View from our previous apartment in Utrecht, the heart of the city center.
My husband would have made an excellent salesman. He’s charismatic, charming, persistent and has boyish good looks. Being a San Francisco Bay Area native, I had once publicly sworn (pre-motherhood) that I would never live in a Dutch village. Acclimating to provincial Utrecht was challenging enough. Living in a small Dutch town was inconceivable and unimaginable. Or so I thought.
Almost one year into parenthood, my husband sold me the idea of living in the Dutch suburb of Houten. Living in the heart of Utrecht was a memorable, privileged experience. But our fourth-floor walkup became a nightmare with a baby. We also bought the idea that family life translated into needing certain amenities – a large garden, plenty of space, and lots of privacy. As a single-income household, our best chances of finding what we could afford and what we desired led us to the suburbs. At the very least, it would be like taking an extended vacation in an idyllic Dutch setting – a one year adventure where we would immerse ourselves in the local Dutch culture.
Choosing where to live is a very personal decision based on one’s lifestyle, philosophies and circumstances. My everyday reality doesn’t consist of going to local cafés, having brunch with friends, trying out the latest new restaurants, shopping at trendy boutiques, or visiting local museums. Rather, my daily life pretty much revolves around the eating-nap-play schedule of my toddler son and home-base takes center stage. He’s a child of the world, ready to explore and get in all sorts of trouble. As an aspiring writer, what I actually need most is the time, solitude and space to write. And as for my workaholic husband, he simply requires a comfortable place to unwind and sleep that’s conveniently located not too far from his office in Utrecht.
An important factor that shouldn’t be left unwritten and unsaid in determining where we live are finances – we’re a single-income, middle class family aspiring for a decent life and giving our son a happy childhood.
Still uncertain about my decision to move to the city or stay in the suburbs, I started asking different moms about their own experiences. I ended up asking a Facebook mommy group consisting of over 4,700 members, “Out of curiosity, if you had a choice between living in an apartment in Amsterdam or in a stand-alone home with a huge garden and plenty of rooms in a Dutch village, which would you prefer, keeping in mind that you have a toddler who loves being outside. One means being socially isolated and the other one means being in a vibrant, international city with lots of like-minded mommy friends.” There were over 100 moms who chimed in (a definite conversation starter) and not surprisingly, I received very different, passionate answers.
Some thought it would be inconceivable to leave their beloved city (Amsterdam). Others had enough of the stressors associated with city life and craved for space and quiet, the much sought after garden, and not having to manage waiting lists for everything imaginable (schools, swimming lessons, and other extracurricular activities for children). In hindsight, the question was polarizing because living in one place or the other doesn’t necessarily translate into social isolation, or feeling connected to a community. And reading all their answers left me even more confused than ever before.
A fellow mommy-blogger who moved to Zeist after living for several years in Utrecht confided, “I simply got fed up lugging all the stuff to the park . And I was tired of looking down at the ground making sure there weren’t any hypodermic needles lying around.” I’m not sure whether or not she was being facetious, but her comment made a lasting impact. The suburbs made me feel safer as I watched children playing outside in their gardens (my son included), or simply out on bicycle-only streets without any supervision. But the recent burglaries in my neighborhood and being encouraged by the local police to be more alert made me reconsider just how idyllic and rose-colored our circumstances actually are.
Now one year into our suburb experience and our lease up for renewal, I can’t help but revisit and re-examine our housing situation. And to be perfectly honest, this questioning happens to coincide with me going through a personal-inventory of my own life, values, role as a mother, personal goals and desires. I’ve always said that “happy parents generally raise happy kids.” Are we really happy parents? Do we need to live in such a big, fancy home (in Dutch standards) with an enviable garden?
It’s been fun playing “house” yet living in the Dutch suburb of Houten has several inconveniences that I didn’t anticipate. I’m also the first to admit that my gripes are more “first-world problems” – limited selection, diversity and opening hours of stores (closed on Sundays), , being the only foreigner in a predominantly Dutch neighborhood, and feeling psychologically distant and isolated from any major city.
While I’m also a creature of habit that absolutely loves being a homebody, I also thrive on the energy that a city like Amsterdam gives. A city girl at heart, I simply get a natural high when walking around Amsterdam, taking in all the positive energy and channeling it into my hopes, dreams and aspirations. Suffice to say, Amsterdam makes me feel alive. But so does seeing the wonder and delight in my child’s eyes as he discovers the world around him, free to explore under my watchful eye.
The biggest deal breaker happens to be the one problem we didn’t consider when moving to Houten – my own son’s loneliness. We were surprised and shocked at the long waiting lists for the local pre-school (peuterspeelzaall). I had naively assumed that the lack of resources for preschool was endemic to only major Dutch cities. The rapid population expansion, high concentration of young families, and limited budget made it a challenge for towns and cities to accommodate the needs of the growing population. Ironically, although my son happens to the only toddler on our street (and hence his loneliness), we were informed that we live in a catchment area with lots of young children his age. If we were to be on waiting lists anyway, I would also prefer having a lot of different options rather than being limited to a select few. The recommended alternative would be to send him for a couple of hours to créche (day-care). However, créche it’s not the same substitute as play-based learning, one that I’m keen on letting my son experience and can be prohibitively expensive.
Living in Houten, however, does have its benefits. We appreciate the privacy and the small town feel where, as the local pharmacists kindly told me, “Houten may be home to 30,000 people but we still like to take care of each other.” There are a lot less crowds. It’s also world renowned for being the bike capital of the world – suburb completely designed to be bike friendly for all ages. And let’s not forget how happy my son simply playing outside, whether in the garden or out into the streets without a care in the world.
Where would you personally live and raise a family? Are suburbs the only answer or is it possible to enjoy a thriving city life while raising a family? Are Dutch villages the way to go for a more community feeling? Is it possible to find a middle ground where we can live in a bustling city, yet still create a safe place for children to play outside?
Stay-tuned for my blog post coming up about renting or buying a home in the Netherlands. The most liberating aspect of choosing where to live is that we have a reasonable amount of freedom and flexibility as renters.
Shameless self-promotion: If any of you know a benevolent property owner of a three bedroom (minimum), unfurnished house or apartment with a parking spot/permit in Amsterdam, Utrecht or the surrounding areas who would be excited to have tenants like me and my family for a reasonable rent, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re keen on finding a house (and or apartment) to love and care for and make it a home for the next two to three years.