Martin Paul and Peter Howe

“Maastricht: The ideal place to live”

‘Get to know your neighbors.’ ‘Invest in a bicycle.’ ‘Make an effort to learn the language’. As experienced expats, who have lived in other places abroad before coming to Maastricht, Martin Paul and Peter Howe can give some good advice to new expats in town. The president of Maastricht University and the head of United World College Maastricht both came here with their wife and kids. They welcome you ánd reassure you: with the significant foreign population in the Maastricht region, you don’t have to feel homesick.


Martin Paul, president of Maastricht University, came to the Netherlands in 2008 with his American wife, 7 year old son and 11 year old daughter. The German professor had lived in Berlin for fifteen years, and lived in the States before that. Canadian Peter Howe arrived with his wife, 9 year old son and 13 year old daughter in January 2012, after living and working in Italy for seven years. His oldest son was attending UWC in Canada at that time. He now is the head of the UWC Maastricht, the school that was in fact a huge draw to move here. “The Italian schools where my children went before were a great cultural experience, but to have my children study in English and to be surrounded by all the nationalities that are here in Maastricht, was an incredible opportunity. It’s such a centrally located city in a region that’s the heart of Western Europe.”

Martin Paul agrees: “Somebody said that if you would design a typical European city from scratch, then you would come up with something like Maastricht. That was what attracted me. The region is very international and European in a positive way. The quality of life is quite high, because it is a compact city with a lot of culture, and at the same time very green surroundings. If you want to experience different cities, cultures, landscapes, it’s almost like an ideal place to live, at the crossroads of Europe.”

Learning the language

Although both experienced the ability and the willingness of the Dutch to speak English or German, they agree that acquiring some basic knowledge of the language should be one of every expat’s priorities. Peter Howe: “In Italy, or at least the part we were in, the people refused to speak English or were incapable. Even the English teacher at the school had challenges with English. I was forced to learn the language and that helped integrating in a more complete way. Here I haven’t had the opportunity yet to study Dutch and I’m very aware of every month going by. We felt at home within weeks after arriving, but because I don’t speak the language, I feel much more of a tourist here after eighteen months, than I did after two months in Italy.”

Martin Paul took a very intensive two weeks Dutch course in Spa, Belgium. “It was called ‘complete emersion’, which sounds a bit like waterboarding, and it felt like that at some point”, he laughs. “Then I kind of forced my coworkers to speak Dutch to me, and after half a year I was not diving anymore but swimming. In a public position like mine, where you have to communicate with ministries and civil servants, it’s always appreciated that you make an effort. I think that if you live in a different culture, you should have some basic knowledge of the language. The world language is bad English, why not bad Dutch?”

Dutch bureaucracy

The Dutch bureaucracy was new for both, but in a different way. Peter Howe: “When moving to Italy I was struck with the bureaucracy of continental Europe. Because Italians and rules don’t necessarily go together, they often bend the rules, so the biggest shock with coming to Maastricht was that they always follow the rules here. Dutch regulations and Dutch written text can be challenging. It’s the reality of Europe, but I must say, the 30% system, where they recognize for instance Canadian driver’s licenses, can make a huge difference in terms of settling in.” Martin Paul: “I found it interesting to see that bureaucracy here is always done with a smile. People are very helpful and friendly. I remember a visit to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service for a stamp in my wife’s passport. If you go to a place like that in Germany, you feel quite awkward and uncomfortable, but here you are offered a cup of coffee. It’s a kind of easiness, which makes this bureaucracy much better to endure.”

Funny accent

The chance to run into someone from your home country is considerably higher in Maastricht than in other places, since 27% of the city population is non-Dutch. Martin Paul: “I was at my son’s baseball club, chatting with another father, and after 15 minutes I thought: ‘He speaks Dutch with a funny accent.’ He thought the same about me and then it appeared he was from the USA and a professor at our university. The key for an international community is some critical mass of internationality. If you get homesick you can easily find people who are in the same situation as you are.” Getting to know your neighbors is essential, says Martin Paul. “Especially with young kids.” Peter Howe: “And obviously you need to invest in a bicycle as well. That’s also been one of the real pleasures of moving here: cycling to work, being able to get around on a bike. The accessibility of the country side is great.”

Friends for life

Their children found their ways around quite well. Peter Howe: “The cliché is that a school makes a community, but that’s very much the case here as well. Within a week of arriving at this school, my kids had made friends for life, and I’m not saying that to promote my own school.” Joining sports clubs appeared a good way for both their children to integrate rapidly. Peter Howe: “If the instruction at clubs is in Dutch, they are very willing to take your kid aside for a basic explanation in English. So that’s a great way for them to learn the language.” Martin Paul adds: “My daughter was the only one at that time at the club who didn’t speak Dutch, and immediately the coaches and other kids started to talk English with each other. That’s not happening in many other cultures. People here are more used to this international culture and more welcoming. And I don’t even know if that’s a Dutch thing, because this city with the mix of cultures is not representative for the Netherlands. It’s certainly something I have experienced here in Maastricht.”


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