According to an article on the BBC website, I’m living in the one of the best places in the world to be a foreign resident.
But on delving further into an HSBC survey comparing countries’ liveability for expats, I was disconcerted to see that while the Netherlands scored well on things like job opportunities, health services, ease of transport, culture, language (meaning widely-spoken English) and good schools for expat children, it was near the bottom of the list on various social criteria.
The country rated very low for expats in ‘making local friends’, ‘social life’ and ‘integrating into the community’. China and Germany scored much higher in these categories.
There’s no way I can judge the reliability of the survey, but as an expat myself it’s interesting to consider why new arrivals find it hard to break the ice and become friends with people who speak excellent English and apparently pride themselves on their openness, tolerance and acceptance of difference.
Admittedly my own experience, while common enough, is not the typical expat one. I was fortunate to marry into Amsterdam society, as it were. Mevrouw T brought with her an instant family and a ready-made circle of Dutch friends.
It required some effort from my new family and my patient, open, tolerant new friends to help me learn enough Dutch to feel comfortable with the language. We forced ourselves to carry on halting Dutch conversations when we all knew it would have been much easier just to speak English.
That’s the first difficulty newcomers to Amsterdam complain about. Everybody insists on using English when a foreigner shows the slightest difficulty or hesitation with their Dutch. These days I feel slightly insulted when someone serving me in a shop or restaurant hears my accent and grammatical mistakes and drops into English. I forgive them when, as sometimes happens, I find it’s they who speak less than perfect Dutch.
Yet despite the Netherlanders’ language proficiency, I’ve seen social gatherings quickly divide into Dutch speakers and The Rest.
Some years ago I spent a week as a visiting author at a school with both an English and a Dutch stream. The English and Dutch staff shared a staffroom and despite the fact that they knew each other well and the Dutch teachers all spoke fluent English, at lunchtime it was as if an invisible chalkline separated the tables along the language divide.
Another problem is that since most city apartments are too small for elaborate entertaining, much Dutch social life revolves around the ‘cafe’, meaning ‘bar’.
Many Dutch people have their regular haunts, where they drop in after work, knowing that they’ll bump into their regular friends. Dutch cafes are friendly places, but as a stranger you’ll be chatted to for a few polite minutes, then left alone while the groups close ranks again around the cafe friends they’ve been talking to for years.
While in Australia almost everyone you work with, play sport with or know socially is a ‘friend’ or a ‘mate’, in Holland there’s a clear distinction between ‘vriend’ (friend) and ‘kennis’ (acquaintance). People tell me there’s only room in a Dutch person’s life for about five true ‘vrienden’. If you haven’t known someone since schooldays it’s, “Sorry, I think you’re a really nice person but you’ll always be a ‘kennis’.”
Small wonder that even expats who have lived in the Netherlands for years tend to make most of their friendships among other outsiders.
Of course there is plenty in Amsterdam to compensate for any Dutch stand-offishness. It’s beautiful, small, culturally interesting, a hub for exploring Europe and the world, well organised, bike-friendly… And there are thousands of other expats waiting to meet you.
What do you think? Are the Dutch really more open to new friendships than I’m making out? How have other expats in the Netherlands found the social experience? Let me know.