What surprises foreigners arriving in the Netherlands? (typical Dutch life and culture!)

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Before coming to the Netherlands, foreigners have ideas of what it will be like.

And of course, it is not always quite what they expect.

I am always interested in this, and so I asked our students: What was your biggest surprise arriving in the Netherlands?

“The people in the Netherlands are really friendly”

I don’t know what most people expected, but a lot of them are surprised by the fact that Dutch people are sympathetic and friendly.

Characteristics that are mentioned in the video are open and nice on one hand, but on the other hand people are direct and say what they want to say. So the way Dutch people treat each other can be really direct.

According to several foreigners this directness has to do with the fact that the Dutch are open and strive to be pretty equal.  

And with this openness comes a lack of hierarchy. You see this mainly in professional life. But giving your opinion about almost anything is really supported in the Netherlands by Dutch people, not only at work.

“What a small country!”

Yes, it is a really small country. If you want you can travel through the whole country in a couple of hours. And what foreigners noticed was that in this small country, the people are very, very tall!

So watch out going to a concert. Because you might end up seeing only their backs.

“The weather is strange in the Netherlands”

Students of the BLC language course come from all over the world. And arriving in the Netherlands means finding a climate governed by the sea.

So not too cold in the winter, not too warm in the summer.

And what people didn’t expect was that there can be a lot of wind. And going cycling on a windy day is not always the easiest thing to do!

Other strange and unusual things in the Netherlands

Every first Monday of the month all over the Netherlands a lot of alarms go off. If you experience this for the first time, you might be really shocked. It sounds like there’s something terribly wrong.

But don’t worry, it is just a test.

Other things that didn’t accord with expectations were the lack of a drug culture. And how the image of the red light district is not at all what the Netherlands or even Amsterdam is about.

Other things that surprise foreigners in the Netherlands

Dutch birthdays: “Everyone congratulates everyone”

One thing that comes up when talking about a traditional Dutch birthday is the infamous circle. There is the birthday boy or girl surrounded by family and friends. At home, all sitting in a circle.

Entering this circle doesn’t go unnoticed. You have to go around past every member. And not only do you just say hello, joining a birthday party comes with a strange Dutch custom.

It is usual to also congratulate the people who are close to the one who has the birthday. And since only close friends and relatives are usually invited to the party. The result is that everyone congratulates everyone else!

Time to play games: Old fashioned Dutch games

Dutch people love to play games and make it gezellig at a birthday party. There are some traditional games that you could call old fashioned. In Dutch these are called ‘Oud-Hollandse spellen’!

The Dutch love to play these games, not only on birthdays but also for other festivities, especially Kings Day.

For example there is sjoelen. What is that?

Traditional Dutch game: sjoelen

Sjoelen is played on a wooden board (a shuffleboard) with wooden discs. At the end of the box there are four gates, with small openings through which the discs just fit. The goal of the game is to slide the discs through the gates.

Another famous Dutch traditional game is koekhappen.

Traditional Dutch game: Koekhappen

You have pieces of gingerbread, string and a tea towel. Hang slices of the gingerbread at the right height for the players to eat blindfolded. The first person to finish their piece of gingerbread without using their hands is the winner.

Every Dutch person knows a couple of these games. But for foreigners they might come as a big surprise.

‘Everyone is so stoked for Sinterklaas”

The Netherlands is one of the few countries where Sinterklaas is celebrated. Yes, it is celebrated in other countries. But nowhere as seriously as here. Not only that, there’s the Zwarten Pieten discussie that goes along with it as well.

Also, Americans might not know this, but the Dutch Sinterklaas was the first version of your Santa Claus.

On the 5th of December we celebrate the birthday of Sinterklaas, who we also call Sint Nicholaas.

Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands in the middle of November. During the three weeks he is in the country, he rides his horse on the rooftops of the houses and the children may put a shoe by the chimney once or twice a week before they go to sleep,.

“The Dutch eat such strange things”

Foreigners are surprised about Dutch food. For example, the quick cold lunch. The ‘unwritten rule’ is that you’re not allowed to have two hot meals a day. And then the food itself…

The Dutch love to eat raw herring almost all in one mouthful. For a lot of foreigners this is just scary.

Or eating small pieces of delicious (!?) drop (liquorice) all day long. And a very Dutch thing that surprised a lot of foreigners, beschuit met muisjes (rusk with sprinkles).

“The Dutch love to party and wear orange”

The Dutch sober and stingy? The foreigners who came to the Netherlands saw that the Dutch love to go out and party. One day that is in everybody’s diary is 27th of April. On this day we celebrate King’s day, which is the birthday of King Willem-Alexander.

In each city there are different things to do. Amsterdam is a really popular spot to be that day. There’s a big flea market where people sell their old things. In general, you can say it’s an excuse for a day off and enjoying a beer outside (if the weather is good). Many people hang  the Dutch flag from their house and dress up in orange.

Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School