Vive Les Differences


The third of a four-part series on being an expat

Time for a Change | The Favourites | The Differences | The Downsides

Some differences grow wider as the expat life is prolonged. What seem at first like small cracks and tiny charms become bigger potholes of annoyance; on the other hand, some items that make you scratch your head actually begin to make sense as you assimilate.

I'll speak mostly of the life in Amsterdam, seeing as how it's where I've been the majority of the time since leaving my homeland. And of course Canada, where I spent the previous 3+ decades. And while a country of 30 million and a city of 700,000 can never be reduced to just a few generalizations - there are exceptions to everything - here goes. Let's dispense with the world's most over-talked-about topic first:


In Canada, there were times every winter when the temperature hit minus-30 that I would growl and shake my head, plugging in my car and swearing "we humans were not meant to live like this"

In Amsterdam, there are times where the sun doesn't come out for weeks and the rain and gloom make me growl and shake my head, unlocking my bike and swearing "we humans were not meant to live like this"


In Canada, as in most of western civilization, stores and pharmacies are open after 6pm.

In Amsterdam, as in much of nowhere else, most stores pharmacies close at 6pm. While getting home to his/her family for dinner no doubt enhances the pharmacist's quality of life, it does little for mine. While it only occasionally inconveniences me now, I can imagine how much it will suck if and when I have a baby, and am on occasion reduced to using a tea towel as a diaper (for the baby, I mean).


In Canada, the emphasis is on home life and you have the space to make it happen. This, coupled with the need to drive every day and everywhere, does little for street life and energy.

In Amsterdam, the average apartment is pretty tiny and often home to unwanted roommates like mice. This, coupled with a bike-friendly culture and neighbourhood shops, does create an environment for seeing hundreds and thousands of people on a weekly basis - in pubs, on the streets, in cafes.


In Canada, your bathroom is often quite spacious and accommodates your need to sometimes spend some quality time there.

In Amsterdam, the toilet is located in insanely small quarters. These amount to little more than poo closets*, and your head can even be touching the door at times. No loitering here, people - do your business and move on. Claustrophobics must literally s**t themselves.


In Canada, ...

In Amsterdam, it's everywhere. On weekends in my old apartment, I would hear accordion music wafting in the windows while at night. Candles light up the windows of homes and cafes every night, and even the exteriors of many buildings are lit up thougtfully.


In Canada, you'll find a decent bottle of wine for $10 and a case of 24 beers will set you back around $18. But then you don't have to beg for a glass of water and can use bathrooms for free.

In Amsterdam, the same decent wine will cost you $5 and 24 beers can get as low as $10. But water is scarce in most establishments, and the mind-boggling practice of charging clients for use of the bathroom is commonplace.


In Canada, cultural pockets do exist. But when non-Canadian friends ask what's typically indicative of Canadian art, cultural traits, and food, I really need to search before sheepishly mumbling something about Inuit carvings, politeness, and maple syrup. None of which are bad, mind you - they just seem to lack a little pizzazz.

In Amsterdam, as in all of Europe, locals can point to very real, and very beautiful/cool/tasty cultural norms and identities. The area of De Pijp in Amsterdam, just as one example, has full paintings on the exterior of some buildings to showcase the art of the person for whom the street is named. Paris, Barcelona, Rome, etc. all fairly drip history and cultural and culinary richness.

*Yes, I will likely regret having written "poo closets" at some point in the future. But for now it seems to fit.

Almost There


As a cocktail of extreme busyness, mild writer's block, and a big life event coming up soon, this blog has taken a back seat and I do apologize. The good news is that there are some drafts already drafting, some posts almost posting.

For now, have a look at one of the best pieces describing life in Amsterdam I've ever read. It leaves out the copious amounts of rain and lousy service, but otherwise it's spot on.

I took the big photo atop this page on a brilliant early spring day two weeks ago, and these guys and their dogs would fit well into this article: