Oh, if only I knew then the things I know now. If I could go back three months and re-move to The Hague, the things I would do differently! Actually, let’s go back five months and start the process again. I would change about 87% of what I did in preparation and once I got here.
But sadly, not matter how many episodes of Dr Who I watch, I still haven’t managed to master the art of time travel. So I shall simply content myself with passing on my infinite wisdom to any lesser mortals who choose to follow in my footsteps. So here it is:
B’s Comprehensive and Helpful Guide to Moving to the Netherlands.
• Organise your accommodation.
I cannot emphasise how important this is. I have seen fellow students trying to organise accommodation in the two weeks before class begins, and it never works out well. There are enough challenges to face without having to cope with the discomfort (physical and mental) of staying on a friends floor, or in a hostel, lugging you belongings with you and trying to find somewhere to live in your spare time.
Colleges as known in Australia (or the US or UK) that are directly associated with a University and are reserved only for enrolled students don’t really exist in such a way here. There is instead a company called DUWO that organises student accommodation throughout Holland. Certain complexes have priority for students at particular institutions, where you can live for the duration of your studies and up to six months after graduating.
For international students there is also the option of short-stay housing through DUWO. These are fully furnished rooms that are available to be leased for a maximum of twelve months. This is a great option, as everything is set up for you, and you have time to search for somewhere else to live and organise furniture etc. at your leisure. Unfortunately this company has the organisation skills of Centrelink (I really don’t know an international equivalent to explain this – sorry any non-Aussies!). So be prepared for frustrations.
I would recommend if at all possible to check out, or have someone do so on your behalf, anywhere you consider living to avoid nasty surprises. Scrupulous landlords are not necessarily the norm.
Start searching as far in advance as you can. If school starts in September, start looking as early June/July, and consider paying rent on a room for a month or so before you arrive, just to make sure you have it secured.
• Get student insurance.
This covers medical, liability, repatriation, contents and travel. Going to a foreign country uninsured is just stupid. And might cause immigration issues. If you’re from the EU it’s not really a problem apparently, but if you are a non-EU citizen, welcome to a world of extra red-tape and requirements. Because of course, anyone from outside Europe is untrustworthy and suspicious. And probably infected with something.
• Book a room in a hostel/hotel for your first week.
If your room is fully furnished then it’s perhaps not so important. But if your room is unfurnished, then you will want somewhere to sleep that isn’t a floor, and someone to talk to that isn’t yourself.
• Get a decent phone.
Make sure it is unlocked. If you’re not fussed about having a fancy phone, stick with whatever you have. If you want to upgrade your phone, buy it outright before you leave. Why do such an expensive thing, you ask? Because if you do what I did, which was think “I want a phone with maps and Skype and email and Facebook and… and… and…” and decide to organise a plan once I got overseas, you will be without a phone for months. As a non-Dutch citizen, you need a residence permit in order to take out any kind of contract. And thus you are at the mercy of the Immigration Department as to when you will be contactable in your new country. So. Get a phone you like, then once you get to your new country, get a pre-paid Sim card. You can get a contract if you like later on, but at least this way you having a working phone for when IKEA need to call you to organise delivery of your comfy new bed.
• Organise your Immigration documents.
If you are moving to study, the school can apply for a residence permit on your behalf before your arrival in the country if you send them your stuff far enough in advance. They might choose not to do so if there are lots of students who need a temporary visa to enter or stay in the country, but if there is any way of getting the process started in advance, go for it! This includes making a private appointment with the IND (Immigration and Naturalisation Department) rather than waiting for the school’s appointment day.
• Download lots and lots of movies, TV shows and music.
Unless you are fearless and/or have the emotional depth of a teaspoon, there will be many nights/afternoons/entire days spent at home in denial of the external world, and there is every chance you will not have internet. So you will want to have a good selection of entertainment available for you viewing pleasure. I, in total ignorance, did not do this. Coincidentally, I can now quote Pitch Perfect flawlessly.
• Probably make some effort to learn some Dutch.
This could be quite handy.
Upon arrival (in chronological order).
• Buy a Sim card.
A Dutch phone number makes life so much easier. Particularly when you will be trying to organise your apartment, furniture, appliances and life in general.
• Open a bank account.
This might be unexpectedly complex. I personally had no issues, all I had to do was show my enrolment letter and passport and tra-la-la everything went well. But other friends had less success. I think the moral of the story is not to assume each branch represents the bank as a whole. If your local ING/ABN-AMRO/Rabobank throws up issues with opening a bank account for you as a foreign national, try another branch. Your account will be opened the same day, but then you wait for a letter with your card PIN code, then another letter telling you to go to a certain branch to collect and activate your credit/debit card. This is super important, as many places in Holland do not accept Visa debit cards. Having a bank account also allows you to pay for things using iDeal, the apparently normal way of making purchases online here.
• Buy an OV-Chipkaart.
This is a travel card, kind of like the Oyster Card. Until you have a bike and know your way around well enough, trams are very useful. Especially when you’re completing the next step. And even more especially when it’s raining.
• Set up your apartment.
If you are living in private accommodation, or short-stay housing this might be relatively straight-forward. If you are taking over another student’s room in a flat, living with a family or in a fully furnished apartment this might merely be a matter of personalising your room to your taste. If so,
I hate you lucky you. If you live in standard student housing, this will be a long and complicated affair.
When the Dutch say unfurnished, then mean Spartan levels of bare. It is normal to have to organise flooring. Because floors aren’t part of the house? White goods? Definitely not going to be provided. Now sure, for a washing machine and fridge, this is normal. But no oven? No cooktop? A bit weird for the non-Dutch contingency. So budget for this.
IKEA is of course your go-to for all furniture. Though if you want, you can try the various Kringloops (second-hand shops) dotted around the place. Some of these do sell white goods, though you will only get a one month guarantee. If you are planning to stay in the one place for a while and want to buy new appliances, I would say go to Media Markt. Flooring can be gotten from IKEA, Gamma, Kwantum, and probably many other places that I couldn’t be bothered to find.
Cheap little kitchen appliances and household things can be bought at Kijkshop or Blokker. For those little things that you can never think of and never deliberately set out to buy but really get on your nerves when you don’t have them (as you might be able to tell, I can’t actually thing of an example), go to Action, Blokker, Xenos or Zeeman.
Action is probably the cheapest place to buy things like light bulbs; crockery; personal things like shampoo and soap; and sometimes food stuffs. Kruidvat often has great deals on combinations of personal care items, dental hygiene etc. and also has lots of decently priced cleaning products.
• Buy a bike.
I can’t advise you on how to find a decently priced one, as I paid quite a bit for mine. New bikes are very expensive, and second-hand often aren’t super cheap if you buy it from a store. Marktplaats is a website where private sellers post objects and others can bid on them (kind of like Ebay I guess) and many many a bike has been bought and sold on here.
Negotiating culture shock.
• Don’t expect to land on Mars.
This is probably one of the most shocking things about moving to another Western country. Initially, it seems so ridiculously close to your own culture and society just with a funny language. This lulls you into a false sense of security, which makes the next few points somewhat pertinent.
• Swallow your pride and ask for help.
Having just moved overseas, it is entirely possible that you will feel as adventurous and invincible as Alexander the Great. You may be determined to prove your maturity and ability to cope with whatever life can through at you in a totally independent and self-reliant manner. And having only had superficial contact with a society which on the surface seems so similar to the one you just came from, you may be tempted to believe you are capable of organising your life and functioning in your new country without help.
You are wrong.
You will be making assumptions based on a life-time of experience in a different country, a different society, a different culture. These assumptions are in no way applicable to your new home. The organisations are different, the procedures are different, the people are different. Even if something seems ridiculously straight-forward and obvious, ask for clarification.
I recently read an article detailing how much unpaid overtime Australian workers are expected to do. The assumption that people will go out their way to help you, go beyond what is required (particularly in their jobs) if they know they can be of assistance or give you information they know you need, is very particular to our culture. If you are in a situation where you think you might need more information (so pretty much every day for your first month), ask for it, don’t expect people to volunteer it and anticipate your needs.
If I had done this, asked the simple question of “So you say I need to organise internet myself. How do I do that?” when I moved into my apartment, I would have had internet within a week of arriving in the Netherlands. How long did it take me, blundering about like a drunk wearing a blindfold? Three months.
Yes people, that’s three months without Tim Minchin videos. I am irreparably damaged.
• Don’t underestimate the weather.
I thought I was all set to cope with European weather. I had always hated the sun and heat in Australia, how much more perfect could my life get once I moved to dreary, cloudy, cold Europe? I’d spent months travelling over here in their winter time, hell, I’d even been in Canada during February, and we all know Holland is totally tame compared to Canada.
But travelling, when you have no real time commitments, no obligations, no deadlines, creates a very different head-space than the drudgery of actual life, with all it’s depressing reality. I really didn’t expect my mood to be affected so much by the incessant rain, the weak sun, the shortness of the days as winter draws near. But I’m pretty much Oscar the Grouch these days. An Oscar the Grouch that lives entirely off cake and chocolate.
So be prepared to be irritable. If you know what you can do to lighten your mood e.g. exercise; meditation; lots of sex; eating cake; Gene Kelly and I don’t know what else, get amongst it.
Also, actually studying and doing practice is quite a good distraction. But don’t tell anyone I admitted it!
• Say farewell to the myth of Europe.
In Australia, it was a fairly prevalent view particularly amongst my fellow artist friends that Europe would be the pinnacle of culture, art, professionalism and good food. We thought that our education would be pathetic by comparison; our performing standard would be so much lower; that the organisations and institutions (both cultural and governmental) would be so much smoother; that the food would be uniformly so much better. Unfortunately, humans run Europe as well. Which means that there is as much confusion and as little communication as anywhere else. And when it comes to food, well alas. Not everywhere in Europe is France.
• Get ready to be offended.
The Dutch are marvellously blunt. Tactless, even, by Australian or British standards. I have had my body shape commented on in public, advice given on my bike riding after I fell off my bike in the street, the facial evidence of my tiredness pointed out to me (like I wasn’t aware), and most enjoyably, the inaccuracy of my shade of foundation commented upon by the canteen lady.
And the worst thing is, they’re always bloody right.