February 21, 2010

Keep this in mind

#1. The Dutch are the tallest people in the world. If you ever had any doubts about this, if you go to a standing-room-only concert, it will clear those doubts away immediately. I had a really great time seeing Babylon Circus this past Friday night at the Melkweg, but I felt like a midget. I never thought of myself as short (I'm about 168cm, or 5'6), but here in Holland, I'm certainly below average. :)

#2. If you find yourself looking for an apartment, read this short article first. Here's a section:

"... Housing rental agencies love expats so much: they are ignorant to the local laws and some of them think that those laws only apply to locals or to apartments that belong to the city council.

As a tenant in the Netherlands, you are protected by the law in several ways. First of all, once you agree to rent an apartment (either verbally or through a written contract), this agreement can only be terminated by the tenant; not by the landlord, except in extreme circumstances (e.g. failure to pay the rent, in which case, the landlord must start a court case against the tenant). A contract that states ‘temporary’ or ‘one-year lease’ does not automatically end after the expiry date. A temporary contract is only allowed in very rare and specific situations. So if you think you have a temporary contract, you most likely don't!

The second protection a tenant has is that the landlord cannot simply charge what he likes for an apartment. Every apartment has a maximum rent, which is calculated using a points system. Every square metre and all the facilities in the apartment score points, and the total number of points equates to a certain maximum rent. Anyone can ask a Huurteam (via wswonon.nl) to visit their apartment and perform the calculation at no cost."

It's no secret that finding an affordable apartment is incredibly difficult here in Amsterdam, and for expats, even when we know the laws and the rules, we may just end up using housing agencies or paying too much because it seems like there are no other options. I may end up doing the same thing myself this time around. But it's really helpful to have all the knowledge you can ahead of time, and don't forget that we, as tenants, are the people that the law will ultimately protect more than the landlord.

You may even find (as I have), that private landlords will try to charge a month of commission for their apartments, even though there's no agency or broker involved. This is just simply against the law and entirely pointless, it's equivalent to paying someone a bribe to get into the apartment, which is a very New York thing to do. And yes, it's hard for those of us from places like NYC or Paris (expensive cities with insane housing prices) to care about the fact that we're paying someone a bribe, because we're kind of used to doing that type of thing back home. However, unlike NYC, this is something that you can fight even after you're inside the apartment. Landlords here will know perfectly well if they're doing something that goes against the law and they know the risks that come with it - and this is exactly why expats are targeted into taking these apartments, because Dutch people would never fall for this type of thing. This is why you'll see so many ads saying "expats only!" or "expat special!" Ugh.

Again, even though I know all this stuff already, I have no idea if I'll be able to avoid over-paying for an apartment - I probably won't, so I'm trying to at least find a nice place in a good location where I'll over-spend. However, I do know that there are resources available to me (in English, it's not necessary to speak Dutch to fight this type of thing) if I need them, and it helps me stay motivated to dismiss scams and just keep looking.

February 19, 2010

More than halfway there

I'm trying to appreciate the fact that the other day I was standing outside around 6.30pm and looked up to see a still-blue sky. The days are getting longer, and that helps, especially when we're stuck in a winter that seems to be lasting forever. We get to change the clocks in six weeks on Sunday, 28 March.

But how to keep busy in the meantime? I had an American friend (S.) visiting me for a few days recently, and I couldn't bring myself to do the usual touristy stuff that I enjoy doing - it was just too cold to pretend that a ferry ride to the north would be fun. We were active, but more in a "this is what it's like to live here" sense versus being tourists. We had dinner at a fantastic Dutch restaurant in the Jordaan, and then wandered over to another friend's house for beer and dominoes. If you ask me what a typical Friday night is like in Amsterdam, this is it - hanging out with Mexicans and playing dominoes until late into the night with a group of people whose nationalities covered 6 or 7 different countries from 3 different continents.

Over the weekend, S. and I also stopped by the Brouwerij het Ij, which is a place that anyone visiting Amsterdam must go. Beers brewed on the premises, a dirty, loud, messy room, cheese cubes, and of course a beautiful location next to a canal. We also went to brunch at a little squat in the oud west, drank lots of coffee, did some shopping at the Albert Cuyp market, and ate apple pastries and stoopwafels. I was happy to show my friend real life in Amsterdam, which of course meant that I put this California girl on a real Dutch bike (pedal brakes and rust included) and had her ride all around the city with me in -2 weather (28F). It was a really great visit - it's been awhile since any of my American friends have made the trip over, and I have to say, it was nice to be able to make references to people and places and have someone know what I was talking about.

The cinemas are also a great place to hide inside during these winter days. A few nights ago I visited Delicatessen Zeeburg for the first time to watch Repo Man, which was great. I'm still hitting all my regular places whenever I can - the OT301, De Nieuwe Anita, the Filmhuis Cavia, and as usual, the biggest problem is that I don't have enough free time to do all the things I wish I could. This weekend is full of options - concerts, parties, movies - I wish I could do it all.

Part of my free time is being used up with hunting for a new place to live (again!), which is a drag. I can't bring myself to pay a housing agency, so I'm searching the same way I always have - emails to friends, apartment listings online, the usual. I would love to stay in my current neighborhood (de pijp), where I've been living for the past 7 months. I have my favorite bruine kroegen (Dopey's Elixar, Lutmastraat 49), my favorite cafes and restaurants... but affordable/legal apartments are hard to come by in this city, and I can't be too picky. If anyone reading has any inside information, by all means, please share your tips for finding a great apartment. Bonus points if you know of something in de pijp!

I think I'm going to be spending Queen's Day in Amsterdam this year, having missed it for the past two years. I'll use it as an excuse to say that the entire city is celebrating my 2-year anniversary of living in this city. :)

February 6, 2010

Addressing comments and questions

I just found about 75 old comments to this blog that never got published, which is good since about 90% of them were spam. But to other people who commented, I'm sorry I never got back to you! There were some nice words or questions going back um, 6 months. Oops. Still, thanks for reading. To everyone who asked me a question I didn't answer, I apologize. When I moved to Amsterdam I wouldn't have gotten anywhere if it weren't for strangers offering me advice or sharing knowledge, both on the web and in person. I know I've been slacking in the department of Sharing Knowledge, and I feel pretty bad about that. There is some knowledge I'd like to share, but it's not about how to find an apartment or to explain how to open a bank account. This is about what most of you have been asking about one way or another - what it's like to simply be in Amsterdam during this particular period, and what you can expect if you want to make this your home. So this is from my personal experience.

A friend of mine from Italy moved to Amsterdam about 6 weeks ago, and like a ton of other people in this city, he's looking for a job in a very, very tight job market. He's discouraged and frustrated. What I've seen in the past year or year in a half is this: a huge, scary moment when the crisis really seemed to mean absolutely no jobs, salary freezes, etc. That began around this time last year, and lasted about 6-7 months. I think everyone was just very scared, including employers. I know of places that went out of business and I did have a couple of friends that lost jobs. It certainly didn't hit as hard in Amsterdam as it did in New York, but it did hit. The people that were the most affected were recent graduates. Around the late summer and early fall of 2009, things seemed to be better. I knew more and more people who had chosen to quit their jobs because they had found something better, or were choosing to go freelance (by the way, freelancing is a really great thing to do in the Netherlands - I should write a whole post on that sometime). That's a good sign, it meant that companies were starting to hire again, and work was still in demand. But at the same time, there's a much, much bigger pool of applicants for every job. Employers are putting people through an interview process the likes of which I've never seen before - it's not uncommon to hear of someone going for 4, 5, 6 interviews, involving extensive personality testing. It's not uncommon for employers to ask their interview candidates to put together presentations on the first interview, or write up a report, and that's only the beginning. A job interview, even for a pretty basic position, can take days and days to prepare for. I do see the economy improving here, but it's a very slow, slow process.

So this friend of mine is part of the pool of experienced and smart people who are having a hard time, and the look on his face when he talks about the search is a very familiar look, something I've seen before. It's a fact that this is a hard time to move to Amsterdam and find a good, steady job. One of the hardest parts is getting over that first hump, getting to learn the city and make connections. The next hardest thing might be learning to take yourself and your skills seriously, even though it seems impossible to find a job (which will of course deflate your ego and make you question everything, which I've done ten thousand times). There are still a lot of gaps in Amsterdam that need to be filled, there are getting to be more jobs out there that are waiting to be filled, and best of all, there are jobs out there waiting to be created. Setting up your own business really does work in this country. If you can find out what Amsterdam needs and fulfill it, you will be able to find work, and you don't need to speak a word of Dutch to get started. But this means you first need to live here and get to know this city, I mean, really get to know this city. Things that weren't possible in your former country are possible here (and vice versa of course), but you have to ask, and you have to stay confident.

Don't spend 10 hours a day studying Dutch, thinking that will be the ticket to your next job. If you don't speak Dutch, it's going to take a long time to learn. Maybe if you did it every day for 3 months, you would become pretty good, but you're still nowhere near fluent (unless you're coming from Germany, in which case you'll pick it up much more quickly). Of course, you should try to learn the language, especially if you have free time. But in the meantime, while you're searching for work, focus on English. If you're not a native English speaker, try to practice as much as possible and get used to the different types of accents. If you're more used to American accents but can't understand a word when a British person talks, try to find a British friend and adjust your ears to that accent, because you're going to hear it a lot. Make sure you have a native English speaker look over your CV. Dutch people in Amsterdam often won't judge you for not speaking Dutch (no one expects that you would have studied Dutch in school), but they will judge you if you can't speak good English. It's weird.

I wouldn't discourage someone from moving to Amsterdam during this period, but I would offer a lot of warnings. The crisis hasn't vanished. There's a lot of competition. But if you're in the job-searching position, especially if you're new to the city, keep in mind there are a lot more options than your basic 9-5, monday-friday job working for a big company with a proper job contract. The most important thing that you can do for yourself is take time and be patient (says me, one of the most impatient people on earth!), and keep an open mind.

I'll try to go more into freelancing and setting up your own business and the DAFT agreement in my next post. Since this is the topic I'm asked about most in comments and emails, I want to try and help - just remember, I'm certainly not an expert. I'm just someone who lives here, and everything I'm saying is only based on my experience. I'm 100% positive you could find another person who would disagree with everything I say, but that's okay. There are enough discouraging people out there and enough negativity in general. I have no reason to add to the discouragement because again, I am here. It's all worked out so far for me, and I'm no one special.

Usually the damp, foggy nights here in Amsterdam are nothing to get excited about. However, last night I was really struck by surprise. The city looked beautiful. Dark and foggy in a way I haven't seen in a long time, it made everything seem more mysterious. It was around 3.30am and absolutely silent on the tiny little street I was on (except for the noise still coming from the apartment where I had been). When there are moments like that, how could I discourage someone from moving here and giving it a shot?

When it does eventually work out, it's all worth it.

February 5, 2010

The less-glamorous (but necessary) side of expat life

I've been trying to catch up on some administration in my daily life, and thought to myself about how these routines that now seem so normal were so incredibly foreign when I first got here.

Basic Amsterdam Administration

Submitting insurance receipts: Health insurance in this country is weird, and seems to be going more and more the way of the incredibly dysfunctional US system - which is to say the cost of health care is rising. When I went to the dentist last month, I had to pay for the appointment in person (100 Euros) and then submit the receipt to my insurance company to get reimbursed. A fairly simple process, though I can't do this online, so everything goes by mail. I'm notoriously bad with paying attention and opening my mail, so of course I only saw today that while my insurance company is happy to pay me back, for some reason they don't have my bank account information. (why? how?) so I have to write them a letter back with my bank account information and send it in the mail. And one day I'll get that 100 Euros back.

Collecting tax information: I'll have to do Dutch and US taxes again this year, so it's time to start gathering paperwork. That means finding the Jaaropgaaf, or yearly statement, in the pile of mail that that I never look at. I found it, but now I have to not lose it for a couple months (the real challenge). I got my W2 (for my US taxes) from my employer. The accountants that handled my Dutch tax returns last year did a really bad job, so this year I'm using a different guy - one of my Dutch friends who agreed to do my taxes in exchange for dinner and entertainment/conversation with his girlfriend (who is also a good friend). Not a bad deal!

Continuing to deal with letters/statements about all the new cards: This one takes a little explanation. I spent several weeks in Italy over the Christmas/New Years holiday, and had my wallet pick-pocketed in Naples. I know I'm probably the ten millionth person to tell such a story, and yes, I'm lucky that they didn't get my camera, phone, passport, or take my entire bag. Still, it was a hassle to cancel all my cards, talk to banks in two different countries, fill out fraud letters, try to arrange banking by phone (without my cards, I had no way of accessing my Dutch bank account information), and receive everything little by little by post and then having to always mail stuff back. My advice is this: buy travel insurance, and don't be cheap about it - that extra Euro I could have been paying every month would have allowed me to claim all the cash that had been in my wallet when it was stolen! That was a painful lesson to learn. Travel insurance is your friend.

Paying fines: Back in October, I got a ticket from a bike-light cop. This is a pretty normal sight in Amsterdam - a bunch of cops standing around in the dark, checking that all the cyclists are using a front and back bike light. I almost always use lights, but of course they get stolen and run out of batteries and things happen. Bike light cops in Amsterdam are not very sympathetic to the "things happen" excuse. I got a 30 Euro ticket, which went up to 50 Euros because I didn't pay it for such a long time.

Trying to do basic stuff without a wallet: It's hard. My dry cleaning receipt was in my wallet, and my dry-cleaner doesn't speak a word of English. He was also entirely uninterested in my sign language/hand movements/random dutch words attempt at trying to explain that I wanted my clothes but didn't have ticket. Fortunately my flatmate came to the rescue and helped explain my situation to the dry cleaning guy, and I got my clothes in the end, but that was stressful.

Picking up other peoples mail: If you live in Amsterdam, then you know someone who needs their mail picked up. It's a fact. Or maybe you need to go pick up your own mail at a place that isn't your apartment, because the spot where you are registered isn't really the spot you live. This is just a normal part of life, but I forgot that it didn't used to be that way.

Looking for an apartment: Always on-going, always a pain in the ass.

Shopping: Trying to get to the stores on a Thursday night, which is the only night during the week that stores stay open until 9.30pm, and shopping during the weekend is a pain. The plus side of this week's Thursday Night Shopping was the huge sales still going on everywhere.

Thinking about the future: Job contract up for renewal in June, where should I live, what should I do with my life, what do I want out of life, should I plan a big trip, should I take that class... you know, basic questions.

Missing my camera: It's been in the repair shop for almost two weeks, and I want it back!

Preparing for visitors: Making sure I have extra keys, writing out directions on how to find my office/home and how to navigate from the airport to the city.

All this stuff I mentioned is routine. The day-to-day stuff. I'm not always missing my camera, but there's always something like that going on. Getting used to the basic and un-interesting stuff in another country is also part of a normal expat's life. Getting used to reading mail in a language you don't speak or the policies that you've never heard of. Knowing how to scan a list of apartment and pick the scams out just from the titles. Understanding that it's no use to try and call your insurance company, they'll still want everything by mail. I can't just call them and tell them my bank account number - about 1.5 years ago, I might have tried. Now I just know that it's not possible.

It is all pretty boring, but in some ways, incredibly satisfying. When I first moved here, everything I mentioned above would have freaked me out in some way. If I had gotten a ticket for missing my bike lights the first month I arrived, I probably would have panicked. But now I get it. Arguing with any kind of Dutch Authority will never solve anything, and if you're polite and non-argumentitive, even the bike-light cops will smile and crack a joke with you.