The Best Thing about Living in the Netherlands

Bonnie The Bike after undergoing Tiffization

Bonnie is one of my best friends here in the Netherlands. We spend an inordinate amount of time together. Although there have been times when we haven’t been the nicest to each other (like the time I locked her out in the rain or the time she pushed me against a shop window) we always make up in the end. We’ve also been through a lot together: getting caught out in storms, getting lost and finding our way again, exploring new areas and taking trips together.

To be honest, Bonnie was one of the things I dreaded most about coming here. I just wasn’t sure that we’d mesh as her lifestyle is so different from the one I had back in the US. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle her. The first few weeks together weren’t easy. And let’s just say we didn’t exactly hit it off the first time I met her.

But since then, Bonnie has introduced me to a whole new world. One I had never spent much time in because it just didn’t fit who I was. Now, its such a huge part of me and I can’t imagine my life without it. She’s helped me begin to lead a healthier lifestyle and she’s taught me to be more independent. I like to think that we’re invincible.

If I were to leave the Netherlands, Bonnie is one of the things I would miss the most. I already miss her whenever I go away, no matter how long I’m gone. Yet she’s always there waiting for me when I get back so we can go off on our latest adventure. It’s funny that the part of living here I thought I would dislike the most has become something I now can’t live without. Bonnie and I have known each other for about a year now, and I can honestly say that it’s been the best year of my life. And Bonnie has a lot to do with that. I hope that we have many more years together, and wherever I end up, if Bonnie’s still around, I’ll be taking her with me.

Who would have thought that I’d end up feeling this way about a bike? I certainly didn’t.

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Reflecting on Queen’s Day 2009

Oranje pride on Queen's Day in the Netherlands
A very orange street musician shows her Dutch pride on Queen’s Day

Koning is Dutch for king and Koningin is Dutch for queen. Koninginnedag (or Queen’s Day) is a national holiday in the Netherlands celebrating the Queen’s birthday.

Not the current Queen Beatrix’s birthday, which is in January, but that of her mother Juliana. Juliana was born on the 30th of April when the weather in Holland tends to be significantly better than during the winter months

She was known to have ridden her bicycle among her people with little to no security. Her subjects were even permitted to stroll right up and give her a peck on the cheek! This way, the cloggie royalty came to be known as “the cycling monarchy.”

Always available to the public, the royal family has continued to not only attend, but participate in Queen’s Day festivities: playing games and dancing as if they too were part of the crowd.

Celebrations begin on April 29th with Koninginnenacht, or “Queen’s Day Eve,” if you will. City centers all over the country are closed off from cars and bikes (the latter unless you like to live dangerously) and people swarm in to set up camp.

Camp? Yes, they head in early to ensure a place in front of houses, canals, buildings, and in parks to set up their wares. Because what is Konninginnedag if not an excuse to sell all your unwanted items? If you choose to visit the Netherlands on the 29th or 30th of April, be prepared to enter Flea Market Heaven (or hell, depending on how you feel about this pastime).

In addition to the sales is scores of live music and loads of drinking. Food and beverage tents and caravans litter the city, and pubs set up shop outside to sell beer on the streets. That way you can enjoy a brew and a snack as you peruse the rummage sales! Bands leaving much to be desired entertain the masses everywhere you turn, and DJs fill the spaces between. But most importantly, everyone is dressed in orange.

My husband and I had Dutch pancakes (pannekoeken) with friends on Koninginnenacht and then headed out into town for an evening of beer, music, and sales.

The next day, we popped over to the Rummelmarkt (yard sale) in Juliana Park and bought some great makeshift toys for the dog. He now has his very own stuffed version of Holland’s mascot Loeki the Lion. Then we headed back into the city center for a nice, ‘healthy’ lunch of patat (fries typically smothered in mayonnaise) and beer, looked around some more at the sales, and listened to several street bands. It was amazing to see so many people squeezed into the streets and canals.

Each year on Koninginnedag, the Royal Family chooses a city in Holland to visit. This year, they graced Appeldoorn with their presence. But everything went horribly wrong.

As per usual, the royal family began with their parade through the town by bus, when a car broke through the police barricades and the crowd, careening toward the bus. Just in the nick of time, the car inexplicably veered off it’s course and crashed into De Naald monument in the center of the square, stopping it dead in it’s tracks. The royal family was rushed to Paleis Het Loo and immediately put under lock-down.

Eight people were killed including the driver of the vehicle, identified as Karst Tates, who passed away in the hospital before anyone could question him. Before falling into a coma at the scene of the accident, he did confess to having planned the attack on the royal family, with crowned prince Willem-Alexander as his primary target.

Prior to these unfortunate events, Tates had lost his job as a security guard and was in heavy financial trouble. His apartment had been seized and sold, and the new family was to move in the following day. It was also reported that he was divorced and being kept from his children.

It has been concluded that he planned and carried out the attack alone. Authorities have yet to determine a motive. While taking his own life as well as the lives of seven others, Tates did not succeed in altering the relaxed lifestyle of the House of Orange, which plans to continue to enjoy many a Queen’s Day to come.

Read more about the tragedy here.

Have you ever experienced Queen’s Day in the Netherlands? If so, what was it like?

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Dutch Women Don’t Get Fat Either

All that cycling the Dutch do pays off
Could this be one of the reasons Dutch women don’t get fat either?

As an American with a wide cultural background and lots of traveling and living abroad experience, I have always been amazed at how much rich foods European men and women eat and yet remain so slim.

We’ve all heard that French women don’t get fat, but my experience in the Netherlands has shown me that Dutch women don’t get fat either.

After moving to the Netherlands and adapting to the culture here, I quickly figured out why: Lifestyle.

Read my article, Weighty Issues: The Dutch Edition at ExpatExchange.com to see what a difference lifestyle makes. Here’s an excerpt from the piece to whet your appetite:

 

What is it about Europeans that allows them to break almost every dieting rule ever written and still remain so slim?

They eat almost nothing but carbs, have their last meal way after 7pm, drink real milk, eat real mayonnaise, have dessert after at least one of their three meals… You know, all those things they tell you NOT to do when watching your waistline!

And yet, we in America with all of our diets and weight loss aids, a plethora of lite, reduced-fat, and fat-free foods are the ones who are overweight.

The answer is very simple and very logical, yet always overlooked because it is so simple (not to mention it actually takes work).

Lifestyle.

Of the 3 other countries in which I’ve lived, there’s only one that I have enough experience in to actually speak with any sort of authority: Holland. I moved here early December 2008 after marrying a Dutchman.

My first several months here, I drank several cups of tea and coffee per day sweetened with pure sugar. I went from skim milk to halfvolle (“half full” or “half whole”). Every night after dinner, my husband and I would have dessert: ice cream, custard, pudding, etc. Every night we’d watch a movie and polish off a bag of M&Ms between the two of us.

I was introduced to all the Dutch treats. Patat: a large cone filled with fat Flemish fries, smothered in whatever topping you choose. Most Dutch just go for plain mayonnaise, but curry and peanut sauce are also popular. My favorite: a mix of mayonnaise, peanut sauce, and onion called Patat Oorloog, or “fries war.” Ollieballen: a New Year’s treat. It literally means “oil balls.” You take it from there. Bitterballen: God only knows what’s in it, but it’s some sort of meat mixture that’s fried. Speculaas: a spice cookie. Eirekoeken: some sort of bread/cookie thing that resembles angel food cake in texture. Hagelslag: sprinkles that come in all sorts of flavors. Chocolate’s the winner in my book. Vla: a custard pudding. You get the idea.

Do you know how much weight I gained? None. Zip. Zilch. Nil. Not a single inch, kilo, or pound (until my mom came over and lavished us with Easter candy…). Cool, huh? You’re probably wondering how I was able to pull this off… In one word: fiets.

Fiets is Dutch for bike. The Dutch are nuts about their bikes. In the city I live in, they have the traffic lights rigged so you can pretty much expect every light you arrive at to be red. The hope is that this will motivate more people to use their bikes or public transportation. There are bike paths literally everywhere complete with special bike traffic lights and road rules.

A Dutchie utilizes all parts of the two-wheeled contraption: the baggage carrier on the back, the handle bars, they add baskets and bicycle bags, attach baby seats and wagons – anything you can imagine. They carry everything from fresh flowers, to several of their buddies, to furniture.

Families travel on vacation by bike and many Cloggies can even ride without using the handle bars at all! Since being here, I have accomplished riding a bike in heels, with my dog Turner on the leash, with ridiculous amounts of cargo, while talking and texting on my cell, and while holding an umbrella against deadly winds and pelting rain. I cycle to my classes, I cycle into town, I cycle to my friends’ places, meetings, the dentist, the train station, and to work.

But of course, I don’t attribute it all to my bike (her name’s Bonnie, by the way).

The title for this post comes from the title of the recent popular book by Mireille Guiliano, French Women Don’t Get Fat.

What’s the weight situation in your new country? Have you found your eating and exercise habits improving… or not so much?

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How I Avoided Feeling Like a Foreigner

You'll feel like a foreigner as longs as you live out of a suitcase
Put your suitcase out of sight and out of mind. Planning to stay put might help you feel like less of a foreigner in your new country

The other day a friend was telling me about her first Dutch class a few years ago. On the first day of class, the teacher asked students to raise their hands if they had come to Holland for love. The majority of the hands in the classroom went up and the teacher was not at all surprised… that seems to be par for the course for a buitenlander (foreigner) here.

I too moved here for love. My husband is Dutch and we met through mutual friends on his holiday to the U.S. in September 2007. It was a flyby meeting, but apparently one that allowed each of us to make quite an impression on the other.

As my friend who introduced us tells it, we bugged her so much with questions about the other that she finally just gave each of us the other’s email address and told us to leave her alone! A few weeks later we began our online relationship via email and Skype. I felt as though I could tell him anything – and I pretty much did!

In November 2007, I got on a plane to Amsterdam to spend a weekend with him. Upon my return, I called my mom as soon as I could get cell phone reception… and told her I had met the man I was going to marry.

Hubs proposed four months later and it occurred to us that one of us was going to have to leave our home country. As he makes more money and immigrating to the Netherlands is easier than immigrating to the U.S. (believe it or not), we decided I would move to the Netherlands.

I knew it was going to be a big step and I wanted to be as prepared as possible. The last thing I wanted was to feel like a foreigner in my new home. While still in the States, I practiced riding my long-ago-neglected bike, and I had experienced cycling in the Netherlands on one or two of my last visits. My husband also taught and practiced with me the most basic of Dutch. I had also met several of his friends and struck a one-day-per-week babysitting deal with one of them. My first Dutch “job!”

But the thing I found most helpful was my tip on the International Women’s Contact Utrecht (IWCU). One of Hubs’s friends happens to be married to a Canadian who moved here 7 years ago and is very involved with the club. She was the one who had the brilliant idea to give us my first year’s membership to the club as a wedding gift. And on my last visit to the Netherlands before the wedding, she gifted me with a copy of their bimonthly newsletter.

On the flight back to the States, I read the thing from cover to cover! I loved reading about the other women in the club: why they came to the Netherlands, their tips and advice, what they love about the Netherlands as well as what they dislike, descriptions of upcoming events, pictures and write-ups from past events. For the first time since deciding to move to the Netherlands, I realized that I was not the only one. I was, in fact, one of very, very many. I felt like I could do this.

We got married, went on a week-long honeymoon to New York City, and stopped by my parents’ long enough to get my dog and say our goodbyes before flying to the Netherlands.

We arrived on a Sunday and I went to my first IWCU event the following Wednesday. Not only had they all “been there, done that,” but they were able to give me tips on where to look for a teaching job and where I could find performance opportunities in the theater. My new favorite hobby became meeting expats (particularly women) and learning why they came here, how long they’ve been living here, and what they think about life in the Netherlands.

This and my Facebook habit, led me to other expat groups in Utrecht and various expat publications like ACCESS Magazine, The Holland Times, Time Out Amsterdam, The Xpat Journal, and XM and Family-Matters Magazines.

They include all the wonderful things I love about the IWCU publication, but go further than that. I love the “news” articles that keep me up-to-date about what’s going on in the world, what’s going on around the country, and gives fabulous tips on places to go and things to see in the Netherlands. In early April, I took my parents to the Keukenhof – an indescribable wonder and something I don’t think I would have known about had it not been for an article I read.

From there, I added expat blogs to my reading list, particularly those located in the Netherlands. The best part is that, after reading these publications and blogs, I feel like I know so much more about the country I now live in and the people who live here.

At the time of this writing, we have been married for a little over four months and I have been living in the Netherlands for almost as long. I have more or less gotten a grip on the language, the culture, the people, and the whirlwind that has been my life for the past year has more or less settled. In short, I no longer feel like a foreigner.

I really love living in the Netherlands and keep telling people that if things continue to go the way they are going now, I don’t see myself wanting to move back to America. Both Netherlanders and internationals are, more often than not, surprised to hear me say that. Especially so soon.

I think the reason for my feeling this way is that I really jumped right into it, hit the ground running, and all those other clichés that mean I didn’t waste time. I immediately joined expat groups and subscribed to expat publications. I hadn’t even been in the Netherlands for three months before I started my first Dutch class. I read Dutch children’s books, use my Dutch whenever possible, attend a Dutch speaking group, and utilize Dutch language books, CDs, DVDs, podcasts, websites, etc. whenever possible. I’ve been driving with the crazy Dutch drivers and cyclers for over two months now and will be starting my driving lessons in the next month or so. I’m even hosting my own expat events and have built up some wonderful friendships here.

As soon as I got here, I hopped right on the fiets (bike) and started cycling my heart out. Oddly enough, though I never named any of my cars, I felt the need to christen my bike because I love it so much and it has such a personality that I felt it needed a name. And so now she will be forever known as “Bonnie.”

Bonnie and I have already had two crashes and almost knocked my husband into oncoming traffic (I swear it was an accident!). I can now cycle while holding an umbrella, wearing heels, talking and texting on my phone, carrying large, awkward items and loads of bags, and with my petrified-of-everything (bikes included) dog!

At the moment, I’m still waiting for my verblijfsvergunning (residence permit) and the coveted work permit that comes with it. But I am babysitting one day a week and talking to two international schools in Hilversum about starting an after-school musical theater program. The only thing I haven’t found is a good musical theater group, preferably in English. So if you know of one, do tell!

What steps have you taken to get past feeling like a foreigner in your host country? 

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