"Did you move here for work?"
"Errr... no. I work for myself."
"For your partner's work?"
"No, he works for himself too."
"But he's Dutch?"
"Nope, sadly not." (Kidding!)
"So you have family here?"
"But... wait... why do you live in Amsterdam then?"
This is a very good question and one I get asked frequently in person and online. As it's been over two years since we settled here after a couple of years of nomadic living (including a 3 month stay in Amsterdam) and we've just had our first baby here, I thought it would be a good time to share some sort of explanation for why we live in the Dutch capital city.
Reasons we live in Amsterdam
Before I dig into answering this question, let me clarify a few things so we're all singing from the same hymn sheet.
I don't live in Amsterdam because of any physical or financial attachment. My Australian boyfriend and I both have location-independent jobs (he's a programmer, I'm a writer) and we have chosen to live in Amsterdam since July 2013 for a number of reasons. The key thing to remember here is choice. We are very lucky to be able to choose where we live and I am very, very quick to regularly remind myself and anyone else of that. I'm well aware that the huge majority people in the world don't have this luxury, but I do suspect that in the future more people will join us in being "choosers". On a separate note, if you too live somewhere only because you choose to, I'd love to share your story
). So as you read this please remember that I know how lucky I am and I thank my lucky stars every day that this remains our happy situation.
Amsterdam and Me: A Short History
I didn't like Amsterdam much when I came here the first time. I stayed in a grotty hostel on the Dam, never strayed much further than the Red Light District and spent more time in coffee shops - where you could then drink alcohol! - than I did anywhere else. I did highly enjoy the Sex Museum and I seem to remember stumbling upon a shop selling neck-breakingly high platformed heels (I believe we called it "the hooker shoe shop") but that trip served its purpose to us, a group of 19 year old students, and certainly didn't spark a long-lasting love affair.
Fast-forward seven years and I returned for a work trip for the company I was working for. With the office I was visiting located close to Schiphol airport my only venture into the city itself again found me limiting my horizon to the RLD. My impression of Amsterdam this time - now slightly more sober - was of a busy, dirty, tourist-packed city full of too many neon-signed coffee shops and Argentinian steak houses. Again, I didn't return to London with the phone number of an Amsterdam-based estate agent in my phone.
Then there was our summer here in 2012, first European stop in our nomadic adventures. At the time we half-seriously, half-jokingly said we would try a different city for 2-3 months until we found the place we wanted to live, and we began with Amsterdam because NewMan had always wanted to live here and I thought a city that begin with the letter A was a good place to start any kind of project. Before we'd even arrived here we'd already chosen Berlin as our next stop, via a summer in the south of France.
Neither of us expected our first stop to eventually be our last. I was open-minded about living in Amsterdam, but I certainly didn't have any expectations of falling in love with the city. I've never enjoyed smoking weed, I didn't ride a bike in London and I don't really like steak. However, because we were living in a fourth floor apartment in Amsterdam's Old West, we got to experience a very different side to the city. One that featured local brown bars, the terraces of neighbourhood bars and restaurants and lazy summer evening bike rides in Vondelpark (and not a single Argentinean steak house - hurrah!). As the end of our three month rental agreement approached, we realised neither of us wanted to leave so after brief stops in France and Berlin we began planning our return. For a variety of reasons it took another year before we were back, but as we got off the train in Centraal Station on a hot day in July 2013, we had no departure date in mind and we still don't.
The reasons we didn't want to leave three years ago are still the key reasons we chose to make Amsterdam our home and a place to bring up Baby Bird. Because I still get asked the question "Why Amsterdam?" after I explain how we're not here for work or for family or because one of us is Dutch, I wanted to put down in writing some of the reasons we have made this city our home.
The Reasons We Live in Amsterdam
When you have spent more than a handful of years living and working in London (which both NewMan and I did) it is impossible not to at least once, at some point, question where your work-life balance has gone. While I was young, single and free of commitment, I always felt tied down to something in London because as much as I loved the city, it drained me. I spent too much money on rent and living (yes, you can read "social life" or "alcohol" here), I spent too much time on commuting (and for much of my time in London I "only" had a 30 minute commute on one Underground line - a dream journey by most people's standards!) and I spent too much of my personal time and energy working on trying to impress my bosses into giving me a pay rise by staying in the office until after dark and often working weekends (all to no avail I hasten to add). While I know this still happens in Amsterdam, and my switch to working freelance has drastically changed my working life, it quickly became apparent from the behaviour and activities of others that the work-life balance is alive and well in this city.
Monday mornings in London were the city's busiest, noisiest and most chaotic. Monday mornings in Amsterdam are slow and quiet as many businesses, shops, restaurants and cafes don't open until midday, if at all. When we first moved here we asked our accountant why this was. "Well, we're all recovering from the weekend, aren't we?" was his earnest reply.
We have heard of employees of companies including their commuting time in the hours they are contracted to work (and no, they don't go over that number). We regularly see men in suits cycling home at 4pm after picking up their kids from day care on the way. We have a number of friends who only work 3-4 days a week for no other reason than they want to and while I can't always figure out how they can afford to, I applaud them for exercising this right. Just last Thursday I was walking around my neighbourhood with my friend visiting from London and she studied the bars, cafes and restaurants full of people. "Doesn't anybody work here?" she asked.
While before Baby Bird I was as guilty as anybody for working all night and all weekend, I still didn't want to live in a place where this was the norm, which is what I believed London had become for myself, my friends and many, many others. And now that we do have a child to think about, I have another reason to want to live somewhere where it's not a case of having a work-life balance, more a case of maintaining a life-over-work attitude. For some reason that feels very doable here.
Bikes, Glorious Bikes
"But Frankie, there are plenty of other cities where people work less and enjoy life more... Why Amsterdam?"
Well, because of the bikes, basically.
Cycling is something I've always enjoyed doing, but living in London I was never brave enough to make it my mode of transport. NewMan, however, was indeed brave (or stupid) enough and for over a year that was how he made his way to my apartment, which was on the other side of London to where he lived. Each time he pedalled those seven miles I would fear the worst. At weekends I would occasionally hire a bike and join him cycling the city's (only slightly) quieter streets. Sometimes it was exhilarating, thrilling and frankly wonderfully romantic. But most of the time it was terrifying. Also I had no idea how many hills (alright, inclines) there really are in London until I got on a bike.
While cycling in Amsterdam has it's hairy moments - I hate rush hour or the centre of town at weekends - for the most part riding a bike here is time- and effort-efficient, very safe and yes, flipping romantic too. I could bang on about the many benefits of living in a pro-cycling city for hours but I'd be repeating what I wrote in this post about the history of cycling in the Netherlands
and frankly it should be obvious to most people how much healthier and happier people are when they and their families can get around by bike.
Life is easy here
From English being spoken almost universally to Dutch efficiency making administrative tasks incredibly easy, we have found moving, living and working here VERY easy. Of course, the ease with which people speak English has meant my Dutch is still terrible and I am a little lazy in doing something about this, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that being able to communicate with people so easily has been a big help.
I could go on and on about how we seem to find things are well organised and easy to navigate here, but one example is they have one log-in ID which applies for a number of different systems - council, health insurance, courts - so when we changed addresses and updated it on our "DigiID" it updated our new address across multiple different systems.
It's foreign but it's not too foreign
When two people in a relationship come from opposite sides of the world (my boyfriend is from Australia, I'm from the UK) someone is always potentially going to be living in a foreign place. By accident, we created a scenario whereby we were both living in a foreign place. Although that foreign place is considerably closer to my home than his, this feels like a better compromise than living in one of our home countries. It's also fair to say that before we met we were both "international souls" with us living or working or exploring multiple different countries in our time. We are not intimidated by living in a foreign country as individuals and thus as a couple we had that in common. Living here has been an adventure we have enjoyed experiencing together.
However, Amsterdam is not exactly Outer Mongolia or the Amazonian rainforest. As I've mentioned above, it's very easy to live here. It also helps that the culture, people and lifestyle isn't frighteningly foreign, rather flexibly foreign. He can still find Vegemite, I can still buy British tea-bags, though we both love to share a plate of bitterballen with our borrel biertjes.
Unlike other European countries I find the Netherlands has embraced its multi-cultural make-up and it's not afraid of English words leaking into its language. These are welcoming qualities and after spending most of my teenage years and twenties living in or close to London - a rich melting pot of nationalities and cultures - I can't imagine living anywhere where everyone looks, talks, acts the same as me. That kind of "foreignness" has become wonderfully unforeign to me.
I want to raise my children here
When we were here in 2012 I would watch children drawing hopscotch maps on the pavements in chalk and I would think to myself "This is the kind of city where I want to raise children." Of course this was a spontaneous thought heavily influenced by the idyllic scene I was witnessing, but further research and further experience of Amsterdam (and the Netherlands) has taught me that actually this place has a lot going for it when it comes to starting a family.
In 2013 Dutch children topped a Unicef list
ranking the happiest kids in the industrialised world and much has been made of this in the media, putting it down to a number of factors including the Dutchies' "family first" approach to life, the excellent healthcare provisions and support for both parents and infants, the healthy and happy outlook of their parents and young children experiencing less pressure at school.
It's impossible to comment on how happy Dutch children are compared to other nation's kids - and as a child growing up in 1980s & 1990s Britain, I had a very, very happy childhood - but I can say that what I see confirms that most Dutch children are confident, content, socially outgoing, naturally inquisitive and they smile A LOT. I've also been very impressed with the level of care and support I've received as a pregnant woman and a new mum, experiences I will share more about another day in another blog post. We shall see if my first impressions in 2012 were accurate but so far, so good.
It feels like home...
I know that academics, writers and the average joe have all spent years and years trying to analyse and understand the concept of home, but personally I'm actually happy having it as an undefinable feeling. As indescribable as it is, it's instantly recognisable and instinctively sought out. Even when NewMan and I were nomadic, a part of me was always searching for "home", not because I wanted to be there, but because I naturally love the feeling and no amount of travelling will stop that. It's a feeling that makes you feel safe and secure, and yes it comes most often from people than places. However, a certain environment can do a lot to nurture the feeling of home, and for us it's to be found in Amsterdam. Initially it was because living here makes us happy, but now it feels like home because of other reasons; things are now very familiar, the lifestyle has become our own and we have become part of the ebb and flow of this city in our own small way.
Now over to you. Why do you live where you live? Or rather, why do you enjoy living where you live?