I arrived in The Netherlands seven months ago, in the middle of spring hailstorms. Now the leaves are changing color and more people are asking about how my experience has been so far, beyond just working abroad. There were many things I was warned about before I moved: that it would be hard to make Dutch friends, that the food is bland, that the winter weather will make me reconsider every choice I ever made about moving here. Yet most of these things haven’t turned out to be true (except winter hasn’t happened yet, so that is likely true and remains to be seen). I surveyed Twitter to see what questions people have for me about living abroad as an expat.
How hard is it to make friends and get into a social circle?
While it’s easy to make friends with expats, who also are looking for new friends, it can be harder to befriend Dutch folks who already have an established social life. I think that’s true when you move anywhere, not a comment on Dutch society in general. It was hardest for me to make friends in Portland, when I started a new job but everyone there was already well established. I found it much easier in New York and Santa Barbara where we lived by other families who also recently moved for work. So far in Amsterdam there are hundreds of expats who are all eager to meet, so I have also found it easy to make friends here as well.
I have made a few Dutch friends, mostly through work, through dating apps, or just being friendly with my neighbors. Not speaking Dutch— especially in one on one conversations— is not a problem, because people here are fluent and relatively comfortable speaking English. However, if I get invited to a Dutch party, meetup, or other type of friend-gathering, I do wish I knew a bit more Dutch. People will switch to English for me but I can’t help but feel a little bad to make an entire group change their language. I have been assured that many Dutch folk spend the majority of their days at work or with expats speaking English, and they don’t mind— especially if I am still making an effort to learn Dutch on the side.
What is the food like?
Dutch food, like American food, is hard to pin down. Food varies a lot depending on the local international populations. For example, Indonesian and Surinamese food is extremely good in The Netherlands. I also end up eating a lot of Indian food because:
1. It’s my favorite cuisine
2. There’s an amazing takeaway place around the corner from me.
Also, I tend to cook a lot for myself, so I still haven’t had some traditional meals like the Dutch stamppot, a bowl of mashed potatoes with kale and topped with slices of sausage– the height of traditional comfort food. However, there are common Dutch foods and snacks that I definitely enjoy.
My favorite bar snack: bitterballen
Probably the most “Dutch” food I have on a regular basis are the snacks and desserts– from the fried bitterballen that threaten to burn my tongue every time I bite into them, to the appeltaart with the indescribably tasty crust and sweet apple filling.
People joke about Dutch food not having much flavor (ironically, since The Netherlands was a huge exporter of spices), but so far I haven’t found that to be true. However, there are some dishes that I am not a huge fan of, including another famous Dutch food: haring.
My least favorite snack: haring
While exploring a small town up north called Volendam, I did try the famous haring, the raw herring usually topped with onions and pickles. My attempt at eating it was valiant, I must say, though I could not finish the slippery, slimy fish. Especially not with my sister looking on with a mixture of concern and disgust. I think I’ll stick to eating bitterballen.
Speaking of food, one thing I wish I knew before moving here is that I’ve been pronouncing a common tasty treat wrong for years.
I’ve been saying it all wrong: A double ‘oo’ is pronounced ‘oh’ in Dutch.
This one might not seem very important in general, but I am horrified at how many people here politely endure(d) my severe mispronounciation of words when I first moved here. One of the most delicious Dutch treats is called a ‘stroopwafel’. Some people are familiar with these because some airlines serve them as a snack. They are flat circular waffle biscuits with a caramel center, you can put them on a steaming cup of tea so they soften. However, it turns out I’ve been pronouncing stroopwafel wrong this whole time.
I found out when I went to see the American comic Iliza Shlesinger in concert live. She tweaked some jokes to appeal to the primarily Dutch audience, and at one point she mentioned stroopwafels. I heard a Dutch person in front of me ask her friend, “Did she say strooooopwafel?” I’d been living in the country nearly 6 months but that was my first realization that I should be saying “Strope-wafel”. So now you know too.
Have you felt homesick? And was there any culture shock?
I’m grateful for my previous experiences living abroad, because they helped me prepare for living abroad longer term. Combined with the fact that I moved a lot in the U.S. after University, and that my family is spread all over the world rather than all being rooted in one place, it makes it much easier to live abroad without feeling too homesick.
When I go home I’m still struck by things: the bright blue Denver sky with its 300 days of sunshine, the way I can confidently talk to a stranger in English without trying to translate in my head first (ultimately failing to translate into Dutch and switching to English anyway, but still). A friend mentioned that when she’s back in the U.S. she misses The Netherlands, and when in The Netherlands, misses things from home. She said, “I have two homes and no home.” Sometimes living abroad is like that.
As for culture shock, I can’t think of too many things that rattled me. My expat friend mentioned being shocked when the doctor asked her to undress without first leaving the room, as well as pure fear when receiving a low score in a performance review– she thought she was going to be fired, but a mid-range review was considered doing well at her company. It helps that expats share their experiences so that I can prepare for similar events. I was warned that Dutch service is different, and indeed I am still getting used to the struggle of flagging down a waiter in order to pay the bill. Oh, and it took 2 weeks for my internet service to get up and running, which while working remotely during a pandemic, was a bit of a surprise.
How Does Living Abroad Affect Your Finances?
How do you handle tax reporting living abroad?
I haven’t yet filed taxes yet for this year of living abroad, but I have heard that The Netherlands make it very easy to file your taxes. They give you the calculated amount, you fill out some forms, and you’re done. However, in the U.S. it’s more like this:
Government: You owe us money. It’s called taxes.
Me: How much do I owe?
Gov’t: You have to figure that out.
Me: I just pay what I want?
Gov’t: Oh, no we know exactly how much you owe. But you have to guess that number too.
Me: What if I get it wrong?
Gov’t: You go to prison
— jordan (@jordan_stratton) April 16, 2019
There are ways to decrease the U.S. tax bill by filing with the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion and the Foreign Tax Credit. There is a treaty between the two countries so expats won’t be double taxed on income and capital gains. Navigating all of this is still a bridge to cross. For me, that means I will be hiring someone to help me with my taxes, because at least for the first year I think it’s worth the extra cost. Thankfully, for the first 5 years living in The Netherlands, ‘highly skilled migrants’ get 30% off their tax bill, which is a significant perk.
Is it more difficult working with brokerages from outside US?
Yes. Because of the extra paperwork and law restrictions around American citizens holding money in foreign accounts, it is difficult to work with brokerages outside of the U.S. Most people I know keep their accounts from back home and continue investing there, using Transferwise to convert euros to dollars. However, there is still a risk of U.S. based brokerages shutting down accounts if you live abroad. So far I have my fingers-crossed that Vanguard doesn’t leave me high and dry. I am currently using any savings in Europe as my emergency fund, while slowly investing the emergency fund of dollars I kept in the U.S. Once I replenish my emergency fund, I will look into transferring money back home but for now I’m doing my best to avoid extra fees.
How do you approaching retirement plans and saving?
Overall the approach to retirement plans and saving while abroad stays the same: save what I can, spend less, and invest the difference. I saved enough cushion before moving abroad to not worry about the amount I save overall. It has helped me realise there are so many options people can design their retirements– including living abroad where medical expenses won’t bankrupt you. Now I am dependent on a job for my healthcare (because I need to be sponsored by a company to stay registered in The Netherlands) but that might not always be the case, as there are other options for expats who want to live somewhere else long term. In terms of staying on track for my plan, I will hire a tax accountant who is familiar with the U.S., The Netherlands, and preferably also stock plans of a growing start-up. The one-time fee for specialized advice can pay off in the long run.
How has it been similar to your other moves (multiple cross-country moves we’ve read about on your blog) and how has it been different?
Long time readers like Josh (who asked this question) know about my multiple moves, from settling in Portland, OR for 4 years, to a big move to New York and then back across the country again to Santa Barbara. Obviously this international move posed some challenges, but there were also some things that stayed the same:
What was the same about an international move vs. inter-continental?
I prefer to have housing sorted ahead of time. When I moved to Portland, New York, and Santa Barbara, I had housing figured out before I arrived. When I arrived in The Netherlands, I got an Airbnb for the first month before signing the lease on my first place.
2. Moving without hired help
I did not hire movers for any move. Technically if you count inner-city, cross-country and international moves since graduating from University 6 years ago, I’ve transported my own belongings between 7 different apartments. I am starting to get tired of the process, and would consider paying for help the next time I have to load and unload larger furniture items. This might not be necessary in The Netherlands though because apartments can come fully furnished, which means I’d have a lot less to pack overall.
What was different about an international move vs. inter-continental?
1. Deciding what ‘stuff’ to bring
Of course when I moved in the states I was still intentional about what I wanted to bring and what I got rid of, but moving internationally took this to a whole new level. I packed two suitcases instead of an entire car-load.
2. Having a job vs. starting a new job
It can be stressful to move to a new place, and extra stressful if you are also starting a new job. When I moved to Portland and Amsterdam I started a new job within a week. When I moved to New York and California, I kept the same job but just went remote. For all moves it would have been nice to have a bit more time off work during transitions, but I never took more than two weeks off, even for my international move.
3. Logistics and Paperwork
Moving comes with a huge administrative headache. Things like address forwarding (which is an amazing service by USPS for just $1.10!), getting a new license, updating online accounts, etc. all must be done within a certain timeframe. Moving internationally complicates this some, and was made even more complicated because with the move I also got a new cellphone and number, so all accounts that used two-factor authentication needed to be updated on top of everything else. Of course, moving internationally requires much more administrative work, from visa and residency applications to finding new internet, phone, and utility plans which can be complicated, especially in a different language.
Is It Everything You Thought It Would Be?
No one actually asked me this question, but it felt important to answer: is The Netherlands as good as I hoped when I moved here in April? The answer is a solid: YES! I just signed a lease for another year living here. I love living in this beautiful, bustling city. I have a great network of friends and coworkers. There is still so much to do and explore in this country, even as winter closes in. Heck, even winter will be an opportunity to light some candles and get cozy. I’m glad I took the risk of moving to a city I’d only been to once before, for just one weekend. I can’t believe how much has already happened and look forward to the next year of adventures!
What about you?
Do you have any questions about the first seven months living in The Netherlands?
What surprised you when you moved somewhere new?
Were you pronouncing ‘Stroopwafels’ correctly? Did you know what they were before this post?
Share in the comments below!