For Digby and I London has been our adopted home for almost 40 years - until BREXIT changed everything in our search for “the best” retirement country.
We’ve always enjoyed travelling and our careers took us to many different places – me working in jewellery design & teleshopping – now writing - and Digby running his own TV advertising and media agency in Central London - a busy professional life.
So off we went to Panama a few years ago including to the Pearl Islands and ventured via the Panamerican Highway to Boquete (the Garden Inn is worth a stay) on route to Costa Rica. However, this was not for us long-term. I certainly struggled with Spanish and Spanish with me…
For a while Canada seemed perfect (English speaking!) plus we did business with The Shopping Channel in Toronto where I presented my fashion jewellery collection on live-TV and quickly fell in love with Nova Scotia - in particular with the maritime charm of Lunenburg (fun folk music festival in August) and quaint Mahone Bay. Alas - the strict rules about residency for EU passport holders didn’t help our plans to spend longer than six months in our new dream cottage.
Austria then? Great for the mountains but although I speak German one would forever be foreign or Zugezogene. The lovely Dachstein village of Filzmoos will always be part of our travel itinerary!
The same can be said for France. We love the history, beautiful landscape of the Dordogne, the romantic Loire Valley and many other regions we’ve often visited - who wouldn’t want to stay longer – let’s not forget the divine cheeses - and we do have French friends in Bergerac; but the high on-costs and tax when buying property as well as having to mingle with fellow ex-pats relying on the weekly market for social contact did not ring our bell.
On the advice of International Living, an interesting magazine we’ve subscribed to for many years, our trip to laid-back Uruguay was very enjoyable (great to see classic cars doubling up as cool miniature cafés in picturesque little towns like Colonia del Sacramento – but this wonderful small country in South America is rather far away when you’re a single child with an ageing parent in the north of Germany. And one has to learn Spanish of course. Dios mio and a lost course para mi.
Florida and its mild winters was another possible choice (golf, sailing, long sandy beaches) but like Canada, not so easy to stay for longer than six months per year as British and German passport holders.
The jewellery factory being located in Bangkok meant regular visits to Thailand and several years ago we looked at buying either an apartment in one of Sukhumvit’s trendy new high-rises or a nice condo on Koh Samui with its many fine beaches. We are both fond of spicy food and the gorgeous fruit which ‘The Land of the Smiles’ has got in abundance but our future life could not be based on culinary preferences alone...
Southern Tyrol in Italy with its many historic mountain villages and towns has a lot to offer too, but again, holidays are holidays and in order to integrate and make a contribution to a new community we felt we had to continue our search.
Having lived in London for most of our lives, BREXIT propelled us to find a new adopted country less inward looking and in Central Europe. Portugal was an option for a short while but somehow it was not to be for now – neither was Croatia.
After having spent a year and a half trying to find a ‘nice place’ in Germany (with considerably higher additional costs like the obligatory property gains tax) we stumbled across a “life-saver”: The easy to use website funda.nl (you can switch from Dutch to English – so one major hurdle is overcome with one click). In contrast to the often cumbersome German property sites and rather longwinded procedure to obtain exposés (without any addresses), funda gives you the exact address, street view, floorplans and other useful information i.e. about the proximity to the nearest supermarket/hospital/school/bus stop. This saved us a lot of time in our pre-selection! Google Maps was equally useful.
Compared to property prices in the UK, France, Germany and Austria the Netherlands offers attractive houses with modern interiors – including kitchens (often not the case in Germany and Austria) – at much lower buying costs.
In January this year we bought an apartment in a restored former monastery [now a historic rijksmonument] in the southern part of the Netherlands where pretty much everyone we meet dislikes BREXIT as much as we do and speaks English with great ease (which was not our experience in Germany, Austria, France or Italy and Spain).
A majority of the population of the Netherlands (93%) speak fluent English which was a very important point for us – although we are going to learn Dutch.
As this was a big step for us – from London to a small Kloosterdorp on the river Maas approx. 50km north of Maastricht – the entrepreneurial developer allowed us twice to test-stay at no cost in a fully-furnished show apartment for several days to be sure we’re making the right decision. Now, where else would you get that?
This impressive listed building has 16 apartments in total – every one with a different lay-out. It is set in its private park of 6 ha bordering the river Maas. This area had four monasteries – one belonged to the White Nuns, another one housed the Pink Nuns, the Black Nuns were down the road with close by - don’t laugh – the Blue Nuns… The Missiemuseum with its old taxidermy artifacts takes you into the worldwide adventures of early missionaries and is a popular tourist attraction especially during the hot summer months.
What bowled us over at the end though was the kindness and openness of our fellow “monastic” neighbours who happily invited us in for “koffie”, long inspired chats and generous slices of cake like the famous rijstevlaai (a delicious pie with milk rice filling – very moreish for anyone like me who has not had to spend years at boarding school in the UK). A total non-London experience all around! In a word: Refreshing.
Before signing the contract we spent two weeks over Christmas & New Year in “our” apartment only to find a Christmas tree outside our front door from one of our potential new neighbours on the evening of 23rd December! There was not a moment of feeling lonely, ignored or out of place. The Dutch are certainly gezellig – meaning they enjoy the company of others. We can also confirm that the Dutch enjoy talking to ‘strangers’.
It quickly became clear to us why the Dutch repeatedly rank so high in the world’s Happiness Index (No. 5 in 2019). According to some UK statistics, the Dutch work less hours and have more disposable income than other Europeans – so what’s not to like. They also appear healthier and tend to bring up their kids with a more long-leash attitude which we’re convinced will be of advantage to them becoming confident and self-assured adults.
Diesel is cheaper than in neighbouring Germany (an important point when filling up Mister Benz our thirsty Sprinter 4x4) and the local produce is appealing and fresh and certainly less pricey than London with Dutch supermarkets and many shops staying open on Sundays as well – hooray! The large greenhouses on the other side of the river (unseen from our park in Waterloostraat) often tinge the starry night-sky in a Hawaiian Style orange-purple glow – we first thought this ‘phenomenon’ was a forecast of sunny weather…!
It might sound like a sweeping statement but we found the Dutch easy-going, liberally-minded, common-sensical, well-educated, polite, fitter than many of their other more sedentary European counterparts – fietsen (cycling) is a passion! – and with a good sense of humour. Actually the average Dutch citizen cycles over 900km a year – that’s 559 miles!
This is mini-me (after having asked my always perplexed parents if one could earn money peddling a bike which I enjoyed a lot):
Our regular short trips over the river by ferry are fun. This reasonably priced shuttle operates 12 hours a day and even leaves for the other shore if it there are only two foot passengers waiting.
On the other side of the river is a Kasteelendorp – a lovely place with four ‘castles’ or manor houses - one is still privately owned, another a hotel and one houses a smart art gallery.
European medieval history being of interest to us both, we like that three of these kasteelen go back to the 13th century. Archaeological finds like a large bronze bucket from the period 800-500 BC have shown that this part of the world has a long history with a settlement dating to the Stone and Iron Ages.
I am currently immersing myself in a very entertaining and enlightening book “Why the Dutch are Different” by a fellow former London resident now living in Rotterdam (Ben Coates) – catching up on the history and culture of this welcoming mercantile country and would say their Golden Age has returned!
There has already been an influx of highly skilled Remainers from the British Isles to thriving cities like Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Maastricht, Rotterdam and Nijmegen (which claims to be the oldest town in the Netherlands) and there will be more investment from big international companies pulling out of the UK following BREXIT. No doubt the Netherlands will benefit from this UK ‘brain drain’.
Leaving behind our old life in London – which still is one of the most magnificent cities of the world - BREXIT or no BREXIT - Digby and I are starting from scratch with several hundred books, some paintings, clothes and our Sprinter 4x4 van for our future overland adventures – we’re buying Dutch going Dutch!
As the old saying goes: “Every good-bye is a new beginning…”