Challenges of Expats – Interview of the month January

This month I introduce you to a wonderful English lady, named Alison Mills. From London, England, to now living in Haarlem, The Netherlands. Enjoy her true story ☺

Each month, I write these interviews, revealing great stories and advise. If you are an expat or considering to travel abroad, you can enjoy these stories. Arriving in a new country is such a change, and  how to feel ‘’at Home’’ can be a challenge.  How can an expat integrate easily? Simply relax &  enjoy Alison’s story.

Interview with Alison  

Who is Alison?   

I am 50 (I’m still trying to work out how that happened!), divorced (ditto) 3 kids (actually ditto). Born and raised in UK, studied hotel industry, worked for the first part of my working life in Hotels, last position was as Sales and Marketing director for Marriott International, based in London but travelling worldwide for many years.

In 1999, I decided to change direction and became a full time mom. In 2002, I got a job with an estate agency for just a couple of mornings a week working with expat’s, my aim was to work in a local company for a while to help me learn the language better.  10 years later in 2011, I started my own company a property rental agency with a colleague.  We still work with expats moving to this area and also have a thriving business renting out properties on behalf of owners (some are expats that I helped find properties years ago – now own their own properties and have since moved abroad).

When did you move and why the choice of  The Netherlands?

In 2000 I moved with my Dutch husband and baby of 6 months.  After having a more than full time career I put the same effort into building myself a new life as expat mum, learning language and culture.

What a radical change you made: from working full-time, being all over the world, to staying home, being a mom AND moving to a new country. That is not easy and I admire your strength and courage.

After deciding to move, what further steps/paperwork did you take?’’

Holland loves paperwork! back then even European citizens had to go to get residence permit go to the ‘vreemdeling’ police to register, before the town hall, tax office etc.  Without relocation company, I did it all myself and learnt by mistakes. One bizarre example was finding out that my eldest daughter, born in the UK was not ‘attached’ to me in the Dutch registration system (she was only attached to my Husband, who was attached to me, but that apparently wasn’t the correct way!) The solution was to get an apostil stamp on my original ‘long’ birth certificate (all done by post waaay back then).  – The only difference was my mother’s maiden name was not on the short version they had! – go figure!

What was your first impression of  the country The Netherlands?

Apart from those kind of frustrations, (compared to the UK and the US where I had travelled and worked mostly) I found it to be very efficient here.  Full of strange little customs and habits that the whole country seemed to be aware of – except me! (coffee at 11, tea at 3, dinner at 6, where do you put the spoon in the coffee cup when you drink the coffee? congratulate everyone at a birthday party etc)

You describe it so well J Each country has their customs, and Birthday’s…..Yep, it took me a while getting used to everyone congratulating me when I mentioned it was my brother or mom’s birthday. I kept thinking ‘’why are you congratulating me? It’s not my birthday!

What was your first impression of  The Dutch people?

The main impression of the Dutch (family, friends and people at shops/school etc.) was the forthright way of speaking (often called blunt).  Now, years later and fully fluent, I get it!!  Many times I got a shocked when someone would give their (quite often negative) opinion – even when it wasn’t asked for!

You are describing the ‘’Directness’’ very gently. I think everyone goes though the shock before getting used to it, and maybe even liking it afterwards.’

Did you integrate and adjust smoothly with the Dutchies?

For the first years all my friends were other expat mums – many of whom are, all these years later still great friends. I actually didn’t mix with the locals much at all at first. But when the kids started play dates at primary school, I got to know many Dutch mums.

By that time I had learned Dutch well so was able to mix and natter on the school playground, and even though I’m hardly ever at the school these days (my youngest is in group 8, cycles alone to school and is mortified when turn up on the ‘schoolplein’) I still have a lovely group of (Dutch) friends who I met through school.

What was your biggest Challenge(s) moving to the Netherlands?

The BIGGEST challenge was … Learning not to take offence when getting the opinion from someone – they really don’t mean it that way.

Second challenge: complaining is a national pastime, let it slide off!

Third challenge, learn to ‘give’ your own opinion in the same way – can by quite cathartic!

Please tell us your important TIP(s) when coming to The Netherlands.

TOP tip # 1:  

Learn Dutch! yes everyone speaks English, but you won’t really get to know people until you speak their language, understand their culture and mix in their lives.  Expats will be your lifeline, your ‘family’ here, they understand but make the effort (and it will be more effort in the beginning because they always want to speak English to you) to speak Dutch.’

Top tip #2:

To get involved with the local community around you.  In whatever way you can, be that a knitting club, running club, school helper, invite the neighbours – do mix with the locals! – and as you meet people, insist on speaking Dutch with them – mostly you stay in the language you met in, even when your Dutch improves.

Thank you very much!