Tales from a Small Planet (http://www.talesmag.com) is a website dedicated to helping expats to get credible information about “What It’s Really Like to Live There.” It contains reports from over 350 cities, school reports (where the schools are graded) and essays, fiction and humour about life abroad. The project originates from the U.S. Foreign Service and the reports are mostly written by and for Americans, so I decided to do my best to add a non-American angle to the Tales. Here’s my first contribution, reporting on Rotterdam, my current home town.
What are your reasons for living in this city (e.g., corporate, government, military, student, educator, retiree, etc.)?
Came here as a student at first (studying at Delft University of Technology). Met a local girl, married, got children. That sums it up pretty much.
How long have you been living here? Or when did you live there?
I have been living in Rotterdam for over 6 years now, after spending 7 years in nearby Delft.
Was this your first expat experience? If not, what other foreign cities have you lived in as an expat?
I lived in 4 other countries before moving to Rotterdam.
Where is your home base, and how long is the trip to post from there, with what connections?
Having lived in the Netherlands for 13 years, by now my home base is here.
What are the special advantages of living in this city/country (e.g., touring, culture, saving money, weather, etc.)?
The classic painting-like Dutch countryside is beautiful, Dutch museums are magnificent, connections to the rest of Europe are superb. And of course cycling here is something quite amazing.
What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country?
After so many years spent here, it is hard to choose from so many. Getting married in a medieval townhouse. Sailing on the Dutch lakes. Spontaneous weekends away to another country. The annual International Film Festival in Rotterdam. The insanity when the national team plays football. Cycling. Cycling. Cycling. Hey – its the Netherlands, what did you expect?
What is the air quality like (e.g., good, moderate, unhealthy, or very unhealthy with comments)?
The Dutch air looks clean. Its not. Especially in Rotterdam, with its oil industry, fine particles pollution is a serious problem.
What is the climate like? Weather patterns?
Its sometimes hard to tell what season it is without a look at the calendar. They say it can be sunny, warm and calm here, but never all 3 on the same day. That said, its not as bad as some would make you believe. The biggest downside is that good weather seldom lasts longer than a couple of days in a row.
What kind of insect problems are there, if any?
Mosquitos are a nuisance at some parts. Ticks occur in the countryside. Wasps in late summer. But its not a major issue.
Are there any special security concerns?
Compared to the rest of the world – no. The locals do complain, but its a national hobby. Fact is that crime rates have plummeted in the last decade or so, and in Rotterdam there are no real no-go areas (anymore).
Housing types, locations, and typical commute time?
City center is apartments mostly. Further out its typical suburbia. Commute time in the Netherlands is among the longest in the world, which is surprising for such a small country. But given the amount of cars per square km, which is one of the world’s highest, its not that surprising that rush hour traffic is best avoided here.
What’s the availability of International schools and your experience with them?
There are a few, a recent trend is dual-language education (classes are in Dutch and English).
Are preschools/daycare options available (with comments about your experience and costs)?
Available – yes. If you book way in advance. Expensive, too.
What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Depends a lot on which school it is – the quality varies greatly.
Is this a good city for families/singles/couples?
For singles and couples – great. For families it can be challenging to find affordable housing and good schools in the same neighbourhood.
Is this a good city for gay or lesbian expats?
Yes. Another recent trend is that Amsterdam hipsters, including LGBT, are moving to Rotterdam due to the excessive costs of living in Amsterdam.
Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices?
Immigrants and their descendants complain about discrimination. Native Dutch grumble about high crime rate and low work-morale among immigrants. You don’t get shot for running while black, so I guess its better than many North-American cities. Zwarte Piet might be a shock for visitors from overseas, but even that freaky colonial legacy is slowly being taken care of.
I won’t say too much about the attitudes of many in the local Muslim community towards women, LGBT’s and other religions, especially Jews, enough has been said about it elsewhere. Let’s say there is plenty of room for improvement there. To close this on a positive note – the current mayor of Rotterdam is Ahmed Aboutaleb, of Moroccan origin, who is highly respected by all and is known for his harsh criticism of intolerance in the Moslim community.
Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city? Comment:
Its Holland – famous for its flatness, so I guess its fine. More seriously – most bus stops and such are wheel-chair friendly, and public buildings seem to be fairly accessible.
What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “secret or hidden gems”?
Plenty. For Rotterdam check out http://www.spottedbylocals.com/rotterdam (I used to write for them). In the Netherlands the Wadden Sea and the islands are worth a trip, Maastricht is not to be missed, and I hear diving in the North Sea can be quite a thrill, even if a cold one.
Are gyms or workout facilities available? Costs?
Yes, although I don’t use them myself. The prices vary, but I hear you get what you pay for in terms of quality. There are cheap ones, but if you’re serious about your workout, it may be best to pay more.
Are sports programs available for kids?
A lot, outside the school system usually.
What fast food and decent restaurants are available? Cost range?
An abundant supply. In recent years, a major change for good has happened, in terms of price/quality ratio, diversity and overall quality.
What is the availability and relative cost of groceries and household supplies?
Everything is available. If you choose where you buy, the prices are quite OK. Fresh fruit and vegetables are relatively cheap, especially on the markets.
What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs?
Credit cards are not really welcome here. Not even all ticket machines at train stations accept them. ATM’s are everywhere.
What type of automobile is suitable to bring (or not to bring) because of terrain, availability of parts and service, local restrictions, duties, carjackings, etc?
Small. Gas prices are among the highest in the world and parking space is very limited. Buying a second-hand one here is probably better – Dutch are known for keeping their cars well-maintained.
Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable?
Safe- yes. Affordable – not really.
How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living?
Everyone here speaks English. Learning Dutch is actually a challenge – locals don’t understand why anyone would bother.
Which English-language religious services are available?
Many. Its a major harbour, so quite a few seafarers churches here.
Is high-speed Internet access available? Cost?
Yes. Around 30 Euro per month for regular connection, high speed may cost more.
Size and morale of expat community:
Lots of foreigners, not sure about the morale.
Are there decent job opportunities for expats on the local economy?
- Proficient in Dutch
- An EU citizen (or have a work permit)
- A skilled professional in a high-demand job (IT specialist, teacher of math/physics/German, electrical engineer and so on)
- Prepared to take any job
If you score on all 4 points – you’ll have employers begging to hire you. Comply with 3 of the 4, and you’ll get a job within a week. Two out of four – your chances are OK. One out of four – its a start, but don’t count on much. Otherwise don’t bother.
What volunteer opportunities are there?
A lot. Really a lot.
What are some typical things to do for entertaining/social life?
The above mentioned International Film Festival Rotterdam is a highlight. So is De Parade – a summer theatre festival. Summer carnival is big, especially with the Caribbean community. The Rotterdam Marathon is huge, with hundreds thousands of spectators along the track. Other big events are Museum Night and Open Monumentendag (Heritage Day).
What’s the dress code at work and in public?
Smart-casual, although the office dress code is more relaxed compared to Germany or France. Rotterdam’s blue-collar roots do show in the relatively high amount of sweatpants worn in public.
Are there any health concerns? What is the quality of medical care available?
Health care quality is good and very professional. Dutch doctors are quite reluctant to prescribe medication (which I think is a good thing). So don’t expect to get a prescription every time you see your GP.
You can leave behind your:
But don’t forget your:
Cycling skills. Umbrella. Rain jacket.
Can you save money?
Yes, with careful budget planning.
What unique local items can you spend it on?
Cheese, special beers. Antiques.
Knowing what you now know, would you still go there?
Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
“Who am I?”, with Jackie Chan (filmed here in Rotterdam).
I hope my contribution to Tales from a Small Planet will inspire more non-Americans to add reports about their experiences abroad. The site is useful and fun to read, and I think that with a bit more diverse input it can become even better. I know I will do my best to diversify the content at http://www.talesmag.com, and of course will re-post my contributions here.