Interview with an expat

Photo by Marloes Verweij, Laloes Fotografie

What’s your name and where do you come from? Can you tell us something about your hometown/country?
My name is Anna-Karina and I come from Vienna, Austria. Vienna is known for its coffee culture. The city has a long tradition of coffeehouses, some of which have been around for centuries.

Where do you live in the Netherlands? What is one of your favorite things about where you live?
I live in Utrecht. I like that it is in the middle of the country and still you can find many quiet places here.

What’s your job or business?
 I am doing a PhD in molecular biology.

When was your first time in the Netherlands? What were your first impressions or what was special about that first trip?
I visited Amsterdam when I was interrailing when I was 17. What stuck with me is how many strangers would start up a friendly conversation with me. I felt that Dutch people are very approachable and enjoy providing help. This was a strong contrast to what I was used to in Vienna, where people in general are more reserved.

What is the nicest thing about the Netherlands? How does this compare to your country?
One of the nicest aspects of the Netherlands is its well-organized bureaucracy and advanced level of digitalization. I value their efficiency and accessibility through digital channels. While Austria is also a well-organized country, bureaucracy can still be a bit slow and old-fashioned. Last time I was there someone told me they had to send a fax! Can you believe that?

Besides the weather, what is your biggest pet peeve about the Netherlands?
The Netherlands being so densely populated and having less open natural space compared to Austria is something that stands out to me. In the Netherlands, there are about twice as many people in half the space, which can make things feel crowded at times. I often miss the feeling of being on top of a mountain in Austria, where I could enjoy the wide, open views into the distance.

Do you have Dutch friends? How do you meet Dutch people?
Yes, I do have Dutch friends, who I met over my hobbies, bouldering and improv theatre, as well as at work.

What do you like about Dutch people? What don’t you like?
I appreciate how approachable the Dutch are and how effortless it is to engage in casual conversations with them. Their willingness to lend a hand is also admirable. However, one aspect that I find somewhat less appealing is their inclination towards structured planning. I feel it is often necessary to schedule a casual social meeting several months in advance, and it can be challenging to make spontaneous plans with my Dutch friends on short notice.

What’s your best advice for new expats to make friends?
Meeting Dutch people is not difficult, making them your friends can be more challenging. In my experience it was often me in the beginning who would proactively ask to meet up again. However, once they accept you as a friend, it feels like they will never let you go again! I would also advice to learn some Dutch. Of course, it is not strictly necessary, as everyone here speaks English. But is shows motivation and interest from your side to integrate and experience the Dutch culture.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in your city?
Za’atar, they have the best pitas!

What’s your favorite Dutch store?
I don’t have a particular Dutch store that I consider my favorite, but what I truly appreciate is the abundance of second-hand shops in the Netherlands. These stores offer a wide spectrum of options, from incredibly affordable thrift shops to places where you can find recycled and refurbished high-end products.

What do you like to do on the weekends?
I particularly like to have slow mornings on the weekend, enjoy a coffee in my pajamas and a good book. I am a very social person, so I like meeting up with my friends, going for walks or runs, or spending an afternoon in a boulder hall. I also very much enjoy taking day trips to different places within the Netherlands.

Who is your favorite Dutch historical, cultural or famous person?
A Dutch writer that struck me with his ideas is Rutger Bregman. He focuses on topics such as universal basic income, wealth inequality and human nature. He is known for his outspoken and provocative views on economic and social issues and has become a prominent voice in the discussions surrounding these topics.

What would you recommend a visitor to do and see in your city and in general in the Netherlands?
Of course I would recommend to walk through the old town of Utrecht, but I would also recommend to take the tram or bike to the Science park. Especially during the week, it is such a vibrant environment with many, many students. Plus, you can also find the beautiful botanical gardens there.

What is your favorite Dutch food? And what Dutch food do you dislike?
I have a hate-love relationship with the famously know Dutch fried food, especially “kaassouffle” (deep fried cheese). This is my guilty pleasure: I love it but it makes me feel so unhealthy!

Do you celebrate Dutch holidays? Which one is your favorite?
I have a genuine appreciation for the Sinterklaas tradition. I celebrate it with my colleagues, which resembles the tradition of Secret Santa. However, for Sinterklaas it is customary to craft witty poems that often humorously highlight slightly embarrassing occurrences that took place in the person’s life throughout the year.

What famous Dutch place should new visitors or expat definitely go see?
I recommend visiting one of the Dutch islands. They have a unique dune landscape. Especially in summer a lot of Dutch people go there for a camping holiday. My favorite is Schiermonnikoog (even though I still cannot pronounce it correctly).

Best kept secret in your city?
‘Utrechter’ or ‘Utrechtenaar’ both refer to residents of Utrecht. However, historically, ‘Utrechtenaar’ had a different connotation due to a witch hunt in 1730, when gay men were discovered meeting in the ruins of Dom Church.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew before you moved to the Netherlands?
The housing shortage: the housing situation is quite a pressing matter. The main concern is the scarcity of affordable housing, especially in major cities. It’s become increasingly difficult to find places that fit budgets due to the high demand for urban living, which has driven up property prices and rents. Furthermore, there are many scammers that will especially target expats. I highly recommend to never make any payments if you have not seen the place yourself!

  • What are a few things you recommend to new expat here in the Netherlands?
    As mentioned above, learn Dutch; even though you will not need it in daily life, Dutch people widely appreciate the effort, as it is rare.
  • Make sure you have some good biking skills! If not, then I suggest biking around later in the evenings or during the weekends. During rush hours it can get quite hectic on the biking lanes.

Thanks for the interview, Anna-Karina!

Interviewed by Marla Thomson