All the things we wish we had known…

A first-hand account of the trials and tribulations of relocation

Moving to the Netherlands three years ago could have been an easier and more efficient process had we known certain things prior to the move.

It’s clear now our relocation was complicated by the fact that the company my husband joined — an energy utility going through deregulation — had employees only in the Netherlands. Its experience moving people was limited. There was very little expat relocation support.

The Dutch are renowned for being fluent in English and because my husband’s company trades globally, its language of business is also English. We were, therefore, lulled into complacency regarding the language barrier. We were soon shaken from that complacency.

In the supermarket, virtually all the brands of food and cleaning supplies were unrecognizable to me. The labels were all in Dutch. Stocking our house from scratch was a daunting task as it took me several minutes to choose each product. Had we realized this ahead of time we would have brought some of our own staple cleaning products and non-perishable foods so we could ease into the transition with less urgency. On the positive side, I had extra incentive to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables because they held better brand recognition for me.

We eventually discovered a reference book for food and household items. Because it has a Dutch and an English index, we could translate back and forth between languages, determine where to buy the product and understand how the product may differ from what we were accustomed to. This book is still invaluable to me after three years.

Also, we hadn’t considered that absolutely all of our mail and documents would be in Dutch. Our housing rental agreement, phone company and cable contracts, immigration correspondence, bank statements and bills needed to be translated by whomever my husband could track down at his office. It made me feel helpless and made my husband feel like a pest, but there was simply no other way for us to function. It would have taken months of Dutch lessons before we could even begin to understand the mail.

While my husband appreciated using his own language at the office, he still faced many cultural differences. He found decision-making in the Netherlands much slower. There is an uncommonly strong sense in this country of the need for equality and consensus. Tied to this is the fact that the Dutch do not value overt ambition. When he started work, it was explained to him that: “If a blade of grass gets too high, it gets cut.” This was quite a change from the work cultures of the United States and Canada.

A related theme is the Dutch aversion to the appearance of excess. This is evidenced by the food served in his company’s boardroom. Regardless of the level of meeting, the seniority of employee or the importance of the client, the lunches are always the same. Miniscule cheese sandwiches with a glass of buttermilk, whole milk, orange juice or coffee. A Dutch colleague of my husband explained that adding lettuce and tomatoes on the sandwiches would constitute a display of excess. After much lobbying from new expat employees, they now offer a choice of ham sandwiches, as well as cheese.

Driving was something else we were totally unprepared for. We knew ahead of time we were eligible to receive a Dutch driver’s licence without additional testing, but this meant we had no formal way of learning the rules of the road.

The most noticeable difference is that Holland has virtually no stop signs. Instead, on every street, in the absence of traffic lights, unless otherwise stated, you must give right-of-way to any traffic entering from your right.

Newcomers are shocked when they are on a main road and cars turn out ahead of them from the side streets. We also had to figure out how to use their two types of roundabouts, which even the British find confusing. A booklet in English explaining road signs and driving rules would have been greatly appreciated before we got behind the wheel. I don’t recommend our trial-by-error method. We perhaps should have known driving may pose a challenge since my husband even had trouble moving from the U.S. to Canada; he could not understand what the flashing green light at an intersection meant and why people kept beeping at him. They use green arrows in the U.S.

We also learned the hard way that obtaining insurance is too critical a task to try to deal with without some local support. We chose our insurance companies from a list given to us by the company that moved our belongings. Three months after we moved, we inadvertently found out we had no health insurance despite our extensive conversations setting it up. Our car insurance company took advantage of us by requiring a car alarm be installed in my Canadian-imported car before they would insure it, at what later proved to be exorbitant rates.

There were also substantial taxes for which we didn’t budget because we weren’t aware of them: a garbage tax, a highway tax and an annual dog tax. It would have been nice to be aware of all these necessary cash outflows when we were making the decision to move.

Knowledge of these differences prior to moving would not have changed our decision. But understanding them ahead of time would have allowed us to make better practical choices that ultimately would have smoothed our transition, saved us money, and psychologically prepared us so that we wouldn’t have felt the knocks so acutely.

I’ve noticed from the people I’ve met that once you’ve relocated, there is a higher propensity to do it again rather than go back home. Having said that, we have narrowed our next location down to Canada or the U.S.

Andrea Register previously worked in the financial services sector before moving with her family to the Netherlands where she now spends her time raising her daughter and working on a budding writing career.

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