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Girl Abroad

By Miah Ke-leigh.

Sixteen. That’s how old I was when my father announced that we would be moving to the Netherlands. I didn’t take him seriously. I had never really pictured leaving South Africa, my home country. I was in love with the idea of moving, having been fortunate enough to have travelled to seventeen other countries. Though I flirted with the idea of leaving, I knew moving and visiting were two completely different things.

I thought of the weekends my friends and I spent in Kalk Bay; my favourite place in the city of Cape Town, with all its wonderful cafés, gorgeous scenery, flea markets, local music. I thought of the things I loved most in South Africa; sitting underneath the almond tree in my grandparent’s garden, beaches with waves that seemingly washed away my worries, drinking copious cups of tea with my gran, sleepovers with my best friends that I would now only get to see twice a year. I thought of leaving my school and having to start anew, of other people living in my home.

I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know how to adapt, until I had to.

The flight from Cape Town to Amsterdam was twelve hours. I was listening to sad music on the plane to reflect my mood, because I was still in denial. We arrived on the 23rd of December, 2014, and a taxi took us to the city of Rotterdam.

It was freezing – in December, it’s summer in South Africa. The kind of summer where it’s 32 degrees Celsius and your bare feet burns when it touches the pavement, where the combination of salt and sun makes your hair two shades lighter and despite a second skin of sunblock, your skin burns so much you practically change ethnicities.

When I arrived in the Netherlands, it was 5 degrees Celsius. My hands were numb from the cold, my breath hung in the air like all of the words I wanted to say but couldn’t find the courage to, and the wind and my hair were in a fierce argument (the wind was clearly winning). My new home was also smaller than I had expected; three floors with spacious bedrooms, but a smaller living room and back garden than in South Africa. Back home, we had a fairly big house with a large front and back garden. Here it was different.

Starting school was different too. I attended an American International school, where there was only ten other people in my class. This was a huge difference from my old school, where there was thirty-two people. I adapted to the school faster than I thought I would, but mostly because I felt like I had to prove I could keep up. I think that pressure is common when you come from a third world country. Either way, the routine was simple; attend class, maintain a steady grade point average, and most importantly, try not to get too attached. Every summer, people left, and every autumn, new people replaced them. In my first year at this new school (grade 10 for me), there were ten students. By grade eleven, only four (myself included) were still left. The others had relocated to Singapore, Korea and America.

I made some of the best memories and gained amazing friends at this school, despite half of them moving away, I still stay in touch with most. My grade 10 year was me finding my place. I just focused on school, got on honour roll, and tried to figure out who I was going to be friends with. Grade 11 was an excellent year; I was actually participating and getting involved in extracurriculars, I got into creating short films and writing poetry, and I was discovering more about myself. I also met wonderful people – all with stories about how they ended up in the Netherlands. None of us had wanted to move from our original homes, but Rotterdam became a special and memorable place for each of us.

Grade 12 was a stressful year – so many things were going on at home. My dad’s contract had expired, my family was moving, my little sister was going to a new school, and I needed to find an apartment asap before my family left for South Africa. In June, I graduated high school with my best friends. On the 2nd of September, I moved out of my family home and into an apartment I’d be sharing with my friend Deb. She would be studying Global Law at the university where I had been accepted to study Online Culture: Art, Media and Society (really just a fancy way of saying Journalism, Digital Media and Communications).

I have lived in the Netherlands for nearly four years now and I still feel like a foreigner every single day – but at the same time, this place is also home. I’m not sure what the concept of home is to me, because home is my mom, my best friend’s Megan’s house, my house in South Africa, the almond tree in my grand-parents garden. But home is also my old house in Rotterdam and the apartment in the city I live in now. I didn’t want to move – I cried for ages when the taxi dropped us off, but I also cried at the airport when my family left to move back and I stayed, because I chose to. As an expatriate, I miss my culture, my language, my friends and family.

There is a colossal impact on identity here, because when everything that has ever been familiar to you is now gone, it certainly takes time to find your feet again. A few tips on making this easier:

I would suggest getting involved in school. As lame as that may sound to some, it’s genuinely the best way to make friends. Chances are you’re at an international school where not many people can speak the local language. School is easy because you’re there for a few hours a day; sign up for something new, join a poetry or sports club, in your second week, ask a few people if they’d like to hang out. It’s daring and daunting, but it shows you’re keen to make new friends.

At your new home, be sure to help around, especially in the beginning. Whether that’s helping to unpack, running errands, doing the dishes … remember, everyone is stressed about the move.

Thirdly, change your bedroom. It may be difficult but get rid of things you don’t wear or use anymore, but you’ll feel less cluttered, as a person too. Take time to make your bedroom your haven – you’re going to be spending a lot of time there after all, so be sure that it’s a place you like being in. I created a mood board when I first moved of things I would like to include. For example, a fresh coat of paint or new wallpaper is the perfect start. Add a few scented candles to make the room feel cozy, a couple of posters or photographs you like for a sense of familiarity, and a comforter for those nights where it’s too hot to lay under the covers and too cold to stick one leg out.

Explore. A lot. Get familiar with this world around you. For example, I wrote up a bucket list. You can also do something as simple as a walk in your neighbourhood or as exciting as getting on a train to a new city. Embrace the unknown, this brand new culture and the people you are meeting on this life-changing journey. This is a fresh start for you; no one knows who you are and now that you’ve moved, you get to redefine yourself as you discover more about who you want to be.

There are moments when you will get pushed out of your comfort zone, no matter how big you try to make it. It might not be what you want at the time but sometimes it’s exactly what you need. For me, nothing is more fulfilling than traveling, meeting new people and having conversations about topics that matter to us, no matter how silly we may think those topics are. I cannot stress how much self-confidence I have gained from living in the Netherlands, how many true friends I have made and how much more independent I am. South Africa will always ground me because I know where I come from, and the Netherlands will always motivate me because I know where I want to go. Moving was the most magical thing to ever happen to me. Despite the sacrifices that had to come along with it, every day continues to be an adventure.

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This entry was posted in: travel

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