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Expat Limbo – Google Maps Style

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.

About Tammy

A Canadian living in France with her Dutch hubby after 17 years in the Netherlands. A total TV and movie junkie who is never not knitting. She also enjoys other crafts, nail art, cuddling her dogs and general geekery. Otherwise just working on getting by and making a life for herself in her ‘new’ country.

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  1. Well, as an expat myself I can TOTALLY relate to that, except that when people here (UK) hear that I come from France they don’t ask me what’s different and which I like better: they go straight for the kill with: “what are you still doing here?”
    It’s not easy explaining to people who think living in France is the greatest thing that you actually prefer living in their country than yours (and actually don’t even want to go back to live there fulltime… ever!)

    ps. very nice pics of your hometown BTW!
    Leo´s last post ..Google Maps API- simple map with own coulours- InfoWindow with logo- bouncing marker and custom dropdown navigation

  2. As a planner, I have to be a nerd and point out, in reference to the “ample and free parking” at the big box mall, that parking is _never_ free – in the case of malls with surface parking, the cost is just bundled with the rent the retailers pay who then put it in their prices. So everyone pays for the parking, even if they didn’t use it. User-pay parking is more fair and encourages people to take other, more sustainable forms of transport because they see the cost of parking directly rather than having it hidden in the cost of merchandise. (http://www.emagazine.com/view/?2418)

    Sorry, I’ll stop being a nerd now and say – I grew up in NS too (Dartmouth)! =)

    When I lived in the US for a few years people would ask all the time how similar/different the US/Canada were. That was a tricky on because they seem so similar but are so different in subtle but important ways – it was hard to explain to people. It took me 4 years, but I found a short way to sum it up:
    Canada: peace, order, good government = us-oriented
    USA: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness = me-oriented

  3. Along with the “Do you like it here?” question, I always get asked about my Dutch. It does get worse – – – When we bought our house and I met the neighbour for the first time, we were still shaking hands when he asked how much we paid for the place….

    No only is the landscape different, so is the directness.

    I swear that I could drive the road from Halifax to Antigonish with my eyes closed but after 20 years in NL I still read the signs when I drive to Amsterdam. Why is that, I wonder?

    Anne´s last post ..Open Monumentendags aka Heritage Days

  4. This was a nice post to read. It’s only made me realize that I’m a lucky bastard for my future move being into a dorp instead of a big city, but then again, my experience is a lot different to yours.

    I can understand now a little better how different your life became. And I can see how you can’t choose either. I always say I have my heart split between two worlds, because while I do love my country and I will miss my family, I’m more than ready to start my new life to NL.

    Whenever I heard questions like that, I always answered happily that it was different! I would just try to explain my country a little… But I think I would have found it harder to explain if it was Canada vs NL. :P

  5. Hi Breigh,

    I decided to leave a comment here since I couldn’t find any contact information.

    I’m Andrew Dunkle and I currently serve as the senior editor of GoOverseas.com. We are contacting you with regard to your blog, which the editorial staff at GO! Overseas has selected as one of the top travel related blogs in the Netherlands. As recognition of your outstanding writing skills we are delighted to include your blog in a select list of websites representing the Netherlands. We select only the most exceptional blogs that meet our exacting standards and we hope you feel a sense of pride that you have been recognized for your efforts. You may view this list on our website here:


    You are welcome to display one of the image badges we have created specifically for blogs we feature in the Netherlands. This is an easy way to let your readers know that you have been recognized as an outstanding blogger. You may contact us to receive an image badge via email.

    Thank you for all the high quality content you have contributed to the global online community. We look forward to continuing to follow your experiences abroad in the Netherlands. If you have questions about GO! Overseas please don’t hesitate to contact us.

    Warm regards,
    Andrew Dunkle

  6. Wow, again well said!!! I come from smalltown Alberta and now live in smalltown Friesland…still a lot of differences though!! I really miss having ‘things’ in common with people- and a lof of people seem to know me–while I have no clue who they are… I miss the ‘remember whens’ with friends…
    I LOVE your blogs!! Thanks

  7. One day I’ll get to Nova Scotia! At least I’m getting *closer* — I went to Maine last weekend. I was just a ferry ride away, except someone told me that ferry from Portland to NS has been discontinued :(
    Gail at Large´s last post ..The Weekend On Film- Portland- Maine

  8. Your last paragraph is indeed perfect. This post inspired me and maybe in the future I do a similar one (linking to yours of course). I feel completely uncomfortable about driving in Dutch highways, I feel exactly like you said: “trapped and confused”. ANXIOUS. Although there are lots of boards, you must guess the Dutch logic behind it (clogic).
    Anita´s last post ..Sad but True

  9. LOVE the pictures of Rotterdam. And having been to North Sydney, it was neat to see it on your blog.

  10. “what do you think, genius?” haha Very funny! Really, sometimes you wonder… are these people kidding or are they honestly asking this question! And seriously, “which do you like best?!” Alstublieft…. hehe

  11. I get the same question(s) I live in Canada but born Dutch.
    I really don’t mind those questions, I explain it and mostly have a nice chat after that with whoever asked me the question.

    Just see it as that they want to talk and say/ask something nice.

    I do hate the comments about free drugs and coffee shops in the Netherlands though ;-)
    Astrid´s last post ..Theedoek

    • SOMETIMES when I’m really in the mood to talk about home, and get the feeling that the people I’m talking to are open to hearing the things I like better about Canada (which some will often take as a snub on the Netherlands), I can get into it. I spent years comparing though and it did me no good in regards to integrating and accepting my new world, so the less comparing I do nowadays the better.

      I don’t blame you for getting upset when people go on about that stuff here in NL. I’m irritated by it too and it’s not even my home country! Don’t even get me started on Bill O’Reilly!

  12. Yep. I’d say that a big difference. I’m amazed that people still ask you ‘if’ it is different. Come on. I’ve never been to Canada but I could already take a wild guess that the answer is yes.
    Invader_Stu´s last post ..Cologne- A City Built on Darwinism

  13. It’s a good way to show the contrast, for sure!

    I have the reverse shock, since I grew up in the center of a city and walked everywhere. In Ottawa, I live in a very close suburb but I can’t exactly walk to downtown :lol:
    Zhu´s last post ..Are French Rude

  14. Barbara Stoutjesdijk-Lyddane

    Do you want to get your drivers’ license? you might qualify for the BNOR, which is what I did. But I confess, I invested in some drivers’ lessons because I found it so intimidating on the road.

    My parents sold our family and moved very far away, so when I visit back “home” – I have no nostalgic memories, hell, I don’t even know anyone there aside from family so I don’t feel that straddle. Except in an American grocery store where I struggle to find anything not processed and loaded with sugar – I get completely overwhelmed and feel like an alien.

    • Barbara, that must suck. My parents are still in the same house they were in when I was 5 years old, so it’s definitely familiar territory.

      What is BNOR?

  15. Wonderful post! Google Maps is great, isn’t it.

  16. Thanks for this Tammy. I needed to hear it and how it affects others, esp after my last visit home this summer. I just don’t seem to fit in there anymore…but here I’m not so sure about either. Expat Limbo…I’m going to snag your phrase and hope to find the middle ground.

    • I know Tera, we all feel the same to some degree. It’s hard when I go home too because I can’t just slip back into that small town state of mind. I don’t remember half the people they are all talking about and I don’t particularly care about the other half. I feel like a fish out of water.

  17. Loved this post and photos! and I agree with you..I too get tired of that question.
    Sonya´s last post ..Missing Home

    • I think all expats do. There’s no good way to answer, either they are both the same or one is better than the other and it’s not like the Dutch love hearing how much more we like our home country! :P

  18. Amen sista! I too am so sick of that question!
    It was nice seeing where you come from though!
    Candee´s last post ..The Veluwe

  19. “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.”

    So true. I don’t get that question very much anymore, though. I always get asked what’s the biggest difference between Philadelphia and the Netherlands, and my most eloquent response to date has been, “It’s Dutch?”
    Jules´s last post ..Schooled!

  20. I so agree with your last paragraph. Im also getting tired of answering expat questions. There is no use comparing really, where we come from and where we are now. Each has their own charms.
    PinayinDutchland´s last post ..Tony&ampGuy Rotterdam- salon experience in Netherlands

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