One series that always gets my readers chatting is The Honest Expat. Whether it’s online or in person, this series of South African expat interviews always gets a great response! I reckon it’s something to do with the fact that emigrating is a constant conversation around many a South African dinner table.
Whether you’re having the conversation yourself or have been surrounded by friends and family who have taken the leap, reading more about other people’s lives is always fascinating.
Today it’s the turn of of one of my favourite bloggers, Belinda Mountain, to share more about her family’s move across the globe.
Belinda is a 42-year-old copywriter and writer who lives with her entrepreneur husband Gareth, daughter Rachel (11) and son Benjamin (8).
They made the move to The Hague, The Netherlands in December 2020 and I have so enjoyed following their European adventure vicariously via her Instagram feed that I decided to reach out and ask her more about their emigration journey.
Where are you originally from?
I always find that question tough! I grew up on a farm in the Eastern Cape but have since lived in London, Johannesburg and, most recently, Cape Town for five years.
What was the catalyst/s for your emigration decision?
I find the term “emigration” tricky when it comes to our move. It implies a definitive state, whereas we see our move to The Netherlands being for the next season of our lives. I don’t necessarily see us living here forever. After all, the world is in a constant state of flux and it’s hard to plan for the next five months, let alone five years!
Saying that though, the pandemic was a key catalyst in hastening our decision to go on our next “adventure”, as we call it. We had more time at home during lockdown to reassess our priorities and seeing the South African economy being decimated by COVID made us anxious about the future. When my husband was offered an opportunity to grow a new business in Europe, we decided it was a good time to make our move.
How long had you thought through the emigration process?
It had been on our minds for a while but before Covid, moving to another country always seemed 5 – 7 years or so away.
How easy/ complicated was the application process to emigrate and how
long did it take? Did it require certain qualifications/documentation/ finances etc?
The whole move was a calculated, much analysed procedure that required intense project management and problem solving skills! Luckily I’m good with detail and my husband is extremely resourceful, so we make a good team. From making the decision in July to getting on a flight at the end of December, we made it happen within 6 months.
The paperwork was one of the most stressful parts. The kids and I have both SA and British passports so we could move to anywhere in the EU (pre-Brexit), but my husband, with only an SA passport, was much trickier.
We had to get him a spousal visa which involved sourcing an unabridged marriage certificate from Home Affairs (this is a more detailed one to the abridged marriage certificate they generally hand out). In order to issue this, Home Affairs requested a copy of the Marriage Register B1-30 form (I had no idea what this was!), which is something that the priest and the witnesses sign in the church on the day you are married (also not something you are given as standard either).
Sadly the priest that married us in 2007 had since passed away, so it involved a proper treasure hunt, asking a friend in Johannesburg to visit the church in Bryanston and hunt down this document which was luckily stored in some dusty filing cabinet somewhere! It was incredibly stressful, but we managed to pull it off just in time.
What was your first year like after emigrating?
It’s only been eight months! Honestly the first four months were some of the hardest of my life. I cried a lot. Besides that feeling of being unanchored and rootless, The Netherlands was in the midst of a super strict lockdown when we moved, and it was the dead of winter. The sun only rose at 9am and then set again at 3pm.
It seemed like all of my SA friends were on the beach and being sociable and we were isolated and lonely, feeling trapped in our Airbnb and unable to begin our new lives. The kids couldn’t go into their new schools (schools were closed due to lockdown) so we had to try and teach them online, while both working. They were very lonely, with not being able to see their old friends, and not being able to make new ones either.
Once lockdown eased, schools opened up and the weather improved this all made a huge difference though. The last 4 months have been much easier.
What have you loved about your new home – for you and your children?
I love the overall safety and freedom of movement. No place is completely without crime, but generally I can walk around here as a woman on my own, and go for a run on the beach or in the forest without fear. My kids can pop to the shops on their own, and my daughter is starting to cycle everywhere with her friends, without adult supervision. This independence is something that I really value, for all of us.
I also love the cycling culture. I didn’t even own a bike in SA but cycling here is wonderful, with cycle lanes everywhere and all the cars drive cautiously/safely. It also keeps you fit without even thinking about it, which is a bonus.
Having Europe on your doorstep is also amazing and we just had the most incredible summer holiday, visiting France and Spain and then campervanning through Italy and Switzerland – the kids had the time of their lives and it was great to show them some new countries and cultures.
What have you found hard about your new home – for you and your
It’s the people we miss. Grandparents, cousins and all of our close friends who feel like family too. This would all be much easier if Covid hadn’t made international travel so tricky, and we hope that as vaccination rates speed up, travel will become less restricted.
I find the weather difficult too. I know it’s all about having the right clothes, and I don’t mind a bit of rain or snow, but fewer days of sunshine in your life certainly does have an impact (especially if you grew up in the Karoo!)
What have you NOT missed about South Africa – for you and your
There are always such extremes in SA, so much beauty but also so much pain and suffering. So I don’t miss that bipolar shifting of moods, as it was beginning to have an impact on my psyche. However it’s not as simple as being able to switch off from SA news or politics, as we are still invested emotionally and financially in the country. We care very deeply for it. On a day-to-day level though, I do feel like my stress levels have decreased since moving here and this has had a positive effect on the rest of my family too.
What have you missed about South Africa – for you and your children?
Choosing to leave grandparents and other family behind is not easy. You sacrifice those special moments and relationships which added huge amounts of value and love to you and your children’s lives. This is the trade-off. There are always losses associated with any gains.
Another aspect I was chatting to a friend about recently is the concept of identity. She is South African but her kids were born in London and they’ve spent time living in Belgium and Switzerland. She says her kids don’t know what to call themselves. They don’t call themselves South African because they’ve never lived there. And while they may have British passports they don’t see themselves as British either, nor Swiss. It’s something I hadn’t considered in terms of my kids and it makes me sad that they may one day not consider themselves South African.
Knowing what you know now – would you emigrate again? To the same
place or to a different place?
Yes I would definitely make the same decision, to the same place. The Netherlands seems like a second home for us, there is a familiarity to it that you don’t feel in other European countries like France for example. The Dutch all speak excellent English and are very commercially minded, so setting up a business here has been a positive experience too.
If you could, would you return to South Africa? What would make you
consider returning to South Africa?
In the long term we would love to spend time in South Africa once our children are educated and out of the house.
What makes it hard to return to South Africa – for you and your children?
We’d like our kids to get their tertiary educations outside of South Africa, and most European countries subsidise this for students who are residents. Going back to live in SA when our kids are in high school would make this much trickier, which is one of the main reasons why we wouldn’t return to SA in the short term.
What were the unexpected (good and bad) aspects of emigrating that you’d wished you’d known about before going. Do you have any advice for those contemplating making this huge move for their families?
The idea that another country is always going to be 100% better than the one you are living in is flawed I think, and will cause unhappiness. It’s all about expectations – do your research, speak to people who’ve moved to where you are emigrating to and prepare for both good and bad days.
These decisions are never clear cut and depend on a number of factors including jobs, family life and so much more. I’m very aware that it is also a privilege to have the means (and passports) to be able to make the decision to live elsewhere – this is simply not an option for most South Africans.
My belief is that life is short, and if you get an opportunity to see more of the world and have new experiences, then you should seize that chance. The last 8 months have shown me that while it won’t always be easy, it will always be worth it.