Funny that I didn’t really consider writing this until my final days living in the Netherlands after eight years. I’ve written about how Americans are viewed here, and the civic integration test I had to do, but not really about how it has been to live abroad here. If you’re about to move to the Netherlands as an expat, or if you are already an expat in the Netherlands, maybe this will give you some insight or you can relate. Or maybe not.
First things first, before anyone asks how to move to the Netherlands – since I get asked that a lot by other Americans who want to move to Europe: If you want to move to the Netherlands (and I believe the laws are similar in the rest of the EU), you’re going to need one of the following: 1) an EU passport, 2) an invite from a company who will give a work visa and sponsor you, 3) a visa on behalf of a family member or partner who you are coming to live with. I moved here nearly eight years ago via option 3 after meeting my Dutchie in California. If you want clarification on who the Dutch are, check out this post on the Netherlands vs Holland.
I should also mention that because I have a Dutch partner, my experience as an expat is vastly different to that of other expats I know who came for work. Having a Dutch partner has meant that I have my expat life, and I have my Dutch life. That means family events in the small town where he’s from, where out of 60 people I’m the only foreigner, over 10 Dutch weddings we’ve attended together, family vacations to Austria where the entire hotel is filled with Dutch people from his family’s province and on and on. I need to mention this because some of my other expat friends haven’t experienced the sides of expat life that I mention below, simply because they have never been exposed to it. My life here has largely been the life of a Dutch person, which has sometimes isolated me as a foreigner and an American more than I might have otherwise felt.
So, what is it like to move to the Netherlands from the US? What is life like abroad? I can only assume my family and friends have wondered this at some point in time, most likely right when I moved here.
A whole new world
Living abroad in any country, and in the Netherlands especially gives you (and has certainly given me) a great opportunity to explore a new country and a new continent. I had visited Europe and studied abroad in Europe before moving here, so I’d already seen a lot, but living here full time gave me the opportunity to not only see nearly everywhere in the Netherlands, but nearly every country in Europe.
Although it is pretty tiny by US standards, the Netherlands has a ton of great cities and attractions to visit, and you could easily spend many of the weekends of your first year in the Amsterdam visiting castles, going to other cities like The Hague, Rotterdam or Haarlem, or checking out the islands in the north. When I first moved here we spent the majority of our weekends exploring other cities in the Netherlands or using our museum passes. It was exciting, and made for a great adventure.
The Netherlands is also a super convenient place to live because it is pretty much in the middle of everything you might want to visit in Europe. You can easily reach any other country via Schiphol Airport, you can take a 4 hour train ride to Paris, a 1 hour flight to London, or just drive across the border to Germany or Belgium.
And yes, this makes living in the Netherlands fabulous. My friends and family from home often couldn’t believe how often I was traveling, or how many countries I visited per year (it helped that I traveled all the time for work as well), and for a period of time it did feel a bit glamorous I suppose. But, as with everywhere you live, you soon become used to your surroundings, and they don’t feel so special anymore. The ability to travel anywhere and everywhere in Europe is fantastic – I was able to visit Belgium, Germany, the UK, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Croatia, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Monaco, Iceland, and the Czech Republic while living here. And out of those places I’ve been to Berlin likely 10 times, London at least 5 times, Barcelona 5 times, Paris 5 or 6 times, and on and on.
Let’s be honest: me living abroad in the Netherlands in large part why I’ve been able to start this blog. I’ve traveled all the time for work, explored Europe extensively, and have had 25 days+ off of vacation every year that I’ve worked here. It has opened the door to the world for me, quite literally.
That is the glamorous side that most people see on Facebook and Instagram, but expat life isn’t all that you see on my Instagram, there’s a lot more.
This is a tough one. When I first moved here I was fresh out of college and had really never had a day in my life where I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Life until you graduate is so predictable – school every day, with friends and activities that are pretty much built in. It takes such little effort to make friends or have a social life, and even if you have no plans with friends, you always have your family.
Not so when I moved abroad. Coincidentally, before I moved to the Hague in 2010, I had spent a semester abroad in Utrecht in 2008 before I met my Dutchie, so I assumed I knew what life would be like here. In a way that was true, because I knew how to get around, knew how to open a bank account, knew where to go, but what I didn’t know was how isolating moving abroad can be.
If you don’t move abroad with a job or school lined up, the days in a new country can go by really slowly. There are only so many days you can spend discovering a city on your own before you start to feel loneliness creeping in. That’s essentially how I spent my first year in the Netherlands. I was actually very fortunate to get an internship literally the day after I arrived in the Hague which gave me something to do a few days a week, but it didn’t provide me with a serious social network, so I spent a lot of time feeling lonely and wishing I had a group of girlfriends I could spend time with.
Sure, I had my Dutchie and we went out a lot on the weekends to get beers with his friends, but going out like that didn’t fulfill the gap I was missing when it came to people who really knew me. I missed the nights of getting ready to go out with my best friends from home, missed calling my brother or sister at the last minute and seeing them, and missed having people around me who I didn’t have to explain myself to. It sort of felt like he was the only person in the whole country who knew me or cared about me, and without him I’d be completely alone. And that was pretty much true.
Luckily, the feelings of loneliness dissipated when I got accepted to grad school here and started my program, but that said the loneliness you may feel as an expat is a bit of a recurring challenge. Every couple years or so, some of my closest friends have moved way. That happened after grad school, and happened with my colleagues. Of course colleagues move on to other companies, but I was working in an industry where people are really moving internationally, which means that sometimes a friend would up and leave to Germany all of the sudden, and my Friday night buddy had vanished.
As an expat, you don’t have that built-in network you have at home. There aren’t the friends who are just part of your life. You have to work – almost constantly in the beginning – to make friends and find a place for yourself.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from moving abroad, or throw myself a pity party, but honestly, it was really hard. But am I glad I did it? 100% ! Moving anywhere where you don’t know anyone is a huge challenge and forces you out of your comfort zone to go out of your way to make friends. It forces you to have to deal with being lonely once in a while. And that’s totally ok, because everyone feels that way. Most of all, it makes you appreciate when you have really good friends, because you know what it is like without them.
Finding a job
To be totally honest, I sort of hit the jackpot when it came to finding a job in the Netherlands. I spent my second year in the Netherlands getting my master’s degree, which ended in writing and defending my master’s thesis, which also gave me a fair amount of time to apply to jobs. After several months of applying, I landed a traineeship at one of the biggest sports companies, which I started at only 3 days after my official graduation.
Amsterdam, and the Netherlands in general is a pretty great place for expats. Because of the corporate tax rate, many, many companies have their European headquarters here, which means most jobs are in English. How many companies exactly? Well here’s a short list: Heineken, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, ASICS, Adidas (their main office is in Germany), Under Armour, Brooks, Netflix, Booking.com, Uber, TomTom, Philips, AkzoNobel – these are just the companies that are immediately in my network and where I know people, there are countless big ad agencies, media agencies, consulting firms, and everything in between where you can get by without speaking any Dutch. Working in the Netherlands is pretty much an expat’s dream.
Making friends with the locals
Sometimes people ask me if I have a lot of American friends here, since there are so many Americans living in the Netherlands – last I heard there are 40,000 of us living here. The answer, truthfully, is no. I’ve always had an American friend here or there, some long-lasting, some short, but I haven’t made a ton of American friends here – not that I’ve been avoided fellow Americans either, that’s just how it happened.
Many of my friends are Dutch, or are expats themselves. It is always easiest to make friends with other expats because, well, they just get it. Even if they aren’t from the same country, they also find the Dutch funny in all the same ways I do, and we can certainly always bitch about the weather together.
In general, I would say it is hard to make friends with the Dutch. But at the same time, most of my closest friends here are Dutch. I know, that sounds contradictory, but I’ll explain.
Breaking into Dutch inner circles is really hard. It is a country praised for its openness, but I dare anyone to try to break into a Dutch friendship circle and you’ll find its impenetrable. Whether this is a friend group from high school or college, these groups are rock solid – especially if these people have lived in the Netherlands their entire lives. I had the idea before I arrived here that I might become friends with some of my girlfriends of my boyfriend’s friends, but those interactions pretty much led to a “Nice to meet you,” and that was it. I was substantially younger than them at the time (still am, but then the age difference seemed greater), and I honestly felt a bit rejected. It ended up being no problem in the end, since I found my own path, and ended up with many close Dutch friends.
The Dutch people I’ve almost always become friends with have either spent a good deal of their lives abroad, have gone to an international school in the Netherlands, or have a foreign partner. I’m curious to see how similar my Dutchie’s experience will be in the US to mine in the Netherlands.
That being said, with nearly all of the Dutch friends I’ve made who are open to me, I’ve often still had to overcome the “you’re an American” barrier.
Being American in the Netherlands
You can hear it in my accent when I talk, I’m an American in Amsterdam (whoa, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien)
Ok, ok, enough of the Sting reference.
No matter what I say or do, nearly every conversation I have with a new Dutch person (outside of the work context) is focused on me being an American. That goes for the many of the close friends I’ve made here too. I’ve dreaded going to weddings or parties where I know I have to meet a ton of new people, because that typically means a night that I spend having to explain myself or answer questions about being an American.
Sometimes I wonder why Dutch people are so fixated on this. I find it hard to imagine that a Spanish or Italian person would be treated this way. I know, I know, the decisions the US makes are much more far-reaching than those of other countries, the US impacts the rest of the world and on and on. But the Dutch love to tell me how stupid they think Americans are (this typically comes from the people who have never visited the US), how terrible the government is (you’re preaching to the choir), or their experience with one other American person they met who somehow represents a population of 330 million.
Ugh. This is tiring. I always try to politely change the subject but it gets exhausting to constantly have to talk about where you are from, as if it completely defines you as a human being. Sometimes I’ve felt like shouting “I’m a HUMAN not just a f**king American!!”.
This has been a point that has greatly frustrated me, and has made me realize that the Dutch LOVE to define and characterize things. Don’t get me wrong here, I have tons of Dutch friends and a Dutch partner as I mentioned, but this is one of my biggest observations. Dutch people love to say “Oh, that is SO Dutch” or that is “SO American” as if all of their behaviors are attributed to being Dutch and all mine are attributed to being American.
At the same time, there is a weird phenomenon I’ve experienced where the very same people who tell me how American I am, also tell me how UN-American I am, because I’m one of those “cool” Americans, whatever the hell that means. Sigh. Am I so American? So un-American? I don’t really care honestly, but it is interesting to live abroad and see how people characterize you.
It is curious to me, because Americans are acutely unaware of how very “American” their behavior is – most of us wouldn’t know how to characterize American behavior at all. I’ve become a bit Dutch myself in this regard, looking at people from other countries and thinking that’s “so German”, or even at my own people and thinking that something is so “American.” While the Dutch love to put everyone in their pre-judged box of where they come from, Americans on the other hand are completely clueless (for the most part) about the defining characteristics of any other nationalities.
Being here has made me very aware of my American-ness. I would never say I try to hide being American, and I’m also not one of those expats suffering from American guilt, but I have gone into many social situations here feeling completely judged and disregarded before I’ve properly gotten to know someone – many people think they know who I am already because of my accent.
I must be uninformed.
I need to be educated by someone who properly understand my country, as I apparently do not.
I am fake.
As we prepare our move to the US, I can only hope that my Dutchie will never be treated this way by Americans. It is a behavior in the Netherlands that he is never able to explain, and is embarrassed by himself – I can honestly say that no other nationality has ever responded to me the way the Dutch have. And yet, for the most part I’ve loved living here for nearly eight years.
Living abroad as an American in the Netherlands can be a rude awakening, to find out that your nationality may initially be a barrier to those you meet, but having said that, it is a wonderful way to understand and giggle at your own culture. I think you can’t know what it truly means to be American (or from whatever country you are from), until you’ve lived somewhere else and understood all the nuances that set you apart in your way of thinking, problem solving or building social bonds.
Being American in the Netherlands has sometimes been a challenge for the reasons I mentioned above. It can be tough to break through in friendship circles, and people might initially write you off as just another American. But once you break through with people, you can form great friendships with some fiercely loyal Dutchies – who are able to handle my flurry of critiques on the Dutch as much as the love critiquing Americans.
As Sting says, be yourself, no matter what they say.
The goddamn weather
Today, as I write this, it is officially the first day of summer. The sky is, as per usual, overcast. The high will be 14 celsius (59 fahrenheit). This my friends, is not what the first day of summer means to me.
Every winter I spent here, I threatened my Dutchie that this was my “last f**king winter!”.
There are four seasons here:
1. cold, grey and rainy
2. chilly, grey and rainy
3. approximately 2 weeks of 25+ celsius when you can’t get a spot on a terrace because they are suddenly full
4. chilly, grey and rainy with some red and yellow leafs.
No one moves to the Netherlands for the weather. After growing up in California, I always found rain romantic. The idea of being in a brown cafe in Amsterdam while the rain poured down outside seemed so idealistic to me. Until I was here and the rain stopped being romantic after a couple weeks.
Unless you are from the UK, the weather here might be a pretty big adjustment, but it does make you appreciate the sunny days so much more.
All the clichés are true
As we prepare for our move back to California, I’ve come to realize every cliché about moving abroad is true.
You expand your worldview. Living in another place, or another country, amongst people different from you, and especially interacting with people from a variety of different cultures does expand your world view. You become more empathetic. You understand that we all have more things in common than things that set us apart. You learn about more cultures and backgrounds than you ever could have imagined which humbles and inspires you.
You make incredible connections. You become friends with people from other backgrounds, who on the surface, you might think you have nothing in common with. Until you realize you have a shared professional passion. Or they understand the part of you that is sometimes riddled with anxiety. Or they are the one person who wishes you luck on a big day. These people at this point understand you better than anyone back home. They become a sort of pseudo family abroad – the people who you know you could call when you have a shit day, or who would give you a place to stay if your roof is leaking. The types of friendships that when you first move to the country, you long for, and when you leave make your heart break.
You become more independent. I came here to be with my boyfriend (now fiance), who helped me tremendously in setting up a new life here and gave me more support than I could hope for… and who is just my best friend and partner in everything in life. But, there are some things that no one can help you with. No one can help you with pushing yourself to get out of your comfort zone and make friends. No one can help you get over the small cultural differences that seem cute at first but start to really tick you off. No one can establish your identity in a new place or create a new path for you. It’s all on you to make it work in a new place. It can be scary and challenging. But once you’ve done it in a new country you know you can do it anywhere, and as cliché as it sounds, you get to know yourself better – both your strengths and your weaknesses.
Besides these benefits, you’ll feel more comfortable with change, more comfortable with the unknown and unfamiliar, and will be able to adapt to new situations in the future more easily.
After eight years here I wonder how my life will be back in California. Will I stick out like a sore thumb? Will I fit in seamlessly? Will I miss walking and biking everywhere? (Yes to that one for sure).
If you have an opportunity to move abroad for any period of time – or even to move to a new place where you don’t know anyone – do it. Having an opportunity to forge a new path for yourself anywhere new is challenging, liberating and humbling.
Looking for my favorite tips on what to do in the Netherlands? Check out these posts:
Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.