Survival Guide to the Dutch: How to Feel Gezellig Far from Home

14-02-2020 Nirit Michaeli

In my first year in the Netherlands, about 8 years ago, when I was having a hard time acclimatising to this foreign country, a friend from Bulgaria told me this story: A man dies, and at the gates of heaven St Peter asks him if he’d like to go to heaven or hell. The man says, let me try both and see. They go to hell, and see the place up in flames, terrible things, you know – hell. They go to heaven, and everyone’s happy, smiling and living the good after-life. The man asks St Peter to place him in heaven. When they re-enter heaven, the man sees it’s actually pretty bad: it’s going up in flames; people suffering and complaining, etc. The man asks St Peter what the hell happened, and St Peter replies: “you see, that’s the difference between being a tourist and being an immigrant”.

This is of course just a folk story, but being an immigrant/expat, IS hard. You have most likely moved to a country that is, at the very least, different to your home country. People speak a different language, they have different traditions and mannerisms, the food is not what you’re used to, the weather is just terrible and well – everything is not the same as home, and new. The first months and years are hard. There is no magic formula to instantly making immigration easier, but there are some things you can do to help yourself settle in and, as the Dutch like to call it, get “ingeburgerd”.


For the first 4 years, because I was an international student, I only had international friends. International friends are easier to make because you’re in the same boat, but also because while lovely, Dutch people generally take time to warm up to foreigners. On the downside, international friends often leave. 4 years into my stay in NL and after I graduated, I made a group of Dutch friends – so as you can imagine, it took a long time, but the payoff is great. Dutch friends can help you get around, they know people, they know the culture and they can help you integrate. Dutch friends are more likely to stay and form a connection with you that will last a long time and will help you feel at home. I am proud to say my Dutch friends act as my family away from home.


Being an expat often means being lonely, but you don’t have to be. Sign up for a cooking course. Join a salsa dancing group. Anything that involves other people who share the same passion as you (even if you don’t know it is your passion, yet). For me, UnScared was just that. I found a community of students/young professionals, Dutch and international alike, who are as enthusiastic about working out as I am. I made friends at the box that I would never have met otherwise, and it has opened the door for so many opportunities for me. It’s basically a network you can fall back onto when needed, and at the same time it’s something fun to be occupied with. Win-win in my book.


Yes, everyone speaks English. Yes, Dutch is hard and makes no sense. Yes, it’s not the most useful (or sexy) language in the world. But you live here now, and you should speak it. It does take time, so don’t expect to speak it fluently within a year. It also requires a lot of persistence, because people will speak English to you. But it does pay off - people appreciate it, and they’ll let you in their group a lot easier if you do. It’ll make your life easier too – many service providers struggle in English and would prefer to help you in Dutch. It will also help you find a job. But most importantly, it will help you become part of the conversation and feel a lot more like you belong, and that is essentially what we all want.


As we already established, people here are different (unless you’re from Belgium. But don’t tell Dutch people I said that). It takes them time to get used to you, and it will take you time to get used to them. A lot of expats find comfort in passing judgement on how things are done in their new country compared to their home country. Remember you moved here for a reason, and if you want to feel at home, you’ll have to embrace this quirky group of people, with their directness (or rudeness, if you will), their questionable taste in food (bitterballen and frikandels are an acquired taste), their ability to joke about everything and everyone (and inability to understand you taking offense), and their customs and traditions (like birthday circles and 3 kisses). When you open your mind and embrace the new place you’ve moved to, it can and will become your home.

Nirit Michaeli

About Nirit Michaeli

Nirit grew up in Israel and moved to Holland ten years ago. As one of UnScared's many expats, the gym has become her second home in the four years since she became an UnScaredian. Despite moving from competitive Powerlifting to CrossFit years ago, she still feels most comfortable doing heavy Squats and Deadlifts. 

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