How do foreigners experience and perceive life in the Netherlands? You will mostly find articles and posts from an American or British point of view. – But how do other Europeans perceive life in the Lowlands? What do they think about the food, the weather, the language, the Dutch modesty and the way of traveling in the Netherlands? This is an updated and slightly longer version of an article I previously published for expatsblog.
When we move to another country, the first thing we notice are: the weather, the food, the way people behave (how they greet each other etc.), how they live…
Many foreigners frown upon the Dutch cuisine and complain about it. If you come from a country with a very typical and renowned cuisine, a stroll through the Dutch supermarkets gives a hint about local eating habits. When I first went into an Albert Heijn, I couldn’t find yoghurt until I discovered that vla (pudding or custard) and yoghurt come in cartons like the ones for milk. The Netherlands have actually a considerable variety of very good dairy products!
Germans or Swiss often don’t find Dutch bread that you come across in supermarkets very appealing due to being fluffy or soggy. But I guess it’s just a matter of taste: many Dutch prefer the soft texture and find the German bread too sour and rich. They usually have a boterham (lit. buttered bread) for lunch, with pindakaas (peanutbutter), cheese, smeerworst, smeerkaas or chocolade sprinkels or appelstroop. – You can find “proper bread” in many stores like EcoPlaza, Marqt, your local baker, some specialized bakers or on the markets.
Coming from Italy where people usually cook from scratch, I was baffled in the first weeks in the Netherlands by the amount of menus ready to microwave, until an elder couple told me that this made it much easier for them to prepare their lunch or dinner. – I realized that many elderly people live on their own and provide for themselves, contrary to Germany, Italy and some other European countries where elderly people are often taken care of by institutions or family. It made perfectly sense to me that this kind of menues helps them to stay independent as long as possible.
Thanks to the leaflets from the supermarkets, with their products and menu suggestions, I learned the vocabulary related to food, Dutch brands and the way the locals cook.
Dutch people like gezelligheid (i.e. “coziness”, “conviviality”, fun and generally “togetherness”) and prefer comfort food instead of haute cuisine. If you visit the local markets, you’ll notice that the Dutch love to restock with local vegetables, fish, fruit, cheese, bread and beautiful flowers and often make it a family event on the weekend.
If you used to live in mountainous regions you will be bewildered about the lack of geographical reference points in the lowlands. And after a while you will end up finding the vaste sky breathtaking and invigorating.
The average temperature of the Netherlands is about 2 °C in January and 20°C in July. “Summers are generally warm with changeable periods, but excessively hot weather is rare.”
Something that Dutchs have in common with their British neighbours is, that they like to talk about the weather. Many people complain about the bad weather in the Netherlands, but the fact that it is very rare to have one entire week of rain, mist or just not see the sky for many days, make you reconsider. The climate is relatively mild compared to Northern Italy, Switzerland and parts of Germany, where temperature fluctuations are higher. You might need some time to get used to the wind though – at least if you are not coming from a coastal area. But you will also realize that these winds are pretty helpful for the quick weather change leading to “four seasons a day” especially in Spring and Autumn.
When it’s windy and rainy I discourage you from using an umbrella. Hooded jackets can do the trick instead. It’s still an acrobatic feat to hold an umbrella and to cycle at the same time, as some Dutch do it. But even the Dutch will prefer public transport to their bikes when the winds get too strong. If you check the buienradar, you’ll know when blasts of winds are expected.
My advice: go with the flow and “there’s no bad weather, there’s only bad clothing”!
Many foreigners don’t even try to learn Dutch. Those who stay only temporarily use the excuse that “Dutch is not one of the most dominant languages of the world” or they say that “the pronunciation is too difficult” so that they don’t even try. Fact is, that Dutch is the official language not only of the Netherlands, but also of Belgium, Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten, Suriname, and it is the official language of several international organisations such as the European Union, Union of South American Nations and the Caribbean Community and is worldwide spoken by 21,944,690 people (March 2015).
Status of the Dutch language worldwide. Red = Official language, Orange = Previously official, Yellow = regionally acknowledged. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) The Dutch language belongs to the westgerman branch of the indoeuropean languages and is actually pretty close to German and Swissgerman.
For Swissgermans the uvular sound -g- [ɣ] is very well known, and it sounds similar to the German in “ach” (or “Bach”, “Fach” etc.). Therefore this is not something Germans or Swissgermans would find difficult to pronounce.
People already fluent in German when learning Dutch need to be aware of false cognates (i.e. words that are phonetically similar but have different meanings):
For example aandacht means “Aufmerksamkeit” (attention) in German, and the German “Andacht” means “devotion”. The zetel is a seat and not a saddle (German “Sattel”), the winkel is a shop (“Laden”) and not an angle. With vaart you don’t design the journey or trip (“Fahrt”), but only boat trip and varen refers to the movement of ships only. Tot is not “tot” (dead) but only means “until” and is pronounced with a short -o-. A postbus is not a public means of transportation but a P.O. box (“Postfach”). The kwartier is not a quarter or accomodation (“Quartier”) but defines a quarter of an hour and usually it’s used in its diminutive form kwartiertje. Glazuur has nothing to do with baking (“Glasur”) but is dental enamel (“Zahnschmelz”). “Blaffen” does not mean to snap at someone, like the German “anblaffen” but the barking of the dog. And with “bellen” you don’t refer to the barking of the dog, like in German (“bellen”), but to ring at someones’ door or call them on the phone.
The sale signs for houses and flats puzzle every German speaking person who visits the Netherlands for the first time: “the huur” (which means “to rent”) seems very similar “to whore” (“huren” in German), but once you learn that double ‘u’ is pronounced like [üü] you’ll get over it. A similar misunderstanding could occur with the verkocht sign, when a property is sold, since it really sounds like “overkooked” in German (“verkocht”).
Many Americans consider Dutch people very modest and humble. Fact is, that Dutchs just don’t show off wealth and possessions. But on the other hand, they seem to boast more compared with average Asian people. Dutch people are generally very similar to average Swiss: they don’t feel the need to tell everyone how good they are. Dutch mentality is shaped by Calvinism – similar to the Swiss one (i.e. only certain parts of Switzerland though): Showboating is not well-received and neither is self-praise.
Therefore my advice: Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg! (If you just behave normally, you are already weird enough!).
Bike street: Cars are guest
The Netherlands are famous for biking. Thanks to the geographical complexion it is very easy to bike at any age. No matter the weather, people take their fiets as often as they can.
Dutch children are immersed in a world of cycling from the very beginning: babies and toddlers travel in special seats, bakfiets or cargo bikes, perfectly equipped with canopies to protect them from the elements.
Quite contrary to Germany and Switzerland, bikers in the Netherlands tend to bike helmet-free because they feel safe and protected by the cycle-centric rules of the roads and the way infrastructure is designed. This may change though in the nearer future, as VeiligheidNL and others point out that head injuries caused by bike accidents could be avoided by wearing helmets.
Another difference between bikers in the Netherlands and other European countries is the upright position of the Dutch bikers, which gives them a great overview over the traffic, but doesn’t protect them however from taking risks: you’ll often see cyclists pass a street or a crossing underestimating its dangers.
On the site of the Fietsroutenplanner you can plan your bike journey (fiets=bike).
Some historical facts about bikes in the Netherlands
The Dutch didn’t always cycle as much as today. In fact, during the ’60ies many people preferred cars and streets were built to make most Dutch city centers accessible by car – especially Amsterdam. “The number of traffic casualties rose to a peak of 3,300 deaths in 1971. More than 400 children were killed in traffic accidents that year.” This lead to protests by different action groups and, among others, to a First Only Real Dutch Cyclists’ Union. The oil crisis in 1973 led to re-discover the advantages of biking in the Lowlands during car-free Sundays. After some more actions from politicians Netherlands became the bike friendly country we know today which boasts of 32,000 km of cycle paths.
Sirens in the Netherlands
Every first Monday of the month, you’ll hear sirens for 1 minute and 26 seconds in whole Netherlands. For many expats this alarm is very frightening. Please don’t worry. It has nothing to do with attacks from an enemy but it is a warning in case of a huge fire or an environmental disaster. This kind of warning system was set up in response to the threat of attack from Germany in WWII, but after the war sirens were kept because of the Cold War.
If you dial 112, “When somebody calls 112 from a land line, the call is received by the 112 emergency call centre in the caller’s area. Calls from mobile phones are connected to the call centre of the Dutch Police Services Agency (KLPD) in Driebergen.” – When calling this number, you should ask for the service you need: the police, the fire brigade or the ambulance service. You can also use the toll-free emergency number 0800-8112, or type a message. This number is also for people with speech or hearing impariment. You should tell:
- where you are
- where the assistance is needed
- which emergency service you require: police, fire brigade or ambulance service.
For non-urgent assistent, dial 0900-1844. You can also use an app, the SOS Alarm app, through which you can reach helpers in your immediate surroundings that are not on duty but who could arrive quicker and give valuable and life saving help.
Some useful sites: