Monday, 31 August 2015

8 Things Expats Should Know About Going Shopping in the Netherlands

If you want to come home from a shopping expedition in the Netherlands with your sanity in tact retaining any semblance of a good mood, there are a few guidelines you'd be wise to follow. Whether it is a trip to the local supermarket, or some retail therapy in your local high street or winkelcentrum, you need to go shopping prepared.

1. Avoid shopping on Saturdays

Regular high street shops are open from 9.00 to 6pm at the latest from Monday to Saturday. On a Monday, many shops won't open until lunchtime. In addition to this, there will be a koopavond in your town - usually a Thursday or Friday, when the shops are open until somewhere in the region of 9pm. 

Sunday opening is more wide spread than it once was but it remains scattered, controversial and not worth relying on in anything but major towns. Hence, the stampede on Saturdays as the entire Dutch population descends on the local high streets; little wonder as most people are working when the shops are open the rest of the time. If you like elbow shoving, queuing and moaning, then save your shopping spree for a Saturday afternoon.

2. Weekly Supermarket Shops are for Saturdays Only

Don't think you can walk into any supermarket at anytime and load your shopping trolley up to the brim. If you do this in the evening, around the time people come out of work, you can expect sighing, tutting and catty comments about how your type should be banned from supermarkets. Evenings are for those people who do their shopping daily - those grabbing vegetables, milk and bread - and not for you to do your weekly shop. 

Before you ask, no it is not the supermarket's fault that only two of the eight tills are open during the busiest period of the shopping day so queues form: it is YOUR fault because you do your weekly shop outside the socially accepted designated times.

3. Take Carrier Bags Out with You

If you go shopping empty handed, you must either juggle your purchases under your armpits, have big pockets, or pay for bags. Some shops will give you free bags, but you take the risk of needing hospital treatment for cuts inflicted by the inappropriate handles attached to the dangerously thin bags and in 2015 even this will be history.

4. Shop Online Around the Holidays

Shops in December are no-go. Everyone is frantically buying Sinterklaas gifts, promptly followed by Christmas presents. However, the snag is that Dutch shops offer to wrap your gifts for free..... Yes, for free... and this means the Dutch are queued out of the shop doors in their droves for their free wrapping. Unless you are partial to Bart Smit or V & D wrapping paper, do yourself a favour and shop online and wrap your own presents in the comfort of your own home whilst gulping down sipping a festive drink.

5. Smiles are not Included in the Price of your Shopping

Dutch customer service comes as a surprise to foreigners. In fact, you can spend your first few years months in the Netherlands trying to find customer service. There is an important rule to obey in shops here - failure to comply is at your own peril.
"Thou shalt not interrupt employees whilst they are talking to each other about their weekends or homework and don't talk to employees whilst they are on a private telephone call." 

Accept that they clearly have better things to do than what they are actually paid to do. If you can ring up your own purchases, then all the better.

6. Strategically Return your Shopping Trolley

Always put your shopping trolley back at the end of the longest row of trolleys, even if this means returning it to a row which trails over the main road, blocks the entrance to a lift or path or crosses a motorway. Your aim is to hinder other shoppers and block the passage of cars. You need your 50 cents back right? And your legs have given up the will to live after your tiring shopping excursion? You can't possibly walk the extra few metres to the shortest row of trolleys.

7. Combine Supermarket Shopping with a Workout

Try to see hopping over empty boxes, careering around stock carts, and pegging it back to the shop entrance for that one elusive product they keep moving around as good, healthy exercise. Don't complain about products stacked high and out of reach - see it as a chance for a good stretch (or alternatively a way of getting into conversation with a tall handsome local).
8. Plan the Emptying of your Shopping Trolley

Conveyor belts in the Netherlands are mini versions of those in other countries. Hence, if you place your bread anywhere but the end of the belt, you have approximately 2.3 seconds to run past the cashier to the end of the belt to save your bread before it turns prematurely into breadcrumbs. If you are planning to make breadcrumbs with your loaf, then this will save you effort and time later. However, if you want to make sandwiches with it, place it at the end of the belt when you empty your shopping trolley, or practice your sprinting before heading to a supermarket. The employee behind the till will not rescue it for you. See tip 5.

On a similar note, do not open bottles of fizzy drinks, beer or wine directly on your return home - if indeed you are one of the lucky ones whose beer arrives safely at the end of the conveyor belt. They will need to settle after their hazardous journey along the, albeit short, conveyor belt. My husband's most recent experience involved the neck of a beer bottle breaking off as it was hurtled to the end of the belt and the cashier asking, "Do you still want that?" He told her only if she had a glass handy for him.

And on this subject.. don't pack your shopping into bags or crates at the end of the conveyor belt. Throw it all back in your trolley and pack it into bags whilst you hover at your car boot in the car park. It's much more efficient, great fun if it is raining - and you can't get your car out of the parking bay you left it in yet anyway because of the line of shopping trolleys across the car park......

Good luck and have fun!

Monday, 24 August 2015

8 Things Every Expat Needs to Know About Driving in the Netherlands

There are some tricks to help you get safely from A to B on the roadways of the Netherlands*. It may seem like the rules of the road are self explanatory and easy to follow but often they are not quite as they seem. Here are eight tips to help you drive whilst you are driving around this little Dutch nation.

1. You Need to Change Your Driving Licence

There comes a time when your home nation driving licence just isn't valid anymore to drive in the Netherlands. For some nationalities, this means taking a Dutch driving test.  If this applies to you, don't worry. Judging by the driving habits of the rest of the nation, it really can't be that hard.

For others, it is simply a case of swapping once licence for another as is the case with the Brits. 

Interestingly, swapping a British licence to a Dutch one gave me the right to drive many more (heavy) vehicles than the average Dutchman. Don't ask me why but when I first converted my British license to a Dutch one I could pretty much drive a juggernaut here whilst my Dutch husband was limited to cars and the like - he would have to take a separate test to join me on any truck driving adventure ideas I may have harboured. When I had to renew my Dutch license last year I had to take a test to continue my non-existent juggernaut driving so I politely turned down the kind offer and am now only able to drive regular road vehicles like the majority of the Dutch nation. It was fun whilst it lasted, particularly when I was contemplating my next career move back in 2008.......

2. They're Traffic Lights but not as We Know Them

The colours are the same: red, yellow (or amber if you want to be pedantic) and green but they mean different things.

  • A traffic light that is turning to red means put the gas pedal to the floor and GO GO GO because you can easily make it before it turns really red. If you stop at a traffic light as it turns from amber to red, expect to get beeped at by the car(s) behind.
  • If a traffic light is amber it means speed up, you can easily make it before it turns red.
  • A green traffic light means go, if you have bothered to stop in the first place.

3. Speed Limits Don't Apply to Everyone

If you choose to drive at 120km, or 130 km where it's allowed, on the motorway in the fast lane, don't be suprised to see that you pick up an assortment of "trailers" on your journey. Whilst bumperkleven (tailgating) is illegal in the Netherlands it's no deterrent for Dutch drivers and the fight for space in this little land is no more apparant than on the third lane of the nation's highways. In fact, the Dutch are trying to get bumperkleven classified as an Olympic sport to improve their gold medal tally.

When roadworks are being carried out on the motorway, and a temporary speed limit is in place do not make a mental note to take your car in to the garage to have your speedometer checked. It's fine. Really. It's just that the lower speed limit only applies to you and not to other drivers on the road.

4. You Can Make Someone's Day at a Zebra Crossing

When you stop at a zebra crossing to allow a Dutch pedestrian to cross, expect a look of surprise or shock on the faces of those waiting at the side of the road; they never believed you would actually stop so you have just made their day. Your expat status will of course be easy to spot in such circumstances.

5. There are More than Just Cars on the Road

At a junction, the absence of cars or pedestrians nearby does not mean it is safe to pull out or turn; watch out for buses, trams and cycles as they come out of nowhere and usually have priority.

If you have to make an emergency maneuver to avoid something hitting you expect the middle finger should 
you hit your horn as a warning or in frustration or anger.  It does not matter that they have almost hit your car, or that you have had to use all your driving know-how to avoid a collision - you have no right to beep at the offender.

6. Right has Priority

If there are no clear markings on the road, then any road turning onto the road you are on from the right has priority. This means that cars may pull out in front of you from the right and they DO actually have right of way, though it might seem like anti-social driving to you. Do not shout, blaspheme or stick your middle finger up. It's not nice.

7. There's a Knack to Roundabout Etiquette

Do not wait for Dutch drivers to signal on the roundabouts. You must guess when they will turn off - it is a sort of national game. You must also pull out on to the roundabout even when it looks like you don't have enough time to do so safely. Someone will eventually stop for you. Or in the back of you.

8. Cars do not Float

Even if you have not been in the Netherlands very long you have probably noticed there is a fair bit of water around in the form of canals, rivers and lakes. Oh, and the sea. Be careful when you are parking in the narrow spaces near the water - spaces that are typical in Amsterdam and Leiden for example. There are rarely barriers and it is a harrowing drop down to the water if you don't brake in time. Trust me when I tell you it's not just shopping trolleys and bikes that are fished out of Dutch waterways.

*Despite anything you may read here, or may have heard from others driving in the Netherlands is safer than it looks. The CBS relays that the Netherlands is in the top five when it comes to the least amount of road fatalities per 1 million people within the European Union.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Time to Really Get Dutched Up!

Dutched Up! is now available in paperback. It's a real live book! And I couldn't be more chuffed!

Oh wait, I could be more chuffed - if you actually go out and buy it!

Watch this space for more information on where you can get your hands on Dutched Up! or if you can't wait (which I could understand) check out the Expat Life with a Double Buggy Facebook page for buying options.


Monday, 10 August 2015

8 Essential Items Every Expat Needs in Their Dutch Home

In order to integrate in the Netherlands there are (at least) eight essentials you need to have tucked away somewhere in your home. Without them your integration will never be complete and you may even fail the inburgeringscursus*.

1. Potato Masher
Without this vital piece of kitchen equipment you can never hope to truly master Dutch cuisine. Using a masher effectively is hard work but never fear because practice makes perfect. As a guide, you need to keep mashing until the food object in question looks squished beyond any hope of resuscitation.

This kitchen tool allows you to make a perfect stamppot or hutspot- perfect for warming the tummy in winter. Also very handy for preparing meals for after major dentistry work or whilst waiting for the healing of a broken jaw.

2. Birthday Calendar
This is an essential for the smallest room in the house, namely the downstairs loo. If you don't have a downstairs loo, then I fear total integration may be just out of your grasp. Make sure you include the birthday of anyone likely to visit your house - everyone checks for their name whilst they are making use of your facilities. They really do. If they come out of your downstairs loo looking mad it is in no way a reflection of the quality of your chosen toilet paper, rather it's because you forgot to put their birthday in your calendar.
3. Bicycle
It almost goes without saying, but without a bike in the Netherlands you are no one. You simply must have a bike - it really doesn't matter how much you use it but you should have one. Where it is stored differs from household to household. The shed is a popular place. Public hallways in shared accommodations are also popular, preferably blocking emergency exits and any means of entrance. Creating an obstacle course for fellow residents is seen as good sport here. 

You can also leave your bike(s) chained to a lamppost outside your house - it externalises the obstacle course and gives dogs new and varied targets to pee on.

4. Window Foil
Many Dutch homes do not have curtains. They may have blinds or no window fittings at all. This is traditionally so you can peek in and view the showcase living rooms. However, over the years many Dutch homeowners have become torn between tradition and dignity. Do they really want you seeing them in their dressing gowns with bed hair every morning grabbing their first koffie of the day? The solution is window foil. Placed strategically over the windows you can't see out so obviously nobody can see in (except very small and very tall people).

5. Sauces

Your fridge door must be full of different sauces to be served with every meal. Every meal, regardless of what it is. Of course, the food you serve will determine exactly which of the sauces you are to serve but there are some staples: knoflooksaus (garlic flavoured sauce), currysaus (spicy ketchup in essence) and chillisaus (chilli sauce). There are other sauces which are variable and optional but for kids you must serve appelmoes (apple sauce). I have heard that the wide choice of accompanying sauces is related to the lack of flavour in Dutch cuisine.......but I couldn't possibly confirm or deny that rumour.

6. Vases
Flowers are everywhere in the Netherlands. They are also commonly brought by visitors. So if you are a bit of a socialite, then you will need a lot of vases and many free surfaces to put your flowers in and on. Wide vases, narrow vases, tall vases and short stumpy vases - you'll probably need them all.

7. Cheese Slicer

I had never owned a cheese slicer (kaasschaaf) in my pre-Netherlands life. Cheese in the UK is soft and comes in square chunks so can easily be cut with a knife or crumbled or grated for sandwiches. I now own two cheese slicers. (I actually had three but whilst some might find that luxurious, I found it to be a little excessive and as it came free with some cheese I chucked it away). Anyways.... Dutch cheese is hard and triangular shaped. Trying to cut it with a knife is just asking to lose at least one finger dangerous so cheese slicers are essential.

8. Chairs
Foreigners in the Netherlands all have to step into the circle of death at some point. If you have a Dutchie in your house, you may even have to create that birthday circle for yourself. For this you need as many chairs as you can muster from friends, family and neighbours. But you must also have a good supply in house. The good news is (so I am told) that the birthday circle is dying out and a thing for the older generations. There's hope for us expats yet......

*This may not be actually true at all.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Komt Een Vrouw bij de Dokter / Love Life by Kluun: Book review

As I crept into bed sniffing and snottering my husband asked,

"Finished your book then?"

Yes I had. I had just turned the final page over of 'Komt een Vrouw bij de Dokter' written by Kluun (aka Raymond van de Klundert). This is Kluun's debut novel written in 2003 and is dramatised from events in his own life.

It's a funny thing to enjoy a book which evokes gut wrenching tears but enjoy it I did. Well, when I say enjoy... I mean I found it hard to put down, I emphasised with the characters and I experienced their pain. That's what a good book should do right - put you into someone else's world?

When I woke the next morning I had puffed up red eyes and I was glad the book was finished. The Dutch presenter Myrna Goossen sums this book up perfectly, "Man, man, wat een heftig book."

Komt een vrouw bij de doktor is a book about Stijn and Carmen living in Amsterdam in the prime of their life, both running their own companies, enjoying the night life of the Dutch capital city, surrounded by success and friends. Until they are struck by breast cancer.

This book is their journey through cancer, about how it rips at the heart of their family and confronts their close friends. It is written from the perspective of Stijn, a fun loving, philandering, emotionally challenged husband, as he faces up to the reality that his wife is terminally ill. There'll be moments in the book where you'll want to hurt him. He behaves, as the Dutch would say, like a klootzak.

It is a book about preparing for the end of a life, an ode to love and the strength of family. The book is a roller coaster of emotion from anger at the medical establishment, to hope brought by treatment options, desperation as the effects of chemo take hold, to the final realisation that Carmen won't see their young daughter Luna grow up. It is a heart wrenching read, and all the more because it is based on real events.

Be prepared for humour and tears.

For those who relish the challenge of a good read in Dutch the book is available from or any other local bookstore. If you'd prefer to read the book in English it's available under the title Love Life by Ray Kluun. It has also been made into a very successful film starring Carice van Houten, Barry Atsma and Pierre Bokma.

A book sequel entitled "Widower" is also available (though I am yet to read it but it is on my reading list for sure).