Moving to the Netherlands for the first time: difficulties with language, orders and groceries

I am learning Dutch.

I say that with a small, proud smile, even though in reality I’ve completed one Dutch course that is apparently below the A1 level. So maybe I’m at A0.

For a language-lover like myself though, moving to the Netherlands for the first time whilst learning to speak Dutch is a great opportunity. After all, doesn’t everyone say it’s easy to learn a language when you live in the place; when you have no option but to learn the language?

Yet, one thing I often hear as an expat living in Amsterdam is that “It’s hard to get people to speak Dutch to you because everyone in the Netherlands speaks English.”

I don’t dispute it. Us English-speaking expats are spoilt with the knowledge that should we walk into a shop or cafe and place an order in English it will be easily understood; no Google Translate or hand gesticulation mimicking drinking a cup of coffee, necessary.

Having taken a beginner Dutch course though, I try my best to speak some Dutch where I can. Ironically the problem actually comes when I do try and order in Dutch.

Sorry… what?

Mag ik een latte macchiato met kokosmelk alstublieft.” The spell is cast; the Dutch rolls off my tongue and I have a glowing feeling of belonging. Pretty soon I’ll also be eating bread with butter and hagelslag for lunch, I think to myself with a chuckle.

 

But then the barista, naturally assuming I speak Dutch, responds to me with a long comment/question/ statement which I don’t understand. I stand there, blinking like a deer caught in the headlights, frantically trying to think if there’s a single word in his comment/ question/ statement that I recognise.

What is the right response!? It’s not even one of those situations where someone has repeated themselves so many times that you just smile or laugh and hope that passes as an appropriate response. The barista could be telling me they’re no longer serving coffee and responding with a generic smile or laugh would be awkward.

Eventually, though, I have to admit defeat: “Errrm…sorry?” I ask with an apologetic smile.  The illusion is shattered. He realises I’m a native English speaker, disappointedly says: “Ah, English,” and repeats his question in English for my understanding. I take my coffee, find a seat and ponder the small, everyday changes that accompany this new life in the Netherlands.

Gambling with groceries as a new expat

When moving from a country where English is the main language, the last thing you’re expecting to struggle with is grocery shopping. I remember confidently walking into an Albert Heijn in my first week in the Netherlands, thinking I’ll probably make an easy pasta for dinner that night with my ultimate favourite vegetable: mushrooms.

Until I realised I don’t know what the difference is between “Paddenstoelen” and “Champignon’s”. Or that I actually had no idea what was in the pasta sauce I wanted to buy because the ingredients are listed in Dutch… Dinner that night was a tasty gamble.

I can look back and laugh now because it’s just so easy to get it wrong. I have a friend who mistakenly bought body cream when all he really wanted was a shower gel. I’ve erroneously bought buttermilk (karne melk) before thinking it was fat-free milk (magere melk).

Another time I mistakenly purchased some sort of cottage cheese yoghurt (hutten kwark), thinking it was normal yoghurt, on my way to work — needless to say I skipped breakfast that day.

Oh, the precious euros wasted on trying to understand local products!

Dutch people will speak English where they can, but your day-to-day lifestyle aspects will not be in English. Bills and community notifications, the receipts you’ll need to be able to return those guilty purchases from De Bijenkorf, the comforting blurb explaining all the benefits of that health food you just splurged on, and the automated part of a telephone call you make to an institution that tells you to “Press 1 for English” — in Dutch.

But we love the challenge…

The challenge keeps things interesting though; the mistakes too, are hilarious when you think about it. What unknown product will I mistakenly purchase tonight? Which operator will answer my call and will I be redirected correctly or berated for choosing the wrong option? Which Dutch word will I realise I don’t truly understand, but from now on will never forget?

It’s more of a learning experience if you will. An opportunity for growth through making (costly) mistakes- After all, how does that Instagrammable saying go? “If you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing!”

What were your experiences when moving to the Netherlands for the first time? Let us know in the comments.

Feature Image: Chait Goli/Pexels
Editor’s Note: this article was originally published in February 2019, but was updated in October 2020 for your reading pleasure. 

Shaakira Vania
Shaakira Vania
20-something year old traveller, coconut lover (Seriously-anything coconut), and Libran. I recently made the cross-continent move to Amsterdam and spend my weekends exploring the country, meeting new people and telling myself I will finish a book every month (a promise I'm yet to keep). If I had to sum myself up in three words they would be: quirky, curious, and meme-lover.

4 COMMENTS

  1. The exact opposite of the body lotion – body soap happened with me. I went in hoping to pick up some body lotion with a picture of almond on it. Innocuous, right? Ended up lathering my palms with almond scented soap instead. ?

    I used to spend hours at the grocery store when I first moved here. Trying to decipher the Dutch or hoping to catch a store help to help in the dairy aisle or the spice rack. So much confusing dairy and the spice blends, don’t even get me started. I’m an Indian and I love my whole spices. It’s hard enough for me to find the English words for them, the ground spices in Dutch are just a different level.

    • I can only imagine how hard it is trying to translate everything spice-wise! I’ve for sure struggled with that too.

  2. Hi Shaakira, I can relate to your story very well. But I did the reverse: I went from my home country the Netherlands to the US. My English was quite good, I thought and I was able to make myself understood. I was able to do grocery shopping with no mistakes. However, when I started working, that was a whole different thing: all the technical terminology, the rules and regulations, how to relate to others etc. so no, just being able to speak the language does not imply that you can therefore easily live somewhere else. When I look back to the beginning in 1993; I can laugh at some things that happened to me. But it sure wasn’t always fun when it happened.

    • Hi Karen! I can completely understand that. Working in a professional environment here,I can see how tough it is to get all sorts of business terminology etc across in English. Also just with basic phrases you’re used to using that other people don’t understand, it’s quite a change and one that you’re often not aware of when making the move! 🙂

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