Recently, we had our very first visitors. Soon after one of my friends came to Amsterdam on private matters, so we had a chance to catch up. And as it always is, you ask the same question over and over again: So, what do you think? But, not also what do they think, but rather what do they find interesting, or weird, or peculiar, or whichever emotion they seem fit. It was nice to hear their thoughts, and laugh at how we perceived them all in the same way. Being a freshie here as well, I imagine there’re a lot of things to come, but let’s just point out some of the things you may find unusual but good to know, once you come to the Netherlands. Also, some of the things might help you not to feel so out of the place once you decide to visit. It’s always good to come prepared, I’ll say.
- The thing with credit cards
Today, more than ever perhaps, we rely on our credit/debit cards in our travels. It’s a convenient way to travel from one country to another, without having the need to carry actual cash with us. And a lot of times the currency conversions in some places are insane, so we prefer paying for things, when necessary, with our sparkling cards. And who doesn’t accept Visa and MasterCard these days anyway? Am I right? Well, if you decide to come to the supermarket in Amsterdam and try paying your groceries with that neat Visa of yours, you’re in for a shrug from the cashier: We don’t accept your card. Before you panic, and call your bank, they don’t accept ANY Visa, or MasterCard for that matter. On the majority of card readers at the cash register, there will even be a sticker saying NO Visa and MasterCard. How would I even know that? Because on our very first day here we bought a lot of food at the local supermarket, ready to pay with our card, the only source of our money and the cashier gave us that same disappointed look. The same look I’ve come to encounter so many times when it comes to tourist trying to pay with their credit cards. No Visa. So, bear that in mind. Go to the ATM prior to any shopping and get some smelly euros instead. That way you’ll be safe.
Attention! More often than not, there’ll be signs saying pinkassa, meaning only card payment, and you cannot stand in line there, unless you have, preferably, Dutch bank account. Also, some shops and restaurants accept ONLY card payment or ONLY cash, so look for signs, as they’ll usually be displayed at the door before you come in. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 🙂
If you have only just arrived in the Netherlands, and you’re at the airport, you don’t have your credit card, but you do have cash, and you want to buy the ticket for the train to take you to, let’s say Amsterdam Centraal, make sure you have some coins. Yup, the ticket machine only accepts coins. Hopefully, you don’t have to go to Groningen, or there would be a lot of coins going down that machine, some of them falling out, so you’d have to start all over again, building up your anxiety even more. Be sure to have the right amount, as well. This is probably the only situation when having that Visa pays off, cause you can purchase the train ticket with it. We tried, it worked. 🙂 Let’s just say I walk around only with a debit card. Like a boss. A great way for your partner to control the spendings. #sadface
- The thing with public transport
Public transport is great here. Pricey, yes, but punctual (if the train is late, there’s always a notification for the passengers, followed by an apology), fast, comfy, and well-connected. In translation, you can get pretty much anywhere, once you get the hang of it all. So, you have your train ticket and you’re ready to catch the first one to Amsterdam. Don’t forget to check-in! Meaning, lean your ticket against the designated place on the machine before entering the station. Some spots are impossible to miss, as there’s always an automated door that opens once you check-in your ticket, but at smaller stations, or at the airport, there’s no automated door, and the machine is placed usually next to the moving staircase that leads you to your train.
Automated doors at the central station in Amsterdam
Why is it important to check-in? As we all know, an “unchecked ticket” is not valid. So if the conductor in the train takes your ticket and checks it with his chip machine, you’ll most likely get a fine. So, whenever there’s no automated door, look for a stand-alone machine. Also, it’s important not to lose your ticket during your travel, in order to be able to check out, meaning, exit the station you arrive at. For short-term visits, there’s always the IAmsterdam card, so if you’re in for some additional discounts, check it out. The card works the same as the normal ticket would.
Check-in/check-out machines for train transportation
If you’re planning to spend more time in The Netherlands, consider getting an OV-chipkaart. It’s a card with an electronic chip, and it’s valid for all public transport in the Netherlands, as long as you have enough balance. Meaning, you can use metros, buses, trams, trains, rented bikes wherever in the country, provided you have at least 20€ balance or 10€ on a personal chip-card with a yearly discount. We got the non-personalized chip-cards for when friends and family come to visit, and personalized ones with our picture and a yearly discount for our travel needs. Both cards are easily loaded at the ticket machine using a debit/credit card, or coins. Read more here.
Personalized and anonymous chip card
During your travel, you can easily transfer from train to the metro with the same ticket. Say you have to get to Amsterdam centraal, but your train only goes to a certain station, and from there you have to take a metro. No worries. Just do the check-out at the train machine and check-in with a metro machine. They’re always placed one beside the other. Why is it important to do it? Because there are different rates, and different routes each of them take. It’s important for the machine to read your travel itinerary correctly before you exit the station. The conductor will see it on their chip reader as well. You’ll also always hear the lady on the speaker in trains saying where you can overstappen. More about transfers.
Just look for one of these and you’ll be fine
In buses and trams, you usually enter at the front, where you immediately make a check-in. Trams have designated entries and exits so you cannot enter or exit wherever you like. There’s usually a red picture on the door you cannot use, and the blue one, or a sign saying welkom for entering the tram. In newer trams, there’s also a conductor booth in the middle of the tram. Yup, there’s a person in the middle of the tram with its special booth, where you can buy the tram tickets, if you haven’t previously, and make an inquiry where to get off, and so on. Also, when it comes to trams and buses, make sure you press the stop button if you wish to get off on the next stop. Don’t forget to check-out! The conductor will tell you as well. 🙂
Conductor booth in a tram in Amsterdam
If you’re traveling mainly by train or metro, you’ll notice special places for people with bikes. Before you go taking your bike on a train with you as well, there are certain rules. Firstly, if you want to take your own, normal sized, bike on a train, make sure you load it on your OV-chipkaart. Also, you’ll pay 6€ extra for the “bike ticket”. If you, by any chance, have those cool bikes that you can assemble and reassemble, meaning, you have a folding bike, you’re not required to pay for it. Provided you fold it once you enter the train. That way it’s considered to be a normal luggage. If you really want to ride a bike once you reach your destination, but don’t want to pay 6€, you can load onto your card a rental bike supplement, or a ov-fiets for extra 3€. Meaning, once you get somewhere, you can rent one. More, here.
Such a neat suitcase
If you, by any chance step onto a double-decker train, called intercity, make sure you don’t sit down at the silent compartment, and decide to have a loud chat with your mum. Look for signs, as always.
A final note on transportation: your hair is wet, and you didn’t have time to put the make-up on, and your train is in 5 min? Don’t worry, just step in, have a seat, and take out your makeup bag. You have time for all the make-up rituals you desire. Even plucking out your eyebrows. Yup, I’ve seen it all. Whenever I think of myself as a weird one, I think of all those beauty treatments on public transport. Who knows, maybe I’ll start doing them soon as well.
- The thing with paper
Dutchies are reluctant when it comes to printing stuff. The very first time we’ve come across that information, was when we were opening our bank account and the lady asked us if she could e-mail us the contract, rather than printing it all out just so we could take it home and never look at it again. The Dutchies are eco-friendly and don’t really like wasting paper when there’s no real need for it. For that reason, you can do a lot of things online without filling out a form somewhere. So when I was ordering my chip card, I had the option of filling out the form on paper or filling it out online. Just to push people more towards the online solution – they charge for that paper form.
Your train ticket will always be more expensive, due to the fact you’ve printed it out, instead of bought it online, or got an OV-chip card. While we waited for our card to arrive during the first month, we usually paid 1€ more per ticket per person, for each travel. That’s a lot of money if you travel often. Keep that in mind.
Also, in shops, or cafés, they’ll usually ask you would you like the receipt. The reason behind is, not to trick you, but to ask you whether you really need it, or should they skip printing it, and wasting paper. My friend would, naturally, complain why would they even ask him that, and of course he wanted it. But if they notice you’re a foreigner they’ll just hand it to you with no questions asked. And if you have one of those supermarket discount cards, you can see your shopping list online, as well. Let’s be more green, people. 🙂
- The thing with cafés
Paying for coffee prior to having any. This is the thing I don’t normally notice, or I don’t pay attention much to it when I’m alone, but my friend pointed it out almost immediately. I chose a completely random coffee place for us to sit down and have a chat, knowing I’m the only one who cares about the details such as interior or let’s say, actually good coffee. It turned out to be a perfectly fine café, except for the service thing, which is pretty much everywhere the same. So, there are cafés where you have to order at the bar and pay immediately. Also, there are bars/cafés where you have to order at the bar, but can pay later, emphasising that the payment is always done at the bar. And then there are cafés where you can sit down and wait for the service to come to you, but they usually don’t come at all, or you have to wait for longer periods of time.
That was one of the things my partner and I encountered on our very first time in Amsterdam. We stumbled upon a cute little restaurant, greeted the waitresses, and sat down. My partner, quite impatient by nature, is used to things be done in a certain way. If he’s in a café or a restaurant, they should come to him and take his order as soon as possible, preferably. Here, we just sat and sat, without anyone coming to check whether we were ready to order. Naturally, he got up and went to the bar, where they told him someone will be at our table shortly. Eventually someone came to take our order, and then the waiting prolonged some more. In the meantime, as it was lunch time, more people sat at the neighboring table, and what I noticed, they were carefree. No one was impatient, no one was wawing to the waitress, no tapping their feet nervously, no grunting, no anything. They just sat there, chatting forever, knowing obviously that someone would eventually notice them. A-mazing. So there are places like that as well, where they’ll come to you, but you’ll wait forever. And that seemed fine to everyone else. Culture clash, right there.
So, naturally, my friend noticed that, and by the time we had to leave he asked me where the bill was, but I explained I’d already paid when ordering. “Ah, yet another place where you have to do everything”. Maybe that’s the thing. They don’t have the need to constantly bother you with questions. It’s plain, there’s the bar, you can order there, you can pick your order there as well, or someone will bring it to your table. If you want more, down the bar you go again. No one will clean your table. Back home, if I’m finished with my coffee, there would be a melancholic waiter, slowly coming my way, picking up my empty cup, cleaning the table and asking would I like anything else. Maybe that is the thing. Maybe they don’t want you to get the wrong impression as if they were kicking you out if you don’t order more. I could stay in this café for hours, feeling like I drank 5 cups of coffee, and got some work done on my laptop in the meantime. A lot of people here make use of that time exactly the same. You’d see laptops, people reading, or having casual meetings right at the next table. No one to bother them. Maybe that’s the thing. My friend disagrees, naturally, and I believe my partner as well. But I can definitely see the lovely quirks of it all. So, if in doubt which café offers which kind of service, there’s always a bar to ask. I do it as well 🙂
- The thing with supermarkets
Ah, Dutch supermarkets. I love them. Now that I got to understand them, obviously. Now, this may as well be just in my culture, or in my country, plus the countries I’ve lived in previously. Fruits and veggies section. Buying everything else is easy, but that first time I’ve decided to get a strawberry basket, while desperately looking for a number to type on that fruit and veggie scale, then spying on other people how they do it – priceless. Like trying to find Waldo, not realizing he’s not there at all.
So, normally, if I’m to buy fruits back home, I would take a plastic bag, put my oranges, put them on a scale in the middle of the section, type in the number written on a price tag, and press print to put my price on. Now, what I didn’t know, that it’s also the process to do here, but only in supermarkets that have the self-scan registers where you can scan your products yourself and pay for them with a card, not having the need to speak to a human. Well, it was our first day, and it was all so new, so I just ran to a confused worker and asked her all puzzled: I’m sorry, but how do I buy fruit here? – The lady at the cash register knows the price. Mindblown! I cannot tell you how many times in the past I’ve witnessed someone saying: you didn’t weigh these apples? Where is your price tag? Now, I just take them, and the lady at the cash register does the rest. Marvelous.
But let’s get back to that pricing thing. Normally, fruits and veggies are sold by the kilo, meaning their price is per kilo. Here, you’ll find all kinds of mash-ups. For example, cucumbers and mangos are sold per PIECE, kiwis per HALF a kilo, some bananas per 1.20 kilo. Pay attention at the footnote, and, if buying only a piece of this and that, avoid packing it in a plastic bag. There’s a scale to check the weight of your products, as well.
Now that we’re done with that fruit enigma, one thing it annoyed me during the first months was employers stocking up the shelves, every single time I’m at the store. Morning, afternoon, evening, I’ve tried them all. There’s always at least one person in a section with piles of boxes blocking my way to get to a certain product. Normally, back home, the day they’re doing the inventory, they would close the shop. But here, it seems, the inventory never stops, and the stuff just keeps arriving. You’ll even find yourself at a section without prices. Meaning, they’re redoing the price tags at that moment, and they’d left you with guessing the yogurt prices or finding the price machine to scan the product yourself. I’m used to it now, but I can hear a lot of foreigners complaining about it. What can you do, the importance of stocking up comes first.
- The thing with patience
That being said, you’d expect the locals having the same negative sentiments about it. But I’ve never witnessed a single grunt. Not only no one complains, but they even wait for them to stock up, or they squeeze in between the boxes and get the thing they wanted, apologizing in the process. Customers apologizing to the employers. But nothing compares to the patience they have for one another. How many times have you told someone in the supermarket to move away, or shout you’re in a hurry, trying to go over the line, and so on? Back home, I’d probably do the same thing, run through the store and groan in the line for the cash register. You pick up on things from others, no matter how much you want to stay calm. Then you experience supermarkets in The Netherlands.
On my first trip to a local drug store, burned by a previous experience of a non-cash register, I didn’t know which line to take so, naturally, I took the longer one, hoping I took the right one. Then a lady came after me, carrying only a shampoo bottle in her hand. She wanted to take the much shorter line, but seeing I was the last one at the longer one, she asked me if I wanted to stand in the shorter line. My basket filled with cosmetics, my face blushing, I thanked her and only then realized all cash-registers accepted both ways of payment. The reason why that lady wanted me to take the line before her, was simply common sense. She saw I came before her, regardless of how many items I had in my shopping basket, and it was only natural to her to let me stand in front of her. Just wow. Wow. Few other times, at the supermarket, I would read the ingredients, not knowing there was someone behind me waiting for me to finish. Each time that happens, I feel embarrassed, and quickly get out of the way, and every one of those patient people smile, thank me and apologize if I was pressured into making a decision. After 6 months of living here, not a single bad grocery shopping experience. What I’ve learned? Now I stand in silence and wait for them to finish with their choice. We then smile, apologize, and thank each other. Patience is a virtue, after all.
- The thing with lunch
If I were to tell my mum I had a sandwich for lunch, she would say: what else? Meaning, having a sandwich and calling it lunch, it’s the same as saying I didn’t have lunch at all. Enter, a country that does the pure opposite. Now, I’m aware not everyone has the time during their workday to have a hot meal for lunch, and sandwiches are a more convenient way to get you through the day. Here, having a sandwich for lunch is what is considered to be a perfectly normal thing. Not only that, but the restaurants have separate menus for lunch and for dinner. So, if you decide to have some delicious stew, risotto, or anything that requires actual cooking at 2 p.m., you’ll have to get by with burgers, sandwiches, and salads. Dinner menus start around 5 p.m., or later, and then you can get a heartier meal. Bear that in mind if you’re a soup-and-a-cooked-meal-for-lunch and more of a lighter-sandwich-for-dinner kind of person. The solution for that problem is simple since supermarkets, and markets, such as Albert Heijn to go (designed for people in a rush) have meals ready to go, that only need to be heated up in a microwave in their original packaging. Also, it’s normal to pack up your lunch, so if you have leftovers, just pack it up in a Tupperware or a lunch box, and you’re ready to go. Healthier, and better, in my humble expat opinion. 🙂
- The thing with going Dutch
Last but not least, visiting the Dutch for the first time in their homes. What’s the etiquette, how to behave, and so on. I’ve already done a post about my awkward encounters so let’s just focus on one thing. According to the Cambridge dictionary, to “go Dutch” means to agree to share the cost of something, especially a meal. Meaning, if you go out with your Dutchie friend for a cup of coffee, or a sandwich, expect to share the costs equally. This could also be culture-specific since back home we’re used to paying for one round, then the next person pays for the seconds, and so on. It’s not always the case, and you usually do it with people you’re close with, but the thing that may as well surprise you is the way they host people. In our culture, if we’re expecting guests, everything is on us, meaning we’re responsible for food and drinks, you just have to bring yourself.
The first time we’ve been to a Dutch home, we were instructed to bring our own drinks, which we did. But, now that I think about it, it was only normal, as they were expecting more guests, and wanted everyone to drink what they liked. They provided the snacks, which were brought one by one, and you were allowed to take only one piece every single time. Again, maybe culture-specific, but I’m used to bringing everything out on the table, and let people eat as much as they want, not having to constantly ask do they want some more. And I’ve heard that’s the normal etiquette here when visiting other Dutchies. Recently, I’ve even seen a post from an expat sharing his own astonishment when he was asked by his Dutch neighbors to bring his own drinks. Now that I think about it, it also kind of makes sense. It’s economical, money-wise, at least. Maybe it also makes sense that if you bring your own drinks, you’ll also drink it. When it comes to our culture, everyone is so shy when they come to visit, that they usually, out of politeness, don’t want to drink nor eat anything, so in the end, you’re left with all that alcohol and food. Which is great for you. And it also depends on a guest, and which type of host you are. It is, after all, people entertaining. If they visit, and you have nothing to eat, and they didn’t bring anything, that’s no fun, now is it.
So, I’m not completely sold on this Dutch hosting type, and I’ll happily stand on my side of entertainment. Which is why, when we had guests the other day, we did it our way. But it didn’t make me feel any less unprepared, or nervous, for that matter. First time for everything is quite annoying.
In conclusion, I expect you’ve found some useful information before your first visit to the Netherlands, and, hopefully, you’ll be more prepared than I was. Or not. To err is human. As always, till next time, stay curious, and wonderful as you are! 🙂