An Englishman in Den Haag, NL - February to May, 2006
by Gareth Wiseman
The Netherlands, probably the flattest country in the world, the biggest exporter of cheese and all things orange, is home for the next year at least for me, a 28 year old Englishman.
One day last November, my girlfriend was offered a job in Holland. Not enjoying my job too much in the UK, I decided to follow her over in the hope of something new.
I touched down for my new life in early February. I had first visited Den Haag in January to look for a place to live. We decided to use an agency to make life a little easier and at first it did. We got chaperoned by a friendly Dutch woman in an old red Volvo which looked like it had been going since the dawn of time. However, like most agencies, their biggest fault is the ability to listen when it matters and eventually we did our own homework and found a nice flat without the help of the agency.
Before coming to Den Haag, (the name apparently derives from Die Haga (The Grove) I have to admit, I really didn't know much about the city, in fact, I thought it was an area of another city, more a business district. How wrong I was! (See www.denhaag.com for more information.) I was even more surprised to learn that it has several beaches nearby, one of them, Scheveningen, attracts around 14 million visitors a year!
I first visited Scheveningen back in January when I came over to find a flat. It was cold and windy at the time and as I remember the beach was sparse apart from the odd person walking their dog. This reminds me; watch out when walking on footpaths as it's a favourite spot for dogs to use as a toilet! I believe the government is trying to control the problem which can only mean improvements (eventually)! Anyway, I re-visited the same resort (Scheveningen) in April and I couldn't believe the difference, it was like stepping onto a beach in Spain or Majorca! Beach bars and restaurants everywhere and to make things easier, the locals have built a concrete pathway on the beach for you to comfortably stroll down.
If you haven't seen it, I would definitely recommend it, but take some money with you as you'll be surprised how quickly it can disappear! If however, you're after something less crowded and commercialized then there's always a nice beach at Kijkduin (which as I found out literally translates to ‘look, dunes'). Apparently there are more secluded areas out towards Wassenaar, which can only be reached by bike or foot.
Shortly after arriving in Den Haag I decided to register the official way at immigration and about 4 months later was successfully registered onto the Dutch system! It's great, you get a letter through your door from the town mayor and if you hand it into a local government building, you receive a town welcome pack that includes lots of info and free vouchers! One book included in this pack is The Hague Finder (which you can also pick up at your local Access office). The book is probably one of the best resources for local contact information and it's something I would have found extremely useful when I first got here! My advice to anyone who hasn't got one, get one. It's free and very useful!
Another item on your must have list when you first arrive is a suitable city map! My girlfriend (who is usually more organised than me) bought a stadsplattegrond (town map) by Falk (large Dutch map company) which opens out to the size of a small room. Now you don't have to buy one this big to be useful, but I would definitely recommend one, especially when there are so many different ways to get around and I for one can't remember, let alone even pronounce, half of the street names!
I think The Netherlands is quite a lucky place to be for an Englishman who can't speak Dutch. The vast majority of people here speak English and seem to enjoy doing so. Even when you try and fool them by wearing an orange T-shirt and speaking the very best Dutch you can possibly master, they just seem to see that huge neon sign flashing above you: ‘hey I'm English!'.
Joking aside, I do believe that when one travels to a foreign place you should give the language a try. It certainly improves your life while in the country and I'm determined to have a good go at Dutch, even if it does mean me taking out an annual subscription on sore throat lozenges! If you can't afford the expensive private Dutch lessons (and there are quite a few to choose from), then my advice would be to certainly start with a phrase book and perhaps a conversational CD pack which is exactly what I'm trying at the moment.
What I always like to do when living somewhere new is to find a social activity or group to join. A starting place to look for me was the good old pub! Irish pubs are everywhere and in no short supply in The Hague! I find these places can be a good starting point for meeting other English speaking people on a more relaxed level.
There are also organised social groups around, such as the International Cultural Exchange group (see http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/ice_thehague/). They organise social and sporting activities and meet for a regular drink in the city. Worth getting involved to meet others.
Another thing I would recommend to anyone living here is to buy a bike. There are many places to ride here and best of all, everywhere is very flat. I was working in Malvern, Worcestershire, in the UK and although a very picture postcard type of place (worth a visit) there are hills everywhere!
Before I end this first chapter of my time in The Hague let me just summarise some of the places I've had the fortune to visit outside of the city:
Amsterdam – Less than an hour from The Hague and obviously worth visiting. Loads of things going on, but remember to keep an eye on valuables. Also take your time choosing a hotel (have a look on www.tripadvisor.com) and don't always go for the cheapest one you find.
Delft – What I think a Dutch town should look like with small canals running everywhere and a working windmill. It's definitely worth a visit and a nicer place for shopping than The Hague.
Gouda – Hometown to the plastic yellow cheese, or so I thought. A small, pretty town that's very quiet with little cheese to be found. If you do visit I recommend the cheese weighing house (now a small museum) on a Friday, where you can have a go on the potters' wheel. They also have candle-making if you prefer on other days. Gouda doesn't seem offer many public seats or toilets and you have to pay for a town map, so it's probably a good idea to take a travel guide with you.
Rotterdam – I only visited for one evening to watch a UK band play. Seems to have a good club and music scene going on, but I didn't think much to the station area and another place to watch out for valuables. There is however a zoo nearby which might be worth a visit. Also, if you are into modern architecture, it has many examples of this after having been completely rebuilt following World War II.
Keukenhof (Lisse, near Leiden) – If you like flowers and gardens it's definitely the place to visit during April and early May. Do take lots of spare change however as it can be a bit of a tourist trap. If you can find them, pick up a voucher (you can find these in many hotels) that allows you to jump the queues (very useful for high season!).
As for public transport in Holland, I can't fault it for its service. When planning a journey, try and use sneltreins rather than stoptreins as these are sometimes equipped with air conditioning. Another tip, try using the automated machines to buy your rail tickets as the ticket offices will charge an extra euro or more in administration fees. For regional travel use http://www.9292ov.nl/ (quite easy to understand) and for more long distance travel use http://www.ns.nl (there is an English option at the top).
If you want to travel with your bike you can do, but I believe you have to pay an additional charge and not all trains are equipped for them (a shame really considering the number of bike tracks in The Netherlands).
Here are a few other photos of the nearby beach ....
Other web sites of Interest for The Hague
- The Hague official web site
- The Hague, Capital of South Holland Government - and Royal city of the Netherlands - some history and facts about the city
- The Hague Hotel Guide
If you would like more information on The Hague, then try a search in your browser and you'll be surprised with what turns up!!
and for cheap flights, try the bmibaby web site ...