About a month ago I decided to officially move to The Hague, in the Netherlands (in case you didn’t know, which you bloody-well should!), and try to build a life there. My partner had already moved there to study a master’s degree at Leiden University, and I’d been back and forth to visit her several times* since she’d first moved in late August. We’d flirted a few times with the idea of me moving over but I’d always worried about the lack of financial security due to the difficulty of finding a job in a foreign country, and of finding somewhere affordable to live in an expensive city. One day, however, I decided that enough was enough, and that I should stop worrying and just take a risk. I tried to put into perspective that I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow some money from my family to tide me over for a while, which is a position that not everyone is in, and that this buffer would allow me sufficient time to try to make it on my own. I didn’t really have much to lose, I was working in a job that numbed me to my very core, and didn’t really look like finding anything better anytime soon.
*each time by coach, may I add, which typically took 15 hours travelling time in total. Who said love was dead, eh? Alright, yes, if I’d had the money I would’ve 100% flown, but that’s not the point. The point is, I’m a great guy.
I’d also lived in Cardiff my entire life, apart from my three years at university, of course, during which I travelled to the farthest reaches of the exotic island of South Britannia, in Darkest Hampshire, to a place known as “Southampton”. It fundamentally changed who I was as a person and the way that I viewed the world. The difference in their way of life was truly staggering, and made me appreciate the value of cultural differences and unique cultural identities, and how we should all be more tolerant of one another, and how no one way of doing things is better than the other. Ultimately, man, we’re all equal, in our own special way.
So that was it, I was off to the big city* with nothing but my bag (at a maximum capacity of 23kg) and a pocketful of dreams**. I imagined that it wouldn’t be easy finding any sort of job in a country in which the first language wasn’t English (I’d struggled enough as it was in a country where it was) but I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to give it the old college try!
*The Hague is actually quite small. It’s about 89x smaller than New York, 71x smaller than Tokyo, and, ironically, 42km<sub>2</sub> smaller than Cardiff. Ishn’t dat veird?
**and travel insurance, a deep fear of failure, and a substantial stipend from my grandparents
I arrived in The Hague at the beginning of November, shortly after my birthday, and felt intimated and more than slightly nervous at the challenge ahead. The first task and main priority was finding an apartment to rent so that I could have a place of residence, which would allow me to apply for a citizen service number (or a ‘BSN’, a burgerservicenummer in Dutch*) at the local municipality, which is a legal requirement for any employment contract and necessary to open a bank account at any major bank.
*which has nothing to do with burgers as I found out, much to my dismay
I went about scouring through all of the housing websites and rental agencies in the Hague, paying various subscription fees for what turned out to be useless sites, and responding to every ad that looked semi-acceptable. Invariably it turned out that the apartment in question was already rented*, or wasn’t suitable for two people, or some other issue. I won’t lie to you, every negative response that I got dampened my spirit and resolve, just slightly, and I began to doubt whether I’d be able to find somewhere in a country with an apparent housing problem. But I was determined. I was bruised but not broken.
*I don’t think it’s racist to say that the Dutch, from my experience, are terrible at administration. And terrible people. (I’m 100% kidding about the last part)
As with everything in life, the difficult thing about finding a place to rent (or buy), is finding a balance. In this case, it is about finding the balance between not being too picky so that you never find anything, but also not being so relaxed with your criteria that you’re willing to accept anything*. You have to firmly establish what your main criteria are, i.e. your priorities, and determine what your absolute limits are for those criteria. As with most people searching for an abode (not to be confused with Adobe, purveyors of such products as Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash Player), our three main concerns were, as the saying goes, location, location, location**! And after what seemed like a lifetime of rejection, disappointment, and anxious perspiration (much like my love-life, incidentally), but was in actual fact only two weeks, we finally managed to find a place, signing the contract the day after viewing the apartment.
*this also applies to things like jobs, clothes, and partners (just kidding, darling!)!
**but mainly rental cost. And furnishing. And the local schools. And insulation.
This came as a huge relief to me, and was the first of the two big hurdles that I felt that I needed to overcome in order to feel like less of a transient in this strange new city. Prior to signing the contract for our new apartment, I felt somewhat out of place and mildly unwelcome, feelings of course that were purely imagined, but I didn’t feel properly settled, and lacked a real sense of belonging. I didn’t have a place that I could call home, which gave me a feeling of constant underlying anxiety, probably largely because of the importance of having a legal address in order to access a lot of services and actually integrate into the country. But now that I’d achieved this, I felt as though a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. It may not sound like a big deal, but increasingly as time had gone on, and we had failed to find places that were both affordable and in a reasonable commuting distance from my partner’s university, I had begun to worry that we would have to settle for an apartment that we actually didn’t like, and that wouldn’t feel like a place that we would want to come home to. As it turned out, this fear was unfounded, but I think that the competitive and high-paced nature of the rental and housing markets for first-time renters/buyers can make you feel nervous, and places certain pressures on you to lower your standards or be more flexible with your limits than you might previously have planned on, and be more willing to settle and accept a place that you might not necessarily be happy with, simply because it’s a place to live at least.
Since the first day that I’d moved to the Hague with the intention of staying there long-term, I’d been spending my days in my partner’s apartment looking for a place for both of us to live. Since she was technically a full-time student with lectures, assignments, and what some would call “responsibilities”, whatever that means, she spent most of her days at university in the library. This meant that I was left to my own devices, and without any friends in this new city, largely alone. I of course knew that this would be the case prior to moving, but it was difficult nonetheless. I was reluctant to spend my days in cafes because I was on a budget and didn’t feel that I could justify spending at least €5 a day on coffee, or what I call ‘cafe rent’*, so for the first couple of weeks I spent most of my waking hours inside (although I did join a gym, which typically took up a couple of hours of my day in the evening).
*I have always felt an obligation to buy a coffee every hour-two hours that I spend in a cafe, depending on how busy it is, because I don’t want to feel like I’m freeloading on the establishment’s seating and wifi, so I see buying a coffee as essentially paying rent for my time there
Spending so much time inside you can develop cabin fever, and go a little bit stir-crazy. Because of this I found myself constantly looking for tasks to do around the apartment, such as cleaning the dishes, doing the laundry, making the bed, rearranging the furniture (to the occasional annoyance of my partner), taking the bins out, and going food shopping. I developed a routine that quite quickly became monotonous, and I quickly realised what I had become: a househusband (we’re not married, but “houseboyfriend” doesn’t quite work as well, and is also not a recognised term). What I was feeling was was an absence of meaning and a desperation to find activities to fill the seemingly endless hours of the day, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel slightly emasculated over this period. Not because my partner was out working in a job and bringing home the dough*, but because she was doing something with her life, and had a reason to wake up in the morning. Yes, I was doing something, I was looking for places for us both to live, and booking viewings etc, but this didn’t feel like work to me, I didn’t feel productive, I felt stagnant. I also felt embarrassed. I felt embarrassed on behalf of my partner, because I didn’t want her friends and family to look at me as someone lazy and undeserving of her. I knew that in reality my situation was understandable. I hadn’t moved to the Netherlands with a guaranteed job, and I actually couldn’t get a job until I signed for a place to live with my name on the contract, therefore my priority had to be finding a place to live, but I still felt like a scrub – the kind that TLC sung about. I just wanted to show that I was willing to work and to feel productive again. So, once I’d found a place for us to live, I immediately moved onto the next task: finding a job.
*although she has recently started an internship alongside her studies. Proud of you!
Although I’d been accepted onto a master’s degree at Leiden University, beginning the following February, which would give me some structure in my life, and a raison d’etre, my preference was to find a job and begin earning in order to become self-sufficient, something that I’d never been before. My entire life I’d been supported be either my family, the government, or both, and I didn’t take pride in that. I’d had jobs in the past, but nothing that was enough to pay for my own rent and cost of living, and I wanted to change that, earn my living, and become independent.
I realised that it would be difficult to get a job in a market in which most positions required Dutch, even in bilingual work environments, and, although I would be content for the time being working a casual job at a cafe*, or something similar, I ideally wanted something that was graduate-level, in which I could put my skills to use and actually get on the career ladder. I was more than willing to apply for internships, which are usually a good way of getting your foot in the door of whatever industry you want to get into, even though there’s something in Dutch law that allows employers to pay their interns far less than actual employees, usually at a wage of between €150 and €400 a month for full-time work (or €0 in the case of UN internships!). In order for employers to pay their interns this amount of money, however, the law stipulates that the interns must be full-time students for the entire duration of the internship, which I would not be. Anyway, I decided to do my best and apply for any jobs that were in a reasonable commuting distance and looked reasonably interesting and challenging. Ultimately I just wanted something that was worth my time and that would give me an income.
*I actually completed a one-day barista course in September, but I’m pretty sure I’m missing the gene that gives you the ability to make leaves and/or hearts in the foam at the top of your flat white, because each of my attempts ended up looking like a speech bubble drawn by a five-year-old on Xanax
Anyway, fast forward and my status today is that I have recently accepted a job as a teaching assistant at a local international school, having never taught in my life. I can’t remember how I found the job, but I remember seeing it and, despite it being the final day for applications and the job specification requiring teaching experience, having always thought that teaching and working with children would be valuable and meaningful work and having nothing to lose, decided to apply for it. I wrote a quick cover letter and sent it off without any real expectations. A week later I received an unexpected email from the headmaster of the school inviting me to an initial interview, which I gladly accepted. I turned up to the school on the day, had the interview, and was then given a tour of the school by two of the students, which I suspect was part of the vetting process. The next morning I received an email from the headmaster, offering me the position. I begin work on the seventh of January, and am contracted until mid-July. I plan to defer my degree until September, and hope to gain some work experience related to my degree over the summer, after taking a holiday with my partner, preferably somewhere warm.
Moving to a new city, let alone a new country, is difficult, especially moving without any real plan or guarantees, but I couldn’t be happier that I did it. I’m happy because living in a new country is an experience that I will never regret, and I’m happy because I’m proud of myself for making it work, and for taking a risk and putting in the effort to make it pay-off. I’m also happy that I get to share this experience with my partner, and that we’re also having our own individual experiences. Long-distance isn’t the end of a relationship, but it certainly makes it more difficult and less enjoyable, and I think it does change things in a way that isn’t always reparable. I think we would have made it through the distance, but I think things worked out almost as well as they could have. I’ve always wanted to live abroad, and now I’m doing it, and I plan to make the most of it, with the person that I love the most in this world. I’ve got a place to live, I’ve got a job, so the big two are out of the way. I’ve also got a big red bike (from Swapfiets, an affordable bike subscription/rental service), and am currently waiting on my Dutch bank card, I then plan on getting a Dutch mobile number. I also plan on learning Dutch to a conversational level at least. I’ll probably do a self-taught course after work and on the weekends for a couple of hours a week. I really want to integrate as well as possible into Dutch society, and don’t want to rest on my British privilege of everyone speaking my native language. I’m looking forward to the challenge, to the next couple of years, and to whatever lies beyond that.