a good thing, can wind up amounting to excessive moaning and complaining. Also, though things are efficient and orderly here, they can be painfully bureaucratic...

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in the Netherlands?
Lots, but here's just a couple.

If the sun is shining, don't wait: get out there and do or see whatever it is you're interested in. Seize the day - before it starts raining.

Secondly, and this goes for ANY country you're going to live in: work hard at the start to learn the language. Once you get over 'the hump' and start understanding what people are saying, you'll pick up the rest on the fly, with much less conscious effort. So studying early pays huge dividends later. This was one of the few things I did right by dumb luck when I came here, since I wasn't even expecting to stay more than a year when I first arrived.

In addition: The Dutch will speak English to you unless you insist otherwise (until your Dutch is very good). Seek out a few people and get them to agree they'll ONLY ever speak Dutch to you. It's a pain sometimes, but it's worth it in the long run.

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about the Netherlands?
Well, the easy way to do this is to say: my blog, www.tobysterling.net, is totally useless except for one thing:

My Links section!

I have links to a few places that you should definitely check out if you're planning to come here. And since I'm relatively new to blogging, I'll be adding more as time goes by. Here's my top six:
1) www.dutchnews.nl for Dutch news in English and
2) on www.expatica.com , the "Netherlands" section has lots of tips for dealing with immigration, etc.
If you're ready to try some Dutch language stuff:
3) www.geenstijl.nl is a must. It's a little hard to describe, but maybe if you merged John Stewart's show
and Fark.com into a pure Dutch blog, this is what you'd come up with.
4) www.wereldomroep.nl is made by Dutch Public Radio. The front page is Dutch, but it's translated into multiple languages.
5) www.nos.nl is the Dutch equivalent of the BBC.
Lastly, a fun site I discovered through expatblogs is
6) www.24oranges.nl - consider it a BoingBoing derivative, focused on the Netherlands (it's in English).

Amsterdam Directory

bbsboat's picture

http://www.amsterdamdir.com/
The website for Amsterdam

Thanks for the wonderful article

puckster's picture

I just recently relocated to Rotterdam from Los Angeles. I have to say I love living here a lot more than living in Southern California.

I want to comment on a couple things that Toby mentioned. I do find how bureaucratic the Dutch can be, but it's the same thing in California at least. The difference is (when I had to do some paperwork for my residence registry and immigration) the Dutch official workers are really helpful. They seem to genuinely want to help you. At least my experience in the US, just dealing with the DMV itself was a nightmare, and the INS was worse. The government officials at both DMV, INS, and Social Security offices didn't seem to be helpful at all. They just didn't seem to be happy working for the government institutions.

Second thing was I do find the Dutch people are a lot friendlier or genuine compared to most people in Los Angeles. But again, it's definitely subjective. People here seem to have more patient and tolerance towards foreigners than most Californians do.

On top of that, what I love most about the Dutch is their appreciation towards the arts. There is so much more culture and arts.

Maybe everything is still exciting for me because I'm newly relocated. The truth is I do miss California a little bit. There are many things that are great about California and the US. But after living here for a couple of month, I really wish that Americans can learn a little bit more from the Dutch on their tolerance, patient, and appreciation toward the arts.

Again, thank you for this fantastic article.

I am an artist and designer.

kunstler's picture

I am an artist and designer. I also work in IT yet I can not find any one in the Nederlands to hire me. I really appreciate Holland a lot and see my future being there. I am extremely unhappy in the usa as an artist and I miss my life abroad. I have a lot ot offer but I am unable to find a way to be in the Netherlands. No one will help me and immigration seems impossible. I am extremely unhappy in America and have been for many, many years. For an artist Holland is the place to be for me. I can speak a little Nederland and Deutsch yet I still am unable to find any opportunities in anything. I have no future i nthe United States and do not fit into this kind of society socially. I had big dreams to start a business in Holland and to raise a small family but it's all starting to look like a pipe dream. I do not know what to do any more. Sometimes I sit and cry because I miss Holland and whatmy life could be. Sometimes it hurts so much. I miss the Nederlands a lot.