Expat life,  the Netherlands

Two Years in Tilburg

Pandemic Arrival

It’s been exactly two years since I moved to the Netherlands, to Tilburg (I have written earlier about my move in this post). I arrived right into the middle of the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, but little did I know how long the pandemic would last and how vast its consequences would be for the whole world. My first two years in Tilburg have been strongly colored by the pandemic and the varied restrictions that we have had, but luckily, the Covid-19 does not define my whole experience of Tilburg or life in the Netherlands.

I came to the Netherlands to live with my Italian partner and with dreams to pursue an academic career. The move from Finland was full of excitement and drama. I remember sitting in my empty apartment on a matrass on the floor after having quit my job and sold everything I owned, and hearing from the news that the Finnish government had announced that they would start closing down the society. I knew I would have to change my flight tickets and leave earlier -I did not want to get stuck at the wrong side of the border, when the move was already all planned and most of my belongings had been sent to the Netherlands in cardboard boxes. Sitting at the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport on the 18th of March 2020, I was watching the big flight announcement screens flashing with the word CANCELLED. I was panicking until the last minute of the fate of my flight to Amsterdam, but managed to catch the flight and arrive to the Netherlands.

Starting a life in a new country is never easy, and it is especially challenging in the middle of a worldwide pandemic that forced all jobhunting and socialization events to be cancelled. The first months we pretty much sat inside and went out for grocery shopping once a week. I worked hard to find a job, and after taking all the small steps I possibly could to strengthen my academic CV, I landed on a postdoctoral researcher’s position in November 2021. The position was in Belgium but allowed me to work mostly from home in Tilburg. We found a new, bigger apartment in Tilburg in March 2021. This was especially great news because it meant I could bring home my cats that I had had to leave in Finland to be with my father until we could find a place where cats would be allowed.

In October 2021, big things happened: I was interviewed for an academic position in the Netherlands, got a phone call just minutes after the interview that the position was mine, and the next day, I travelled to Finland with my boyfriend to get home my cats. Kiki and Lulu travelled peacefully and safely in their boxes with us, and have now become the true rulers of our home, as only cats can.

These two years in Tilburg have been quite an adventure because of a multitude of overlapping challenges starting from trying to find an academic job and finishing with the complicacies of having your family relationships and activities spread in many countries across Europe. However, on the anniversary of our cohabitation and my living in the Netherlands, I feel like I did it, we did it. We survived, and now it’s time to celebrate!

The Two Year NL Anniversary Assessment

After two years of living in this country, my feelings about the Netherlands are slightly conflicted. The honeymoon period with the country has been over for a while, and some days I’m just ready to pack my bags and move somewhere else. I still love how liberal, relaxed, and down-to-earth the Dutch culture and the Dutch people are, but many things make me also feel uncomfortable.

Let’s do it like a Finn does and go directly to the point without sugarcoating anything. The following experiences come after living two years in Tilburg and thus might be different had I spent those years in some other place in the Netherlands.

My experience -which is of course just mine, and you are welcome to have a different point of view- is that the Dutch people can be extremely rude. Normally, they themselves would say they are just direct. No, they are not. Being direct and being rude are two different things. The lack of effort to be just nice and friendly to other people is quite staggering. Yet, at the same time, the Dutch can also come across as not direct -things are hinted at, insinuated, said between the lines. This is very difficult for someone like me who comes from a culture where honesty and directness is valued above all. Also, I previously thought that Finns can be kind of rude. Well, I think the Dutch beat them in this 6 – 0.

Another thing that I have troubles with is how disorganized everything is, especially if you look at anything that happens online. A standard Dutch website or portal, no matter whether behind it is a university, a hospital, a municipality, or a private company, is a 90’s style labyrinth of outdated information, dead links, and all operations out of function. A Dutch website is most of the time like a digital Hotel California. You can enter but you can never leave, because you will just end up circulating in the loophole of beautiful pictures but no content, trying to do something that is categorically not possible to do on that website, even if it should be the reason for its existence in the first place. I believe the Dutch themselves would be shocked to hear they can be perceived as disorganized, but from a Finnish point of view, many Dutch are not only amateurish in anything concerning technology, but also chaotic and poor in organization in general. A tip for fellow Scandinavians: Just don’t ever expect anything happen the way you thought and when you thought, nor according to what was promised to you.

The third thing -because you can’t have two without the third, right- that I often feel the Netherlands is superficial and materialistic. Many times, whether it is a product, a service, or a personal interaction with someone, it’s all covered in sprinkles and fairy dust, but there is not much truly there to live up to your expectations. The metaphor of the dark side of the Netherlands is a dessert I once got at a restaurant here in Tilburg. It had a fancy name and it looked lovely at the first glance. Then I realized it was just a small cake that tasted like it had been brought on sale from Plus, with some M&M poured on top of it. The Dutch culture excels in packaging and marketing things and services, not necessarily in delivering to you what you ordered, especially if you wanted sincerity and depth.

Highlights of Two Years in Tilburg

After ventilating a little bit about those sides of the Netherlands that I am not in love with, it is time to take things down to a more concrete level. Two years in Tilburg has surely not only been filled with experiences of disorganization, rudeness, and superficiality, but also of something else?

While Tilburg is not much known outside the Netherlands and does not have the aura of cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, or den Hague, it is still a place with its own character. Tilburg is not too big, not too small, and it has all the basic things you need. It has nice places to go and have a walk, and pretty much without exception, you can switch your language to English to take care of any business you need to. The city has many international students and a very Dutch, laid-back and open atmosphere. You can do your thing and live your life in a relaxed manner, undisturbed.

Next, I will present my three favorite places in Tilburg. Someone else would have chosen other favorites, these are just my opinions. Let me know if you think something is missing from the list!

Het Kattencafe de Spinnerij

The opening of Cat Café de Spinnerij was a big thing, because Tilburg had waited a while for its very own cat café. I have been to this place multiple times, and I always leave happy. The staff is lovely and kind, and the coffee and cakes genuinely delicious. There are plenty of cats around, some will come to you for attention and some will keep a polite distance. The place is decorated in an extremely cat-friendly manner with lots of possibilities for them to use the space in a naturally feline manner, like jump and go high up, with many hiding places to have a nap. There are toys around, and the guests are welcome to play with the felines. When the cats feel they’ve had enough of the attention from the chimpanzees, they will just retrieve through their VIP entrance to their own backstage space, where the customers are not allowed.

After two years in Tilburg, we have become regulars at this café. All the cats are lovely but I think I’ve fallen in love most with Snickers -the ginger and white boy who you can see in two of the pictures claiming ownership of my lap.

The Wandelbos Forest

This lovely forest area is close to the Tilburg University train stop. While Scandinavians should be warned not to expect something like back home – lots of dense, natural forest and the possibility to walk for a long while without seeing one single human being- this place can help you feel a little less homesick. Dutch forests are all planted, and usually you do not need to wander long before you bump into other humans or even a café. If such an urban touch does not bother you, you might enjoy taking a walk at this place.

It’s absolute bonus is the little animal park section with different animals from ponies to chicken and from baby goats to alpacas. Feeding them is of course not allowed, but you can pet them and admire them from close distance. This corner is a sure hit for the children and is usually crowded with families having a look at the various birds, bunnies, alpacas, and other beautiful creatures.

Dolores Meta Maze

The website of this mini adventure labyrinth is inviting and cryptic. That’s why I ended up booking a visit there as a part of my boyfriend’s birthday experience last year. As a guest in this handcrafted Alice in the Wonderland indoor maze you climb, walk, and slide through a sequence of different kind of spaces that represent parts of your psyche or personality. If you are extremely claustrophobic, I would not recommend this experience, but if you are like me and only a little bit afraid of small spaces, you will do fine.

As cameras are not allowed inside the maze -because you need your hands to go through it, might break your camera, and also because they don’t want you to share the secrets of the maze on social media- I cannot show you how it looks like. I would say that for adults over 25, it can be a fun little activity to do, but don’t expect major experiences or big revelations after journeying through this psychological maze. For younger audiences, I can see more chances of the labyrinth to trigger interesting conversations about dreams or different corners of your mind. The only downside is that at least when I visited the maze, the makeup was very handcrafty, some parts of it looking like it was the project of a local high school’s art class. Thus, in addition to an amazing psychological journey, you also should not expect fantastic artistic endeavors or high-tech decorative elements inside the maze. However, after two years in Tilburg I can ensure that this is one of the “different” activities you can do here. I don’t know of any similar places elsewhere in the world, even though I am sure they do exist.

Afterwards, you should definitely have a drink at the bar or maybe even take the elevator all the way up to the Doloris’ Rooftop. The restaurant is colorfully and whimsically decorated and the food -representing many different corners of the world- is absolutely delicious, albeit pricy.

Dierenpark De Oliemeulen

This nice zoo in Tilburg surprised me with its size and the variety of animals. The inside spaces full of different exotic animals from frogs to snakes and lizards are especially intriguing, but the outside sections are nice too. Who would not love to observe the various little monkeys or mongooses in action? You can also follow a bird demonstration outside while having your coffee -a zookeeper will show different big birds and might invite children from the audience to help him handle the little owl Jackie -the same Jackie you might meet at the front desk greeting you with her owlish babble when you come in.

I am by no means an expert in animals or in animal parks, but as a big nature lover I think it’s important to be very aware of what kind of action we support. For me, it looked like most of the animals had nice big spaces to occupy and exhibit their natural behaviors. Especially the frogs and lizards inside seem to live in man-made paradises. That being said, I don’t think it was great to observe one of the big spiders in the middle of the other exotic animals, in its own tiny box of plants and ground, in a state that for the lack of a better expression seemed like “dead for three weeks and half mummified”. I cannot imagine the motivation to show a dead animal in the kind of terrarium that would be used for live animals, which is why the thought that this animal just passed away and was left in its box keeps haunting me.

In addition, two of the parrots outside had picked out a fair amount of their own feathers -the behavior of a very stressed animal. For these reasons, I was pondering whether I even want to advertise this animal park here. However, as I think they did a good job with all the other animals and as I think animal parks have a number of important functions from taking care of endangered animals to displaying animals to children in an educational manner, I don’t believe they should be categorically avoided. If you ever visit this zoo, do drop a line below and mention how the spiders and the parrots are doing -and how the spirit of all the other inhabitants seems to be!

Two Years in Tilburg -the Conclusion

After two years in Tilburg, I think it will always have its own special corner in my heart, but when it is time to leave for a different place, I probably won’t cry bitter tears. It’s lovely to have a walk in the Spoorpark and to check the landscape from the top of its torch-shaped tower. The many escape rooms of the city offer unique puzzles to solve, nice cafés and restaurants are not difficult to find, and it’s lovely to spend summer days chilling at the canal. It’s easy to live your life in English here, in case deciphering the local variant of Dutch seems like a challenge you’re not up to. However, I also think that your home is where your heart is. No matter where our small family will live in the future, my home will be precisely there and nowhere else.

This picture is from restaurant T-Huis at Spoorpark.

Leave a Reply