“Utrecht is a stunning city, and one can get lost for hours in the array of small streets filled with peddlers; the shops are quaint, and there is something for everyone to enjoy.”
South African Anne-Mieke Martyn is a global executive recruiter who has been living in Utrecht – one of the most vibrant cities in the Netherlands – since 2018. She chats to Cliffordene Norton about living in Zeist, discovering the Dutch culture and loving life on a bicycle.
When and why did you move to Utrecht? How long have you lived there?
We arrived in the Netherlands in September 2018, and we live in Zeist (close to Utrecht). Our primary reason for moving to the Netherlands was our little boy. Max was born with a TBI (traumatic brain injury) and, as a consequence, has severe epilepsy and other developmental challenges. We found a wonderful school in Utrecht that provides all the special needs care and therapies that he needs, and Utrecht also houses some of the most advanced children’s epilepsy hospitals and centres.
What were your first impressions of the Netherlands, and specifically Utrecht, when you arrived?
We flew out to the Netherlands in early 2018 for a due diligence visit, and we were so impressed by the country, the people, the culture, the history and the opportunities. Mostly, we were completely blown away by how the Dutch treat their disabled and elderly. As a society, they are very advanced in their mindset. Inclusion, acceptance and tolerance levels are high here.
We love life on a bike, and we cycle everywhere; the province of Utrecht is surrounded by the most beautiful countryside, and there is so much to explore and enjoy. Everything is easily accessible by bike and public transport.
We love how the Dutch enjoy all four seasons and find opportunities to celebrate even the smallest of things. Autumn here is a spectacular visual celebration, and folks decorate their verandas with a variety of pumpkins. As the evenings become darker earlier, beautiful lights are put up in the streets, shopping centres and homes, and the atmosphere is almost fairytale-like. They are also very family-focused here (time spent with children and grandparents is truly valued). The Netherlands was voted as having the happiest children in the world, and it is easy to see why.
Utrecht is a stunning city, and one can get lost for hours in the array of small streets filled with peddlers; the shops are quaint, and there is something for everyone to enjoy. We love to eat out and have been spoilt with the vast array of different cuisines – restaurants are aplenty. Culturally, you are super spoilt, as there are events and performances happening all over the city (pre-corona). The museum selection is also impressive – there are simply not enough hours in the day to do everything.
What were the challenges and highlights of emigrating?
Challenges: lack of support. We arrived as a little family of three in a country we didn’t know or completely understand. We had to learn everything anew and learn to understand that the Dutch do things differently to South Africa. We felt lost in the beginning and made mistakes – but, as time has gone by, we have learned and adapted, and it certainly gets easier. As Max started school a week after we landed, and I secured employment within a month, we literally felt like we had stepped into our new lives pretty fast. Within four months, we had bought our new home, and when our container finally arrived from South Africa, we truly felt settled.
Highlights: we have made some wonderful new friends. We’ve had the opportunity to explore the country and visit several others. You are so centrally situated here to travel anywhere in Europe, and it’s just so exciting to know that you can pop over to Germany or Paris for a weekend if you fancy. We love the Dutch mentality and have found them to be friendly and helpful.
Mostly, I am reminded every day how blessed my son is to be in the Netherlands; he has received wonderful care and is in a school that is perfect for him. Happy child equals happy parents.
What everyday differences are there between how people live in Utrecht compared with how South Africans live?
The most obvious for me is safety and security: here, I go about my day never thinking about my safety. The people here are all busy (love the constant buzz); they respect your time, and you have to respect theirs. You have to make an appointment for everything – banks, insurance brokers, car dealerships – including inviting friends over. In South Africa, we are so spontaneous and just visit friends without much planning.
“Often, I will glance out of my bedroom window at night or in the early morning hours and see neighbours walking their dogs. Kids playing in the streets or in their open gardens – it’s lovely.”
Everything works here: public transport is exceptional and roads well maintained – and if something is broken, it gets fixed immediately. In two years, we’ve lost electricity in our home once, and that was for 12 seconds (we timed it). Utilities are well maintained/serviced, and our gemeente (municipality) is brilliant, their services fast and efficient. It is really hard to explain – one truly has to experience it.
On our second day here, while strolling around a market in Zeist, my husband lost his iPhone, and we tracked it to the local police station, where it had been handed in. We frequently forget to lock our car doors, and my back door is mostly open or unlocked. (We should be more vigilant – but we are not as paranoid as we once were.)
We do feel completely free here. We can walk anywhere night and day, and I will never get used to seeing young ladies jogging alone in forests and on country roads. Often, I will glance out of my bedroom window at night or in the early morning hours and see neighbours walking their dogs. Kids playing in the streets or in their open gardens – it’s lovely.
How has daily life changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We have adjusted pretty well to COVID-19. As a special-needs family, we live with many restrictions and unintentional isolation, so when COVID-19 happened, we adjusted relatively well. Most of our activities include the outdoors: walking, cycling and nature parks, so that has not changed for us.
What is the atmosphere like in Utrecht? Do residents agree with the steps taken to fight the virus?
Utrecht is certainly quieter now, with most people working from home and the streets more isolated, and with pubs and restaurants closed currently, it means less going out.
What are some of the things/activities you have done, or attractions that you have visited?
Too many to mention, but we have enjoyed sightseeing: museums, art galleries, festivals, national parks (of which there are plenty), cycling; we’ve visited Germany, Belgium, the UK and Wales and have toured the Netherlands extensively.
Have you learned anything new about the Dutch culture?
The Dutch pride themselves on being innovative, and you can see this in everyday life. They are advanced in engineering, AI, agriculture and green energy. There is a learning mentality here – you are encouraged to think in an agile way and constantly be looking for improvements.
However, despite all the revolutionary innovation and fast-evolving digital lifestyle, they are strongly traditional and place value in maintaining their culture.
Have you eaten any interesting dishes?
Stroopwafels, bitterballen, friets met satesaus, stamppot, and the list goes on and on. We love the food here. There is a strong Indonesian influence in many of their dishes. Their fresh produce is exceptional, and their fruits are delicious.
What are some of your highlights in Utrecht to date?
Nothing beats long walks through the city, sitting in the Dom Church cathedral and drinking in the visual beauty. Cycling through the surrounding countryside or just sitting outside a street café, sipping coffee and chatting to friends. Visiting museums or galleries, or taking in a show.
- Photos were provided, unless stated otherwise.