So You Want to Live in Amsterdam?
What’s it like to live in Amsterdam? This masterpiece of a city has much more to offer than just its well known relaxed attitude toward pot smoking and prostitution, two things you can’t quite find so well managed anywhere else. The Dutch are famously broad-minded and independent, qualities that make the country open to outsiders and adventurers like p.j. nix, who now calls the city home. Here’s how she made the move from the US to Amsterdam.
What made you decide to pack up and move to Amsterdam?
For about five or six years before I moved, I’d been spending a month per year in Amsterdam, where I’d go to decompress after a year of work stress. When my boyfriend and I decided to live together, he had been living in NYC but was in the process of moving to Amsterdam, I was in Los Angeles. He didn’t want to move to LA, and we both loved Amsterdam, so I followed him here.
What attracted you in the first place?
The city has oodles of character, charm, and history. The culture is all about live and let live.
How did you make it happen?
I decided to do it, then I just did it. Just like that.
Do you absolutely need to speak Dutch? Or can you muddle along with just English? Is that true for just Amsterdam / what about outside the city?
You can muddle through with just English in Amsterdam. Outside this city, you’ll need some Dutch unless you’re in a tourist area. I’ve met several expats who’ve lived here for 20+ years and still don’t speak Dutch fluently, or even at all; it can be a difficult language unless you already speak German.
After three years of twice-weekly Dutch classes, I can only read it somewhat, and speak it enough to get by, but I still struggle with understanding it when spoken to.
Did you do any research about living there before you went? If so, how did you find out about how to do it?
I did some research, I came here and did a job search. None of that was really helpful. A few things I learned after I got here: Expats are required to have private health insurance to live here. You must have insurance to get a greencard, you must have a greencard to get a bank account, you need a bank account and greencard to qualify for an apartment rental agreement. Without a bank account, expect to pay cash for pretty much everything. Credit cards are not used much by the Dutch, are only accepted at tourist attractions and some shops in high tourist areas. No grocery stores accept credit cards. But your ATM card will work at most ATMs in the Netherlands.
Would it be easy for a first-time traveler to adjust to life there? Why or why not?
Amsterdam is an ideal place for a first-time traveler to visit since English is spoken nearly everywhere and it’s very easy to get around by public transport. Living here is quite different than visiting, though; there are cultural adjustments, to be sure.
Daily life is not as convenient here. Most shops close at 6 pm, except Thursdays. The most common negative feedback I hear from expats is grappling with the way the Dutch are extremely direct in their dealings, so direct it can come across as rude to people from countries that are not used to such extreme directness. The Dutch don’t beat around the bush, ever. Their mother tongue, in fact, doesn’t even allow for it, so it’s a deeply ingrained way of being for them. Chivalry doesn’t exist in the Netherlands. Don’t expect doors to be held open for you, or for people to make room for you on the sidewalk. The Dutch push and shove getting on and off trams. They don’t mean to seem rude, but most expats I’ve talked to complain that the Dutch way often comes across as very rude. So if that sounds like something that would bother you, you’ll certainly have a very nice visit, but you may not like living here.
Where are the best parts of Amsterdam to live located?
The hippest, coolest areas to live and hang out are the Nine Streets, De Jordaan, and De Pijp. Lots of restaurants and pubs and cool shops in all these areas. De Jordaan and Nine Streets is probably the most expensive because it’s within the city center and where everyone wants to be. De Pijp is a little less expensive, but still, it’s expensive. It’s just outside the main city center but feels like you’re in the city center. De Pijp is where the artists used to live until it was gentrified and the artists migrated to North Holland, and now De Pijp is considered the new cool area to live, shop and work in. The Oud Zuid is where most of the rich estates are. Pricy.
The Helmmersbuurt is nice, we lived there for three years. You can still get a nice place there that’s not overpriced. It’s an up and coming area that’s just now undergoing full gentrification so it’s still a mixed bag, for the time being.
Young and artsy: In North Holland, which is just a free 5-minute ferry ride across the Ij River behind the central station (you can also bring your bike or scooter on the ferry), is a very artsy area that’s cheap and worth exploring. If you’re young, artsy and don’t mind not being right in the city you might just find it to be the happenin’ place to be.
The Bos en Lommer area is one of the lesser expensive areas to live.
For something less expensive yet not too far from the center, try De Baarsjes, between Rembrandt and Vondelpark.
Anywhere in Amsterdam, that’s within the main horseshoe ring of canals (Grachtengordel) is most expensive, except perhaps in the Red Light District. But once you go outside the Grachtengordel rents get a bit lower in some areas. You may be able to find a nice yet inexpensive apartment in the city center, I just don’t know anyone personally who’s done it.
When it comes to renting places for prices for €1000/month and below, a word should be said about Rental scams. Scams tend to target that price range. The scam often goes something like this: the ‘landlord’ says he’s out of town on vacation, but if you wire/mail him the money for the first month’s rent he’ll arrange to get you the key. That’s a pretty good indication he’s trying to collect rent on a place he doesn’t actually have the rights to rent out. If you’ve seen Tom McCarthy’s wonderful movie “The Visitor” then you get the gist of the scam. Just be cautious with anything that seems shady. Don’t agree to pay cash in exchange for the front door key of an apartment, and don’t mail anyone money, no matter what the circumstances. A bona fide landlord will not ask you to pay cash, nor pay for something sight unseen. And you will have to sign a rental agreement. There are apartments to be had for under €1000/month, but they are in highest demand and so be aware and if the deal seems a bit shady then it probably is.
The best and most popular website to find rentals in Amsterdam is Funda.
A word about rental agreements. If you don’t have a bank account, it’s pretty hard to rent an apartment. Rental agreements in Amsterdam are binding contracts that are far more strict than in The States. The paperwork for renting in Amsterdam is more akin to buying a house in The States, especially if you are an expat from a country that’s not a member of the EU. You will bid on the apartment, much like buying a house, and your bid may be denied. Usually first, last and a deposit equal to one month’s rent is required, and the landlord may ask for proof of employment, bank statements from a Dutch bank, to be assured you will be able to pay through the life of your contract. The Netherlands is an extremely frugal culture, and when it comes to money they don’t mess around, and they don’t take risks.
Having said all that, there are also many landlords that love renting to expats, and some who will only rent to expats, because they can charge more for rent, and it’s easier to get rid of expat tenants.
What is great about living there? Why?
The city of Amsterdam is always alive during the day, yet quiet at night. It’s like a city and a village, all in one. There are always things going on around town, even in the dead of winter. It’s a city where open-mindedness and free-thinking are heartily encouraged.
Let me give you my favorite example: During the 60s, the park slogan was, “Do it in the park, do it after dark.” But some complaints started coming in from some people who said their children were witnessing sexual activity in the park. The city’s solution was not to disallow sex in the park, instead, they designated a private area in the park for sex, with inconspicuous signs saying you shouldn’t go into this area unless you are okay with seeing people have sex, and that those using this area are expected to keep it clean, and use only this area for having sex in the park. The families were happy, the people who wanted to have sex in the park were happy. Everyone followed the rules and got along. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s an incredibly wonderful way to resolve a dispute. That, probably more than anything, is why I love it here. Though, I’ve never actually stumbled upon this area of the park, just knowing it’s there reminds me that I live in a city where individual freedom is respected.
Historical buildings are cherished, rather than torn down. Amsterdam is well looked after, improvements are made without destroying old buildings, roads are kept in good repair, parks are looked after (Amsterdam has over 30 public parks). The government keeps the city looking good and functioning properly. Amsterdam is very bicycle friendly. The city’s goal is to be the number one most bike-friendly city in the world by 2015, and we can see it happening; they are improving and making new bike paths all over.
Small businesses, boutiques, and unique shops abound in Amsterdam, they are not being slowly being squeezed out by chain stores, rather they are cherished and encouraged in every way imaginable.
The Dutch people are not complacent about what goes on in government. It is common to see notices of meetings being held by citizens to discuss politics. The Dutch love talking politics, to anyone, anytime, anywhere, and they are quick to rally to change any law that doesn’t make sense or isn’t working as intended. The Dutch have a consensus government with proportional representation with no electoral districts—every person’s vote counts.
What is difficult about living there? Why?
The seeming rudeness. But I’m getting used to it.
Was it easy to make friends with other expats / the Dutch?
It’s very easy to make friends with other expats, there are so many living here. The Dutch are a bit more difficult, but I also have some Dutch friends. The Dutch speak English so well and are very friendly in conversation, but until you speak Dutch they assume you’re just passing through and are less inclined to get too close.
What’s it like being single and dating in Amsterdam?
“Going Dutch” is the way it’s done here. Dutch women don’t hesitate to be as forward as they like. If you’re a woman who prefers to be wooed or expect chivalry, you probably won’t enjoy dating here. But if you like a no-nonsense, practical approach to matters of the heart, this might just be your paradise.
How can you stay there if you only have a tourist visa? (The in and out country trick or?)
Three months max with a tourist visa. The Dutch seem to be rather strict about this.
Have you found it difficult/easy to find work? Can you find work without a work visa (under the table jobs)? If so, what is the best way to find work?
There are employment agencies here. I don’t know anything about under the table work. I’m sure it happens, but I’m not sure how one could stay here without a greencard and make a secure life for themselves.
What would you say to someone thinking of moving to Amsterdam? Tips, advice, things you might do differently / the same?
I wouldn’t do anything differently.
What are the definite dos and don’ts when you live there?
At social gatherings, the subjects of politics and religion are not off limits in the Netherlands, in fact, Dutch people often say they don’t understand why anyone would consider these subjects off limits. They are usually eager to share their opinions on any subject, and just a delighted to hear yours, and consider such discussions important.
Is Amsterdam safe?
I find most of the city to be safe enough. I’ve walked and biked alone around the city at night and had no problems. You might not want to walk alone in the Bilmer area, but that’s rather far outside town. And the Red Light District is just kinda creepy if you’re a woman alone, but I’ve never felt unsafe. But that’s just me.
What websites have been most helpful for moving/living there / finding work/finding community?
To find rentals in Amsterdam visit Funda.
I started my own business, so I can’t give any advice about finding work. It really seems to depend on your skill set. But I can say that the American work ethic is in demand here, the Dutch work ethic is far more relaxed and workers are less eager to excel. Dutch school children get teased and made fun of if they try to excel, so there’s a degree of mediocrity in work performance (it’s an aspect of the culture that the Dutch are trying to change, though, but no one sees it happening anytime soon). If you speak Dutch, you will find far more jobs to choose from.
To find communities I recommend Meetup.com and search for groups interested in the same things you are. There are plenty of expat groups on Meetup that go to movies together, listen to music, write letters for Amnesty International, talk about philosophy, run together, play tennis, book clubs, learn flamenco dancing, sightsee, meditate, play football, practice their Dutch, ice skate, share business strategies, naked men’s yoga… you name it.
Finally, would you do it again?
Dank je wel p.j.!
Follow p.j.’s blog.
Holland. The Original Cool Video
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