An Expat’s Dutch Education Cheatsheet

Y’all, it’s bonkers. Just know that going forward. Especially considering we were not smart enough to move here when the boys were little. So, the kid is in a language immersion class this year and will join a Dutch high school next Fall. Sounds simple, right? Follow me …

Here’s how it goes down:

  • Receive an “advice” email (teacher’s recommendation based on tests, schoolwork, etc.) in January.
  • Run to the computer to learn about the Level/Track/Stream they are advising.
  • Pour a large glass of wine and call your Dutch friends for help.

Your advice will be one of 3 different streams with different levels: VMBO, HAVO, VWO.

  • VMBO-t/vmbo-tl/MAVO :the most theoretical education of the VMBOs.
  • VMBO-g : one subject less than vmbo-tl. + 4 hours of vocational teaching.
  • VMBO-k:  12 hours of vocational teaching w/ theoretical subjects at a lower level than vmbo-tl and vmbo-g
  • VMBO-b: 12 hours of vocational teaching. The theoretical subjects are at a lower level than vmbo-k

  • HAVO (5 years) diploma equivalent of secondary school + junior college.
  • VWO (6 years) with one programme requiring Latin and Greek & final exams are in one of the two classical languages.
  • VWO+ is a Masterclass or lyceum, offers extra subjects like philosophy, additional foreign languages, and courses to introduce students to scholarly research.

Are you with me so far? Now that you know your kid’s Advice …

  • Research schools (religious, montessori, waldorf, distance, offer your track, etc.) and choose 5.
  • Sign up for Open House Days – which are currently mostly virtual.
  • Hope your kid pays attention because Open House be probably in Dutch.
  • Submit your choices in order of preference and wait for the lottery results in March.
  • Take your final tests in April and see if your test results match your advice.
  • If not, parents ask the school to change the student’s track.

If I haven’t lost you completely … here are the potential tracks for high schoolers:

  • VMBO -> MBO (2yr) -> HBO (2yr) = 8 years
  • VMBO -> HAVO -> HBO (4yr) = 9 years
  • HAVO ->  HBO (4yr) = 9 years
  • HAVO -> HBO (1yr)  -> WO (3yr) = 9 years
  • VWO -> WO = 9 years
  • Career Example:
  • Doctor: VWO + WO
  • Nurse : HAVO + HBO
  • Carer: VMBO + MBO

I have to say, as crazy as it seems to those of us who are new to this, it’s fairly awesome. There is no “right” way to get from Point A to Point B. Whatever you want to be, however you learn best, there is a school/track for you here. If you are a woodshop kind of kid, a VMBO could be perfect. If you hate sitting still and memorizing facts, Montessori might be best. If you are brilliant and can take a final exam if Latin (for heaven’s sake! WHAT?!?!?), you get to rock on and study with other nerds … er… brilliant kids. These are not options we are used to in the US. At least not without paying a fortune for private schools.

My favorite part of the entire experience is that we’re getting asked (in all seriousness) what my 12 year old wants to study at University so they know the best path to get him there. He’s still deciding between being a brain surgeon and stunt man.

Let’s see how they work with that.

PS – If you know more than I do and see anything that needs to be corrected, please let me know!

Please Send Drugs

Thanks to my amateur ass trying to ride a super-cute but way too heavy bike in Dutch traffic and failing spectacularly, I’ve visited my GP, an orthopaedist, and a knee specialist along with getting x-rays & an MRI. And soon …. ACL surgery!

Here’s how it’s gone so far:

🌷 Like nearly everyone in this country my GP is tall, blonde, & straight forward. She looked at my knee for approximately 20 seconds before telling me I was fine. Nothing was torn. Just ice it and take paracetamol. If your limb was dangling off your body by a tendon this would be the GP’s diagnosis. The Dutch are efficient and do not want to muck up with works with crybabies. Suck it up, go home, and stop wasting everyone’s time.

🌷 3 weeks later I worked up the nerve to again request, nay (politely and in broken Dutch) DEMAND a referral to a specialist. She audibly sighed as she wrote the referral. But I got it, dammit! Victory!

🌷 My orthopaedist was a grumpy older man who seemed annoyed by patients in general. Mid-conversation he told me to take off my pants and get on the table. No paper gowns or sheets. That would be inefficient and wasteful and very un-Dutch. It was just me in my barely theres trying desperately to tug my shirt down to cover my lady business.

🌷 Grumpy Doc sent me for an MRI. I was thrilled to learn it was NOT the claustrophobic, casket-like contraptions I was used to in the US. It was a GLORIOUS extremity MRI! I was so happy I would have hugged the tech but once again, I wasn’t wearing pants.

🌷 The MRI results lead me to a knee specialist who, when he smiled, looked a bit like Hugh Grant. When he told me to take off my pants and get on the table I was like, “Oh, hell no!” This was not my first rodeo. I pointed out that I wore flowy pants that were very easy to lift. Thank you very much, Mr. Grant. During the exam he tugged and twisted until my knee popped and I gasped. He asked if that was the problem I was concerned about. I said it very much was. So he twisted and popped it about 150 more times just to be sure.

I’m now on the waiting list for ACL surgery. Because it is essentially elective and I am not in pain, it will take 1-3 months to get it scheduled. Please send drugs.

I Wish You Lived Next Door.

I am even more scattered than usual. I feel like I can’t sit still. But my fitbit says I’ve taken only 600 steps today. So now I feel like I’m not moving enough. I’m tired all the time – could be the pollen? But this beautiful spring weather makes me want to go do all the things I am not allowed to do during a pandemic.

And I really want a cookie. And a prosecco. Also, flat abs. And another episode of Ozark. Ruth Langmore says all the four-letter things I want to say.

See what I mean? Rambling. Here’s a smattering of more random thoughts:

  • Dutch winters suck. But the spring…? Holy crap. Totally makes up for it.

  • We spent all winter saying, “when the weather is nicer we will do _______.” Then the plague arrived and laughed in our general direction.

  • I love that I can hang laundry on the line on our tiny balcony. I can also see/chat with about 5 different neighbors from there. All of this makes me ridiculously happy.

  • We have a neighborhood bunny. He is enormous. And is probably tired of hearing me say, “BUNNY!!!!!!” whenever I see him.

  • We planned to go to Italy, England, and France this spring. Again, the plague laughed. Instead of traveling, I now spend my days pleading with airlines for refunds. It’s not the same.

  • Just as I was adjusting to the lower speed/stress of Dutch life, it is now even more so. I have no idea what day it is and it wouldn’t matter if I did. *sigh*

  • I am 4 weeks into my exciting new job teaching Dutch to my 6th grader. Also, I don’t speak Dutch.

  • My favorite word is winkelwagen. W’s are V’s. G’s are H’s. J’s are Y’s. I may never be able to say Gelukkige Verjaardag (happy birthday).

  • I am getting better at understanding Dutch. If it is spoken slowly. And at a Trumpian education level.

  • Speaking of the dystopian world of US politics, we feel incredibly grateful to be in the Netherlands. I just wish everyone I love could live next door.

That’s it. It’s the best I can do. I’m going to pour a glass of wine and watch Ozark after I write Thank You emails to my kid’s saints/teachers. Does that count as writing? Maybe?

Stay healthy, y’all. And wash your hands. And if the virus or Trump get you down, curse like Ruth. I think it will help.



Here in Haarlem – Week 4

It is 7:30 on a Sunday morning here in Haarlem. It is still dark outside and the house is silent. The radiator is making its soft clunking sort of sound. Even our talkative cat, JoJo, is still asleep somewhere in the house.

“Somewhere in the house” makes it sound huge. By lower-middle class, suburbs of GA standards it is. I don’t remember how many meters it is or what that would equal in feet. It’s much smaller than we’re used to but somehow exactly enough. And right now it is blissfully still.

So what’s it really like moving to a new country at the ripe old age of 150? It’s amazing and terrifying and exhausting and mind blowing. The history and beauty here is astounding. I know we have history and beauty in the US (and long before we barged in) but we didn’t live on a street Nazis could have stomped down. We didn’t bike down the cobblestone streets of a city established in the middle ages. These are the thoughts that baffle me as I’m standing outside Game Mania while my kid talks Fortnite with the clerk.

It’s true most people here speak English. And nearly everyone I’ve met has been incredibly patient and gracious when I sputter out “Sorry, nee Nederland.” Even the elderly lady in the pet food aisle of the grocery store immediately switched to English to chat about how she spoils her cocker spaniel with treats. But it is still scary. I still find myself mentally whispering, “please don’t talk to me please don’t talk to me” as I avoid eye contact with store clerks or stall vendors… terrified they will speak Dutch. OF COURSE THEY WILL SPEAK DUTCH, YOU IDIOT! And when they do, and I look at them like a deer in the headlights, they either gesture and smile until we’ve figured things out or they jump into English like it’s no big frigging deal. And yet, I panic.

So everyone here speaks English but guess who doesn’t… the street signs. And for a girl who has a terrible sense of direction anyway, I am quite literally lost most of the time. A good friend said, “You aren’t lost, you are on an adventure!” This is perfect. Unless the wind is blowing my bike backwards and it is raining and I’m cold and I just want to get home. Those are the times I want to click my heels and be back on familiar territory in my warm, dry, not-about-to-tip-over car.

You know who else doesn’t speak English? The announcer on the trains. Your ass better be paying attention or you will go right past Heemstede-Aerdenhout and end up in Vlissingen Souburg. So while everyone else is reading or quietly chatting (only the American tourists are loud on the (clean, comfy) trains as far as I can tell), I’m staring at my phone, watching the little blue dot slowly move toward my station.

On biking: It’s true that once you know how to ride a bike, you always know. The tricky bit is DOING it. I know how to give birth to a child. Doing it again might be daunting. Okay riding a bike is nothing like giving birth but … it can be difficult when you are 150 years old. And that’s just the basic riding-a-bike issue.  Now try doing it on narrow bike paths with a billion (or a handful) of people passing you or WAITING FOR YOU TO GET OUT OF THE WAY. *sigh* What seemed like a lovely bike ride to the store is now a nerve wracking game of Frogger or Pacman or one of those games where I’m sure I’ll be run over or eaten. It can be physically and mentally exhausting.

Once I’ve reached the store I lift my bike into the rack, lock the lock and tuck my key away. I enter Vomar Voordeelmarkt to find my favorite 3.00€ bottle of wine and know it was worth the trip. Until I have to translate which checkout lane takes cash and which accepts bank cards and I’m asked if I want a receipt and I freeze because … “Sorry, nee Nederland.”

See what I mean? Amazing and terrifying and exhausting and mind blowing. Every. Damn. Day.