Expat Voices: ConnieLene Johnston on living in the Netherlands
Danish expat ConnieLene Johnston, who moved to the Netherlands from New Zealand, is ecstatic about Dutch bird life but cannot abide the way the Dutch simply park their bikes at any spot convenient to them. However, she has managed to join a group to
Name: ConnieLene Johnston
City of residence: Haarlem, Netherlands
Date of birth: 3 July 1947
Civil status: Married
Occupation: Designer, Knitter, artist
Reason for moving to the Netherlands: My husband has a position here
Lived in the Netherlands for: 17 months
What was your first impression of the Netherlands?
Grey, drab and I hated the hotel – but after a few days the sun came out and we had a place to live and it all got very much better from that point.
What do you think of the food?
Traditional Dutch food – very over processed and the source can be unrecognisable. There are many deep fried foods which are not to my taste. But there is great access to many foods from many lands and I absolutely love that.
What do you think of the shopping in the Netherlands?
Great – I love the fact that the Netherlands are not succumbing to the great mindless American Mall syndrome that New Zealand – where we come from, has. Why would anyone want to spend a day out at a mall? They do that in New Zealand.
There are not enough yarn choices here. I buy yarns in every country I visit if at all possible. But then it would not matter how many places there were that sold yarns - it would still not be enough for me.
Dinner on boat - Canals of Amsterdam
What do you appreciate about living in the Netherlands?
I love the great public transport and my bicycle and the fact that we do not need a car--ever. Who would have thought that at my age I would be riding a bicycle? (I didn’t ride a bicycle between 15 and 61 years.) I love the terrain. I absolutely love the birds, and now that it is winter our garden is a bird restaurant. Currently--just outside our door – we’ve spotted jays, magpies, tits (Great, blue, long-tailed), Blackbirds, thrushes, red robin, wood pigeons, doves. My husband John has seen a Curlew (I am jealous of that), and I have seen two types of tree creepers. There are Dutch people at John’s work who have not even seen this bird. We feed swans, coots, ducks, jackdaws, rooks and sea-gulls. There are many birds in New Zealand but they are not common on your door-step.
I love the architecture – new and old, canals, polders, windmills, art, museums, bike tracks, and train travel, and the flowers everywhere. I appreciate Skype, the internet, and email in a way I didn’t before coming here.
What do you find most frustrating about living in the Netherlands?
The language. There are a lot of discussions about expats needing to learn the language, and yes they should. It is not an easy language to learn and it is very difficult to practice because when you attempt to use it – the Dutch person you are speaking with replies in English. But then you also meet people in shops in particular who carry on speaking Dutch to you even though you have said that you do not know the language well enough. They can be very rude. We have met marvellous people who are exceptions and will have fun with you and the language – us speaking English and them answering in Dutch, and us trying in Dutch or a mix of Dutch and Danish and English and so on.
The other frustrating thing is that I cannot read the food labels –everything appears so altered that you cannot be certain of what you are ingesting – so we make most of meals from scratch. If we go out and eat John always ends up with a breakfast or a lunch – the meals here are for mountain men not ordinary people who do not work in a physical way. Thank goodness people here do lots of bike riding – otherwise there could be a real health issue.
What puzzles you about the Netherlands and what do you miss since you’ve moved here?
Why are they so rude? The Dutch park their bikes close to where they are – that could be on pedestrian crossing, on the footpath, even where the snow has been cleared to make narrow safe walking area for pedestrians. They have no sense that they should move to one side if they are in hearty discussion with others on the footpath – you can just go out onto the road or onto the bike path were you can be called things like piss pot – can you believe a woman maybe in her 40’s calling us that.
Because I do not go to work - I miss general contact with people speaking in English. I was born in Denmark, but English is the language I have been using for most of my life. I have slogged through snow in icy conditions to go to the doctor in Amsterdam - to pick up a prescription which could have been faxed – just so I can speak with someone in English without having to apologise for my poor Dutch. How sad is that?
How does the quality of life in the Netherlands compare to the quality of life in other countries that you’ve lived in?
The quality of life here is excellent, but the houses are sooo tiny, we would call them a flat in New Zealand. Everything is handy for us, living as we do within Haarlem – walking distance to everything and close to parks, the canals, the windswept beaches and the bikeways. There is great access either to places within the Netherlands or to Europe and all things artistic and creative. It is great for the soul. New Zealand has a great quality of life as well – it is just different, less history, bigger houses and gardens, great country side– just no real seasons in the North – I love the seasonal changes here – although I have had enough of the snow and ice and am glad of the respite.
Here is much more expensive.
If you could change anything about the Netherlands, what would it be?
I would teach all school children good manners so that when they are adults they will actually consider others when they go about their daily business.
I would also encourage people working in the food industry to learn to wash their hands and use tongs and gloves when preparing food for others to eat. Food regulations in other countries do not allow a person to pick up food with their bare hands where it is to be served to another person. I have seen some appalling food handling here. I watched a woman clearing tables – moving food from one plate to another on a stack, putting it down and then go and make a sandwich for another person without washing her hands.
Summer bike ride
What advice would you give to a newcomer?
Join as many groups as you can either one where they speak in the same language as you do and any Dutch groups where you have a common interest. For instance I now belong to the local Stitch ‘n Bitch group. I waited far too long and would have benefited from doing so much earlier. All Dutch people are educated in English – if you have a common interest, like knitting, then the language will not be a major problem and your language skills will develop more quickly.
Would you like to add anything?
I am a passionate knitter, designer and artist. I have recently at the tender age of 62 created and installed my first art graffiti piece here in the centre of Haarlem .
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