Expat Voices: Steve White on living in the Netherlands
Australian Steve has his theories on why the Dutch are so tall, and encourages expats to "complain as much as possible" for better service.
Name: Steve White
City of residence: Bussum
Date of birth: 17-2-68
Civil status: Single
Occupation: IT consultant
Reason for moving to the Netherlands: Insanity
Lived in the Netherlands for: 10 years
What was your first impression of the Netherlands?
I arrived around Christmas 1999, a cold winter, and stayed a week in the urban desert of Lelystad and then a week in a holiday unit that clings bravely to the sands of Zandvoort by the North Sea. It was cold, stormy, wet and windy, and felt like the end of the earth.
What do you think of the food?
Mostly it’s highly processed and standardised in every ethnic category – Chinese takeaway from Groningen to Maastricht will have the same fried rice with a fried egg and a triangular slice of ham on top in the plastic container, satay sticks and peanut sauce. Indian will be fairly insipid.
I tried an ‘Egyptian’ restaurant last week that had no baba gannoush, no hummous, tahini or kibby; just the standard Dutch ribs with garlic mayo.
I haven’t found any really good places to eat that I would recommend. Most places are let down in one or another area – price, quality, cleanliness, ambience, service. Nan Tin is quite nice for yum cha, but nowhere near the quality of numerous places in Melbourne.
Argentinean ribs are usually a big serve and taste good.
What do you think of the shopping in the Netherlands?
Shopping is acceptable once you know where to go, but there are no big malls and it’s overpriced compared to neighbouring countries, so it’s common to shop in Belgium or Germany.
What do you appreciate about living in the Netherlands?
I like to focus on the positive, so I have compiled a list of positives over the decade. I’m up to six:
- It’s very flat so it’s perfect for cycling – you never get tired.
- The water is good to drink, with no taste, unlike Australian water which tastes like a chlorine cocktail.
- There are a lot of flowers. They even leave clumps of uncut weeds along the nature strips so the seeds can propagate next season.
- There are a lot of birds, with big migrating flocks often passing overhead and landing in wetlands. I’ve seen the traffic stopped while a ‘dieren ambulance’ tended to a swan that had been hit by a car near Leidseplein. Kind of charming.
- It is fairly central to other European countries.
- If you ask for directions the person will offer detailed directions for as long as your politeness forces you to listen.
What do you find most frustrating about living in the Netherlands?
Sometimes you just want them to point the direction. Apparently that would be too loose and casual – everything has to be completely ordered and controlled. If you duck into a shop to ask which way is the post office, you will have to wait in the queue or risk the stern stares of the affronted customers when you interject.
The Dutch are single-tasking machines. The first answer to most questions is ‘impossible’, revealing their inherently obstructive natures. They seem to block the path deliberately in order to extract a ‘pardon’ from passers by. On trains they will spread their goods out over the four nearby seats then focus on their newspaper so intently they become oblivious to other passengers looking for a seat.
Another pet peeve is the lack of hygiene in Holland. I had serious culture shock after a holiday in Tunisia when I ordered a cake in a local bakery, and the shop woman handled the cake thoroughly before pushing it into a bag and then handling my money, ready for the next unsuspecting customer. Once I ordered a roast chicken and the butcher, after giving change to the previous customer, manhandled the chicken into the too-small bag, then wiped the greasy gravy off his fingers before taking my coins. Nauseated, I told him I couldn’t eat it, and of course he was offended. Even asking the price of items seems to require the shop person to press their index finger tip into the item before replying. Having been to over 30 countries, I can say that Holland is the only one that doesn’t require gloves or tongs.
What puzzles you about the Netherlands and what do you miss since you’ve moved here?
At first it puzzled me that there are so many convertibles here. Then I bought one when I realised it’s to maximise absorption of the few meek rays of sun that reach Holland each year. I miss the sunshine, decent restaurants, good coffee.
It still puzzles me why they are so tall. I have two theories, based on Natural Selection. Due to the flatness of the land, only the tallest hunter gatherers survived since they could see their prey from far away. Holland was low and subject to frequent flooding, so only the tallest of the species kept their heads out of water to survive.
How does the quality of life in the Netherlands compare to the quality of life in other countries that you’ve lived in?
Being from Australia, there is no comparison. The Netherlands is like a third world country in that regard. Here most people don’t know about dishwashers, electric garage doors, usually have no car and live in a tiny house in a row or block with little or no garden, surrounded by concrete walls with no cornices or skirting boards, no fly screens, one bathroom and a toilet so small you can’t turn around. In Australia it’s normal to have a house of 200+ square metres and two cars, to eat out regularly, buy excellent fresh meat and vegetables cheaply.
Winter lasts most of the year here, and there is very little to do except play billiards or go bowling. Skiing is at least nine hours drive away, but ice skating can be very local if the canals freeze over, which is becoming more rare each year.
I have only found one good coffee place in Holland, called Coffeelovers in Maastricht, where the coffee is comparable to that of Melbourne or Milan.
If you could change anything about the Netherlands, what would it be?
I would change the weather to something more equatorial, and somehow introduce good service, and make the people more socially flexible. One sunny day I texted a Dutch friend if he felt like a game of tennis today and he said ‘Sure, how about 12.30 Saturday 24 August?’ which was about two months away. Any meeting has to be planned in the agenda months ahead.
What advice would you give to a newcomer?
Buy a house as soon as possible, which will be relatively easy, and then prepare to be obstructed at every turn, for utility connections and everything else you need.
Complain as much as possible about the bad service, the three-inch head on your four-inch beer, and aggressively demand whatever you need, never accepting ‘no’ for an answer. This way things might change for the better.
Would you like to add anything that we haven’t addressed in the questionnaire?
Even though it has few strong points, I do find Holland to be a relatively safe and ‘civilised’ country, with less random violence than Australia. Also I think people of different races are better accepted here.
All photos © Steve White
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