First appeared in THEXPAT Journal Winter 2015 publication
Finally Found a Place to Live. Phew…
You have arrived, manoeuvred the hurdles of registration, figured out the transport system, managed to open a bank account – the gateway to just about everything here – and settled on a place to live. The shipment – from overseas or IKEA – has found its way to you, and slowly all the pieces of your new home, and life, are fitting together. And there you sit. Wondering what is happening on your doorstep, and what the neighbourhood has to offer. Regardless of whether your neighbourhood is more, or less, international, chances are, there are also Dutch neighbours. If, like many before you, you are awaiting the ‘welcome to the street’ invite from them, you may be disappointed. This is not to say that this is how it will be in every neighbourhood, or with all the Dutch, but, in general, there is a lesson to share.
At the ACCESS Welcome to The Hague programme, which we run four times a year on behalf of the City of The Hague, Caitriona Rush of At Home Abroad, a cross-cultural training and consultancy, introduces participants to ‘the iceberg’: the iceberg being a visual manifestation of ‘culture’, in any country. There is that which we see, and that which is hidden below, and needs to be discovered. The obvious things such as language, dress, food, and climate we can adjust to; we are reminded of the fact that they differ from where we are from because we see, hear, and feel the difference. However, we often underestimate that what lies beneath the surface can have a greater impact. In so doing, we run the risk of becoming unsettled by its impact in our daily lives, as well as our subsequent settling process. In fact, most of the issues related to ‘culture’ are, in fact, below the surface.
Waiting for the neighbours to welcome you is a classic example of what lies beneath the surface. While for many an international this is the norm in their culture, in the Netherlands it is the neighbours who expect you, as the new neighbour, to invite them and introduce yourself! On moving-in day, if you see them, please do take the first step, and approach, hand extended, to introduce yourself. Then, once you’ve settled in; invite them for coffee, and a drink. This catches many new arrivals to the Netherlands off guard, but it is the way things go here. In part, this comes from a practice of not wanting to be seen as interfering, and allowing you to keep to yourself. It translates into allowing you, the newcomer, to send the signal of ‘it is okay’ – when you are ready for meeting your neighbours. A handshake, a ‘my name is’ becomes a welcome gesture, a way of breaking the ice. The follow-up, the invitation into your home, is a low-threshold kind of venture. An after-supper (so, around 8:30 P.M., as the main news programme is at 8 P.M.) invitation for coffee is perfectly acceptable, and expected. Drop an invite through their mailboxes indicating the time and day, and make sure the coffee and tea are warm and accompanied by a small treat. If you then follow this up (after one cup) with the offer of a glass of wine with something savoury, you will have made the best step towards finding out ‘what is happening on your doorstep’, not to mention having a place to leave a spare key in case of emergencies – or discovering potential sitters close by. Since people do live busy, schedule-driven lives, an added tip offered by Caitriona is to invite twice as many people as you can comfortably have over.
When Icebergs Meet
At ACCESS we are a team of more than 35 nationalities, many of whom have spent time in other cultures, other countries. We are constantly and consistently discovering what lies beneath the surface of the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Our conclusion: consult others, ask questions, be curious, inquire when something is not clear. But above all, be aware that each one of us has more beneath the surface – to share and learn from. Dipping beneath the surface of the Dutch culture has something to teach us when it comes to meeting the neighbours. What is underneath your surface that you need to be aware of while meeting the neighbours?