The expat bubble

This post is also available in: nlNederlands (Dutch)

As an expat, you can live your life in a bubble. It’s a peculiar experience. You’re living in another country, but most of your friends are Dutch, your kids are sent to the Dutch school and you can buy your Dutch sprinkles and candy at the Dutch store. The biggest difference with the Netherlands is the weather and the size of your house if the rent is paid by your employer. When I watch Dutch television and the discussions about integration, I don’t believe we expats are a bright example!

I have to admit that I have not been looking for South African friends either. The easiest way to make friends is to get in touch with like-minded people or those in the same (temporary expat) boat. You don’t have to explain for example ‘Sinterklaas and Blackface’ to a South African, either white or black. I did try, by the way, but I failed hopelessly. This makes it easy to stay in your own bubble. With the arrival of Markus, I got to know a group of South African mamas and the nice thing about them is that it is completely normal when I approach things differently. I got the feeling that the also kind of expect it. I’m just being ‘delightfully Dutch’.

There are bubbles in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but sometimes I’m surprised all over again. A while ago I received an invitation to attend a lunch with only Dutch women. The first question I got: ‘Are your kids also attending the American school?’ For some reason, it is normal to send your children to an international school that asks a tuition fee of 25.000 dollars per year per child which is paid by many employers, besides the house allowance. Apparently, there is no problem of earning all that money back… But that was actually not my first thought. I was curious what the other women did to fill their days. In South Africa, as a partner of an expat you often don’t get a working visa, but only a spouse one with which you’re not allowed to work. This was the first time that I met the stereotype expat woman. You know, the one who is, busy, busy, busy organizing dinners, outings, golf and other social dates. I didn’t have kids at that time and was trying to write a PhD proposal, did voluntary work and had just started working for a Dutch company that focused on sustainable energy. The question of where my children went to school totally did not match with my focus.

And that focus was also different in other areas, literally. I was especially focused on the centre of Johannesburg and not the district Fourways where we lived – just like these women. Fourways is located in the north of Johannesburg and not really bubbling. You really have to be in the city centre, where it is lively and raw. Fourways has estates and malls, the city centre has nice restaurants and bars. During that lunch, I found out that there are some women who did not go beyond the N1. If I had to compare this to Rotterdam: it’s like living outside the highway ring and never go to the ‘Koopgoot or the Witte the With’ in the city centre. In my opinion, you really miss the charm that a city has to offer you. I have really been amazed by it. I understand that having children makes that you are mainly focused on your own neighbourhood, but at the same time you live in a world city with millions of inhabitants. That you don’t want to pick a grain from it?! But that said… I think this says more about my own curiosity and turmoil than anything else…

And to be honest… I do have days of being busy with going to the gym and train with my personal trainer, play golf and drink coffee. The ‘duties’ of an expat partner. And it’s great! But I had to get used to it very much. I couldn’t enjoy it in the beginning. I really hated the question ‘What does your husband do?’ Although I do not have a work permit and officially I cannot work. I find this one of the most difficult aspects of being an expat. You have a fulltime career in the Netherlands, a busy job, which actually is part of your identity and suddenly you have a lot of free time. The Sunday is the same as the Monday. What should you do to have a meaningful day? That you can look back on your day with a satisfied feeling? That you feel you were challenged? And made your own money. I miss that. In that sense, I think the position of an expat partner is quite vulnerable. It’s pretty odd to see that some don’t worry at all and for others it’s a daily struggle.

It sometimes seems so simple. People say ‘ You can start doing what you like! ‘ I have a broad interest in many different matters, but I don’t have a real passion for anything specific, I must confess. And in what do I excel? I have a university degree but I can’t bake a simple cake… I have undertaken several things and it’s quite a quest to find something you like or something that is future-proof or take advantage of in your career (however it may develop). When are you successful? Is that just by having a full-time job or can you choose a different kind of career path? In the current time, with everything all high tech possibilities, I think our definition of work will transform. More remote and online, choosing from where you want to work and with multiple employers. I found out that writing gives me a lot of pleasure and my new adventure will be collecting all my blogs into a book and publish it!.

Sometimes I feel sad and I would like to go back to the Netherlands immediately, but above all, I enjoy everything that this great country has offered and given us, knowing that unfortunately also this era is going to come to an end and that I definitely will miss the bubble. Bye nanny, bye personal trainer, bye house with garden and pool, hello Holland!



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