My Amsterdam Helena

Name: Helena
Occupation: Biologist
Nationality: Portuguese
Moved to the Amsterdam Area in: May 2014
Living in: Amstelveen

Name: Pedro
Occupation: Programmer
Nationality: Portuguese
Moved to the Amsterdam Area in: August 2013 
Living in: Amstelveen

What does your job involve?

H: I am a molecular biologist working in a research lab in Utrecht University. My daily work involves wet lab experiments for my research as well as supervising and teaching students.
P: My job involves writing software for Booking.com’s big data server infrastructure.

Why did you decide to move to the Netherlands?

H: Pedro got a good job offer in Amsterdam. At the time we were both settled in our jobs in Portugal, but we never felt completely settled in our home country. We have lived in California before, and Pedro also lived in England and Australia, and it seemed the Netherlands offered what we usually look for when we look for a place to live. After some research we realised the quality and type of life we could reach in the Netherlands was indeed very much in accordance with our values and our way of life.
P: I realised that the Netherlands is a great country to raise my children, and one with which I have closely aligned values. 

Why did you decide to live in Amstelveen?

H: It’s close to Amsterdam, where Pedro is working, and it offers green spaces, parks and a quieter life than Amsterdam. At that time, our daughters were two and four years old, and it seemed like life could be more relaxed in Amstelveen
P: From 2013 to 2014 I lived in the centre of Amsterdam, in a tiny apartment. When my family moved over in 2014, we wanted a larger place instead.

When did you first feel like an Amsterdammer (if you do)? How does being based in Amstelveen affect that? 

H: Probably because I live in Amstelveen and work in Utrecht, I don’t feel like an Amsterdammer. And even though we have also been living in other countries, I think deep inside I’ll always feel Portuguese, no matter where I live. 
P: I do not feel like an Amsterdammer. I think I’ve kept my core expat identity. Some of my values are definitely Portuguese, and have picked up other traits in other countries that I’ve lived in. But ultimately, I do not feel I belong to any one country or culture.

What has working or living in Amstelveen taught you?

H: How the quality of life can be so high in a more suburban area. I learned that it’s possible for a place with a village feeling to have the diversity (something that I value very much) that you usually only get in big and busy cities. It also taught me that a city with demographic pressure can grow while still giving priority to green spaces and families .
P: Life in the Netherlands has taught me the value of good work-life balance and that it’s possible to have that with no disadvantage to either employer or employee.

How has the area changed since you’ve lived here?

H: There are more and more people coming to Amstelveen. The city has become less affordable in terms of housing, with prices getting much higher, but still it manages to maintain a very relaxed image, without the changes being very visible for now. One positive aspect is that Amstelveen is particularly attractive to foreigners, and for example, my girls’ school (a public Dutch Montessori School) has become more and more international. It’s amazing to see so many kids from different places playing together, made possible by the Dutch culture.

Can you tell us of any undiscovered gems in the city and Amsterdam Area (food, drinks, bars, clubs, places to visit)?

H: I really like the western part of Amsterdam. We go there every week. I like the diversity and the neighbourhood feeling that you can get in every café or restaurant there. Westerpark and Westergasfabriek are also super nice to walk around. On one of our walks we discovered the restaurant Hotel Buiten in Sloterplas, and we are fans! Recently, I went to De Hallen, and what a nice place it is: picturesque shops and good food, plus a nice cinema. 
P: I love the Amsterdamse Bos. I find it incredible that it’s only been around 80 years or so. The American Book Center in Spui is excellent as well. And the selection of beers at the Gollem on Amstelstraat is amazing!

How is Amsterdam different from your country and from other cities you have lived in?

H: One of the first things that amazed me when I first came here was how family-friendly this busy city can be. The amount of parks and playgrounds in this not-so-big place is wonderful. It’s a very special thing to be able to bike everywhere in a European capital and that lets you enjoy the beautiful canals and architecture. Biking is definitely a major difference to my home country and it contributes to me being so comfortable in the Netherlands!
P: Despite being a fairly large cosmopolitan centre, Amsterdam feels like a tiny village. It reminds me of Porto!

My Amsterdam Helena

What’s your ideal day in and around Amsterdam?

H: An ideal day around Amsterdam/Amstelveen would be getting the bikes and go either to Amsterdamse Bos for a walk or a picnic or to bike along the Amstel river. On a sunny day, we would go a bit further, to Bloemendaal, for a brunch and a walk along the beach – as a Portuguese, I really need to do this once in a while!
P: I love walking around the Negen Straatjes (it’s where I first lived in Amsterdam). Have food at Raïnaraï on Prinsengracht, get a book at the American Book Center and sit with a coffee on the square in front of the shop to read it.

Was there anything unexpected about moving here, including any challenges?

H: It was quite a challenge to understand the housing market here. In many ways it is still a bit surreal to me. It was difficult to understand the housing laws and how agencies work. It also took me a while to understand the educational system and how a family with both parents working full time could manage daily life. In the beginning, everything looked much more adjusted for families in which at least one parent works part time. Of course, the language is also a big challenge, but the Dutch are so considerate to foreigners that they speak English as soon as they notice you are struggling. 
P: The language was (and continues to be) a major hurdle. I’d never before felt like I had no agency over certain aspects of my life; I now know what it feels like to struggle to navigate the system when dealing with the government and certain public institutions.

How were these challenges resolved?

P: Google Translate!
H: As for finding a house, we just did it by ourselves, and we found a trustworthy agency as well. We were also very lucky to have someone from Pedro’s company helping us with the schools and kindergarten even before I came to the Netherlands. And it helped that during the first year here I didn’t work and could take the time to integrate myself and my daughters in the school and in the country in general.

Any advice for people thinking about moving here or just having moved here, including tips for settling in and making friends?

H: If you move to a different country you can feel very lonely and isolated. I realised that the Dutch have great support within their neighbourhood communities, so it’s wonderful if you can take advantage of that. People are very open, so go out and speak to people, to your neighbours. Having a circle of friends is also a great support and means you will be able to enjoy life in this beautiful country much more.
P: It’s important to find a support network of friends, family, colleagues or other acquaintances. We had the good fortune of meeting a number of people when we first moved, who helped us tremendously in integrating. This was particularly important to our children.

What’s your favourite neighbourhood/area and why?

H: Close to home, it’s definitely Amsterdamse Bos. This nature area has endless activities on offer, especially for kids. We go there very frequently, but we still manage to find new spots every time!
P: Bovenkerk, in Amstelveen, is my favourite neighbourhood. It’s a lovely place, with beautiful green spaces and friendly people, right next to the Bos.

How do you like to spend your weekends?

H: Biking in the Amsterdamse Bos or discovering new places in Amsterdam. And I always like to spend long weekends away in different regions of the Netherlands. We particularly enjoy the Gelderland region, which has a little bit more wild nature around, and Texel. And one of the best things that Netherlands has to offer is its museums all around the country. Although we’ve already visited many, there are still plenty to discover on rainy weekends!

What do you like and dislike most about living in the Amsterdam Area?

H: I really like many aspects of raising children in this area. The contact with so many different cultures that this area attracts, together with the Dutch freedom that gives kids such a strong sense of independence from very early on – it’s a wonderful combination. I believe the level of the schools in this area is also very high. They value things that I value as well: outdoor playing, sports and children’s independence. Culture is another important thing  that I am very happy to have and to be able to offer to my daughters. I am not sure there’s anything I really dislike… but it is sometimes hard for me to deal with how extremely organised the Dutch are. It is important to plan everything, and I miss the spontaneity that is so characteristic of my culture. 
P: The best thing about living in the Amsterdam Area is the high quality of life. The worst is taking public transport from Westwijk station in Amstelveen to Amsterdam...

How do you stay connected to your home country?

P: I keep up to date, somewhat, just by talking to my family there. I also read an online newspaper. But I don’t search for, or feel the need to, say, go to Portuguese restaurants, keep a circle of fellow Portuguese, or anything like that.
H: We frequently go to Portugal, and we maintain close contact with family and friends. We also try to keep traditions. Sint Maarten, for example: we usually celebrate it the Dutch way, with lanterns and kids singing in the neighbourhood, and at the end of the day, we eat roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes at home, as we do it in Portugal on the same day.

Inspired? Learn more about living in Amstelveen 

Photos by Saffron Pape