Top 5 aspects about The Netherlands from a European perspective

By: Ute Limacher-Riebold

The majority of articles listing characteristics of life in the Netherlands are written from a mainly American or British point of view. But how do other Europeans perceive life in the Netherlands? What do they think about the food, the weather, the language, the Dutch modesty and the way of travelling in the Netherlands?

I will list up 5 aspects that Germans, Italians and Swiss (and maybe other Europeans) notice while living in the Netherlands.

1) Food

Many foreigners frown upon the Dutch cuisine and complain about it. If you come from a country with a very typical and renowned cuisine, a stroll through the Dutch supermarkets gives a hint about local eating habits. When I first went into an Albert Heijn, I couldn't find yoghurt until I discovered that vla (pudding or custard) and yoghurt come in cartons like the ones for milk. The Netherlands have actually a considerable variety of very good dairy products!

Germans or Swiss often don't find Dutch bread that you come across in supermarkets very appealing due to being fluffy or soggy. But it's just a matter of taste: many Dutch prefer the soft texture and find the German bread too sour and rich. They usually have a boterham (lit. buttered bread) for lunch, with pindakaas (peanutbutter), cheese, smeerworst, smeerkaas or chocolade sprinkels or appelstroop.

Coming from Italy where people usually cook from scratch, I was baffled in the first weeks in the Netherlands by the amount of menus ready to macrowave, until an elder couple told me that this made it much easier for them to prepare their lunch or dinner. I realized that many elderly people live on their own and provide for themselves, contrary to Germany, Italy and some other European countries where elderly people are often taken care of by institutions or family.

The leaftlets from the supermarkets with their products and menu suggestions helped me to learn the vocabulary related to food and the way the locals cook. – Dutch people like gezelligheid ( i.e. "coziness", "conviviality", fun and generally "togetherness") and prefer comfort food instead of haute cuisine. If you visit the local markets, you'll notice that the Dutch love to restock with local vegetables, fish, fruit, cheese, bread and beautiful flowers and often make it a family event on the weekend.

2) Weather

If you used to live in mountainous regions you will be bewildered about the lack of geographical reference points in the lowlands. And after a while you will end up finding the vaste sky breathtaking and invigorating.

Something that Dutchs have in common with their British neighbours is, that they like to talk about the weather. Many people complain about the bad weather in the Netherlands, but the fact that it is very rare to have one entire week of rain, mist or just not see the sky for many days, make you reconsider. The climate is relatively mild compared to Northern Italy, Switzerland and parts of Germany, where temperature fluctuations are higher. You might need some time to get used to the wind though – at least if you are not coming from a coastal area. But you will also realize that these winds are pretty helpful for the quick weather change leading to "four seasons a day" especially in Spring and Autumn.

When it's windy and rainy I discourage you from using an umbrella. Hooded jackets can do the trick instead. It's still an acrobatic feat to hold an umbrella and to cycle at the same time, as some Dutch do it.

My advice: go with the flow and "there's no bad weather, there's only bad clothing"!

3) Language

The Dutch language belongs to the westgerman branch of the indoeuropean languages and is actually pretty close to German and Swissgerman.

For Swissgermans the uvular sound -g- [ɣ] is very well known, and it sounds similar to the German in "ach" (or "Bach", "Fach" etc.). Therefore this is not something Germans or Swissgermans would find difficult to pronounce.

People already fluent in German when learning Dutch need to be aware of the false cognates (i.e. words that are phonetically similar but have different meanings): For example aandacht means "Aufmerksamkeit" (attention) in German, and the German "Andacht" means "devotion". The zetel is a seat and not a saddle (German "Sattel"), the winkel is a shop ("Laden") and not an angle. With vaart you don't design the journey or trip ("Fahrt"), but only boat trip and varen refers to the movement of ships only. Tot is not "tot" (dead) but only means "until" and is pronounced with a short -o-. A postbus is not a public means of transportation but a P.O. box ("Postfach"). The kwartier is not a quarter or accomodation ("Quartier") but defines a quarter of an hour. Glazuur has nothing to do with baking ("Glasur") but is dental enamel ("Zahnschmelz"). "Blaffen" does not mean to snap at someone, like the German "anblaffen" but the barking of the dog. And with "bellen" you don't refer to the barking of the dog, like in German ("bellen"), but to ring at someones' door or call them on the phone.

The sale signs for houses and flats puzzle every German speaking person who visits the Netherlands for the first time: "the huur" (which means "to rent") seems very similar "to whore" ("huren" in German), but once you learn that is pronounced like [üü] you'll get over it. A similar misunderstanding could occur with the verkocht sign, when a property is sold, since it really sounds like "overkooked" in German ("verkocht").

4) Modesty

Many Americans consider Dutch people very modest and humble. Fact is, that Dutchs just don't show off wealth and possessions. But on the other hand, they seem to boast more compared with average Asian people. Dutch people are generally very similar to average Swiss: they don't feel the need to tell everyone how good they are. The Dutch mentality is shaped by Calvinism: Showboating is not well-received and neither is self-praise.

Therefore my advice: Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg! (If you just behave normally, you are already weird enough!).

5) "Bike street: Cars are guest"

The Netherlands are famous for biking. Thanks to the geographical complexion it is very easy to bike at any age. No matter the weather, people take their fiets as often as they can.

Dutch children are immersed in a world of cycling from the very beginning: babies and toddlers travel in special seats, bakfiets or cargo bikes, perfectly equipped with canopies to protect them from the elements.

Quite contrary to Germany and Switzerland, bikers in the Netherlands tend to bike helmet-free because they feel safe and protected by the cycle-centric rules of the roads and the way infrastructure is designed. Another difference is the upright position of the bikers in the Netherlands, which gives them a great overview over the traffic, but doesn't protect them however from taking risks: you'll often see cyclists pass a street or a crossing underestimating its dangers.

For all these aspects of Dutch life I'd like to conclude: Observe what the locals do and enjoy your life to the fullest in the Lowlands! – Geniet er maar van!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingUte Limacher-Riebold is an Italian expat living in Netherlands. Blog description: This is a blog by an expat-since-birth multilingual mum living in the Netherlands with my Swissgerman husband, son and twin daughters about expat life, multilingualism, Third Culture Kids (and Adults), parenting and much more.
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Contest Comments » There are 18 comments

Olga@The EuropeanMama wrote 10 years ago:

This post was very useful and your tips very practical and you explained the Dutch culture very well! I don't like the bread here either, but love the dairy produtcs and buy a lot of yoghurt here!

Mrs. Chasing The Donkey wrote 10 years ago:

Right, I have it. Yuck bread, awesome dairy and fabulous roads for biking. I'll add this to my shortlist for places to live next :)

Vera Ersilia M. wrote 10 years ago:

I find this aid to adjusting to life in The Netherlands very well expressed, clear, concise, and practical for those who come from other European countries. I think that I would like the soft and fluffy bread ! I have found all my Dutch friends that I met in the U.S. to be open and loyal. The portion about the language is of great interest to me and I am sure to others as well. All in all it is a useful insider's view to help new outsiders live happily in The Netherlands.

Annabelle wrote 10 years ago:

So nice to read something from another European perspective for a change.

Judith wrote 10 years ago:

I've only been in Amsterdam once when I was 14 so I knew very little about the Netherlands. This post is great and very useful, I'm going to plan a trip to the Netherlands next year!

Cordelia wrote 10 years ago:

How I wish I lived in a country where cars were guests and bikers welcome! In Thailand, it's a every moving vehicle for itself attitude. Lovely post.

Varya CWOV wrote 10 years ago:

A very interesting read, Ute! I actually new about biking! I have few Dutch friends and they told me here in China they preferred walking and biking instead of buying a car.

Tina wrote 10 years ago:

I have a Dutch man, but we both live in Slovenia, i know a lot of things about the Netherlands, but it is for me still interesting to read views from other people.

Rita Rosenback wrote 10 years ago:

Very insightful post! As an expat Finn living in England, I'm with you on the weather. The bread situation is however even worse here, and how I envy you for the dairy products, I miss those!

Stephen Greene wrote 10 years ago:

A great read. Like others have said, I wish I lived in a place that saw bikes as a valid form of transport and not just a toy for kids or a hinderance.

Leanna @ Alldonemonkey wrote 10 years ago:

Wonderful article! So interesting to have a European perspective. And I love your advice about being normal, haha! Your observations about biking remind me of living in a college town in California known for its biking (Davis). Because it was so bike-friendly, the students were often less cautious than they should have been around cars.

Farrah wrote 10 years ago:

Great post Ute! I love that your perspective is the true European version of my American one :) They balance each other out! I am finally getting the hang of a few things, but not so much. Still trying- but I'm already 'weird enough!'

Ewa Bartnik wrote 10 years ago:

I love the fact that you mentioned vla, I loved it as a child, and only very recently rediscovered it during my last visit. And I love the Dutch/German differences, similar languages do tend to have these surprising different meanings.

Simonetta wrote 10 years ago:

Dear Ute,I enjoyed so much reading your article as being an ex-expat in the netherlands ,I lived almost your experience! Being an Italian, I also had my complaints about food but funny enough after I left Holland one year ago, after on and off almost 10 years of dutch life.....i miss my croquet , my vla, my kipsate'.... I love your conclusion: observe what the locals do and enjoy your is so true I learned by myself and now that I live in Bahrein , i live by observing and learning from them!

Rolf wrote 10 years ago:

A very refreshing post encouraging expats to embrace and enjoy life in whatever culture or country.

Amanda @ MarocMAma wrote 10 years ago:

A lot of what you describe reminds me of life in the Midwest US. I really can't wait to visit Holland one day- I'm buying flowers daily!

Willi wrote 10 years ago:

A very deserving identification of 5 characteristic particularities important to be considered: when intending to move to, or in, or to live in the Netherlands, and especially for communication: pronounciation and interpretation of special words/expressions and their classification with apparently similar ones in German or Swiss-German may result very risky.

Plaby wrote 10 years ago:

Very interesting, I have been in the Netherlands a few times, but never realized some of the things you wrote about. Many greetings from Switzerland!

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