the everyday adventures of sabrina

i'm happy, hope you're happy too

Browsing Posts published by sabrina

So here in Europe (where I live. Sometimes I like to sprinkle that phrase into my random thoughts… it sure is a beautiful day here IN EUROPE, WHERE I LIVE. God, where the hell is the #17 tram… HERE IN EUROPE, WHERE I LIVE. Don’t judge me) there is a very distinct lifestyle difference that I was not prepared for, before I came and lived as a guest in a friend’s house where she had a bed she made for me when I showed up.

They don’t use flat sheets here.

Your mattress is covered by a mattress pad, just like home in the US, and then covered by a fitted sheet, just like home in the US. You sleep on top of that one. And then, there’s a duvet (comforter), in a duvet cover. Except…


For the benefit of those reading from Europe, in the US we have two sheets. There’s the fitted sheet over the mattress, but then there’s another sheet, called the flat sheet (or top sheet, but usually flat sheet, because it’s “flat” and hasn’t got elasticised corners like the fitted sheet), that goes over you. Depending on the weather, there may be a blanket or two (or six, if you live in Minnesota) over the flat sheet, but before the duvet (or comforter). In some places there is no duvet at all, but just blankets and then a quilt or bedspread. But there is always a flat sheet. The sheets get laundered, the blankets and duvet (or quilt…especially not quilts, especially-especially if they’re real hand-sewn quilts) get shaken out once or twice a year but don’t get dumped in the washer, like, ever. Because you don’t have to wash them if you have sheets!

But there’s no flat sheet here in Europe. It’s just you and your duvet cover. Need a thick blanket? Great! Don’t need a thick blanket? Uhhhh…. well, shit. The duvet cover gets laundered, which is great, except for the part where (a) MY FEET ARE COLD and (b) have you ever noticed what a total pain in the ass it is to stuff duvets into duvet covers? Because it is, and I have.

Now, I’ve had a nasty headcold, verging on flu, for the past few days. (Don’t talk to me about Sudafed. It’s banned here. If you talk to me about how awesome multi-symptom cold-and-flu decongestant tablets are right now, I will fly over and cut you. And then I will go to CVS, get out my ID and buy the most Sudafed I am allowed to buy, and fly my ass back home to Holland and rest assured I will not have to be a total mouthbreather next time I catch a cold.) It’s meant some fairly unpleasant hacking coughs, the kind of constantly running nose that results in Kleenex Nose — you know what I mean, when you’re blowing your nose so damn often your nose-skin gets chafed and painful and you dread every single time you have to reach for the kleenex because you know it’s going to hurt, but you can’t put moisturizer on your nose because the skin is already so sore you know no matter how For Sensitive Skin your moisturizer is, it’s going to sting like you’ve just dunked your face in a vat of acid — and a bit of feverish hot sweaty attempting-to-sleep nights where you can’t stand having the covers either on or off. Without the flat sheet, there is no middle ground. And I’m here to tell you, I MISS MY FLAT SHEET. Because I usually sleep nude, unless it’s super cold out, and there has just *got* to be a middle ground between “holy mother of god, it’s broiling under these covers” and sticking-your-leg-out “JESUS IT’S THE ARCTIC CIRCLE OUT THERE.” In the summer, that was one thing. Duvet cover alone was fine then, it was 35°C and no one cared. Today? Last night? I feel like I need to sleep wearing some tights just so I can stick my foot out when I get too hot, and not get the shivering shakes as a result. I mean I literally tried to sleep one day in some loose cotton capri pants (that was a quick fail. Nobody sleeps in button-up capris, for a reason). Guys. The flat sheet is a miracle of engineering that lets you keep a tiny bit of insulating air around your poor overheated leg, so it can cool down slowly, and gently, in a controlled fashion, without freezing your extremities off. It’s a tiny gesture of civilization in an uncivilized world.

Look, Europe. I don’t ask you to take much as an example from America. Not our wacko two-party politics, and certainly not our tipping-the-waitstaff confusion. But the flat sheet. Seriously. It’s a thing of beauty. It will transform your life. Just do it.

So I moved to the Netherlands about six weeks ago. The Hague, specifically. (No, The Hague is not a jail. It is a city. A city which happens to be home of The International Criminal Court, among other things, but it’s a city. So no, those who have asked in confusion: I did not move to jail.) It’s been great and I’m really enjoying it, which is nice because, as one makelaar (realtor) pointed out – I can’t back out now! I have a job!

I was a little worried initially about moving from a large city (Chicago, 2.7 million people; Chicagoland, 9.5m) to a smaller one (The Hague, 500,000 people), but it turns out the Hague is dense enough that it is about the same (and anyways I hardly ever went out to the edges of Chicago). And the Randstad region (The Hague plus Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Utrecht, and all points between) is about 7.1m with the other cities accessible by about a forty-minute train ride, so honestly it’s basically the same. Me going to Amsterdam for brunch last Sunday was basically about the same as me going to brunch up on the north side back home, except the train didn’t smell like pee. (I love you, CTA, but y’all know.)

I’ve been staying with a friend while I got settled in and look for a place, and hopefully I’ve found one — I put in an offer on Friday so we’ll see what comes of it. It has been, honestly, kind of rough looking for a place. The housing market is much, much different here than at home. I’d heard that it was tight but I kind of brushed it off — so many expats here (like 10% of the Hague’s population is transient, with people coming and going all the time, working for the diplomatic services or for major multinationals), how hard could it be? Turns out, pretty hard. For starters, there are no free apartment-finding services like back home. You can work with a makelaar (realtor) but most of them will only sell their own listings. So you wind up spending hours glued to aggregator websites like funda or pararius, writing or calling with inquiries, only to find that the listings are stale and the place is already verhuurd (rented). Also, my #1 priority was a place that would permit cats — my two cats are still back in the States, staying with a friend, waiting for me to find a place so I can bring them over. Most of the listings do not specify if huisdieren (pets) are possible, or even considered (in overleg). So once you find a listing that isn’t stale, the pet permission is the next step, and that rules out probably 2/3 to 4/5 of the listings (which I honestly did not see coming, because so many people here have pets).

The answer is actually pretty simple. Most people who live here buy places rather than renting. The rental market is functionally split up into low-income housing for people on social assistance, student housing (lots of bedrooms and one-room studios with shared common kitchens and bathrooms), and “soak the clueless expats and/or their employers” housing, with a tiny leftover slice of just-an-ordinary-person rental units. If you have pets, you’re probably a stable resident and not transient, therefore a local; therefore you buy. And the “soak the clueless expats” penalty is huge. I was looking at flats that effectively started around €900/mo, whereas a mortgage for an equivalent place would run me about €450/mo (and that’s before the monthly tax refund for your deductible mortgage interest, which could be €100 or more). I found that actually kind of hard to deal with, especially because back home rental was more or less on par with mortgaging. But oh well. When in Rome, and anyways — I can’t back out now! (Apparently the pricing in Amsterdam is even worse, because fewer expats know any Dutch or anything about the local government, and so they just accept that what they see is right… there are price controls on rent rates based on property tax values, but if the landlord is sleazy and the clueless newbie doesn’t know to check the price with the authorities, suddenly €1500 for a 15m2 studio is the real market value. See above re: “soak-the-expats.”)

So I hope now I have found a place, after weeks of looking (and having one offer I put in previously denied, probably because the landlord prefers to rent to the stable professional local couple who speak fluent Dutch, over the newbie unknown expat, since we both applied at the same viewing — I was crushed, it was a killer space). If it does come through, it’ll mean more new things to adjust to. For starters… apartments here come in three flavors:

  • Gemeubileerd: fully furnished. Includes household appliances, window treatments, furniture, bed linens, dishes, the whole 9 yards. Fully-furnished apartments naturally have a large fee over the base rent.
  • Gestoffeerd: partly furnished. This does not mean furniture. You probably have a flooring of some sort, and you might have window treatments, but mostly, it means appliances. The things you take for granted in America, like all kitchens have a fridge and a stove, are not true here. Your kitchen may come with a koelkast or vries (fridge, maybe freezer), kookplaat or gasfornuis (hob, gas cooktop), oven, vaatwasser (dishwasher), magnetron or combimagnetron (microwave or combination microwave/convection oven, which I must say is a brilliant appliance and really we ought to have those back home). You may have a wasmachine or drooger (washer, dryer), you probably don’t (but you are likely to have at least a wasmachine aansluiting, the washing machine hookup). But any one of those things is not guaranteed. You could find a gestoffeerd flat with a fridge but no hob, a stove with oven but no fridge, a fridge without a freezer. Whatever you do find is supplied, however, you will pay an upcharge in your rent for it. The base rent may be advertised as, say, €700 but then there’s a €30-70 gestoffering fee, depending on what’s supplied.
  • Kaal: empty. They really, really mean empty. You’ll get a space with no appliances, no window treatments, likely no flooring either (bare concrete, depending on the construction). That’s right, BYO carpeting or laminate. Some people lay wooden floors that they rip up and take with them to their new apartment when they leave, and re-cut it to fit the new space. Also, BYO appliances. You thought moving boxes of books was a heavy pain in the ass? Wait until you get to move a fridge, stove, and washing machine/dryer combo unit.

Then there are the non-tangibles:

  • There usually are servicekosten – service charges, not included in the base rent. These pay for cleaning, heating, and warming communal areas, leaf/snow removal, etc. Depending on the place you’re probably looking at minimally €25/mo.
  • Are your utilities included? G/W/L (gas, water, light) often are packaged together, but not always. Basically it depends on whether the apartment you rent has its own meters or if the building only has one. If your utilities are nominally included, they probably include only up to a certain usage level — if your toilet keeps running continually, get that shit fixed or you’ll run up a surprise bill for overages. Sometimes kabel (cable) and internet are included, often not. Budget €70-100 for utilities. A basic landline/cable/internet package will be around €30/mo.
  • There are our friends at the belastingdienst — tax authority. Local taxes may or may not be included in your rent/servicekosten. This includes grondwaterbelasting (the “please stop the land from flooding” tax), afvalstoffenbelasting (trash removal), rioolheffingen (sewer costs), or other gemeentebelastingen (local municipality taxes). Car? Parkeerbelasting. Dog? Hondenbelasting. (Cats are tax-free — MUAHAHA.) This all depends on where your place is and how much resources you take up, but I’m told that here in the Hague, I’ll probably pay €35/mo or so for my place.

So, to sum up, when you’re searching for apartments, you have to lay out all the costs. Here’s an example picked on a random example, a 2nd (3rd, American-style) floor 3-room unit including only cable:

Item Amount
Base rent: €670,-
Servicekosten: €40,-
G/W/L: €70,-
Internet: €15,-
Taxes: €35,-

Like magic, our €670,- flat now costs €830,- per month…and it’s kaal so have fun buying those appliances. At least it has carpeting, so you’re off the hook for that. But what I’m saying is, do not plug your actual max budget into the search bar. You are asking for disappointment and budgetary frustration.

And as for your deposit…that’s probably only one month’s rent, but you also have to pay the makelaar who agented the apartment. That’s equal to one month’s rent as well, and also subject to the 21% BTW (VAT, sales tax). So when you sign, you’ll pay not 2 but 3+ months’ rent at once. That was an unwelcome surprise. Hey! I’m not the customer here, the landlord is! Quit soaking the damn expats!

Oh and — hope you don’t want a bathtub! They’re unicorns. I’ve heard of them, but they don’t actually exist in the wild. (This is the only thing I’m really and sincerely bummed about. I love bubble baths, they’re the best. Until I buy, however, I can’t have one. On the other hand, I do get to live in Europe. So I guess it’s a fair trade.)

All of those help explain why one might rather buy than live in rentals, which in turn helps explains the tight/expensive rental market. Also, it’s really, really hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison, especially between gestoffeerd apartments, because of the “which ones do you get” factor. Is the gestoffering fee for the one where there’s a fridge and a cooktop equivalent to or cheaper than the one where there’s a dishwasher and fridge but you have to bring your own stove? Do you even want a real stove with oven or do you just want a cooktop? Figure it out fast, because the good apartments get snapped up in a hurry.

Initially I set my sights on finding a gestoffeerd place, chiefly because what the hell do I know of buying appliances here where I don’t know the reasonable price ranges or features to look for, but it really limited my choices when I did that. Because I did have a neighborhood preference — fairly broad, but still limited to say 1/4 of the city — that cut it down, and the cats cut it down much further, the appliances requirement just cut it down to the point where my choices were all out of my budget. (Since my cats are indoor-only, I had to eliminate all the otherwise-good places I saw, for example, where I would have to open the windows for ventilation (everything is radiators, no central hvac, so if you want air circulation it means windows or balcony doors) and the cats could get out on a ledge or nearby shed roof and escape. They’re lucky they’re cute, is what I am saying.) The place that I applied for is empty — no appliances. I will have to go out and buy a stovetop and fridge, and a washer and maybe a dryer, and maaaybe a dishwasher. It’s a pretty hefty up-front expense. If I buy all of those items new it’ll easily cost €1600+, which is why I hope to avoid doing so… again because of the expats, there’s a pretty swift-moving secondhand market. Prices all depend on the age and features and energy efficiency and how badly the person wants to get rid of them (they are big and heavy and if you wait out until the end of your lease and get desperate…that there is bargain season, my friend). Of course the downside of buying used is…used things do not come with delivery as an option. And they are big and heavy. So you have to factor in hiring someone with a van, and a willingness to schlep, into the prices.

And did I mention I don’t have any furniture? I got rid of everything when I moved. Turns out work would have paid for a 20-ft shipping container, but I didn’t ask. I could at least have hung on to my desk or bed. Oh well, too late now. Secondhand everything, here I come! But that is a post for another day, for now, I have to go shower, get on my fiets (bike) and go to Centrum (city center, downtown) to meet a friend for lunch! In Europe! Where I live!

I arrive in The Hague, NL on Wednesday, 2 July, for my new adventure. In het nederlands!

And that is that.

in which ik ben gek–

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Obviously I’m an American, and I’ve always spoken English, but I’ve also always loved learning other languages (ik houd van talen; j’aime bien des langues) and what no one tells you about learning multiple foreign languages is how they all get bundled up in the “non-mothertongue” section of your head and they just kind of … leak.

So, I’m studying Dutch now, but I’ve studied French, German, and Spanish in the past. I’m trying to focus on Dutch, but the process that happens, when I get to something I don’t know or I’m more familiar with in another language, is that I grab the nearest not-English thing I can think of.

This leads to conversations with myself like:

Ich brauche….nee, dat is Duits… ik heb nodig de quelque chose… nee, dat is Frans… Ik studeerde depuis j’au eu negen jaar… wait. Shit. Start over.

Thankfully I didn’t study Latin for more than a single 12-week quarter, and that mostly for etymological curiosity than anything else, otherwise I’d be completely screwed. God, I wonder how real polyglots do it. I feel so grappig right now!

So, last year I decided to learn Dutch, and I traveled to the Hague to take my two week vacation as an immersion course, and I promise to say more pithy things later, but all you really need to know of what I’ve learned at this point is this:

MEER SNEEUW, MEER SNEEUW, MEER ^*&(&^*(*)&(^*&^*&%^% SNEEUW!