Dear Holland: a love letter

If you’re reading this, then we are officially no longer residence of the Netherlands.

I started to write this post a few days ago, but something just didn’t feel right about it. Last week, we finished watching the Michael Jordan documentary on Netflix, and it made me realize that we’re having our own version of ‘the last dance’ – our Last Dutch Dance! Naturally, I started wandering around the house muttering things to Meatball like “This is the last week of squeaky floors! πŸ™Œ” and “This is the last week you can sleep in a king-sized bed! 😣”. It made me realize what was missing from my original post was a little bit of heart. Yes, I can tell you all the standard reasons why the Netherlands is a great country to live in (work/life balance, universal healthcare, pragmatic attitudes) – if you’re interested in specifics I’d love to talk about it in detail one-on-one. Instead, I’d rather tell you all the personal reasons we loved living in Holland.


Our Apartment.

I first want to pay homage to our little apartment over the flower shop. Actually, for Dutch standards, it’s not so little, but when we first moved here in 2014 from a 2 bedroom + living + diving + sunroom apartment in Pittsburgh, it sure felt small. Despite all the apartment frustrations (squeaky floors, mice, bees, perpetually cold, terrible wifi) it’s been a great apartment. It came furnished, we can walk to the city center in ~5 min, we have some great views and a really cool landlord.

Over the years we’ve learned to deal with all the quirks: Meatball can catch mice, I can catch bees, Shane bought a space heater, and well – the wifi is still shit. Suddenly, the furnished apartment we found on the internet from across an ocean turned into a home.

View from the living room window.

Bikes!

Biking just outside Groningen city (May 2019).

Now, I realize that this one is quintessentially Dutch, but it’s true! Bikes. are. life. The average number of bikes per person in the Netherlands is 1.3 (and 1.4 in Groningen), and it makes sense. The majority of trips are made on the bike. To the grocery store, to the city center, to work, for leisure activities. And you can’t just have one bike. If you have space, then one should always consider keeping a guest bike, or a crappier bike to take to the city center where the risk of being stolen is higher.

Shane and I bought bikes the first week we arrived. Miraculously, Shane has managed to keep the same bike all 6 years. I may or may not be on bike #4 (2 stolen, 1 rusted apart). Regardless, I will never forget that first week re-learning how to be comfortable on a bike. Over the years, I would say we fit right in. We’ve mastered the art of biking with your hands in your pockets, transporting crates of beer (or a cat, or Christmas tree), staying up-right after a few too many drinks, and navigating the mayhem of a four-way-free-for-all-bike-intersection unscathed.

Biking isn’t always fun though. We’ve both had our run-ins – with cars, buses, scooters, and other people. One time the side mirror of a car caught Shane’s bike handle and just pulled him along… only slightly scary. We’ve also had our fair share of weather. We don’t have a car, so rain or shine, wind or heavy wind, if you need to get from A to B then it’s to the bike, Batman! Sometimes it would be nice to have a car, but the ease and accessibility of using the bike outweigh the occasional inconvenience. Plus, bike maintenance is much cheaper than car maintenance…

We sold our bikes just before we left Groningen. Shane spent €60 on his bike the first week, and sold it for €25, making his net bike cost per year (excluding maintenance) €5.80. Over the years, I spent €270 and had to give the damn thing away for free because no one would buy it, bringing my bike cost per year to €45. I personally think I won this contest, but I’ll let you decide for yourself.

The Market.

Our first Saturday market trip (June 2014).

This is not a secret. We love our market!

Het beste markt van Nederland 2016! πŸ₯‡ *humble brag*

It’s the best market in the Netherlands every year in my book! This will be, hands down, the number one thing we miss in Groningen. We have shopped at the market every Saturday from the moment we arrived. Why? It’s cheaper than the grocery store, there is more variety, you can find local produce (or at least national produce), and it has a great atmosphere. Plus, it’s just fun to have a ‘spice lady’, a ‘dried beans guy’, and a ‘THE veggie stand’.

Relatedly, another thing I am going to miss is making people happy with exact change. The Netherlands doesn’t use the one and two-cent euro coins. Instead, if you’re paying in cash, then your purchase will be rounded to the nearest 5 cents.

For instance, at the grocery store, you weigh your own fruit and print a sticker with the final price. If I wanted a single banana, then smart-me would find the banana that costs €0.17, because when I pay in cash I’ll only pay €0.15! But, if my banana is too heavy and comes out to be €0.18 cents, well then I’m overpaying for that banana (by a whole €0.02)! Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

At the market, vendors LOVE exact change and with the rounding system, it makes it easy! I would LIVE for those Saturday “ooh mooie!” (ooh, great!) moments. Unfortunately for me, making people happy with exact change has become a casualty of coronavirus.

Our last Saturday market trip (May 2020).

Food.

Clockwise from top-left: brokkelkaas, stroopwafels, Groninger droogeworst, and puur pinda rotjes.

If I’m being honest, Dutch food isn’t all that exciting. I’m stereotyping a little, but a typical day would be bread (with butter, jelly, or hagelslag) for breakfast, bread (with cheese or a savory spread) + a boiled egg for lunch, and some form of meat and potatoes (and maybe veggie) for dinner.

The Dutch only eat “warm” at dinner, so when Miss Americana here showed up on day 1 of my new job asking for a microwave to re-heat my leftovers I was met with some confused looks. Another food faux-pas: mixing peanut butter and hagelslag (sprinkles) on the same piece of bread. This makes no sense to me, as hagelslag is typically chocolate flavored, and who doesn’t love peanut butter + chocolate combo?!

There are a few things we will miss though, like droogeworst (dried meats, spiced regionally), stroopwafels, zuurkoolschotel (sourkraut casserole), stamppot (potatoes + endive or kale mashed together), and Groninger mustard.

The two things I will miss the most? Gevulde spekulaas, which I’ve raved about before, and cheese. I am unabashedly a cheese snob now. Brokkelkaas anyone? πŸ˜‹ Shane’s top choice? Droogeworst with cheese accompaniment.

Terrace Culture.

First sunny day [pre-coronavirus] (March 2020).

Of all the restrictions we’ve faced during the coronavirus lockdown, I think this is the one that hurts the Dutch the most. Especially since the weather has started to turn warmer. Terrace culture is no joke here – if the sun is out, then the terraces are packed. I like to lovingly refer to the Dutch as ‘anti-vampires’, a group in which I now include myself, because if the sun is out then people are in it. It’s also comparable to cats when they find that one sliver of sunlight…

Sun-kitty.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging. Over the years we have come to worship the sun like the Dutch. It’s almost like you’re brainwashed to think “Sun. Must sit. Terrace. Beer. Now!”. Don’t want to pay for beers at a restaurant? No worries, generally speaking, there are no ‘open-container laws’ here. We just pop some beers in a backpack and head out. One of our favorite spots was the Oosterhaven (East Port) just down the street from us.

The Oosterport (March 2020).

The Weather.

Beautiful Dutch day on top of the Forum in Groningen (December 2019).

If you don’t complain about the weather, are you even Dutch? I’m pretty sure NOT complaining is a reason to fail the integration exam… So, I would be remiss not to bring it up.

Long story short? It’s a love-hate relationship.

Love: The sunshine! When it’s beautiful outside, it’s really beautiful. Even if its cold, a sunny day changes everyone’s attitude. When it’s warm and sunny the city has a certain inspiring energy to it.

The Witte Molen on a sunny day (March 2020).

Hate: The lack of sunshine. Sometimes, it will go literally weeks without seeing the sun. This can be particularly uninspiring in the winter when it’s grey all day and dark at 16:30. And, in Groningen at least, there are always a few weeks of thick fog that add to the gloom.

Shane’s work building in fog (Nov 2015)

Love: How fast the light changes. Sunrise and sunset change so quickly that it’s noticeable from week to week which gives you hope during those dark winter months. We are currently coming into peak light season, where the sun will come up at ~05:00 and set at ~23:00.

Hate: Trying to sleep during peak light season. Blackout curtains required! πŸ˜†

~23:00 June 21, 2019.

Love: The weather is consistent. When in doubt plan for windy, cold and rainy. Plus side, I have a lot of jackets now!

Hate: The weather is consistent. I miss having true seasons. I don’t necessarily miss those stiflingly hot & humid North Carolina summers, but inevitably I reach a point in the spring (right about now actually) when I’m just sick and tired of being cold all the damn time. When it’s June and I still have to wear a jacket… πŸ˜‘

We have had some heatwaves (last summer) and were lucky enough to see the canals freeze, so temperature swings do happen. Just don’t expect to wear shorts all summer, or see snow in the winter.

Frozen canals during the ‘Siberian Bear’ (March 2018)

Despite my love-hate relationship with the weather, I can say without a doubt that moving to the Netherlands was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. We’ve had a lot of personal milestones over these past 6 years: we got married, traveled to 17 new countries, learned a new language (sort of), Shane got a PhD, and I’ve found 2 jobs. But I think, more importantly, moving to another country has completely changed our perspective on life. When the scripts are flipped and your the outsider, the immigrant, the person who doesn’t understand the language – it changes you. Personally, I think it’s made me bolder, more patient, more compassionate, and instilled a sense of personal responsibility to understand others’ cultures.

A bucket-list item – the pyramids! Cairo, Egypt (April 2017).

We’ve also grown as a couple. Moving across an ocean with another person can go one of two ways. Thankfully, for us, it’s only brought us closer together. We’ve both moved out of our comfort zone in one way or another, and had the benefit of the others’ support to get through it. And, thanks to that Dutch work/life balance, we’ve had the financial means to enjoy living in Europe and the time to establish life priorities as a couple. Quarantine ain’t got nothin’ on us!

So, to the Netherlands, and to Groningen in particular, we are forever grateful! And to all the people we’ve met along the way:

Dutch, Canadian, Chinese, Finnish, German, Indian, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Luxembourgish, Mexican, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Syrian, Swiss, and Turkish

Thank you for welcoming us and making our expat life complete. πŸ’›

And with that, we’re off to the next chapter – Germany!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

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Shane + Whitney = The Shwits. Cheesy? Yes. Is our cat ashamed of us? Probably. We're an American couple that has lived abroad for 6+ years. The Shwits is our diary of expat life, travel, and occasionally science. Enjoy!

4 thoughts on “Dear Holland: a love letter

  1. Love your view of the Netherlands, very dutch.πŸ˜‰
    I am glad you where here, when I moved to Groningen. It is a shame I never spotted meatball in her tower, when I passed your house while I biking to work. I’ll miss you freddy!!

  2. Pingback: Hello, Munich!

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