As we’re about to embark on yet another international move, this time from Dublin to Boston, we wanted to reflect back on the move that took us from Tampa to Amsterdam, where we lived for 3 and 1/2 years. Amsterdam is one of the best preserved 17th century cities in Europe, and the city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We loved our visit there when we were backpackers, so when the opportunity to move there presented itself, we went for it. But for anyone considering the same, is Amsterdam a good move for you?
The reason we moved to Amsterdam was because Bell was offered a PhD position there. As the Dutch consider the position an apprenticeship, all PhD positions are regulated by the government to pay a livable salary, with small annual increases in pay during the four year program. She took a large pay cut from her job in Tampa, but as I had income coming in from writing, we felt it was a worthwhile gamble to experience a unique opportunity in life.
If you have the chance to work for a major Dutch company like Shell or Phillips, or any job that pays a good salary and want to experience a foreign culture, you should definitely consider moving to the Netherlands for a while. But here are some pros and cons of living in Amsterdam, especially if you won’t be making a lot of money, as we did not!
Most Dutch Speak English
We knew this beforehand and this was a big pro to us. However, we also came to find out that it’s also a con. With the economic crisis, English speaking jobs with multinational companies in Amsterdam dried up, so when I lost my writing job we found ourselves in a tough financial situation. It was depressing to look at job ads and see more jobs for German and Swedish speakers than English speakers, but it made sense. With most expat couples we knew, one partner was out of work and found finding work to be a challenge. Also, most government and day to day important paperwork is only written in Dutch, including all banking (though people can sometimes verbally help you in English). The banking exception was ABN Amro, but they prefer wealthier clients and charge higher fees.
Great Public Transport and Bike Paths
You absolutely don’t need a car in Amsterdam or most Dutch cities. The Netherlands is densely populated so the cities themselves are also well connected, making commuting by rail a viable option. Amsterdam is one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world, so if you’ll be strapped for cash, consider commuting via bicycle within the city as it’s also good for your health!
Apartments are Expensive, Especially for Expats
Like any desirable city, rents are high. But the Dutch also have a large socialized housing market, and like any economic setup, this benefits some and hurts others. The socialized housing market drives the free market rental prices upwards, and this hurts short term expats on lower salaries. If you don’t have Dutch connections, you’ll initially pay a higher price for rent and find Dutch people saying “You pay that much for that? That’s too high!” As Dutch public transport is excellent, you’ll get a little more bang for your buck in pretty towns like Haarlem or Utrecht, and can easily commute to Amsterdam.
Between tolerating soft drugs like marijuana, legalized prostitution and Amsterdam being one of the most gay friendly cities in the world, the Dutch are more tolerant than most cultures on one hand. But the Netherlands is also one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and while the Dutch generally don’t flaunt their wealth through fancy clothing or cars, they are famous throughout Europe for often being uncompromising. We often felt there was a prevailing air of superiority with many Dutch and came to the conclusion that the Netherlands is a great place for Dutch people, and an OK place for everyone else. After 3 and 1/2 years we were very ready to move on, and we did so to Dublin…where we ironically made some great new Dutch friends!
The Dutch are Famous in Europe for Bad Service in Restaurants and Bars
If you’re moving from the USA like we did, be prepared to massively adjust your expectations on restaurant service. Like many countries, mostly young people work in restaurants, but the Dutch often feel like they are above their job to serve people, so they often do the bare minimum. Mind of you, this is less about the incentive of tipping than a cultural mindset, because servers are paid a livable wage in Ireland and elsewhere on the continent and are generally far more attentive to guests in their establishments. Don’t expect Dutch servers to ask “how was everything?” And in the chance they do (almost always after you’re done eating) don’t expect them to care too much if you had a problem. And the more you complain, the worse the service will get. The best advice here is to be patient, and of course you’ll occasionally get good service, in which case you’ll find yourself delighted. And dining outside on lovely canals, beside centuries-old cathedrals and next to historic buildings or windmills is amazing and unique, along with Dutch eateries themselves being quite “gezellig” (“cosy” in English).
Dutch Customer Service
While not famous for it, the Dutch can be helpful, but don’t expect them to go outside their job description. “Dat niet mogelijk is” or in English “that is not possible” is one of the most common things you’ll hear for requests that you may think are reasonable, like asking the post office to borrow their dolly to move some boxes, while even offering them a deposit for it.
Is Amsterdam a Good Move for You?
We frequently found life in the Netherlands frustrating, but that’s everywhere, and especially when you have differing expectations. We love that there is less disparity in wealth in the Netherlands than the USA, and there isn’t nearly the amount of homelessness and begging that there is in Dublin. The quality of life is relatively high, we had good experiences with the health care system and Amsterdam is a gorgeous city. We loved picnicking on the canals during good weather and thoroughly enjoyed the amazing setting, in 3 and 1/2 years this was something that never got old. If we could do it all over again, we absolutely would, so perhaps it’s good to dive into endeavors a little on the naive and optimistic side.