Expat Voices: Janelle Ward on living in the Netherlands
BlondebutBright blogger Janelle Ward has graduated from University, become employed, gotten married and had a baby in the Netherlands, and loves it...
Name: Janelle Ward
City of residence: Leiden, the Netherlands
Date of birth: 17 January 1978
Civil status: married
Occupation: Assistant Professor
Reason for moving to the Netherlands: for study
Lived in the Netherlands for: 9 years
What was your first impression of the Netherlands?
I loved it! I admired the architecture, the canals, and the bustling city life in Amsterdam. I was astonished by the bikes and in awe of how well behaved the dogs were – they were even allowed into shops. I felt utterly liberated when I quickly learned that it’s practically possible to transport one’s entire life atop a rickety omafiets. I moved to the Netherlands to study, and I still think it’s the perfect place to experience life as a student. Now that I’ve also graduated, become employed, gotten married and had a baby here, I can say it’s great for those things, too.
What do you think of the food?
Dutch food is pretty boring, but since I like cooking at home I’m happy with the fresh ingredients and plentiful markets. When going out to eat I usually fill up on Mexican, Thai or Indian.
What do you think of the shopping in the Netherlands?
Since most of my shopping has been for food, I’ll focus on that. The Dutch labels took some getting used to. I was horrified when my first milk purchase poured out thick and curdled; then I learned that the Dutch sell their yogurt and milk in very similar containers. In terms of selection, at first I complained at the lack of variety at least compared to the giant supermarkets in Minnesota. Over time I have come to prefer smaller stores and less selection. After all, who really needs to choose from 30 kinds of ketchup and an entire aisle of frozen pizzas?
What do you appreciate about living in the Netherlands?
Many things; I love that everything is a short bike ride away, and in Leiden I can actually walk everywhere. The city centres are beautiful, magical places, with little cobbled streets, charming shops and huge, regal churches appearing in the midst of everything. I love the outdoor markets and the canals. But I also love escaping, and living just minutes from one of the biggest international airports in the world.
What do you find most frustrating about living in the Netherlands?
Not speaking the language very well, which has really stunted any chance at a proper integration. Though I did pretty well with my Dutch lessons for the first few years, I’m now stuck at a frustrated plateau of mediocrity. I understand a lot but not everything, which means I’m unusually quiet when people address me in Dutch. (I want to avoid being detected as a foreigner so I try not to ask them to switch to English.) I also struggle with any and all correspondence by mail/post. Needless to say “learning Dutch” has been on my list of New Year’s Resolutions for quite some time.
What puzzles you about the Netherlands and what do you miss since you’ve moved here?
Though I have come to understand it more over time, in general it’s the way the Dutch interact (at least in public). They can be cold and sometimes confrontational, although this has changed dramatically since I had a baby! I’m from a place that is known for its “Minnesota nice,” so I’m used to people apologising repeatedly for a slight brush of the shoulders. Not so in the Netherlands! I do miss my family and friends in the US, but Skype dates and regular visits help to maintain those ties.
How does the quality of life in the Netherlands compare to the quality of life in other countries that you’ve lived in?
It’s very high. Everyone has health insurance (it’s the law!) and even expats receive unemployment benefits, depending on their residence status. Now that we’re into kid-related stuff, there’s 16 weeks of fully paid maternity leave and the quality of the schools is among the highest in the world. These things don’t sound very exciting, but it’s amazing how much stress they ease. One example: I gave birth in the hospital and had to stay three nights, and I’ve never seen a bill.
If you could change anything about the Netherlands, what would it be?
What advice would you give to a newcomer?
Forget your inhibitions and learn Dutch! That advice has been repeated time after time, but it’s really true. Of course it’s possible to never learn a word and just hang out in Expat-land, but really, you can do that anywhere in the world. Learning the language is the best way to learn about the culture you’re living in. And keep talking to people, even if you encounter Dutch people that seem rude or distant. Trust me, you’ll find some gems!
Read more about Janelle's life in the Netherlands via BlondebutBright where she pens her passion for "observing life outside my comfort zone."
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