28 Fun Facts About Dutch Life

Looking between two bunches of flowers over an Amsterdam canal lined with houseboats | Em Dashed

On Sunday, the first of May, I will turn 28. This will be the second birthday I’ve spent here in the Netherlands, and the sixth that I’ve spent abroad. In what is perhaps an odd personality twist, I’m not really that into my birthday — aside from using it as an excuse for a night out and/or to eat a tower of bitterballen, anyway.

But since starting a blog, I am very much about capitalizing on life events — no matter how major or minor — for post fodder. So in honor of the 28th anniversary of my birth, here are 28 observations I’ve made as a foreigner in the Netherlands.

1. Everyone has a calendar solely reserved for noting birthdays hanging over their toilet. Nobody seems to know why, nor does anyone appear to use a calendar for any other purpose or in any other room of their house.

2. Your shoes stay on when you go inside, no matter what you’re there for. Party? Shoes stay on. Sitting on the couch and drinking coffee? Shoes stay on. I half-expect that if my hot water went out and the neighbors let me use their shower, they’d expect me to wear my shoes the whole time.

3. Cyclists are out for blood. Honestly, I’d sooner try to walk on the motorway than attempt to walk within 20 feet of someone on a bicycle. Cyclists in Amsterdam are at least used to dodging tourists, but around here, they’ll just run you down and not look back.

4. Your curtains must be open unless you’re sleeping. Even if you just feel like a bit of privacy, everyone will assume you’re sleeping, so you may as well take a nap. (Slaap lekker!)

5. There’s always coffee first. Tea is also acceptable, but if you try to start with something else…well, no one will say anything, they’ll just think you’re kind of weird.

6. Sidewalks are negotiable. Recently, I was walking through Zwolle, and there was some construction rendering both sides of the street unusable. There was no marked detour or path for pedestrians to take instead; you just had to walk on another street. And that’s still a step up from Dedemsvaart, where sometimes there’s no sidewalk at all — or, better yet, cars parked on it.

7. People in the supermarket are always in a race to get their food loaded onto the conveyor belt as fast as possible. If the belt moves forward but you’re still physically unable to, they won’t wait; they’ll just reach around you.

8. Letting people get off a bus or train before you get on is not allowed. If you try to let the passengers exit the train before you get on, people will just go in front of you. It will not work.

9. If you visit another country after living in the Netherlands, it is highly likely that you will still say “alsjeblieft” when you hand people money. In the event that you manage to shake this habit, you will feel super awkward not saying anything when you hand people money.

Sun shines between the trees over a field next to a walking path during golden hour | Em Dashed
Golden hour by the lake in Dedemsvaart

10. Coffee comes in tiny cups. I don’t just say that because I’m American and we’re known for having giant portion sizes; the cups are very, very small. The Dutch even call them “kopjes,” which literally translates to “little cups.”

11. Need baking soda? Go to the drogist (drugstore) and ask for “zuiveringszout.” You won’t find it at the Albert Heijn.

12. …Which is likely because home baking is fairly uncommon. Be prepared for people to act like you’re Martha Stewart just cause you made banana bread once.

13. You get one thing — and only one thing — on your sandwich. Cheese or ham, jam or hagelslag. Okay, you can have butter, too. But that’s it.

14. Cheese comes with the rind on, and you will probably injure yourself in some way trying to remove it with a cheese slicer.

15. You basically always need to have something to drink. If you go to someone’s house and decline their offer of a drink, they will likely not know what to do for the 30 seconds they should, by all rights, be pouring you a drink.

16. Everyone goes on vacation in July or August, to the point where people will likely start a conversation with you by saying, “So where are you going on vacation?” even if you have not indicated that you are actually taking a vacation of any kind.

17. If you order a beer, they won’t ask which one. You get the “default” beer (whatever is on the sign hanging over the door or the coasters spread across your table) unless you specifically ask for another. Hope you like Heineken.

18. Sometimes things are in English for no discernible reason.

19. No one puts milk in their tea. You can still ask for it, of course, but be aware you may get a) laughed at or b) a whole glass that you’ll then be charged €2,50 for.

The Dutch and EU flags fly in front of a large ornate building with heaps of bicycles parked out front | Em Dashed
A few bicycles at the university in Groningen

20. Don’t worry if you miss a commercial; after the next one, they’ll repeat a snippet of the first. We wouldn’t want you forgetting about the sale on Nivea products at the Kruidvat, now would we?

21. If you rent an apartment, you have to provide your own flooring.

22. When it’s someone’s birthday, you congratulate them…and then everyone else who knows them. Apparently being born is such an accomplishment, everyone gets a little credit, including your children, your mother-in-law, and your former neighbors from 15 years ago.

23. Dutch people kiss three times in greeting. If that sounds excessive, it’s because it is. Between all the kissing and congratulating everyone on birthdays, I honestly don’t know how they get anything else done.

24. Everyone sets off fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and I do mean everyone. At midnight, just step outside your front door and you’ll see 25+ simultaneous displays. And if you fall asleep too early (this hasn’t happened to me yet, but I mean, 28: it’s only a matter of time), don’t fret. People keep shooting the damn things off for weeks afterwards.

25. Speaking of New Year’s: There’s also this. (Have I mentioned I live in the country?)

26. On King’s Day, everyone gathers all the old crap they don’t want anymore and brings it to one street in town to sell it. The next year, presumably, everyone sells what they bought the year before.

27. All the Christian holidays get two days. There’s first and second Christmas; first and second Easter; first and second Pentacost. It’s like hobbits, but with days off instead of meals.

28. Continuing a tradition beginning in New Zealand and Australia, cheap mascara remains the sole commodified item I miss from the United States. I can buy 24 beers and a kilo of cheese for less than a single tube of boring old drugstore mascara. Perhaps I need to examine my priorities.

In closing: happy birthday to me. Make sure you call Simon and offer your congratulations.

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