Coming to the Netherlands as an expat can be overwhelming. What should you do? How should you act? Do you need to speak Dutch? In an open letter, Dutchie Nick van Pernisco talks to expats and tourists in the Netherlands.
Dear tourists and new expats,
First of all, welcome to The Netherlands! Despite what you may have heard about the government’s past decision to reduce an enticing expat tax benefit, and about what Amsterdam’s new leaders have proposed to alleviate the tourist trap that is the city centre, the Dutch like tourists and expats in general. You are the spice in the dull Dutch food, the stroop in our wafel, if you will.
The Dutch appreciate you, and so I want to offer you some suggestions to help you ease into your stay, whether it’s for a day or for a decade. Here are five things to know before coming to the Netherlands.
1. A little Dutch goes a long way
The Dutch are not as maniacal about their culture as are the French ― everyone you encounter will speak English (and likely knows more about the news in your country than you do!) ― but knowing some basic words or phrases, and mixing them adorably into your English conversations, will endear you to the Dutch in no time.
Saying something is gezellig, even if it isn’t cosy at all, will at minimum get you a smile. Telling your server that the meal is lekker will earn you points, as will greeting your hotel staff with a hearty goedemorgen in the morning. If you are here for the long run, you should learn how to order your coffee and lunch, interact with the cashiers at your favourite stores, and how to ask for (and understand) directions as soon as possible.
2. The city is busy and you are not alone
The Dutch are a very community-focused society. Yes, they are more individualistic than in most other European countries, but subconsciously, every interaction by a local in the Netherlands involves some level of awareness and care for others.
If you don’t believe me, fake a fall in the middle of a busy supermarket, and see just how many people come to your rescue ― okay, don’t do that ― I’ll just tell you; the answer is it would be a lot. There’s a certain natural flow of things, and so you should learn to go with the flow. Some suggestions:
- If you get lost, don’t just stop in the middle of the sidewalk and stare at your phone.
- Don’t yell at the top of your lungs, which is bad form when you’re drunk, but also when you’re just happy to be in Amsterdam and want the world to know.
- Observe bicyclists and their patterns for at least a day before starting to ride a bike yourself.
- Keeping off the bike path when you’re on foot is a great start, but watch out for bikes on any cycle-able surface (that includes wet streets and stairs!).
- For goodness sake, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze!
3. Act Dutch, be cool
The Dutch are very laid back people. They typically dress down (unless they work in a bank), they have a simple sandwich for lunch, and they don’t care about frills like triple-ply toilet paper. The best way to experience the Netherlands is by lowering your expectations, especially if you come from the US or Canada and are used to big, cushy accommodations and excellent service.
The service at restaurants is notoriously bad, but it’s really because the Dutch see going to a café or restaurant as an experience. If you just want coffee, go to Starbucks. But if you prefer to slow down, take a breather, read a book on a comfy sofa, and oh, by the way, have a latte, I can recommend a few spots you’ll love.
There are no such things as sending your food back at a restaurant, yelling “I want to speak with your manager” at your waiter, or telling the person in front of you who was just behind you “hey, there’s a line.” But that’s ok ― it’s what makes the Netherlands what it is.
Nobody sues anyone for tripping on a stair (your fault), reports a bad business experience to the National Trade Whatsoever (just don’t go again), or marches on Parliament because your power was off for a few hours and your frozen bitterballen went bad. The Dutch are just cool about all these things, knowing they are all a part of life, and that things will work themselves out.
4. Embrace the right kind of vices
The Dutch are known for their tolerance and acceptance of everything non-mainstream. With that kind of reputation, there come a lot of negative stereotypes. I have heard this many times from friends who come visit: “the Dutch are all potheads, they have sex with a different prostitute each night, and most importantly, what happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam.”
Allow me to burst your bubble: despite the fact that Amsterdam is the number one destination for stag parties in Europe, Amsterdam is not Las Vegas.
To the locals, weed and prostitutes don’t even appear on their radar. Instead, the locals take pride in two particular vices: beer and football. If you want to fit in and get the true Dutchie experience, skip the Red Light District and coffeeshops and head over to your nearest café or bar for a Heineken or a delicious Belgian tripel.
To accompany that beer, you’re likely to see a television showing some sort of football game, from local clubs to champions league. If you’re unhappy about how the Dutch are cold and closed off, join them in the rare activity that gets them talking. Take a seat, grab a beer, and you’re sure to make new friends quickly (unless you’re rooting for the wrong team or are drinking an American beer!).
5. You’ll be rewarded in return for your troubles
To many of us, the Netherlands is kind of a miracle of a place. It consistently ranks in the top 10, but even more often in the top five happiest countries in the world. There is practically no crime ― in fact, the government has been closing prisons due to lack of inmates.
People are healthier than in most other western counties, probably due to all of that cycling (and the fact that everyone has access to healthcare)! The country values its cultural history and shares its artistic and architectural treasures with the world. Children get a good education, making them multilingual, intellectually curious, and societally aware.
Knowing all of these things about the Netherlands makes you realize just how lucky it is that a place like this exists. This is why I implore you to take my suggestions to heart and become a part of what makes the country so great!
Nick van Pernisco 😉
Do you have any other important things to know before coming to the Netherlands? Let us know in the comments!
Feature Image: Anne-Onyme/Pixabay.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in June 2018, and was updated in March 2021 for your reading pleasure.