Canada to Holland: Fighting for space
Canadian expat Isabel Brito has carved out a place for herself in the Netherlands. She praises Dutch interest in world affairs, but dislikes the lack of space and poor service. This is her story.
Name: Isabel Brito
City of residence: Amsterdam
Date of birth: 24/12/74
Civil status: married
Employer: self-employed and employee with newspaper Trouw
Position: Graphic design (multimedia)
In Amsterdam since: 2000
I met my husband in Canada, where we lived together for the first couple of years of our marriage. He is a photographer and was working on a book about the Canadian Indians at the time.
He was crazy about Canada, just like a lot of other Dutch people and it was difficult for him to return to the Netherlands, but I eventually convinced him.
I really wanted to go to Europe for the challenge and to discover the world!
Professionally, there were much more possibilities for us both in the Netherlands. Also, my husband spoke little French and I lived in Quebec, in the French-speaking part of Canada.
Surprised by differences
Initially, I'd expected few differences between Canada and Europe because it is also the Western world, but that turned out differently.
Although everyone speaks English here, you are still a foreigner and that was a dominating experience during my first two years. But after that I learned to speak Dutch pretty well and started to feel at home.
It was compulsory for me to undergo an integration course, which consisted largely of Dutch language lessons. You were obliged to reach a certain level, which I did, but I stopped while studying to reach the next level — a decision I regret a little.
I mostly speak English with my husband at home, but that is not very good either. It is a bad habit, despite the fact I think it is more spontaneous than speaking Dutch.
A question of space
What I really had to become accustomed to was the lack of space in the Netherlands. There is less space on the street, but also in cafés.
In cafés, while wanting to pay I stood hopelessly in the way by either blocking the waitress or standing where it was not clear that I wanted to pay. People became irritated with me and I grew uncertain. I felt I was always in the way.
It was also annoying on the street when I walked in the middle of the bike path thinking it was the sidewalk. And if I rode a bike, I didn't know where the other cyclists would go, either straight ahead or turning and they just don't make eye contact!
I felt very clumsy and friends asked whether I came from a village. But I come from Montreal, which is a really large city. In Montreal, the streets are wide, the sidewalks are wider and there are big parks. The way we move there is very different.
If you walk into a café in the Jordaan, sometimes there are just six tables, but 50 people are seated inside. Because of this it is less anonymous here.
Culture and beauty
The Netherlands is very fascinating because people are much more involved politically and with the world news. They also discuss it with each other here.
Canada is somewhat more remote, we only have one neighbouring country, the US. It is easier to ignore events outside your own country.
Amsterdam is very different than Quebec or Montreal. There is so much more art and culture, starting with the many museums and galleries.
You are also very close to other exciting cities such as Paris, which is very fascinating for me as a graphic designer because there is always something new to discover, the market is gigantic.
Montreal is located on top of a mountain, the top of which is pasture and forests. It is less green here in Amsterdam and I missed greenery in the beginning. But I don't mind it now: I have changed and adjusted. There are other things here that I enjoy.
I find the people in the Netherlands so beautiful, they are tall and good-looking. If my friends visit, they always feel small. The character of men is, at the same time, very manly and sweet, good fun and not macho.
People stay young here for a long time, their hair and clothing are very hip, but so too is their personality. In Canada, you have a tie/moustache culture as you get older.
Additionally, there are a lot more lifestyles here, while in Canada it is city or village and young or old and that's it.
You can more easily go to a café or pub here if you are older than 30, but if you do that in Canada people will think you are looking for a partner. If you are aged above 30, you choose another lifestyle: you have children and that can't be combined with going out.
But Dutch people are always ready to have a party and they also party until late. I was scared to grow old in Canada, but here I have hope again.
Service, what service?
If you walk into a shop in Canada, three sales people will immediately approach you. While that can be annoying in shops, it is good in restaurants because you are served quickly.
In the Netherlands, you have to work hard to order something — you need to attract attention, or sometimes even shout!
It has everything to do with the tip, which is larger in Canada. If you don't serve someone quickly and in a friendly manner the tip will be much smaller and you can usually earn a nice wage with tips.
I once ordered orange juice in the Netherlands and the waiter told me there weren't any more oranges. Later, a box of oranges was brought in and he didn't say anything to me! They are so nonchalant; I get the impression they think they are too important to serve people.
Sometimes I have felt really humiliated, but I am pleased now that I have discovered a few restaurants where the service is good.
I also needed to learn to fight for my place in the Netherlands: I have learned to walk very upright and very loudly call out 'ik' (I) if a shop assistant calls out who's next. I also fight more for my place in lines for the tram or bus.
In Canada, you always know who is first and people respect that.
However, now that I have learned how to act in the Netherlands, I think it is positive and I no longer take it personally.
Thoughts of the future
When we first came here, I had it in my head that it would be temporary, but we have already been here five years.
Maybe we will go back to Canada one day and I will leave that option open, but at the moment I still like living here.
I sometimes feel like I am in a film, a European film and I mean that in a positive sense.
19 May 2005
Isabel Brito told her story to Nicole van Schaijik, who owns and operates Talent Taaltrainingen (Dutch Language Courses), based in Amsterdam. (Tel: 020 420 66 59 or email:
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.