I move countries the way most people pick new restaurants. There are a few moments of consideration followed by quick surrender, "Well, why don't we just try that new place up the street?"?
The decision to move to the
Netherlands with my boyfriend, Simon, was no different. We woke up one morning, talked about it and before we'd even finished our first coffee, we hatched the plan. We had been living in Eastern Europe for several years but had again been infected by the wanderlust that had brought us there in the first place. So, we quit our jobs, bought two one-way bus tickets and packed our bags.
I'd passed through Utrecht a few times and had always been charmed by its old-European feel, with quiet canals, the 14th Century churches, and the cozy cafes. A quick 30 minutes by train southeast of Amsterdam, Utrecht seemed like an ideal place to live.
It didn't take long for the joy of our first days to turn into anxiety, once we discovered that when it comes to apartment hunting, Utrecht is the San Francisco of Holland. Its central location and agreeable atmosphere make the city one of the best places to live in the Netherlands. Rents for two-room dumps with a sink in the city center ran about 750 euros per month (about $950 U.S.).
This is the kind of practical dilemma that tends to spark the existential crisis long-term travelers go through at some point. And I was no exception. I began to ask myself things like: what am I doing? Why did I come here? Why didn't I think this through before I packed up and left my comfortable life? How much longer I can go on like this? Besides all the other challenges of transitioning from just traveling abroad to living abroad, finding a reasonable apartment is a lot harder than finding a cheap hostel.
Just as we approached the bottom of our bank account, it all started to turn around. We were offered a five-bedroom, two-story apartment in an Utrecht suburb for 90 euros a month. Yes, you read that right and no, I did not forget to add another zero.
Through what the Dutch call anti-squatting, there is low-cost housing available that fills un-used buildings in order to keep squatters out, and is perfect for new expats desperate for cheap digs. There is a strong squatters movement in the Netherlands, which causes property owners considerable hassle and money. Once a property has not been in use for one year, it can legally be squatted.
This has led to the necessity of an anti-squatters program. Property owners hire one of the anti-squatting associations throughout the country to keep un-used space occupied until they decide what to do next with it.
Anti-squatters, such as myself, are offered typically spacious albeit old accommodation at extremely low prices. In return, the anti-squatter agrees to take care of the place, have no pets, not sublet it for personal gain and move out with as little as two weeks notice. Anti-squatters are only required to give the agency two weeks notice once they want to move out and there are no minimum requirements for how long you must live "anti-squat."
This can be an ideal situation for longer-term travelers or students studying in the Netherlands but doesn't work for backpackers passing through for a few weeks [see sidebar for other options].
Simon and I were able to register with the anti-squatting association through the recommendation of a friend. You typically must be "introduced"? to an anti-squatting association by someone who is already living anti-squat and is willing to vouch for you. This person then also becomes responsible if you don't pay your rent or cause some other problem. There are also anti-squatting agencies that you can register with on your own.
When we registered, we were told there weren't any properties available but we should keep checking every few weeks. We had sublet an overpriced studio for a few months and just as that was up, we got a call from the anti-squatting association.
"We've got a five-bedroom flat available just outside Utrecht and we want a couple to live there. You are at the top of our list. Do you want it?"? said Martijn from the anti-squat association.
"Um, maybe. Can we look at it first?"? I asked.
"Well, we really just want you to say yes or no. It's a big place and we think you'll like it,"? he said.
I talked it over with Simon briefly and we said yes. We were wary about agreeing to move into a place we'd never seen in an area we'd never been to. But there weren't any other options and the price made it a gamble worth taking.
The following morning, we met Martijn in front of our new building. It was in what Europeans refer to as a "new town" a community that had sprung up after World War II to accommodate the baby boom. Like the American suburbs developed in the same period, new towns are also usually uninspired in terms of architecture and ambience.
This new town was no exception. Our building was part of a shopping mall, and from the living room, you could hear the piped-in music that started every morning at 9 a.m. when the shops open. It sat across the street from church bells that rang every half hour except there is no church, only scaffolding with bells.
Despite the trade-off in charm, the apartment was, in fact, incredible. There were five bedrooms, a big living room, a balcony on the first level, a swanky spiral staircase, and a huge roof terrace. If that wasn't enough, there was also a proper bathtub- a rare and coveted amenity in the Netherlands. We handed over the deposit, signed the rental agreement and got the keys.
Now we faced a new problem: filling it. With the exception of some kitchen cupboards, there was nothing. Not even carpet or linoleum. Since we had arrived in Holland with only the clothes in our backpacks, we had to discover a favorite Dutch decorating technique - finding things in the garbage. At first, I winced at this practice. But for the Dutch, this is essentially as common and acceptable as shopping at IKEA. When people move around in Holland, they often leave a lot behind. Perfectly good chairs, tables, and rugs are easy to find tidily stacked up next to garbage bins. We've got quite a cozy, charming, and cheap place these days.
We've been told we can probably stay at least another year, until the owner is ready to tear down the building and redevelop it entirely.
I'm just hoping I don't get infected with wanderlust again before then.
Options for cutting costs on accommodation in the NETHERLANDS
ANTI-SQUAT: There are a number of anti-squat (called anti-kraak in Dutch) agencies in the Netherlands. Contract terms vary between organizations. Start with www.anti-kraak.nl, based in Amsterdam, manages properties nationwide and does not require being "introduced."
LIVE WHERE YOU WORK: Many hostels are willing to offer free room and board to travelers who will work there a few hours each day.
SQUATTING: If you can't get into the anti-squatting programs, join the other side. Ask around about getting hooked in to the squatting movement. But be aware: squatters take their efforts seriously and are not interested in dealing with high-maintenance travelers. http://squat.net is an Amsterdam
-based site that offers information on squatting worldwide.
AVOID RENTAL AGENCIES: Unless you've got an expense account, put the word out yourself that you are looking for a room. Post notices up in grocery stores, libraries and expat bars. www.expatriates.com has fairly extensive listings for available acccommodation.