Edward Chetwynd-Talbot is a British expat who is currently living in Amsterdam with his wife and children. Having lived in many countries around the world, including in Asia, Europe and the US, here he gives us his insightful take on life in the Netherlands.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Originally we are from the UK, Devon to be more exact.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: We now live in Amsterdam, in the city centre at one of the major canals.
Q: How long have you lived here?
A: As with many expats, I went first and "scouted". Later the misses and the kids followed. We have now been here for 2.5 years
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: The Netherlands is not our first station, and we have lived in various other countries in Europe, the Far East and the US. We like to experience other cultures and experiences. Furthermore, we are convinced that it supplies our children with good experiences and building blocks for their own future. Hence, we do not agree with many who argue that many different locations might be bad for the development/life of your kids.
Currently, I work in R&D with the Medical division of Philips.
Q: What do you enjoy most about Amsterdam, how’s the quality of life?
A: As many have said before me probably, Dutch culture is pretty straight forward, in‐your‐face, and loose. Especially if you have kids, the Netherlands is a great country. However, I have done a tour here before and do notice a change/negative trend due to current developments. Furthermore, everybody speaks English well, and you almost have to struggle to practice your Dutch. On average, quality of life is good, although honesty does force me to say that this is not a given. However, if one thing is true in the Netherlands is that money does open doors. Hence, quality of life can be very good.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Although the Dutch culture is comparable to the British one, it is difficult to really connect to the Dutch. Especially lately, the Dutch are more "looking inward", where they used to be very internationally orientated before. This may sound as a macroscopic observation, but can be noticed clearly in personal contacts. This adds to the Dutch characteristic of being straight forward, sometimes in your face and blunt, which makes it for PC Brits sometimes very uncomfortable. On a more financial side it looks like the Netherlands is in an upward financial spiral that makes it even more expensive than it already was. This is a real consideration, for example, when considering to extend our stay over the Dutch "expat tax break" period.
What we miss I suppose is the more gentle and open contacts we are used to as Brits. Although we did encounter friendly environments outside the UK, the Dutch stick out as having some rough edges that can be difficult to handle. Oh, that and a good Eton Mess of course….
Q: Is Amsterdam safe?
A: I am afraid I have to say that Amsterdam is notorious and lives up to its reputation. Naturally, Amsterdam is not exclusive in that, but what does strike us is that it is very general, and not limited to specific "notorious areas". You will notice that the Dutch are always on guard, since crime is frequent. Furthermore I have to admit that Amsterdam pulls in "dodgy foreigners" like a magnet, and that foreigners/tourists are regarded as worthwhile targets.
About living in the Netherlands
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Amsterdam as an expat?
A: We are pretty happy in the centre of the city where we are now, although we do realise that this is not for everybody. Many of our expat friends and colleagues reside in "Oud Zuid", one of the more fashionable areas nowadays, or went to one of the surrounding cities like Almere.
Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Amsterdam?
A: Is this a trick question? I mean, when measuring something, it is of course important to know what your golden standard is that you compare with. If you compare to, for example, London, standards are comparable. Amsterdam/the Netherlands is very densely populated however, and that you will notice. Accommodation is most of the time small, and expensive per sq ft. Accommodation can be more economic elsewhere (e.g. outside the "Randstad") but the horrible Dutch infrastructure with its massive traffic jams and terrible train system do not make that a realistic alternative.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Again this depends on your gold standard. As a rule of thumb I would say that Amsterdam is pretty comparable is somewhere in the range of London and Zurich. It also depends on your vigilance however, because the Dutch are always on the lookout for making a profitable deal with a foreigner. Cheap are flowers, fruit, veggies, expensive are transport (petrol and public transport), housing. Also if you are looking for a good time (theatre, restaurant) expect to experience why the Dutch regard this as a luxury. Healthcare depends on what you are used to: you do have to pay premiums so if you are used to the NHS, that might look expensive. However, if you have lived in the US, the average cost can be considered a good deal. This doesn’t include dental care though, which is regarded an extra.
Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: As I mentioned before the Dutch do take some getting used to. Mixing with the Dutch is easy, but be aware of what you are bargaining for. We noticed that we mix mainly with other expats, who are not necessarily British.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in the Netherlands?
A: Like I said, meeting people is easy. Making Dutch friends is more difficult. To us, the Dutch come across as making a very clear and strict distinction between a "public appearance or attitude" and their more private side. Especially now, with the economic crisis also taxing the Netherlands, they rather like what foreigners could bring in financial terms, than what they would take away.
About working in Amsterdam
Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for the Netherlands?
A: Absolutely not. That is of course one of the blessings of the EU. However, public opinion in the Netherlands currently is strongly anti‐EU, and looking at the current political climate it wouldn't surprise me if that is going to change in the very near future.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city, is there plenty of work?
A: Again, this depends on what your skill set is. Currently, the Netherlands is feeling the fringes of the crisis, and unemployment is rising quickly. This concerns the local population mainly. As for expats, the Dutch are always looking for that special person to bring that little extra to the table. Especially now, with the well‐educated Dutch leaving the country in large numbers, opportunities do exist for well-qualified expats. Do however count on the Dutch looking for a "cheap deal", which might reflect in your eventual package conditions.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: I suppose due to the closeness of the Netherlands to the UK, and because of their open and international attitude in the past, the work culture is very similar. However, the Dutch love to talk, look for potential consensus for ages, without really deciding something or getting the show on the road. Furthermore, do expect a negotiation style that might come across to many (Brits) as aggressive and personal. A standard Dutch remark concerning this is that "if everything is bluntly said, it is easier to build from there". My own experience is that quite often many things are said bluntly, but that the consequential building is lost in translation. Furthermore, when in a group, the Dutch will love to slide off into talking Dutch and "arrange it for themselves", which can leave the expat feeling ignored.
Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
A: Yes, since we were talking transcontinental transportation. Although a relocation package was part of the complete set of conditions, it did turn out to be minimal. Hence, we supplemented the minimal set with some services privately.
Family and children
Q: Did your wife have problems adjusting to her new home?
A: Yes, she did. She found the Dutch directness difficult to adjust to after the gentler Far East, and experienced "shallowness" of the contacts with the Dutch. Furthermore, she was taken aback by the difficulty to find an occupation in the Dutch community, which didn't mention, but did regard her foreign origins. This also included some volunteer work that she considered. She now is very happy working for the UNHCR, commuting frequently to Switzerland.
Q: Did your children settle in easily?
A: Kids never stop to amaze you; as everywhere they adjusted quickly and blend in perfectly. They are at an international school here, of which there are several in the Amsterdam region. As a parent the Amsterdam environment does fill me with concern sometimes, but up till now they have proven me to be a grumpy old man.
Q: What are the schools like in Amsterdam, any particular suggestions?
A: I can't speak for the local Dutch schools since I have no first‐hand experience there. Colleagues and media however, do report falling standards and overcrowding of the once highly regarded Dutch schooling system. Furthermore, the Dutch universities are complaining that they are driven to the max with the continuing restriction of budget and call for more efficiency. Students are, for example, required to finish their studies within a very strict timeframe of 4‐6 years. Overshooting means expulsion and no chance to finish.
If you would decide to send your kids to a local school, it is extremely important to select this school carefully. Especially in the Amsterdam region there is a huge variance in quality and very large numbers of "migrant" schools.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in the Netherlands?
A: Although here too the Dutch quest for efficiency is driven to the max, I would rate the Dutch healthcare system as average, descending from good. Some remarkable observations are however that there is no private healthcare (given a few private aesthetic and radiology clinics), so that there is no possibility of choice. Furthermore, there is no free choice of physician, and it does strike me as if all the treating physicians are very young and inexperienced (intern). Furthermore, it is very important as an expat to realise the central position of the GP in the Netherlands. Without a GP you will have absolutely no access to the Dutch healthcare system. When first arriving, it might prove very difficult to find a GP who will accept you. GP practices are extremely crowded, and the number of GPs is limited (state controlled). It is advisable, when discussing your relocation to the Netherlands with your future employer, to pay attention to this. Hence again the usefulness of a relocation service…
Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: First of all, don't go all in immediately. Make sure you have the possibility to scout your new location, and make sure that you also gauge the things that might be important for your family. Specifically for the Netherlands, make sure you do negotiate a relocation service that is more than a language course for your family and an English manual to fill out your tax declarations (this is no exaggeration!). Keep in mind that the Dutch are focussed extremely on "getting a good deal", that they will be extremely direct in their communication, and it will be easy to feel offended. In your scouting period, get your family over for longer periods, so they can get a good and honest feel for the place. Start off by renting a place, especially now with the Dutch property market in turmoil over property taxation changes. Do expect the Dutch to tax you on any kind of property outside the Netherlands, including your house back home, or your savings. Use your future employer to help you with the right selection of services you might want to employ; Amsterdam especially is notorious for dodgy services being offered. And finally, mind the length of the "expat‐tax‐break" period, which will make the difference between a 30 percent expat and 52 percent normal income tax level. The latter could well be increased to 65 percent, since the highest scoring political party is planning to implement it after the upcoming elections in September.
– Interviewed June 2012