11 September 2018

Nena V. - Expat in Netherlands

Nena V. - Expat in Netherlands

We’ve had the chance to talk to Nena V., 30, an American expat who has moved to the Netherlands alone. Ms V., who has been living there for more or less four years works as a water engineer. Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: Upstate New York, USA


Q: What made you move out of the US?

A: After working for a few years in California, I applied for a US Fulbright research grant to study water management at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands. I moved to the Netherlands in 2014 and had stayed in Europe ever since. All my extended family lives in Belgium, and I had always wanted to live near them at some point.


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: I now live in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Between my first stay in the Netherlands and now, I spent 1.5 years living and working in Antwerp, Belgium, to spend more time with my family and get my Belgian citizenship.


Q: How long have you been living in the Netherlands?

A: I moved to the Netherlands in 2014 and still live here now (2018), but in between, I also lived in Belgium for 1.5 years.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: I live together with my Dutch partner. We met when I first moved to the Netherlands. We learn from each other every day. Being from two different cultures, we’ve both adjusted our communication styles to be more open/direct, to avoid any language-related misunderstandings. He has helped me understand so much about Dutch culture/norms, and I think he has learned a lot from my perspective/experiences/encounters with the Dutch, and the medley of international friends that I bring into our lives. Together we’ve discovered many parts of the Netherlands (and Europe) that neither of us had visited previously.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?

A: I certainly miss my immediate family (rest of the family lives nearby in Belgium) and friends in the US. However, I get to see some of my friends more often now that I enjoy the generous vacation/flexible work policies in the Netherlands. I meet up with friends ~4x/year to travel to different countries. What I really miss is the natural beauty of the US - wide open spaces with mountains, undeveloped coasts/lakes, and old growth forests. Luckily I can visit once a year to spend some quality time outdoors.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: The Dutch are kind, honest, proud, and open people. In general, my experience is very positive. I initially found it frustrating when locals would respond to my Dutch (I speak Dutch thanks to my Belgian parents) with English, since I had a strong Belgian/American accent. But the key is to speak with confidence and just keep speaking in Dutch! :) In my line of work (water engineering), my colleagues can sometimes be a bit overconfident/arrogant about their area of expertise, so that can be a bit annoying. But in general, I felt comfortable and welcomed in Dutch culture.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in The Netherlands? How did you manage to find a social circle there?

A: It has been easy to make friends with expats, but a bit more challenging to become close with locals. It helps a bit to have a Dutch partner, but I still find it difficult to form close relationships with locals, especially those who haven’t lived abroad. It’s relatively easy to become friends, but forming closer relationships is a challenge. Of close friendships I’ve made living in Belgium and the Netherlands, only one or two are locals.


Q: How does the cost of living in The Netherlands compare to your home?

A: I think the Dutch might disagree with me, but having moved to the Netherlands from the San Francisco Bay Area, I found the cost of living to be very affordable. I went from paying ~1000 USD/month for rent to 400 EUR. Fresh/healthy groceries are also significantly cheaper (maybe half the price?) while processed/prepared foods are more expensive. You pay more to eat out, however, but since the work-life balance is better here, you have more time to cook at home.


Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

A: I drink cappuccinos, and those are about 3 euros


Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A: Maybe 15-20 euros? There are far fewer takeout/fast food restaurants here than in the US. The minute you do a cheap sit-down meal, plan to spend about 20 euros.


Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A: Not sure - I almost never go for an expensive dinner! 40 euros?


Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

A: Decent wine is pretty cheap - maybe 5 euros? I don’t smoke - not sure about cigarettes… I think the taxes are pretty high. 


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in the Netherlands?

A: Ha, when I first moved here, I considered making a giant flow chart of which accounts/permits/paperwork you had to have before getting other types of accounts. It felt like a catch 22. I don’t remember all the details, but I’m pretty sure you needed a residence card before you could get a bank account, but for that, you needed a rental contract, for which you maybe needed a bank account. You also needed a Dutch phone number for various things, but you couldn’t get that before having a bank account. I’m still not sure how I got through the process, but it all worked out in the end. I think the entire process took about 6-weeks to 2 months to complete, so not terrible.


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?

A: I guess I already answered a lot of that above! My general experience is that the government systems are quite well organized here, and the customer services is great. You have to show up to register in the city you move to, and you also need to show up to get your visa (fingerprints, photos), but once you’re in the Dutch system, you have a unique ID that you can use to do most additional paperwork online (health insurance, taxes, pension, etc.). All your accounts are linked to this number.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in the Netherlands is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?

A: Coming from the US, I find the Dutch health system reliable and affordable. When you arrive, you should register with a neighborhood doctor - that saves you needing to register/sign-up when you’re sick. The only thing that was different was the Dutch attitude towards patients. I don’t go to the doctor often, but some other friends said they often get the advice to “go home and wait a week and see if it goes away”. People in the US probably would not like that answer! They are more cautious about giving out medications. There can also be wait times for more routine care (e.g. gynecological appointments). However, any time a friend has had a real situation/need, they were prioritized, and the necessary care was quickly provided.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in the US or the Netherlands? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?

A: I have insurance in the Netherlands. It costs about 80 euros/month, with an 800 euro/year deductible (one of the cheapest plans/highest deductibles). I think all plans in the Netherlands need to meet some basic standards. You can shop around if there are specific extra things you’d like to have covered (dental/eye doctors/hospitalization insurance).


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Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to the Netherlands? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?

A: The mover was me! I originally planned to come to the Netherlands for 1 year, so I packed two suitcases and got on a plane. I sold most of my large furniture in the US, and stored a few boxes at my parents’ house. I got off the plane, put my suitcases on a train, and took a taxi to the front door of my new apartment. It all went quite smoothly, except climbing the stairs at the train station, where the elevators were under construction… :)


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?

A: I’ve moved quite often (from the Netherlands to Belgium and back to another city in the Netherlands), so I’ve met people all over but struggled to build a community of friends nearby. Now that I’m planning to stay in one place for a while, I’m focused on getting to know people in my city, especially locals or expats who plan to stay for a while. It’s easy to make expat friends, but they are often only around temporarily. Hopefully staying put for a while will help solve this problem!


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in the Netherlands?

A: Positives: So many great things: work-life balance, public transit, bike culture, vacation time, transparent/efficient government systems, reliable healthcare/insurance systems that are not tied to your employment, a progressive culture that doesn’t people fall through the cracks (downside: high taxes, but worth it), safety (no gun culture, low crime, trusted police, safe bike paths).

Negatives: It’s crowded! I miss the wide open spaces and wilderness that abounds in the US. But I do appreciate that the Dutch are great at urban planning, so they really do their best to mix open space with denser urban areas. It’s also very flat, so if you come from a hilly/mountainous place, the lack of interesting topography can sometimes drag on you… On the bright side, the density and flatness make biking easy and speedy. Houses are also quite small if you’re coming from the US. I don’t mind the small spaces so much (less stuff!), but I definitely miss having access to a real yard, and not having upstairs/downstairs/adjacent neighbors.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?

A: One of my biggest hobbies is kayaking. I started kayaking when I was a kid in New York, and my hobby has followed me from the lakes in NY to the Pacific Coast in California, to the Netherlands. The Netherlands is an awesome place for watersports. There are boat rentals in every city, and the vast networks of rivers and canals make kayaking/canoeing a great way to explore old Dutch cities. There are plenty of nice cafes, restaurants, windmills, and parks to stop at along the way. I write about my Dutch kayaking adventures in my blog The Naked Kayaker (don’t worry - fully clothed!).

I also LOVE the biking culture. I didn’t bike much in the US - I tried it a couple times but never felt safe sharing the road with cars. Biking is usually the fastest way to get around, and bikes often have right of way at intersections. It’s also a really fun way to go exploring in the weekends, so I often hop on my bike and go exploring with a friend, to see which cute towns/markets/scenery we can find.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: Not at the moment! Sometimes I dream of moving back to the US to retire in a lake house some day, but then I remember the healthcare system and how much better the Dutch treat their elderly population… I don’t have a family yet, but there are great systems in place to support Dutch families. For example, it’s totally normal for moms or dads to work less than 40 hours per week - it doesn’t reflect badly on them as employees. I’ll be here for the foreseeable future! If only the housing market would stop exploding…


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?

A: Ask others for advice, and follow it! Most of the lessons learned/adventures found/discoveries made when I first moved here were based on a recommendation from another expat or Dutchie. Be open to trying new things. Eat raw herring! Bike to the beach! Go bike camping! Cook stamppot! Join a Christmas “surprise” party. Go sailing. Learn some Dutch (I luckily already spoke Dutch, thanks to my Belgian parents, and it’s helped a lot with fitting in).


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about The Netherlands?

A: I’m interested in finance, and I read personal finance blogs from authors in the Netherlands, Belgium, and the US. I like reading Cheesy Finance (NL) and Amber Tree Leaves (BE). To be honest, I mostly read US blogs, as the blogging scene seems less established in the Netherlands. Am I allowed to mention my own website, where I write about kayaking in the Netherlands? :) It’s www.nakedkayaker.com.