(Editor’s note: Read more about Heusden here.)
Have you ever been somewhere on vacation and thought to yourself, “I could live here.” Then you go home and occasionally dream of what life might be like in that cute place you visited. Being an expat is like that, the only difference is that we see the upsides and the downsides of that idyllic country, town or city, once we move there.
When we moved to the Netherlands we fell in love with the picturesque and historic town of Heusden and eventually bought a house here.
Heusden in Noord Brabant is what is known as a vestingstad, a fortified town, situated on the banks of the Maas River with a history dating back to 1200. In the 16th century the town was fortified, with star-shaped earth ramparts and moats, as protection from invaders and the walls and moats remain today. Within the walled town are three windmills, a harbor and a selection of individually owned stores and restaurants. It is a popular destination for tourists, who come by boat, river cruises, car, boat and of course bike.
So, what are the “ups” and “downs” of living in such a charming tourist destination?
Hello, is anyone out there?
The biggest of these, as an expat is that, unlike larger cities such as Amsterdam, Eindhoven, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Den Haag and Rotterdam there are very few fellow expats here. Most internationals settle where there is a support network. When we first moved here, we would travel to Eindhoven, which at that time had the thriving international community base. The Hub. Sadly, that is no more but there are opportunities to meet other internationals through groups on Facebook or MeetUp in nearby towns.
The Dutch, while friendly and fluent in English, are also noted by many to be a little exclusive. Never more so than in a small village. Okay, it is my fault that my Dutch is shamefully poor and that doesn’t help me integrate but in a larger city this doesn’t totally exclude you. It’s not always true that smaller towns and villages are more friendly, which ever country you live in.
And it is always nice to meet fellow expats to share information and experiences. After all “like attracts like.”
You know how, as a tourist, you wander around casually in a delightful “movie set” town, phone in hand, snapping photos of beautiful old buildings and idyllic scenes? As a local, sometimes, you see these visitors, as a liability! It’s true, as my husband repeatedly says during the tourist season almost as a sanity-saving mantra, the reason the town is so appealing, clean, and well maintained is thanks to the sightseers.
I really do try to remind myself of this, as I wait patiently in my car behind a group of people standing in the road taking photos. Okay, it’s true, sometimes I do gently “beep” my horn after a minute and have a little giggle as they jump!
Well, there has to be an upside sometimes.
People – and I am absolutely sure residents in towns across Europe that I have mindlessly wandered have said the same of me – sometimes forget that this picturesque town is not a museum, but home for people. I have constant onlookers gazing in my windows or into my garden and, although it’s nice that people appreciate the beauty of my home, I’d rather not share it with everyone.
The same can be said of the benches residents place outside their home so they can enjoy the sun on the rare days it shines … these are not community benches people. They are placed directly outside someone’s home! During one of the lockdowns, when restaurants were closed, and everyone was picnicking, I walked out my front door to find a couple enjoying their lunch on my doorstep. Hilarious but yet overstepping.
If I take away anything from living in a tourist spot it is to remember that people live there and deserve some consideration and privacy.
Help, I can’t find a parking spot!
Heusden, being a small town trapped within ramparts has narrow streets and limited parking. Residents (bewoners) pay a yearly rate per car for the privilege of parking somewhere within the allocated resident zone. Not all tourists recognize that, and it is a little galling when you see cars parked in spaces marked for residents. The “parking police” (handhaving) are like a rare bird; their presence is infrequent and causes a flutter of text messages.
The 16th century designers of Heusden’s streets didn’t take into account the amount of vehicles coming into the “vesting” on a sunny busy day, peak season. Not only are the spaces limited but also the space, as cars, bikes and huge delivery trucks jostle for a place on the tiny streets to expel people and items. Heusden residents would generally like to see the town vehicle-free, not only would it avoid tempers flaring but it would add to a calmer ambiance in the historic centre. That is the long game though and for now we take deep calming breaths as we try to get home.
So enough of the negatives, let’s talk about the positives.
The visitors are here
One of the negatives was dealing with tourists but they are also a positive. In the “off season” life can be boring in a small town, and most of the stores and restaurants are closed in the early part of the week. Tourism also keeps the town looking good as no one wants to visit a dirty unkempt spot.
The tourists themselves also bring life and on those long, grey Dutch winter days you yearn for the hubbub of guests on the terraces. The influx of cyclists and people bring excitement and vibrancy to the town, and although most visitors are Dutch, Belgian or German, we do sometimes, from the occasional river cruise ship and cycling tours we do get people from further afield.
It’s nice to see your town admired and enjoyed. I always love the harbor in the summer, as the boats begin to visit and the sounds of joy filter through the air as people relax on the water.
Organized events also happen during the summer such as “Haven (harbor) Day,” the Brocanté Markt, the Mussel Festival, shanty singing etc.
It’s a balance to find the positive sometimes but even at their most exasperating tourists, like all guests, eventually go home.
The “Wow Factor”
We live in a beautiful part of the Netherlands, surrounded by water on all sides. Just to take a daily walk along the ramparts is a joy and the river and moats provide great bird watching. Water has a great healing effect, and “blue spaces” (rivers, sea, lakes) are a valuable part of improved wellness. Water has been shown to enhance mood, reduce stress and generally improve health and wellbeing, and let’s face it we all need that these days, especially people living in new countries away from their families.
Not only does living by the water give you a lift but walking in the countryside surrounding Heusden, and wandering its cute cobbled streets give you a sense of time and place.
Of course, another benefit of living in an appealing spot is the incentive it gives personal guests. I love sharing my home with family and friends and seeing the place where I live through their eyes. The pandemic put a damper on overseas visitors but I’m hoping now to see an uptick in the use of my guest room.
Retail therapy with a spot of lunch?
Heusden, of course, doesn’t have a huge selection of stores but s’Hertogenbosch is only a 25 minute car or bus ride away if you are looking to do some serious shopping. What I love about the town is we have no ‘chains,” all the stores are individual and privately owned and that is a delight.
So what can I buy here? We have an award-winning bakery (it’s worstenbroodjes are the best in Brabant), an award-winning specialty grocery store, a liquor store that sells its own Heusden liquor, a couple of deli-type stores, several clothing and shoe stores, a book store, some gift stores and a candle maker. Sadly, for a Dutch town we no longer have a florist, and we are lacking a butcher, but you could survive here without going to the city…I did, during the pandemic.
Again, eating here means individual restaurants and Dutch cuisine. Don’t expect anything exotic! But we have beautiful views from the terraces and friendly, local service. Of course it wouldn’t be the Netherlands if we didn’t have a delicious friet takeout! Most restaurants are located around the centre, the Vismarkt, and there you can find a pub, a pancake house, and four restaurants.
The bakery also serves lunches and we even have a vegan café. On the ramparts overlooking the marina is another restaurant and there are a couple of pubs elsewhere within the vesting. To round off dinner there is an excellent ice-cream store to provide you with sustenance whilst you sit watching the sunset over the water.
What more could you want?
Residential choices for expats are the most stressful part of moving and are generally dictated by office location and schools if you have children. Although we miss a more international vibe here in Heusden, it is balanced by the beautiful, peaceful setting and the knowledge that expats are always happy to meet up with other expats, wherever they are based.
Read more from Jackie here in Dispatches’ archives.
Photographer/writer Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a long-time expat, she lived in Boston for 12 years and in the Netherlands for the past 10 years.
Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and photography.
Contributing to Dispatches since 2016, Jackie has written about her travels around Europe as well as about expat life and issues.
She also covered the Women’s March Amsterdam.
She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.