When we learned we were moving to the Netherlands, Phil and I had plenty of expectations and preconceived notions about what we were getting ourselves into.
We had both had the privilege of visiting the continent before (for travel, to visit family and friends, and for work) and we were both excited (and a little nervous) about the proposition of living in a place that, for all intents and purposes, felt ‘exotic’.
We had visited Amsterdam together previously in December 2012 – when, coming back from my dear cousin’s wedding in the south of Germany, we had had a 12 hour, overnight layover in Amsterdam. Thinking this might be our only chance to see the Netherlands, we took the train into the city center from Schiphol airport.
That night we walked around the misty canals, smelled the smoke wafting from the coffee shops, dodged boisterous revelers and drunken stag parties, and ate frites (fries) with mayo and snacks from FEBO, the (in)famous ‘vending machine’ fast food, before returning to Schiphol for a restless few hours of sleep on the floor and our early morning flight.
At the time, Amsterdam felt like a truly foreign place, but as I think back on it now – how often we have walked through Amsterdam Centraal Station and along the canals with friends and family, or on a Saturday afternoon – it is interesting how such foreign things start to feel normal and familiar. Like anything and anywhere in life – people are people, places and things become commonplace, and life goes on!
Similar, but different
That being said, there are many things that still feel different and new about living in Europe. The layers of history here are deep, complex and interwoven into everyday life. Our city of Utrecht was a settlement on the northern edge of the Roman Empire in ~50 AD – though before that it was probably occasionally inhabited by humans in the stone and bronze ages.
Today, the city’s defining feature is the awe-inspiring Gothic church and it’s Dom Tower – a Catholic cathedral until it was gutted during the Reformation, remaining a Protestant church today. The buildings stonework, flying buttresses and beautiful courtyard garden make me think of Quasimodo and fairy tales.
This – coupled with the beautiful bi-level canals lined by the distinctive architecture of Dutch row houses and the cobblestone streets bisecting the historic city center – often feels (to this North American, at least!) like you are living on the set of a movie, or in Disney World. My daily bicycle commute takes me past the Dom Tower, and I am regularly struck by how beautiful it is in the morning or evening light and in all kinds of weather, often with clamorous carillons sounding the time of day or playing beautiful music.
Integrated daily living
In addition to this deep-seated sense of history, our day-to-day experience also feels quite a bit different than life back home. In general, daily living feels strikingly integrated here. We live within three blocks of a grocery store, a number of bakeries, restaurants, a hardware store, a hair salon, our gym, a park, a pharmacy, and our doctor and dentist’s offices. These are a bit smaller than their counterparts in North America, but they generally have everything we need, and are quite seamlessly integrated into a friendly, walkable (and bikeable!) neighborhood. I think this may be magnified by living close to the city center – but overall, small, often locally-owned businesses are woven more completely into the fabric of the neighborhood here than in similar places that I have lived back home.
This does change how we approach daily life. Most significantly, I think, it means that we have been entirely able to get by without owning a car for the past three years. We do have driver’s licenses, and have a subscription to a car-share service that is parked close by, though we hardly ever use it. We have occasionally also rented a car if we want to go on a longer trip with a group of people and need more flexibility than you get with the train – but overall, bicycles and public transportation have been the easiest way to get wherever we need to go.
I love riding my bike and find a train commute much more relaxing than sitting in rush-hour traffic in a car, so I thoroughly enjoy this aspect of life here. It did, however, take us a bit of time to get used to doing our shopping more regularly, in smaller batches. When we first arrived, we would get everything for the week at once (as we used to back home), and would get some strange looks from others at the store as they took in our overflowing conveyor belt of groceries, and our bulging shopping bags.
Over time, our traditional weekly trips to the grocery store with a big list, many bags, and a car to bring it all home has morphed into more frequent, smaller stops at the conveniently located stores. Sometimes I stop at the train station on my way home from work, sometimes Phil swings by the neighborhood store for milk or bread after he gets home. We do still stock up on the necessities in one larger weekend trip (old habits die hard!) but we carry it all home on bike or by foot, so we keep it as light and manageable as possible.
Interestingly, the grocery stores will also deliver orders of groceries for a small fee, which is how I understand some busy Dutch families do it. Phil and I live so close to the store that we have not tried this yet…but maybe someday!
Availability of public transportation
Along similar lines, public transportation is incredibly prevalent and easy to use here. Many a North American traveler has enjoyed the freedom of crisscrossing the continent with a Euro-rail train pass, but I have also been impressed with how conveniently connected things are here for our daily needs. Of course, this varies from country to country – I have been privy to more than one conversation with coworkers about the merits or detractions of various train systems (commuting by train in London does not sound like fun, for instance.)
This conversation often starts on a day where there have been delays on the Dutch trains (when they work, they work quite well, but when there is a problem, everything grinds quite quickly to a halt – and there have been a few days where I chose to work from home rather than wait for the tangled mess to sort itself out.) In these instances, the Dutch are quite adamant that their trains are often frustratingly late and problematic – but to me, they seem to be quite smooth and efficient. Nothing wrong with striving for perfection though, I suppose!
As with the bicycling, however, I am always thankful for the train portion of my commute – catching up on news, emails, chats with friends and family or a meditation. We have also taken trains to and through many corners of Europe (to Paris and Germany, through Poland and the Czech Republic, around Stockholm, Barcelona, London and Copenhagen, etc. – augmented by metros, trams and buses in the cities). Thus far, we have always found them to be pleasant, convenient ways to get around, and enjoy the freedom that they bring to our European adventures.
Diversity of cultures, languages and cultural identities
I am also always impressed by the variety of cultures, languages and identities that seem to coexist in Europe. Of course, there are significant historical and sociopolitical backstories and nuance to all of this, and it is not easy…it’s a topic that could fill blogs of its own. But regardless, the open borders of today’s European Union mean that our experience living here is a rich and multicultural one.
We have dear friends from all corners of Europe and the world, and can easily spend a weekend in a completely different country, which speaks an entirely different language, and has a unique cuisine, history and cultural identity. I also work in a global organization with coworkers from more countries that I can count, and constantly enjoy the diversity and energy that this brings to our work culture.
There are, of course, many similarities and common threads through the countries, and also sometimes disagreement and discord. But overall I have been impressed by the way these counties work together, and have enjoyed the experience immensely.
A grand adventure
At any rate, our experience living in Europe has been an amazing adventure so far, and one we have thoroughly enjoyed. We still get homesick, and of course miss our family and friends back home dearly – though we have been lucky enough to get to see them once or twice a year. But overall, we have enjoyed settling in to life here, and gaining some idea of what it is like to live in the Netherlands and Europe on a more permanent basis.
Our experience is only one of many, and other experiences, times and interpretations could be quite different! Does this sound like what you expected life in Europe to be like? Does anything here surprise you? Have you had or heard of experiences living in Europe that are similar? Or totally, completely different? And is there anything you want to know about what life is like here or what we have been up to? If so, let me know in the comments…I would love to hear more!