An expat view of the Netherlands
Mountains of paperwork, confusing public transport timetables and organising Internet and telephone connections. Just a handful of the things that expats have to deal with when they move to the Netherlands.
These things can cause a great deal of irritation to both Dutch expats when they move abroad and to foreign expats who move to the Netherlands. In the film Great Expatations, expats living in the Western urban agglomeration known as the Randstad talk about how they see the Netherlands. The film provides an opportunity to see things from the other side for a change: even the Netherlands isn't ideal.
A lot to learn
The initiative for the film Great Expatations was taken by THIS (City of The Hague International Spirit). THIS wants Dutch businesses to realise that it is in their interests to accommodate the international community in the city. The organisation believes businesses have a lot to learn when it comes to how to treat its expat community, because expats are often irritated by the Dutch style of service.
German journalist Annette Birschel (photo right) has lived in the Netherlands for 12 years and presents Great Expatations.
Kees Colenbrander is director of Great Expatations and one of the founders of THIS. He interviewed dozens of expats on their first impressions of the Netherlands. A small selection of them can be seen in the 20-minute film. In making the film, Mr Colenbrander learnt a lot about his own "Dutchness".
"We Dutch are not as open to foreigners as we like to think. The way an expat and a Dutch person experience the same situation is quite different."Expats find service providers in particular annoying. "We like to be able have a look around when we go shopping, without a shop assistant bothering us," says Mr Colenbrander. "We'll ask if we want help. Expats think they are being ignored and that their money is not good enough."
Lots of money
Great Expatations has been made as an introduction for a new training course of 'hospitality master classes'. The course is aimed at people working in the catering industry and other service providers. If there is anyone out there asking themselves why the Dutch should change to cater for foreigners, the film gives a few hard figures: "There are 40,000 expats in and around The Hague who spend a total of 750 million euros." So a Dutchman who thinks "on your bike, if you don't like it here," could miss out on a lot of money.
Mr Colenbrander says the Netherlands isn't as bad as a great many other countries.
"But if we want to attract foreign companies, their staff are going to have to like living here. If we want to compete with cities like New York and Geneva, we just have to improve our services."
Great Expatations has therefore also been made in cooperation with several parties with an interest in expats, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Patent Agency and the Mondriaan Regional Training College (a hotel school). Even a multinational like Shell, which has a large number of foreign employees in the Netherlands is involved in making the film.
The positive side
Anyone thinking that expats have got nothing nice to say about the Netherlands would be wrong. They also highlight the positive side, which can be quite surprising some times. They like the Dutch tendency to be frank, even though they are shocked by Dutchmen's directness at first. They are also impressed by the popularity of bicycles and one expat even praises the Netherlands for its "superior cycling infrastructure". Going by bike means they can avoid traffic jams and their children have more freedom, because they can get around safely at a younger age.
Even Dutch expats, coming back to the Netherlands, may look at their home country through the "eyes of a foreigner", and experience a culture shock. All of a sudden, you are struck by the amount of bureaucracy and the frankness. Then it's good not to forget that the Netherlands, although far from perfect, is special and unique in the eyes of many foreigners. One expat in the film, who is about to leave, sees the positive aspects of his Dutch life and realizes he will miss it after all.
*RNW translation (nc)
By Vanessa Deij*
21 May 2008