The prospect of going to a foreign country to live a different life can be very daunting when you don’t know what to expect out of it.
I had all these worries and more when I thought about what my exchange program would be like in the Netherlands. However, the process of settling in turned out to come much more naturally than I thought it would.
Of course, when my host parents and I met for the first time, there was some initial awkwardness. We all had to figure each other out and were more polite to each other than strictly necessary. At home I felt awkward about getting snacks from the fridge, or pouring myself something to drink whenever I wanted, because the house did not yet feel like home.
After unpacking all of my things and spending some more time around the house, however, it became much easier to act the same as I would at my home in the U.S. Spending time watching T.V. on the couch with my host sister, or otherwise relaxing at home, also helped to speed up this process.
My new host family was very sweet and wanted to get to know me just as much as I wanted to get to know them. They even got me a welcoming gift!
While trying to settle into a new routine, I tried to work out some time each day to spend some time with members of my host family. Every day I walk the family dog with my host mother, for example.
Developing a new routine also has come with doing some traditional Dutch things that at first were a little out of my comfort zone. The meals in particular are different than I had had in the U.S.
For breakfast we usually eat bread with butter, and hagelslag, a sort of sprinkles for your toast. While delicious, it was odd for me to be eating something so sweet for breakfast instead of dessert.
Dinners are also usually interesting, very often being a sort of food I have never tried before, or have never tried in the same manner. On one memorable night, my host mom served us omelettes- an omelette per person- for dinner! I was surprised to be eating what I considered a breakfast food for dinner, but with a little bit of curry sauce (recommended by my host sister), I found it tasted fantastic.
One of the main differences I first noticed about the food was how much bread people eat. I was used to eating bread occasionally for breakfast or lunch a few times a week. By comparison my host family is used to eating bread for breakfast every morning, and every lunch. At school during lunchtime, most of the students bring open faced sandwiches to eat, with an apple as a snack.
School is also very different than my expectations of it. I thought that I would have more or less the same type of schedule that I had in the U.S. with the same start time and end time to the school day each day. Instead, each student has a special schedule with a different combination of classes each day.
There are also many free hours in my schedule, hours where I don’t have any classes and can go to school later or leave school early. And for every class there are books, books, books! Instead of the teacher giving you a paper of the exercises you need to work on, the teacher gives a lecture on the topic and you work out of the workbook you have to take to school with you.
You also do not get a grade for homework completion, and are encouraged to study more independent of the teacher’s help. If you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask it!
At first I was embarrassed to ask my teachers for help in class, because the Dutch students would understand a subject and I felt I was the only one who didn’t. However, my teachers were very understanding about me not being able to understand all my lessons, and did their best to help me. Some teachers try to give me less homework, and others try and explain the lesson in English after the class is over.
Almost all of the students also bike to school. There are bike racks around the school and a basement underneath the school as well, with rows and rows of bikes.
At school many of the students were friendly and curious about life in America. There were so many questions! Some of the most common ones were “how do you like it here so far?” and “how long are you staying for?”
My first day of school I was lucky enough to have a group of girls give me a tour of the school and help me feel welcome. We’ve since become better friends, and I have found the best way to make friends is to talk to them, even if you are afraid you won’t quite know what to say.
Although many of the teachers and adults speak good English, most of the students my age are still in the process of learning English, and I’m very thankful to have studied some Dutch before going on my exchange. Having to think in another language constantly, however, makes you incredibly tired. Taking some time to myself to sleep and relax is very important, even though I love spending time with my new family and friends.
Doing activities and going out with my host family and new friends has been very interesting and rewarding. My host family is very enthusiastic about showing me Dutch traditions and things they find fun, and because of this I have been able to see some very unique Dutch traditions.
One really interesting tradition is putting a sign shaped like a cartoon character outside of the door of the house where a new baby has been born, with the baby’s name on it. My host mother made sure to take me on a bike ride around town so I could see the signs and take some pictures.
Another interesting cultural thing I’ve noticed while living in the Netherlands is that many people are environmentally conscious and place keeping the environment clean at a high priority. My host family has separate compost, plastic, and paper trash cans, and saves old soda bottles for recycling. They also have chickens and organic eggs, and we mostly use the train or bike for transportation.
Since the Netherlands is mostly flat and there are plenty of bike paths and areas to go for a bike ride, I really enjoy biking around my new town and looking through the towns and farms with my host mother. I enjoy the exercise, and spending time with my new family.
Overall so far every day has brought a new surprise and adventure, and I’m excited to see what the rest of my exchange program will bring. There’s less to worry about than you think, and having a positive attitude is what has helped me the most in the past few weeks.
Remember, it’s not better, not worse, only different!