The Netherlands sells itself as a country of tulips, windmills, cheese and clogs, but that is not how international workers see it.
The new set of Dutch stamps, featuring 10 of the country’s most obvious clichés, says it all: the Netherlands is a blue and white country with old-fashioned habits and attributes. Alongside the marketing tools beloved by the tourist board, the stamps include skates to tie under your shoes, cows and sailing boats.
But what do foreigners who move to the Netherlands think makes the Netherlands what it is? Recent research by DutchNews.nl and volunteer organisation ACCESS showed clogs don’t merit a mention. Nor do tulips and windmills. But mention bikes, doctors and the lack of sunshine and you will find international workers have plenty to say.
In particular, the relaxed atmosphere in the Netherlands, especially at work, is a big plus for international workers. ‘The work environment is relaxed. I saw people cancelling meetings just because it was sunny that day,’ said one Turkish expat.
‘I love the fact that where I work there is less emphasis on hierarchy and more on consensus and delivery,’ said a Russian national who has lived in the Netherlands for nearly nine years.
And an American expat was quite certain about the impact of working in the Netherlands on her work-life balance. ‘I will never go back to a country where I only get one week’s holiday a year,’ she said.
Bath or shower?
Dutch houses also come in for a lot of comment. ‘Having a washing machine in the bathroom was really strange as was the lack of a bath,’ wrote one British woman who moved in with her Dutch boyfriend.
The steepness of Dutch stairs and big windows in many older properties came in for a lot of comment as well. One expat even warned people to be aware of moving too close to a tram line because of the excruciating noise made by the machines which clean the tracks early in the morning.
The alternative to public transport is, of course, cycling, which all expats seem to adopt enthusiastically. ‘I love how relaxed the Dutch are on their bikes. You see men in suits and women in fancy dresses,’ said a Bulgarian office worker.
The health service is one area where opinions differ widely. Many women were shocked by the fact they cannot simply ask a gynaecologist for an annual check-up.
‘They will give you a paracetamol for everything before running any tests,’ wrote a South African. ‘They will ask why you need a check-up if you are not sick.’ She also warned new arrivals to be aware of nosey receptionists who want to know every detail of your symptoms before deciding if you merit an appointment.
Expats also have some odd tips to share with their fellow internationals. Take a plastic bag to put over your bike seat in case it rains, suggests a Portuguese student who has been in the Netherlands for two years. Read children’s books, like Jip and Janneke, to improve your Dutch, says a financial analyst. And learn to skate so you can embrace Dutch ice fever, says British translator Shirley.
There are, of course, some negative aspects, and several expats in the survey pointed out the rise in anti-foreigner sentiment in the Netherlands. ‘This country is not as tolerant as the propaganda would have you believe – and in any case, who wants to be tolerated,’ wrote one New Zealand resident.
The lack of sunshine, the high cost of eating out and the difficulty of getting to know the Dutch themselves were also singled out.
But despite the grumbles, many expats are positive about their experiences of living in the Netherlands. ‘Life is easy in the Netherlands,’ wrote a Portuguese IT specialist. ‘You can travel anywhere and talk to everyone in English, more or less… the culture is immense and your bike is your true friend.’
Almost 150 expats from around the globe took part in the DutchNews.nl and ACCESS survey. Some of their comments have been collected in a new book, Ready, Steady, Go Dutch which is available in good bookshops and online at www.readysteadygodutch.com.