Thursday, February 14, 2013

One Month, Ten Lessons: Netherlands

It's been a hell of a month. Dammit, I gave up cursing for Lent. DOH! Okay, let's try this again...

On January 15, 2013, Vicki and I touched town in the Netherlands to begin another expat adventure.  We've learned so much in just a short time about the Netherlands and Dutch culture; partly due to our Intercultural Training course and our day-day experiences, that I felt we should share a little.  

So with out further ado I bring you:
"One Month, 10 Lessons: Netherlands."  

1. Cash Only Country
As the saying goes, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."  In our town, credit cards are not as widely accepted as we thought they would be.  AMEX, is sparse and VISA is mostly limited to restaurants. For all other purchases such as groceries and train tickets,  cash and debit cards (MAESTRO) are the ways to go.  The Dutch just want your cold hard cash.  Smart folks.  

2.  It's Not Rude To Say "Sorry, I Don't Speak Dutch"  
It makes sense; you visit/live in a country, you attempt to speak the language to show respect.  In an attempt to be polite with our new hosts, Vicki and I tried to learn a few simple phrases in Dutch, namely, "Spreek je Engels?" (Do you speak English?)  Turns out this was the WRONG phrase to learn for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, folks we've met, speak and have a good grasp of English. Also, this phrase can sound a bit obnoxious and can also be the perfect setup for a joke when someone answers you in perfect English "No, I don't speak any English at all."

So we've learned that it's perfectly acceptable and polite to say, "Sorry I don't speak Dutch." But make sure you say it in your most awkward, broken English voice.  Vicki and I joke about which one of us says that phrase the funniest.  I'm currently winning.  

We've also found that when the English-Dutch and/or Other Language barrier is too great.  Just use hand gestures like the one pictured.  This particular gesture will get you a carafe of wine.  It works! See here.

3.  Paperwork, Paperwork & More Paperwork
You know, for a liberal country you sure have to muddle through a ton of paperwork to live here.  There's a great book called the "UnDutchables."  I think it's great required reading for anyone making the move to the Netherlands.  There's a chapter that discusses the trials and tribulations of the Immigration and Naturalization Department (IND).  The process of immigration is described as  frustrating, including multiple trips to a number of different government offices.  At first we thought that this was bunk.  We had a successful visit with the IND and it only took us one trip.  But the next task was to register at the town hall in Oss.  I now understood what the book was talking about.  Today marked my third trip to this building pictured below.  But it's official, Vicki and I are married and residents in the eyes of the the Dutch Government.

The Oss Town Hall

4.  Horse Meat--It's Apparently What's For Dinner.
Okay, no disrespect, but Vicki and I have noticed something.  All the food here seems to have this strange after taste, especially the meat.  Not sure if it's the oil or the type of mystery "meat" being used, but there is definitely some distinct after taste.  One late night after a few delicious Belgian Beers, we wondered to our local snack bar.  The menu, of course was all in Dutch, but with the help of a local, we ended up ordering fries with horse meat, based on his recommendation, "It's really nice!" he said. Horse meat? Really?  Talk about a distinct taste.  Well a few nights later, I swear I was eating it again in my spaghetti and meat sauce at the Italian place down the street.  It wasn't bad, but yet, it wasn't good either.  I might stick to chicken from here on out.    

5. My Washer and Dryer Are Smarter Than Me
In case you haven't caught my Adventures in Expat Laundry post, let me explain.  My appliances are multilingual, they speak French and Finnish.  Not only am I faced with the challenge of doing the wash, interpreting the instructions on the machine I have to determine which machine is speaking which language.  

My new multilingual BFFs
6. It Takes An Advanced Degree & A Tweet To Figure Out the Train Discount Card Programs
When you look up train times and tickets, they list the full fare price then the discounted prices.  Discount tickets? Don't mind if I do! Who doesn't like to save a euro or two.  After multiple search attempts and with the help of I finally figured out the discount scheme. But there was still the challenge of how to purchase said discount subscription. (I'll leave that for a future post.)  

I then learned there was another discount program good for international train travel across a number of European countries.  It's called the Rail Pass Plus.  But my searching attempts kept coming up empty.  Every site I found told me of the existence of this pass, but NO WAY to purchase it.  I finally found out, from a Belgium rail site, that you could buy them in the train Belgian train stations.  Great.

As I continued scrutinizing the NS Highspeed site, I saw a link to their twitter account.  I thought, what the hell, let me try the power of Dutch Social Media.  Then this happened, in Dutch:

Actual Twitter Dialogue  
Well I got my question answered thanks to Twitter (and google translate). Apparently you can purchase them on their website at the link they provided. Ok, in my defense, since you're probably saying, why did you have so much trouble then? Well,  I tried to backtrack using their link to see if I could find the page on my own.  For the record, I still can't find it, so for now, at least I got the  

7. Carnaval In The Netherlands Is A Big Deal & My Landlord Has Great Stuff In The Attic
Move over Mardi Gras, there's a new Carnaval king in town and it's the Dutch.  Just think, 5 days of family friendly parades and parties under big tents with lots and lots of Heineken; that's Carnaval in the Netherlands.  What an experience and I am so glad we were here for it.  More on Carnaval in the Netherlands here.

Sweet Jacket Courtesy of the Owner of our Apartment.  Our Apartment ON THE PARADE ROUTE!

8. You Only Get 3 Chances To Talk To Your Waiter/Waitress In Restaurants; Make It Count
I had read that service in Dutch restaurants leaves a bit to be desired.  This was good preparation going into our first dining experiences here.  For example, you can be sitting with an empty drink for what seems like hours while you watch the bartender or server standing at the bar cleaning glass ware.  Or you can make direct eye contact with your server and signal that you are in need of say a napkin or water;  they then look at you (almost through you) and keep on walking.  

So that brings me to my learnings.  I've noticed the only times you get to talk to your server is when you are seated, when they bring your drink and when they bring your food.  Then you are own your own.  Yes, I'm familiar with the European dining culture vs American and understand that they do not work for tips and they do not want to rush you.  But come on, what's a guy gotta do to get another beer?  We now know, to treat each interaction with our server as a special moment, one not to be taken for granted.  

9. Make Sure to Bring Your Elbows to the Grocery Store
The Dutch are very direct, in words and in the grocery store. For example, you're in front of the refrigerators where they keep bagged lettuce and other prepared vegetables trying to find out what exactly a "wortel" is (it's a carrot BTW) and 2 or 3 fellow shoppers almost collide into you AND each other as they reach for a bag of Japanese Salad Mix. I thought, not big deal I was clogging up the aisle, shame on me.  I then walked a bit further down to look at some more veggies, and DAM, it happens again. Some dude flies right into me for a bag of peas.  Alright.  I've learned my lesson.  My next trip to the grocery I have to be prepared to throw some elbows if someone gets in front of my bag of wortels.  

10.  Outdoor Urinals Are Popular and Plentiful
This might be one of my favorite things about the Netherlands. Yes, I realize I have the sense of humor of a 5 year old. But hey, when you gotta go; say right after Mass lets out at St. John's Cathedral in Den Bosch, you're in good shape because there's a urinal just a stone's throw away.  I like the way the Dutch think.

Urinal in foreground, Cathedral in the background

They even set up portable ones for celebrations.

Honorable Mentions

These weren't exactly Top 10 material but they deserved recognition as well:

-Banking.  Don't expect to cash a check here in the Netherlands.  We had a check from our Irish Gas Company that we brought and tried to cash it here.  Turns out it would have taken 4-6 weeks, and the fees to cash it would have cost us about 16% of the check's value.  Not worth it.

-Dutch Websites.  Google Chrome is your best friend

-Learning Dutch. Need help with learning dutch numbers?  Stay up late, there's plenty of scantly clad ladies eager to help you by giving out their phone numbers.  Got this piece of advice from one of my favorite #expat blogs, "Invading Holland."  If you're an expat in the Netherlands, check out Stu, he's the man. 

When another month passes, I'll bring you another segment of "One Month, Ten Lessons."  

Cheers to the weekend everyone!


  1. Wait till Queens Day. You'll get to see a outdoor urinals. They go mobile.

    Also... I'm not sure the meat should be tasting of horse but given what is happening in the news at the moment I would not be surprised.

    Thank you for the mention :)

    1. Happy to give you a shout out Stu. Your blog is great stuff. It keeps me laughing. My wife mentioned the horse meat news to me last night as I was writing this post. Pretty timely I guess. But I swear that meat sauce I had the other night could have been horse, tasted a bit off.

      I'll be sure to take plenty of urinal pics during Queen's Day. We'll be spending two nights in Amsterdam for the festivities. Can't wait!

  2. Oh, and the first urinal you pictures is one that fits into the ground during the day! It's like a little elevator, it only comes out at night and on special happenings. Practial or what!

    The cash only thing, most credit cards (used to?) charge for using it in shops so we dutch would only use it for special occasions. Furthermore, the debit card system has always been very popular. Most transactions nowadays are per debit card, which we don't really see as cash!

    1. Hi Meta: thank you for confirming that urinal goes below ground, I thought I read about that somewhere, but I thought I was crazy. That is super practical, I like how the Dutch operate.

      Thanks for your insights on the cash only comment. It was a bit of an adjustment for my wife and I since we typically use our credit cards for everyday purchases to build up "reward points" to use for free hotel stays. Let me add, we pay off those credit cards every month, we're very responsible that way, unlike the other stereotypes you may have heard. There are responsible American credit card holders :) I do think cash and direct debits are smart ideas, just took a little getting used to.

      Thanks for reading and contributing. Hope you'll stop back. Cheers!

  3. Great list! We can relate after living in the NL for nearly four years, gaaa service!! One time we were at our regular pizza place with a friend from the US and the server just came up and stood there, we placed our order as usual and our friend stammered out theirs, then the server walked off. Our friend was amazed that our server never said a word and that we didn't seem to perplexed by this :)

    Interestingly, on of our more popular posts is this picture of outdoor urinals and it is amazing how often people search this term!!

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