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.


kareljones said...

Year by year, thousand of people decide to move permanently abroad and to make a new life for themselves and their families in a foreign land.
While its true that the grass is always greener on the other side, many individuals have encountered problems abroad, then regretting not having ample support from their place of origin.
One of the things one need to check out very carefully is the expat health insurance.
Examine the provision of healthcare.

Daniele said...

"If I had gotten a ticket for missing my bike lights the first month I arrived, I probably would have panicked."

Funny you said that, I actually got a fine because I didn't had the bike lights the FIRST day I arrived to A'dam.... :)

First thing I did was buying a bike, then cycling home I got stopped and fined.

Nice to read your blog, ciao ciao