Vacation: The Netherlands vs. the U.S.

The Dutch refer to the first Saturday in August as “Zwarte Zaterdaag” or Black Saturday. It’s called “Black Saturday” because everyone hits the road (asphalt) to go on vacation. On August 1st, there was a traffic jam in France that was nearly 900 km (560 miles) long. Last year, the traffic jam was even worse.

The Dutch really value and prioritize vacations. Workers, as well as the unemployed, are given money (vekantie geld) dedicated for vacation. The way it works is 8% of a worker’s salary is withheld, and then given back in one paycheck. Initially, I was not a fan – if we wanted to take a vacation, why couldn’t we just save for it ourselves? Being an American, the laws of instant gratification dictate that I want that money NOW. But that was before that first paycheck came in, and we used it to help fund our 3-week long vacation. Now I love it.

That was the first time I took a three-week vacation but it won’t be my last. In Europe, long vacations are common. The idea is that vacations are restorative and make workers more (not less) productive. Manon (my spouse) is given 41 workdays off a year – 25 are actual vacation days, an additional 15 are for days when the office is shut around holidays and are negotiated by the construction industry’s labor union and she gets one extra day because she’s over forty. Her team didn’t expect her to work or be available while on vacation. The way it’s handled: before someone leaves for vacation, her team meets, work is divvied up, and that’s the end of it. Employees need to be somewhat cross trained, but that’s done throughout the year.

In the U.S. this is not common, or really accepted. Project Time Off found that in 2013 American workers forfeited a total of 169 million days of paid time off; surrendering $52.4 billion in benefits.

In the US, there’s more of a feeling that vacations (both long and otherwise) are expensive and unnecessary – and there can be a certain pride in not taking them. It’s similar to the “I’m so busy” humble brag – “this place needs me too much for me to go on vacation!” This attitude is summed up well in an obnoxious Cadillac ad:

What’s this commercial’s message? Dear rest of the world – Please don’t buy a Cadillac.

Another reason is Americans don’t take long vacations is fear, or more specifically the fear of being expendable – if a company can be without you for a month, do they really need you? The New York Times recently interviewed over 100 current and former employees about its highly competitive office culture, one that encourages employees to work long, hard and smart. It describes long work hours, constant evaluations (employees are able to send anonymous feedback to supervisors through an “Anytime Feedback Tool”) and a lack of empathy towards workers with personal crises. The interviewees mentioned that they began “internalizing Amazon’s priorities” – or putting pressure on themselves to maintain high standards. One reason that the culture is this way is to ensure that the company does not become complacent. Based on the interviews it has taken a tool on its workers*.

This is not to say Americans don’t take vacations, we definitely do. Those who don’t take vacations sometimes aren’t even rewarded for it. According to Project Time Off, employees who left 11-15 days of unused vacation time were less likely (6.5%) to receive a raise or bonus than someone who used all of his vacation days.

We spent our vacation in Canada, meeting friends and family, biking, and watching a few Women’s World Cup matches. We went to Montreal and Vancouver – both incredibly great cities. The Dutch perspective of vacations being restorative is right on – at least it is from my perspective.

*It may be fairer to say that working at Amazon took a toll on those interviewed. Amazon disputes the article, and a number of employees have responded to it. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, said in response, “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

Utrecht – Tour De France

Netherlands UtrechtUtrecht was the starting point for this year’s (2015) Tour de France. We were on vacation and weren’t able to see the send off, but the city has been buzzing with excitement since it was announced nearly two years ago.

Utrecht, a transit hub and university town, has begun to receive more attention and accolades in the past couple of years for reasons that have nothing to do with the Tour. Utrecht’s popularity largely stems from the charming historic buildings and cobblestone streets, the vibrancy that usually accompanies large university towns, and most importantly, its central location. Utrecht is the largest train hub in the Netherlands, making it easy for commuters to get to other cities in the Randstad such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Den Hague quickly. It is a café town, not a foodie town, as another U.S. expat put it, and that’s pretty accurate. Strolling through downtown, you can’t help but notice all the terraces with tables several rows deep, filled with patrons leisurely eating, drinking and people watching.

In short, we like Utrecht. Here’s why we don’t live there yet:

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Maastricht – Remembrance Day

Netherlands LimburgMaastricht may be located in the Netherlands, but its soul is Belgian. At least it feels more like Belgium than it does the Netherlands. Part of that could be attributed to proximity – Maastricht, at the southernmost tip of the Netherlands, closely borders Germany and Belgium. The south of the country is known for its “Bourgondish Levenshouding” (Bourgondish lifestyle), which emphasizes relaxing and enjoying life.

Maastricht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands – it has been occupied since the ancient Romans, and has approximately 1,660 listed historical buildings, making it second only to Amsterdam*. The day we arrived was rainy, so we didn’t get to sightsee as much as we would have liked. As we were walking back to the hotel – we heard a band playing Gun and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” (it sounds weird but they did a great job). It began to rain again so we ducked inside a dive bar to wait it out. The band came into the bar and did a few more songs, like Adele’s Skyfall:

The sound quality is not great – I am rocking an iPhone 3. Also, you can hear me say, “do you wanna do it” to Manon because she started steering my phone while I was filming.

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(I wanna go to the) Carnaval

Netherlands Noord Brabant

No time like a deadline – it’s Easter, and the last possible moment that I can describe Carnaval – a party that celebrates the beginning of Lent. It’s celebrated in the south of The Netherlands, the only portion that remains traditionally Catholic. We went to Den Bosch this year, and spent last year in Eindhoven. Den Bosch is the city here that is best known for Carnaval – they officially change their name to Oeteldonk during the festival. To me, it’s more Halloween than Marti Gras – the parades are smaller, and everyone participates by going in costume. Last year we did not have a costume, and we vowed not to do that again. The costume that we decided on this year was a hit but a bit too cumbersome to ever do again:


We also thought we would dodge sexual innuendo from other attendees, but we didn’t anticipate the question “Do you stack?” (Answer: No. I’m Duplo and Manon’s Lego). Here are a few pictures from the parade, as well as some of our favorite costumes:

Because we are old ladies, we found Eindhoven better than Den Bosch – which was a little too crowded. Also, and this was totally our fault, walking through crowded streets in boxes gets old pretty quickly.

Gouda bij Kaarslicht

Stadhuis not during Christmas
Stadhuis not during Christmas

Before we moved to the Netherlands, a friend of mine emailed me a picture of Gouda bij Kaarslicht (Gouda by Candlelight), and wrote, “you’ll get to see this!” Who knew that we would end up living a quick twenty-minute bus ride away from Gouda. Last year (2013) we weren’t able to attend, so we (I?) made sure that we were ready this time around. December 12, 2014 was a cold and rainy afternoon, so we were a little worried about whether this ceremony would go on but the evening cleared up, and likely reduced the crowds a little – which was a mazzel, or good fortune, according to Manon.Continue reading “Gouda bij Kaarslicht”

Köln Kerstmarkten

So a couple of months ago, I told everyone that I would be discussing places in the Netherlands, and then right away, feature a place like Cologne (Koln) that is not within it. Sometimes I’ll deviate from the script, I guess. Since it is December, I thought it might be fun to feature Christmas events, and it would be inexcusable to not include a German Christmas market. Every other event discussed this month will be in the Netherlands. Also, we bought a very used car this summer, and were itching for a road trip – Cologne is about two and a half hours away, I had some time off for Thanksgiving, and we figured, why not?

Cologne has eight Kerstmarkten (Christmas Markets) and we made it to five. Each market has its own theme and serves its own gluwein – a spiced and warm red wine served in its own mug. Gluwein is an acquired taste, and I acquired it more than Manon. The markets were crowded, but we were able to scout them out on Thanksgiving – which was by far the least crowded day, since it was drizzling and a work day for most folks.

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Where we were – Leeuwarden

Netherlands Friesland 1

Leeuwarden is Manon’s hometown, and we lived there for the first half of 2013. That year was an exciting time for Leeuwarden since it was chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2018; its beloved voetbal (soccer) team moved up to the Eredivisie, and DJs took over the town around Christmas for a fundraising event called Special Request. Since we moved from Austin, TX, a town that receives accolades daily for everything from BBQ to the job market, Leeuwarden really had its work cut out for it. Thankfully, it was up to the task.Continue reading “Where we were – Leeuwarden”

A little help

A couple of people have contacted me; both of whom are Americans in the US that would like to move overseas and are exploring their options. I completely understand why someone would seek advice before making the decision to move here like we did. And while I went though the Dutch American Friendship Treaty process, I still feel like have a lot to learn about running a business here. Like I’m the one that should be seeking advice, not dispensing it right now. This is not to say I want to shirk any responsibility – I’m actually happy to help, and it shows that there is a need for information. So whatever I find I’ll pass along.

Today, we attended Expatica’s i am not a tourist event in Amsterdam, which was enjoyable and informative. Top takeaways:Continue reading “A little help”


Inburgeren basically means assimilation, and for me, it’s not just a goal, it’s now a requirement. When we initially came over, I applied to stay by invoking the Dutch American Friendship Treaty – a visa that allows me to live and work in the country for two years. But a lot has happened since that time – Manon and I were married this year (!), and I am able to remain in the country for five years. My end of the bargain requires that I learn the language and be able to answer basic questions about history, etc. within three years. And frankly, if I haven’t made more attempts to assimilate by that time, I probably should be shipped out on the next boat back to the US. I can’t think that my quality of life would be really good if I haven’t managed to adapt better to where we’re living by then. Right now, I call myself Rapunzel, as I work from home from my third floor home office, so I’ll need to put some effort into my inburgeren.

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