Paul and Vanessa Smith

Paul and Vanessa Smith

From Portland to Utrecht, a city full of surprises

Hi, next time you're walking down the street, if you see an American family of three with a vivacious 6-year-old child and a grin that won't wash off their faces, that's probably us. We are Paul, Vanessa and Finley Smith, and last March we made the leap from Portland, Oregon to Utrecht. Why? In a nutshell, a more balanced life. Utrecht is big enough yet small enough, a livable mix of village and city, with a vibrant and collaborative economy. Welcoming and inclusive of an international population, but still distinctly Dutch. Given my boy and I have dual Irish/US citizenship, the decision to live here was that much easier.

Exceeding expectations

While I did extensive research and connecting with people before moving here, the actual experience has been delightfully beyond what we anticipated. It began with someone offering us to stay at their place until we found our own, and then taking the time out to get us familiar with all the little life details.  We'd yet to meet in person before he opened his doors to us! Others stepped forward with bikes to borrow, toys for our boy, and invitations to come for borrel at their home. Given we'd sold nearly everything we owned before moving here, it was amazing to experience such generosity.

Children are the center of this city

While the Netherlands having a leading position in the circular economy was certainly a factor that drew us here, it was Utrecht's child-friendliness that had a magnetic appeal. That we felt safe leaving our door open nearly the whole summer says a lot about the safety we felt living here. Children have so many options to play, learn and grow, developing into well-balanced autonomous adults. We’ve already seen a change in our boy's demeanor, his worldview expanding. As is his appetite for chocolate sprinkles.

Greener, cleaner

While the stereotypical external perspective of the Netherlands is lots of bricks and little green, we've found the reality much different. Take Griftpark - expansive space to lounge, stroll, eat, play, grow food, and stumble across the occasional proud peacock. Which brings me to another unexpected yet completely normal thing here - the abundance of animals to be found in parks! The first time I saw deer lazily lounging in Park Oog in Al, just next to the lively repurposed industrial building Cereol Fabriek, I was slack-jawed!

The ability to quickly shift from urban to rural environments here has been rich with experiences for us, such as the goat farm and cafe Geertjes Hoeve.

Expats Utrecht Facebook group - a vibrant, welcoming resource

If you're considering moving here, I cannot overemphasize my recommendation to call on the Expats Utrecht Facebook group. They patiently and generously answered my myriad questions about the spectrum of life here. It was from this group that I began to get a working familiarity with the city, its people, and what to expect. Sitting in our BSN appointment at the Gemeente, I had to smile with gratitude as I was entirely at ease, having taken care of all the little details I'd never have known without this group.

Dutch myth vs. reality

While some say the Dutch are cold and overly direct, we've found the opposite to be true. In the 8 months, we've been here, we've made more real friends, most of them Dutch, than our whole 7 years in Portland! In the gezellig neighborhood of Nieuw Engeland, we know many of our neighbours, and we find the directness of the Dutch refreshing - total clarity about what people think, making for easier, more efficient and enjoyable interactions with people, both personally and professionally.

We are professionally valued here

Given we're both self-starters when it comes to work, it was an easy step for us to start our own businesses here. Vanessa has truly blossomed, taking nearly two decades of coaching and intuitive experience and using it to serve women with practical, empowering support for both their businesses and broader lives at When I learned that native English copywriters were a relative rarity here, it was only natural that I leveraged my decade+ of content creation skills to launch Paul Smith Creative ( I’ve quickly found success serving cities, forward looking brands and innovative educational institutions. Living here has truly inspired us to bring out the best in ourselves, and to serve this wonderful community that’s given so much to us.

Who knew commuting could be pleasurable?

Vanessa was the first to notice the bus drivers here…they take such pride in their work, and have such a warm regard for one another! Their skill at navigating the busy streets of Utrecht with ease makes for a smooth connection to most anywhere we need to go. Biking completes the map for us and has certainly grown our confidence in the process. While Portland was considered a top-tier biking city in America, Utrecht takes it many levels further, making for a safe, connected, quick pathway to get to your destination. Even our boy, who'd had no experience on two-wheel bikes before moving here, learned in one day, and now leads the way as we go across town. Stunning!

Utrecht Centraal has become like a second home to us, and though it literally sees millions of peoples pass through its doors monthly, its high ceilings and copious natural light make it a relaxing experience, even during peak times.

Surprises at every corner

We knew that, even though we’d done extensive research, it’s impossible to know everything in advance. And we wouldn’t  want to! Take, for example, fresh mint tea. Can you imagine the surprise when, instead of the usual water with a bag of dried herbs in it, there was practically a bush of fresh mint leaves in it? To find that getting a glass of orange juice generally means a freshly squeezed glass of sunshine, even in supermarkets, still bowls us over. There’s such an emphasis on quality of life here, throughout all aspects of it.

Food connects it all

Utrecht, it seems, has picked up its game when it comes to food in recent years, we hear. And from our experience thus far, we're inclined to agree. Bagels & Beans offers a diverse and interesting cafe menu (bugs with your bagel anybody?) SLA is our favourite spot for an inventive and healthy fare, and to our surprise, we've become hot dog fanatics at the stylish Dogma.

So if you’re looking for a place that welcomes the new, embraces its history, and is rich with possibilities, we’d definitely recommend Utrecht.