Australians Living in the Netherlands

It’s a stormy morning in the leafy village of Santpoort-Noord, which sits in the dunes just north of Haarlem. The wind is gathering strength; within a couple of hours, several trees in the neighbourhood will crash to the ground. But inside, it’s gezellig. Two 30-something mothers, Amilia Hulsebos-Beattie from Armidale (NSW), and Naomi Tiemens-Roosa from Adelaide, are chatting while their toddlers play.

Both women believed for years that they were the only Aussie in the village. Last year they finally found each other, almost too late. Just when she was beginning to think it would never happen, the time has come for Amilia to pack up her family and take them home to Australia.

I meet them at this crossroads in their lives, to find out what it’s like to finally leave for home, and to be the one staying behind. The stories of how they got here in the first place are remarkably similar.

“Jan and I met back in the prehistoric times when there was no e-mail,” laughs Amilia. “I was 19, and working my first job with a travel company in Sydney. He was in his final year as trainee ship’s officer, and we were all allowed to hop on board for a few days when the ship came down to Australia.”

“We exchanged addresses,” she continues, “and wrote letters and sent postcards, and after two years I thought ‘I’d like to go and visit that Dutch boy’. There’s no way I’d do that now! You’re just so brave when you’re young!”

After two weeks in Holland, and six weeks in Australia, Amilia and Jan were ready to commit. “I came over to the Netherlands on a one-way ticket,” says Amilia, “and ended up staying for four years.”

Amilia didn’t arrive in the best of circumstances. “When I first moved out here, I didn’t know what had hit me. I moved in the winter, which is never a good idea! And not having work, it was a terrible beginning. So that coloured my view of Holland quite a bit in those first few years.”

The couple then moved together to Australia, but after two jobless years, Jan was advised “to go back to the Netherlands, work his way up a bit more, wait till he was a captain, then come back.” And that’s exactly what they did. “So there was a master plan back then,” says Amilia, “but we just didn’t really put a timeframe on it.”

That was 2004. Since then, Amilia and Jan have lived and worked in Haarlem, acquired a dog, bought a house in Santpoort-Noord, and had two children, Archie and Matilda. Amilia speaks Dutch fluently, and with her blonde hair and children at both ends of the bicycle, she could easily pass as a real Dutchie.

In fact, in some ways she is. Amilia has spent almost all of her adult life living in the Netherlands. “When I go back on holiday to Australia,” she explains, “I usually feel more Dutch. It’s funny isn’t it, you feel Dutch over there, a bit foreign, even with stupid things like not knowing the latest slang.”

But underneath the surface, there’s something wrong. “There’s just always been that sadness,” she says, “that I would miss out on so much of my family’s life. I come from a very close family. Even when I’m completely happy, I always miss my sisters, and my mum and dad.”

In the end, Jan did make it to captain status, and was offered a job two years ago, steering boats into the Great Barrier Reef. It was the answer to all their prayers – but suddenly it didn’t feel so simple any more. “I always thought ‘it’s easy, no-brainer, go back, no problem’,” says Amilia, “but when faced with it, we’ve taken two years to make the decision. We have a good life here, and great friends, and feel really settled, so it’s been a lot harder than I ever thought it would be.  If this particular job had not come up, then we probably would have ended up staying.”

Naomi has been listening to Amilia’s story intently. The two of them have lived their lives in parallel without ever knowing it, starting with the year that they both moved here first. “In 1997 I did the exchange year here,” says Naomi, “and one of my host families was Arthur’s parents. I was 18, so I’ve known Arthur almost half of my life.”

Arthur and Naomi spent the next few years writing to each other as Naomi completed her studies. She returned to work in Haarlem for a year in 2002, when “I was thinking I really should get to know this guy that’s lots of fun on holidays”. While she completed her clinical psychology training in Australia, Arthur “flew back and forth”, and in 2004, her studies wrapped up, she moved to the Netherlands for good.

“That’s when we moved back here too!” says Amilia in disbelief.

“I could have known you all that time!” says Naomi in despair. They exchange old addresses and realise how close they had lived to each other. “We could have been mates!”

In 2005 Naomi and Arthur moved to Santpoort-Noord, and had three children, Anna, Maya and Liam. Just three years later Amilia would follow suit, but still they knew nothing of each other.

“The first time I heard of a possible Australian here in the village,” says Amilia, “was when my parents were over visiting, and my mum was at the Dekamarkt, and the lady behind the checkout said Oh, are you Naomi’s mother?” My mum came home and said ‘Oh, apparently there’s another Australian in Santpoort-Noord!’, and I said I had no idea, I thought I was the only Australian!”

It wasn’t until much later – just a year ago in fact – that the two finally met. A friend of Naomi’s heard Amilia’s accent, and marched her straight around to meet Naomi. “I was like finally,” says Amilia, “this is the other Australian!”

“And then you move away again!” says Naomi, in anguish. I’m beginning to feel guilty for bringing it up.

One thing that makes Naomi’s story different is her strong Dutch roots. “My grandparents on both sides are Dutch,” she explains. “They moved out to Australia after the war, and met through the Dutch community. My mum and dad have known each other since they were babies.”

That makes Naomi genetically Dutch, but the rest had to be learned – she studied the language, for example, in her exchange year. It’s easy to imagine that her Dutch blood would somehow make it easier for her to settle, but Naomi isn’t so sure. “I don’t think so, she says. “Not more than anyone else.”

Is the option of heading back to Australia still on the table for Naomi? “Yes,” she says firmly. “Yes. It makes it more difficult now with kids, and I think the older they get, the more difficult it will be to go back. I think I’d get a job there: it would be easy, but we’re just not sure how easily Arthur might get a job. He’s got a really good job here, and what we’ve got is good. We haven’t done a stint in Australia, the two of us, for a long time, so it’s a bit hard to picture. I think most likely we’d both adapt pretty easily, but it’s just the unknown.”

For Naomi, too, the thing she misses most is her family. “My brother’s just married,” she says, “and if they have kids I’m going to miss that. We have a great relationship and we’re great mates, but he’s not one to call. I think if we were there, Joel and I would meet at the pub and have a drink together, and that would be how we’d keep in touch.”

Phone calls are, of course, not so simple. Amilia tells of endless frustration, trying to schedule phone calls with her sisters who also have children. Because of the ten-hour difference, and school runs and bed-times, “it just does not work”.

“That’s a very small example”, she says, “of something that when I’m there, when the kids are in bed I can just ring my sister, or my mum, because I don’t have to worry about that any more.”

Amilia is looking forward to having much more space to roam in Australia, and more sunshine to do it in. “Because of the climate we’ll spend most of the time outdoors. For me that’s a huge difference. Here the winter is very long and I do feel quite claustrophobic, because when you have kids you spend four to six months pretty much indoors, with the walls closing in on you.”

Amilia and Jan will be taking their bicycles with them, but they’re conscious that the country roads of Armidale won’t share Holland’s famous cycling culture. “You’ve got to be a bit careful with it,” says Amilia. “And I certainly will not use the bike to get the shopping, I can assure you of that! I love cycling, but more as a fun thing to do. Not if I have to drag kilos of stuff on the bike – that bit I can live without. I’m not a die-hard Dutchie.”

Amazingly, despite all the challenges of a move across the world, Amilia has refused to write a single list. “It’s all in here,” she says, pointing to her head. “Otherwise I’d panic more. I could make a whole Excel planner of what needs to be done, and where and how, but it would actually make me more stressed. So I’m actually just doing it day by day, step by step.”

I turn to Naomi, and begin to ask if the fact that Amilia is doing it makes her – she interrupts me. “YES!” she blurts out. “I’m listening to your story,” she says to Amilia almost tearfully, “thinking ‘Yes, that’s true…’.”

“What we’ve found all these years,” advises Amilia, “is just saying that it’s on the table, and keeping it as an option, somehow gives you peace of mind, even if you know deep down that you’re never going to do it.”

But Amilia really is doing it. And ironically, she knows that even when she’s home, she’ll still feel foreign. “That feeling will always be there I think. I know even being back in Australia after X number of years I will still not feel completely 100% Australian. Because we’ve had this experience, and it’s been for such a substantial period of time, you can’t wipe that out, and you develop in a different way because of living in a foreign environment. And that will always be there, and I’m glad about that, I wouldn’t want to lose that.”

Amilia moves just after Christmas, and has one last, but very important request. “If any Dutch people living in or around Armidale read Holland Focus, please feel free to get in touch.”

Catrìona Black, Holland Focus, Jan-Feb 2014