We've been living the Netherlands for 2 years now so we are hardly experts on life in this part of the world, but as we've looked to settle our family here, cultural and language differences have provided a source of both consternation and amusement, and I'm sure other new arrivals (and more established residents) will recognise some of our experiences. In the search for useful information to help navigate our way through the Dutch initiation processes I've spoken to other expats, many of whom have been here a long time or who've even gone so native as to marry a "local"! This has produced a rich vein of entertaining stories and recommendations for how to approach the complex business of integration.
When you announce to folk in the UK that you are moving to the Netherlands, most people assume that means Amsterdam or The Hague. There is little knowledge of life outside these locations! There is also the assumption that "everyone in Holland speaks English". Well, not only are there a whole host of places outside the Ranstad that are home to large expat populations, but there is a large number of Dutch folk who do not speak or understand any English, plus many others who lack the confidence to converse in English. We're also rather British in our approach to being "foreigners" and feel particularly embarrassed about our poor attempts to speak the local language, but feel duty bound to try as it’s "the polite thing to do!"
The language is without a doubt the most challenging aspect of living here. I could recommend to anyone thinking of moving to NL that they learn the language first, but I know most people don't get time or have sufficient motivation before they leave their native shores. That means picking it up once you get here. Both my husband and I took short courses in Nederlands very soon after our arrival. Whilst this gave us a little help, it was completely insufficient to really make the leaps in comprehension, pronunciation and vocabulary necessary, to be of any use in day to day exchanges. I am still hopeless at understanding spoken Dutch but can just about manage with most of the written Dutch we receive. I've managed to work out what to do when letters arrive from utilities, tax office, child benefit agency and a whole range of other random sources (the roof and gutter cleaning company took some working out!) and I've even managed to sell something on Marktplaats!
We have been very lucky and regularly find ourselves assisted by our neighbours and the children's nursery. When my little boy started at the nursery his teacher looked at me pleadingly with her big, blue eyes and asked if it would be ok to write in his daybook in Dutch. I quickly reassured her that this would be just fine as it would help us learn the language and indeed it has. Sometimes the handwriting may stump me but the language is slowly becoming less of an enigma. It is also a good guide to the colloquial use of the language. Writing about the activities of a 3 year old lends itself to a more informal style!
Our neighbours have proven great for both assisting in times of need and allowing us to practice our bad Dutch conversation. We have perfected a bizarre hybrid of Dutch and English (known at home as Dungels) which uses common Dutch phrases and basic sentence formation, interjected with English words when either vocabulary or inspiration fails us. The assistance of our kindly "buurt" dwellers has been invaluable in navigating the day to day use and abuse of the Dutch language.
The upshot of our, sometimes hopeless, attempts to "do the polite thing" has been some very amusing conversations at cross purpose and a whole host of bizarre hybrid words and phrases. But the net result is a great feeling that our community here - neighbours, International Women's Club of Breda friends, the nursery and our colleagues have all made efforts to make us feel at home and help us integrate. I've been told many times by Dutch friends that there is no direct translation for the Dutch word "gezellig" but I interpret it as "the warm fuzzies". And that’s what living here with all this help, good feeling and support from our community gives us - the warm fuzzies!
English mum abroad