Steve White

Expat Voices: Steve White on living in the Netherlands

Comments30 comments

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
Nationality: Australian
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.

Steve White shopping at Berlin market
Shopping at Berlin Market


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.

Steve White on holiday at dusk
Steve on holiday, enjoying dusk

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.

Steve White smelling the roses
Smelling the roses

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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30 Comments To This Article

  • Steve posted:

    on 14th September 2010, 13:53:05 - Reply

    Yes maybe not 3rd world, it is neat here, and generally decent roads considering it's sand underneath everywhere.
    What countries are 2nd world by the way??
    There are a lot of great things in Holland, for example much more civilised people than Australia, much safer, the water is better, the flowers, birds, the location is great for visiting so many European countries, but the standard of living is generally better in Australia, or it was when I was there 10 years ago, maybe not now with house prices having gone up 3 times.
  • Blinky posted:

    on 28th April 2010, 23:22:56 - Reply

    Take good care there!!!:)
  • Lucy posted:

    on 26th April 2010, 13:55:39 - Reply

    I love Melbourne,I would like to stay in Melbourne and work there.
  • LBC posted:

    on 5th April 2010, 16:15:38 - Reply

    Woops...Please don't tell me this is western Civilization.Be civilized everyone!!!?
  • Bee posted:

    on 22nd December 2009, 13:08:33 - Reply

    I agree with Steve on almost everything. Yes, also on the food issue. Once my husband was dining out with his colleagues at a Chinese restaurant for the first time. Instead of picking off the menu card, they decided to leave the decision to the chef. In the end, the chef came out with dishes with 'familiar' tastes. Everyone said it was a wonderful dinner. But the thing is, my husband said, the chef just knows his Dutch customers well. As long as he makes similar tasting food to what the Dutch are used to, it will be fine. So as long as the taste is familiar to the Dutch, you can have many varieties of food here like the Mexican, Korean, etc... My husband is Dutch by the way.

    The hygiene part is so absolutely true. I was shocked the first time I saw people using their bare hands to prepare food for me. But my problem is, my husband does not see that this is a problem! He said, we need to be dirty in order for the immune system to be strong.

  • Jaye posted:

    on 9th December 2009, 13:17:03 - Reply

    I agree with a number of points, particularly the poor service [edited by moderator]. I've never had trouble finding decent restaurants but they are all way overpriced for the quality you get. I'm also pleased to hear you mention the way the Dutch seem to get in the way, doorway, pathway...I used to work in restaurants and later in offices and instead of saying 'excuse me', I'd give a look and say 'people working' to my colleagues. [edited]...have you ever noticed how quick you have to be in the supermarket before someone stretches an arm in front of your nose or stands directly in front of you? [Edited]. Men who wear socks with emblems and Disney characters plastered on their ankles [edited] I'd rather shop at K-mart then in NL. Dishing the Dutch is an ex-pat's favorite pastime, but we all have the option of leaving. As some other respondents mentioned, there are too many of these interviews with unrealistic positive comments. [Edited]. My Dutch friends are still in my life because they say these same things about NL. You gain much more credibility when you portray a balanced picture of a place.
  • hannahts posted:

    on 8th December 2009, 12:32:47 - Reply

    He had me too :-) hehehehe joking of course,

    But i tend to like Holland and plan to stay. I dont know what australia is like so i cant comment on the comparisons made except yes its very expensive.
  • Mari posted:

    on 5th December 2009, 10:19:40 - Reply

    Steve has had me too. :) x
  • herman posted:

    on 5th December 2009, 10:17:12 - Reply

    He had me too.... ;-)
  • Crystal posted:

    on 4th December 2009, 20:10:43 - Reply

    Of course Steve is not "all that single",Steve have had me. :)
  • Bradinholland posted:

    on 4th December 2009, 15:40:24 - Reply

    Spot on Steve! I’d drink an overpriced beer served by a [edited by moderator] Dutch server with you any day mate.
  • DoeMaar posted:

    on 4th December 2009, 14:46:38 - Reply

    I knew this would get a rash of criticism. The guy has a right to give his honest opinion after being here 10 years. I thought that the Dutch liked direct-ness. ? ;-) He doesn't have to love everything about being here and he sure doesn't need to go back to his own land. He has a right to complain. It's observations from an expat point of view. FFS.

    I can relate to a LOT of this. There are positives and negatives to every place you live. I'm sure he could drum up some about his native Oz, too.

    I read this with humor. I like the list of positives over 10 years comes to a total of 6. LMAO!

    Enjoyable read.
  • Pip posted:

    on 4th December 2009, 11:18:01 - Reply

    "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."

    That had me chuckling over my Douwe
  • CW posted:

    on 4th December 2009, 09:24:01 - Reply

    Sometimes it's not all about "you" and you have to make compromises for the sake of one's family. Sounds as if he had to make a choice between a relationship with his family or warm sunny weather thousands of kilometres away. Looks like he chose the former. Good on him!
  • Quin posted:

    on 4th December 2009, 09:09:59 - Reply

    Mate, sounds like you need to head back "down under".
  • Steve posted:

    on 3rd December 2009, 11:30:07 - Reply

    You get the best of both worlds John, you moved AND you're whining on a website!

    If you can recommend any decent eateries in Amsterdam, pass them on please. I could name 20 in Melbourne (and great coffee places), but 'passable' is about the best I've had here.
    It's certainly true about the aggressive violent yobs in Australia.
    The Dutch behave much better - maybe due to their school kanjer training.
  • John posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 22:40:55 - Reply

    I don't know where you people eat out and I can't comment about Bussum or Lelystad but I never have any problem finding scores of really good not-so-expensive-restaurants in Amsterdam where the service is excellent. I've eaten **** food here but I've also eaten ****, expensive (and rotten) food in France, in Belgium, in Italy and in Australia. I've eaten **** food in countries besides these. I could also recite a long list of bad service experiences I've had in the wide brown land as well. I'd be one of the last people to say that Albert Heijn offers a fabulous shopping experience but at least I can obtain some decent steak there that doesn't seem to have come from a beast that'd been flogged through the scrub over a period of 20 years. The mention of "order and control" here is amusing given that Australia is Nanny State Numero Uno. Most things that are banned or made compulsory in other western countries are banned or made compulsory there first: smoking bans, alcohol bans, fireworks bans, compulsory seatbelts, junkfood bans, government proposals to censor internet content; video game bans; traffic enforcement like you wouldn't believe; Mexican wave at sporting event bans; dog bans, and the compulsory strapping of stupid lumps of plastic to your head when riding a bicycle. This last one seems to have really been taken to heart by the public, because if you dare to venture onto even a quiet street without your lump of plastic, some passing yob motorist will hurl abuse at you before speeding off. They take it upon themselves to act as some sort of proxy police force. I had more than 30 years experience living there. I like to return for holidays occasionally as its physically a beautiful country but there are many things about the place that I don't like. Rather than whine about it on a website, I moved. [Edited by moderator]
  • Steve posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 21:04:50 - Reply

    I'm actually not all that single Jenny, and yes it's extended family keeps me here mainly. I'm not THAT heavily into drugs... :)
    It is remarkable about the obligatory 'no' response - I went to Blokker the other day and asked 5 assistants for those cocktail toothpick thingies and they said 'No' very definitely, and then asked for metal oven trays - same response, then big bowls, and again a firm No!
    I replied 'OK so you don't know, I'll look myself' and sure enough found all of them.
    Maybe "no" means "don't know" here.

    So what's your theory on why they're the tallest race on Earth?
  • jenny posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 17:01:01 - Reply

    Also nice to read some complaints for a change. This column is usually painfully positive. I'm guessing the relaxed laws [edited by moderator] are the reason you're still here. Given the long list of complaints, short list of positives and the fact that you're single I'm not sure what else it could be. I'm guessing your theories on dutch tallness are a joke? They haven't been tall for that long. I must say I have been to Australia so in terms of the nature, open space and climate must agree that NL doesn't come close! But in terms of history and culture, NL wins hands down. As for the small houses and gardens and one bathroom only- they just don't have the space here that they have in Oz. I had to laugh at the horrified reactions of some colleagues when another colleague revealed he was going to have 2 bathrooms in his new-build house. Such an extravagance! Food-wise I agree that, unless you want to pay alot, the food in restaurants in rubbish when compared to most other countries in Europe. But if you want to cook at home you can get some great produce. As for trying to change things by complaining - I tried that strategy for 10 years. It didn't work. It just made me angry and miserable. A good friend of mine - she's been here forever- suggested smiling when people say no and asking again. That seems to work much better.
  • jeff posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 15:17:03 - Reply

    i also think some of these complaints are refreshing to read.i have alot of the same.i'm from seattle in the states
  • Steve posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 15:14:25 - Reply

    Yeh yeh Didi I didn.t buy that hat, just tried it on!

    Ray I´ve heard the growth hormone theory, but the food you eat would not change your genes and hence make your kids taller - it seems a genetic disposition. Growth hormones are more restricted now they say.
    So we.ll see, as the latest crop of Dutchlings grow up.

    John, no, lower rate than in Aus actually.
  • gbernsdorff posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 13:09:05 - Reply

    I am an expat in my own country, having lived abroad for the better part of my life. I agree with Steve on a number of issues, but I beg to differ on Food. Obviously, Steve has not found the right places. The quality has been improving considerably over the past decade. There are many excellent restaurants now, though they are not always around the corner and tend to be more expensive than their peers in France or Austria. There is much attention for Slow Food. Lots of places sell traditional and biodynamically grown food. Speaking of my own peculiar little sin, there is a number of chocolatiers and patissiers who are in no way inferior to what Paris and Vienna have to offer. I used to drive to Monsieur Linxhe in the rue François 1er for chocolates, or to Sweertvaegher in Antwerp, or stock up at Rajsigl when I passed by Innsbruck en route to Bozen. I still do, but I have that quality at my doorstep now, which is a godsend if one has reached 65.
  • MonkeyNuts posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 13:01:44 - Reply

    How refreshing to read a report of reality instead of the insipid accounts from other expats. Things are x100 harder here - products are v.v. expensive, customer service is just awful, trying to find decent food products is practically impossible, unless you don't work and have a week to travel from one place to another. It's a country run by rules and regulations, which is fine for a place like China with their huge population, but in a tiny country like Holland it's suffocating. I'm here because of marriage, no other reason.
  • John posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 12:34:50 - Reply

    ...and he's still in this third world country, apparently after 10 years! Time to move on, pal. You give the rest of us Australians a bad name as a bunch of whingers. I can only assume your consulting rate is high that you find it hard to go elsewhere, [edited by moderator]
  • Ray posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 11:41:39 - Reply

    ...but the Dutch were famous for being a nation of short people, back in the Golden Age. Rembrandt and van Gogh were tiny men. So how come they are tall now? Steve's explanation doesn't hold up.

    I think it is because of modern farming techniques, where all the dairy produce is infused with growth hormone, which make the cows grow larger and produce more milk.
  • Geoff posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 11:39:16 - Reply

    There's a certain amount of truth in Steve's vision of Australia. The bureaucracy, the control, the 'ambtenaarishness' (officialdom) drive me crazy. And I presume Steve's here because there's no work for him in Australia. [Edited by moderator]
  • didi posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 11:36:42 - Reply

    I can fully understand that you feel the need to shop outsider The Netherlands.............nowhere in The Netherlands would sell a hat like that!! [Edited by moderator]
  • Jennifer posted:

    on 2nd December 2009, 11:22:52 - Reply

    I have to say that I agree completely with this article. Sure, there are some nice things about Holland, but in general life is harder here [edited by moderator].
  • Steve posted:

    on 1st December 2009, 19:04:54 - Reply

    Good question. Have a guess Dan.
  • Dan (another immigrant) posted:

    on 1st December 2009, 15:49:56 - Reply

    Ok, so after all these criticisms we're left with the obvious question: if Holland is like a third world country compared to Australia, what stops you to go back?