Name: Zuzana Zelinková
Nationality: Slovakian
City of residence: Amsterdam
Date of birth: 18-04-1974
Civil status: married
Employer: AMC hospital in Amsterdam
Position: Doctor
In Amsterdam since: 2002


Interviews with expats: Zuzana Zelinková

This interview was first published on

Bratislava to Amsterdam: Learning to define boundaries

Slovakian expat Zuzana Zelinková has learned Dutch but she can't get over the local insistence on appointments and always having fun.

My husband and I wanted to go abroad to learn about another culture and to broaden our professional horizons. He was offered an IT job with brewer Heineken in Amsterdam and I went with him.
The deal was that we would move on if I could not find a suitable job within a year. Fortunately, I found my current job after six months, a job that tied in well with my medical studies and the subject for which I obtained my Masters Degree.

I began taking Dutch lessons in Slovakia and passed my NT2-2 exam after two further courses in the Netherlands. I barely have any accent and some people don't even realise I am a foreigner.
This leads now and then to confusion because my observations and opinions are still based on a different cultural background, despite the fact that they are delivered in correct Dutch. As a result, people often have less understanding for me than for a person who speaks Dutch badly.
I am quite happy with my level of Dutch, though I would like to have a broader vocabulary. It is very important in terms of my work in the Academisch Medisch Centrum (AMC) in Amsterdam that no misunderstandings result from a language barrier — this applies equally to communication with my colleagues as it does to communication with patients.

Life is far more spontaneous in Bratislava, Slovakia where I come from. Deciding at the last moment to go to the theatre is almost impossible in the Netherlands. Even going for a beer on a whim with a Dutch person is difficult — it always ends up being an arrangement to meet the following week.
Say you get hungry while sitting in a pub with a couple around 8pm, Dutch people find it odd if you order food. Everyone has already eaten by that time. This is not so explicitly organised in Slovakia.
But it strikes me in this regard that everyone does the same thing at the same time here: everyone does their grocery shopping on Saturday morning, they go to the park on Saturday afternoon and go shopping on Thursday evening because it is late night shopping... I had expected a whole lot of freedom because that is the image the Netherlands projects but in fact there are a lot of unwritten rules.
I am also taken aback by the almost compulsory nature of "doing nice things". When the weather is good, you have to go sit on a cafe terrace! If you don't do that, you are definitely a foreigner.
This also applies to weekends: You have to do nice things during the weekend. The most typical question before the weekend is: what are you doing this weekend? And afterwards, what did you do this weekend?
Doing nice things is compulsory. And it always has to be gezellig (pleasant, enjoyable). In Slovakia, in contrast, you don't have to do anything. If you do something you don't necessarily talk about it so quickly — it is not an issue. It comes across here on occasion as a relentless attempt to make life fun and partly to show others that you are having so much fun.

I can imagine that this attitude stems from Calvinism. It is not the relaxed, Burgundian enjoyment that has occurred in France for centuries but a mandatory enjoyment. It is as if it does not come from inside — it appears to be a forced enjoyment.
There is a far greater acceptance in Slovakia that life is not always fun and people speak out more about having little money and having to work hard. I think this attitude is sometimes too prevalent. It might be good if Slovakians had a bit more more of the Dutch drive.
I have experienced that the Dutch are very open, almost to the point — as seen from my culture — of being impolite. There are boundaries but these can be very difficult for us (newcomers) to recognise.
I said a few times to my former boss who I got on well with: "Are you crazy?" He and my colleagues used to laugh but still I got the feeling that I had perhaps gone too far. As far as I was concerned though being able to speak to my boss like this was actually a good thing in terms of our open relationship.

Ego tripping v. Communism
Dutch culture strikes me as a very individualistic and occasionally egotistical culture. This is, I suppose, a logical evolution of the cultural formation in a small and densely populated country. Everyone has to protect their own borders.
Dutch people grew up with this reality but for foreigners it can be very difficult to protect their place without going overboard and adopting a rude egotistical manner. I see this, for instance, happening with my husband and me.
The worst case was when we had friends over for dinner and my husband served himself first! That isn't the way we behave in Slovakia nor is it normal here either.
It was actually a typical example of going too far with a certain form of behaviour when you are not precisely sure where the borders are. He has also seen me make the same sort of mistake. We have to laugh about this, every evening we talk about these sorts of situations.
We are still communist children at heart, brought up with a bias towards the group, the collective. I notice I am far more prepared to help others than they are prepared to help me. Therefore I have to continually be alert to the need to protect my personal boundaries but this goes against my character. It is an ongoing battle!

I am still somewhat sceptical about the idea of multicultural societies as different cultures can't really get on with each other. I still think your own culture is the best although I myself try to maintain that it is not better but different! Nevertheless people from your own culture are always the best at understanding you on an emotional level.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course, because there are people, who, in terms of character, don't fit in in their own country and do better in another land. David Brunand, who you interviewed on an earlier occasion, is a good example.
Another form of the 'me-culture' is that older people and children are viewed as a burden, it seems to me. Looking after them can also be positive; you first have to give but then you also get a lot in return. Perhaps this has to do with the impulse for gezelligheid (conviviality) and always doing fun things.
There is also an enormous drive to analyse in this country. My husband and I always have to laugh when it is said for the umpteenth time in the television news: "Research has shown...", the most bizarre things are researched in this country!
I find the Netherlands is the most rational country I know. You have to stop somewhere, you can not approach everything rationally.

I have heard a lot of stories about expat marriages breaking down, not only marriages between a Dutch person and an expat but also ones between expats from the same country. You are very reliant on each other in a foreign country and that puts enormous pressure on the relationship.
I have also seen that expats can suddenly give up and want to return to their own country: Now it is enough! I have not interest in having to travel for another day in that dumb metro, for instance. Something like this naturally develops over a long period of time.
*quote2*For the moment I like it here and I feel that I am still learning a lot, both professionally and in terms of the culture and myself.
I still find it exciting and instructive to see how the Dutch cope with everyday problems and how there are continually trying to improve their densely populated and multicultural society.
Perhaps there will come a moment when my energy will be used up and I no longer have the drive to learn new things. When all is said and done I don't find it easy to have to constantly adjust to a different culture and constantly have to fight to protect my boundaries.

12 July 2005
Zuzana Zelinková told her story to Nicole van Schaijik, who owns and operates Talent Taaltrainingen (Dutch Language Courses), based in Amsterdam. (Tel: 020 420 66 59 or email:
Expatica 2005