Holland – The Great, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Holland, the Netherlands… call it what you like. I have lived here for 5 years so far with my Dutch husband. Just to give you a little background I’m English but lived in the Canary Islands and mainland Spain for 11 years before moving here. This piece looks at my opinions and my thoughts on the 6 best things and 6 worst things about Holland, or the Netherlands.

Attempting a Balanced View

Now before you message me, complaining that I don’t appreciate the country I live in or finding fault with where I choose to live, know this – this article is about the good AND the bad. I offer my thoughts on the things I love and the things that drive me crazy. Your opinions and thoughts about Holland might not be the same as mine, and feel free to leave feedback in the comments. I respect everyone’s opinion. But I still like to offer my own.

When I moved here in 2010 a few things really surprised me as being very different from what I was used to. For example, when you rent an apartment here it comes with nothing at all – it’s just a cement box. Nothing on the floor, nothing on the walls… you have to buy carpet, wallpaper, everything. While that is normal to a Dutch renter it is bizarre to me. I found it strange the post office doesn’t deliver on a Monday. I found it peculiar the shops don’t open until midday on a Monday. I don’t miss the ‘siesta’ hours they had in Spain but it takes a bit of getting used to of course.

Dutch Birthday Parties (aka Circle of Death)

I thought the first birthday party I went to in Holland was rather unusual. Everyone sat in a big circle chatting about their jobs, houses and kids, drinking strong coffee. Then some cake appears, then some ‘huiswijn’. The next party was the same and then I cottoned on that is how they celebrate birthdays here. Plus they congratulate everyone who is in any way related to the birthday boy or girl (or man or woman)  – different again! But hey, Vive La Difference. Yes that’s French not Dutch, but never mind, you know what I mean…

So, let’s begin with the good things!

6 Best Things about Holland

The Netherlands is certainly a one-of-a-kind type of place. There are things here you won’t find in any other corner of the planet, things that make the Netherlands, or Holland, unique. Whether you are thinking about visiting Holland, moving to Holland or just reading this because you’re bored or have insomnia, there’s no doubt Holland offers some pretty unique things.

1. Everything is Nearby

The main supermarket chain here is Albert Heijn and I am less than a 10 minute walk away from 2 of them, which is really convenient. Whether I’ve run out of milk or just fancy a snack, I can just walk down the street to the supermarket (as long as I get there before 8pm when they close!) I live in the middle of the city and can walk to the shops in 10 minutes and that includes walking to the doctor, dentist, hairdresser… pretty much everything is within walking distance, or biking distance if you like to ride a bike instead, and many Dutch do. Now, things will be different if you live on the outskirts of a city or in a village, but the compact scale of the country means if you want to ditch the idea of a car and simply bike or walk, that is certainly possible here.

2. Most People Speak English

If you are planning to live here permanently, or at least stay for a few years, you will want to familiarize yourself with Dutch, at least a few phrases and words. You will pick up plenty as well, just by being here. But if speaking Dutch isn’t your forte, you will be pleased to know the majority of Dutch people speak English, and very good English at that. Not all the older people speak English and some of the lesser educated ones don’t, but I’d say 90% of Dutch speak at least conversational English, which certainly helps! My Dutch can still be described as ‘basic’ in that I can string a sentence together and understand most of a newspaper article, but I work from home and we’re planning to move to Texas in 3 months, so that is fine for me!

3. Acceptance and Freedom

Although the Dutch often use the word ‘tolerance’ I can’t stand that word. To ‘tolerate’ something means to ‘put up with’ something (albeit reluctantly) so I prefer to use the word ‘acceptance’. Most of the Dutch don’t discriminate against race, sexual preference or class, which is certainly refreshing. You might see 2 men or 2 women walking down the street holding hands, and nobody is going to bat an eyelid. You don’t have to hide your sexual preferences, religion or background here. I’ve never lived anywhere repressive (I lived in Gran Canaria for many years which is also very accepting) so I don’t have anywhere really different to compare things with, but I can imagine there are some places very different.

4. Plenty of Things to Do

10150202366455322You aren’t going to be bored here. The compact size of everything means getting from A to B is easy, so if you have a car or don’t mind using public transport, you can get to anywhere in the country within a couple of hours. There are all the shopping centers, swimming pools, amusement parks, museums, galleries, and parks you would find anywhere, along with other events.

Sometimes we simply like to drive to another city and stroll around the market square, or other times there are exhibitions and markets which are nice to visit. There are annual shows such as Keukenhof where you can see amazing flowers. There is always something going on in Breda, where we live, so if you want to head out for a day, you will be sure to find something fun to see or do.

Now I don’t know whether it’s because we live in Breda and Breda can be a bit, well, crazy, but there is usually something strange going on here. We have Redhead Days which is when 15,000 redheads descent on the city. We have Harley Day which is when all the Harley Davidsons congregate here. We have Carnaval which probably needs no explanation. Sometimes I open the curtains in the morning and simply don’t know what I’m going to see! Which of course keeps things fun and interesting.

5. Ideal Base for Exploring

image094We live near the Belgian border which means we can be in Belgium within 20 minutes. It only takes a couple of hours to get to Germany, France or Luxembourg, so if you want to explore Europe or take day trips or weekend trips, you will find this to be a great base for exploring. We drove to Paris for the day the Monday before last and although it was a long trip it was do-able in one day! Which is always great.

Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, is one of the biggest airports in Europe and there are flights to everywhere. I can fly direct to Exeter where my family are, and it’s very handy. I can get there in an hour on the train. Alternatively we have the Eurostar (the train that goes under the ocean) although the last time we used it (last December) it decided to break down shortly after leaving France, so I’ll wait on my recommendations for that!

The rail system within the Netherlands is pretty good and of course there are also international trains if you want to go to France, Belgium etc. The fares are quite expensive considering the distances (eg nearly 20 euros for a 1 hour trip to the airport from here) but the trains tend to be clean, reliable and frequent.

6. The Cultural Aspect

The country has a rich history and the culture is evident everywhere from the architecture to the museums. The Dutch take great pride in their heritage and if you’re into history, architecture or you simply want to learn more about the country and its inhabitants, you will find a wealth of culture wherever you go, from famous artists like Rembrandt and van Gogh to the stunning architecture of the Dutch Golden Age and traditions unique to the Netherlands which will really open your eyes. The Dutch are proud of all their achievements and rightly so.

6 Worst Things about Holland

Just like it is easy to identify the best things about the country, it is also easy to identify the worst, or at least what I find the worst. No country on Earth is perfect. Everywhere has its good and bad points. But here are a few things I’ve noticed about this land I temporarily call home.

1. The Weather

DSC_0037It could be because I spent a lot of years in the Canaries, but the weather in Holland seems to range from freezing to barely warm. As I write this it’s the middle of June and yesterday there was even frost in the east of the country! It’s very rare I wear anything less than full-length sleeves and I was wearing my winter coat yesterday. Sometimes we can go days without any sun. It just gets… depressing. I know the weather is only one factor of living here and it’s not the be-all and end-all but… well I do miss having a decent summer instead of just the occasional warm day during the ‘warmer months’.

2. (Most) Restaurants

I can honestly say I’ve never had so many shocking meals anywhere else and Holland wins (loses?) this one! The lack of basic service is what makes most meals stand out (for the wrong reason) as well as the lack of knowledge. Don’t be surprised if you are ignored when you enter a restaurant or if the person serving you asks what you want to drink without even giving you a drinks menu. Don’t be surprised if they have no idea what brand of vodka they have or if they’re ignorant about what the chicken is served with. A lot of the servers are woefully undertrained, if trained at all, and are simply students making some extra cash. Complain about raw chicken (yes I’ve done that) and they’ll just shrug.

One server will cover about 20 tables in many places too, so you will get a sore arm from waving for 15 minutes trying to attract their attention. A lot of bars and restaurants offer only a couple of wines by the glass and usually what they call ‘huiswijn’ which 9 times out of 10 is some revolting crap. Many places won’t give you a glass of tap water so you have to buy water, and a soda (Coke etc) typically comes in a 200ml (7 ounce) bottle and no, they don’t do refills. A lot of restaurants seem to have identical menus too, which is strange and gets rather boring, and the prices are rather high considering the portion sizes. We usually eat at home!

3. Smoke Smoke Smoke

It’s not unusual to walk down the street and pass 5 people, each of whom has a cigarette burning between their fingers. I say that because yesterday I counted and all 5 people who passed me did! Walk behind someone and you will get a face full of smoke. Sit on the terrace/patio at a bar or restaurant and you will be seated a couple of feet from someone puffing away and you will get smoke in your face.

I don’t mind people smoking if they choose to, but why not walk away from the people sitting down trying to eat, smoke, and then come back again? If I was a smoker, I wouldn’t mind going away from where people are eating so I could have my fix then coming back. But live here and you’re forced to breathe it. If the sun is shining all the terraces are full which means you either breathe smoke all the time or you don’t get to sit in the sun. If you’re a smoker this won’t bother you, but if you prefer not to breathe stinky smoke every time you leave the house you’re out of luck.

4. The Food

I’ve already touched on restaurants, but let’s look at the food in general. A lot of Dutch food is either deep-fried, mashed or boiled and woefully underseasoned. There are exceptions such as mussels from Zeeland (amazing) or some Dutch desserts and pastries (again, can be amazing) but it’s not my favorite place to eat. Even at the supermarket you will be surprised what you can’t get. Take lamb, for example. Can you buy a shoulder of lamb or a leg of lamb at your local supermarket? Well not here.

IMG_0339A lot of the meat has water pumped into it (despite the label making no mention of the fact). Cook chicken breast in a pan and water will ooze out of it. The same applies to steaks, even expensive ones. Many a time I’ve seared a steak on the griddle or in a pan and it’s been literally swimming in ¼ inch of water after 2 minutes. This is obviously to bump up the weight of the meat and get more money out of the consumer but what a rip-off. Also, a lot of the flavor comes out with the water. What looks like a reasonable sized piece of meat ends up literally half the size after all that water has leached out.

You can’t get diabetic foods here, not the prepackaged kind anyway, and in most Albert Heijn’s (apart from the XL size ones) you can’t even get sugar-free mayonnaise! This is an issue because my husband is diabetic. So if you prefer sugar-free pate, sugar-free mayo, sugar-free salami or even sugar-free bacon, you’re out of luck. Actually I found one kind of bacon which is sugar-free so just check the labels if you prefer your savory foods to be, well, savory. Do you want to buy crisps (chips in US English)? Well you might find several different brands on the shelves but be prepared for ‘naturel’ (plain) and ‘paprika’ (bell pepper) to be the only flavors available. Why? Who know?

The Dutch tend to eat stuff on bread for breakfast, stuff on bread for lunch (washed down with sour buttermilk) and then some kind of meat and veg for dinner, occasionally having Indonesian to break up the tedium. If they have a pizza they have rucola (arugula, rocket) on it. In fact that stuff finds its way into most dishes. If you want to enjoy good Dutch food, head to the coast and sample the mussels. For bad Dutch food, head to one of the restaurants. You have a 9 out of 10 chance of getting it wrong.

5. Shopping Peeves

pay to use toiletShopping is certainly an experience in Holland. Many shops are very small and cramped and have no storage so if they don’t have your size on display odds are you will hear the word “helaas” which means they don’t have it. And don’t ask for shoes in a size 39.5 because they don’t have them.

It’s common for clothes shops to cram as many garments as possible on one rail and since they don’t have the size displayed on the hanger you have to rifle through them to find the labels to look for your size (which, helaas, they might not have).

The 21% tax we have here makes things expensive (as does the up-to-52% income tax) which is why I order a lot online. If a shop has a bathroom they will usually charge you 50 cents to use it. I’ve even been charged 50 cents to use the bathroom in a restaurant even when we’d just spent 100 euros on food and drink in there! It’s considered normal here.

6. Not So Clean

I wasn’t sure what to write for number 6 but I just went for a walk and this came to me. The Dutch, except a few, don’t clean up after their dogs. They let them sh*t in the park, on the footpaths, in the busy streets, then just leave it there! Seriously! I live next to a park so I see it over and over again. They also drop a lot of litter too. They have events in the park sometimes and the next morning you can hardly see the grass for all the cans and crisp packets. What makes it worse is there are bins provided. People just don’t bother to use them!

When there is an event in Breda, we often come home to a pool of urine in the doorway because there are no public toilets here and apparently that is normal. Well, not to me. It’s disgusting. Then you have all the cigarette ends on the streets and a lot of people hawk and spit too. So just don’t go walking around barefoot.

My Conclusion

Holland is somewhere you have to visit, at least once. You will fall in love with the good things and maybe get annoyed on occasion with the not-so-good (at least if you live here) just like with anything else. For such a small country it is certainly a land of opposites.

You have touristy Amsterdam famed for stag parties, legal ‘coffee shops’ which sell pot but no coffee and the Red Light District. Then you have picturesque villages with windmills, cheese shops, beautiful landscapes, incredible galleries heaving with incredible art by the Dutch masters, some of the best seafood in the world (I’m going to tell you again – go to Zeeland and try their mussels and oysters!), vibrant markets to buy fresh produce, friendly people, and acceptance regardless of ethnicity, sexual preferences and anything else where in some countries you might be discriminated against.

I hope you have found my 6 plus points and 6 minus points balanced. At least I tried to keep things balanced. I moved to Holland in the first place because my husband is Dutch. I’m curious to know your points of view so if you wish to leave me a comment below, I’ll be sure to read it! I welcome alternative, different points of view!

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