In the middle of August, my wife and I packed our suitcase and MacBooks, took our dog, and flew for a month to The Netherlands. Luckily - we are working in companies with remote work policies. Here’s my experience.
We landed at Schiphol airport and took a train via Amersfoort Central towards Nunspeet which became our hometown for the next two and a half weeks.
Why The Netherlands?
Europe, and especially The Netherlands, is not the first choice for Digital Nomads. The country is very expensive. I’ll do a detailed cost breakdown in the next part, so stay tuned.
However, there are two main reasons why. The first one is that we live in Israel. Israel is super expensive with probably the worst value-for-money ratio among developed countries. And the second reason is that we see The Netherlands as a potential relocation, so we’ve wanted to see how it is to live a “normal” life there. Sometimes, the whole life is not enough to understand if you like your country or not, let alone one month, but we’ve decided to do it anyway.
The town of Nunspeet
When we arrived at the border control at Schiphol airport, the officer asked us about the purpose and length of our trip. When we said that we are going to stay there for a month, he was curious about where we are going to stay, so we replied: ”Nunspeet”. He laughed and asked surprisingly: ”Nunspeet?! Why Nunspeet?!”. This interaction summarized Nunspeet pretty well.
Nunspeet is a town in the central Netherlands with a population of 27481 people (as of Jan 2019). However, Nunspeet wasn’t our first choice. We wanted to experience this mini relocation in two ways: outside the city and inside the city. Our initial location was Zwolle - a much bigger city in the Northern Netherlands. In Zwolle, we’ve booked a house almost on the city outskirt, away from the city life. But due to unfortunate circumstances, our host had to cancel the booking. And hence with less than a month before the trip, somewhat limited by our dog (not a lot of hosts will agree for a pet) - we’ve had to search for an alternative.
And so we’ve found a lovely house in Nunspeet. Coincidently, the distance between Nunspeet and Zwolle is 30km. It’s a detached unit, in a community of around 20 similar units. Some owners use them as permanent living, others rent them out. It’s located around 10 minutes by foot from Nunspeet Train Station or about 2 minutes by bicycle. Nunspeet Outdoor Center is conveniently located just by the train station, and we’ve used it to rent our bicycles for 2 weeks.
But the coolest feature of it all - is that it’s located in Veluwe - an 1100 km2 forest-rich ridge of hills. And our house is located across the road from a forest in which we’ve spent many mornings and afternoons (at night it’s scary).
Semi-Cashless, work-life balanced society
We arrived on Saturday evening, and after unpacking and taking a shower - went to sleep. We did buy some groceries at the airport for breakfast but planned to buy food the next day - on Sunday.
In Israel, Sunday is a working day. It’s odd that the Startup Nation, which collaborates a lot with Europe and especially the US, works a different work week - from Sunday through Thursday. Friday is usually a half day, and the hi-tech sector does not work it anyway, and together with Saturday, which is a full no-work day (you pay a fine if you open your business on Saturday, which many businesses still do, especially in Tel-Aviv), they are known as Shabbat. In Europe, Sunday is however considered to be the holy rest day, which we of course knew - because we were born in Post Soviet Countries. And being located in a small town, rather than a big city, we’ve realized that Sunday in Nunspeet means no shopping. Some businesses are open, like the Outdoor Center in which we’ve rented bicycles and some restaurants, but grocery stores and other shops are closed.
The closest open Albert Heijn (a local grocery store chain) was in the city of Harderwijk. Just 35 minutes by bicycle! Without a second thought, we jumped on our bicycles and cycled through the beautiful countryside of the Netherlands.
After buying some groceries and getting ready to head back, we’ve been surprised we can’t pay with a credit card. Luckily an ATM was right inside the store, so we were able to withdraw some cash. This phenomenon later haunted us through most of our stay in Nunspeet. Most small stores refused to accept credit cards and operated mainly on cash or debit cards. One business owner told us that credit card companies charge a big fee and so they refuse to support big financial institutions. Understandable I guess. However, it’s still a mystery to me why Albert Heijn, a big chain store, does not accept credit cards, even in big cities such as Utrecht.
Debit cards are accepted everywhere though, but being Israeli with a financial system inherited from the US, debit cards are a rare thing for us. Not only banks do not advertise or promote them in any way, but they might end up being more expensive than credit cards (which you can get without monthly fees), because of so-called “transaction line fees”. Some grocery stores such as Jumbo and Lidl, as well as almost all the restaurants - did accept credit cards though.
Utrecht, Amsterdam, and lots of cycling
After a week of working from sub-optimal working conditions (couch for my wife and a dining table for myself), I’ve decided to explore local co-working options. Mindspace was the biggest and the only one that allowed us to pay per day as well as make an online reservation (I hate phone calls), so we booked ourselves a table and headed to Utrecht. An hour ride by train, not the closest city, and I wouldn’t like to take this ride every day.
A co-working was however a fresh restart and a change. We were able to be more work-focused due to the office-like environment, as well as combine it with city exploring when we went for lunch as well as dinner afterward.
On Friday we’ve decided to bike. I think the Netherlands is the most unique and bicycle-friendly country in the world. We were able to bike for 60km, all on bicycle lanes, through more than 4 cities to arrive at a beautiful wildlife park. We didn’t see many wild animals there, but the bicycle ride and the park itself were amazing.
On Saturday we went to Amsterdam. I’ve been to Amsterdam 3 times: one when interviewing for Booking.com; another one when we did bicycle touring with my friends, we stayed at a campsite near Amsterdam for 3 days; and the last time I flew to my wife when she had a connection there, so we’ve stayed there for 3 days. I always loved Amsterdam. It’s such an amazing city. It’s uniquely antique but very modern and liberal.
This time, I felt anxious in Amsterdam. There were many tourists and a clear sign of people who come here only for weed and sex. The city center was packed with people, and relatively dirty. On the other side, once you take a few steps to the adjacent street, you fall in love with Amsterdam again. I did some shopping there and spent the rest of the day in the beautiful Vondelpark.
This concludes our first week there.
Got sick and then traveled more
The second week started with me getting sick. I thought it might be COVID, but the antigen test showed negative, so I assume it was the common cold and probably exhaustion. I’ve spent most of the week in bed, sleeping, while my wife focused mainly on work.
By the end of the week, I was getting better and was able to get back to work, and during the weekend, we decided to travel some more!
Zwolle, Giethoorn, and the not-so bicycle-friendly country
Remember I told you that Nunspeet was not our first option and that we initially wanted to stay on the outskirts of Zwolle? Well, since Zwolle was 20 min ride by train, we decided to visit it. Zwolle is a beautiful, big city. It has a very cute city center. We spent there half a day just exploring and doing some shopping.
On Saturday we went to visit Giethoorn. Giethoorn is a mostly car-free village and was very long on my list of places to visit. I first heard about Giethoorn in 2015 when my friends and I did a two-week bicycle tour around The Netherlands. We were throwing points of interest on a map and that’s how I’ve heard about Giethoorn.
After visiting Giethoorn I must say I have mixed feelings. While it’s advertised as a mostly car-free village, I must say that only a small part of it fits this description. Mostly, it looks the same as a regular town/village. However the car-free part is very beautiful, and we rented a boat for 2 hours and sailed around the village and the farmlands nearby.
Getting to Giethoorn is a bit complicated. From Nunspeet you usually take a train to Zwolle and then from Zwolle a train to either Meppel or Steenwijk. From the latter two, you can take a bus. But hey! The Netherlands is a bicycle paradise so why not cycle? It’s about 40 min cycle from Meppel; about 20 min from Steenwijk. We planned to get to Steenwijk and then cycle. And while the train ride to Zwolle was pleasant, Zwolle was super packed with people as it was Saturday, and the platform with the train to Steenwijk was very crowded, so we’ve been afraid that there will be no place for bicycles, so we took an alternative train that stops in Meppel. From Meppel it took us around 1-hour cycle towards Giethoorn, which was a beautiful cycle.
Since it’s Saturday, trains are less frequent than during the work week, so on our way back, we had a train once an hour. We’ve arrived at Steenwijk and planned to take an Intercity (IC) train to Zwolle and then a sprinter train to Nunspeet. When the IC train arrived, it already had 3 bicycles inside and the train personnel told us that we can’t board the train with bicycles - even though we bought the required bicycle tickets. They’ve said leaving the bicycle in an improper place is dangerous and we should wait for the next train. The problem is that the next IC train is in one hour, but they’ve suggested instead to board a sprinter to Meppel which will arrive in about 20 minutes then have a 30-minute transfer to a sprinter for Zwolle and finally a sprinter to Nunspeet.
It was very odd to me. A country where cycling is so engraved in people’s lifestyles - is not able to provide a good way to transport bicycles on a train. I no longer cycle or use trains in Israel, but when I did a few years ago, I remember the train had a special coach for bicycles. Yes, they are limited to off-peak hours only (as in the Netherlands), but still, you can fit 20 bicycles in there easily, while Dutch trains are limited to 3-5. Sprinter trains are more forgiving since they are a bit more spacious than IC trains, so luckily the 3 sprinters we took had enough space for our bicycles, and after a long long ride, we were home.
We also visited Amersfoort later on, to celebrate our anniversary in a nice restaurant there.
The happiest country is not that happy after all
The Netherlands consistently ranks in the top 5 happiest countries. The other 4 are usually Nordic countries, so it was always a mystery to me as to why the Netherlands. There are many different explanations like good social services, being closer to nature or even the fact you are physically active by cycling everywhere.
But it turned out that even the happiest countries in the world - have problems. Throughout 2 weeks there, we’ve learned that there is an ongoing farmers’ protest that started 3 years ago, in 2019! We saw many haystacks with angry faces and slogans - which we couldn’t understand because they were written in Dutch, but the word ”kaput” probably meant something bad. We’ve observed cars with red bandanas - a sign of people’s support for the farmers.
And as we were sitting, on the evening of 29th of August, ready to pack our things and the next day move to Alkmaar, a city in the province of North Holland, which was supposed to become our next home for the rest of this mini-relocation, we’ve observed that on the 30th of August there will be the biggest NS strike in the Netherlands.
NS, or Nederlandse Spoorwegen which is Dutch for ”Dutch Railways”, the biggest state-owned railway operator in the Netherlands, as well as the busiest railway in European Union, and the third largest in the world after Switzerland and Japan - said they were going on a strike.
The strike aimed to increase NS workers’ salaries as well as pension contributions, and was ongoing for a few days already, but was limited mainly to one of the Netherlands regions. However the planned strike on the 30th was in Utrecht which is a major hub and operation center for NS, hence NS was not able to run any… trains… AT ALL. On previous strike days, NS was able to provide limited service outside of the strike area, but this time they’ve said they were not able to find a way to provide service due to the importance of Utrecht in the railway system.
And so, without any option to leave Nunspeet, except for 6 buses that will take us anywhere between 4 and a half to 6 hours of travel time, or a taxi ride that will cost like a flight ticket from the Netherlands to Israel and back - we were forced to find a solution just a few hours before going to sleep.