Elfstedentocht

As the cold descended on The Netherlands this past week, the country became very excited about the possibility of being able to hold the famed Elfstedentocht.  If you have never heard of it, the Elfstedentocht literally translates to the eleven cities tour, and it is the largest ice skating tour in the world at nearly 200 kilometers in length.  Both speed skaters and leisure skaters may enter the competition to skate along the natural ice that connects the eleven cities in Friesland, a northern province of The Netherlands, but there is a limit of 16,000 skaters.  The route traverses canals, rivers and lakes and must be completed by midnight on race day (the average time for completion for a speed skater is 7 hours).  The race is a beloved tradition and in 1986 the king himself (then just a prince at 18 years old) entered under an alias.  The first Elfstedentocht took place in 1909 and it has only been held 15 times since then.  Why?  Because the ice along the entire route must be 15 cm (6 in) thick in order for the race to take place.  The last time the Dutch were able to hold the race was 1997, so you can imagine the initial excitement about the possibility of the race taking place.  Sadly, before the cold even settled in, the race was declared a no-go due to Covid and the fact that it would draw too many crowds.  In fact, some predict that there will never again be an Elfstedentocht due to global warming and the need for the perfect winter conditions to maintain 15cm of ice thickness as well as the fact that the towns of Friesland may no longer be able to handle the crowds now that the internet and media presence increase the spotlight on these types of events drawing much larger crowds.  None the less, while they couldn’t have an Elfstedentoch this year, the Dutch definitely took to the ice everywhere and enjoyed some natural ice skating thanks to the weeklong subfreezing temperatures.  And while the fun may be over now, there is always the hope that next year will bring another chance to hit the ice!

Bicycles, Trains and Automobiles

Over the past few months, we have explored many facets of daily life in The Netherlands, but I decided to save one of the most iconic for last-transportation (think the famous Dutch biking).  It’s true, the Dutch have some pretty impressive biking skills such as transporting multiple children and carrying rolls of carpet while biking, but there is more to getting around The Netherlands than just biking.  So, now it’s time to rev those engines and pump those legs as we dive into a few of the highlights of Dutch transportation.

  1. Transportation comes in many forms: feet, bicycles, mopeds and scooters, cars, buses, trams, trains and even boats.
  2. Sometimes it is easier to bike somewhere than to drive. Sure, you can move faster in a car, but if you have to navigate traffic, find a parking space which may be a distance from the location you are traveling to, then walk to said location plus pay for parking to boot, the bike makes more sense.  Also, if you aren’t traveling very far, taking the bike can be a lot quicker and easier than having to find parking.  Now, it’s true that the weather might discourage biking at times, but you will find that the Dutch will still ride regardless of the weather.  Maybe it’s because they are just used to it or don’t have any other way to get around or maybe it’s because they have gear such as waterproof jackets and pants and bike seat and basket covers that help to keep them more comfortable.
  3. Biking and walking are easy thanks to a good infrastructure. There are sidewalks for pedestrians everywhere and numerous pedestrian crossings.  Pedestrians have the right of way over cars unless it is at a light with a signal.  There are multitudes of bike stands for parking and securing a bike as well as bike paths everywhere.  Many times these paths runs alongside the road but are wide and easily distinguished from the road so cars can avoid bikes.  Other times, the paths may be completely separated from the road by a grass median.  Paths for bikes can also be found not just in the cities but in rural areas connecting cities as well.bike path nl2 bike path nl
  4. Getting a driver’s license in The Netherlands is an intensive process (luckily expats on the visa type that we have are able to simply exchange their American driver’s license rather than have to test). First off, you cannot drive a car alone until the age of 18 here (you can get a moped or scooter license sooner) but with all the other transportation options, it’s not that big of a deal.  You can take the theory test once you are 16 and at 16 ½ you can begin taking driving lessons.  At 17 you may take the road test.  If you pass before you are 18, you are allowed to drive with an adult in the car.  The theory exam takes about 1 hour and consists of 65 multiple choice questions.  The road test also takes about an hour and includes a basic vision test.  The tests can be quite difficult, so many people take driving lessons before testing.  These lessons are extremely expensive and range from around 1000 Euro for experienced drivers who need to learn Dutch traffic laws or refresh themselves to 2500 Euro for new drivers.  However, the process of obtaining a license is so involved that the roads here are generally very safe, and we honestly see very few traffic accidents.
  5. There are rules for bike and car interactions that everyone knows. Traffic lights have a separate signal for bikes so that they know when they have the right of way.  If a car is crossing over a bike path such as to turn onto a residential street, the bike has the right of way and cars know to check for bikers and let them pass before turning in (many streets actually have a buffer zone that allows the car to get off of the main road but wait to cross over the bike path).  There are lines drawn on bike paths and roads to indicate who has the right of way.  There are also safety rules for bikers which are subject to citation if they are not followed such as no cell phones in your hands and headlights must be used in the dark.
  6. Stop signs don’t exist. Instead you will find roundabouts and a strange system in which the person to your right always has the right of way unless you are on a “hump” in which case the person not on the hump has the right of way.  There are also occasions where lines drawn on the road indicate who has the preference.  And yes, I know many Americans are not comfortable with roundabouts and thus detest them, but they are actually much faster than waiting in a line up at a stop sign.  And with a little practice, you can learn to navigate some really large ones (though those often have traffic lights to help ensure that everyone stays safe). roundabout
  7. Parking a car can be a real chore. There are a few options for parking.  Parking garages and parallel parking along the street (usually paid though in some residential areas it is free) are the two main ways that people park here.  There are a few (and I mean a very few) parking lots and even fewer are free.  But for the most part, if you don’t like parallel parking, you aren’t going to enjoy driving here.  When you do park on the street, you can find a machine to pay for time on your parking space (and watch out because many spaces might have a time limit) or you can download a payment app on your phone.  There is a small surcharge for using the app, but it is so convenient.  You simply input your car’s tag number (it can be saved so that you just select from a list when you open the app) and then select the parking zone (zone numbers are clearly posted on signs near the spot).  You start the app and stop it when you return (unless you forget and pay a bit extra for your parking!) and that way you don’t have to guess how much time you need up front and have to go back to the parking machine to add more time.  And while most of my American friends enjoy driving a big, spacious car, that’s only going to cause you grief over here when it’s time to park (or navigate a street with tons of parked cars up and down it).  I have a very small car and I can’t tell you how glad I usually am because not only does it make it easier to park, but I also can usually find a space much easier because sometimes those spaces are small, and a big car just can’t pull it off.parked cars
  8. That brings us to tickets. If you park illegally or don’t pay, you probably won’t return to your car to find a paper ticket.  Instead, some months later, you will receive a ticket in the mail.  This goes for speeding, running lights and other traffic violations as well.  Now, it is possible that you might be pulled over by the police sometime, but it just doesn’t happen too often.  Generally speaking, speeding and running lights is caught on camera and police use a hand scanning system to check the parking spaces.  If you are pulled over, it’s typically not by a car with flashing lights in your rearview mirror.  Generally, the unmarked car will get in front of you with a flashing sign in the back window indicating that you need to follow them to pull over.
  9. If you opt to have a car for transportation, it is not uncommon for it to be leased. Owning a car in The Netherlands can be very expensive thanks to the taxes that you have to pay on a vehicle.  This makes leasing a car a more viable option for many.  In addition, there are tax breaks for those who own hybrid or electric vehicles so having at least a hybrid is very common here.  There are also parts of the city that are low emission zones so if you have an older vehicle that does not meet the new emission standards, you cannot drive in these areas.  If you do, you will be fined.Amsterdam
  10. There are tons of tram, train and bus stops. Trams take you within a city and not all cities have them.  They are found most readily in the larger cities.  Buses can take you within a city and also from one city to a nearby city.  Trains can take you within the city if it is a larger city (think subway type system), between cities or even between countries.  The train is most likely what you will use to cover larger distances.  If you are going to stay within the country, you can take a direct train (makes no stops between two cities) or an intercity which makes stops at various stations along the route from one city to another.  You can buy individual ride tickets at a counter or machine at stations and from the worker on the tram, or you can buy a rail card.  With the card, you can add money to your account to cover train and tram fare.  When you enter the station or when you board the tram, you tap your card on the reader.  You tap again when leaving the tram or station.  In this way, the trip is recorded and the price is deducted from your account.  Some cities have also begun testing readers on the trams that allow people to use their bank card to pay for the ride instead of having to buy a ticket or have a rail card.  Finally, you can take a bike on the train as well as dogs (small dogs for free, large dogs with a leash and dog ticket). tram nltrain nltrain nl2
  11. There are some very useful apps that can be downloaded to help with transportation in The Netherlands. I already mentioned the parking app.  There are also apps to notify you of the speed limit and where speed cameras are located.  There are apps for knowing the train and tram schedules and which train/tram you should take as well as what stops to use to get to a certain location.  Finally, there are also apps detailing biking and walking paths.

So there you have it-Dutch transportation in a nutshell.  The transportation options available in The Netherlands make it pretty easy to get around both within a city and between other cities in the country.  In addition, it’s pretty easy to venture into other countries as well.  And best of all, it’s not too hard to multitask and get some physical activity in while you are getting around.  Coming from a place in the US that struggles to provide an adequate number of sidewalks and bike paths, I really love the infrastructure and choices for transportation in The Netherlands.  It doesn’t hurt to be able to easily drive (pre-Covid) across a border to other European countries as well although paying for parking everywhere will probably always be a hard pill to swallow!

Home Sweet Home

Since we have been exploring many facets of daily life in The Netherlands, it seems only fitting to talk about the place that we spend a majority of our daily lives, our home. There are several types of homes one might find here. There are apartments, some of which might be quite large and span several floors, row houses (the houses that look identical and share walls on either side forming a long row of houses), houses that look like free standing homes but are actually 2 houses that share a wall (think duplex) and stand alone homes. Within each of these categories, you can find many variations and floor plans (even within homes that look identical or are part of a row of houses), but there are a few common features that one can find in many homes.

  1. Dutch Stairs a.k.a. steep stairs– The Dutch are well known for their incredibly steep and narrow stairs-some curved, some straight up. Luckily, we have regular wide stairs in our home, but many of our friends have to contend with the steep stairs and mishaps are frequent. Several of our friends have had injuries ranging from bumps and bruises to broken arms. Of course the reason for the steep stairs is frequently space-houses here are more likely to be narrow but tall and homes are often compact so a steep stair allows for maximizing of floor space.
  2. Living Room Doors– In Dutch homes, the entry way is frequently cut off from the living room by a door. At first, I found this very strange and didn’t love the look of it, but sometimes it is actually nice to be able to cut off the sounds from the living room to the rest of the house. I believe the original intent was to keep the living room warmer by shutting it off from the entry way.20210128_073055
  3. Tiny Guest Bath– Most homes have a tiny guest bath with only a toilet and tiny sink featuring cold water only. Your guess is as good as mine as to why this would be desirable. Our guest bath is not tiny but I have seen some that are incredibly narrow and barely have any room between the sink and the toilet. Of course, it is possible to install a bigger sink but given the size of the bathroom, it wouldn’t be very practical. I am not a fan of the cold water only policy.20210128_073041
  4. Shelf Toilet– While we are on the subject of bathrooms, let’s talk about the shelf toilet. If you have never heard of this or seen one, it is essentially a toilet bowl that is not just a round open bowl as Americans are accustomed to but rather has a flat area to the back of the bowl and a small hole in the front. If you are thinking to yourself that this means that what is defecated will just sit on the flat part until flushing, you have just hit the nail on the head as to the purpose of the shelf toilet. Apparently, the Dutch used to use this as a means to give their health a little check every day by making sure things looked normal. I have had friends with shelf toilets in their home-they did not love it. We, thankfully, do not have any.shelf toilet
  5. The Tiny Room– In almost every house that we looked at before moving, there was what we dubbed the tiny room. There would be a master and at least one bedroom of adequate size and then a room that was so small it was unfathomable as to what it could even be used for. In our home, we have a room that is much smaller than the others though it is still of a size large enough to have a function which for us is the office.
  6. Basements Sadly, we don’t have one, but many homes do. They can range in size from a small walk-in space that can accommodate some pantry storage to larger areas for storage or a small workshop to full rooms that might be used as rec rooms or a bedroom.
  7. Windows Without Coverings. So, folklore has it that the Dutch used to be taxed based on how many windows they had. In an attempt to have plenty of light in their homes but pay less tax, the Dutch began putting large windows in the homes instead of many small ones. Today, these windows often feature windowsills with decorations that seem to be meant for any passersby rather than the homeowner. In addition, windows often have no coverings. Many of our neighbors have large windows with no coverings that look in on their kitchens. As we walk by their house, you can see them (from a very close range) cooking and eating. There have been a few uncomfortable moments when our gazes have met, but for the most part, being Dutch means you must become adept at looking without looking (or without being noticed anyway). And lest you think that you can just put up blinds and curtains and never open them, there have been several instances in The Netherlands of neighbors calling the police on a neighbor who always has their windows closed up because they believe drugs are being grown or some other unfavorable activities are taking place. We have blinds and curtains on most of our windows (we really need them on the bedroom windows for the summer months when the sun is up until 11 at night) but the curtains on our hallway windows and our living room and kitchen windows are very sheer and we open our blinds regularly.dutch window
  8. Wardrobes Instead of Closets– Now there are some homes with walk-in closets although they look a little different than the ones in the US and there are some with small closets built into the wall with sliding or folding style doors, but it is quite common to just use wardrobes to store clothing. We only have wardrobes in our home.
  9. No Air Conditioning and No Central Heat– Most homes in The Netherlands do not have air conditioning. In some homes, you will find room units mounted on the wall, but for the most part, people open windows and use fans. Plus, up until recent years, it generally didn’t get that hot in the summer. Now, we have had several weeks that have been really warm which makes the fan alone insufficient in tackling the heat. We also do not have central heat but use radiators or floor heating instead. The radiators are actually quite warm and the air does not seem as dry in the house using them versus the central air. The radiators can also be quite useful in drying clothes. Now, some homes do have what mimics central heating in that you have a unit with a thermostat to adjust temperature but this just controls the turning on and off of the radiators or floor heat rather than pumping warm air through the house through vents and ducts.
  10. Small Yards– Here, the yard is referred to as the garden. Now, if you live in a country house, you are going to have a large property. Also, several stand alone homes can have a decent sized yard. But for the most part, homes have very small gardens. Or at least, by many American standards, they are very small. I will note that it seems you can get used to small space and eventually can find it decent sized, though it is nothing compared to what you are used to, as we have found ourselves deeming some yards quite adequate when they would be tiny compared to what we were accustomed to in the US . Many gardens feature turf rather than grass, a shed ranging from quite small to rather large, a seating or dining area and maybe some plants. Some homes also have a small trampoline which is often just feet off the ground and a small pool (think soaking pool).garden 2garden 1
  11. Small Appliances– I know that anyone familiar with International House Hunters has probably seen the small appliances that many European homes feature. It is true that our refrigerator and oven are small. Not all homes have small refrigerators, although it is fairly common. Some people do have “American” sized ovens, but by far, most people I know have a small oven. Some of my friends complain that they can’t even cook a turkey for Thanksgiving because it won’t fit in their oven. Our dishwasher and microwave are probably a little smaller too but nothing too noticeable. Again, it’s one of those things that I think you just get used to and learn to adapt to.
  12. Drains– Okay guys, this one is gross. The drains in our showers have a little basket or cylinder piece that catches hair. It has to be regularly cleaned out. If it gets too full, some of the hair will go down into a little overflow drain area where the excess and a little water sits. This is disgusting, and I often feel like I might vomit in the course of cleaning it out. We aren’t sure who came up with this design, but this is one thing I really think the Dutch missed the mark on. And while we are on the subject of cleaning out drains, Dutch homes do not have garbage disposals so while we try to scrape most food scraps into our green recycle bin, some things still go into the drain trap which needs to be cleaned out when we are done washing up. Also a bit gross.20210128_110811
  13. Ventilation System– Most Dutch homes have some sort of ventilation system to combat mildewing. The system essentially sucks the moisture out of the air and filters out “polluted” air from the home replacing it with external air. There are several different types of systems ranging from a mechanical unit to actual vents above windows, but one complaint many people have is that they feel like the systems cause there to be more dust in the homes here than what they are used to in other countries. I have not really noticed this with our system. Much like a central air system, the unit in our home requires us to clean or change filters periodically.

So there you have it-the ins and outs of the Dutch home. While these features can be found in many homes, it is actually quite fun to see the unique features and layout of the homes once you are inside. And let’s be real, with all those big open windows, you might not even need to be invited in to check it out!

Paying Those Bills

This week I thought I would touch on a couple of features of banking and payment here in The Netherlands. Much like in the US, we have an account with a bank card.  The bank card has a chip and pin system.  When we are shopping at a physical location, we can tap the card for purchases under a certain price threshold, or we insert the card into a reader and enter our pin.  In addition, servers at restaurants and some vendors that deliver to your home such as our grocery delivery, carry a pin reader machine.  Rather than giving them your card to swipe, they insert the bill amount, you insert the card yourself and then enter the pin.  Finally, there are plenty of ATM machines at which we can get cash should we want it.  But, interesting fact about purchases in The Netherlands-very few people use credit cards and we don’t have checks.  So, you might ask how we pay for online purchases and bills we receive.

For online purchases outside of The Netherlands or when we travel outside of the Netherlands, we do have a credit card.  There isn’t much of a way around this.  However, for purchases within The Netherlands, we can use an online payment system called IDeal that transfers money from your account to a vendor.  This can be used for any online purchase.  There are two ways it works.  When you are ready to check out, you simply select that payment option and enter your bank name.  Then, if you have the mobile banking app, it will just bring up a page with your bill details.  When you select to complete the transaction, your app opens and you put in your passcode (different from your pincode that you use with a physical reader machine) and the transaction is complete.  The other option is that a barcode is generated as your payment details, and your banking app uses a barcode scanning feature on your phone so that you can scan the barcode which then brings up your payment details.  You then follow the same procedure of putting in your banking passcode to complete the transaction.   If the amount of the bill is over a certain value, then you use a verification system.  When you sign up for your account you receive both your bank card and a verification machine.  It looks like a little calculator.  When you need to verify a transaction, you slide your card into the machine and put in the code provided on the verification payment page.  Then the machine generates a code that you put into the verification payment page.  It’s just an added step to make sure that transactions are legit.  

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When we receive a bill from a service provider such as a doctor, our children’s music teachers, our school, a repair person, the government, etc., we go into our banking app and select to make a transaction.  We then put in the recipients name and account number which includes both letters to identify which bank their account is with and numbers to identify their account (yes, my American friends, I just said that people give out their account number in order to receive payment).  The app will note if the name and account match and if they don’t, you can still proceed, but you have received notice that something might be incorrect.  You then add the payment amount, a description of what the payment is for or a reference/statement number and when it should be paid.  You can also select if it is a recurring payment or simply a one time payment.  When you select complete, you are asked to enter your bank passcode and then the money is transferred.  It’s incredibly easy and saves on a lot of mailing in of bills.  It also allows people to transfer money to one another without having to write and then cash a check.  

So, there you have it.  The ease of payment in The Netherlands is really nice and there is very little concern of the security being compromised.  It’s just another piece of Dutch daily life.  Until next time!

 

Signed, Sealed, Delivered-Dutch Mail

I know that the postal service in the US is currently under scrutiny, so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the postal service in the Netherlands.  First off, just like in the US, there is the postal service, PostNL, as well as several private carriers such as FedEx and DHL.  Unlike in the US though, there are no post offices but rather PostNL locations usually located in retail stores such as the grocery or card and stationary stores.  At these locations, you can buy stamps as well as first class style mailing supplies.  You can also mail letters and packages both domestically and internationally and pick up packages being held for you at these locations.  If you do not need to mail a package or have special postage put on an envelope, you can drop stamped letters into a post box-there is no pick up of letters at a home mailbox.  The post boxes are located all around the city both around commercial areas as well as residential.  There are two slots on the mail boxes, one for “local mail” which falls within certain postal codes and another for overage mail which is anything outside of those postal codes as well as international.  Mail is picked up from the boxes every evening. 

For receiving mail, mail carriers walk or bike through residential areas and leave mail at your home box or mail slot.  There are actually 2 types of carriers-the ones that bring actual mail and the ones that bring circulars, local papers and other flyers.  If you don’t want to receive circulars, flyers and other such mass mailers, you can put a sticker on your mailbox that indicates that those should not be put in your box.  In terms of packages, if you are not home to receive your package, the carrier typically will not leave it at your door.  Usually they will first see if a neighbor is home to receive it, and then they leave you a slip in your box indicating which house it is at.  If that is not possible, they take it to a location that is authorized to hold and distribute packages.  We have had packages at places from tobacco shops to hair salons so where your package will be can vary greatly each time. 

So how much does it cost to mail things in The Netherlands?  One regular stamp is .91 Euro which means it is slightly over 1 USD.  An international stamp is 1.50 Euro which is 1.82 USD.  Prices for mailing packages seem fairly reasonable. 

One final thing to note-here in The Netherlands, the postal code is very important in locating an address.  If you know the house number and postal code, the street can be automatically generated by address databases and this is because even within the same area of the city, there will be multiple postal codes.  Houses on a different street from ours will likely have a different postal code.  

And there you have it-a quick overview of how to send and receive mail in The Netherlands.

To Learn Dutch or Not To Learn Dutch, That Is The Question

One of the natural results of living in a foreign country with a language different from your native language is that you learn the country’s language because in order to integrate and speak with others, it’s a necessity, right?  Wrong!  That may be the case in many places, but here in The Netherlands, we barely know any Dutch.  Sure, we’ve picked up some basic words, common phrases and words for things we encounter frequently such as foods, but beyond that, we’ve got nothing.  You may wonder why that would be the case and I’ll tell you.

Reason 1-The Dutch are amazing at English.  First of all, a large majority of them know English, and they know if from a young age.  Knowing English is great but it must be hard to understand them because of accents, you say.  No!  The accent is minimal and really does not affect your ability to understand their English at all.  Okay, okay but conversations must be limited because they would not be used to speaking English, wouldn’t have the extensive vocabulary, would have to slow down to think about what they want to say and how it translates, right?  Wrong again!  It never ceases to amaze me that the Dutch know English so well-their vocabulary is quite good and the ease with which they can seamlessly switch from speaking Dutch to English is unbelievable.  As soon as they realize you don’t speak Dutch, they will switch in mere seconds without even missing a beat.

Reason 2-While you do encounter some Dutch people who feel that immigrants and expats should speak Dutch, a large portion feel that it is no problem to only speak English as they can speak that easily as well and Dutch is a hard language to learn.  Therefore, they are more than happy to accommodate your English speaking ways-to the point of detriment to you.  Do you know how hard it is to try to learn a new language when every time you attempt to speak it, the person you are speaking to says “Oh, English” and then proceeds to only speak to you in English?

Reason 3-We chose to send our children to an international school and being such, it is conducted in English.  When the children are in elementary school years, they take a daily Dutch lesson, but once they are in secondary grade levels, they can choose between Dutch and Spanish thus meaning that at school, my children are receiving no Dutch.  In addition, everything for parents in communicated in English and everyone affiliated with the school (with a few exceptions) speaks English.  This means that in the majority of our daily interactions and in our social circle, English is the preferred language.  We just aren’t forced to use Dutch daily or in order to connect with people.

Reason 4-If you don’t speak the language, you can live in a sort of clueless bubble.  When you can’t watch the news or read the paper, it is easy to stay oblivious to negative things happening around you.  Sometimes, this can be a nice feeling-to not have to think about all the bad things out there.  It can also be a way to ignore how far away and foreign you are in this new place.  Of course, there are times when you would like to escape the bubble and that is when it can be frustrating to not know the language, but even then, more likely than not, you can find a site that has translated news, use translator apps or ask someone who can explain it to you in English.

So, there you have it-the English/Dutch language dilemma that we find ourselves in.  Of course, I am in no way trying to excuse our lack of Dutch language skills.  To the contrary, I am disappointed and at times embarrassed by our failure to learn the language.  But, rather than focus on that, I choose to focus on how thankful I am that we moved to a country where English is so readily and willingly used, that we have met a lot of other English speakers who also struggle with this dilemma and that the Dutch are so kind about trying to help and make non-Dutch speakers’ lives a little easier.

Going to the Dogs…and Cats

Now that we have looked at school life and work life, I think it’s time to look at pet life because being a pet in The Netherlands is a pretty sweet deal.  For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to stick to the two pets that we can see outside of the home-dogs and cats.  And the Dutch really love their dogs and cats!

Let’s start with dogs.  Many, many Dutch have dogs and since yards are not immense and sometimes don’t contain much green space, most of those dogs are indoor dogs (the exception might be in very rural areas).  But don’t worry that those dogs don’t get outdoor time because the Dutch take their dogs out regularly.

Many walk their dogs numerous times throughout the day no matter the weather.  And lest you think that walk means a quick stroll around the block on a leash, think again.  While leashes are used, many, many dogs are allowed to be off-leash.  Sometimes the dogs stay right next to their owner; however, they often wander in the green spaces along walking paths.  These dogs are so well trained, though, that as soon as the owner calls, they return to them.  But during their time in the green space, they are allowed to sniff around and explore freely.  There is really nothing funnier than seeing a small dog come out of a green space carrying a huge stick in its mouth as it moves on down the walking path.  Dogs are also often walked with other dogs and allowed to play with them in green spaces or dog designated areas.  For example, there is a sandy bank near a small lake in one of the parks near our home where numerous dogs are allowed to run around and play together.  In addition, dogs get to go everywhere.  They go to beaches, parks, restaurants, stores, etc.  Most restaurants have bowls for dogs that they bring out to the table just as they would bring cutlery.

Now, what if a dog owner doesn’t have the time required to take their dog out many times a day?  Well, no worries-the dog daycare industry here is a big deal.  There are many dog daycare possibilities from larger organizations to individuals.  These organizations provide services from dog walking to dog day out to dog daycare and full boarding.  Usually, you can give the dog caretaker a key and they will come to your house and pick up your dog and return them later.  It is not uncommon to see a van with many dogs in it picking up and dropping off in residential areas.  Also, you can often see many dogs being walked together by these organizations.

While lots of well-behaved dogs out and about everywhere all day long is fun to watch, there is one downside-feces.  And one can find it everywhere.  While there are laws in many places that require that it be picked up by owners, the reality is that it often does not happen.  There is a joke here in The Netherlands that you shouldn’t walk on the grass anywhere because you never know when you might step in something that a dog has left behind.  But the truth is, it’s really not a joke but very much a reality.

And what about cats?  Well most of them stay in their houses overnight; however, during the day, they are often out and about.  But it would seem that for the most part, they keep to their radius that they frequently travel and don’t get into too much trouble.  In our small neighborhood, there are 5+ cats that are out every day, and I’ve never seen them fight or have any problems.  The downside, however, is probably the effect on birds/water fowl.  It is very common in the spring/summer when many duck, goose and swan babies are born to see the number of babies dwindle each day.  It may not all be due to cats, but I’m sure it plays a large role.  Also, while you might expect to find some cats dead in the road as they roam about, I don’t think I have seen this a single time. 

Now, you may be thinking that there must be a problem with stray animals since these dogs and cats are allowed the freedom to roam and spend time with others of their species.  But there really is no stray problem.  I don’t think I have ever seen a stray dog in the past 2.5 years and most of the cats that I have seen also appear to have owners.  In fact, The Netherlands does claim that they are the first country with no strays.  They have many laws to protect animals and punish abusers, they mandate that spaying and neutering services be offered for free and they encourage adopting versus buying animals-there is actually a tax on buying but not adopting.  Even finding animals to adopt can be a real challenge.  There are animal shelters in The Netherlands, but there are not many, there are not many animals kept in them regularly and most of the animals that are there come from stray and rescued populations in other European countries.  I have heard from many people that they often have to get on a waiting list to adopt when an animal becomes available.

A final item of interest to note-veterinary services are very reasonably priced and affordable here.  We probably paid twice to three times as much for routine vet visits and more specialized care in the US.  Food, accessories and boarding services are pretty comparable here to US prices.

Overall, the Dutch seem to have a culture in which pets are not only important members of a family, but are also given many freedoms in order to make sure that they stay healthy, receive plenty of stimulation and have a good quality of life.  They value these animals and believe they are entitled to care and kind treatment.  In other words, a Dutch pet’s life is a pretty sweet pet’s life.

Workin 9-5…Or Maybe Less

In the last couple of weeks, we have looked at school and children’s lives here in The Netherlands, but now it’s time to look at adult lives, mainly worklife.

  • As mentioned in another post, there is a pretty important and largely upheld work life balance in The Netherlands.  The work week generally consists of about 36-40 hours and it is not uncommon for people to work less than 5 days a week or to be a part time employee (between 12-36 hours per week).  In addition, the Dutch are not very likely to put in extra hours above the required hours.  Generally speaking, when the day is over, they are out the door and they do not take work home with them.  In addition, it is fairly common for the Dutch employee to come in late or leave early if they have a family commitment and unless it is habitual or affecting their work, they will not be questioned.  In addition, vacation time is important here and the minimum legally allowed is 4 days of vacation per days worked per week so most Dutch employees receive at least 16 days of vacation though the norm for full time employees is 25 days per year.  Employees also receive about 8 public holiday days per year with some variation among years.
  • Employment laws in The Netherlands largely exist to protect the employee and not the company.  One example of this is the fact that  there is no employment at will in The Netherlands, but rather a type of tenure system (and it does not take years to obtain this “tenure”).  This means that it is very hard to remove an employee.  Another example of the laws protecting employees is that companies of 50 or more employees are encouraged to have a works council (if any employee requests that it be formed, it must be).  A works council is a group comprised of employees meant to consult on and provide feedback on the company’s policies, procedures and plans with the effect on employees in mind.  There are many other laws and policies designed to protect employees, but the most incomprehensible of these, especially for American workers, is burnout leave.  Essentially, if the employee is feeling overworked and stressed because of their work responsibilities and this is affecting their mental health or family life, they can see their doctor for a burnout checkup.  If the doctor determines that they are, in fact, suffering from the effects of burnout, then that employee will be put on an indefinite paid leave.  Some employees take only a few weeks while others have taken years.  During this time, their job must be held for them.  This isn’t a rare and isolated phenomenon.  Many employees will experience this at some point.  Try finding a policy like that in the US!
  • And finally, what is the work day actually like?  The day is probably like a typical work day in the US with one exception-lunch.  In The Netherlands, it is expected that employees will eat lunch together.  It is quite common for everyone to pay a monthly fee out of their paycheck that goes toward the purchase of the daily lunch which is laid out in a common area for everyone to gather around to eat.  Lunch is quite often bread, deli meats and cheese.  Some companies have a canteen where employees gather to eat and can select from a couple of daily options for lunch.  And even if they don’t stay at the office, it is common for employees to go get a lunch together though probably not a sit down meal at a restaurant.  Once in the mall, I saw a group of young men in business suits all standing together around a small lunch counter during their lunch hour.  So, lunch is a pretty social affair during the workday.
  • And what about those employed in other industries that don’t work in an office?  Well  they still stick to maintaining a work life balance by not exceeding normal working hours.  People such as repair people, construction workers and gardeners take regular breaks during their work hours.  When our movers delivered our boxes, they literally worked for an hour or less, took a 15 minute break and then went back to working, repeating that cycle numerous times.  In addition, it is commonly expected here that if someone is working in your home, you will provide them with coffee at a minimum and very likely some snack as well (I have yet to do this without being asked by the worker, so I’m sure some of the workers that have come to our house think I am a real jerk).  Those in other jobs that do not take place in your home such as the food industry also receive regular breaks and are paid a salary so tipping is unnecessary; in fact, it is often just given to the restaurant rather than the individual server if it is done.  These employees also receive vacation time and it is fairly common for smaller restaurants to close for the month of August.

So, all in all, work life in The Netherlands isn’t too bad and most Dutch employees seem quite content with putting in their time at work and still getting to have plenty of time to participate in family life.  Could you get used to it?

The Happiest Kids in the World

Last week we looked at the school system in The Netherlands, so, along those lines, let’s look at the lifestyle of children here.  There have been numerous studies in recent years proclaiming that Dutch children are some of the happiest in the world and there are some factors that might contribute to that.

 1.  Children here are given large amounts of autonomy.  Rather than being driven everywhere, they bike on their own.  Many young children (think early elementary years) are still escorted to school by their parents, but once they are in the later years of primary school and secondary school, they go alone even when it takes 30 minutes or more to get to school.  Likewise, children bike themselves to their after school and weekend sports clubs or music lessons with their gear which they were probably responsible for gathering as well.  Also, many children ride public transportation by themselves. 

Children may run errands alone.  Many kids go to appointments on their own.  For example, when I take my daughter to the orthodontist, many of the kids come alone, go into the appointment alone and get the information needed and schedule their own appointments before leaving.  Kids also take care of shopping on their own when they need to or are asked by parents.  It is very common to see groups of secondary age kids in the grocery store in the morning buying items for their lunch.  I have also seen children sent to buy a few items for the family when the store is close to their home. 

And finally, Dutch children are encouraged to just go out and play without having to stay at their home to do so or to be overly supervised.  They don’t have to check in regularly and they aren’t checked on.  During the distance learning period in the spring, some of the children in our neighborhood spent hours every day building a fort in the wooded area by the houses and no parents ever went to check on them. 

2.  Children here don’t always have much “stuff.” Rather than have large rooms in which they collect copious amounts of toys and other junk, Dutch kids have smaller rooms, less storage and hence less stuff.  And while some people may feel that having stuff leads to happiness, it is, in fact, rather freeing to have less to keep up with.  In addition, when you don’t have “things”, you are more likely to go out to play, spend time with friends or engage in physical activity.

3.  Another theory is that Dutch parents are happy which makes the household and the children happier. The Dutch place a high level of importance on a balance between work and family time.  They do not work excessive hours, and it is culturally accepted that there are times when family obligations will trump work commitments.  In addition, Dutch fathers play an active role in child rearing and care which may also lead to balance and happiness in the household.  I see many fathers in The Netherlands taking their children to school which is something I rarely saw in the US.  In addition, when I see Dutch families doing things together, it seems like the parents are more engaged in the activity and spend more time talking with the family or friends they are with rather than being on a device.  I personally feel that in the US, I saw more parents on devices even when they were participating in family time out of the home. 

4.  There are also reports that Dutch children find their peer groups to be supportive and helpful and do not deal with issues regarding bullying and social identity as much as children in other countries. Also, it seems that social media and its pressures don’t stress Dutch kids much at all (see the link to the study below). 

5.  Dutch children are seen as having a “voice.” Within the family unit, children are listened to and encouraged to have opinions.  Likewise, at school, children are given the freedom to express themselves and do not experience as much authoritativeness from administration.  In return, the students generally trust their teachers.  And, parents may not put as much pressure on children in The Netherlands because they allow them the freedom to be themselves which may lead to more feelings of happiness.

6.  Finally, overall, the Dutch consider themselves to have a good life. They are a wealthy country with a good economy, they have decent healthcare and education, and there is little worry of incidents of mass violence particularly in schools.  These factors mean less stress and more happiness.

Of course, no culture is perfect and the Dutch do receive criticism for an unhealthy diet among kids.  There are also, of course, issues of poverty and racism to deal with.  And, for better or worse, Dutch children do seem to be exposed to sex (in terms of both education, discussion and the actual act) at a much earlier age than in many other cultures. 

All in all, though, I think there are some great things about being a kid in The Netherlands and some interesting aspects of child rearing to consider and potentially adopt in order to encourage children to be happy and well-adjusted.  I hope you have enjoyed this week’s peek at life in another culture.  Until next time, I wish you all, adults and children alike, much happiness! 

**Here are a few other things to note about life for Dutch kids-drinking age is 18 and so is driving age.  Of course, many kids get a license to drive a moped (which are generally driven in bike lanes) much sooner than that.  Tons of kids here play an extracurricular sport whether it is tennis, soccer or field hockey.   There is an idea/saying in The Netherlands that is ingrained in kids early on which is “doe normaal” (be normal) basically meaning that you should not behave in a way to stand out or to be different in a negative way.  It kind of translates to “stop, that’s crazy enough.”

Finally, this is an interesting study regarding the stressors of teens in The Netherlands.

https://nltimes.nl/2020/06/23/stress-school-dutch-teens-main-problem-unicef

 

All Things Education

Moving to The Netherlands with school age children meant that school was definitely a big part of the decisions we were making when moving.  The Dutch school system can be somewhat complex to understand for an outsider and in the end we decided to select a private international school.  But understanding Dutch schools can provide some interesting comparisons and food for thought when evaluating other school systems and educational organization.

Schools in The Netherlands are run by the Ministry of Education.  The Ministry sets the learning objectives, quality standards, social objectives, etc., but the individual schools are free to decide how to allocate their budget and the details of their curriculum.  In many ways, Dutch schools are similar to American schools.  On average, school is 180 or slightly more days a year, there are both private and public schools and special needs students are provided with the support to attend mainstream school as much as possible, but, if it is not possible, find that there are special schools available based on their needs.

There are some major differences between American and Dutch schools however.  First of all, school in The Netherlands is compulsory.  This means that students must attend a school-homeschooling is not permitted.  When we first arrived, we received letters from the government requesting the information of which school our children attend which, I believe, may have then been checked for accuracy so don’t think you can just fly under the radar.  It is possible to petition the government to make an exception to this rule.  We recently had a friend whose child had been attending private school and was accepted to a prestigious online school.  They petitioned the government and waited months to learn that he would be allowed to stay at home to attend the online school.  In addition, they take attendance very seriously.  Students are expected to be in school unless they are ill.  In fact, it is possible to be fined for an unexcused absence.  But don’t worry, they still get plenty of time off.  In both primary and secondary schools, there are set holiday days and vacation periods.  The set holidays include New Years Day, Easter Monday, King’s Day, Liberation Day (every 5 years), Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.  In addition, most students have a week off in October, two weeks around Christmas, one week in February or March, two weeks in April or May and six weeks for summer in July and August.  In order to help minimize holiday traffic though, the country is divided into three regions and specific vacation weeks and especially the end and start of summer vacation is staggered among these regions.

The second difference between Dutch and American schools is that, while there are both private and public schools in The Netherlands, both schools receive equal funding from the government.  There are a few international private schools that do not receive funding, and consequently, their tuition is much higher than the international or private schools that do receive it. What this does mean is that private school is not only reserved for the super wealthy as there are many affordable options.

A final difference is that you are not required to attend a certain school based on your residence the way that school districts works in the US.  Rather, you are free to choose a school based on their method of teaching, reputation, atmosphere, etc.  Several of our neighbors have children at a nearby school because it is well known for having more parent contribution in terms of both volunteers and finances.

These are some of the basic similarities and differences between the American and Dutch school systems, but to really understand how the Dutch school system works, you’ve got to understand the layout.  There are three main categories for schooling within The Netherlands and within each of those, there are several types of schools.  To begin, the three main types are primary, secondary and university.

Primary school consists of groups 1-8 and is for ages 4-11 or 12.  You begin in group 1 when you are 4.  To be more specific, you begin (if you want as group 1 is not compulsory) on the day after your 4th birthday regardless of when during the year it occurs (given school is in session of course).  If you don’t do group 1, you are required to begin group 2 when you are 5.  In primary school, there are 2 types of schools-openbare which is funded and run by an independent foundation which was originally set up by the government and bijzondere which has its own board and follows either religious or pedagogical models.  About two thirds of students attend the bijzondere schools.  While most primary schools are free, many ask for a voluntary parent contribution to pay for extras.  They also rely heavily on parent volunteers.  In primary school, there are on average 24-30 students per class and students attend school from around 8:30am to 3:15pm and have around an hour for lunch.  During this break, they may go home for lunch or they may stay at the school, however, no lunch is served at school as it is the student’s responsibility to bring lunch.  On Wednesdays, primary schools get out at 12:30pm to allow for extracurricular activities, appointments and playdates.  Primary students are not given much homework, and in addition to the regular subjects you would expect to find, may expect classes on bike safety as well as having their own garden plot at the school to tend.  In addition, Dutch students generally begin learning English by group 7 (10 years of age) though many schools begin as early as group 1 or are designed as a bilingual school.  Starting around group 2 or 3, students are given a test twice a year to measure progress of the student and the teacher, however, there is no real consequence of the test other than to serve as an indicator of how the student is progressing.  Finally, during group 8 (the final year of primary school), students take a test to help determine which track they will follow, and thus which schools they might attend during secondary school.  The test is supplemented with teacher recommendation in order to best place the student.

At the secondary level, which generally begins at age 12, things get a bit more complex in terms of structure.  Based on that test in the final year of primary school and the teacher recommendation, students are placed into one of three tracks.  These tracks correspond to the type of studies the student will follow through the college years.  Track 1 (VMBO)  is vocational.  Students finish their secondary studies in four years at age 16.  Students who are placed in this track still have the opportunity to go to a university should they wish by completing extra studies after receiving their diploma.  Track 2 (HAVO) is for students who will go on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in applied sciences.  This diploma takes 5 years and is completed at age 17.  About halfway through their studies, the HAVO students choose their specific field of study.  Finally, Track 3 (VWO) is for students who will go on to a research university to receive their Bachelor’s degree in an analytical and research based field of study.  This diploma takes six years and is completed at age 18.  Secondary students attend school from about 8:30am to 4:00 or 5:00pm.  This varies each day based on the schedule of their classes.  Secondary students apply to the secondary school that they would like to attend and that is designated for the track they are on.  Students may not be accepted to their first choice, so they apply to several schools.  And lest you think it is completely unfair for students to be put on a specific track at age 12 that determines the course of their career and life, students are allowed to make adjustments and change track as they progress through secondary school.  Once all of that hard work is done, final exams are passed and a diploma is awarded, Dutch students let everyone know in a special ritual that you can read about in a previous post. https://terisacunha.com/2019/06/13/the-day-the-exam-results-came-in/

For higher education, there are three types of schools that align with the secondary tracks.  The first is an MBO school which is equivalent to an Associates degree.  Then there is the HBO which is a university of applied science and allows for the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree.  Students from the HAVO secondary track and VMBO who received their MBO diploma along with additional studies may attend a HBO school.  Some of the types of careers for those with a HBO degree are primary school teachers, architects, journalists, nurses, management positions, artists, translators, pilots, etc.  It is possible to receive a Masters level degree from these schools if you have a HBO diploma and work experience.  Finally, there are the WO universities which are for students with VWO secondary diplomas, students working on Masters degrees or PhD degrees and for students who complete 1 year at a HBO university and receive special certification.  At WO universities, there is a greater focus on research based studies and typical careers for those with a WO degree include lawyers, psychologists, doctors, professors, engineers, scientists, etc.  In addition, from the age of 21, a person can test for WO university to prove that they possess the correct academic level even if they do not hold a secondary diploma that allows them admission.  One interesting fact to note, many university studies are conducted in English.  Another fact which will likely cause my American readers to fall off their chair, higher education in The Netherlands is government funded and thus is very affordable.  On average, students at HBO and WO universities pay about €2000 per year.  During their first year, they pay half of this and because of teacher shortages in recent years, students studying to become teachers pay only half for their first two years of study.  In addition, there are also grants available to students based on their performance and parent income.

As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, there is a teacher shortage in The Netherlands, and just like in the US, it can be attributed to overworked and underpaid teachers.  Teachers feel that they are not valued and that the pay does not reflect their skill level and the requirements of the job.  And just like in the US, this salary issue leads to shortages which then leads to more work being placed on the teacher, overcrowding of classrooms, no assistants/helpers for teachers, unqualified teachers in classrooms and school closures.  Teacher strikes are also a reality in The Netherlands.  Just last year, teachers engaged in a two day strike at government funded schools organized through their teacher union which claims that underfunding of education is the problem.  Interestingly though, many schools are not overly affected by teacher shortage.  It appears that shortages most often occur in specialized schools as well as non western migration (translation-minority) schools.  Pay is better in mainstream schools which helps to minimize shortages there.

Overall, the Dutch pride themselves on providing a quality education to all children and their rate of attainment of a university degree is just above 30 percent.  Their widespread command of a secondary language is also impressive.  But perhaps the best thing about Dutch education is that it is affordable.  And, in my opinion, while no system is without its faults, there are interesting ideas which might be gleaned from the Dutch education system that could be beneficial.

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