Life as an Expat in the Netherlands: Reflecting on a Year Abroad

Today is September 7th, one full year since I moved to the Netherlands. One full year since I arrived at Schiphol airport with no intention of going back.

The Netherlands, a country with lots of water and mills.

A lot as happened since then, and while I can’t recount every single thing in this post, I did want to place a significant focus on how I’ve gotten to know this tiny, wonder country and its people a bit more.

Because a year ago, everything was so new to me. Things are still new to me, but I know I’ve come a long way.

If you’re not familiar with my story, I’m an American, originally from New York City. I moved to the Netherlands because my partner is Dutch, although, she was still in the US finishing up her Ph.D. position when I moved. We now live together in Utrecht.

The lovely city of Utrecht in the Netherlands. It is very charming!

But when I first arrived, I moved to Amsterdam in a charming sublet near Rembrandt Park in West.

Living in Amsterdam as a fresh expat can be easy, but moving to another country is not a simple task. The practical problems aside, like not being able to use the self check out at grocery stores because you don’t have a Dutch bank account or debit card, my cultural assimilation into the Netherlands was a slow but steady progress.

My first week in the Netherlands, I immediately found and enrolled in a Dutch course. I had taken Dutch classes in the US, but my reasoning was that I hoped this would give me the push I needed to become more comfortable having conversations in Dutch at parties or dinners.

Besides, I thought this would be an easy way to have some built in social interactions and get to know other expats who were also interested in getting to know Dutch culture. As opposed to continuing to speak no Dutch after living here for ten years. Which is also an option, but just not one I can relate to.

The class exceeded my expectations. It helped me get to know seven other expats, all of whom were different but similar in some ways. It was nice to see what kinds of jobs they had (since I hadn’t found a job yet), where they lived (I also had no permanent housing then), and what they did for fun (my social life at the time in the Netherlands exclusively revolved around my girlfriend and her friends).

It was there that I discovered a puzzle I have yet to solve—how was everyone in that class able to afford living in Amsterdam? In locations like the Jordaan and De Pijp! This was renting in September 2019, before Covid, when rental prices were basically at their peak.

The beautiful city of Amsterdam with its gorgeous old buildings and canals.

Through this course, each week, I got to learn a little bit more about The Netherlands, the country I would call my new home. And it helped me achieve my goal of going from “knowing” intermediate Dutch to actually speaking it!

I definitely recommend taking some kind of course for people just moving abroad. You’ll not only learn about the country from the instructors, but also from other expats.

One of the things I was happy about was being able to find a job that would sponsor my visa. My girlfriend wasn’t going to be living in the Netherlands yet, so that first year, if I wanted to stay, I needed to figure it out on my own.

I was lucky enough to find a job starting mid-October. The three of us, me, Sara (girlfriend), and my bank account celebrated properly with drinks by a canal. Because why was I living in Amsterdam if I wasn’t by a canal ALL THE TIME?

Looking back, everything went as smoothly as it could have gone considering my circumstances. But at the time, I had to find a way to come to terms with the different feelings I was having.

When I’m visiting somewhere for a short time, I’m really good at cramming in a ton of activities and sight seeing in a short period of time. Starting a new full-time job did give me a sort of deadline. Once I started, I wouldn’t have as much time anymore.

In spite of knowing that I only had a couple of weeks of freedom, I found it incredibly difficult to make the most of them, simply because I was overwhelmed at how new everything was. This city was supposed to be my home, but of course, it didn’t feel that way right away.

And honestly, that led to much more time indoors in my apartment than I would have liked.

This is surprising to many people who know me. I’m outgoing, friendly, and generally extraverted, but what’s hard to see is that I have A LOT of feelings. Which leads to a lot of thinking. And time to think.

I still went on many walks, lingered for longer than I should have in bookshops, and ate apple pie on the old streets of Amsterdam. Now in the pandemic, needless to say I look back at those moments fondly.

Even though I had spent full summers here in the Netherlands, moving here permanently was a different experience. I wasn’t on holiday with my girlfriend, which meant that there weren’t things to do with her and her friends every single day.

I also had to get to know the country in a different way, and those initial weeks after I moved were my proper introduction to the Dutch and Dutch culture.

Things like how to spend time on your own, everyday tasks like shopping for essentials, and finding a place to rent can really give you an insight as to how things work in a country.

I learned to try and have a fuller social calendar, and then Covid happened so now I’m in the process of picking that up where I left off. I figured out which cafes are considered okay to work in and which ones would rather that you didn’t. Given my lifestyle, this was a crucial step. And of course, minus setbacks from Covid that I think the whole country experienced together.

For the first time in years, I had also spent Christmas in my home country. Going through the holidays here made me see culture and community around me. I felt left out at times, and other times I felt a part of it.

With my girlfriend here, we ate Oliebollen and drank champagne on the streets on New Year’s. When she wasn’t here, I took pleasure in watching kids dress up for Sinterklaas—I even saw him on the train on my way to work the morning of the 5th!

When I moved to Utrecht, I got to know another city, but it meant rebuilding the connection that I had begun in Amsterdam, with no time to do it.

The Covid-19 outbreak made things worse in many ways, but I started to feel a sense of community with other Utrechters. There were posters showing support for the community everywhere, and I participated in trying to go to local businesses to support them. On my walks, which I could now take because I was working from home, I started to discover more neighborhoods. I spent some of my days in beautiful Wilhelmina Park.

It was also then that I decided to write regularly on this blog, and in May of 2020 I started my YouTube channel talking about life in the Netherlands. This helped me think about everything I had learned even more. And I’ve been thinking about it so much that it’s now seeped within me.

Moving from the big cities like New York, D.C., and Philadelphia in the US to Utrecht was a big change. But a part of me had this dream of living a cute, smaller European city. That dream has come true. Utrecht is indeed very cute!

4 thoughts on “Life as an Expat in the Netherlands: Reflecting on a Year Abroad

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  1. I’m so glad you found your way in the Netherlands. As a Dutch expat living and working in the States, I made the opposite move from Utrecht to Pennsylvania. Reading your blog is one way for me to stay connected to the town and the country that I miss and love. Thank you for taking us on your journey!

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    1. I loved reading this! Utrecht is wonderful, and I hope you’re liking Pennsylvania as much as I did. I was pleasantly surprised by Philly.

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  2. Hi Eva,

    Dave here. I can image a whole year with mixed feelings is not easy to deal with.
    You have to get used to a lot of different things and it all takes it’s own time.
    And then COVID19 on top of everything else.

    But, it’s like doing a cultural study. You study step by step with a solid study path,
    like the bear necessities first for a solid base. And after 4 years or so, you should
    be a cultural graduate :-).

    I’d say you passed your freshman year!

    Welcome in the Netherlands.
    If you need anything…

    I suppose my dad had to endure kind of the same when he came to the Netherlands. He was born
    in Indonesia and he was transported to the Netherlands when the civil war broke out in
    the fifties. So he started out with absolutely nothing in a strange country. The only
    thing he had in common was the language. But certainly not the culture.

    That leaves me, and a lot of others with me, with a bi-cultural mix, Dutch and Indonesian.
    But that’s ok. The food is good :-)!

    So there are concentrations of streams of people coming here over the years from ex-colonies but also
    from other countries. To give you an idea:
    – 1950-1970 – Indonesia
    – 1975-1985 – Surinam and Dutch Antilles
    – 1980-1995 – Turkey
    – 2000-+ – Poland
    And of course – the Chinese are everywhere (lol).

    But strongest culture mixes in the Netherlands are Dutch-Indonesian and Dutch-Surinam.

    Like

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