Culture shock when moving to the Netherlands: from South Africa to Holland

There were quite a few, to say the least.

Settle down, folks. It’s time I tell you about my life in the Netherlands during the 90’s and the various shocks I experienced when I first moved to Holland from South Africa.

Moving to the Netherlands from any country can be a bit of a culture shock, but coming from South Africa, there were a few things I just could not wrap my head around when I first arrived. Let’s take a trip down memory lane. πŸš—

1. Driving on the wrong side of the road

Photo-of-car-driving-in-the-city-with-beautiful-amsterdam-houses-surrounding-it
In the Netherlands, everything is on the wrong side of the road. Image: Depositphotos

Driving on the wrong side of the road and getting into the wrong side of the car… What’s up with that?

In the Netherlands, they drive on the right side of the road. Back home in South Africa, we drive on the left side, so you can imagine my confusion when I first came.

I cannot remember how many times, as a passenger, I walked to the driver’s side before I finally got it right. Imagine the shock to my system when I came back home.

2. Open curtains and unlocked doors

Colourful-Dutch-houses-with-curtains-open-in-the-netherlands
Go ahead, enjoy other people’s lives from outside their windows. Image: Depositphotos

Those open curtains and unlocked doors!

Back home, it was common practice to close the curtains or blinds of my home. Even more common at home is the locking of doors and safety gates. I could not get used to the idea that curtains were left open.

I must admit that nobody actually walked passed the house and looked in. It was just a very unnerving experience that took some getting used to.

READ MORE | Why don’t the Dutch like to use curtains?

I also got into trouble every day for thoroughly locking the doors. I think it took me four months before I could just casually push the door closed and go inside without turning every key and latch that I could find.

I’m quite eager to see if that practice is still the same 24 years later. I could not fully appreciate how safe the country was until it was almost time to leave.

One of the first things I told my friends when I came back home was that I could cycle or walk alone any time of the night or day without fear. (The second thing I told them was that there are no mountains 😱).

3. Owning summer coats

people-cycling-in-rain-in-amsterdam-wearing-light-rain-coats
Even in the summer, you’ll still need a raincoat in the Netherlands. Image: Depositphotos

A summer coat? Wait a minute, do I have to bring one along in June?

When I was being shown around the house of my Dutch “family”, the kid’s mom pointed out the hall closet that contained their summer coats. Silly me!! I could not wrap my head around that at all.

Most times in Cape Town, I hardly required a winter coat, so it was quite a stretch of the imagination that I would need a summer coat. I soon got a taste of why a summer coat was needed.

Boy, do I wish that some of your rain could be sent to Africa… 🌧

4. Unfortunate Dutch translations

black-and-white-cat-on-white-windowsill-looking-alert-and-away-from-the-camera
Poes means something else entirely in South Africa. Image: Depositphotos

A POES IS A CAT!?πŸ™€

Okay, people, that one is not good for a girl from Cape Town. Nope. My knowledge of Afrikaans is good, which meant I didn’t require Dutch classes. My family, therefore, offered to pay for anything I wanted to do.

I chose jazz ballet, as I had been dancing since the womb and missed it terribly. I joined a dance class in Huizen (Studio Dansu) and went once a week for the whole year.

READ MORE | 11 Dutch songs to learn the language (and culture!)Β 

I ended up participating in a concert with my dance class and had to do an afternoon and evening show. One of the ladies in my class suggested that I go home with her between shows so that I didn’t have to commute back for the evening show.

As she opens her door she says “stomme poesen, (I gasped) zit hele dag te slapen.” OMG! Dead, dead on the spot. I caught on when I saw the cats sleeping on the window sill. πŸ’€

People of the Netherlands hear me now. You may have heard this before, but I will say it again: poes in South Africa is a derogatory word to describe a vagina.

Phew! I’m still grappling with that one.

5. Confusing traffic rules

purple-car-in-amsterdam
Drivers getting the right of way was a shocking discovery when I first came to the Netherlands. Image: Depositphotos

My heart nearly stopped a few times whilst sitting in the passenger seat and thinking that I was going to heaven in a Subaru.

Yes, that brings me to the time I thought a friend of mine was a hell driver. After a few of my nervous gasps, he wanted to know what was wrong. I asked him if he was trying to get us killed.

When I asked him why he didn’t stop and wait for the person on the straight to pass, he explained that the one on the straight allows the side road driver to come out.

Is that even right? In Cape Town if you want to get out of a side road you may actually be sitting there for a while or until some courteous soul decides to give you a “break”. Or, as my dad used to say… “the only way to get across the road; is to be born on the other side.”

6. Dark skin attention

Dark skin attention… Oh, my… I was one of the wonders of the world for a whole year.

And I could not believe the attention I got back then. I frequented pubs in Bussum mostly, as it was closest to where I lived. I developed a tolerance for beer because every person who came to chat with me bought me a beer.

Some didn’t even talk to me; they just sent a beer over. I had people offering to marry me if I wanted to stay in the country.

It was very amusing but really good for my self-image at the time. I even had someone ask if they could feel my hair…. which brings me to my last point (yes, I must stop myself ‘cos I can go on for days).

7. Hair problems

photo-of-hairdresser-holding-scissors
Finding someone to cut my hair was a challenge. Image: Freepik

Nobody could do my kroes hair!

I called every hair salon in the surrounding area and eventually ended up going to Amsterdam to get my hair cut and blow-dried.

I really wish I could remember the name of the amazing woman that managed to sort out my hair. She deserved a medal. I’ll be bringing all my own tools this time, though; I’m not taking any chances!


Well, that’s it from me for now. The Netherlands is a weird and wacky place with a lack of hierarchy and some strict social norms, but it’s still a beautiful country.

Did you get a culture shock when moving to the Netherlands? Let us know in a comment below! πŸ‘‡

Feature Image:DutchReview
Nathalie Europa
Nathalie Europa
Born and raised in Cape Town South Africa on Sinterklaas 1970... I knew since I was 7 years old that I would become a teacher (or a dancer) and I qualified as a teacher in 1991. I currently teach at a skills school for learners with special academic needs. I have a daughter, who keeps me on my toes and informed. I lead an active lifestyle and enjoy the outdoors. I lived in Naarden - Bussum for a full year and worked as an au-pair from 1993 -1994. The country and the people have crept into my heart and I will always feel like I left a piece of it behind.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. Sounds nice, many can only wish to experience such a yourney, some would even stay especialy afrikaners and their fellow coloured afrikaans speaking people.

    • Definitely a great experience. I’m not sure if my earlier comment went through.. I went back to visit in July this year and wrote a follow – up article. Check it out. Thanks πŸ™‚

  2. This is such a great article! Loved the SA flavour you’ve added to it. I’m a South African looking to move to the Netherlands! Is there any way to contact you to pick your brain about it? Anyhoo, have a great day, your adventures are inspiring.

    • Loved this review from a fellow Kaapse meisie! I am also looking at options in the Netherlands and your article was such a breath of fresh air. Is there a good amount of South Africans there? I would also love to reach out to you to pick your brain. I worry about employment opportunities there.

      • Hi Dominique
        My apologies for not getting back to you sooner. I am a Kaapse meisie and still living in South Africa. You are most welcome to email me or contact IND about employment.

  3. Hi Nathalie
    I am also very interested in working in the Netherlands and truly enjoyed your perspective on living there. Your article adressed some of my concerns and made it a more realistic dream! Are there any agencies that specifically help teachers to work there?

  4. Hi Genevieve

    I currently live in Cape Town. You can check with the DUO in Groningen about teaching in the Netherlands. Thanks for your response.

  5. Nice article! Too bad I read it now. In Baarn there is actually a lady who can do magic with your kroeshaar. She is from the caribbean. Many caribbean ladies also have kroeshaar so my advice is look for caribbean ladies!
    Oh and I have been told that the word poes can also have the same meaning in Dutch for you know what.
    SA in Holland

    • Fortunately I found a lady in Amsterdam back then. I don’t think there was much of a demand back then. I imagine it would be easier to manage my hair now, should I go back.
      Thanks for your comment.

  6. Wow Nathalie

    I am an Aupair in Wassenaar Netherlands and also from South Africa,I totally relate to all your points about the culture shock.

    I constantly get stared at which makes me feel very uncomfortable at times,Asif nobody has ever seen a brown skinned girl with big curly hair before,I feel like a whole “art piece” at a museum and their food is very tasteless lol πŸ˜‚πŸ™ˆ sorry to say .
    And yep I too had to learn that I Needed to get a summer Coat lol .

    I sometimes think that the Dutch have no manners ,but then slowly realised that they call it “straightforward ” 🀷.The word please does not seem to exist in their daily vocabulary πŸ™ˆ,or excuse me.

    I could go on for days but I will just leave it there .

    But thank you Nathalie for those points I most certainly do not feel alone lol .

    • Your comment has got me so amused. Thanks for the input. I actually liked the food.. hard to believe, I know. I have been back 3 times since those au pair days. Krentenbroodjes for breakfast every day!

  7. Love your article

    I am an au pair too. Leaving in Feb. I am so in love with this place that it’s breaking my heart just thinking about heading back home to SA….

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