The day of our appointment at the Amsterdam Gemeente (Town Hall) started out rather somber. Although we believed that we would walk out of the building with what we needed, we felt the best results would be achieved by having the lowest possible expectations. As we hurried toward the building, Brian asked above the gusting wind, "Are you ready for the Ge-mental-institution?" I wasn't quite sure that I was.
We stopped by the reception desk again, where we were given a number and a place to go. Once there, we waited for some time before our number was called. It turns out by the way, that the numbers are not called in order, but depending on your "appointment time" in addition to when you arrive, so we watched our number get passed over several times before it was our turn. In that time, we witnessed several incarnations of our own story as people lined up at the reception desk hoping to immediately get what they came for, only to have to make an appointment weeks away. One woman quietly mentioned to another that they wouldn't be going to the bank that afternoon after all and they left somewhat resigned to the long road ahead. A young man we had seen earlier looking confused in the halls dashed into his appointment on the fifth reminder bell with a wide-eyed, sweaty look of desperation. I hope he got what he was looking for.
Our number was finally called and we entered our room. My strategy going in was to be extra cheerful and eager, to finally win over one of these government representatives. It's the Canadian in me, I think, that made this seem important. But it was clear from the outset that was a wasted effort. Much like everyone else we had encountered at the various gemeentes, our agent sat waiting with a look and aura that said, "what the f- do you want, and why have you come to bother me?" She waited for us to explain why we were there, and I laid our cards on the table as simply as possible.
This lady was the master of the "what the f- face." That makes it sound like she was rude (she wasn't), but I'm not sure how else to describe it. She said very little, but she made a lot of faces. The staring blankly face, the confused-and-judgemental-about-it face, the tell-me-whatever-you-want-it-doesn't-matter face, and the hell-no-get-away-from-me face where she pulled her face as far into her neck as possible. My favourite was the face she made when Brian handed her his wet passport (which got drenched in his bike ride the day before) and apologized for it, like a proper Canadian.
Trying to understand whether we were there to get one BSN or two, she said, "I can give you both, it makes no difference to me." What, really? After all of that, the Amsterdam Gemeente couldn't give a shit about whether we get this stupid little number, let alone whether we have an address or a job or documents. She asked us no questions, and when she handed us the papers with the numbers we had laboured so hard to get, she still stood there, mute and expecting. It seemed like it was time to go, so we awkwardly thanked her (resulting in a let's-never-do-this-again face) and left. We didn't know how to feel. It seemed like an occasion to celebrate, but it was so anti-climactic and weird that we ate some bagels and then left Amsterdam for home. Ge-mental-institution indeed.
It took all day for the weirdness to wear off, and now we're happy. I think. The BSN is the beginning of the end of my bureaucratic journey to becoming a full-fledged citizen (she says ruefully), but Brian still has a ways to go in applying for residency and there are still a number of things we must do to become "official" here. Luckily we were able to get a bank account and liability insurance two days later, in what was an entirely pleasant experience, and we finally made a connection with a great real estate agent who is actually helping us find a place to live.
What have we learned?
We obviously don't know all the ins and outs of moving abroad, and everyone's situation is going to be different. But we have learned a few things that could be helpful in any situation where you feel lost and out-of-place:
1. Question everything you are told. Especially when dealing with situations that have a lot of fine print, make people walk you through the process and ask them a lot of questions. Check multiple sources, follow all of the links in government pages and google for blogs that might contain valuable, unsanitized intel.
2. Don't procrastinate. I know this is a hard one, but it's one I am so grateful that we avoided this time. We first went into a government office to get our BSNs on the first business day after we arrived, and we finally walked out with them three weeks later. Government moves slow, and you never know when they say that you need another document or stamp, so try to get your business done first and party later to celebrate.
3. Ask for help and learn to accept it. We're not good at either of these things, and some of the challenges in our life over the past year have made us even more reluctant to seek assistance. Too often we assume we should just muster through it ourselves. But people are generally fantastic, don't forget! Just in casually talking about our story, waiters have given us local websites for apartments and cheap furniture, given us their number for Dutch lessons and offered us free food and drinks. Friends have been happy to donate their address to us for our paperwork, give us the scoop on local events we should not miss, and advice on how to save money! Our Airbnb hosts have connected us with real estate contacts and more. Just ask.
4. Keep your experience in perspective and manage your expectations accordingly. We both had days this month where we felt really depressed about the way things were going. But in reality, we've been way ahead of the game. In less than a month, we received our BSNs, set up a bank account and have some real leads on apartments. After surveying the blogs of others who have been on similar journeys, we now see we have been doing a great job staying on track. There's still work to do, but we've set ourselves up for success.
5. Use your down time to your advantage. What seems like wasted time, doesn't have to be. Having to arrange a second temporary residence, for example, was beneficial to us in the long run, as we got to experience another kind of central living in Haarlem which really solidified our desire to live in the heart of a city.
What all this boils down to is that bureaucratic nightmares are nothing if you remain committed to making something happen. Happy dreaming, happy planning, happy achieving!