There are two questions I get asked every single time I’m talking to someone here in the Netherlands and tell them I’m from Canada… Do you find it very different here compared to where you come from? Which do you like better?
Honestly! Every. Single. Time.
After a while I get sort of tired of answering it, because HELLO! Yes it’s different! I went from one of the biggest, most spacious, sparsely populated countries on the planet to one of the smallest, most cramped and densely populated ones. What do you think, genius?!
In the past I’ve shown a comparison of the different cities I’ve lived in, compared the difference in the level of insanity of Christmas shopping here and in Canada, and how much more Dutch kids can do with snow than we have ever managed or bothered to.
I don’t think I’ve ever done an honest to goodness comparison of my hometown to my current city though. A visual representation of just how massively different my life is now compared to what it was for the other 2/3 of my life. Maybe I have, this blog has been on the go for over 6 years and I can’t be bothered to search the archives, but I know I’ve never done the Google maps version. So here you have it!
Let’s see if you can see the difference.
First we’ll have a look at the shopping experience in my hometown compared to here in the city of Rotterdam.
This is the main street in my hometown of North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Nice wide roads, ample parking, lots of space and very few people. There is not really much public transit to speak of, except perhaps the odd bus, so you either have to walk or drive to get there. There is not a lot of variety in regards to shopping, so most people from North Sydney will go to Sydney (25 mins drive) for their real shopping needs. When I lived there I rarely ever visited this downtown area unless I wanted to rent a movie or visit my father at his barber shop. I had no other reason to really…
Uh, except for that summer I spent working at the new Subway. Longest summer of my life.
Now, downtown Rotterdam…
These are photos of your typical downtown shopping experience in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. It’s pretty much the polar opposite of North Sydney. People, LOTS and LOTS of people.
There are some wide streets and very narrow streets, but sometimes none at all. The majority of the city center is not open to vehicles, which can be a blessing and a curse depending on how you prefer to get there. It is easily accessible by bus, tram, metro, train, and bicycle so if you prefer to get there by those modes of transportation, you’d probably love the fact that you can walk along the shopping streets without constantly watching out for cars.
On the other hand, if you prefer to travel by car, going to the city center may be the bane of your existence in the Rotterdam. There are many parking garages but they are not cheap and parking on the street can be hit or miss, literally! You have to be very careful when opening car doors as you are likely to have your door blown off by a passing vehicle or knock someone off their bicycle. That is, if you can find a spot on the street at all and if you do, you’ll probably pay more for that than if you had gone to a parking garage anyway.
One very good thing about the city center in Rotterdam is that the shopping is fantastic. There aren’t many things you will need that you won’t be able to find here. There are everything from small personal shops to large electronics stores, department stores and even a huge bookstore with an entire section of English books. Not to mention a wide range of restaurants, clubs and theaters.
Some down sides are that everyone knows the shopping is great here and the city has a lot of people, so any given day is 10x more busy than at the busiest point during Christmas in my hometown. Also, the shops are only open one evening a week, on Friday. The rest of the time they close at normal business closing times. They do make up for this by being open every Sunday though!
While the downtown area of North Sydney is usually hurting quite badly, you could always go up to the Northside Mall and try your luck.
Plus sides? A massive (and FREE, OMG!) parking lot, spacious shops and general mall area, the ability to shop without feeling like you are in a stampede, and air conditioning. Sweet, blessed air conditioning!
Down sides are that it’s only accessible by foot or by car and personally, I’ve never had a lot of luck there in regards to shopping. There are very few shops in the mall that seem to survive and there is a lot of turnover. Again, not a lot of variety which usually lead to me going to another mall in another town instead.
On my last visit home there was only one store in the entire mall that made it worth the visit, an adorable shop full of home deco called Granny’s Country Cottage. I would link to their website, but apparently they don’t have one. All I know is that I have no idea how I’m going to visit that shop again with my measly one suitcase limit from Air Canada. I could spend a FORTUNE in that shop! Besides Granny’s, there is a large supermarket chain (Sobey’s), a dollar store (or at least there was last time I was there), a department store (Zellers) and well, other than that I have no freaking idea. I just remember walking through the mall and feeling like I was in a ghost town.
Perhaps that had more to do with me having adjusted to the insanity of the malls in Rotterdam than the malls back home really being empty though.
Speaking of malls in Rotterdam…
There are a few, but this is the closest shopping mall to where I live. Zuidplein Winkelcentrum is about a 5 minute drive from my house, if that. Again, like the city center, it will meet most if not all of your shopping needs with a decent sized supermarket, department stores, restaurants and pretty much everything else you’d be looking for. From the outside you’d probably hardly recognize it as a mall but from the inside there is quite a lot to be found.
When I first moved here I lived in another area not too far from Zuidplein and I couldn’t stand visiting this mall. It was always very dark, dated, warm and crowded. I would go there only if I absolutely had to. Thankfully they’ve put a lot of work into it over the years, raising the ceilings and trying to give it a bit more of a spacious and airy feeling.
One major plus point besides the variety is it’s accessibility. There is a metro station inside the mall, as well as a bus terminal below it.
Like the city center, major down side is the CROWDS and parking situation. There is a paid indoor and street parking and it doesn’t matter if you visit the malls here at 9:30 am on a Tuesday morning, you’ll spend your entire time dodging and weaving people, ignoring their screaming children and waiting in line at the registers.
Another down side is the lack of air conditioning. Perhaps they have it in the malls here, but if they do, they aren’t using it. When you walk into shopping centers in the dead heat of summer, it’s like walking into someone else’s mouth. It’s warm, humid, stuffy and it smells like… people. People who have never walked into any of the pharmacies and bought themselves a stick of deodorant. There are exceptions to this rule, some shops have air conditioning, but they are few and far between and when you do find them you dread the thought of stepping out of them and into the mall again.
This is what it looks like to drive along the waterfront of North Sydney.
This is what it looks like to drive along the waterfront in Rotterdam.
I don’t think it really requires a lot of explanation. Like everything else there are pros and cons for both. The waterfront in my hometown is beautiful, peaceful and whenever I am there it warms the cockles of my heart.
The waterfront in Rotterdam is bustling, there are boats coming and going at all times, there are a lot of cars, tourists, people on bicycles, people walking, sounds, buildings, things to do and… well, just a lot of all kinds of everything at once.
Sometimes when I’m here in Rotterdam I long to be able to go down and sit at a park by the water in my hometown… but when I was a teenager I sat there dreaming about how I’d one day get out of there and see the world. Life can be funny like that.
This is the highway I drove a thousand times over the years. I have driven it to collge, to work, to movies, to the beach, out with friends and to visit boyfriends. My father taught me how to drive on this highway. I was pulled over for speeding on this highway. I spun out and nearly killed myself one winter on this highway.
I have driven alone with the windows down, the wind in my hair and my heart full while singing on this highway.
I felt free on this highway…. but this highway has only ever taken me to the same places I’ve been a million times before.
This is part of the highway here in Rotterdam.
Big, busy, confusing, fast… I have driven on this highway, but not in 10 years. I can’t drive on this highway because my Canadian drivers license couldn’t be transferred to the Netherlands. In order for me to drive here we need to spend hundreds, possibly a thousand euro on driving lessons and tests. So I am now just a passenger.
I have never been alone on this highway. I sit in the passenger seat while friends drive on this highway. I look out the window while Xander drives me places on this highway.
I never have my windows down and rarely sing on this highway.
I feel trapped, insecure, and depressed on this highway… but this highway has taken me to places I never imagined I’d ever see.
This photo did not come from Google maps, because North Sydney is so small and apparently (according to Google) insignificant that they never bothered to do street view for anything other than the main streets. I took this photo in 2007 from the back steps of my parents’ house. It’s the view from the first home I’ve ever known.
I played in that grass, I learned to ride my bicycle on that street, I played with my friends and trick or treated at those houses. I took photos here before my high school prom. I would pull into that driveway after work, an evening with my boyfriend, a night out at the clubs with my girlfriends or a day at the beach.
This is the only home I’d known for the first 21 years of my life.
This was the first home I’ve ever known in the Netherlands.
I spent a lot of time between those walls. I felt lost and confused, I was depressed, I missed my family and miss the green spaces of home. I didn’t understand anything going on around me and I knew only one person in the entire country. There were no girlfriends, there was no family, no days at the beach.
My world was turned upside down and inside out. It was a puzzle that I just couldn’t seem to solve.
I left that house a year later to move into our current home. Now, after 11 years of ups and downs, I do understand what is going on around me, there are girlfriends, there’s family and there are days at the beach.
Sometimes my life still feels like a puzzle, but I’ve found most of the pieces already. I know that one day I will see the full picture again.
So, do I find it different here in Rotterdam after growing up in Canada? Of course I do.
Which do I like better? Neither.
I love my hometown for it’s beauty, simplicity and space. For the kindness and the welcoming nature of the people and because it’s where I grew up. It’s where my family is. It’s where I can be with my people, my language and my culture. I will always love North Sydney and Cape Breton Island because they hold 21 years worth of memories that I could never have had anywhere else.
I love The Netherlands because it’s forced me to break out of my bubble and see the world through different eyes. To learn another language and culture, to see more of the world and visit countries I never even dreamed I’d see in my lifetime. I love it because it’s given me 11 years of new experiences, memories, family and friends. Most of all, the chance to grow and broaden my horizons.
They are both my home, but also not… Like many others, I am floating in an uncomfortable Expat Limbo where I have two homes, but no real home at all.
When I go to Canada, North Sydney is as foreign to me now as the Netherlands. So much has changed, *I* have changed. I am still Canadian, but I am also Dutch. I am no longer that small town girl, but I am not truly a city girl either.
So please, next time you meet an expat or someone who is new to your city or country, ask them what they like to do in their spare time, ask about their hobbies, their famlies, if they’ve seen a good movie lately or if they have any holiday plans for the summer… because if you ask us to compare where we’ve come from to where we are, we will never be able to give you a straight answer, because we often simply don’t know ourselves.