September 6, 2015

The Netherlands Experience

How I moved to the “low lands” of Europe with ambitious plans, that didn’t really work. it was quite an escapade. Let me tell you!

Once I’ve realized that I couldn’t continue in the US, I did my research where to move and start another chapter of my life. My plan was to go back to a college, eventually get a job and see how things will evolve. After considering the pros and cons of many countries around the planet, I picked the Netherlands. Things on a paper looked just right: it is totally fine to live there with English language only, I wouldn’t have to mess with any visas nonsense, the cost of living is OK, the study program is good and the tuition reasonable, decent job market, beautiful cities and nice people… a sweet deal, right? But as it happens, things online don't always reflect reality. But let's start from the beginning.

Amsterdam (pictured) is the most famous canal city of the country; however, they are common all over it.

Prior to this visit, I was in the Netherlands once,  back in 2007. It was just a short stay without many possibilities of experiencing the country closer. Pictured is Amsterdam.

The Netherlands is a flat country full of saturated colors. Greenfields contrast with bold architecture with large windows, whether it's old neighborhoods from dark bricks or new city parts with modern skyscrapers. The nation is relatively small, but with a rich history and it has earned the world's fame for its international trade, water canals, flower markets, weed tourism, and finally, its usage of bikes.

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...oh, and windmills

But let me start with the bikes, and I will try to get to the other things later.

wherever are you from, you have probably seen a picture with thousands bikes in front of every train station, office,  mall and so on.

if you have seen a picture with thousands of bikes in front of a train station, office, mall and so on, it was most likely the Netherlands. There aren't many other places where you can see such a thing. China maybe, but their bike-infrastructure lacks the edge.

It’s definitely one of the very first things you will notice once you visit the country: bikes everywhere. On the first look, it seems like colossal mayhem; however, it has its own order that works very well. There is an enormous number of designated bike roads, and each intersection has specified the right of the way. Even the bike parking has a system.

Sure, one has to pay attention while walking / driving in downtown to not hit or get hit by one of them, but it isn’t rocket science. It takes maybe a day practice, and you are in and set.  Riding a bike is, for sure, the most convenient way to get around the city. I got one from a friend the first day I arrived, and after fixing the brakes in a MacGyver style with a swiss knife and a pet bottle, I was ready to hit the city and get down to business, get me a local cellphone number etc..

At first, riding in the downtown reminded me of the days I used to ride a bike on narrow, steep trails downhill in deep woods. Back then, the concentration was mandatory; otherwise you’d hit a tree in a second. Here it wasn’t trees but other bikers. Bikers in front of you, next to you, bikers behind you… It was really exciting. To raise a level a bit, over than half of bikers type a text or call with someone, smoke, hold an umbrella, handbag, groceries, hold a hand of another biker, or everything together. Multitasking at its finest. Some even have, on the top of the mentioned stuff, headphones on. I adapted to this quickly, many of the photos in this blog are taken while riding a bike. You know, holding a phone with google maps in one hand, a camera in the second, and handlebar in the thi… oh, wait. Well you got the idea; it is a common practice here.

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During the time I was there, I rode easily over 100 km (62miles), just to get from one side of the city to another, back and repeat. Since the paths are flat with a smooth surface, it is not really a big deal, but it does cost a bit of activity. That being said, an average Dutch person is in better physical shape than an average person in the States, simply because everybody drives over there, while here they ride bikes. In the States, many people are going to a gym instead, but honestly, I'd take the Dutch biking system over running on a treadmill any day.

This moves us to another point, the people here: The Dutchmen are the tallest population in the world, so I don’t look there like some rare species with my 2 meters (6’6”) height. Unfortunately, they aren't nearly as friendly as I was used to with people in the US, which is a shame. Or I was just very unlucky and ran into such characters. On my first day there, I asked a stranger for directions, and he said to give him 5 Euros first. "What?" So I used my phone instead. The people here are mostly quiet, taking care only about themselves. But if they think some odd stuff about you, they will let you know that straight forward. Which is good, but takes a bit time to get used to. One of my first conversations here I had with a girl at an information point, where I asked about accommodation: “You are trying to get a room here within a week? Pfffff, that’s madness,” she said.

This brings me to the accommodation problem, but before that, let me tell you about the city I moved in: Utrecht.

Dom tower, the tallest (113m /368ft) church tower in the Netherlands, completed in 1382.

Utrecht is a city where the old meets modern.

Rabobank (completed in 2011), the building in the background, is currently the tallest modern building of the city.

Its history goes as far as 2000 years ago, and before it was surpassed by Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague (all of which are just an hour by a train, by the way), it was the Netherlands’ biggest. Although nowadays the city ranks 4th in the population (with about 350,000 inhabitants), it has the 2nd highest number of cultural events per year, after Amsterdam. It is also the student-town of the Netherlands, as it is home to a couple of highly ranked Universities. In fact, all Utrecht’s higher institutions together enroll about 100,000 students – a lot. This contributes to the fact that 71 percent of the city's population is under 45 years old.

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The downtown is extremely vital. No matter what day in a week it is, there is a myriad of people everywhere. It looks like the entire population moves into the city center to spend an evening. On every corner of a block is a restaurant, and at night they’re all full.

Note the tables next to the canal - hard to find a free place. Unless it's raining, then it's empty.

Note the tables next to the canal - hard to find a free place. Unless it's raining, then the place is empty.

Here needs to be mentioned that Dutch food is brilliant. It is tasty and healthy, but unfortunately also expensive as hell. In the US, you can grab a nice meal for 10-15 bucks. Here in the Netherlands, you’d pay easily 20 and up.

cheese market in Rotterdam. they are so good! (file photo I took back in 2007)

Cheese market in Rotterdam. they are so good! (file photo I took back in 2007)

Another thing to say, you won’t get a coffee in the local coffee shops. If you are in the weed business, you’d be happy here as in the downtown streets you can smell it more often than regular cigarettes.

I like to explore cities after sunset, as they all turn into different, more vivid colors. All the street lamps, vehicles' reflectors, and windows cast an artificial light all around, making the scene dynamic. Even the most boring building at a day will become more interesting at night if it is under a mix of light sources. Also, you can't see all the mess like at daylight (but that's not the case of the Netherlands, as it is relatively clean). But speaking of lightning, Utrecht offers a great show. Many places and structures in the city center are neatly lightened with a flair of art.

Reflectors enhancing shapes of structures aren’t anything unusual; but here, nearly every bridge over canals in the downtown is brightened with pulsing led lights…

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while the canals are constantly cruised by groups on boats, enjoying the moment with a glass of wine..

…same with pedestrian underpasses, changing colors constantly…

…windows of some buildings shine in intervals…

Note also the light coming from under the water: nope, that’s not a reflection.

Note also the light coming from under the water: nope, that’s not a reflection.

…but the coolest of all of them is this one:DSCF6579

Every once in a while, this location produces a thin strip of haze backlight by a strong green ray.  It creates “a wall of light,” and it is ingenious. I was shooting handheld, a tripod with longer exposure would give this place more justice. But you can see my point.

It is just a fun place to walk through.

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Streets are as loud as with people chatting, or singing later to the night as the alcohol level increases…

Even later, you won’t be able to snap anything before some happy being jumps in front of you.

Even later, you won’t be able to capture anything as some happy being jumps in front of you from every corner.

This downtown would entertain me for quite a while, for sure.

There is also a ton of new developments going on.

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Large cranes everywhere

there are quite a few modern buildings already..

...and in 10 years they'll be filling every available space.

Not just the students, migrants from all over the planet also contributing to the fact that Utrecht is very multicultural. There are many Muslims here, and one of the recently built structures is this fancy mosque.

 That brings an idea, you know, people here respect that; however, if you would try to set up a Christian church of a same size in some places in the Middle East, in the best scenario they’d say no(…)

That brings an idea, people here respect that; however, if you would try to set up a Christian church of the same size in some places in the Middle East (…) Hopefully, one day, people will be more accepting everywhere.

Now is the time to mention something about the accommodation issues. Boy, that was something. I knew it would be a challenge, so I started in advance: a couple months back I got in touch with a company that supposed to rebuild an old house into students’ rooms, and they promised me a place; but, just a few weeks ago I received an email saying “We’re sorry; the city didn’t approve our reconstruction.” "Well you just found that now?" I was angry, and back at the beginning. Since then, I had hard luck, finding nothing.

So when I moved there, I didn’t have anything set. I've arrived about 10 days before the first day of school to find me something; the plan was to stay in a hostel while searching for a room. However, every hostel I’ve called replied with an annoyed voice, “We are full, full, and it won’t get any different.” If there was a space, it was just for one night max. The need to move every night would cost a lot of time and transportation fees, so I’ve decided to book me a hotel for a week (uh, I know) and begun with research. I was looking for a furnished room in a shared apartment. According to what I read online and discussed with the uni staff, these should run in a range of €300-450 per month, including utilities. While not too thrilled to go back to shared accommodation, it was the only choice, as a self-contained studio would run me at €1000+.

The reality; however, turned to be rather different. No matter that I applied for housing through real estate agencies - both online and in local offices, I joined many “room wanted” groups on FB, and asked people around the town for help, it didn’t go well. First, there was absolutely no way to get anything, even unfurnished below €400/month. I could go with that, but all the rooms that I saw were with many... um... compromises. They were either in a desolate condition with roof leaks, broken windows, and bathroom, or with roommates that wouldn’t simply work, like people smoking twenty packs of cigarettes daily, or owning two dogs each sized like a small car. Nothing against dogs, but discovering the kitchen with an inch deep layer of dog hair everywhere was far from desirable. I might get through some of these things, but not at €500/month rate. If there was a furnished room under 500, it was only because it was “with no council registration possible,” which means it is against the law to live in such a space.

A guy interrupts his bike ride with his dog, to contemplate about a dog sculpture in the store front. Stories like this are on every corner.

A guy interrupts his bike ride with his dog, to contemplate a dog sculpture in the storefront. Stories like this were on every corner.

My initial plan was to start with school, learn at least a bit of the language, and then find a job. But with the current housing situation, when I would have to get a much pricier room than expected, my savings would be gone pretty quickly. With this in mind, I started to look for a job immediately. Even before I moved here, I called the university regarding some work-study program, and the person I spoke with told me that it is possible, but I will need to set it up with my “study coach” in person. As soon as I was in the country, I found this “coach” to talk with. But instead of help, I was told that "there is nothing like this offered, who told you that?" So, I started checking out the local job market but crashed on another thing the Internet stated wrong. It says that it is not an issue to get a job in English only. The reality is; however, that I was always asked, “…but you can speak Dutch, right?” and the job opportunities suddenly disappeared like bubbles from a cheap soda. Even at some, um, not so demanding positions, like washing dishes in a pub. Well, damn.

That’s the campus I planned to attend. From this side you can walk into a herd of sheep, from the other side is a large modern complex of universities’ buildings.

That’s the campus I planned to attend. From this side you can walk into a herd of sheep, from the other side is a large modern complex of universities’ buildings. In the middle, many confused faces.

The language itself is interesting too: the Dutch is like if you’d put German, English, and some French in a blender, and mix it about 30 minutes. That being said, Dutch people usually have an easy time understanding those three languages, but anyone from any of those three countries has no clue what in the F Dutch, words like verschrikkelijk mean and how to pronounce them. The Netherlands is, together with Norway, the country with the biggest percentage of English speakers in Europe out of the countries where EN is not their official language. The rate of the population that can speak English here is around 90%; which is for example more than in Canada (85%).  Sure, you can talk with people in English – mainly with younger generations – everywhere in western Europe, but mostly it will be with sort of broken grammar (kinda like this text, umm). Dutch people are usually fluent in EN, and what’s also interesting, they have more of an American English accent than the British one. But anyway, it didn’t mean anything when I was looking for a job.

Back to the housing, the problem is that the universities here don’t give a snap about enrolling more students than the city can accommodate, and count on that more than a half of students won’t cut the first year so they can enroll even more. After a week of unsuccessful room searching, I had to leave my hotel into another one. The hotels are aware of the miserable housing situation, so as the academic year started, they jacked up prices at least +€10 per night. The next day the case repeated: I called around 20 places, and the cheapest that had a room available was for €85 per night, without breakfast.

A few days later, I was getting fed up with all this mess. If I’d have some warranty of finding something soon, but it just didn’t look like I’d get lucky this time. I started considering whether it was a good idea. I didn’t want to just quit, but in the current situation of accommodation/work/school there would be a good chance that I’d have to quit after a year anyway, with no result, no diploma, and with my savings gone. "That would suck," I thought. "If I am about to burn a year and money, I might as well do it somewhere where I can talk with people and be happy with the community."

Finally, one day I didn’t reserve anything and went into the railroad station instead, to put my luggage into one of the storage boxes. The station was 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the last hotel I stayed in, so to get there, I strapped the luggage to my bike.

I am still amazed that it worked and the luggage didn’t broke. I am also amazed that I fit it into the small storage box at the station.

I am still amazed that it worked, and the luggage didn’t break. I am also amazed that I fitted it into that small storage box at the station.

With the luggage solved, I was thinking about what would be the best step for me to take, and I ended figuring that Utrecht wouldn’t be really sustainable from a long term perspective. Soon I took a pic of my bike, posted it online, and had a buyer in no time. But before I sold it, I went for the last ride to see a bit more of the city.

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Rijn en Zon, a flour mill from 1912-1913

one of city's water towers

one of the city's water towers

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Once without a bike, I took a walk through the downtown. My head was one big "wtf did just happen." A walk is a good way to sort the thoughts a bit, and it was a very nice evening.

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Suddenly a guy approached me: “I'm homeless, but I'm trying to save, would you be kind and give me one Euro?” Yes, as every bigger city, Utrecht has some homeless population too. Honestly, with the housing situation, there is no surprise. I just looked in his eyes, and with a self-surrendered face, I said: "I'm homeless too," and had no more questions asked.

homeless selfie time

homeless selfie-time

It was already dark when I began to research my options on where to spend the night. You know, check out local bridges and so on.

Since they were mostly already occupied (with various level of life),

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…I kept walking, enjoying the city at night..

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..to eventually get some sleep in a park. It was cold. New day's search didn't bring anything new job/housing wise, but I found a place inside a building. Some say it was a construction site of one of the new developments; some say that I crashed a penthouse party; others think this is all a myth. Either way, when I woke up in the morning, I got to see a sunrise from a decent perspective…

The rising sun intersects with the Gothic bell tower.

The rising sun intersects with the Gothic bell tower.

Not a bad way to start a day, that’s for sure.

A power plant brings a rainbow. Take that, greenpeace..

A power plant brings a rainbow. Take that, greenpeace..

After watching the city for a while, I used my cellphone to connect my laptop online, and once again, I searched if a miracle in the housing or the job market won’t happen. It didn't by the late afternoon, so I went for the last walk around...

..and then back to the railroad station, pick up the luggage...

Sunset at the station

Sunset at the station

...and I boarded a bus away from the NL.

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Yep, I moved again.

I skipped the new chapter of life in the NL and jumped straight into another one. Yeah, I didn’t see this coming either, but missteps happen. The life isn’t about to plan everything from a to z, because that never works. It is about taking challenges, and responding to all unexpected things that will appear in the best ways one can think of. This time, my response was the United Kingdom.

..but now I am based in London. 

.. now I 'll be based in London for a bit.

Thanks to all of you for your support.

I am exhausted but excited, looking forward to the new adventures. And you can look forward to pics from London..


Edit, July 2016: The whole “Netherlands Experience” had a bit unpleasant aftermath, which finally ended now, nearly a year later. So the story needs to be completed:

After I moved out of the country, I thought that I’m done with this chapter of misery. I was wrong. It turned out that the university had a worse organization that I've ever imagined, and it took another 10 months to settle all the cases.

At the moment I started to figure that the NL might not work, I went to the uni information desk and asked about their policies about enrollment cancellation, especially regarding the tuition payments. Just in case. The university’s employee explicitly told me that I wouldn’t have to pay any fees as long as I’ll withdraw the application before September the 10th. I’ve followed this instruction and done it prior to that date; in fact, I did it before any lectures have commenced. I submitted the cancellation via their online system, but they haven't got back with me, and besides an automated reply, "thanks for your submission, we will process it," I didn't get any confirmation. This didn't seem odd, as during the enrollment process several months ago, the communication wasn't really good either. I thought that this is just a way it should be. However, about a month later, I've received an email from the university, starting with apologizes for the late response, followed by a statement that I will have to pay the tuition fees.

“It has to be some mistake,” I thought and wrote them a polite objection against the payment, explaining that I was only following instructions given to me by a person in charge at their own information desk. This email received a prompt response, letting me know that the “colleagues at the Student Information Point have informed you incorrectly,” and that I need to pay. But they offered that I can submit a remonstrance about this case. Clearly, that’s what I did. However, again, I got no reply, no resolution, or a message that the case is in progress. Since I had no information about their decision, I did not pay a thing.

Meanwhile, I got many emails offering me some housing in the Netherlands. The most emails I received from a company that promised me “we will get in touch with you as soon as we have a room, it will be within a week.” – It wasn't a week, the first offer I received from them when I was in London already, over a month later. Every time I got such an email, I replied that I am no longer in need of accommodation and that I'd appreciate it if they would remove my email from their database. Depends on a company, sometimes it took one reply to solve it; other times, I had to send them dozens of emails before they finally got the fact that I am not going to do business with them. Frustrating.

Back to the tuition problem, time flew, no communication, no update.. “Maybe it’s all over,” I guessed. But then, just about a week before Christmas, I’ve received a mail - not from the university, but from a Dutch-based debt-collecting company, which informed me that if the sum isn't paid in full within a week, execution will follow. “They royally lied to me, and now I have to pay for their mess? I mean...” I began to read a ton of Dutch documents about their law system and stuff if there’s any chance to repeal this nonsense, but found out that there is nothing reasonable I could do at the moment, besides to pay them. So that’s what, with some great sickness, I did.

Sod it! This was a huge hit to me, suddenly I forgot all the good about the Netherlands all together, and said that this was the last money they'll ever see from me. No way will I fuel at Shell, buy their cheese, and whatever else they produce. I also voiced my issue around my friends - if they were about to buy some Dutch vegetables, I deployed a persuading speech concluding with something like "such purchase will contribute towards the greater evil on this planet." I wasn’t happy with the situation, and I wanted to extend the reach of my story.

At the end of January, I was getting ready to submit the case to some television, make it blow to the broad public. “They took my money, I'll take their reputation.” I know that one should forgive his enemies, but since they showed absolutely zero sympathies to me, I just applied their approach towards them.

However, before I did, I’ve received a mail from the Faculty Director office that my objection has escaped their notice, and I’ll have my fees refunded. My first reaction was, “An educational institute of communication and journalism has a response time of four months?!” But this was instantly erased with an optimistic vision that the things will actually turn out fine. If there’s a way to solve this peacefully; yes, I am all in.

So I have provided them with all the details needed to complete the transaction and waited. It was March already, and nothing happened. I sent a kind reminder about the situation, which received a reply “You have to contact a different office about this, it’s not our thing” so I sent another email to the office they mentioned, and got back that they can’t do nothing in this matter, but that I should contact yet a different office. For another month, I was sending emails on addresses I was given, but with no result at all. Damnit, but I kept going. Instead of sending an email to one address at the time, I searched for every possible university email I could find online, added them to the receivers list, and sent another request for an update. Another two weeks of no communication, I sent it again. And again, after another week.

Finally, things started to move; however, it was nowhere to a smooth finish. They said that I need to pay a manipulation fee first, then they will send the refund. "Nope," I thought. The Faculty Director office said nothing about any extra charges, so, I didn't respond to this one, and kept sending my case again to all the departments of the uni. Days passed, when I got an email stating: “It has been paid yesterday.” Wow.

While no one will return me the hours, nerves and banking fees I lost during this, the tuition was indeed refunded, and it was an interesting life experience. So I guess I’d call it good.

Back in the Netherlands, one of the university’s faculty members said that “If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much.” However, I’ve experienced a version when “If it is Dutch, it is a massive pile of troubles and complications” Maybe I just was at the wrong time with wrong people, maybe. Since the case eventually turned good, it returned me some faith in their moral values, and maybe, one day I will buy a Dutch cheese again.

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Essays, Stories

Comments

Regina Murphy
January 1, 2016 at 15:59

I’m sorry NL didn’t work out, Jakub! But you made it through safely, saw some amazing things and had a grand adventure. Onward and upward!

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Susan Copas
January 1, 2016 at 17:20

I read this when you first posted, but it was nice to read a second time after visiting Amsterdam. The bicyclists were terrifying. I would look and look, and just when I thought it was safe to cross a street…

Comments are closed.

Teresa Wehmeier
November 16, 2017 at 03:13

Jakub, I find your writing compelling, and read every word. Your photos work well to illustrate your experiences. Good job, and thanks for the heads up on NL.

Comments are closed.