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.  


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.


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.

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.

Van Harte Gefeliciteerd Met Je Verjaardag

Fijne Verjaardag!  Gefeliciteerd!   What does it mean- Happy Birthday and Congratulations!  Birthdays in The Netherlands are an interesting affair.  There are several notable differences between birthdays here and those in the US.  

  1. In The Netherlands, birthdays are a celebration for others more than they are for you.  It is not customary here to congratulate the birthday person as much as it is to congratulate their family.  On my birthday, my husband’s colleagues congratulate him.  When children have birthdays, the parents are congratulated (though I can understand this one; after all, we did keep them alive for another year!).  In general, if you are around them, you should congratulate all of the birthday person’s family on the birthday…and maybe even close friends as well.
  2. Along those same lines, no one provides the birthday person with a birthday cake or treat, but rather, it is your responsibility to provide something to allow others to celebrate you.  In offices and schools, this means you bring in a treat to share with everyone on your birthday.  And, your colleagues will get very upset if you don’t.  We moved here on my husband’s birthday, and, thus, I did not send anything into his office.  Now, I think his colleagues forgave us for that, but they made sure to let him know that the following year he needed to bring something. Same goes for your birthday party-you provide the dessert. 
  3. Birthdays are important to the Dutch.  I have never seen it personally, but rumor has it that there is a Dutch calendar kept in most homes (oddly enough, kept hanging in the bathroom) that is solely for listing the birthdays of everyone in their circle.
  4. Speaking of circles, the Dutch have a strange and often awkward tradition at birthdays of hosting what is called a circle party.  Everyone at the party sits in a circle of seats and has coffee or tea and cake.  The guest list is generally made up of both family (several generations) and friends.  And don’t forget, as a guest, it is your responsibility to greet and congratulate everyone in the circle.  Once you have done this, it is time to sit back and enjoy the potentially painful conversation and awkward silences.  As of yet, I have not attended one of these parties, but have several acquaintances that have, and they have assured me it is an interesting and generally less than desirable event.dutch-birthday
  5. Finally, in the tradition of Dutch directness, if your neighbors are planning a party that will not assume the form of the quiet circle party, they will generally let you know by dropping a note in your mailbox or by coming to your door to tell you.  And, lest you think that this is their way of making sure that you attend, think again.  They just want you to know that they are having a party, you can expect noise which, by way of them warning you in advance, you are to ignore, and, though they don’t say it directly, you are not invited.  Unlike in the US where we would typically try to avoid having someone know that they weren’t invited to a party, the Dutch are quite comfortable with being open with the fact that you didn’t make the guestlist.

And what’s the final thing that you should know about Dutch birthdays-the song, of course.  

Lang zal ze/hij leven,
Lang zal ze/hij leven,
Lang zal ze/hij leven,
In de gloria,
In de gloria,
In de gloria,
Hip, hip, hip, hoera!
Hip, hip, hip, hoera!
Hip, hip, hip, hoera!

It translates to long shall she or he live (3 times), in the gloria (3 times) and hip hip hooray (3 times). It’s a boisterous and fun song to sing. To get a feel for the tune and energy, think swinging mug of beer in one hand as you tipsily sing in a pub!

So there you have it-birthdays in The Netherlands. They seemingly celebrate and benefit everyone except the birthday person, but they are fun and important celebrations none the less!

Food, Glorious Food!

Food is one of those subjects that everyone is curious about in other countries. We can’t (and don’t like) to go long without it so it’s always on our minds and we romanticize the idea of eating exotic and novel foods. However, as our world is often a melting pot of mixed cultures and ethnicities, food tends to become a blend as well. Here in The Netherlands, we can find the influences of several cultures in the food and there are plenty of choices of foods from around the world to select from. You can find the presence of Italian, Greek, Turkish, Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian, North African, Spanish, Surinamese, Brazilian, Mexican (and I mean really authentic Mexican), Afghanie and more here in The Netherlands. Many of these foods, such as Turkish food, have made their way into Dutch food culture by way of a large immigrant population in the country or through past colonization connections such as with Indonesian and Surinamese food. But while there is a plethora of cultural foods to choose from, if you venture into any non ethnic restaurant, you can be sure to find a few things.
  1. Many restaurants do not serve breakfast. They may be open for coffee and other drinks but often food is not served until noon. Of the ones that do serve breakfast, don’t think you will find pancake, bacon and egg platters, my American friends. You are more likely to find some sort of bread-maybe sweet, maybe with jam and butter, maybe with some ham and cheese, but whatever it is, it will likely be simple.
  2. Like many places in Europe, you are choosing between sparkling and still water, and it most likely is not free. A few places will do tap water but they may still charge you for the glass.
  3. Lunch is usually a simple affair. The Dutch love broodje-an open face sandwich with a topping such as carpaccio, cheese or salmon. They also love a tosti which is just a sandwich with meat, cheese, tuna or salmon salad or maybe a combination of the above in it. Another lunch favorite on a menu are kroketten (usually two) which are fried and often filled with a meat ragout. You can count on it coming with a slice of bread and maybe some fries. Finally, you have the uitsmijter which is a piece of bread topped with ham or bacon, a fried egg and cheese.
  4. You can always find beer, wine, tea and coffee on the menu.
  5. Finally, you can expect to find a few small bites or snacks to go with drinks often including bread with a spread of some sort, bitterballen (much like the krokets listed above but smaller and round), and olives (typically green).english-dutch-menu-with
Now, you may be wondering what we eat at home. For the most part, we tend to continue making the same foods that we ate in the US. With the absence of some products here, a few of our old favorites are not able to be made, but, surprisingly, you can almost always find a way to either make substitutions or make homemade versions of items that can’t be found in the store here. We have incorporated a few Dutch foods into our meal repertoire though. We really enjoy erwtensoep in the winter-essentially pea soup that is eaten pretty thick and with Dutch rookworst (smoked sausage) cut up in it. Also, we eat stamppot which consists of potatoes and other vegetables such as carrot, onion and kale mashed up. This is then served with some kind of meat, typically sausage such as the rookworst mentioned above.

So where do we go to get the groceries for these meals? Most Dutch people will divide their shopping between small specialized shops, grocery stores and markets (open air stalls). While we mainly stick to the grocery stores, there are small stores for bakery items and cheese as well as butchers. You can also find small produce, organic and ethnic stores. Markets most often have produce, fish, cheese, flowers and other non consumable goods. You also often find stalls for spices and nuts.

nut stall

A wide variety of cheese can be found everywhere, even at the grocery stores, but for a larger selection of meat and fish, it is best to go to specialty stores or the market. While there are definitely pork items, it can be harder to find pork products because there are many halal butchers who cannot carry pork items due to the large number of Muslim immigrant and refugee groups here. Also, the Dutch do not consume a lot of turkey so ground turkey, turkey hot dogs or turkey bacon are not available. And yes, this means they do not carry turkey at the holidays. If you want one, you need to go to the American expat store or to a poulier (a poultry shop) and order it. As far as fish goes, the most commonly found would be salmon and cod. Shrimp and mussels are also highly available as is herring. If you go to a fish market stall, you can find many different kinds of fish as well as other items from the sea such as octopus. And if fish is your thing, you can always stop at the stalls and order some kibbling which is breaded, fried fish (usually cod) that comes in a small basket and is eaten with a toothpick and maybe dipped in a sauce. It’s usually very fresh and quite good.

In the stores, you can find most of the produce that you need, but the markets definitely have a wider selection and more exotic items. While there is a good variety of produce to be found, you generally hear one of two things about Dutch produce-either people say it is tasteless or they say it tastes fresher than produce they have had in the States. I haven’t noticed things being tasteless myself. Of course, much of the food in The Netherlands is grown in greenhouses. In fact, The Netherlands is actually the world’s second largest exporter of food. The Netherlands takes a possible shortage of food due to increasing demand very seriously and are actively working to find new ways to grow more food in less space. Also, chemical pesticides are not used on the produce in the greenhouses. Likewise, less antibiotic hormones are used on the poultry and livestock here. Actually, in general less synthetics used to prolong shelf life are used here. What this means is that things will go bad pretty fast, especially in the heat of summer with no air conditioning, but they have less artificial additives. You may also find interesting that eggs do not need to be refrigerated here. This is because they are not sprayed with the chemical spray used in the US to clean the eggs. That chemical spray likely damages the outer shell of the egg which makes bacteria growth more likely unless the egg is refrigerated.

So there you have it-hopefully everything you ever wanted to know about food in The Netherlands. For more details on foods that you can find here that are unique to The Netherlands or originated here, you can read my past blog post at And if you still have burning questions about something food related, be sure to just ask in the comments. I’m sure I can be persuaded to do a little food research if you need me too!

Dutch Town Hopping

During the past several weeks, we have done a little town hopping around the Zuid Holland and Noord Brabant provinces of The Netherlands.  We only spent about an hour or so in each of these locations, but they all had interesting and charming things to see and proved to be nice, quick and pandemic approved excursions.

We began our hopping in Willemstad, a small fortified city laid out in the shape of a 7 point star and surrounded by a 125-foot wide moat as designed by Willem the Silent (you’ll have to revisit some of my earlier posts to remember your history on him).  Willemstad only has a few thousand residents, and it was very quaint.  We enjoyed walking the almost empty streets (a perk of heading to the town early on a Sunday) and checking out the church and its graveyard boasting some really old stones as well as the Mauritshuis which was built as the hunting castle of Prince Maurits in 1587.

The weather was also perfect for strolling through the arsenal area, which showcased hut-like structures from the 1800s that were used in storing ammunition, and along part of the fortified city wall, eventually passing the harbor and then walking through the town center.

The town was very clean and quiet and had an upbeat charm which was evident in the quirky little dolls we saw in a canal as well as some little fairy doors affixed to a couple of trees featuring homes for owls and spiders.


Next up was Brielle.  Brielle is also a fortified city.  Brielle’s claim to fame is that, in 1572, it was the first town to be liberated from Spanish occupation thus leading the way for The Kingdom of The Netherlands to emerge (for those that didn’t know, The Netherlands was once under Spanish rule but Willem the Silent led a campaign to overthrow them and take back the land).  They currently have cheeky signs around town asking residents to keep a 1.572 meter (pandemic request is 1.5 meter) distance from one another.

There were many charming buildings, homes and streets to see in Brielle and quite a few ornamental features including ancient-looking, square carvings on many of the buildings.

We enjoyed walking past this row of homes that I swear had to be converted from an old stable because of the half doors and shuttered windows, a gate to an ancient monastery and the church where Willem the Silent (that guy is everywhere!) married his third wife with its tower where Mary Stuart (a descendent of Mary Queen of Scots) would watch her husband (the great grandson of Willem the Silent) sail off to claim the British throne.  That’s right-in the late 1600s, the king of The Netherlands was also the king of England.

And apparently, no trip to a small fortified city would be complete without strange little dolls.


Next up, we traveled to a much bigger city- ‘s Hertogenbosch.  The highlight of this city has got to be the massive gothic cathedral in the town square.  It is really unlike any other cathedral we have seen in The Netherlands as they mostly tend to be a lot simpler in style.  There is quite a bit of sculptural work on the cathedral and of special note are the figures climbing the buttresses on either side.


After viewing the cathedral, we made our way to the market square where we found an old well house, a caged saint and a statue of painter Hieronymus Bosch.  Here one can also find the old town hall and the oldest house in town, De Moriaan, which dates from the 13th century.

After seeing the historic sites, we wandered through the city on our way to the citadel and the Oranje, a preserved bastion alongside a huge cannon (couldn’t get a picture of the cannon as it was housed in a glass-walled building and was just too long to get from an angle on the outside).



Near the Oranje, we also found another church, St. Catherine’s, and a view of the vast, flat fields outside the city.

While the city was much larger than the others we had visited, it still had a lot of unique and interesting features.

We also especially enjoyed walking through the Uilenburg Quarter.  It was really lovely with its canals and quiet streets.

And finally, no trip seems to be complete without some quirky dolls or decorative features so here are a few from ‘s Hertogenbosch.

Our final stop on our town hopping tour was Breda.  Breda was probably the largest of all of the towns and it was fairly busy while we were there.  Squares with outdoor restaurant seating abounded and were quite full.  We made our way to the Grote Kerk (large church) which is where many members of the royal family are buried and features a Prince’s Pew which is always reserved for members of the royal family.  We were unable to go inside due to a special exhibit that was underway, but we enjoyed seeing the ornate tower from the outside.


We also took a route past the Town Hall and Breda Castle.  We walked through Valkenberg Park which was formerly part of the castle grounds where falcons were trained and where ornamental gardens were located.

Near the park is the Beguinage which is a walled-in area with an ancient church and medieval dwellings.  The area was formerly inhabited by religious women and is now home to elderly women.

And finally, in homage to the weird dolls and figures we found in all of these places, here is the strange decoration from Breda.


All in all, we enjoyed our town hopping.  We had been feeling like we were missing out on exploring The Netherlands thanks to the restrictions and precautions of the pandemic, but these little excursions allowed us to feel like we were still getting an opportunity to take advantage of our time here to learn more about the country.  The main tourist locations are great, but there are some really beautiful and interesting things that can be found in these lesser-known locations and, hopefully, you enjoyed exploring a few of them with us!

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