Dutch integration and expat saturation

Right, I have been living in the Netherlands now for two years and I have come to two conclusions. One, in my opinion it is impossible to completely integrate with the locals and two, it is not healthy to hang out with expats all the time.

I seem to veer from trying one extreme to the other. When first getting here I vowed to learn Dutch within a year and hang out with only Leideners, casting my expat label to one side.

For me and I think many others, this was just not possible (well not within a year). Dutch as we know is not an easy language to pick up, not because of the language itself but due to the difficulty of getting the chance to practice it and make the mistakes needed to gain fluidity. This makes it hard to get to level good enough to engage in general day-to-day "banter."

Organisations like the Gilde SamenSpraak do a great job in trying to bridge this gap but without an extra factor, for example a work or personal relationship with a Dutch native, getting over the language barrier is tough!

I sometimes attend networking events and hear people complain about how the Dutch are tolerant, certainly, but not always inclusive. How they watch their guests politely from afar but do not invite them to their gezellige parties. I do not agree with this either.

I have been invited to my fair share of gatherings. For example, at a recent street party with the neighbours everybody made quite the effort to chat with us, the resident Brits. But after a few hours it understandably gets tiring when you want to indulge in the jokes or subtleties in your own language that just don’t easily translate.

I do not think there is a conscious effort on the part of Netherlanders to exclude us expats from their day to day life but I do think that, as in any country, to get beyond pleasantries with the neighbours or chats with the green grocer, a higher level of understanding about the language and general culture is required. And, as we know from my first point this really isn’t easy.

What should expats do?

What is an expat to do? It is easy to fall back into "expatdom," give-up on the squinting while listening and only hang around with people who speak your own language.

Certain kinds of humour and rapid-fire conversations can often best be achieved with people from your own country. I have been there.

Having craved a bit of easy chit-chat, I spent time with the usual crowd in the English / Irish / Australian pubs. However, this left me with a new sense of melancholy - would I really hang out with these people if I were back in the UK? 

It only served to exacerbate my feeling of being somehow apart. I choose to live in the Netherlands because I like the way of life here, the Dutch attitude and the standard of living. I should be more involved with my environment!

The solution is to compromise

So what’s the solution? As with many things, compromise. Finding places where Dutch and expat status can overlap is so far working for me and I can give you a few examples:

 My local pub quiz is in an English bar owned by a Dutchman. The quizmaster is from Leiden and asks each question in both English and Dutch. The crowd and our team is a mixture of many nationalities and it is great fun.

 Another example is the Leiden Language Exchange [facebook open group]. This group meets up once a week at De Grote Beer (yes I am seeing a bar theme here) and encourages Leideners of all types to come and speak in Dutch if they want to or just to have a drink with fellow residents of his beautiful town. I went for the first time last week and think they are on to a winner - socialising is prioritised over ability to speak a second language!

I am not writing this article to make generalisations and pigeon hole us all - quite the opposite. I recognise that we all see ourselves differently, not simply as expat or European but perhaps in other ways too, musician, artist or maybe train spotter!

What I do know is that in my search to slot in with the Dutch and expat groups I have decided that although I am happy belonging to both or neither, I am happiest when I can join the two.

And how about you? Is it possible to live in another country and shake off that feeling of being somehow conspicuous? I look forward to your comments.

Helen Frew


Helen Frew

I am a freelance policy consultant. I was born in Scotland, worked mainly in Brussels and am now living in the Netherlands.

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