Expats in remote areas of the Netherlands â" How's life for you?
Not all internationals live in the Randstad with expat services at their fingertips. Deborah Nicholls-Lee speaks to readers in remote locations across the Netherlands and asks, âWhatâs it like when youâre the only expat in the village?â
Sicilian Nicola Sirchia (32) is in love with his trees. âI have apple trees! I can see them grow, make apple cake and do all those kinds of things. That makes me happy!â he enthuses over the phone from his home in the rural Hoeksche Waard, an island in Zuid-Holland. âI donât need a house that costs a million euros in the city centre. I just need a simple house where I can have my trees.â
The online digital manager lived in Amsterdam, Breda and Rotterdam, before moving, in 2017, with Dutch wife Shirley (29) , a mental health counsellor, to the village of Goudswaard, where the population is under 2000 and the only other expat is the owner of the local Chinese restaurant.
âMy work is quite intense, so we decided to move somewhere where our brains had the opportunity to relax a bit,â he says. âWe bought an amazing house with a big garden that can give us and our two German Shepherds all the peace, freedom and tranquillity that we never find in big cities.â
Sushmita Jha (29), an account coordinator from India, is equally enthusiastic about her new home in tiny Westerbork in the heart of agricultural Drenthe, which could hardly be more different from her previous life in an apartment in New Delhi. âItâs just a good feeling,â she says. âAfter a busy day, I go back home and thereâs so much peace and greenery â¦ When I come to Amsterdam for work, I really find it chaotic.â
Compared to Amsterdam, she says, people in Drenthe really make time to see their fa mily, much like in India. She has been stunned by the help and support of her Dutch in-laws. âI didnât expect that you would see that kind of bonding in the family in a country like the Netherlands,â she says.
Sushmita and Stefan in rural Drenthe
Sushmita admits that itâs not always easy, though. âYou really have to speak good Dutch as people donât tend to speak very good English,â she says. Though she has no desire to be part of what she calls âan expat crewâ, she likes to kick back with other Indians every so often. âWe have âIndian timeâ,â she laughs, âand we speak a lot of Hindi!â
Elena Lomo Melian (46), a Spanish-Australian who moved to Ulvenhout in Noord-Brabant from Sidney in 2009, agrees. Though her more isolated location meant she integrated faster and learnt the language quicker than expats like her sister in the Randstad, she found she had to put more in each day too, and that could be tiring.
âSometimes you need respite and you just need to hang out with a group of people that get you â" whilst youâre still working on integrating,â Elena explains. When she arrived in the village, she worked hard on assimilating, but during those exhausting months when her first child was born, she found that she âcouldnât hold it anymoreâ. âI didnât want to think â" which you need to do when youâre speaking Dutch! Then, I really reached out to the international community,â she says.
She created a womenâs circle of like-minded people and she spent a lot of time with the âWomen with Dutch Partnersâ group in Breda, who understood what it was like to have a foot in both camps.
Finding a niche made all the difference for British couple Sandra (50) and Mark Stanbury (54), who struggled to fit into parochial Egmond aan den Hoef in Noord-Holland. âThere are two or three couples who are well-travelled and pretty chilled and we get on really well with them,â says Sandra, but, beyond that, the couple spend most of their time in nearby Castricum, where they have found a great social life surrounding the rugby club, which Mark describes as âa life-saverâ.
In the 90s, they lived for four years in Utrecht. âIn Utrecht, they didnât make us feel like outcasts. They would talk to us, invite us to their street party,â says Mark. Egmond was different. âWe had kids outside our house saying, âgo home English peopleâ.â he says. âIn Utrecht, they were more âinterestedâ in us; they didnât really see us as a threat, whereas up here, I think they did,â explains Sandra.
Mark wishes they had bought a home in Castricum. âWhen we put our youngest boy in Castricum [school], he thrived,â he tells me. He recommends renting in an area first to see if you are comfortable there.
A Canadian reader, who moved t o an idyllic village in Limburg and has asked for anonymity, also found it hard to find acceptance. âEven our estate agent asked me more than once, âAre you sure you want to live here? Itâs very small.â,â she says. The children of this family and the family in Noord-Holland both experienced bullying in school and both families found themselves the subject of local chit-chat.
âItâs a relief my Dutch was so bad â" I wasnât able to offer up much fodder for gossip!â jokes our Limburg expat. But Dutch can only take you so far below the big rivers: âEven though Iâd learned enough Dutch to get by in the shops, social situations were still sometimes difficult as every village has its own version of the Limburg dialect,â she says. The family have since moved to Maastricht, where, she says, âitâs much easierâ and her children are âhappy and thrivingâ.Egyptian dentist Sameh Elgendy (30) also found language an issue. He contacted us from Zwolle, in Overijssel, where he lives with his Polish wife, Kamila (27), a job coach.
âIt took my wife some time here to find a job, mainly because of the language,â he told DutchNews.nl. âOutside of the Randstad there were almost no part-time Dutch language courses available,â he says, and though Zwolle is a city â" albeit a small one â" Kamila eventually travelled an hour south-west to Utrecht to take lessons.
The couple did find the Expats Zwolle group, though, and enjoy joining other internationals for trips, pot-lucks and picnics. Zwolle, says Sameh, is âa nice cityâ but âlacks the big city lusterâ, and they are now considering moving west to The Hague or Rotterdam.
Back in sleepy Goudswaard, Nicola has found native speakers to be very patient. âPeople have time, so it doesnât matter if you donât speak the same language,â he says. âThe thing that is beautiful is how we understand each other because we want to communicate.â
When everyone knows your name
The slower way of life requires a bit of planning, with shops closing on Sundays and expat advice centres miles away, but Nicola enjoys the human contact this brings about. âI donât go to buy food at the big shopping centres any more â" I go directly to the farmer to buy what I need,â he says. Far from finding it stifling, he likes the way everyone knows everyone else. In Goudswaard, he tells me, âpeople are not a number, they are people.â
Nicola and Shirley in from of their home in Goudswaard
Nicola has found people to be really friendly. âThe perception that other people have of you depends also on the perception that yo u have of other people,â he says. He has even taken the unusually orthodox step of abandoning Italian cuisine as part of his assimilation into Dutch life. âEvery country has its own traditions and as an expat we have to respect it,â he says. His advice: âBe open. Really, be open.â
Sushmita, over in Drenthe, has found being the only expat in the village has its advantages. Recently, at a local beer-tasting festival everyone realised immediately that she must be âStefanâs wifeâ and came over to introduce themselves. She has found her Dutch neighbours to be âhelpful and acceptingâ. Like Nicola, her âbiggest tipâ is âto be openâ.
But unlike Nicola, Sushmita is not giving up her native cuisine and mostly cooks Indian food at home. âI keep India in my heart and soul,â she says. Her Indian heritage has even helped her adapt to her new way of life. âWesterbork is not really a village,â she regularly teases her husband. âIf you want to see a village, go to India and see a village.â
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