Between the Polders: Living and Working in the Netherlands

I’ve lived in Holland for about 18 months and had interesting experiences with internships, work, living in a monumental house on an island and social interactions with the Dutch.

Grote Kerk-Dordrecht
Grote Kerk-Dordrecht

The Island

Dordrecht (South-Holland) was my home for almost eighteen months.
I visited family in this city a few times over the past years, but became very charmed by Dordt (as it’s called by the inhabitants) after staying in a B&B in a *monumental house. When I decided to spend time abroad for work and internships two years ago, guess which destination I chose…
Dordrecht is both an island and the oldest city of the Netherlands. It has a beautiful historical center with houses and other buildings dating back to the medieval and early modern period. The name ‘island’ might suggest that the city is isolated, however there are frequent connections with other cities by highway, train, boat and bus.

*monumental houses are of a certain age and they are protected by the state. These buildings have architectural aspects which make them valuable (economic and/or cultural). This means that such properties can’t be altered architecturally without permission from the local government.


The Hague bicycles

Initially I was looking for employment in Holland’s larger cities. This was a very slow process (despite my experience and perfect command of Dutch), so I chose to pursue an internship in a field I became increasingly interested in: communication. The internship for an English-speaking ngo in The Hague represented a nice combination between languages, an international experience and my  interest in ngo’s.This city is the political heart of the Netherlands so that’s where you’ll find embassies and other governmental institutions.
There was an interesting diversity amongst my colleagues in The Hague. The organisation counted about five or six employees who almost each had a different cultural origin. This lead to inspiring conversations during lunchtime, all these differences worked well together.
Meetings and conferences were attended, which brought me in contact with even more nationalities: African, European and Asian. For instance when I hear an African name today, chances are I can attribute it to the correct country. This sure helps break the ice during conversations with people from e.g. Ghana, Mali, Nigeria.

Rotterdam: Roll up your sleaves!

Rotterdam Central
Rotterdam Central

I found my first Dutch job after 14 months. This function was with a bank in the young and busy city of Rotterdam. My colleagues were a group of recent graduates. Some of them originate from Surinam, eastern Europe and Asia. This made me enthusiastic, however the cultural exchanges were quite limited compared to my internship.
I thought my different nationality would go unnoticed because of this diversity but my Belgian accent ‘blew the cover’. It was almost impossible for my colleagues not to ask questions about my neighbouring home country and accent. For any Dutch-speaking readers: I never managed to speak with an accent from Holland (but I do a mean Scottish accent though ; )
In general the colleagues were quite friendly and ambitious. It is said (as a joke) that people from Rotterdam work so hard that when you open their dressing their shirts are folded with the sleeves already rolled up. Rotterdam can be described as a young, determined and modern environment.

Raisins & Sulphur

What’s in a name? Those were my thoughts when I received some odd remarks during two of my several job interviews in Holland. At first I was quite surprised and a bit annoyed. I realised later that sometimes you have to turn a strange situation around by learning from it or sharing it. So here we go:

1. “Are our raisins dried using sulphur”?
2. “You’re small but you are a real fully grown woman”.
3. “I’m worried you won’t be fast enough”

Fortunately I received more objective feedback after interviews with other companies. My knowledge of raisins, my length and assumed speed  were not judged to be an issue by later employers. I was tested and given the possibility of a trial period, both of which I passed.

Free Labour ?

volunteering is a widespread phenomenon in the Netherlands. Volunteers are active with e.g ngo’s, sport clubs, hospitals,care for the elders, libraries. They do this, as the name volunteer suggests, without financial compensation.
There’s a peculiar expression amongst some Dutch which is “I’m out of voluntary work”.(usually people make a remark about being out of paid work). Volunteering can be a great way to meet new people, gain new experience or do something for society. But does it make sense when volunteering is considered as an opportunity to get a paid position with the same organisation? If it doesn’t, will it lead to a frustrated volunteer?
Moreover, some selection procedures are so strict that I wondered what all the fuss was about. Should volunteering come close to a privilege? Some people utter ideas about using volunteers instead of paid workforce (despite official prohibitions from the national employment agency UWV). For instance in the city of Drenthe in 2015 people protested against the cancellation of certain busroutes. Some suggested that the busdrivers be replaced by volunteers. This idea received a lot of angry opposition. (radio npo1-may 26th, 2015)

Steps I took to (potentially)volunteer

  1. went to the volunteering section of the big library in Rotterdam
  2. told the volunteering section I wanted to teach Dutch once a week (as I had done this before in Belgium)
  3. received and read a whole lotta paperwork
  4. had to register with an organisation where I could teach
  5. follow a teaching training with another organisation
  6. after the training go back to the organisation from step 4 and choose a project.
  7. I chose not to do this because of two reasons, the first one being that volunteering should not be a complex procedure. It’s something I wanted to pursue for an hour or two a week. The second reason is that the target group of the project I was interested in(people with family or relationship issues), in my opinion needed and deserved professional assistance from a social worker.

However I did volunteer for another organisation. My aunt teaches yoga classes and could use some help with spreading flyers and using social media. Flyering is a cool way to get to know a city and put those convincing skills to good use. I was rewarded with coffee and good advice. No hassle, no tons of paperwork.


Boot Dordrecht1I decided to say goodbye to the Netherlands after an 18 month stay. I do miss my friendly, enthusiastic neighbours, former collegues and friends from the Hague. Luckily Belgium where I live now is not so far. When I feel like admiring the beautiful old Dutch city centres or visiting family the train takes me there in a jiffy.
My reason for leaving was the difficult economic situation and very complex procedures of finding steady and/or experience-based employment. I sometimes had the impression I was applying for a job at Nasa, while it was actually an administrative function. After my return to Belgium I quickly found a new job, albeit a temporary one at first.

Het was fijn, maar plots was het tijd om te gaan (Dutch for ‘it was nice, but suddenly it was time to go’)