Lel: This girl Lel
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Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Amsterdam, etc.
Hello! My name is Demelza Rafferty; my nickname is Lel. Hence my blog name: This Girl Lel. I was born and raised in Hobart, on the island state of Tasmania, Australia, with my younger brother and sister. There I studied Fine Arts at the University of Tasmania, majoring in Graphic Design. I graduated, and worked for two years to save and travel overseas – the young Australian dream! To cut a long story short, after two years working in the USA, (having never made it to London as originally planned), I then decided to move to Amsterdam. The Netherlands, Amsterdam especially, seemed somewhat more exotic than London. Plus Dutch have a vey strong design reputation, so I thought it was a good career move to come here. I was 24, and that was 12 year ago! I find it hard to believe I’ve spent over a third of my life outside of the country I was born in. Time flies, and it’s been a roller-coaster ride for sure. Every year there are new challenges, and new surprises, and I’ve come to love this place and call it home. There aren’t many places you can work for top international companies and clients, but enjoy all the benefits of living in a big village. It’s really quite unique in that respect and I think that’s a big part of why I’ve stayed so long.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I started blogging as a way to file the inspiring things I came across (design, craft, food, photography, art, etc.), as a diary of my adventures here in Amsterdam, and travel in Europe and beyond. For both myself, and my family, to enjoy and stay connected. I now print off a hard copy annually (via Blurb) and send a copy to my family. It’s really become a diary of my life and I deeply value that. And which only makes me more determined to work hard at it, as it is very time consuming a hobby.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
Oooh, tricky! I don’t really have one favorite; it’s more the collective whole I love.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Amsterdam differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
To be honest, I lived in Australia until just turning 24, and I was still living at home with my parents, so it’s hard to compare life in that sense. I never really established an independent adult life there before leaving, and I’ve done a lot of my growing up in the States and Holland since.
However, an obvious difference is that now I bike to work, not drive, though I love driving and having a car, I really love my bike and being out in the open air and a daily dose of exercise.
Nature is another big point. I grew up in one of the most idyllic cities you can imagine; Hobart is situated at the base of a mountain, with the Derwent river running in front of it and out to sea. Nature is everywhere and I miss that wildness. And hills. God, I miss hills. The Dutch landscape is so cultivated and bland (sorry, Dutchies) so I miss a bit of raw wilderness. I now live on the banks of the River Ij, no small coincidence, in a hope to capture some of the feeling of nature and vast open water and sense of space.
Service: you can’t live in Holland as an expat and not notice the horrendous service. Again, sorry Dutchies, but you know it’s true. And if you don’t, then this is the exact problem. I’m shocked these days if I get good service. The places you get good service in are mostly run by expats. I miss the line of thought from the US and Australia ‘the customer is always right!’ But you learn to live with it.
Rain, dark, and long winters. The weather is hard to take. Winter is about 3 months long back home, here, 5 or more. That’s tough. And rain. Being cooped up at home sucks. But, on the plus side, you really see the seasons change here, something you don’t see much in Tassie (most trees being evergreen), and autumn is by far my favorite season here. Still warm to enjoy the outdoors and see the vibrant colors on the trees make a fantastic display.
As for any culture shock, nothing very drastic to report. My daily life and routine isn’t that much different; you get up, go to work, go home, hang with friends after work and on weekends, right? But Amsterdam is so unique in that every single one of your friends is 5 to 15 minute bike ride away – max. And this is amazing. Oh, and on the weekends you might cruise the canals, or duck over to London, or down to Paris. That’s what I LOVE about Amsterdam, and being connected to so much to see and do.
I pass a pub that leans in about five different directions at various points in it’s structure; it looks like it will fall down but the houses on either side of it are keeping it together by sheer force. That pub is over 200 year OLDER than my country. That is kid of shocking. Just how much history there is in absolutely everything that surrounds you.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Amsterdam? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
Was I fully prepared for the move? Not really. After living in the States, I thought I had this living abroad thing licked. But, of course, new country = new rules. And I’d never stepped foot in The Netherlands before arriving. The most I knew was from a dated VHS video I’d rented from the State Library before coming. It takes a while to figure the rules all out, sometimes the hard way. And the first company I worked with wasn’t use to expats and I missed out of two key elements; 30% ruling, and knowing to convert my driver’s license immediately (you have a small window of time to do this). Two things I can never get back. If I were to move again, I would be more focused on the rights of an expat from day 1.
Also I moved with what was a small fortune for me (about €2000), but really wasn’t at all when you subtract rent alone at €590/month. I lived in a 15sqm dive (shared, no less!) for the first year, while I figured out how on earth you find cheap accommodation in this country. Finding work was also a bumpy ride at the beginning, not speaking the language is tricky, but also contending with a recession and visa issues was quite a headache. But after a lot of will power (no, seriously, you need a lot of resilience) and networking, I made it in the end.
All in all, it’s hard work relocating, especially if you don’t know anyone here to begin with and turn up cold. If you move with a company, it’s a whole other ball game. Today, however, with online social and employment networks I think moving could have been a hell of a lot easier for me in the beginning. But you still need to pound the pavement, network your ass off, get hired, and earn your stripes the old fashioned way at the end of the day.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
Ok, this is a classic tale: I bought about three or four cartons of milk when I first arrived, from different stores, only to discover each time I opened them that they had already gone off. How was this possible in the country with such a high dairy production? But each time I opened the carton and sniffed it’s contents to check and, yes, again with the foul-stench of turned milk. Only it wasn’t. I’d been buying what I thought was full milk, but turned out to be ‘karne’ milk – buttermilk. Which, is disgusting, and how on earth the Dutch drink it straight is beyond me. The mere thought makes me gag. Buttermilk is usually only reserved for baking in Australia…and other civilized countries.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Amsterdam?
- Transport: Apply for your driver’s license immediately if you can (visit iamsterdam.com for details), get an NS rail discount card (allows you + 3 others 40% of train travel in NL, with a few rules exceptions, but for weekender trips you’ll save a bomb), and get a bike. Even if it was 10+ years since you were last on one, as was my case, the sooner the better. Your feet (and especially heels, ladies) will thank you and will never want to be without one again. Never buy a junkie bike; although cheap, it’s bad karma.
- Start taking Dutch lessons immediately before you’re too busy with work and friends. Even if you think you’ll only be here a year of so… it’s amazing how this country sucks you in. And a few pleasantries and being able to read a menu can go a long way. It also takes the harshness out of the language, especially some of those guttural sounds.
- Give it a year. In my experience it takes a good year to settle into a foreign country and make friends with like-minded people. Go to every BBQ, bar, house party, etc., you’re invited to. That’s the only way to get out and find your true crew.
How is the expat community in Amsterdam? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
For me, actually, no, I have quite the opposite problem. I work in advertising and have worked for larger companies like Nike, North American ad agencies Wieden+Kennedy, and now currently Sid Lee. These companies have all had English as their working language, and the number of nationalities has been up to 30 out of 150 people at times. The nature of the industry means a lot of late night and weekend work, so we end up spending a fair bit of time with each other. So, for me, meeting like-minded people hasn’t been hard. Outside of work, I’ve met a lot of expats; friends of friends, etc. Once you know one expat, there’s no escaping knowing more.
Meeting Dutchies open to expat friends has been harder. A lot (usually outside of an international work environment), tend think you’re here for a short stint, that it’s not worth their while investing a friendship.
How would you summarize your expat life in Amsterdam in a single, catchy sentence?
Amsterdam life has been an unexpected adventure that has defined me, my career, and brought me happiness, and an incredible Catalan husband! An extraordinary life.