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 realized that I couldn’t continue in the US, I researched where to move and start another chapter of my life. My plan was to go back to college, get a job eventually, and see how things evolve. After considering the pros and cons of many countries around the planet, I picked the Netherlands. Things I found online looked just right: it is 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 programs are good, and the tuition is reasonable; decent job market; beautiful cities; nice people… a sweet deal, right? But as it happens, things online don’t always reflect reality. But let’s start from the beginning.
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.
It has earned the world’s fame for its international trade, water canals, flower markets, and windmills, weed tourism, and finally, its usage of bikes. Let me start with the bikes, and I will try to get to the other things later.
Bikes are definitely one of the very first things you will notice once you visit the country: they are everywhere. One has to pay attention while walking / driving in downtown not to hit or get hit by one of them, but it isn’t rocket science. While it might seem like colossal mayhem at first look, it has its own order that works very well. So, it takes only a day-or-so of practice, and one is set. There is an enormous number of designated bike roads, and each intersection has specified the right of way. Even bike parking has a system.
As a result, 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; buy me a local cellphone number, etc.
At first, riding in downtown reminded me of the days I used to ride a bike on narrow, steep trails in deep woods. Back then, 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 exhilarating. To raise the thrill a bit, over half of bikers type a text or call someone, smoke, hold an umbrella, handbag, groceries, hold the hand of another biker, or everything together. Multitasking at its finest. Some even have, on top of the mentioned stuff, headphones on. I adapted to this quickly; many photos in this post are taken while riding a bike.. You know, holding a phone with maps in one hand, a camera in the second, and the handlebar in the thi… oh, wait. You get the idea; it is a common practice here.
During the time I was there, I rode easily more miles than I did over the last year or so, just to get from one side of the city to another, back and repeat. Since the paths are flat with a smooth surface, it didn’t feel like any big deal, but it does cost a bit of activity. The Dutch biking system is like a free gym, but better; one gets daily exercise, but as opposed to running on a treadmill, they get places, too.
Now, let me tell you about the city I moved in: Utrecht.
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 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 of 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.
This contributes to its extremely vital downtown. 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 they’re all full at night.
Here needs to be mentioned, Dutch food is tasty and healthy. Brilliant, until you see the bill. While one can grab a nice meal for 10-15 bucks in the US, they can easily end up paying 20 and up here in the Netherlands.
Another thing to say, you won’t get a coffee in the local coffee shops. In the downtown, one can smell weed 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 around, making the scene dynamic. Even the most boring building during the day becomes more interesting at night if it is under a mix of light sources. Also, you can’t see all the mess like in daylight (but that’s not the case in the Netherlands, as it is clean). Speaking of lightning, Utrecht offers a show. Many places and structures in the city center are neatly lightened with a flair of art.
Reflectors enhancing the shapes of structures aren’t anything unusual, but they take them to the next level here: nearly every bridge over downtown canals is brightened with pulsing led lights…
…same with pedestrian underpasses, changing colors constantly…
…and windows of some buildings shine in intervals.
…but the coolest of all of them is this one:
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, and there are plenty of things to discover. Streets are as loud as with people chatting or singing later in the night as the alcohol permille increases. At some point, it gets hard to capture anything as some happy being jumped in front of my camera every time I tried to take a picture.
Utrecht would entertain me for quite a while, for sure. Besides the culture in the city center, it is a city where the old meets the modern.
There are quite a few contemporary buildings already...
...but in 10 years, they’ll be filling every available space. There is a ton of new developments going on.
One of the recently built structures is this fancy mosque.
Not just the students, migrants from all over the planet also contribute to the fact that Utrecht is very multicultural, including many Muslims. I felt like people here respected that, and it made me think that hopefully, one day, people will be more accepting everywhere. Try to set up a Christian church of the same size in some places in the Middle East now...
This moves us to another point, the people here: The Dutch are the tallest population in the world, so I don’t look there like some rare species with my two meters (6’6”) height. Because most of them ride bikes instead of driving everywhere, an average Dutch person is in far better physical shape than an average person in the States.
Unfortunately, those that I ran into weren’t nearly as friendly as I was used to with people in the US, which is a shame. On my first day there, I asked a stranger for directions, and he said to give him five Euros first. So I used my phone instead. The people here are mostly quiet, taking care only of themselves, but if they think something about you, they will let you know it straightforwardly. That’s good, but it takes a bit of time to get used to. One of my first conversations here I had with a girl at an information point, where I was told: “You are trying to get a room here within a week? Pfffff, that’s madness,” she said.
That brings me to accommodation issues. I knew that scoring a place to live might be a challenge here, so I started in advance: a couple of months back, I got in touch with a company that was 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 have had no luck in finding anything.
Surely, securing accommodation would go better in person, I thought, and I arrived about ten days before the first day of school; my plan was to stay in a hostel while searching for a room. However, every hostel I 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 effort, so I decided to book a hotel for a week (uh, I know) and began my search. I was looking for a furnished room in a shared apartment in a range of €350-550 per month, including utilities. I was not too thrilled to go back to shared accommodation, but it was the only choice, as according to what I read online and discussed with the uni staff, one could get such a room from €300 up, while self-contained studios run for €1000+.
The reality turned out 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 social media and asked people around the town for help, but it didn’t go well. First, there was absolutely no way to get anything, even unfurnished, below €400/month. Then, if there was a furnished room for ~ €500/pm, it was only with “no council registration possible,” which means living in such a space is against the law. All the unfurnished rooms for around €500 that I saw were with many, um, compromises. They were either in a desolate condition with roof leaks, broken windows, moldy bathrooms, or with roommates that wouldn’t work, like people smoking 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 at such rates.
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, he said that "There is nothing like this offered; who told you that we do 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. However, I was always asked, “…but you can speak Dutch, right?” and the job opportunities disappeared like bubbles from a cheap soda. Even at some, um, not so demanding positions, like washing dishes in a pub. Well, damn.
The language itself is interesting too: Dutch is like if you’d put German, English, and some French in a blender and mix it for 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). 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 enroll more students than the city can accommodate, and count on that more than half of the 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 for another one. The hotels were 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 €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 properly function."
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 five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the last hotel I stayed in, so to get there, I strapped the luggage to my bike.
With the luggage solved, I was thinking about what would be the best step for me to take, and I ended up figuring that the Netherlands wouldn’t be really sustainable from a long-term perspective this time. 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.
Once without a bike, I took a walk through the downtown. A walk was needed since my head was one big “Wtf did just happen,” and I needed to sort my thoughts a bit. Otherwise, it was a lovely evening.
Suddenly a guy approached me: “I’m homeless, but I’m trying to save, would you be kind and give me one Euro?” Like most big cities, Utrecht has a 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.
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 levels of life),
…I kept walking, enjoying the city at night to eventually get some sleep in a park. It was cold.
The 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 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…
Not a bad way to start a day, that’s for sure.
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...
...and I boarded a bus away from the NL. Yep, I moved again.
I ended 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. Life isn’t about planning everything from a to z because that never works. It is about taking challenges and responding to all unexpected things in the best ways one can think of.
This time, my response was London. I am exhausted but excited, looking forward to the new adventures. And you can look forward to pics from the UK.
Thanks to all of you who reached out with support.
Edit, July 2016: After I moved out of the country, I thought that I was done with this chapter. Alas, my “Netherlands Experience” had a bit unpleasant aftermath; it took another ten months to settle all the cases.
If you are interested, click here to expand the sequel of the story:
At the moment I started to figure that the NL might not work, I went to the uni information desk and asked about their enrollment cancellation policies, especially regarding 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 before the 10th of September. I followed the instruction and did it prior to that date; in fact, I did it before any lectures commenced. I submitted the cancellation via their online system, but they haven’t gotten back to me with a confirmation besides an automated reply, “thank you for your submission; we will process it.” This didn’t seem too odd, as the communication during my application process several months ago wasn’t stellar either. I thought that this was just the way it is. However, about a month later, I received an email from the university apologizing for the late response, followed by a statement that I will have to pay the tuition.
“It has to be some mistake,” I thought and wrote them a polite objection, explaining that I followed 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 matter was 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. 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 was no longer in need of accommodation and that I’d appreciate it if they would remove my email from their database. Depends on the 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 was 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, about a week before Christmas, I received a mail – not from the uni, but a Dutch debt-collecting company, informing me that execution will follow if the sum isn’t paid in full within a few days. “They lied to me, and now I have to pay for the mess? I mean... Lovely gift!” I sighed and began to read a ton of documents about the Dutch law system if there’s any chance to repeal this nonsense. But I did not find out anything reasonable I could do besides paying them. So, that’s what, with great sickness, I did.
Sod it! This was a huge hit to me; I suddenly forgot all the good about the Netherlands altogether 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 the issue around me – if my friends 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 know that one should forgive their enemies, but since they showed absolutely zero sympathies for me, I adopted their approach towards them. 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, making it blow to the broad public. However, before I did, I received a mail from the Faculty Director’s office that my objection had escaped their notice, and I’ll have my fees refunded. My first reaction was, “An institute of communication and journalism has a response time of four months?!” But this was instantly erased with an optimistic vision that things would actually turn out fine. If there’s a way to solve this peacefully, yes, I am all in.
So, I provided them with all the details needed to complete the transaction and waited. It was March already, and nothing had happened. After I sent a kind reminder about the situation, I received a reply like, “You have to contact a different office about this; it’s not our thing.” So I sent another email to the office they mentioned, only to get that they can’t do anything in this matter either, but that I should contact yet a different office. For another month, I sent emails to addresses I was given, but with no result. 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, added them to the receivers list, and sent another request for an update. After another two weeks of no communication, I sent it again. And again, after another week. Finally, things started to move.
Still, it was far from a smooth finish. They said I need to pay a manipulation fee first before they send the refund. “Nope,” I thought. The Faculty Director’s office said nothing about any extra charges. I didn’t respond to this one and sent my case again to all the departments of the uni instead. Days passed when I got an email stating: “It has been paid yesterday.” Wow.
Back in the Netherlands, one of the university’s faculty members said that “If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much.” However, I experienced a version “If it’s Dutch, it’s a massive pile of troubles and complications” Maybe I just was at the wrong time with the wrong people, maybe. No one will return me the time, nerves, and banking fees I lost during this, but the tuition was indeed refunded, and it was an interesting life experience. So I guess I’ll call it good. Since the case eventually ended the way it did, I might buy Dutch cheese one day again.
Edit, July 2022: The story goes on. Years passed since moving to London; multiple countries and two university degrees later, I learned that when things don't go as imagined, maybe it's not the thing's fault but having the expectations set wrongly. Years passed, and I started to think that seeing the Netherlands again with different eyes could be interesting. I came here earlier this month. Believe it or not, I love it. I will post about it later; stay tuned.
Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories