The expat series: from Cape Town to The Hague

I have virtually known Belinda Mountain for many years as we were both in the South African mom blogger space, and she is a superb writer (you can read her blog here). Belinda emigrated with her family in December, and her moving story made me anxious (but then relieved) when she posted about it on social media.

Here’s more about Belinda:

How old are you and where about do you live?

I’m 41 and we live in Den Haag (The Hague).

When did you emigrate? Who did you come with?  

We landed here on 26 December 2020 – my husband Gareth and me, and our two kids, Rachel (10) and Benjamin (7).

Where did you live before The Netherlands?

We lived in Cape Town for five years, and before that Johannesburg for seven years. Before that we lived in London for 8 years, so we really have moved around.

Why did you choose NL?

One of the reasons was a job opportunity for my husband to help grow a European business, but we were also up for a change and the pandemic last year accelerated our decision-making. Because we’d lived in London before, we fancied trying somewhere else, plus we had a few friends who had moved to The Netherlands recently from SA and were really enjoying it.

What do you do here?

I’m a copywriter and co-own a content agency called Black Mountain. I’m really lucky that during the pandemic last year our clients all realised that it didn’t really matter where in the world I was, as I could still do my job. So I’m still writing for all of our SA clients and I’ve picked up a few new European ones soon too.

Tell us a bit about The Hague?

We chose to rent this city apartment because it’s central and surrounded by beautiful squares, art galleries and restaurants. It’s also well located when it comes to our kids’ schools, and is close to one of the big parks Haagse Bos, where we like to go running and walking. There is also a beach here and my husband is a big paddler so that was also a bonus! The Hague itself is actually 50% ex-pats, so there’s a huge international community which has made settling in a bit easier.

What was the most challenging part of your relocation?

The paperwork and legalities of moving here were initially the most challenging aspect. Trying to organise this during a pandemic and before Brexit on 31 December 2020 (the kids and I hold UK passports too), also added a very stressful element. Anyway, after many cancelled flights and changing entry requirements, we made it here and now all have Dutch residency.

The next extremely stressful part was arriving during the super strict lockdown and having to home school our kids at a brand new school, with new ways of learning, covering topics they had missed (as the school year had already started here in September, so they effectively missed a whole term). We also still had our own jobs to do and all had to share 2 laptops and one living space. The kids were very lonely and couldn’t meet any new friends, so watching them experience this was difficult. Luckily that’s all changed since primary schools opened again.

Aside from people, what do you miss most about South Africa?

Cape Town is one of the most naturally beautiful cities in the world and I do miss the mountain ranges and incredibly striking views and terrain. I miss the convenience of having a garden for my kids to play in – but the outdoor spaces here are wonderful. Surprisingly I also miss SA food! South African grocery stores are actually really impressive in terms of quality and variety, and lockdown here has meant we haven’t been able to discover new culinary things (although I know that will change once things open up).

What has been the most challenging things to adjust to?

The lack of routine has been difficult, but that’s actually to do with the pandemic, not with moving countries. I miss going into an office, meeting friends in a coffee shop, going to a restaurant or an art gallery. We haven’t been able to settle into our new country/home properly due to this pandemic and that has been extremely hard.

What do you love most about NL?

The freedom of movement is completely liberating. That I can walk or run alone with music in my ears and go virtually anywhere I want safely and comfortably is a game changer. I love that my daughter and her friends can be independent and cycle to hockey on their own, and I love watching my kids play in the street. I wish all people (especially women) around the world could enjoy this level of safety and freedom. I also love the cycling culture – it definitely adds a level of happiness and health to your life.

What is the one thing you wish someone would have told you before you emigrated?

Take your vitamins, speak to a therapist (if you can afford it) and don’t be afraid to ask for help and emotional support from friends and family. This is a big deal – moving countries with a family in tow is not a small thing, so make your mental and physical health a priority. The other advice I’d give is that you will struggle to recreate your South African life here, so don’t try too hard to do that. Embrace the differences, celebrate and enjoy them and acknowledge the good in both places.

What are your new favourite foods?

They sell these giant olives here which I love, and their frites and mayo are ridiculously good. I also like beer and there’s a bigger selection here to choose from.

How would you describe your bike-riding skills?

When it comes to cycling, it’s less about the skills, and more about knowing the rules and bike riding etiquette. I’m getting there but I’ll never be like the Dutch who often cycle with both hands in their pockets when it’s cold!

What do you love doing on weekends?

Although we’re locked down, we can still visit all the beautiful open spaces, so we’ve been exploring those. In summer we plan to spend a lot of weekend time at Scheveningen beach kite boarding and paddling, plus cycling in The Dunes where there are beautiful trails and wild horses. We also went ice skating and sledding earlier this year when it snowed, and we’ve been into Amsterdam to visit friends, as well as took the train to Zeeland in the South to stay on a farm and explore the villages in the area.

Do you speak Dutch, or are you going to start?

I can only say hello and thank you, but I’m about to start lessons because I feel it’s really important to make an effort to assimilate into the culture that has welcomed you (even though most Dutch speak fluent English).

Describe the Dutch in five words…

Direct, welcoming, tall, commercially-minded and family-focused (I cheated and used hyphens;)

What advice would you give to someone wanting to come and live in NL?

Do your research and decide what you want from your new life as there are many great cities/areas in The Netherlands (i.e Amsterdam is one of the coolest cities in the world but it’s not the only option). Speak to those who’ve gone before you to get advice, but then make sure to repay the favour when it’s your turn to do so.

What’s on your to-do list once lockdown is over?

So much! I want to try out the great restaurants in the area, and drink cocktails at beach bars in the summer, and visit The Escher gallery near our house. I want to browse in the cool shops and sit at a sidewalk cafe and sip on coffee and people watch. I can’t wait for this place to open up!

Where do you want to travel once lockdown is over?

We’re keen to visit Portugal for surfing and Champagne in France to stock up on bubbles, and then I want to go to England to visit my sister and her family and meet my one-year-old nephew.

What are your most useful apps here?

We’ve used the Cargaroo app a few times when we need to transport more stuff – you rent a bike with a bakfiets on it and it’s all done seamlessly with pick up and drop off in the street. The Albert Heijn supermarket app is also useful to see what specials are on each week, so we can plan our grocery shopping. Weather apps are also essential so that you can plan your outfits (raincoat? snow boots?), when to exercise in the day and what errands to run when.

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