Recently I celebrated 6 months of living in the Netherlands. Officially the longest I have been away from my home, South Africa. Ever.
I have much I want to tell you. For those of you on Facebook and Instagram, you’ve seen the highlights. Numerous people have said to me ‘oh, it looks just amazing!’. And it is. Really. Most of the time. But it’s also normal and routine. And sometimes really tough and a bit lonely.
Six months. I built some character. Made new friends. Bonded with my sister. Went on adventures. I’ve also come to realise a few things, which I’ve tried to package in 6 points:
1. I am more adaptable than I think. And so are you.
I’m writing this in my fifth ‘home’. (If you count the first few days at my sister’s au pair family’s house). I didn’t anticipate moving so much, but the provision that came along each time was temporary. Moving was a bit of a pain, but I always had help and nothing more than one carload.
I have seen and experienced a variety of towns in the Netherlands, exploring new roads and parks when I go for a neighbourhood run, traveling different bus and train lines, and adapting to someone else’s home. I also get to survey the room and arrange an optimal sleeping, working, wardrobe, and stretching space. A little home-making project, if you will. Co-ordinating mirrors with plug points is the real challenge! As is not getting lost while biking in the suburbs of Lelystad. (and consequently smashing a phone screen because madam wants to cycle and navigate simultaneously. Tsk.)
One of my goals this year is to live simply with less stuff, spending my money on experiences, travel, gym/pole classes and good food. Yes, I’ve bought stuff at IKEA, as well as a desk chair for €5 from a charity shop (#winning). Plus of course my trusty bicycle. It was embarrassing explaining to Dutch people why I didn’t yet have a bike those first few weeks. Like health insurance, it’s compulsory.
The weather and lifestyle are somewhat different, naturally. Emergency rain gear is good. Stairs, so many stairs! It’s weird but amazing to be able to cycle with relative safety almost everywhere. It’s still quite terrifying at times, like doing your driver’s, but worse… I detest scooters now.
Most days I’m a mixture of slightly sweaty (from cycling) and slightly soaked (from Dutch weather). I’ve made new routines. Worked with what I’ve got. I miss driving my car, but these days I am looking for bicycle parking instead. I do my grocery shopping with one sturdy plastic bag and I walk there and back. I even speak Dutch – albeit a somewhat Afrikaans version sometimes – but people get me!
I’ve always believed that ‘everything is temporary’ (with a few exceptions!), but it means the annoying things won’t last. In a few weeks you won’t have to share a kitchen with 13 other students. You won’t have to walk that same route, or buy food at that horribly designed grocery store. Or wake up from the fridge in your room (which you are also grateful for!). But you might miss your student friends or the sports centre so close by. Or that double bed. The point is: you fit around your world and it’s okay. For example, I’m back to sleeping in a single bed, but it’s in a fantastic location in a lovely apartment. I’ll definitely survive.
2. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
Almost all the places I’ve landed up in have been a result from an existing or new network. Tam and Dan graciously housed me and helped me settle at the start. I found my student home through the host of another room I applied for. My employers found me via LinkedIn. My colleagues Tine and Sjoerd very kindly offered that I housesit and live with them for August and Sjoerd helped me move – door to door – both times. An old schoolfriend helped me search for accommodation and introduced me to one of her university friends who had an extra room she wanted to rent out. Which is how I got to meet Dewi and now share her home in amazing Amsterdam. We can talk for hours and she laughs at my jokes. She’s also super neat and clean! I’ve made wonderful friends everywhere I have danced: the pole community is a very diverse and multi-cultural world.
For all these individuals I am immensely grateful. Thank you for listening, driving, helping, supporting and being there for me. I have truly come to learn what a support network is. Thank you to the friends back in Cape Town too – you who have checked in and Facetimed and stayed in touch. It makes it a lot less lonely.
I also believe it’s Who you know. My Heavenly Father in all His love and kindness has never stopped providing for me. There have been hard times, crying over indecision, many rejections, worrying, and all the things that make life a bit rubbish sometimes, but He is always there. Watching. Guiding. And putting the right people across my path at just the right time.
3. First world living is great, but it’s not perfect
Okay, so the grass IS greener here, but that’s because of all the rain. I won’t lie though, the pro’s of living here certainly outweigh the cons. Do you know how incredible it is to feel safe? I don’t think I’ve even been cat-called once. I can travel home after midnight on public transport and not walked steeped in paranoia. It should be a right, but sadly it’s a privilege. I so wish we all had that (especially women) and especially in South Africa. But don’t think the Netherlands is crime-free. People steal bikes, so you better lock yours. Twice. People even steal lights and crates off bikes (speaking from experience). Houses have intruders, but they are rarely armed. A young woman was recently kidnapped and murdered. I’ve seen maybe eight homeless people in all this time and directly asked for money once. In some ways that is sad, because it’s easy to forget suffering and poverty exist when it’s not in front of you every day. Dutch ‘circles’ are tough to get into and it can be exhausting to socialise in a third language. Thus: it’s not perfect, but in some ways it is certainly ‘better’.
The buses and trams and trains are fantastic. Like, the trains get cleaned and have bins and toilets and are quiet. And they have WiFi. Seriously. But often it hardly works and there are few things more annoying than having broken WiFi. Dutch people love to moan about them though and admittedly I have groaned when mine is running 5 minutes late. It’s hardly Metrofail though! People are civilised when getting on and off trains. Alas, most millennials are too glued to their smartphones to offer up their seat for an elderly person …
Quality comes at a cost and train travel is stupidly expensive. Luckily they have ’subscriptions’ so Danielle and I pay €32 a month and can travel to literally anywhere in the Netherlands by train for free on weekends. Most employers also pay ‘reisvergoeding’, so whether you commute by car or train, you get 19c tax free for every kilometer.
Internet ain’t a thing. Everyone has fast connections and it’s almost always ‘included’ with your rent. No more worrying about sending 500MB files or bundles running out. Oh, and hello Netflix.
Mail gets delivered within days. Passport renewal takes a week. There are recycling bins for everything from plastic to textiles. I have always lived within walking distance from a grocery store. There are shops that sell anything and everything. You can shop at H&M without a million women hyperventilating with excitement because it’s the only one in the province.
People help each other when they’ve fallen – like literally off their bikes – and greet each other as if they’re old friends. Really, I’ve witnessed delivery guys and restaurant hostesses exchange pleasantries with total strangers that have warmed me to my heart.
Contrary to what I initially thought, the Netherlands has a thriving community of churches – local and international/English. It’s so encouraging.
4. It’s simultaneously possible and impossible to get fat in the Netherlands
Cheese is abundant (but not that cheap). There is a plethora of supermarkets with an array of fresh fruit and vegetables, which makes me incredibly happy. The red meat is a bit mediocre, chicken breasts are expensive and so is fresh fish. There are rows of shelves dedicated to cold meats of every shape, size and colour. Nevermind Nutella, my new favourite spread is Spekuloos. The Dutch don’t really do cereal, but that clustered muesli is delicious. And yes, probably loaded with sugar. The strawberries are to die for. The cherries are fat. The milk is fresh. It’s basically dairy heaven. The Lindt and Toblerone is relatively cheap, but the pricier Tony’s Chocoloney is just so good. I now get to drink wines from Chile, Spain, Italy and France. And in Europe, gelato places are never far away. In conclusion: I’m eating well. In my defence, I’ve only gone through about two packs of stroopwafels.
But then there’s the cycling. And the stairs (have I mentioned that I live on the 4th floor?). Running for trains. Walking to the bus stop. Generally being a very active and fit person, I’ve joined gym classes and kept up personal parkruns (come on Holland, join up!) and naturally sought out my local pole dancing studios. As much as the Dutch love frequenting their parks on sunny days, they love to run and do HIIT and acroyoga in them as well. They’re active peeps, plus their portions are normal, so they/we stay a comfortable train-seat-sitting size
5. Travel is the biggest mission, but the greatest reward
The Netherlands may be a small country, but it can take ages to get somewhere. I can’t possibly complain about the public transport and its myriad of dependable options, but I’ve gotten used to easily setting aside an hour to get somewhere. Be it my sister’s home, church, or work. Yet I am grateful to have traffic-free months and a place where I can continue my passion for passive travel. Some days I just love riding the bus and watching the world go by…
A typical work commute involves cycling to the station (10-15 mins), then a 35 min train ride, followed by either a bus ride and short walk or another 10 min cycle. Can’t wait for winter!
Of course, Europe is on my doorstep. I’ve revisited Italy’s Cinque Terre, Paris, London, Belgium, and in a few days: Portugal! It’s overwhelming how much there is to see and while having a maroon book of freedom (aka an EU passport) makes boundary-hopping a cinch, there’s still wasted hours at the airport and security checkpoints and lugging bags around and finding your way in a place that speaks a different language. If you’re a ‘seasoned traveler’, you know those sacrifices. But oh, the rewards! I can honestly say I’ve probably spent a large portion of savings on travel, but I have no regrets. What I do have is hard-drives full of photos, hours worth of stories, hundreds of encounters with interesting people, and a lifetime of riches of adventure. So go on, book that trip.
6. Everything is going to be all right (and the sun does shine here too)
In the first few weeks when I was looking for work and a place to stay, I had to wrestle with these consequences of leaving my comfort zone and security in Cape Town. Some days were frustrating and whenever I felt like it was all too much, I’d stop and go do something completely ordinary. I’d go grocery shopping. I’d walk back and feel the cold on my cheeks and observe the greenery around me and I’d feel a peace because wow, I’m living here! Now. I’ve come this far and it’s okay to take one day at a time. (or not know what you’re doing with your life).
Things can only get better. We are so not alone. It does not rain every day. And thank God for sisters.
I got a job and a place to stay. One day I won’t have those things again. Maybe neither will you. But it’s just a season and it will pass and you’ll be okay. Take a deep breath. Press on. Keep the faith.
The summer might be short, but the days are oh so long. And it’s beautiful.