4 Things I Learned Studying Abroad in the Netherlands

By Marina Krivonossova on July 2, 2018

When you’ve lived in the U.S. for 15 years, moving to a country over 5,000 miles away can prove to be challenging. I learned this for myself when I packed up my things into a suitcase and moved to the Netherlands for half a year. I expected cold winters, canals in every city, and tulip fields everywhere I looked. What I got instead was a surprisingly different reality…

Bicycles line canals in most Dutch cities

1. Bicycles run this town. Or more specifically, the entire country. Bicycles tend to be the primary form of transportation no matter where you go. Car parking is super pricey and tough to find in the first place, public transport can get overly crowded. Walking dozens of miles a day can really tire you out, so Dutch people turn to bikes as the ultimate savior. I grew up in California where bike riding was common enough, but pedestrians still ultimately had the right of way wherever I went. I also heard stories of places like New York, where cars had the ultimate right of way — but never could I imagine being in a place where bicycles were at the top of the transportation chain. In the Netherlands, pedestrians and car drivers have to look both ways (at least fifteen times) before going across intersections, as cyclists can pop up anywhere — and you can bet that they won’t be stopping just because they see you walking or driving by. But honestly, I’m impressed with the Dutch commitment to this eco-friendly form of getting around town. Not only does it help in decreasing the amount of air pollution that results from overuse of cars, but it also leads to an overall increase in health among cycling individuals.

Reliance on public transport in the Netherlands makes rush hour insane

2. Public transport is also your friend. Which, as someone who relied heavily on it in the Netherlands, I can highly appreciate. I go to university in Orange County, where the bus system is super disorganized and inconvenient. The two or three times that I’ve taken the bus, I found myself surrounded by people who either appeared homeless (one time I even witnessed a man bring a folded cardboard box with him, later announcing to the entirety of the bus that he was carrying his house with him), or people completely freaked out about being on the bus — sitting nervously in the corner, ready to get off as soon as they possibly could. I would fall into the second category of people, as being on the bus not only felt unsafe, but it was utterly stressful and confusing – the schedules would change often, the drivers failed to supply me with any helpful information, and fellow passengers would engage in impolite, uncalled for conversation with me. The Dutch are used to a very different system of public transport. On a typical bus in the Netherlands, you’re bound to be surrounded by business people in suits, students on their way to class, retail workers getting ready to start the day — essentially an even distribution of people from all layers of society. Bus passes are easy and convenient to come by, drivers stick to their schedules (though with occasional transport strikes making things difficult), and buses give off the vibe of being big cars rather than filthy metal deathtraps carrying you to an undetermined destination.

Dutch college students have about a 9% dropout rate (OECD), while American students have a whopping 30% dropout rate (U.S. News)

3. Mental and physical health is valued over getting perfect grades. This one was probably the craziest for me. I cried when I got a C on a science test in 5th grade. I had a mental breakdown after I got a B+ in my calculus class in high school, because it marred my perfect straight A high school record. I was one of many students with this mindset. American students feel so much pressure to drive themselves to the edge just to get high grades that don’t even guarantee any career success in the future. “According to the American College Health Association (ACHA) the suicide rate among young adults, ages 15-24, has tripled since the 1950s and suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students.” (Burrell 2018) The situation for students in the Netherlands is utterly different in a positive way. Most of the Dutch friends I made at Utrecht University were very intelligent, motivated people who certainly wanted to graduate college — they just weren’t willing to sacrifice their well-being to achieve that. They were willing to retake a class they failed, stay back a year and graduate in 5 years instead of 4 to lessen their workload, and go to bed early enough to get 7 hours of sleep instead of staying up all night to work on a term paper. It’s healthy to practice self-care and remind yourself that school isn’t nearly as important as staying alive and well — a reality the American school system could learn a little something from.

Former president Barrack Obama sports the famous “American Smile.”

4. Being straightforward and direct is the norm. Beating around the bush and dropping hints isn’t. Are you used to starting conversations with people — asking how their day is going and how their family is doing — right before you ask them for a favor? I for one admit to being guilty of this small talk prior to getting into the meat of the conversation. When I started interacting with more people in the Netherlands, they told me that this concept is purely American. Initially I wasn’t sure if that was the case, but it got me thinking that this would make sense. United States residents tend to be kings and queens of small talk, fake politeness, and masters of the American Smile. Dutch people push this notion aside and substitute it with honesty and straightforward behavior. Are you wondering if that guy at the bar is flirting with you? Don’t worry, he’ll tell you. Are you unsure if your new haircut works well with your face shape? When you come to class tomorrow, all your friends will 100% let you know if it looks great or ridiculous. Is your loud music annoying the neighbors? Give it ten minutes, and you’ll find out — they won’t let your annoying behavior go unacknowledged. It certainly came as a shock to me, as I was used to people being nice and polite wherever I went, regardless of whether or not they meant it. But I like the whole candid Dutch attitude. I appreciate knowing the truth and not wondering if people are lying to me to please me. Being fake to please those around you gets you absolutely nowhere, but tactful honesty is always admirable.

You never know how different life on the opposite side of the planet can be until you go there and immerse yourself in society and interact with the culture. It can be challenging to adapt to, but you learn more than you could possibly have imagined you would, and it’s completely worth it. What’s the most interesting thing you learned while living away from home?

By Marina Krivonossova

Uloop Writer
A writer, baker, travel enthusiast, and advocate for human rights.

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