Expat Voices: South African man finds a Dutch base camp

Expat Voices: South African man finds a Dutch base camp

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South African John Haigh's urge to travel has brought him all over the world. We find out why he has chosen to base himself in the Lowlands.

Name: John Haigh
Nationality: South African
City of residence:: Zandvoort
Date of birth: 22 January 1974
Civil status: living together
Employer: Chabrol Wines
Position: Assistant-manager
In Amsterdam since: 2003


I left South Africa in 1996 because I wanted to travel. I first went to England, and then on to Scotland where I met my girlfriend.

We travelled after that to Australia, Indonesia, Egypt, Spain, France and Portugal. South Africa is not a convenient staging post for frequent travel, so I chose London.

In between trips, I worked in London in the bar and restaurant industry; generally working for six months and travelling for the next six. At a certain point I was fed up with London because it is such a big city. We had already visited Amsterdam and it appeared to be just the right place to live outside England.

Big town

Amsterdam is a big town; much quieter and smaller than London but it has everything a big city should have.  Another advantage is that Amsterdam is very central and a good base of operations from which to travel. And last but not least, everyone here speaks English.

Ultimately we went to live in Zandvoort because it is nearer to the sea and is very peaceful. I work for a wine business in Amsterdam, near to Central Station.

I followed a "Wine and spirits Educational Trust" training course in London and within four months I got this job. I was happy not to have to work anymore in the bar sector.

The scenery in Amsterdam is so pretty; it's so picturesque - a modern city situated in the past. The first time we came to Amsterdam was in autumn and we thought all the colours were beautiful. Three years on, I still think Amsterdam is best in that season.

I come from Cape Town, a city that is very built up. Nobody lives in the centre like here. The population lives in the suburbs and at 5/6 o'clock everybody leaves the city by car. The houses are much bigger then here and they are all detached and with a garden. You only have lines of apartments in the poorer districts.

What strikes me about Amsterdam is the enormous number of bicycles. Not the mountain bikes I am used to, but the old-fashioned "oma-fietsen" from circa 1920. Very funny.

Fashion senseless

I don't like the fashion here. All the brands are available but the way the people wear their clothes is funny. It's like they have no colour coordination. Of course the weather has a big influence on fashion.

People in South Africa wear more dresses - the ladies, that is -  and sporty clothes, for example. They are also much more informally dressed in their leisure time. Holland is getting more fashion-orientated but that is not necessarily a good thing! It's like they try too hard… it's not relaxed.

What I appreciate about the Dutch is that they stand up for themselves. If a car is blocking the way on a bicycle path, the cyclist will say something to the driver. If somebody puts his feet on a seat in the train, another passenger will tell him not to.

Also, an older person will say something to a young person who is doing something which isn't right. It's so nice to see that.

In England people are terrified of the kids, teenagers in particular, so they keep their mouths shut. You must be careful in South Africa because you can get shot if it's the wrong person. Cape Town is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I actually haven't seen any violence here, not even in the Red Light District. It's funny, so much drugs and no violence.

The police here are extremely strict - everything is done by the book. If somebody sleeps on the street, he will be moved on. If somebody is speeding, he's fined. In other countries the police would just leave these people alone.

The Dutch people are quite similar to South Africans - it's difficult to make friends. You must be a friend of a friend and then you may be accepted. If you just approach somebody they say something like: "Get lost, tourist."  So if you go out, you will meet tourists.

Pub talk

In London, it's different. Many pubs have long tables and within 5 minutes you are talking and drinking with the people the whole night. In summertime the bars here are okay because they have the terraces outside, that’s very Dutch and very nice. The typical Dutch bar is a bit old fashioned with the wooden tables and seats - but in a good sense.

The restaurants are very good: they have everything and they don't rush. Okay, it's a bit slow but you can spend a whole night there.

What I miss most here are the outdoor sports, like tracking in the mountains, mountain biking, swimming and surfing. I also miss outdoor activities like camping and seeing wildlife. It's due to the weather and to the landscape, of course - everything is so flat.

It seems to me that the clouds are lower here; in South Africa the sky is more open. When the sun shines, everyone takes time off and goes to the sun. They are sitting in the parks, drink rose wine and get a nice sun tan. Everyone looks happy.

In South Africa this doesn't happen because the weather is always nice. You have to be careful in the sun even between 1 and 3pm and protect yourself.

The language hasn't been a real problem for me because it's similar to Afrikaans. Friends from South Africa who come over to visit me can have conversations immediately. It’s not a very beautiful language because of the hard sound - but German is even worse.

I feel I need to speak Dutch to be accepted here. It's nice that all the Dutch speak English but when you want to learn Dutch it can be very annoying when everyone talks back to you in English!

One very positive aspect of the life in Holland is that it's very accommodating towards foreigners. If you play by the rules, you get a lot of things back. It was easy to open a bank account for example, in contrast with England.

Also buying a house is simple -  they don't even ask for a deposit like they do in most other countries.

Perhaps we will buy a house here but that's long-term planning. We are a bit more settled now but we are still travelling for 5/6 weeks a year and we will carry on doing that.

We got caught by the travel bug!

October 2005

John Haigh told his story to Nicole van Schaijik, who owns and operates Talent Taaltrainingen (Dutch Language Courses), based in Amsterdam. (Tel: 020 420 66 59 or email: info@talent-tn.nl).

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