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Expat life in the Netherlands

Parachuting from the sky to a new environment

Last week, at the dining table of his new bought house, I had a nice catchup talk with Vanja Cukalevski, about his decision to move to The Netherlands four years ago. While enjoying a nice Belgium beer and some great tradition Serbian food, we looked back on these four years of living and working in The Netherlands.

When did you start dreaming of an international career? 

I think back in 2012, I had three to four years of experience in my previous company back in Serbia. It was a very tough project, I was a little bit saturated with the work at that moment and I start discussing with my wife. Maybe we should start looking for something else. I always had the feeling like if I want the next step, I need to go out and look for something in the world, outside Serbia.

I send my CV around mainly Norway, Germany, even Qatar. I had a few interviews, maybe two or three, but it didn't work as I expected and I just cooled off.

We got the first kid a few months after that and simply life goes onwards. We got our second kid at the beginning of 2015 and then somewhere mid-2015, you called me. “Do you want to send your updated CV?” You found my CV, which was already 3 years old and I was truly shocked. So I started discussing it again with my wife, rethinking everything. We just bought our apartment in Serbia and we had both stable jobs. I even slightly advanced in my company and was happy with my work there. Still, we said let's just try, see what will happen. So I sent my CV. In two, three months we finished all the talks and by the end of 2015, I got every paper that I need to come here. In January 2016, I start working and living in the Netherlands.

What made you decide to go for it?

First of all, we wanted that experience in our life. We wanted to try something like that and not regretting it 30 years later. The kids were still very young. Our daughter was three years old and our son was less than one year, which made our decision easier in sense that we had some time to try and see how it will go. It was mainly the wish to try something new to see how it's living and working in a different environment. The situation in our country pushed us a little bit, it's pretty unstable. A lot of political problems and a lot of protection. You need to be close to politics to be able to advance significantly in your role. So that was also one of the things that helped our decision to leave and try to find something different. I would not say necessarily better, but at least something different.

And then we can evaluate after some time and see if it was a good decision or not. But at least I would know from my own experience how it looks like from the other side of the fence. And not like just hearing from other people or dreaming about it.

The Netherlands came like pure luck. I'd never been to the Netherlands before. Not even as a tourist. For us, it was like parachuting from the sky to the new environment.

What do you enjoy about international work and life?

I didn't work anywhere else except Serbia. In the Netherlands everything is much better organized, more structured, you have all the preconditions to be successful in what you are doing.

You concentrate on that and it is relaxing to work here. Sometimes there is some pressure to deliver in  timeframe, but even that somehow goes smoothly. I don’t feel the pressure or stress. That was my main impression of working in The Netherlands, at least in my company Vanderlande.

How is living in the Netherlands for your family?

The positive thing is that everybody speaks English. That eases your life and makes your integration smoother. Everybody is accepting foreigners here pretty well, there are a lot of foreigners that will help you too, especially at the beginning which was extremely important for us.

When you come with kids, I think you have a much bigger challenge and much more responsibility. I wanted to try this journey, but maybe my kids didn't want it. Very often I and my wife ask ourselves the same question: “Are we doing the right stuff?” We discussed this all the time in the beginning. Then we realized that's going to put a huge pressure and burden on us. So we decided to make the time interval bigger. Let's say six months or even a year for an evaluation.

Start living the best you can, and then in a year, let's make the cross-section and see where we are. See if we want to continue like this or we might say this is not for us, let's go back. And I think that helped us a lot to relieve the pressure in the house and within the family.

And yeah, as in the blink of the eye, we have been already four years here and we have done so many things on the way. Our kids go to the Dutch school and speak the Dutch language very well, we bought our own house. We got some new friends here and we made some new life in the new country around us.

What is the major thing that you or your family misses?

The major thing that we lost is being close to our family and friends. You can start making new friendships but it's very hard to make friends as you had from your own country when you were five years old and you knew them from kindergarten. Also, language is a huge barrier. We all speak English better or worse, but you cannot express your emotions a hundred percent. In the best case, you can express them 70 to 80 percent. Sometimes that just is not enough.

Especially in this region, making friendships is hard for us. It's like we have a different mentality that is hard to overcome. I see a big difference between making friends in my own country and here. I would say that this is the cultural and national barrier. For example, our kids are going to a Dutch school for 3 to 4 years now. I always see that my kids are playing with foreign kids. I think it's because of a different mentality. It's a big obstacle for us, we feel that it's not our natural habitat. It's not something that we feel a hundred percent like home.

How has your international experience supported or boosted your career so far?

I think it was a lot. I learned and saw so many new stuff that I would probably never have seen in my own country. It opened my eyes, expanded my horizons. I met international and Dutch people with a lot of knowledge. And from everyone trying to pick up something new. So I feel that I grew up in these four years here. I have upgraded myself in a couple of years that I spent here. From that perspective, I am not regretting that I'm here. I'm really happy about that. And I feel that it's going good. Yes. I think it pays off in the long run.

What is the best advice you can give anybody who has an international career dream?

I would say go for it. See the other side and how other people live and work. It will open your eyes and give you a lot of new insights. But also you have to be aware that from the private life perspective, you will have to make some sacrifices. You cannot teleport yourself. I’m always discussing with my wife it would be super good for us if we can work in The Netherlands for eight hours a day and then teleport ourselves back and live our private life in Serbia. That would be, I think, the greatest combination. Still, I would from my perspective, advice to anyone, try at least for some period of your life working abroad.

Manuel Teunissen | Co-founder Mundialz | December 2019

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