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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Go Dutch: For families and finance Amsterdam excels

The relaxing city is already home to Uber and Netflix – and more firms could follow in the wake of the Leave vote, writes Emma E Forrest

Beyond the chariming canals and bicycle paths, Amsterdam is a thriving metropolis offering rich culture while catering to families Jasper Juinen / Bloomberg
Beyond the chariming canals and bicycle paths, Amsterdam is a thriving metropolis offering rich culture while catering to families Jasper Juinen / Bloomberg

Nobody expects any single European city to absorb London’s entire financial services industry when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, but many firms could be tempted to relocate to Amsterdam if they want a solid base and a gateway to Europe.

This dynamic and charming city, with its picturesque gabled 17th-century town houses and network of canals and cycle routes, is already home to regional operations of many major multinationals including Uber, Netflix, booking.com and banks including Japan’s biggest bank, the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group.

“We are a world city in pocket size,” says Amsterdam’s deputy mayor Kajsa Ollongren, whose remit is to attract businesses from all over the world.

Expats find it easy settling in to this vibrant, welcoming place. “I think Amsterdam, being a port city, has always had an international vibe with a constant stream of people from all over the world, coming and going,” says Savi Duval Slothouwer, 36, a senior content editor. She moved from Australia to Amsterdam 10 years ago to work at Nike’s European headquarters, then Calvin Klein, and married a Dutch man, with whom she has a daughter.

“The Dutch are well-known for their open-mindedness and their laissez–faire attitude to life, which makes it easy for expats to integrate into the culture. However, the thing most expats complain about is Dutch directness, which can often be mistaken for rudeness. The Dutch don’t beat around the bush and this assertiveness can sometimes be jarring. It becomes something that you accept or it will continue to annoy you to no end.”

It also helps that most people here speak excellent English. “The locals are very good at English, and enjoy speaking it, so it’s easy to get by here without much knowledge of Dutch,” says the British sound designer Alex Nicholls-Lee, 42, who lives in Amsterdam with his British wife and two young daughters. “Fine for the short-term expatter, but it can lend itself, especially for the Brits, to linguistic laziness in the long term.”

Expats used to London will find a much more relaxed pace of life in Amsterdam, trading their sweaty underground commute for a short bike ride to work on a cycle path or traffic-free zone.

“I moved to Amsterdam in 2008 on a six-month work contract, and my wife and I fell in love with the pretty canals, bubbling city culture and my six-minute commute to the office. So we started a family and stayed,” says Mr Nicholls-Lee. “Commuting is a real pleasure. With the population of London 10 times that of Amsterdam, it’s exciting when your new benchmark is a city where everything seems to be within a 15-minute cycle. Our school run consists of throwing the kids in the ‘bakfiets’ [bike trailer] and cycling them 10 minutes to school, waving to people we know along the way. It’s friendly, local and lovely.”

It is a family-friendly city, he says. “Family life in the Netherlands is highly valued and as a result there are fewer companies that attempt to normalise staff working into the evening hours.”

That is for the best because there is so much do beyond work in the city. There are excellent and innovative restaurants, bars, concert venues, clubs and museums including the Rijks,useum and the Stedelijk Museum.

“The museums are impeccably curated and maintained, so as a resident, a €55 [Dh236] annual museum card is a must,” says Mr Nicholls-Lee. “I never knew I’d visit the handbag museum so often.”

There are plenty of cultural events. including exhibitions and concerts. “Most of the big names pass through Amsterdam on tour,” says Ms Duval Slothouwer. “Often concerts run on unusual nights like a Monday or a Tuesday, but given the size of the city you can see your favourite band at 8pm and be in bed by 10:3o, which is brilliant if you have a job and children.”

There are plenty of childcare options as well as parks and outdoors areas for kids to play in, says Ms Duval Slothouwer.

“The disadvantages are in the winter when it’s just too cold to be outdoors. There are probably not enough activities for English-speaking kids. Dutch children only start learning English at a later stage, so it’s difficult for young children to integrate with local kids if they don’t speak Dutch.”

Expats’ children can go to state-funded local schools, but many go to fee-paying international schools. Most of them are oversubscribed, but Ms Ollongren stresses that new public schools providing English-language education are being built and established ones expanded. With plans to create 1,500 new places over the next four years, she expects waiting lists to end within two years.

House prices have rocketed over the past five years, but British expats will still find them much lower than in London. Many expats live in the central Jordaan and the Pijp areas with their daily markets, or in Amsterdam Zuid, close to the British School and the Museum Quarter.

“If you’re here for three years or more, it’s common to purchase a property,” says Mr Nicholls-Lee, who rents in the Leidseplein area. “Although with the current trend for buyers to bid 15 per cent over the asking price, people are choosing to live away from the centre to avoid too much compromise.”

He does not expect Brits to have to leave post-Brexit. “Amsterdam is a liberal, cosmopolitan, hard-working city with an expanding financial sector, and the expat is a common sight, especially in the financial district and in the centre.

“I’d be surprised to see the Netherlands switch from a policy of incentivised immigration, with 10-year tax breaks for skilled expat workers, to shipping their former EU comrades back home. Hopefully the worst that will happen is that we’ll be made to do a Dutch exam or two.”

For the rest, one of the few disadvantages to being an expat is the arrival of toursists, he says. “One of the most painful city sounds is the unmistakable cry of the British male on a stag weekend. I’ve been known to put on a Dutch accent if they ask for directions.”