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Moving to the lowlands….

Schools in the NetherlandsSome people find it a frightening idea to live below sea level, and some don’t believe it is actually possible. In the Netherlands, however, this is really the case. If the dikes and dunes weren't there, about two-thirds of the country would flood. The lowest point in the Netherlands is almost 7 metres below sea level. Don’t worry though - in daily life you don't notice you are lower than the fish!

The relationship between the Dutch and water has always been a precarious one, and Dutch engineers are well-known for their expertise in managing water. One of the masterpieces of Dutch engineering is the Delta Works, the storm surge barriers that allow big ships into the enormous harbour at Rotterdam, while keeping out the high storm waves when needed. Another example of Dutch ingenuity is the land that has been reclaimed from the sea and made usable for agriculture, housing, and other developments: the so-called polders.

Dutch weather

You will soon learn that a lot of the water in the Netherlands also comes from above. On a typical Dutch day, the weather changes about five times, and rain is very often one of the scenarios. Most conversations with strangers start by discussing how much you like or dislike the current weather and how long it is supposed to last this time.

One of your first purchases in the Netherlands will probably be proper rain gear. Also make sure you download the Buienradar app on your phone. With this handy app, you can see when the current period of rain ('bui') will stop and when the next one will begin. If you have to leave the house, you try to plan your (bike) movements in between. Many Dutchies don't seem to care too much about the rain, though. They just grab their bikes when they have to leave, and don't go through the hassle of putting their rain suits on all the time. They know they’ll get wet at some point anyway. So if you arrive in full rain gear with shiny new rain boots, you might well be identified as an expat right away - but at least you will stay dry.

The same applies for winter clothing. In recent years, the temperature has barely dropped below freezing and it has rarely snowed - if at all. Most Dutch people grew up with much colder temperatures, and they will disagree with you if you say it gets cold nowadays. Their snow boots, earmuffs and thick woolly jumpers are gathering dust in their wardrobes.

And what about the Dutch summer, you may ask? If you expect a long stretch of stable, warm and sunny days, you will end up very disappointed. Sure, the sun does come out more often than in the other seasons, but it will still rain a lot. For this reason, as soon as the sun pops out from behind the clouds, you’ll see many people outside on bar terraces and in the parks. You never know when your next opportunity will come. You will also find that people are happier and more smiley at these times. So if you want something more difficult done from a Dutch person, you might want to wait til the sun is shining….

Another good tip is to dress in layers, so you have suitable attire for all the weather conditions that the day will bring.

The Dutch landscape in relation to the Dutch way of communicating

The above-mentioned (natural) dunes and (man-made) dikes are about the only bumps you will find in the landscapes of the Netherlands. Only in the southern province of Limburg will you find some hills, which are by lack of comparison called mountains ('bergen') in Dutch. If you want to impress your Dutch friends, the highest ‘mountain’ in the Netherlands is the Vaalserberg, the summit of which towers a whopping 322.7 metres above sea level, and is located close to the point where the Netherlands meets Germany and Belgium.

Some anthropologists claim that the lack of proper mountains is one of the reasons for the Dutch's direct way of communicating. They have never needed to talk up or downhill, so they just say everything in a straight line, or ‘straight through the sea’ as the Dutch call it.

The Dutch pride themselves on being honest and providing you with an accurate answer to your question. They usually mean what they say and they don't beat around the bush. The same is valid for unsolicited advice. For example, the cashier at the supermarket might tell you that she thinks that your baby is dressed in too many clothes for the weather. If you are not used to these things, you might consider this as impolite or even rude. You should know, however, that in most cases, your Dutch counterpart means well.

In the same way, they also expect you to speak up and say what you think. If you don’t like something, just state it in factual terms. Then together you try and find a mutual solution. It would be unusual to become emotional in these situations, or to complain to the boss or anyone else in charge who isn't directly involved.

Pretending that everything is fine and then complaining afterwards to someone else or on social media isn't much appreciated either. Of course there are some exceptions, so you’ll have to find out a bit for yourself how it works.

Bikes

After purchasing your rain gear, you will probably buy a bike. The ‘fiets’ is for many Dutch people their main means of transport. Because of the high costs of parking, the long wait for a parking permit, and the significant costs for car insurance and maintenance, many urban dwellers choose to not own a car. Instead they use their bikes and the well-functioning public transport system. It won’t take you long to get used to the fact that most distances in a city are calculated in biking minutes.

A very popular way to transport children is by ‘bakfiets’, a sort of cargo bike. They come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and materials, on two or three wheels, and with or without an electric motor.

Although not many things get stolen in the Netherlands, bikes are a sad exception. So it's best to buy a second-hand, not-so-nice-looking bike. Before you park it in one of the crowded bike parking facilities, make sure to mark it with some eye-catching sticker, elastic band or bell, or otherwise you’ll have a hard time finding it again in between all the other similar-looking bikes. You should know that most people spend more money on at least two good bike locks than on the bike itself. You should also get your bike officially registered - which is for free - so in case it gets stolen and the police retrieve it, they know who to return it to.

One important tip that might save you a trip to the hospital: when cycling, always cross the tram tracks diagonally. You wouldn’t be the first foreigner to get stuck with a bike wheel in one of tram tracks dotted around Dutch cities.

Food

Every now and then you’ll also need to buy some food.

I’m sure it won’t surprise you when I say that Dutch cuisine isn't really a thing. Maybe you have heard of ‘stamppot’ before: mashed potatoes mixed with a vegetable like kale, endives, or carrots and onions. Traditionally at dinner many Dutch families had a plate in front of them covered with some boiled potatoes, a piece of meat and one type of boiled vegetable with some salad on the side. Food was meant for nutritional purposes, and didn't warrant more attention than really necessary.

Luckily, over time some things have changed in this respect. Especially in the bigger towns and cities, people are very keen on trying new flavours. You will easily find ingredients, food shops and restaurants from many countries, mainly from the old Dutch colonies like Indonesia and Suriname, as well as from the many countries more recent immigrants have come from.

In the main squares, you'll find farmers’ markets where you can get fresh (organic) food for very reasonable prices. Most local foods are cheaper and more easily available when they are in season, for example white asparagus (in the spring), herring (early summer), pumpkins (autumn) and mussels (September till April - the months that contain an ‘r’ in their name in both Dutch and English).

Some products or brands you might be used to are not easily available in the Netherlands, or they are (much) more expensive than in your home country. So if you can’t live without them, you might want to bring some with you when you come.

Favourite ‘foreign' items frequently mentioned that are difficult to track down here include: cheddar cheese, tea in bulk (black tea in the Netherlands is much weaker than its British cousin), dairy milk chocolate, pumpkin pie spice, pure maple syrup, pure vanilla extract, custard powder, bacon, sausages, black/white pudding, Cheerios breakfast cereal [Nestle makes the European Cheerios, which are much sweeter than the traditonal General Mills non-sugary oat flavor still sold in the US, although both are in the familiar yellow box], porridge oats, Graham Crackers, icing sugar, Oxo cubes, scotch broth, beef jerky, pickles, Twizzlers, Twiglets, and Vegemite/Marmite.

And for non-food products, you won't easily find some products or brands you might be used to, or will find they are (much) more expensive than in your home country: English (children’s) books and toys, cold medicines, Calpol, NyQuil, Tums, tampons with plastic applicator, big Ziplock bags, and deodorant sticks. 

You can actually find these items, but you’ll have to search for them.

But don’t despair: most of the ingredients you need for your favourite baking recipes are available in Dutch stores. They often have some very different names, though. Some quick pointers:

-     Baking soda = 'baksoda' or 'zuiveringszout (technically sodium bicarbonate)

-     Baking powder = 'bakpoeder' (= baking soda + tartaric acid)

-     Cream of tartar = 'wijnsteenpoeder'

-     Washing Soda = 'soda' (not to be confused with baking soda, this is technically sodium carbonate and most   definitely not for consumption )

Please note that 'Filet Americain' will not be familiar to Americans by that name. It's really steak tartare - same ingredients - only ground to within an inch of its life. The Dutch love it, and often use it spread on bread or crackers.

Supermarkets

In most of the bigger towns and cities, where space is limited and expensive, you will probably find that the supermarkets are smaller than you're used to. You will probably be able to get most of the things you want, but there will be fewer types of the same product, and the number of non-food items sold at a regular Dutch supermarket is very limited. Since most Dutch houses don’t have a huge storage area, nor a big fridge or freezer, you will find yourself going to the supermarket a couple of times per week - by bike, of course. The advantage is that you will have fresh fruit and vegetables more often, and generally less waste.

Depending on where the supermarket is located, you may find more specialty products, like British or American delicacies, halal or kosher foods, or quantities prepared for single households or bigger families.

Your first trip to a Dutch supermarket might be daunting, so let me guide you through the most common challenges international people face:

-     Milk. The Dutch are great on dairy. You might be surprised to see your Dutch colleagues often having a cheese sandwich with a glass of milk for lunch. At the supermarket for ‘normal’ milk, you have the choice between 'volle melk' (whole milk), and 'halfvolle melk' (semi-skimmed milk). Be aware that the 'karnemelk' you will also see is buttermilk. If your child’s school asks your child to bring in milk, you might need ‘milk’ based on soy, almonds, rice or some other white equivalent...all pretty readily available. 

-     Bread. No matter how small the supermarket is, they are very likely to have a fresh bakery. Apart from the fact that the smell of fresh baked bread will make you buy more, you can profit from an extensive selection.

-     Water. Tap water in the Netherlands is of very high quality, so you don’t need to buy bottles of water unless you want to.

-     Bring your own bags. For environmental reasons, a recent change in the law means that you have to pay for plastic bags from shops, so it is better to bring some bags from home. You are also expected to pack your own bags at the checkout, and you are usually not given much time to pack before the next customer is served.

-     Credit cards. Most supermarkets don't accept credit cards. Most customers pay by PIN (debit card, but only from a Dutch bank), cash, or contactless, where you just hold your bankcard near the payment device and the transaction is made (for payments higher than 25 euros, or more than 50 euros in consecutive payments, a pin code is still required.)

-     Statiegeld. You get some money back when you return beer bottles or crates, and some plastic drink bottles. Bring these bottles to the ‘statiegeld’ machine which you will find somewhere in the supermarket (often in the back of the store), get your receipt ('statiegeldbon') and give it to the cashier, who will deduct this amount from your bill.

-     Loyalty programmes. Many supermarkets have their own loyalty card. In exchange for information about your household composition and your purchases, they will give you a discount on a wide range of selected products. As a thrifty nation, the Dutch also like to collect saving stamps, for example for silverware, tablecloths, plants, and tickets for day trips by train or for theme parks.

Housing

Finding affordable housing is often tough for people from abroad. With an average of almost 22 euros per square metre per month, Amsterdam is by far the most expensive Dutch city to rent in - followed by Amstelveen, Haarlem and Utrecht. Most areas outside of the Randstad - the megalopolis in the central-western part of the Netherlands - are more affordable, but these places are usually less internationally minded and it might be more difficult to find a job there.

If you are planning on staying in the country for a longer period, it might be worth looking into buying a house. Get yourself a good mortgage advisor and, if you pay Dutch taxes, ask about the possibilities for a tax rebate for homeowners ('hypotheekrenteaftrek').

Although you are not obliged to use an estate agent to help you find a house, they can prove to be very valuable. Some landlords try to take advantage of non-Dutch speaking people by stating unreasonable rules in the rental contract, or by asking for a rent that can’t easily be justified.

Some houses are very old and in not such a good shape. Especially before you buy a house, you should check the state of the roof, plumbing, electrics, and the foundations (especially in Amsterdam, which was originally built on wooden foundation piles).

Many old houses have subsided over time, and you will find a lot of tilted floors as a consequence. Another feature of these old houses are the steep, narrow staircases, called ‘trap’ in Dutch (go figure…).

Don’t let the facade of the house trick you though. In many cities, the fronts of houses are protected as monuments and cannot be altered, but inside these buildings have often been completely renovated and updated to modern times.

Because of the very limited number of days that are really hot, you won’t find many houses that are equipped with air conditioning. This also fits the mentality of the thrifty and (relatively) environmentally conscious Dutch: if you don’t really need it, or if there are cheaper or more environmentally-friendly alternatives available, then you just don’t buy it.

The Netherlands is a small country, and with 17 million inhabitants it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. With all these people living so closely together, you may find the average houses smaller than you are used to. In the cities, many people live in apartment buildings, which are rarely higher than five floors. Many houses don’t come with a place to park, so if you have a car, you will need to arrange and pay for parking separately.

You should be aware that most Dutch people rent unfurnished houses. The limited number of furnished houses that you will find on the market are usually exclusively offered to expats. Often you pay much more extra rent per month than the furniture is worth for these. You might want to consider an unfurnished house instead and buy the things you need cheaply at IKEA, or at a (online) second-hand market. The Dutch equivalent of Gumtree or eBay is called Marktplaats.

Before you move into a furnished house, you should check very carefully together with the landlord that all items have been properly listed, that they are actually present in the house and that they are all intact. Sometimes you hear that landlords refuse to refund a deposit because they claim that household items are missing, damaged, or dirty. It is very difficult to prove your innocence if you didn't sign an inventory when you moved in. It's not a bad idea to take photographs of the rooms, and of particular things that look dirty, worn or frayed.

Here are some popular housing websites to give you an impression of the areas and the house prices ('huur' = rent, 'koop' = buy):

www.funda.nl

www.pararius.com/english

www.rooftrack.nl/en/ (rent only)

Opening a bank account

Before you can use your debit card in a shop and pay your rent, you of course need to open a bank account. For most banks you will need a BSN (social security number) first. You will receive you BSN by post after you have registered at the town hall. It is important to register at the municipality within five days after your arrival in the Netherlands.

The biggest and most well-established banks are ABN-AMRO, ING, RABOBANK, and SNS BANK. Be aware that most banks require an appointment to open a bank account.

There are also two banks that advertise as "ethical banks": TRIODOS and ASN. Neither of these have any branches open to the public, but you can arrange everything online, and by phone.

Banks also vary in how much of their communication is in English, so check that in advance. The annual fee for having a bank account differs from bank to bank.

Insurance

Something else you need to arrange as soon as you have set foot on Dutch soil is insurance (‘verzekering’). Health insurance is obligatory for everyone, but the process of selecting the right insurance can be very complicated and frustrating.

Health insurance consists of three parts:

1. the compulsory basic insurance ('basisverzekering')

2. the optional additional insurance ('aanvullende verzekering')

3. optional dental insurance ('tandheelkundige zorg')

The contents of the basic insurance have been drawn up by the government and are the same for every insurance company. The monthly fee for basic insurance is on average 100 euros. There are various additional insurance packages that offer you more coverage, for a higher monthly fee. The insurance companies establish the contents of these additional packages themselves. It might be worth comparing the package prices and coverage before you decide on a company.

The 'eigen risico' (own risk) you will come across means that you have to pay the first part of your health care yourself. Every year the government decides on this amount - it is €385 in 2016 - and it is the same for every basic insurance. For the some treatments like the GP ('huisarts'), midwife ('verloskundige'), and dentist ('tandarts') for children up to the age of 18, as well as the care that is covered by your additional insurance, the 'eigen risico' doesn’t apply - in other words they are always fully covered by your insurance company. If you don’t make much use of health care, you’ll only have to pay part of the 'eigen risico' - for example, if you only claim 150 euros on health care, you only pay this 150 euros and not the 385 euros. You may also choose for a higher 'eigen risico' amount ('vrijwillig eigen risico'), which will lower your monthly fee. But then you’ll have to pay, for example, the first 600 euros yourself before you will be reimbursed.

For some treatments you partly have to pay yourself ('eigen bijdrage'). For example, some insurance only covers a maximum of €45 per person per day for alternative medicines. You will have to foot the rest of the bill yourself. It is important to be aware of the difference between ‘eigen bijdrage’ and ‘eigen risico’.

Additionally, you have a choice between a 'restitutieverzekering', a 'naturaverzekering', and a 'budgetverzekering'. Of these three, the 'restitutieverzekering' is the most expensive, but it gives you the freedom to select the health care provider or hospital that you like.

The 'naturaverzekering' is cheaper, but you can only go to those healthcare providers with which your insurance company has a contract - you should check these providers beforehand.

The 'budgetverzekering' is the cheapest of the three, but here your options for providers are much more limited and you’ll have to arrange most insurance issues online.

Sometimes you can get a collective discount ('collectiviteitskorting') through your employer or a (charity) organisation. Citizens with a lower income may qualify for a ‘zorgtoeslag’, which is a contribution towards the costs of health care provided by the state.

Not obligatory but very much needed is liability ('aansprakelijkheids') insurance. If your child throws a football through your neighbours’ window, or your dog jumps a little too enthusiastically at a jogger in the park, who then falls and breaks his leg, the costs are covered by this insurance.

Health care

In case of a health problem, the first point of contact for your entire family is your GP (‘huisarts’). This might seem strange to you, but in general the Dutch family doctor is more qualified than the GPs in most other countries, and they are allowed to do all basic treatments. Some foreigners find Dutch doctors a bit reluctant to prescribe medicines, especially antibiotics. One of the reasons is to prevent their patients from getting immune to antibiotics, which is a growing problem in many countries. Also, antibiotics usually don't help with colds or viruses.

A GP often involves their patients in their healing process. This is why you will find that your doctor asks you a lot of questions before they will prescribe anything. How do you feel in general? Are you exposed to a lot of stress? What have you already tried yourself? What do you think would be a suitable solution? “Take it easy, have a Paracetamol, and come back in about five days if your complaints still persist", is the advice often given. If you don’t feel better after those five days, go back and discuss your next steps. As in many other situations, if you don’t agree with your doctor and you feel you need another medicine or treatment, just tell them. Also don’t be surprised if your doctor consults his/her computer while you are there to find the latest research on a specific condition, or the Dutch equivalent of the medicine you are used to taking.

If your health issues are (very) complicated, your huisarts will refer you to a specialist doctor at the hospital. So children should be taken to the huisarts first, and he or she will decide if a referral to a paediatrician is necessary (in many cases it is not).

Children up to 4 years old get a regular invitation to visit the 'Consultatiebureau' (GGD/OKC), which is a sort of health clinic for babies and toddlers. Here their weight and height is frequently monitored, the nurses closely follow their physical and speech development, and they administer vaccines. At the Consultatiebureau they also provide a lot of free advice on how to raise children as well as classes for both parents and children. Once a child goes to school, the school doctor comes in every now and then to check the development of all pupils. If your child is sick, you should call your GP.

You are not supposed to go directly to the hospital yourself. In the evenings or at weekends, if you really can’t wait till the next working day, you might want to call the huisartsenpost, the after-hours doctor. They will make an appointment for you and you will be seen (almost) immediately.

In case of a life-threatening emergency you should call 112, and an ambulance, the police or the fire brigade (whichever is applicable) will come to your rescue within minutes.

Internet providers

Next to professional rain gear, a bike, a bank account, health insurance, and a family doctor, you will no doubt want to arrange an internet provider. Depending on where you live, there will be a couple of internet providers available. Most cable internet connections are faster, more stable and cheaper than many other countries, but the fibre-optic roll-out in some Dutch cities has been slower than planned. You will have no trouble finding packages with truly unlimited data download options. Using your mobile phone for internet is very costly, like in most European countries, so if you are regularly using the internet, a home connection is a better deal. 

Phone

Fewer and fewer households have a landline nowadays; most people only use their mobile phones. Most mobile phone providers offer both prepaid and contract options. When you use your phone regularly, a contract ('abonnement') is usually cheaper, but often you are stuck with the contract for a minimum duration. As with many other companies, mobile phone providers are allowed to automatically renew your contract if you don’t cancel one month before the expiry date. So make a habit of always writing down in your diary when your contract ends.

Many mobile phone contracts also include a ‘free’ phone, but be aware that you are actually paying some money towards this phone every month. By the end of your contract you might have paid more than if you had bought the same phone in one go.

If you already have a working phone that isn’t ‘SIM-locked’, a ‘SIM-only’ contract might be more suitable for you.

Please also be aware that you are not allowed to use your mobile phone while driving.

Learning Dutch

The official language of the Netherlands is Dutch, which is similar to German, but definitely not the same. By law, children have to learn English at school from the age of 10 or 11, but more and more schools decide to start earlier - some of them already teach English from age 4. The Dutch have always travelled a lot and for many people it won’t be a problem to speak English with you. Still, most of them will appreciate it when you speak their language. There are plenty of Dutch classes on offer for non-Dutch speaking people. They vary greatly in terms of intensity, level, numbers of fellow students and prices.

In the beginning it can be very frustrating when you try and speak Dutch in public. After putting in a lot of effort to ask a question in Dutch, you’ll find many people answer you in English instead. This is not meant to discourage you, though. Most Dutch people just would like to help you by talking in the language that you both know best. And some Dutch people speak both English and Dutch all day long and so often don’t realise which language they are using at a certain moment. Just explain to them - in Dutch - that you are practising the language and that you would appreciate them answering in Dutch as well. Good luck, or as we say in Dutch, 'succes'!

Friendships

Typically, many Dutch people have a small circle of very good friends. Often they have known these friends since secondary school or university, and even if they currently live in different cities, they still see each other regularly. With these best friends they share everything, good or bad. Next to these friends they have some less close friends, who they enjoy spending time with but share less personal stuff with. It usually takes time to become real friends with a Dutch person. One of the concerns Dutch people might have is that they will ‘invest’ time in getting to know you and share their secrets with you, and soon after you will move away. Therefore it might help to explain to a Dutch person you like that you will be around for quite some time and worth the investment.

Many people are members of sports, music and hobby clubs, and this is where they often meet like-minded people who they also spend time with outside of the club activities.

Having children often makes it easier to meet fellow parents and of course create a great topic of conversation.

Keep your diary at the ready. Most social gatherings in the Netherlands are arranged beforehand, and you are expected to show up on time. On the one hand this seems a little rigid, but on the other it is an effective way to plan (often) busy lives. As a rule of thumb, if someone invites you around 6pm, they expect you for dinner, but if it is after 8pm, you are already supposed to have eaten. Also don’t expect too much from lunch in terms of food (see above), and how long you will meet for.

With this guide, I hope your move here will be plain sailing, and you will take to the Netherlands like a duck to water. Enjoy your stay!

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