One year in the Netherlands
Date : Sunday 01 January, 2023
A few years ago I wrote a blog post in which I shared my experiences and observations after one year of living in Portugal. It was very much a “should I stay or should I go” kind of article, as I had very mixed feelings about my life there. As it happened, three months after publishing the post I moved back to Warsaw and felt a great sense of relief. I also felt, having moved countries a good few times by that point, that perhaps I had had my share of packing and sending boxes back and forth, and perhaps the time had come to make Warsaw my permanent home.
But life has a tendency to turn such statements on their head and two years after this “permanent” move back, my partner and I started plotting yet another exodus. There were many reasons for it, the political climate in Poland being among our major concerns, but the main thing was: we didn’t feel that we had found our place yet. Ever since becoming an adult, I’ve never felt that I fit into the Polish landscape, hence my journeys abroad. However, I was beginning to wonder if perhaps this had more to do with me rather than the environment. Perhaps I’ll never fit in, no matter the country, I thought.
There were a few countries me and my partner considered for our move, and the criteria were simple: it had to be in the European Union and somewhere where we’d be able to comfortably work in English. This narrowed the list down to Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands. We chose the latter. The plot twist? I had never been to the Netherlands before. Ever. When my partner was signing a lease on our house in The Hague, my foot had never touched the Dutch ground besides Schiphol.
So when exactly one year ago, on the eve of New Year, I arrived in my new home, I had no expectations of what it would be to spend one year in the Netherlands. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I had some ideas about the Dutch culture but those ideas came mostly from warnings on hysterical expat blogs: it’s a boring country, it rains all the time, the Dutch are direct and rude, and they speak an incomprehensible and impossible to learn language. I remember a line from one of the episodes of Sex and the City, when Carrie Bradshaw responds to the question whether she’d been to the Netherlands. “The land of wooden shoes? Oh no, no no no!!”, she exclaims. (Not that I take advice from a superficial TV soap opera, but that line got stuck in my head for some reason).
On the other hand, I was obviously aware of the amazing art heritage, the excellent design traditions, the architecture, and hagelslag (one of the greatest food inventions). But the mere fact of walking on the same soil Rembrandt did a few centuries ago, however thrilling, is not enough to make you happy. So there was a great curiosity about what the actual experience would be like.
If this was Reddit, I’d do a TL;DR here with a one-sentence summary (yay or nay) but alas, this is a blog, so I’m afraid you have a few paragraphs to read about my experiences after one year in the Netherlands. Like with my Portuguese post, please bear in mind that this is a little glimpse into a foreign (and fascinating to me) culture, seen through my eyes, filtered through my personal experience. I don’t claim to be right in my judgements, but rest assured, my views and feelings are honest.
The land of celebrity painters
Oh boy, where do we start. The Wikipedia list of Dutch painters includes over a 1000 artists from as early as 14th century right up to the 20th century. To compare, a similar entry for Portuguese painters has just under 100 names.
Out of these thousand names, many are known worldwide by an average person. Starting with the Early Netherlandish painting, traditionally known as the Flemish Primitives, we have Jan Van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch – the latter having almost a cult following among art fans as the mysterious master of whimsical imagination (incidentally, the town where he was born, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, hosts an annual Bosch Parade, which is a floating river extravaganza typically held each June). Then we have the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting with Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Pieter Brueghel the Elder, whose “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” we all remember from school. Then we have the most famous Dutch Golden Age painting era, spanning the 17th century, with hot names such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen, among many more. This is followed by Flemish Baroque Painting, produced in the Southern Netherlands during Spanish control in the 16th and 17th centuries, represented by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Jacob Jordaens. Apart from that, there’s the Hague School (1860-1890), Amsterdam impressionism period, and the famous modern movements like the Stijl and Piet Mondrian, and The Amsterdam School of architecture. And of course Van Gogh, one of the most famous and influential artists in art history. And a lot of great contemporary art. And…
For a small country, the Netherlands has an abundance of exquisite art and great art institutions. Thanks to Museumkaart, which provides unlimited entry to a few hundred museums across the country for a yearly flat fee of €64.90, I got to visit some pretty interesting venues, yet my favourite is right on my doorstep — the Kunstmuseum in The Hague, with a very rich and eclectic exhibition programme and superbly curated permanent art collection. And when you want something more subversive, there’s the Hoogtij festival. Four times a year on a Friday evening, approximately 25 art locations in the city centre of The Hague, from white cube galleries to underground artist initiatives, open their doors to the public, offering a wide range of artistic activities.
With such a rich visual art scene, it is interesting that when it comes to internationally active disciplines in the Netherlands, the most popular is… music. Music accounted for 40% of activities in 2020 (compared to 11% for visual arts). According to the Performing Arts Fund NL from 2020, the Netherlands has 58 core venues where pop / rock concerts take place, plus specific jazz venues, and of course numerous concert halls for classical music. There are 150 music festivals happening in 2023 across the country for all kinds of music fans.
Yes, there really is a lot to see and listen to.
Weather: Buienradar’s your friend
When I was moving to Portugal, I was expecting sun and warmth, so when the temperatures dropped to near zero in winter and I realised that most flats had no heating or insulation, I became genuinely depressed. When I was moving to the Netherlands, I was told not to expect much sun, so the long summer of bright sky and +20 temperatures we had last year was a delightful surprise. Yes, of course it rains. Does it rain more often than in the UK or Poland? No, it doesn’t. And when it rains, you just put on a rainproof poncho over your normal clothes, get on a bike and go wherever you need to go. Or, better yet – check the Buienradar app that shows precisely when the rain will start and stop to find that dry window for your grocery shopping.
Bonus advantage over Poland – the sun sets exactly one hour later throughout the whole year (and rises too, but I can put up with a dark morning if I can have a longer day).
What’s for dinner
“So what’s Dutch food like? What’s a typical Dutch dish?” I’m asked. And I’ve asked this question numerous times myself. The answer I got from the locals: there’s no such thing as “Dutch cuisine”, no world-renowned dish that people travel for from faraway corners of the world. There’s stamppot (mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables like carrots, endive, and kale), erwtensoep (split pea soup), and all sorts of delicious and unapologetically unhealthy deep-fried goodies like bitterballen (spicy beef balls), kroket (meat ragout deep-fried in a thick coat of breadcrumbs), or kibbeling (battered fish). The most common lunch is broodjes (sandwiches) — the Dutch like their bread, even though in my view, it’s barely edible (which is why we make our own). There’s Indonesian cuisine which is delicious and a great option if you’re vegetarian or vegan — I’ll have a nasi or bami anytime I’m out. Indonesian influences are also to thank for the popularity of peanut butter (pindakaas) in this country, something I eat by the spoon. There are various sweet delights. Hagelslag (hailstrom) are chocolate sprinkles that can be added into yoghurt or sprinkled over a toast; I buy the extra dark kind. Stroopwafels are designed to be placed on top of a cup or a mug with a freshly made tea inside, so that the pastry can soften and become deliciously gooey; oliebollen donuts are traditionally eaten around Christmas and New Year, and pepernoten, spicy cookies, are traditionally baked on the 5th of December to celebrate Sinterklaas Day.
And there’s cheese! If you’re Polish and, like me until a year ago, have never been exposed to a real Gouda besides the kind you find in a Polish shop, then I must assure you — said cheese has nothing to do with the delicacies you find here. Young cheese, mature cheese and everything in between, the choice is enormous. In the Netherlands, cheese is categorised by how long it has been aged: jong (1 month), belegen (4 months), oud (10 months) and overjarig (1 year or more). The country has five traditional cheese markets in Alkmaar, Edam, Hoorn, Gouda and Woerden, and there are cheese stalls in every other market in every city and town. The sellers are happy to give you cheese to taste and prices often beat supermarkets.
There’s one extra thing I should mention as well, and that is kapsalon, a fast food dish created in Rotterdam, consisting of a layer of chips topped with döner or gyro meat, covered with slices of Gouda cheese, and heated in an oven until the cheese melts. I must admit, I’ve never had the courage to try the real thing, though I’ve had vegan kapsalon and it was awesome. With their love for fried food and stamppot, the Dutch are certainly good at making comfort food but they’re not bad at fine dining either — the country has over 100 Michelin-star restaurants (in Poland, there’s currently only one).
Finally — a few words about beer. I admit, I came here a bit spoiled, because Poland has a fantastic selection of microbreweries, and I spent the whole pandemic trying out different IPAs. But Dutch and Belgian beer is something else, and even large breweries like Heineken and Grolsch offer very good specialty brews. My favourite beers are Belgian lambic (especially kriek, cherry lambic) and seasonal bocks: herfstbok (autumn bock) and lentebok (spring bock), both with lovely malty / nutty flavour. And when I’m feeling cheeky, I drink the lovely albeit super strong Belgian citrusy blonde beer, La Chouffe.
Honesty is the only policy
When I was moving here, I was expecting that most of my friends would be expats. As it turned out, the vast majority are Dutch – starting with our lovely neighbours, through the local food cooperative we’re part of, Lekkernassuh, to artists and designers. I’ve made friends with foreigners too, but they’re in the minority. The one Polish friend I have has been living in the Netherlands since childhood. The idea that “you can’t make friends with the Dutch” couldn’t be further from truth.
People are honest and direct, that is 100% correct. When I’m ordering coffee at a cafe, I have a habit of asking for an extra hot one (I hate lukewarm drinks). The usual response to this request in the UK has been “Sure, no problem, extra hot coming right up!”. When I first ordered coffee in the Netherlands, I heard the following: “The coffee is how it comes from the machine. It is what it is.”. There was no malice in this response, the woman saying it was perfectly polite and smiled when she said it. It’s just that the Dutch don’t practise bullshitting in the name of customer service. Property agents are the first to point out potential problems with a flat you’re viewing – “As you can see, the view from the window here is not attractive at all, shame about these ugly solar panels the downstairs neighbour has installed, you might want to put something in the window to block it”. I can see how the British folk might be initially taken aback by the lack of verbal pleasantries, for I’m also used to a somewhat softer approach and overuse of magic words. But this honesty has its upside — when communicating with a Dutch person, I know exactly what I’m standing on. If they tell me they’ll do something, then I know they will. If something can’t be done, they will tell me straight away instead of leading me on in fear of hurting my feelings.
While the British are well known for self-deprecating jokes underneath which there’s a solid pride of Britishness, the Dutch are self-critical without the neatly concealed self-reverence. There’s no pretentiousness or arrogance. While there’s no such thing as a classless society, I think the Netherlands are pretty good at bridging the gaps. The richest neighbourhoods of Amsterdam have larger houses and a higher number of fancy electric bikes, but that’s about it, there’s no other display of wealth, no Porsches parked next to showy mansions (for that you need to get to Wassenaar, but even here we’re talking about a completely different scale than in other countries). As a fundamentally egalitarian society, they’re open to other nationalities in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere. All the Dutch people I know are well-travelled and speak a few foreign languages. Needless to say, you can communicate in English with virtually everyone, everywhere.
But education has deep roots in this country. In the last decades of the 18th century, 68% women and 84% men were literate, both in the cities and countryside. To compare: in the mid-18th century Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, only 10% of people knew the alphabet. And in 1921, one third of our society was still illiterate. According to a recent study conducted by the National Library, in 2020 only 42% Poles picked up a book. And in the Netherlands? 93% of people. Interestingly, school here starts at the age of 4 and from what I know, it’s of pretty high quality. The Dutch seem to understand that providing access to good education is not only important for individual development, but for the development of society as a whole. According to the UN’s Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, “education is the most effective means of preventing intolerance. The first step in diversity education is to teach people what their shared rights and freedoms are, so that they may be respected, and to promote the will to protect those of others.”
Before coming to the Netherlands, I knew very little about the Dutch but I knew one thing – they’re, erm, very economic when it comes to money.
Some of the stories I heard were innocently funny – splitting grocery shopping across a few supermarkets to save 50 cents surely doesn’t harm anyone? – while some filled me with dread, and the latter usually involved the invention of Tikkie. Tikkie is an app tied to a bank, which allows to send a request for payment to an individual or a group of people. Say you’re in a restaurant with friends and one of you foots the bill with the idea that others will pay them back — Tikkie makes this super easy. But it’s one thing to get a payment request after you’d agreed to participate in the cost of something (dinner, friend’s birthday present, group holiday trip, etc) and another when you’ve been invited for dinner to a friend’s house and the next day you get a message asking you to pay for it. When I first heard this story, I was genuinely wondering if I can fit into a society that monetises everything. But thankfully, after a year of living in the Netherlands and several dinners at people’s homes, I can report with a relief that this has never happened to me. Contrary to horrid stories I’ve heard, the Dutch people I’ve visited were always hospitable and generous. Perhaps these things change as more and more foreigners are moving to the country.
Having said that, “korting” (meaning “discount”), is the first word you learn here, and conversations on how cheap or expensive something is or how to save money are common here. In many countries, financial matters are a taboo subject and talking about them is seen as being in poor taste (pun not intended). In English, the word “cheap” means not only inexpensive, but also not liking to spend money (“Don’t be so cheap!”) and having a low status and therefore not deserving respect. The problem is, besides a very narrow group of very privileged people, everybody else is constantly forced to think of ways to save money in the increasingly expensive and inflation-riddled world. Making it something to be ashamed of is just an extra level of condescending cruelty. Interestingly, the Dutch word for “cheap” is “goedkoop”, meaning “good buy”, so there’s absolutely zero negative notion attached to the fact that something doesn’t cost much. Not spending much money is a value, something to be happy with.
Why Dutch cities don’t suck
I’m a city person. I’ve always lived in a city, mostly in the capital (London, Lisbon, Warsaw), and have enjoyed the city landscape and proximity to all sorts of cultural and leisure activities. But there’s always a price to pay for that, mainly in noise, pollution, cost of living, and time it takes to get to places. And that price varies greatly between cities. Warsaw is flooded with car traffic, Lisbon has low quality of housing, while London lacks affordable housing altogether.
In one of the videos on his Not Just Bikes YouTube channel, Why Many Cities Suck (but Dutch Cities Don’t), Jason Slaughter explains what made him want to leave his home town, London in Ontario Canada – and move to the Netherlands. For Jason, the idea of a good city is where suburbs are just as pleasant as downtown, and walkability is an important metric of what makes the place interesting to him. Dutch cities make walking easy and enjoyable. Shops are not hidden behind car parks, and in fact many supermarkets are only accessible by foot and bike. The North American car-centric grocery shopping barely exists here. The idea is to shop local, buy fresh and just the amount you need, instead of stocking up your freezer with things that you won’t manage to eat before they go off.
When it comes to urban planning, North American cities are the exact opposite to Dutch approach, which makes the comparison so striking, but even in Europe, there’s a lot to be desired as well. Last time I owned a bike before moving to the Netherlands was in my childhood. As a kid, I loved cycling in the countryside or the forest in my home city. But it never occurred to me to cycle in the city — neither London nor Warsaw provides the sort of infrastructure that makes cycling safe and pleasant. Right now, I cycle everywhere. Need to go to an Ikea in an industrial area in the city outskirts? A path will take you to its front step. You can easily cycle within a city and between cities, and all train stations have enormous bike parking facilities. There’s not a place you can’t access by bike.
Public transport is also very good. With trains operating 24 hours, going to Amsterdam for an evening concert or a night out is not a problem. Travel card subscriptions are transparent and there is a wide choice of options. Trams and buses go frequently too, and having am NS card means you don’t need to think about buying tickets or topping up – just touch in when you get on a bus / tram or enter a train station, and touch out. The money is taken from your account – either as pay-as-you-go or according to your subscription type with some form of discount (our subscriptions gives us free travel at weekends).
It’s also worth mentioning that the Netherlands is a very child-friendly country but children are not wrapped in cotton wool. In Poland, kids are driven everywhere: school, swimming pool, after-school activities, birthday parties etc. In the Netherlands, small children are taken in a bakfiets, cargo bike, and when they’re old enough to cycle, they get their own bike. The Dutch are relaxed when it comes to parenting but spend time with their children. There is a strong work-life balance ethos, and having to pick up your kid from school is a perfectly good reason to leave work early. They might have invented capitalism, but they know how to curb it when it comes to having a life.
Not just Amsterdam
When it comes to a lot of countries, there’s the capital and the rest. But the Netherlands is not like that. Of course, there are people who see nothing beyond Amsterdam (some of my friends still think I live in the capital), but I’ll let them stay inside their bubble. The thing I like about this country is that one can live in a small town without any FOMO. They’re just as well designed, just as pretty and often a lot more comfortable to live. And while architecturally, the Netherlands is unified by the use of brick, every city has its own character. I am certainly biased in my fondness of The Hague, but I’m also the first to recommend a trip to Rotterdam, Utrecht, Delft, Leiden, Gouda, Edam, Groningen, Breda, Nijmegen, Haarlem, Eindhoven and Dordrecht (I’m yet to see Maastricht).
Love is love
The Netherlands is a multi-cultural, LGBT-friendly nation where sex is no taboo. At school, children read Koning en Koning (King and King, 2000), a cheerful fairy tale created by the illustrator duo Stern Nijland & Linda de Haan, about a prince who is meant to marry but instead of falling in love with a princess, he falls for a prince, and they live happily ever after.
In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. Children are taught about the reproductive system and intimacy from a very young age. There are sex care organizations helping disabled people experience sex and intimacy.
Prostitution in the Netherlands is legal. Everyone has heard of the red light districts but not everyone knows that prostitution is heavily regulated and there’s a whole section on the Municipality of The Hague website dedicated to proposals of how to improve the situation of sex workers in the city.
Abortion has been fully legal since 1984, and in 2021, following the horrendous near-total ban on abortion in Poland, the Dutch government offered to pay for women from Poland to obtain abortions in the Netherlands.
It is very refreshing to live in a liberal, tolerant country where sexual health is an important part of life, to be experienced, learned and talked about.
Teflon and pragmatism
Everybody complains about their government (and if they don’t, you should be suspicious), but here in the Netherlands I find there’s generally a little less complaining than I’ve heard elsewhere. Although I’m not the best person to comment on the political landscape, because prior to coming here, I was not following the Dutch politics, and I do hear a lot of criticism towards the prime minister (nicknamed “Teflon Mark” because of his ability to emerge unscathed from all sorts of political turmoil), in general the amount of first-page scandals involving top politicians is nothing compared to what I was used to both in the UK and Poland. What I do like is the fact that it’s a multi-party government where parties have to form coalitions. I find the two-party systems like the US and UK incredibly scary – what it leads to is endless fighting between the two opposing forces and an extremely divided society.
In general, I find the Netherlands to be balanced – besides marginal groups with extreme views, which you’ll find in absolutely every country, the general attitude is of pragmatic no-nonsense, and a sense of individual freedom. The Dutch aren’t rebels but they’re not frantically obedient either. I find them easy-going and relaxed – not as much as the Mediterranean folk, but more relaxed than Germans and infinitely more relaxed than the Swiss.
Cafes, churches & coffeeshops
In the Netherlands, religion is a private matter. The country does have its “bible belt” part with hardcore Christians but as a whole, it’s a secular society, in fact one of the most secular countries in the Western Europe. Over 50% people declare themselves to be atheists or agnostics, and only 1% go to church on Sunday. Between 2003 and 2014 the number of Roman Catholic parishes dropped from 1525 to 760. Churches are turned into libraries, theatres, and cafes. One of the most famous is De Koffieschenkerij in Amsterdam, which shares an interior church wall with the room where, in 1624, Rembrandt and his wife signed their wedding certificate.
So we have cafes and we have coffeeshops, which, like the converted churches, offer something entirely different than what you’d imagine based on the name.
Who doesn’t remember the wonderful dialogue in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where Vincent describes to his friend Jules the Dutch laws regarding cannabis possession: “It’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to own it and, if you’re the proprietor of a hash bar, it’s legal to sell it. It’s legal to carry it, which doesn’t really matter ’cause – get a load of this – if the cops stop you, it’s illegal for this to search you. Searching you is a right that the cops in Amsterdam don’t have.” “That did it, man”, replies Jules, “– I’m fuckin’ goin’, that’s all there is to it”.
There are about 500 coffee shops in the country, and a recent survey found that nearly 95% of recent cannabis users had acquired the drugs in a coffee shop. While cannabis is not everyone’s cup of tea, I support the fact that it can be bought in a shop, with an option to choose between different types and strengths, and be issued a receipt. Ironically, most of the Dutch people I’ve met don’t smoke. Which only proves that we are mostly attracted to the forbidden.
They say that in order to estimate whether you should stay in the country or move is whether the (very personal and subjective) list of disadvantages is shorter or longer than the advantages. In the case of Portugal, I was complaining from the first day, and towards the end, I was finding more and more things I was upset with. In the case of the Netherlands, I honestly struggle to recall a moment when I felt unhappy and pining to go back. Even a couple of weeks ago, when I got completed soaked on my cycle as I was running errands, I didn’t curse the weather or fantasised about living somewhere else. After one year in the Netherlands I can say with honesty that I really like this country. So the question “should I stay or should I go” is a no brainer. I’m staying.