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, as everyone you encounter will speak English (and likely knows more about the news in your country than you do).
However, 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 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 also a certain natural flow of things, and 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 cycleable 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.
READ MORE | Dutch Quirk #9: Drink copious amounts of coffee at work
But if you prefer to slow down, take a breather, read a book on a comfy sofa, and have a latte, I can recommend a few spots you’ll love.
There’s no such thing 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.
READ MORE | 3 things in the Netherlands that you will either love or hate
Nobody sues anyone for tripping on the stairs (your fault 👀), reports a bad business experience to the National Trade Whatsoever (just don’t go again), or marches to 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.
READ MORE | Sin City Wars: Amsterdam versus 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 the 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 a lack of inmates.
People are healthier than in most other western counties, probably due to all 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 realise just how lucky it is that a place like this exists. This is why I encourage 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!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in June 2018, and was updated in December 2022 for your reading pleasure.
For those planning a more extended stay (say few months or more) there’s one thing you’ll need to realize, meeting friendly people is quite easy but making actual friends, good personal friends can be more of a challenge.
Most Dutch people grow up living in 1, 2 or perhaps 3 places (more places does happen ;-), but is not expected that often). During those years growing up class sizes and persons tend to remain pretty stable, most people will do some sort of sports, most often in an organized form (club, competion etc) and then ofcourse social and family life.
Together with the eternal agenda habit, it can give the impression that Dutchie isn’t intrested in an extra friendship, thus expats hanging together which can make it even harder to make a Dutchfriend.
Ofcourse language is a factor, but doesn’t need to be the blocking factor. Just drop the shyness and take initiative, propose a drink (either that same night or otherwise an “agenda item”. In a week or even two.
Given that most Dutchie’s have a nicely filled life, they’ll often lack the need to make many new friends and can seem unavailble. Most often it’ll be a matter of them expecting you (and anyone else) to make it abundantly clear (words and or deeds) that you want, need, miss …..something. If you persevere you’ll suddenly find you have crossed that border
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Practically no crime is an exaggeration. Bike thefts, house breaks in are so common that the only response from the police is please fill in the forms. Empty prisons? Not enough police to pursue the crimes. Organized crime is a big issue.
Not everybody has access to Healthcare. This is not true. You have only if you pay a minimum of 100 euros per month. Which is insanely expensive. Insurance here is mafia.
Where I come from, you were born with free Healthcare services o’ anything for the rest of your days. No need to take out private insurance.
Oh, if you refuse to take out private insurance in Netherlands, because you’re poor, they put you in the shit even more by fining you 405 euros.
Rest of the article is true.
The healthinsurance is obliged in the Netherlands. If you do not earn enough to pay your insurance, you can apply for social help and the government will cover your basic insurance. Countries with a public healthcare system can often not offer the good quality of the Dutch healthservices.
Nick, fun piece but at least adjust the football part. You should write voetbal or soccer. Footbal is incorrect in this piece.
“The Dutch are not as maniacal about their culture as are the French”. I think this is perhaps a grammatical error? The French are actually quite maniacal about their culture 🙂
“For goodness sake, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze!”
What? Do they think only Dutch people know you’re supposed to do that?
Wow the Dutchies are so smart they “likely know more about the news in your country than you do.” Super Dutch. I wish they were running the world. We would have no more problems. Go Netherlands Go!
Finally someone not nagging about the way of life here 🙂