Beyond bikes, cheese, and tulips

25th May 2018
Amsterdam in the Netherlands

Let me finish this series of blog posts with a personal reflection on the ups and downs of living and working in the Netherlands. Spoiler alert: by far the ups dominate over the downs, so what follows is biased from the point of view of someone who really enjoys living in the Lowlands!

As for most countries, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Netherlands is the infamous stereotypes. Bikes, cheese, clogs, tulips, you name it, but also its world-famous tolerance policies towards soft drugs and sex workers. At least in Spain, the first thing people ask me when I tell them I live in the Netherlands is if I often go to coffee shops (I do not). And as always, the true nature of this wonderful country and its inhabitants becomes apparent only once one takes off the tourist hat.

So where can I start? One of the things that I enjoy the most about working in the Netherlands is their work ethics. The Dutch work really hard during the time they have allocated for that, and once the work day is over everyone including the big bosses leaves the office. Meetings are held in time, lunch is brief and sober (and used for meetings in many cases), and people are efficient in getting back to you. As compared to Spain, one of the countries with the highest number of working hours (and of lower productivity), the Netherlands has a lot to teach. I am pretty sure that Spain's GDP would experience a rather significant boost only by replacing their usual copious two-hour lunches by the quick lunch break with sandwich and milk adopted in most Dutch companies.

As a foreigner, another of the things that keeps striking me is the amazing proficiency with English of the average Dutchman. At least in the Randstad area where I live and work, no matter where I go and who I talk to, they always reply back to me in flawless English (also because my Dutch is pretty basic, see below). It also surprises me that people keep apologizing profusely for their "poor" English, which is orders of magnitude better than my Dutch will ever be. For a foreigner, this makes our lives much easier since it is easy to find people to help you in English with all things logistic from getting a mortgage to fixing your washing machine. This is a marked improvement compared to other countries I have lived in before, where you were seriously stuck if you didn;t have a solid grip on the local language.

One stereotype about the Dutch, which is fortunately true, is their devotion to bicycles. Not only there are more bikes than inhabitants in the Netherlands, the average Dutchman has between three and four bikes! And of course, the rustier and more miserable their bikes, the better. Presumably, this is an effort to deter thieves, in a country where bike theft is nearly a national sport. More in general, the Dutch are fanatic about all kinds of sports, as illustrated by their amazing performance in the last Winter Olympic games. For a country where its highest mountain is barely above 300 meters, finishing as the 5th country is a rather remarkable achievement.

Juan Rojo in the snow

As a closely related point, there are fewer pleasures that the Dutch crave more than ice skating. As soon as the temperature is low enough for the rivers, lakes, and canals to freeze, herds of Dutchmen and -women flock to ice skate and play ice hockey. Some adventurous foreigners, see above for your humble correspondent, also gather enough courage to try themselves, but not before the indigenous population has validated the frozen canal as a suitable hockey stadium. Unfortunately, these conditions are quite exceptional and occur only a few lucky days a year.

juan rojo in the woods

The inhabitants of the Lowlands also massively enjoy nature and love to walk, wander, run, and cycle around the many beautiful green areas and natural parks of the country. Cycling is of course very popular from this, as expected in a country where you can cycle from way up north to way down south without ever leaving a cycling path.

So, then everything must be nice and shiny about living here? Well, I have to admit that there are some (small) downsides of living here. As I write this blog post, despite the fact that it is already May, the temperatures are still pretty low and it has been raining non-stop for three days. What is perhaps worse is that we had a few days with great weather, but the well-experienced Dutchman knows that thick jackets cannot be stowed away in the closet until, well, actually never. But I have to admit that I definitely prefer enduring cold weather and rain as opposed to the unbearably high temperatures of summer in Barcelona, where my brain melts and I am essentially unable to carry out any basic intellectual activity.

Another issue is that learning Dutch is no piece of cake by any means. First, because the language itself has a funny grammar (from the Latin point of view of course!) with various verbs appearing in what seem to be random locations in different sentences. Many Dutch words are called ``verb-kickers'', meaning that when you see it in a sentence then the verb comes at the very end. So, one has to make an effort to remember what everything is about until the verb actually appears.

Pronunciation is also quite tricky, although at least my Spanish throat is well trained for the Dutch strong guttural sounds. And one thing that I love is that the literal translation of many Dutch words sounds super funny when you look them up: the literal translation for hydrogen, vacuum cleaner, and rhino are "the stuff of water", "dust-sucker", and "nose-horn", respectively. Of course, the fact that everyone speaks flawless English does not help my practicing Dutch either, so this is a mixed blessing.

All in all, the Netherlands are a great place, to live, work, and raise a family. Forget the stereotypes, come visit, and enjoy this amazing country!