The highlight of my life in Holland was a Sunday morning. We woke up in the house we had just bought, the first house we had ever bought, to the sound of bells from the town hall. We were right in the centre of town.
The house was still empty – we hadn’t moved in properly yet – so we got up and walked the few minutes it took to reach a café and sat outside at one of the tables on the boats moored in the water. Ever since I first visited Leiden I had wanted to live there and now I was, right in the centre.
The lowlight is the reverse of this. It was pulling the door shut to our house in Leiden for the last time. It was hearing those bells from the town hall for the last time. It was walking across the square and looking back at our street leading off the corner of the square and realising that it no longer was our street. We would no longer sit outside our house with a glass of wine in the evening and give directions to passing tourists. We were moving to a house with a garden.
Having moved away from Leiden I have found another Holland. I wake up to hear birds singing rather than bikes rattling and seagulls and students squawking. I live in a house with a driveway, two driveways in fact. There are woods nearby. We have countryside. There are children at school whose parents are farmers.
The Holland I live in now – a village up north – is a different Holland from the Holland where I used to live. People here mistrust ‘het westen’. ‘Wasn’t there lots of crime?’ they ask if I say I lived there. They leave their homes and get into their cars. They drive to school. They drive to the shops. They drive. They drive. They drive.
The car-on-your-driveway Holland, the having-a-driveway Holland, the safe no-one-on-the-streets-in-the-evening-except-dog-walkers Holland, the return-to-a-quiet-village-at-the-end-of-your-busy-working-day-Holland is not my Holland.
My Holland is a historical town with houses from the Golden Age lining canals. My Holland is a bike chained up outside your house. My Holland is walking and cycling everywhere. It is people out on the street at night, people without dogs. It is sitting in the street rather than in your own garden.
That’s the thing about living in a foreign country. You think that the whole country is like where you’re living but it isn’t. Holland is not just cycles in front of your house. You can find cars and driveways and out of town superstores too. You can find quiet villages to drive home to at the end of a busy day. It’s just knowing how and where to find them.
What I’ve learnt since leaving Leiden and moving to the country is that your internal world is the one that is important. It’s about doing your thing regardless of your outside environment. It’s about having New York New York moments where you know that ‘if I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere’. That’s what living in another country is about.
Marianne Orchard writes about living in Holland, the Dutch language and learning Dutch at likeasponge.nl. She has lived in the Netherlands for long enough that she should say the Netherlands instead of Holland.