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Monday, 9 September 2013

Do expats need special products and services?

I often buy my food at the Polish store close to my house. I have hired an English-speaking doula for my son’s birth. If I can’t buy something at my local Albert Heijn, I order it online. And I am no exception.

A lot of my expat friends (especially if they’re Italian or French) complain about the quality of food in the Netherlands. Even I, excited to try out new things, was very disappointed with the bread (yes, even the one considered "wholegrain") you can buy here and started making my own, or buying my bread at Polish or Turkish stores. 

But why can’t we just adapt? Why can’t we just be happy with the products we have in the Netherlands? I think there are many reasons for that and it’s not easy to explain. For example missing food is never about food. It is about homesickness, and missing something that you considered a given until you left. When you can’t find the product you were so used to, it can be quite frustrating.

Missing food is not always about quality or taste: I am sure Dutch expats (Dutch cuisine isn’t very special, although it does have some dishes that I learned to enjoy) miss their food even if they’re in a country with a very renowned cuisine, such as France or Italy.

Second, there are cultural differences in how and what we eat. We all have to eat, but for many cultures food is also a shared experience. In some countries it is important to prepare, cook and serve food in a certain way, and only use very special ingredients. In the Netherlands, much of the produce comes from greenhouses, causing concern about quality among expats, and causing them to go out of their way to buy food they consider good quality.

Then, there are special businesses and services targeted towards the expat community: real estate agents, lawyers, shops, doctors, translators, intercultural communication trainers, couches and much more. And oh yes, bloggers. Many expats themselves set up their businesses to help other expats. But do we really need these services?

Not knowing local customs and not speaking the language can put us in a very vulnerable position. This is why good quality services can be such a big help. However, we have to be careful because some companies can take advantage of this and overcharge.

While expats don’t need products from their country in order to survive, it’s not always about survival. It’s about quality of life. And if products and services tailored specifically towards expats improve that, why wouldn’t we use them? Why wouldn’t we wish for a little taste of home to give us comfort, or for some help to navigate a system we don’t know? I say: “go for it”.

Otherwise, try to get creative and see if you can make a new dish using local ingredients and a variation of your traditional recipes. I once made pierogi with ricotta cheese because I couldn’t buy Polish curd cheese!If there was a dish you used to eat in restaurants or buy ready-made, try making it from scratch! Or see if you can try out a new recipe from your new home country. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself a new favourite dish! If you’re feeling brave, do something the local way- you will also learn something new!

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  1. As you know, I've struggled with cooking here! But--- I think that one thing I have done (well) is just given up and given in. Probably because my home country is so far away- you're just far enough to make it difficult to obtain foods, etc from home- so for me, it's the rare-few-times-a-year care package from the States. I wouldn't pay extra to 'special order' my Nestle chips here, I'm content with chopping up blocks of chocolate on my own.

    1. Hi Farrah, yes it also depends on the distance...and some things you can substitute- as with the chocolate chips. In Poland, we don't really have chocolate chips either so I always just melted chocolate for everything. Mostly, you can substitute almost everything, or just make it from scratch. It could taste or look different, but if you're lucky it will be just close enough. But sometimes the difference in taste makes it even harder. I am used to serving different types of foods, but luckily I have that Polish shop close by...I would be sad if I didn't but I would survive and find other ways.

  2. Olga, I understand this feeling and I have many French and Italian friends who really suffer from this different food-culture. But it's part of an international life. If you live in another country, you adapt. You find other ways, other recipes. I would recommend the local markets. They sell fresh fruit and vegetables. In this time of the year you can go and harvest apples by yourself. - I know many families who fill their car trunks with "food from home" when they visited their home country: it's a way to feel less homesick. Personally, I never did this. I appreciate the local food - and honestly, a Swiss dish or an Italian dish tastes differently when made here in NL, as it does everywhere abroad. When we visit Switzerland, Italy, Germany, France etc. we always go for only local food and fully immerse and enjoy.

    1. Hi Ute, yes, the good thing about the Netherlands is that there are many little fruit and vegetable shops, or even better- local markets, after all they take place every week and are great! Luckily, we also have a lot of fruit in our garden. I also don't pack Polish things, but I do ask my mom for a loaf of fruitcake when she comes to visit. And you are right- the same dish will taste differently in different countries, although I was able to recreate my mom's blini without any problems. We also enjoy my mom's cooking when we are in Poland, but usually don't really eat out there for lack of time. I think there are great things everywhere, you only need to find them, and yes sometimes you need to get creative!

  3. I'm in the same boat as Farrah - there are some things that are just not really worth paying outrageous prices in a specialty shop or for shipping, so you make due without. But as we've adjusted to what's available here, I can already tell that if/when we go back to the States, there will be things from here that I will miss.

    As a side note, I think your bread comment is interesting if only because we come from different expectations for what makes "good" bread. I know that a lot of Europeans don't like the preservatives, etc. in Dutch breads, but the breads are so much better than what you can typically buy in America. There are some breads with so many preservatives that the loaf will last 3 weeks without going moldy. I would have to go out of my way or pay way too much for "good" bread back home. =)

    1. Hi Ace, I also agree, sometimes the prize is not worth it. Or maybe you can buy it once or twice but no more. As for bread, I've never been to the US, but I lived in Canada for 4 months and had the same problem with bread- also made my own! And I agree what passed as bread there was much better than Dutch bread. Personally, I most love the heavy dark bread packed with grains that you can buy in Poland or Germany, or sourdough rye bread (recipe will follow!)- something that is not easily available everywhere. I also buy Turkish flatbread, and we have the Polish store nearby and then, there is a French bakery where we buy pain de campagne...once in a while. I also have a bread machine which helps a lot. But I see your point: an Italian friend of mne complains about fruit and vegetables in the Netherlands, while for me they are usually fine! It's the perspective I guess.

  4. The stuff that I miss from back home tends to be the stuff I had as a kid, thebasic stuff like beans, bread, Cheddar cheese and so on. None of it is absolutely fantastic, but it comforts me.

    However, living in the south of Brazil it is very difficult to get hold of any of this stuff so I have kind of learned to live without it all. If somebody is coming to visit from the UK, though, I usually have a list of things they should bring with them.


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