An Expatriate Guide: International House Hunting

Let me preface this by saying it is WAY overdue. I had started writing it back when we were apartment hunting in Stockholm and things… well… things changed and we didn’t end up there. I think it could still be useful, and so I’m sharing it anyway.

Amsterdam

In case you’re new here… hello. My husband and I went through the process of moving abroad once (almost twice) and it was a HUGE learning experience. If you are faced with the same opportunity to move abroad, God help you. Kidding, guys. I’ll help you! Moving to a new country, in the mix of all the excitement, can also be stressful. Having survived a major move from Chicago to Amsterdam just over a year ago (which I excitedly documented here and here), we were totally naive, but stumbled through the process and ended up with a great result. We want to share what we learned, so that maybe we can be helpful for someone else. Here be my tips:

  1. Understand your perspective. It is much different to visit a place as a tourist versus a soon-to-be resident. It’s important to distinguish the two. Don’t focus on being close to the tourist attractions necessarily, but rather areas with livability based on your lifestyle and interests. Sometimes that overlaps with touristy stuff and that’s okay too.
  2. Do your research. Learn as much as you can about different neighborhoods by reading through online expat guides, local blogs, etc. Know someone that has lived there? They are probably your biggest resource. Even if they don’t share your taste, it’s helpful to talk with someone who is living there and understands the area from a dweller’s perspective. Expat bloggers can be especially helpful, provided the writer is responsive.
  3. Get an “overall feel.” This is kind of vague, but walk around. Drive around, if walking is not practical. Go to as many distinct neighborhoods as you can, see if they match up to what you researched. Eat local food. Check out some shops. Grab a drink at a neighborhood pub. Turn down that residential street. Can you see yourself living here? What are you liking about it and also not liking? Hopefully, you can do this in a visit before the actual move, so you have time to reflect on what you experienced.
  4. House search all over the city. See as many as possible. Even though we initially preferred one specific area, we saw apartments all over the city. You know why? So we could say with confidence that we were focused on the right area for us. As much as cities are different, they are the same. Most cities have a touristy area, as well as a high rent district, a hipster-ville, a downtown, and just plain old undesirable areas. What did you like/not like about where you have lived previously? Is that still relevant to your current life stage? Living priorities might be different if you are young &/or single or older &/or have children. We happen to like “hipster-ville” so that’s where we ended up.
  5. Think about your surroundings. You know what they say in real estate: Location, location, location. As an expat trying to settle into a new country, this is especially important. You need to feel comfortable and safe. How important is it to you to be within easy walking distance of bars and restaurants? What about public transportation? Or the grocery store? The bank? Does that park on the corner look safe or full of drug addicts? Seriously. Imagine yourself walking home at night.
  6. Know what you need versus what you want. Say you find an area that seems to fit you & your lifestyle. You’re halfway there! With the homes in that area, be flexible on dropping amenities down the priority list. When we attempted to move to Stockholm (which ended up not happening after all), we thought we “needed” a dishwasher. Guess what. Many places in Europe, even those with brand-spanking-new kitchens, don’t have them. You know where I’m going with this. As we were house hunting in Stockholm, it quickly dropped down to a “want”. Besides, Jaro can be dishwasher (but seriously, how do people survive without a dishwasher?). Same for gas stoves, closets, large bathrooms, etc. Be open to living simply. You might even find it surprisingly refreshing. …Unless you are sacrificing A/C in a hot climate. In that case, I feel sorry for you.
  7. Be firm with your agents. Relocation rental agents, as we learned, have a job. It’s not to guess your preferences, it’s to get you settled as quickly as possible. Don’t cave in if you don’t feel good about it! When in Stockholm (again, a blessing in disguise that we didn’t get a place), we almost went with a beautiful apartment in a neighborhood that just wasn’t right, but caught ourselves and realized we’d regret it. I know this depends a lot on your situation and whether you have guaranteed temporary housing, but be honest and direct with the rental agents to keep them focused on your needs.

This method worked for us and we find ourselves following it as we attempt to buy our first home back in the U.S. After reading back through this list, it is not necessarily specific to moving abroad. Is this helpful? I’m curious, what are some other tips for helping others house hunt abroad?

xxx

{image of Amsterdam taken by me}

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An Expatriate Guide: Living in Amsterdam

So, you want to live in Amsterdam, huh? Or know someone who does? Maybe I, an American expat living in Amsterdam, can help. Now that my husband and I have lived in here for over a year (and sadly leaving it soon), I think we are ready to give advice to those that are considering it. Long story short: It is an absolutely fantastic city and I highly recommend it. There. Drop whatever you are doing and move! If you need more convincing, some specifics below.

Overall Feel: Amsterdam has a very unique vibe, which is something that clicked with us right away. It really isn’t like anywhere else. There is a charm to it that I can’t explain. It is laid-back and unpretentious. It is not judgmental; there is a very evident “to each his own” attitude. It’s also beautiful and romantic without trying too hard. Actually, it doesn’t try at all. It just is.

Neighborhoods: Each ‘hood in Amsterdam is different. Really you can’t go wrong, the city is so small that you can easily get from one end to the other in 30 minutes by tram or bike. I do have my preferences, however. I like living in what I think are “cool” neighborhoods. And I’d like to remind everyone that this is strictly my opinion; others may see it differently. Here is a very tiny summary:

  • Old Center: I’d say this area is the busiest as it’s home to the Dam Square, Royal Palace, Centraal Station and Red Light District. I tend to avoid it since it is usually very crowded and full of tourists. There are quiet areas & pretty canals though once you move away from the Damrak/Rokin streets. There are a lot of shopping (fast fashion staples like Zara, H&M, Mango, and department stores like Maison de Bonneterie, Bijenkorf) and restaurant choices (we like Cafe de Jaren) in this area.
  • Canal Belt: This area is the most romantic. Amsterdam’s famous canals must be seen to be believed. They are magical, especially at night. Living here is very pricey, I believe. When we were house hunting, we were shown a shoe box that didn’t even have canal views for the same price as our loft. The 9 Straatjes on the west side (Denham, Bendorff and Scotch & Soda, do it) and Utrechtsestraat (Labels, Jan, Bellarose) on the south side are my favorite boutique shopping areas.
  • Jordaan: This area is very residential and beautiful. The narrow streets with leaning townhouses have so much charm. If we hadn’t lived in the Pijp, we would have wanted to live here. It is a very trendy area with great boutique shopping as well and lots of cool little restaurants. My favorite restaurant in Amsterdam, Balthazar’s Keuken, is located here.
  • De Pijp: …Is where it’s at! Okay, so I’m partial to the Pijp because that’s where we live, but I absolutely love it. The Albert Cuyp Market gets it’s fair share of tourists, but the neighborhood is very eclectic and “bohemian.” One could even call it the hipsterville of Amsterdam. There are great boutiques (Cottoncake and Streetclothes are my picks), lots of cool restaurants (De Duvel and Bazar are our faves) and a nice park. While at the south end of the city, it’s well connected to Centraal Station by tram.
  • Museum Quarter: This area is very posh and packed with culture. It’s home to the designer shopping street P.C. Hooftstraat and the beautiful Vondelpark (our very own Central Park). Watch out for tourist groups on bikes pedaling through the park or Museumplein, which is behind the Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk and Van Gogh Museum, all located here as well.
  • Oost/Jewish Quarter: I don’t know much about this area at all. This is where the Waterlooplein flea market and zoo are located. It is otherwise very residential. None of my restaurant or shopping excursions took me this way. There is a lot of new architecture because, sadly, much of it was torn down after WWII. It doesn’t have the same charm as the rest of the city.

People: Almost uncomfortably friendly. As a guarded and even suspicious American, it can be surprising that people are genuinely this nice (of course, not for me since I’m from the Midwest; we invented nice). People say “hallo” to each other in the street and as soon as you give yourself away as an American speak, they want to know everything about your experience living here. What you like about their city and also what you don’t. They want to know what you do and sometimes even how much rent you pay. Don’t be shy! I have found the Dutch to be very forward, yet well-intentioned, so you might as well be too.

Language:  Dutch itself is not exactly a poetic language or particularly easy to learn. I did a 10-week course (Thanks Allard!), starting like 6 months after we moved here. I wish I had done it right away and mastered more. There’s something about addressing people in their own language that is, I don’t know, respectful? It just shows some effort. I mean, you are living in their country. And if that was your choice, you should try to assimilate. Then again, everyone speaks English. Even many of the old folks and young kids. So sometimes it’s hard to keep practicing your Dutch because it’s easier for you (and them, honestly) to just talk in English.

Style: Casual, casual, casual. Even nice restaurants, the theater and the concert hall have relaxed dress codes. Of course some work environments may require suits, but the overall aesthetic is decidedly more laid back. For eclectic street styles, check out Dam Style.

Culture: There is more to Amsterdam than pot and prostitutes (you can see my brief rant about that here). That does exist. Get over it. The rest of the city is simply charming. There are tons of museums, swanky restaurants, hip clubs, cozy pubs, and boutique shopping galore. Think you’re going to find a Gap or Sephora here? Forget it. A lot of big chains don’t have outlets here. (Don’t worry, H&M and Zara do.)

Safety: I rarely feel unsafe in the city. Really, the only time when I do is when I can tell a junkie is staggering in my direction. In all likelihood, it is a tourist that overindulged and really not a threat.

Getting Around: A breeze. Pick yourself up a GVB chipkaart right away and you’ll see how conveniently the city is connected by tram, bus and underground subway. Of those, I prefer the tram. But most of the time, I walk or ride my bike. This is the biking capital of the world, so to truly feel like an Amsterdammer, you gotta hop on two wheels (there are pros and cons to the bike culture).

Weather: This is probably a turn off for most people, but hear me out. Yes, it rains. A lot. And most days are an overcast shade of grey. But you gain a whole new appreciation for nice weather. So really, you win.

Household Basics: Things like establishing residency, personal banking, health insurance, etc. all took way longer than we expected (see my brief rant about customer service) and there were many hiccups that were out of our control. Things that would be unheard of in the U.S. like switching signatures on your bank cards or losing your passport photo and forgetting to tell you). You have to have some patience, there is no need for speed here, despite your sense of urgency. Chill. It will get done. (Just remember to follow up, sometimes they forget to process your immigration…)

Housing: After seeing friends’ apartments, we realize we definitely lucked out. Apartments are typically small and have weird lay outs. I’m realizing that is just common in Europe, because we are seeing much of the same in Stockholm (moving there next week). Since we are short-term, we’re still renting and one huge difference from the States is that we pay every single bill separately. Rent, energy, water, trash removal, property taxes (yep, we paid that for the year!) and cable are all separate. Be sure to clarify what is included in your rent, if anything.

What did I leave out? I’ve previously shared things I’ll miss (times two) and things I won’t miss about living here. And I am compiling a separate post about what to do as a visitor in Amsterdam.

Any questions, please write in the comments!

xxx

An Expatriate Guide: Hosting

Aside from all the travel, another tremendous change in our lives as expats is the amount of hosting that we now do. We’ve been fortunate to have quite the number of excited guests come see us in Amsterdam. It truly does make us feel loved and not so detached from the life we left behind. HOWEVER, we have learned a lot about the do’s and don’ts of hosting. Yes, there are don’ts. Let’s dig in.

  1. Do feel the love. Isn’t this a great thought to start with? People love us! They want to see us! We love them! We want to see them! We have allowed ourselves to reflect on this wonderful feeling and consciously make the best out of each visit. It makes us happy. It cheers us up on a glum day. Just feel the love, people. Feel the love. Don’t forget that while this is your normal life, it is a vacation for your visitors. They are spending time and money to be with you. Enjoy these visits. Your guests will undoubtedly enjoy it too, if you have this attitude. So memories like this are created:

    J+J with M&M, our first visitors from home.

  2. Don’t rush. It feels great to have visitors wanting to knock down your (brand new) door that you may or may not know the exact location of. …I think this is my street? It truly does. Before we even moved, we had a list of people waiting for us to give them the go ahead to book their tickets. But we rudely forced politely asked that everybody wait. We needed some time (months actually) to get ourselves situated here and I think that made for more successful visits with our guests. We were already comfortable in our home and had gotten over all the new-ness (well, maybe not all) of life abroad, but we had figured out important things like grocery shopping and other daily routine-ish things, so that we didn’t have to waste time figuring it all out while guests were here. Not to mention the fact that we had only been married two months when we moved. Let’s just say, we really didn’t mind the alone time. Speaking of alone time…
  3. Do prioritize alone time. Jaro and I came to this realization rather slowly, but it might be the most important. Although our guests want to spend every waking moment time with us (which, trust me, is a great feeling), we have to remember that we are married to each other and need to make time to keep our relationship healthy, connected and “ours”. Meaning, we need time to talk, privately, about our own shit. That which is nobody else’s business. Whether that means we go for walks, head out for a drink or send off our guests so we can chill at home, we need that time. We are still newly-weds after all! How long can I call us newly-weds anyway? The thing we also needed some time to realize was that our guests would not be insulted by this. In fact, they, very likely, would completely understand. <Insert large exhale.>
  4. Don’t over-commit yourself. This is one area we are still working on. Hosting is tiring. There I said it. As much as guests say “no pressure” we are still hosting. I like to have a clean house. I like to make nice meals.  Julie, let it go. What? Yeah, we have also realized that not every single day has to be completely planned out, not every meal needs to take three hours to prepare, and not every corner of the house needs to be spotless (okay, well maybe it does, I can’t stand dust). So far, all of our visitors have been adults, which means all of them can figure some stuff our on their own. But this is a two-part don’t. While over-committing within a visit is one thing, it’s another to over-commit in the sense of over-book. We have realized that having back-to-back-to-back visitors, while fun, is draining. It’s hard to be out of our routine, however mundane, for weeks on end. Sometimes this stresses us out. And we need to forgive ourselves for it. At the end of the day, we never regret having our friends and family staying with us. It’s good to fill our home with life and laughs, because so often it’s empty.
  5. Do understand when people can’t come. This is a sad reality. Not every single person that loves us from home is able to come visit. Whether there are schedule conflicts, financial concerns, or just “oops, I have other things to worry about”, we need to accept that some people just won’t make it. It’s important not to demote these people in our minds just because we haven’t been face-to-face in awhile. Skype, email and instant chats have worked wonders in keeping us connected to folks back home.

Is this way off base? It has worked for us.

xxx

An Expatriate Guide: Travel

When I first moved to Europe, having only made three trips here previously, I was full of wonder and excitement. I was READY TO TRAVEL. And why not? It’s okay. I’d even say it’s expected. I’ve always considered myself to be adventurous. But, I was also a wee bit naive (like my Why aren’t those eggs in refrigerators? moment). And that’s okay too. There was, and still is, so much to learn, discover and explore.

Since our move seven months ago, I have racked up visits to 10 countries. Not too shabby. That is absolutely, without a doubt, hands down (or up, waving wildly) the biggest perk about being an American living in Europe. The possibilities for travel are endless. After planning that many trips in a short amount of time, I’ve learned some stuff. Here are my top three revelations:

  1. Living “like a local” is unique and cheap. We realized early on that we want to have a local experience while also looking for deals. Whether it’s risking our life in a tin can taking advantage of the discount airlines, finding a reliable hotel bargain, or shopping for meals rather than eating out, there are plenty of ways to save cash. Saving cash = more money for more trips. For housing, we started using rental sites like Housetrip and Airbnb to book our accommodations and finding that we very much prefer it to hotels. It’s never quite the Four Seasons, but that’s not a priority for us. We want to be OUT of the room as much as possible. If that’s your jam, go you. For us, staying in a home, we can make our own coffee and meals to save a bit of cash (bonus: you get to poke around local grocery stores which I love). Every property has pictures, so you know exactly what you are getting. And, I don’t know, there’s something nice about coming back to a home rather than a hotel room. So you can have this for dinner without a shred of guilt:For meals, same thing. While it’s always lovely to dine in Michelin-star restaurants, why not try the street food from the cart in the square? We have had some of our most memorable meals that way. In a good way! It also scores you points with the locals when they see you are willing to give them a chance. So go ahead, try the snails! (Whether you survive or not is your problem.)
  2. Try off season travel. I stress try. This has good and bad qualities. When it comes to traveling during the winter, it’s just not my fave. I don’t prefer to sight-see when everything is dead.Because you know what I always say? Ooh, I need to come back when the weather is nicer. I don’t like being completely bundled a la Randy from A Christmas Story when walking around a new city. Does this mean I won’t travel when the weather is less than perfect? Of course not. A cold trip is still better than no trip. Depending on where you go, this could work to your advantage. Sometimes this means that hotels and airlines have reduced rates, or maybe you get attention from local restaurant and shops owners and end up getting some great personal advice about what to do and see (it’s happened to me and was great). Then again, hotels might be closed up altogether or restaurants are annoyed to have to wait on you, the only patron in the restaurant, when there is a soccer match on tv (it’s happened to me and was depressing). You might as well try.
  3. Be open to unexpected destinations. While it’s natural gravitate toward famous cities (such as Barcelona Paris) or famous natural wonders (like the Cliffs of Moher or the Sahara Desert), I’m convinced that every place on earth has its charm and deserves a chance. This is what is so great about being an expat, everything is new and exciting. Even little towns around the Netherlands like Haarlem, Delft or Zandvoort are lovely. It’s important to be open to places you may never have paid attention to before expat life. Like in my case, Moscow. Moscow wasn’t high on my list of places to visit. But since Jaro had some meetings there, I jumped on the free hotel room and spent my days wandering around. Why not? There is beauty everywhere and living over here affords you so many opportunities to see it. And sometimes it’s in places where you least expect it. Like Moscow’s metro stations:

So, what do you think? Are there other expats out there that share this joy in discovering a new place and general love of travel? I feel like I could write a book about my ramblings on this subject (maybe I should!) or at least continue to expand upon it in future posts. To be continued…

xxx