Things I Found Confusing About the Netherlands When I Arrived

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Invading Holland
Things I Found Confusing About the Netherlands When I Arrived

When I moved to the Netherlands almost nineteen years ago it is safe to say that I had no idea what I was doing. It was the summer of 2001 and I was still...

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Invading Holland

Things I Found Confusing About The Netherlands

When I moved to the Netherlands almost nineteen years ago it is safe to say that I had no idea what I was doing. It was the summer of 2001 and I was still a fresh-faced twenty-two year old who had no idea about life. I had not even been planning to move to another country. My move to the Netherlands happened by accident, to be honest. However, when the opportunity came up I grabbed it with both hands, with little thought or preparation.

Looking back it seems obvious that starting a new life in another country was going to have challenges. There was always going to be ‘some’ things I found confusing about the Netherlands. However, I could have probably made things easier on myself if I’d done at least a little research. Since I didn’t do that so here are a few of the things that caught me of guard.

1. The Dutch Language:

Confusing About The Netherlands Language

I think we can all agree that Dutch is a confusing language. It’s a challenge for any non-Dutch person. However, I was so poorly prepared when I first arrived in the Netherlands that I was not even entirely sure what language the Dutch spoke. 

I was even less sure if English was a commonly understood language in the country. I have no idea how I thought I would survive the first few years in the Netherlands if it was not.

Furthermore, the idea that another language could have a different sentence structure to English had weirdly not occurred to me. I was still in the frame of mind that everything I knew was right and anything different from that was either wrong, weird or both. Early on I had a very confusing afternoon when I tried to translate some Dutch homework word for word with a dictionary.

I’m ashamed to say the words, “why do the Dutch speak like Yoda,” might have been shouted in my frustration.

My understanding of the Dutch language is now a lot better but I still have no idea how to correctly use de and het.

2) Holland vs. the Netherlands:

At the time I didn’t actually know the name of the country I was moving to. I didn’t even really know the name for sometime after I’d arrived. This wasn’t a case of me being unprepared again. It was because like most non-Dutch people I thought the country was called Holland. When I heard people talking about the Netherlands I honestly thought they were talking about another country, somewhere else.

“The Netherlands. That’s near Scandinavia right?” I would say while standing in the middle of Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ most famous city.

Once I had learned where the Netherlands was (and that I was in it) I simply thought the country had two names, Holland and the Netherlands. I’m ashamed to say that it took me a few more years to learn the real difference between Holland vs. the Netherlands (that Holland only referred to a small part of the Netherlands). Luckily I can take some small comfort in this being a common misunderstanding. The Netherlands has even rebranded itself to make the distinction more clear.

3) The Open Canals vs Health and Safety:

Confusing About The Netherlands Canals

I grew up in England where anything that looks like it might have the slightest potential to cause harm is wrapped in safety laws and warning stickers. Because of this I was very surprised by the Netherland’s open canal policy. Where were the fences, the railings, the warning signs, the on duty lifeguard? There was nothing to separate a rather accident-prone young man (such as myself) from a sudden fall into the murky water of the city canals.

All these years later I still get slightly dizzy whenever I pass near the edge of a canal. Luckily I have never fallen in. I know other people who have not been so lucky though.

On the wider subject of the Dutch people’s relationship with health and safety don’t even get me started on their attitude towards cycle helmets.

4) Dutch Transport:

On my first day in the Netherlands, I broke the law. I used public transport without paying. Since that day I have been a fugitive, living with the knowledge that one day I will be found out and I will have to pay for my crime. When that happens I can only hope they will show mercy and accept the defence, “Sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to pay.”

Within hours of arriving in the country I had boarded my first Dutch tram. I’d been unsuccessful in finding a place to buy a ticket. My plan was to see if I could buy one on the tram itself. I couldn’t. I’d boarded somewhere in the middle and it was so busy that I could not get anywhere near the driver. As the doors closed I then witnessed an older gentleman doing something that made no sense to me.

He retrieved a small strip of card from his pocket, counted off sections from it, folded it over and put it into a nearby yellow metal box that went ding. I was very confused. I didn’t know it at the time but I’d just witnessed the use of a Strppenkaart for the first time. Since then the Strippenkaart has become defunct and has been replaced by the OV system.

Even after I found out where to buy my own strippenkaart they continued to confuse me for a long time. I regularly traveled from Amsterdam to Sloterdijk incorectilly only using a single zone.

5) Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet:

Confusing About The Netherlands Zwarte Piet

I knew nothing about sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet. I didn’t even know they existed. My first encounter with them happened without warning. I was walking down a normal street on a normal day in the city of Haarlem. Suddenly a large group of people in blackface with brightly coloured renaissance costumes rounded a corner and started dancing in my general direction. I was so confused. I had no idea what I was witnessing.

A few hours later after I found out who Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet were I still had a lot of questions (a few of them related to the differences between Sinterklaas and Santa).

6) Other Things I Found Confusing About the Netherlands:

  • The guilder (although I found it less confusing than the Euro at first)
  • The shelf in Dutch toilets (you don’t see them so much these days)
  • Dutch directness
  • The easy access to drugs and pornography
  • How slow Dutch waiters are
  • The lack of milk in tea
  • Circle parties
  • Febo
  • Monthly siren tests (the first one scared the heck out of me)
  • The steepness of Dutch stairs
  • And more…

I might have been ill prepared when I first moved to the country but to be honest I am glad I was. If I’d thought about the challenges of moving to an unfamiliar country too much there is a big chance my young self would have decided not to do it. 

Luckily I stumbled into the whole thing blindly, fell on my face and still survived somehow. I can honestly say that my life is a lot better than it would have been if I’d not just jumped straight into the weird situation. Over time I found less and less things confusing about the Netherlands. There are also a lot of lessons I have learned since moving to the country. I’ll be sharing a few of them in next week’s post: Things I learned since moving to the Netherlands.


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