I am an American that was born and raised in southern California, always within 30 minutes to the beach. In the previous 6 years, I’ve lived walking distance to the ocean and this is also during the time I met my boyfriend of five years, Matt. He had always traveled to other countries for work and two years ago, he was flying to the Netherlands twice a month from California, which became too taxing. Matt received the opportunity to live and work there, so we finally decided to make the move in July 2019. Dropping everything and moving to a whole new continent is asking a lot, despite love.
I have always loved travel since I was young and it was then reignited as an adult at 24 when I went on a trip to ten countries for two months. Travel has greatly impacted my perspective on life and the world in a positive way. I believe it that any experience travelling before hand like myself will help to acclimate when becoming an expat.
Getting the News
My first thoughts were my job, since I had been working in the hotel construction industry the last 5 years and the fact my family and friends were rooted in California. Three weeks before we moved, I had friends encourage me to go visit the city of Groningen, where we were slated to move. I had been to Amsterdam 7 years prior and felt that it might be similar, so I never planned on visiting first. I went, gave notice to my job the day I came back, packed and sold a number of my belongings, put things in storage and basically had the most stressful weeks before moving. Fortunately, my husband’s company handled all of the difficult parts of the move: logistics, immigration laws, taxes, finding a home, and other complicated aspects with becoming legal residents of a foreign country.
I took care of getting the proper health certificates from the government in order to export our cat and dog abroad. I drove to LA to get paperwork stamped with apostilles, to make sure our birth certificates and marriage license were valid out of the country. That was another aspect – we expedited getting married so I would have spousal benefits such as health insurance abroad. I didn’t have my dream wedding and Matt didn’t get to propose – typical life milestones for most people, which was saddening. We were so stressed with moving, that we barely told anyone since we had so much going on. I remember thinking that I couldn’t wait to live in the future when we were settled in the Netherlands due to the overwhelming stress of moving internationally.
What To Consider When Becoming an Expat
Previous Life Experience
Your previous life, language, where you grew up, personality and your drive are all going to impact this experience.
Accessibility In Your New Location
Accessibility has changed for me in a number of ways. For me, I moved from a metropolitan world that is not average in the U.S., and completely opposite of an obscure city in the northern Netherlands, in a farming province. My environment was a coastal and affluent city south of Los Angeles.
I live in the city of Groningen, located in the northern Netherlands and popular with international students due to the local university. The city is surrounded by vast fields of green farmland and a 2-hour drive to the capital of Amsterdam and where the main Schiphol airport is located. Groningen has its own small airport, but with limited flight schedules, so we often fly from Schiphol, despite the 2-hour drive we have to add in every time we make travel plans. Being so geographically north with the ocean as a border, my husband and I have driven 2+ hours often to visit other cities for the day and I’ve taken the train 2-3.5 hours to explore. When I consider the time and distance we’ll travel for the day, I know it’s something we would never have done home in California.
Transport in Netherlands
In Netherlands and Europe they also drive on the right hand side of the road. However, driving has become more foreign to me as I traded in a car for a bicycle (like the majority of Dutch people). I was appalled to see the Dutch bike with 1-3 children at once or the variety of bike styles that existed for carrying cargo. I’ve seen the Dutch bike without using hands or even carry a ladder! I used to ride a bike leisurely at the beach or for short errands, but now it’s a main source of daily transportation if I don’t have the car my husband and I share.
I have also walked a lot more than ever before- a change from being formerly reliant on my own car or Ubers. Public transportation is much more popular and very accessible I’ve noticed, but I never utilised it in the U.S. as much.
The weather has been a huge adjustment for me. It has even changed how I dress with more pieces and the overall possibilities for plans since the rain is unpredictable.
I traded 270 days of sun for the maritime, rainy climate in the Netherlands.
I have to bundle up in a hat, scarf, gloves and boots in the winter every time I take my dog out to go to the restroom. There were days I resented the cold weather I was living in, while my husky enjoyed it. In California, I could make plans to go hiking weeks in advance, but here, sometimes you have to wing it and wait as the date gets closer for plans where the weather is important – even in the spring and summer months.
European Pace Life
In Europe, many shops close “early” or are closed on Sundays – something that is different from the U.S. where stores are open much later or even open 24 hours. A difference related to this is that the work culture here is not the same as for Americans, where long hours and overtime are normal- (a lack of work/life balance) unlike the Netherlands. I have noticed the material consumption is different, with the U.S. having almost anything available at anytime – you can have anything shipped to your doorstep in a matter of hours or a day. Prior to moving, I brought many things I felt I might not be able to find abroad, including spices and cosmetics.
Different Units of Measurement
I did not think about measurements before I moved, something many Americans have to adjust to abroad since nearly the entire world uses the metric system, while the U.S. is on the imperial system. Be prepared to adjust from from temperatures measured in celsius (oppose to farenheit) or distance in kilometres (oppose to miles, although this is strangely used in the U.K) and don’t forget to check your clothes sizing.
Change Of Language
I’m very fortunate that much of the Netherlands speaks English, although I’ve been learning Dutch since it’s often required for jobs in the north, unlike Amsterdam where it’s not necessary. Being able to speak a universal language used all over the world is not just a privilege, but life-changing since I know many who cannot speak Dutch or English as expats.
Language can hinder your expat experience dramatically, so it’s best to learn some basic phrases or numbers since not everything will be in English depending where you move, such as menus or websites. In Europe especially you will find that locals will really appreciate those trying to learn their language.
Portions of Food and Drink
I have heard from many non-Americans that portions in the U.S. are large, whether its drinks or food. I do find things such as drinks or coffee very small in Europe and I often order two at a time. It is common to have leftover food boxed up in restaurants in the U.S. but I found it wasn’t as common in Groningen – perhaps since the portions are smaller. And in some other European restaurants their national health regulations do not allow this.
One thing I didn’t do often was shop at farmers markets in California, since they are more of a novelty. Here in my city, there is a farmers market 3 days a week with fresh foods, meats, fruits and vegetables, along with the popular flowers, bread and cheese that makes up Dutch culture.
Life abroad can be painted as dreamy or a fantasy, but the reality is always quite different. No one tells you to prepare for the frustration of being unable to read the laundry machine in another language or how difficult in can be to forge genuine friendships. Then even after adjusting how do you deal with moments you feel fed up with living abroad?
You can feel many moments of sadness, loneliness, regret- until you remember that you have a rare perspective not everyone has the opportunity of living.
Suddenly, it’s not so bad when you realise your experience abroad is what you make of it. I get to meet people of different countries, hear the amazing stories of other cultures, laugh at my mistakes and continuously grow as a person doing things I never thought I’d do.
One thing I do know about life as an expat – I’ll never regret this time in my life when I look back.
I recommend all new expats to search for a group, such as “Americans in the Netherlands” for me, which offered a huge resource of equally confused and lost expats who could relate, and give any advice on the moving process of what to bring or do.
There also tends to be expat groups in popular areas that you will find meet up regularly and help to support expats in learning the language, job hunting, meeting new people and exploring the area. Although this is more common in the southern European Countries. You will find these groups will be made up of a mix of people from other countries (not always specific to Americans).