Finances, Dutch small talk and poetry

Goethe said, “Art and love amplify the small things in life.” I’ve always thought that Goethe missed one thing in that thought— that is travel. I believe that art, love and travel amplify the small things in life. This week, I’m putting  a magnifying glass to:

  • #1: The economics of living abroad— it can be affordable.
  • #2: Cultural Differences: Is it small talk or is it a dig?
  • #3: Food adventures part 4: Gouda, I camembert anything else.
  • #4: Why riding the train is the best

#1: The economics of living abroad— it can be affordable.

Finances are a big issue for those who want to live or travel abroad, I always hear people saying they can’t travel because it costs too much. This blog topic is going to be a 2-parter because living abroad finances and financial tips for traveling abroad are two different beasts. This week’s blog will look into the economics of living abroad, how to do it cheaply, and the vices and virtues that come with budgets.

The top reason students don’t go on exchange is because of finances. I would like to dispel this myth, but admit that there is the risk of things getting expensive. Here are 3 reasons why things can get expensive:

Everything is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We love justifying instant gratification. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “if you don’t do this, future Julie will regret that I didn’t do this!!!” But trust me, you can bankrupt yourself if you say ‘yes’ every time. Seizing the day is important, but is it affordable to do every day?

You can start to forget about the exchange rate. I’m no expert, but something tells me that if you start to roll your estimates down, by like 20-50% that your budgeting is going to be a mess. But this is remarkably easy to do! This is how it happens. First you think, “ This is almost $20 dollars, maybe $5 more…” Then, “20 euro and $20 Canadian are practically the same…” Then, “Exchange rate? What exchange rate?” Boom, just like that, the ghost of budgets past is on your doorstep.


You don’t have enough information to know what a good financial decision would look like. If you don’t do your research you may get ripped off as a tourist or just be wasting oodles of money without realizing there are cheaper options. Do your research. Nuff said.

The good thing is, if you know these three pitfalls you can pull yourself out of a financial nosedive, but all this may still sound kind of risky. Here are some decisions I made which I can show the financial impact of and other consequences that were part and parcel.

Rather than living in the dorms at the University of Amsterdam, I sought independent housing. It can often take months to find housing in Holland, my situation happened to work out because I had a friend who offered me a room. But this one decision is saving me about 500 Euro a month! So if you can find alternative housing, you may be able to save a lot, but if it will make it more difficult to meet people. So you have to decide if the economic benefits outweigh the possible social sacrifices.

It’s tempting to go out for coffee, drinks and dinner all the time, but this dramatically increases your cost of living. I try to stay in for meals during the week and allow myself to go out on weekends. The caveat here is that you do not restrict your budget so much that you are just buying the european equivalent of  kraft dinner every night. This will make you very disgruntled, as it should.

Other quick tips for making living abroad affordable:

  • Many countries allow you to work a 10-20 hours a week without a visa and Universities often offer international students jobs on campus
  • If you are looking for independent housing, you can use to book a room for a week while you are looking
  • See if there are any free communal spaces for people to work in, these often have free coffee/tea and food. The one to look for in the Netherlands is seats2meet.

Cultural Differences: Is this small talk or is it a dig?

Treading new cultural waters can be difficult

Whenever I get to a place I try to figure out what the small talk is in the area. This way I can avoid offending people with questions that make them uncomfortable or topics that fall flat. I remember learning in Lyon that I should ask people about a topical issue rather than something personal. In Italy, it was wise to talk about someone’s family or ask where they were originally from. In the Netherlands, the small talk is similar to Canada, in that you ask, “What do you do?” as one of the first questions. But in the Netherlands there is a certain bluntness or directness that is threaded into the conversation. People will often just point things out in a matter of fact way, which if you are used to less direct communication (as we often are in Canada) it can catch you off-guard. Sometimes I don’t know if something is small talk or if it a negative observation made with motives I clearly don’t understand. (I’m calling it a dig, like when someone digs into you about something)

Here is an example:

I’m in line at the grocery store after the gym, so I still have my kicks on and my basket is full of healthy things like yogurt, muesli, bananas and the not so healthy stroopwaffles. The man behind me looks at me, the things in my basket and points out that everything is healthy except for the stroopwaffles, which he claimed, I had hidden under the bananas.

 Is this small talk or is it a dig? What would the right reply be?

I laughed and said something to the effect that I wasn’t hiding it, but that we all had our vices. But he didn’t laugh. Nor say anything else after. This may seem like a one off, but I’ve noticed that the way I react to direct comments made to me still has not felt smooth. In any case, I’m working on uncovering the mystery and will report back after some more detective work.

Food Adventures Part 4: Gouda, I camembert anything else.

So far I have not seen a strong sense of nationalism in the Netherlands, but I know it exists. On Queen’s day in April everyone dresses in orange and floods the street. Unfortunately, my exchange will end months before I can experience this, but there is one thing that reveals Dutch pride…that is the cheese store. If I were to say, “ I’m going to visit the speciality cheese shop,” you may envision a store with a variety of different cheeses and other procurements to go with them. But, in the Netherlands, you’d be mistaken. Most of the time the cheese shop stays close to its grammar, it is not the cheeses shop, it is the cheese shop—it sells Gouda and only Gouda.

To be fair, there are different varieties of Gouda, but you would still walk into the store and say, “Hmm…Gouda, gouda or gouda?” I told this to my French friends and they thought it was hilarious, they simply couldn’t wrap their minds around it. They’d say, “What do you mean there is only one kind of cheese?” and then they would burst out laughing.

What would astound them, more than the fact that the store only sells Gouda is how many different kinds of Gouda there are! There are aged goudas, pesto flavoured gouda, herb infused goudas and baby goudas. If you haven’t had Gouda, I can describe it like this: it is like the kid in class that is a bit quiet, but likeable, particularly because he/she does not have too strong a personality. Gouda is agreeable. And if I were to pick a diplomatic cheese to represent my country, I think Gouda is a fine choice!



Why riding the train is the best:

Since I live in Utrecht, I commute to Amsterdam by train which isn’t far, only about 20 minutes. For the majority of this train ride we are passing by soft green fields with canals that reflect the sky and a peppering of grazing sheep or cows. It never ceases to amaze me that the Dutch have the countryside right on their doorstep. More amazingly, that the way the land is cultivated has a history of hundreds of years. Sometimes I think that the way the canal splits the land is like the spine of an old book, holding together the landscape that would sink otherwise.

Studying in Holland has introduced me to a lot of writers that I would never have found in Toronto. I’ve attached a poem below of a Dutch writer Hendrik Marsman describing the landscape. When I read this, I felt like he did a beautiful job at summarizing the sensation that I get when watching the landscape from the train.

Memory of Holland

Thinking of Holland
I picture broad rivers
meandering through
unending lowland:
rows or incredibly
lanky poplars, huge
plumes That linger
at the edge of the world;
in the astounding
distance small-holdings
That recede into space
Throughout the country;
clumps of trees, town-lands,
stumpy towers, churches
and elms That Contribute
to the grand design;
a low sky, and the sun
smothering slowly in mists, pearl-gray,
and in every county
the water ‘s warning
or more catastrophes
heard and heeded.








This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Bookmark the permalink.


When my family emigrated from South Africa to Canada it was 1991 and I was eight years old. From an early age it was clear to me that my roots had a contentious history. Immigration shaped me by making me more skeptical of my roots and a more trusting of my wings. Travel has never just been travel for me; it has been a way to make order out of the world. In the context of my life, travel is a stratosphere of transformative experiences. For that reason I am now living in the Netherlands with the mission to find cultural subtleties, unexpected beauty and what wild diverse experiences this exchange has to offer!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *