“Oh, you’re from the Netherlands? Not so far from home then, right?”. A pretty standard conversation in expat circles, where friends have moved to Germany from the USA, Canada, South Africa or China. They are indeed a long way from home, and some have not visited their home countries for over a year. I was last in the Netherlands around Christmas, the only time in the year that I consistently block in my agenda: spending the holidays away from home is just not nice. Not really. Unless you are on some tropical island, by your own choice. I never tried, but I imagine that’s a pretty awesome way of spending the holidays away from home too.
Last week a Dutch guy posted a question on one of the Hamburg expat groups on Facebook about knowledge of German among expats. An interesting discussion followed, but at some point a fellow expat asked him the question why he wanted to be part of an English-speaking community. That raised both my eyebrows, as the real question of course is “why the hell not!”. After all, we Dutchies are expats just as much as the French, the British, the Americans and the Japanese. Just because our language is a cuter version of German it does not mean that we are not foreigners who enjoy the company of fellow foreigners. It might be relatively easy for us to cross the border between expat and local society because of our language skills, but we are foreigners nonetheless. Just like everyone else.
German may resemble Dutch somewhat, but it hardly comes natural to me. No matter what your first language is, German will always give you a hard time. It’s slightly easier for us, but don’t assume learning German is a walk in the park for me, just because I come from a neighbouring country where people speak a language that is somewhat related. Dutch doesn’t have cases and only two articles. Trust me when I say that it is tough for everyone. And if you don’t believe me, try speaking German with me. You will notice that it is just as hard for me to make a grammatically sound sentence as it is for you.
Dutchies and Germans, we are closely related. I never really experienced a culture shock, like my friends from relatively nearby countries like France or the UK certainly had. I understand and admire the German need for efficiency and “Order muss sein”, and don’t mind directness – we Dutchies are masters of the direct word. But it doesn’t mean that in many ways my struggles are not comparable to those of fellow expats. I too can’t seem to figure out the tax laws here, and I have no idea about legislation relating to contracts or work. I have no clue about pension savings, or how the healthcare system works. All the things you need to learn when moving to another country, I had and still have to learn them too. That knowledge that comes naturally with growing up in a country: I don’t have it either, because like everyone else, I am also an expat living in a foreign country.
Distance is all relative. It might seem to you that I live close to home, but in my mind I live half the world away. Did you know that it takes me at least 5 hours to go home as well? I have to take the bus to the airport, wait for departure, fly for some 1.5 hours and then either take a train (from Amsterdam, about 2 hours away from home) or ask my parents to pick me up in Brussels, which is about an hour away from home by car. The train takes even longer: without delays it is approximately 8.5 hours to get to that tiny village I call home. Now this might still sound like a short time for those coming from other continents, but for me it means that going home for a weekend is earlier said than done. Trains won’t bring me home anymore on Friday night after work, and flights are limited and sometimes mean unfavorable departure times and limited time on the spot. As a result of all this, I have only been back three times since I moved to Hamburg in October 2015. The difference between needing 2 hours to travel home or 5 or 6 is the real distinguishing factor between living and working in my own country and expat life for me. The Netherlands is not Japan or the US, but trust me when I say that for those working in neighbouring countries home can also feel really far away.