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An expert expat’s experience of life in the Netherlands

Having lived in the Netherlands for 21 years, it’s safe to say that Rachel Heller — a teacher and author of Rachel's Ruminations — is an expert when it comes to expat life.

Originally from Connecticut, U.S., Rachel now lives in Groningen, in the northeast of the Netherlands and spends most of her time teaching, travelling and writing. Here, she shares with us her experiences of expat life and reflects on the benefits and challenges of living abroad.

Why did you decide to move to the Netherlands and for how long have you lived abroad?

“I moved to the Netherlands with my husband, who is Dutch. We met in Malawi, kept up a long-distance relationship for three years, then lived in the US for eight years before deciding to move ‘back’ to the Netherlands. We’ve lived here for (gulp!) 21 years!”

What does the term ‘wellness’ mean to you? And what are you doing, if anything, to achieve it?

“Not nearly enough, but that’s a pattern with me. I was raised in a family that emphasized mind over body, and the only sport I ever took seriously was sailing as a teenager. I’ve battled with weight my whole life, and menopause has done a number on me. I’m feeling the effects of a lifetime of inactivity in my joints and I find it difficult to lose weight. What helps me keep fit in the Netherlands is cycling regularly; not for exercise but for transportation.

“Wellness really has to start young, so you develop a habit of eating right and keeping active. My husband is like that: in his sixties, he loves to play soccer and tennis, and feels bad when he doesn’t exercise.”

Would you say you have a better or worse work-life balance since moving abroad?

“I would say my work-life balance is better here in the Netherlands than it was in the U.S.. The main reason is that I only work part-time: by choice. In the U.S. I never had that choice because I needed to work full-time to get health coverage. Having said that, I still work more than I’m paid for, a pattern for teachers all over the world.”

How comfortable do you feel about using the public health care system in your new country?

“When I first arrived, I was not at all comfortable with the system here. Family doctors (GPs) speak good English — so that wasn’t a problem — but how health care is organized is very different from the U.S.. GPs work as gatekeepers for the rest of the health care system — you have to get referred by your GP in order to see a specialist.

“So, for example, when I wanted to see a dermatologist soon after I arrived, my GP looked at me as if I was crazy. He prescribed some cream and that was the end of it. When I had an earache, he told me to take paracetamol and wait a few days. From my American point of view, I was appalled that he wouldn’t prescribe me some antibiotics. Yet he was right; the infection went away in a few days.

“Now that I’ve been here a while, I see that this system makes a lot of sense. It keeps costs down and doesn’t waste the time of the specialists with cases that a GP could handle. And they avoid unnecessary prescriptions and excessive tests. When you do get referred, sometimes you have to wait if it’s not urgent, but the treatment you receive is top-notch.”

Do you know where to go to get primary and secondary care and how to pay for services?

“Getting a GP when you move is pretty simple. You call or visit your local doctor’s office and ask if they have room for you. Fill in a form and that’s it. As I said before, you can’t access a specialist unless your GP agrees that you need one.

“If you need emergency care, you have to call your GP first, even if you know you’ll need an ambulance. If it’s outside normal working hours, there’s an after-hours clinic, but you’re not supposed to just stop by; you have to call first and tell a nurse your symptoms.

“The beauty of the health care system here is that I never see a bill, except for elective treatments. Since we have a good income, we pay for our health insurance. People with low incomes pay less or not at all for basic coverage. We have higher taxes than we had in the U.S., but that peace of mind is worth it.”

Close-up view of a canal in Amsterdam Close-up view of a canal in Amsterdam

How does the quality of the health care system in your new country compare to the health care system in your home country?

“I think the quality is the same in the Netherlands as it is in the U.S.. The difference is that it’s used more efficiently in the Netherlands so money isn’t wasted on unnecessary treatments or on specialists treating simple illnesses.”

Do you feel that mental health is better or less supported in the Netherlands than in the US?

“I do feel comfortable talking about mental health issues, but I’ve always been pretty open about myself. I’m not sure I’m typical. It’s hard for me to answer this question because I’ve been here so long. Judging from the media, things have changed a lot since I left the U.S. in 1997. People are talking much more openly, both in the U.S. and the Netherlands, about issues like depression and eating disorders.”

Expats are apparently more prone to mental health issues because their support network and familiar things are often absent in their new home. What advice would you give for maintaining good mental health while living abroad?

“Find a replacement social network as soon as you can: a new family, in effect. It’s easy enough to join expat organizations as a way to meet people in the same boat as you. I did this when I first got here, and it kept me sane to be able to speak in English with people who understood what I was struggling with. Some of the people I met in that first year are still my closest friends.

“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the language and local customs, because you should. But it’s hard to make friends in another language until you’re quite fluent. You won’t feel like you really belong in your new country, until you take part in the society, whether that means work or other activities.”

How would you describe the role of the expat community in relation to people settling into the new culture?

“I found other expats quickly and easily. Nowadays you can get on Facebook and find expat groups pretty much anywhere. My advice for new expats is to consider how long you’re going to stay. If it’s two years or less, just enjoy yourself! If you’re staying more than two years, or you don’t know how long you’ll live there for, enroll as soon as you can in language classes. You need to learn the language; it opens the door to local culture. Enrolling your kids in local schools helps too as you can meet other parents as you wait to pick up the children.”

What would you say is the best part of international life in the Netherlands?

“I’m obsessed with travel, so I love that the Netherlands is small and surrounded by other fascinating countries for me to visit. Belgium and France are just a few hours away and it’s less than an hour to Germany. After 21 years, I still haven’t seen everything in the neighboring countries that I’d like to see.

“If you speak English, this is a great place to be an expat. The west of the country, particularly Amsterdam and The Hague, have become so international that you’ll hear more English on the streets than Dutch. That’s great if you’re only staying for a few years. If you’re trying to improve your Dutch, though, it’s annoying. People just switch to English as soon as they hear your accent!”

What is the biggest initial challenge about moving abroad?

“I was ‘fortunate’ in that I didn’t have much family to miss. I think for most expats, that’s the worst part: missing their family, especially ageing parents.

“I was also fortunate to have a Dutch husband who could make arrangements for us: reading a rental contract, for example, and handling insurance and electric bills.

“In my case, the biggest challenge had to do with getting back into my career. I had been a teacher in the U.S., and would have gradually worked my way up in the system. In the Netherlands, my teaching credential didn’t hold any weight, and neither did the rest of my education, including a Master’s degree in education. I had to put my career on hold and be entirely dependent on my husband for several years. I didn’t like that feeling. It was frustrating, but on the flip side it helped me to integrate into the Dutch system.

“I ended up going back to university and doing, essentially, part of a bachelor’s and a new Master’s, just to get back to where I was when I left the U.S. I had to relinquish any idea of moving up in the hierarchy, though I admit that this turned out to be a good thing in terms of having free time for my kids when they were little, and more recently for travel and my blog.”

How easy or difficult is it to maintain a healthy diet in your new country?

“It’s much easier than it would be in the U.S.! The portions are smaller in restaurants, there are no free refills and they generally eat a healthy diet - brown bread sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, and heavy on the milk products.

“There’s also a lot of greenhouse agriculture here, so we get fresh vegetables all year. When I visit the U.S., I always end up overeating what I call ‘memory food’, which is mostly junk food that I liked as a child.”

Describe the role of exercise in the Netherlands and how it differs from your home country.

“The default form of transportation in the U.S. is the car. In the Netherlands, it’s the bicycle. Everyone rides them, from very small children to the elderly. Here in Groningen, where I live, the whole city’s traffic plan favors the bicycle. What I mean is that for most destinations within the city, it is faster for me to cycle from my house (on the edge of the city) than to take the car. And I’d also have to pay for parking. So, exercise here is something everyone gets almost daily to an extent.

“Beyond that, it’s normal for adults to continue with the sports they play as children. Sports, even for children, are not school-based. People join a sports club. It’s not strange for my 62-year-old husband to play on a team for his soccer club and take part in competitions at his tennis club. Like I said before, it’s something that Dutch people grow up with.”

While experiences differ from person to person, hopefully Rachel’s experience with living abroad will resonate with those thinking of moving to the Netherlands or beyond. As an expert at relocating abroad, Rachel’s story should shed some light on what life is truly like as an expat.

You may also be interested the results from our international What is Wellness survey

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