June 23, 2008

The biggest difference

When you think about the entire globe, the cultural differences between people in North America and Europe aren't that big of a deal. But the one thing that separates specifically the United States from say, the rest of the developed world, is lack of affordable health care. I can not emphasize enough how huge of a deal this is, but I'll try by way of example.

I moved to NYC from Paris in October 2006, and a few weeks later I accidentally cut my finger pretty badly while I was at home in Brooklyn. I was working full time, but I didn't have health care, which is entirely normal. I bandaged it up myself, but later in the evening the wound opened up again while I was out at a bar. It looked worse than it was, honestly, but blood always freaks everyone out. I was shuffled outside, and a nice Scottish girl demanded that I go to the hospital right away for stitches. It was pretty obvious that's what I needed - again, the cut wasn't going to kill me or anything, it just was too deep for a simple bandaid. The thing is, I didn't have health insurance. So I couldn't go to the hospital. That was that, there was no "well maybe I should anyway....," the fact was that there was no way I was willing to pay hundred and hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to get stitches in my finger - and also wait for hours in the emergency room until someone could see me. I just couldn't afford that. Every single one of my (American) friends that I was with understood that, but the Scottish girl just kept saying "but this is crazy, you need stitches, then you'll be fine, why won't you go to the hospital?" as though I was trying to prove something about how tough I was being. It wasn't about being tough, it was about reality. In the US, just because you happen to live there and work full time and pay taxes, that doesn't mean you have the right to get stitches if you cut yourself. This is the way I was raised, this is what my society taught me. This seems normal to me.

Anyway, I bought a huge pile of supplies from a pharmacy, bandaged myself up properly, and my finger healed slowly - there's still a scar, and the inside knuckle of my left pointer finger is still incredibly sensitive, but that's all fine. I don't have a big, scary story about getting hit by a car or breaking my leg without health insurance, because honestly, if something like that happened, there's no way I would be in Europe right now. I would be in debt for the rest of my life, like millions of Americans are right now.

I mentioned a few weeks ago in this blog that I fell off my bike, right? I was pretty banged up, but it didn't occur to me to go see a doctor, even though a couple different people told me I should just get myself checked out. First, I thought "it's nothing, I just scraped up my leg." But second, I still have this American mentality in me that says "you can't afford it, and you don't deserve it" - even though I know both of those things aren't true. So I didn't do anything about my cuts and scrapes, I just tried to keep everything clean and bandaged. Then, a few days ago, I noticed that shit, my right ankle was still swollen, it had been over two weeks, and it seemed to just be getting worse. The wound on the top of my foot wasn't scabbing up the way it should have been (which meant it wasn't healing), and this was becoming not only painful, but annoying. I haven't been able to wear heels in over two weeks! I would avoid running after a frisbee if someone threw one my way! Not good. So I finally freaked out and went to talk to a pharmacist in my neighborhood this past Saturday.

The pharmacist took one look at my foot and told me to go see a doctor right away, because I had an infection. Since it was a Saturday, I had to make arrangements to go to the hospital, rather than just go see my doctor (I actually haven't picked a doctor yet). Just the words "go to the hospital" scared me to death, though I kept telling myself, "okay, this won't be like it is in the states, it won't be like it is in the states," but I still took 200 Euros out of the ATM machine. The thing is, I do have Dutch health insurance, but I just literally signed up for my plan and I don't think I'm in the system yet, so I had to do the whole thing as if I'm not insured. This wasn't a problem, and I kept getting assured that I would be reimbursed by my insurance company.

When I got to the hospital, the American in me expected to be there all day, which was a bummer, since I had been planning on enjoying my Saturday. Instead I waited about 3 minutes before someone called my name. I wasn't asked to fill out forms or show ID. The doctor took a look at my foot, said "yup, you have an infection, but it appears to just be local and you simply need to treat it 3 times a day with antibiotics." The entire process took no more than ten minutes, he wrote me a prescription, shook my hand, and sent me on my way. And that's... it? Does anyone need to see my passport? Anyone want to charge me 50 Euros just for walking in the room? No? Right... because... this isn't the US.

The pharmacy was just down the hall from where I saw my doctor. I handed the woman my slip, give her my phone number, and waited for it to be filled. Ok, my brain is thinking, this is where I get charged. This is the scary part. Five minutes later, my prescription was ready. "That will be 9.70 Euros please. And keep this receipt, be sure to use it to get reimbursed from your insurance company." And that was that. Less than ten Euros. That's what the entire process cost me, and if I feel like it, I can get that 9.70 reimbursed. At no point did anyone ask me for ID and make photocopies. At no point was I ever given a different type of treatment because I'm a foreigner who doesn't speak Dutch. It's very simple, very obvious - but so incredibly foreign to me. Imagine that, Americans. Health care being a basic human right.

I've been using these antibiotics for just a couple days and my foot is almost totally fine. After 24 hours, the wound started shrinking and the swelling went down significantly. If I had just done this when I fell off the bike, I would probably would be walking around in heels right now.

I'm sure that somehow, in the US, there are clinics and doctors and special programs that would provide something somewhat similar to what I described above. But I'll tell you something: I wouldn't really have any idea where to find them, and I have tried. I went to a public clinic once in New York for an exam - the type of place that exists specifically for people who don't have health insurance. It took me about 30 minutes to fill out all the forms, I had to provide my ID, social security card, pay stubs, and some other paperwork. Then they charged me $175 USD and required me to pay up front (before I even saw the doctor) and in cash. When I told them I only had $100 on me, they gave me directions to the nearest ATM machine. I had to leave the office, walk down the street, get more money, and hand it over before anyone would see me... and this was, again, a "public health clinic." The actual exam took about 10 minutes, and I was in the office for over 2 hours. I spent most of my time looking at advertisements for different drugs, which were hanging all over the walls.

It's not about the language, or the food, the religion, the time we eat dinner, or even the legal drugs and prostitution that really create such huge differences between the Dutch and Americans. It's not a Dutch vs. US thing at all, it's a US vs. The Rest Of The Developed World type thing. And I've got to say, I just don't see myself ever being able to give this up - this amazing privilege of being treated like a human being if I'm sick. There will always be a part of me that sees this as really special, and not just the way everyone else is doing it. I hope so much that Europeans fight against the privatization of health care, which is slowly starting to happen (but is nowhere near what it's like in the US), and pressure their governments to keep health care affordable for everyone. No matter who wins the next US presidential election, I'm not holding out hope for universal health care in that country anytime soon, and that is just simply a disgrace.

June 19, 2008

Ah yes, the logistical details are important too.

In the past few weeks, I have been many places. It hasn't all been cafes and bars and picnics in the park. In chronological order, this is where I've been since the 9th of June:

1. To the main IND office in Rijswijk. This is where I applied for permission to get a work permit, basically. After deciding to hire me, my employer gave me a 1-year job contract and made the appointment for me at the IND office. The outcome of this appointment was getting a sticker in my passport that proves I reported myself to the authorities and my visa is in process. I had to bring my contract, passport, and 1 official Dutch-size passport picture, and application forms (which were prepared for me by my employer, again). This was a really simple appointment - I was in and out of the building in ten minutes.

2. To the bank (ABN) to set up an account. In order to get paid, I need a bank account - practically everything here is done with bank transfers and direct deposit. Normally you have to provide a BSN number (which was called a SOFI number, or a dutch social security number). However! My employer has an agreement with this bank that allows employees to set up bank accounts before getting a BSN number (though I need to give them one within a certain time period). I needed to provide a letter from my employer and a copy of my job contract, along with my passport and an address.

3. To the main branch of the DienstPersoonsGegevens (DPG) in Amsterdam, on Stadhouderskade 85. This is where I had to register myself to the city with a legal address. See, in order to get a BSN number, I need a legal address in Amsterdam (keep in mind, everything about this process is different if you have an EU passport, which I do not have). And since you need a BSN number to do just about anything, this is a really important step. I'm fortunate enough to have friends that own their own apartment here in Amsterdam and said "sure, you can use our address to register." I want to emphasize this is a really big deal here - I needed a copy of their mortgage agreement, a letter saying that I could stay, and a copy of my friends passport. And from here on in, all my mail goes to their place, which is also a huge deal. Everything is communicated through the post - my bank account number, my BSN number, etc. Anyway, everything went fine at the DPG (I was there for about an hour or so) and now I'm officially in the system.

There's one weird thing that I needed to provide that I don't have, which is a birth certificate with an apostel stamp. I have never been asked for something like this before and I really have no idea why the Netherlands needs it. I do have my original birth certificate, and the people at the DPG seemed really understanding about this whole lack-of-apostel-stamp thing. They said I had six months to get it, which means requesting a copy from the state of New York, where I was born. So, okay, I'll start figuring out how to get that sometime soon.

I want to emphasize that because I have a job with a proper contract, my whole integration process into Amsterdam has become absurdly simple. Everything I'm doing right now is based on the fact that I have a job... and everything I do, I do with the help of the HR department at my company. I've had one or two very minor problems/inconveniences along the way, but honestly nothing even worth detailing in this blog. Every time I go anywhere, whether it's to the bank or the immigration office, I just simply bring everything with me. Everything. My passport, photos, birth certificate, job contract, housing contract, etc., and of course I have multiple copies of each one of these things.

So, what's next? Finding an apartment. I know, my housing situation must sound a little confusing. Here's what's going on, in the simplest terms.

-I'm registering at my friends M & A's apartment, in Bos en Lommer. This is now where Amsterdam believes I live, where all my mail goes, etc.
-I'm actually living in a different friends apartment, south of Vondelpark, in the Oud Zuid. It is not possible for me to register there, and it's only through the amazing generosity and trust of my friend that I'm able to stay.
-Therefore I'm looking for my own place, something nice and legal, someplace that allows me to register which...
-Is incredibly difficult to find here in Amsterdam for a million different reasons but...
-I found one anyway.

This is incredible! I'm going to move into my new place on the 1st of July. It's located near the Weesperplein, which is technically in the center, but it's actually more east of the the center (just across the Amstel). I'll go into how I found it and everything in my next post, but I wanted to mention it here because this means... another visit to the DPG!

Anytime you change addresses in Amsterdam, you need to re-register. So - yes, I just went through this whole process of registering in Bos en Lommer and getting my mail sent there and everything, and now I'll have to change all that stuff. The thing is, I just really needed that BSN number and couldn't wait to register myself (and honestly, I didn't expect to find an apartment so quickly). The good news is that there are DPG offices all over Amsterdam and I can change my address at any of them (think about them like little City or Town Halls), I don't have to go back to the main branch.

So, just in case there's anyone reading who might be embarking on something similar - honestly - none of this stuff was hard. Since every other person who moves to Amsterdam seems intent on emphasizing how hard it is to live here, how it's impossible for Americans to find jobs, how dealing with Dutch bureaucracy is a total nightmare... I just wanted to be that one person on the internet who says that hey, in my particular case, it's all working out fine. And even though it was raining while I biked to work this morning, I still thought, man, I am so happy to be here.

June 17, 2008

Where I've been going, what I've been doing

Picnics - the easiest location for me is Vondelpark, since it's so close to home and everyone knows it. But this past weekend I went for a Sunday night picnic at Beatrixpark, and it really seemed like me and my friends were the only people there. This park is in the south east of the city, near the Rai station. I got a little (okay, a lot) lost on my way there, and once I got tired of consulting my map I just stopped and asked people for directions. When I rode home with a friend, I found a much, much more direct route. I love picnics in Amsterdam parks - there are no rules about where you can or can't sit on the grass, dogs run around all over the place, and no one kicks you out at a certain time.

Bars/Cafes - places I've gone to recently include Soundgarden, OT301, Studio K, DeBalie (of course, for free wifi) and the Kriterion. Look those places up in you're in Amsterdam; they all have a really great vibe. The Soundgarden has this ideal back patio right next to a canal, and while I was sitting back there I felt that wonderful I've-left-the-city feeling, even though it's off a major street in the Jordaan. And DeBalie was a lifesaver for me before I started working - they have tons of room, incredibly cheap prices for food and drink, and no one ever minded that I would often stay there for 5-6 hours at a time in order to use the wifi.

I went to the Hope Box offices recently for a Friday night screening, in the north of Amsterdam (I took that picture just outside the office). I'll go do anything if it means I get to take a ferry to get there, so I didn't even really mind that the film was in Serbian with Dutch subtitles - actually, I was happy to find myself in the situation where I was the only non-Dutch-speaker in the room - the more this happens, the more motivated I become to learn the language. This cultural center is a global project - I think the best way I can sum it up is bringing people together from all over the world through visual arts. Visit their website to learn more. If you're interested, come along to their event this Saturday, the 21st of June at the GO Gallery (Prinsengracht 64) - I'm planning to attend, so say hi if you're there!

Speaking of learning the language, no, I haven't learned Dutch at all. I mean, I certainly know more than I did 2 months ago, and I'm getting better at reading menus and hearing the names of streets and whatnot, but I really, really don't know Dutch, and I would like for that to change. I'm going to start taking classes in September (they're offered for free by my company), but I think before I start that I may sign up for a month or two of private lessons. It's really easy to get around using English, but the thing that frustrates me is not being able to pronounce the names of the roads and streets, or even worse, the fact that I can't hear it right when someone else says it.

Tonight is another big game for Holland, and I still haven't found my inner football fan, so I'm thinking that a picnic in the park sounds like a nice way to spend some time while the rest of the city is at bars and cafes, going completely insane. And if Holland wins, that means a city full of happy people, so hey, I'll go ahead and root for Holland too. From a distance.

June 13, 2008

Quick catch-up post

I wanted to update with some specifics about the IND appointment, the bank account, the whole registration issue - but I'm going to hold off on that until next week. Hopefully it will help someone else out if they're planning a similar type of move.

I had a busy week with the legal issues and starting a new job. Just getting back into the mindset where I have to wake up at a certain time every day and leave the house is a pretty big change. I'm really, really happy that I had enough time to enjoy unemployment - almost two months. Not bad at all. My first day of work was kind of insane and I didn't end up leaving the office until 9pm, but even though I was exhausted, the very fact that it was still bright and sunny outside motivated me to keep my plans for the night. I met up with a group of couch surfers in Westerpark for a picnic dinner. Now, this is what I love about couch surfing/hospitably club/etc. When I went out that night, I only knew one guy. But as soon as I showed up, I was offered wine, veggie spring rolls, quiche, cheese, etc. I had so much fun with my new friends that I lost track of time - we ended up sitting on my (new) friend's roofdeck, listening to music and drinking, and enjoying the sounds of the city celebrating from a distance (Holland had just won a football game that night). So on my second day of work, I showed up even more exhausted, but got through it. It was worth it to hear a Dutch guy sing the Canadian national anthem after a few beers and a glass of tequila.

The Big Thing going on in Amsterdam right now is football madness. I'm not really a football/soccer fan (or a fan of any kind of spots-on-television), but I admit that I get a kick out of watching everyone get all worked up about it.

Kind of a weak update, I know, but next week I'll get back into the blogging spirit. At least two posts - one about logistics, one about all the fun stuff. And I'm sure I'll find some way of bringing up how much I love my new bicycle every time I post something. One of the best things about working in Amsterdam is my commute - riding through a beautiful park and along the canals. There really is no better way to travel (I haven't had to commute to work in the rain yet, obviously).

And thanks for all the comments on my last post, I appreciate that you're all reading!

June 5, 2008

The sweet feeling of legality!

I signed my new work contract and celebrated my 29th birthday this week. And while of course it was wonderful to get calls and emails on my birthday, the best feeling of all was putting my signature on the (ten-page!) contract that will allow me to live and work here in Amsterdam. Once I was done meeting with the HR people, I went out to meet up with some new friends and celebrate.

Now, I've been planning this move for about 7 months and put in a lot of effort, work, etc., into making this all happen. But I want to acknowledge that yes, I'm really, really lucky to have had everything work out the way it has. Way back in October 2007, I found a company that has offices both in the US and Amsterdam, and if you've been following this blog for a little while, you probably remember me talking about meeting with them in Oregon. Once I got to Amsterdam I had about four meetings with the folks here, and was then finally offered the job (to make a long story short). So while a lot of people say "wow, you've been here for just over a month, that sure was quick!" it doesn't quite seem that way to me. Then again, now that I actually have the contract and my start date is coming up soon, it does seem to be rushing up!

Because the company is more or less sponsoring me to stay here, they made the appointment for me at the IND (the Dutch immigration office). My appointment is this Monday at the office in Rijswijk, and the purpose of this appointment will be to hand in my residence/work permit paperwork and getting a sticker in my passport that proves I've reported myself to the authorities and my visa is in process. I need to bring:

1. My signed employment contract
2. the application forms (which are being prepared for me by my employers)
3. My passport, obviously
4. a Dutch official passport picture

The differences between starting a job here in the Netherlands and starting a job in the US are drastically different. I have twenty-five vacation days, and if you're American, I don't need to explain how unbelievable that is. When I got to the part in the contract that explained sick leave, I asked "so how many sick days do I get?" and the woman looked at me like she didn't understand the question. If you're sick, you're sick, she said. Basically, there is no "number of sick days." Sick days are totally different from vacation time. "You have to understand that in the US, that's not always the case" I replied. I thought about my previous full-time job in NYC, where during my first year of employment, I was granted exactly 3 personal days, 5 sick days, and no health coverage at all. And you know what, that's absolutely not uncommon or weird. Here, I'll have health care and a pension plan (if I want it), just like everyone else who lives and works (legally) in the Netherlands. They even offer free Dutch classes!

Having the past two months to just kind of relax, travel around a bit, and explore Amsterdam was perfect... now it's time to really develop a life here. Of course, I'll keep this blog updated, and if you have any questions you can always comment or send me an email (tami.mahoney@gmail.com).

June 3, 2008

The best way to celebrate a new job is with a new bike

There is a lot to catch up on in this expat blog, and I know a lot of you that read this are my friends and already know the good news, so bear with me for a repeat: I was offered a job here in Amsterdam! I'm due to sign a contract sometime tomorrow (3 June) so once that has been taken care of I'll write about it all in more detail. I keep thinking of all the ways my life is going to change - I can finally get a bank account! Which means I can get a real phone with a real contract and stop using a prepaid mobile! Little things like that are going to make such a huge difference.

Sometime in the early afternoon this past Friday, I had a bit of an accident on my borrowed bike and got myself pretty banged up. It was my fault entirely - I had been borrowing a racing bike and became way too comfortable with it. I got into the habit of riding three times faster than everyone else, zipping around traffic, and passing people all the time. I was passing someone not too far from my house, and my front tire went right into the tram tracks, and I went down (and a big thanks to the very nice Dutch woman who pulled over in her car to help me up, fix my bike chain, and offer me a ride!). I'm fine and so is the bike, and it didn't stop me from riding around that afternoon or night, but it was the final straw in me riding other people's bikes. First of all, a racing bike is just completely impractical for this city, no matter how fun they are to ride. Secondly, I would have felt way too guilty had I messed up the bike by riding it around like an idiot. If I'm going to ride around like an idiot and mess up bikes, I'd rather be the owner of the bike. And since I spent a lot of time celebrating this weekend, there was a lot - a LOT - of riding around like an idiot (usually with me on the back of someone else's bike, which helped add to my collection of bruises).

This afternoon I went over to De Baron Fietsen & DutchBike Amsterdam on the Overtoom, almost where it hits up with the S100 Circle (close to Leidseplein). It's the shop that rents out the orange bikes, and also sells new and used bikes. My old roommate got her bike at this shop and told me that a friend of hers worked there. I found the perfect bike that just so happened to be entirely put together by that friend, which makes me really happy. It only took me about three minutes before I fell completely in love with the bike (a purple gazelle with pedal brakes) and vowed to always lock it properly and always lock it to something. It's second hand, so it doesn't stand out as being a super nice bicycle (which is a good thing), but it's also in really good shape and has 2 new tires. It cost me 150 Euros, and then I spent about 90 Euros on two locks - before the guy could even explain to me what the difference was in all the locks, I just told him I wanted the absolute best locks they had. If you're looking for a good bike shop in Amsterdam, I really recommend this place - they treated me really well, adjusted everything so the bike fits me perfectly, and the entire process only took about 20 minutes or so. How I love efficiency!

In between all the celebrating I did this weekend, I also visited the Amsterdam Tattoo Convention for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. It was my first time at a European tattoo convention, and while it was smaller than the conventions I've been to in the states, it was set up really well and very well attended. Artists came from all over the world, but of course my friend and I had our eye on anyone who was located in Holland. After circling the room and examining a lot of portfolios, my friend spotted Maaika who I think we both agreed was our favorite for the day (though she wasn't at the booth during the time we made that decision). Both of us are in the market for new tattoos, so finding an artist was a pretty big accomplishment for the day. I said hello to Gunnar, a Swedish tattoo artist (who works at Bluebird Tattoo in Västerås) that I had met earlier in the week, and did a little bit of shopping. It felt so good to know that now that I have a job, I can do things like buy clothes and think about a new tattoo.

I've met a lot of new people in the past few days, maybe partly due to the fact that my roommate left for Rome, so hanging out at home in the kitchen isn't as much fun as it used to be. However, right now that's exactly where I am. The balcony door (which is off the kitchen, at the back of the apartment) is wide open on this warm, humid night. There was an amazing thunderstorm last night, and I'm hoping for a repeat this week. Right now I can hear the wind in the chimes and the trees, and that's all I can hear. No traffic, no car alarms, no screaming, no loud music. This, right here, is what I love about Amsterdam. And I am so incredibly happy that I know I'm going to stick around for a long time.

Edited to add: as soon as I hit "publish" a huge thunderstorm broke out! Perfect timing!