How do you get to know your new city when you move there during a pandemic-induced lockdown? New Amsterdammer Tanya Kovarsky tells her family’s story of emigrating during a crisis.
Despite a traumatic departure from Johannesburg South Africa – think long wait at an empty airport, wearing face masks on a packed KLM flight for 11 hours, and navigating 18 pieces of luggage – we arrived in Amsterdam, our new home, elated and relieved.
We had been planning our emigration for eight months, and could never have imagined that our process would be delayed because of a global pandemic. There was an extra layer of complications on an already complicated process: because the deeds office was closed our house sale transfer was delayed, and getting flights out of ‘Joburg’ was really difficult.
On the personal side, there were no farewell parties or tearful family sendoffs at the airport. Rather, there were tearful Zoom goodbyes, and the sad realization that the last time we’d been with our close family and friends back in March, just before the lockdown, would be the last time for a long time.
While our settling-in process since touchdown has been relatively smooth (and exciting!), I imagine settling in would have been a lot different in non-pandemic times. For starters, we couldn’t register at the Gemeente immediately as they wanted us to self-isolate from them for two weeks. So for two weeks, we were in a little bit of limbo, waiting for our BSN numbers, waiting to tick off all the other bureaucratic boxes.
Unlike our expeditionary visit in January, when we freely hopped from one museum to the next, without worrying about getting in, or getting close to someone in order to see that Van Gogh portrait better, now we had to pre-plan, and book time slots in advance. Not always easy with a toddler who wants to go for ice cream or take a nap at the exact time you’ve booked your museum visit!
On one of our first weekends in the city, we headed to Nemo Museum with two excited kids, and we were politely turned away because we hadn’t booked in advance. And so a lesson was learnt, several ice creams purchased, and a boat ride taken to ease ‘The Nemo Disappointment’!
Another thing that we’ve felt is the difficulty of meeting people and having any social engagements. I have a few South African friends in Amsterdam, and others I’ve met online and through my kids’ school, but we haven’t socialized much because we’re all a little Covid cautious. I often wonder how we would have socially integrated in “normal” times – would we be invited places? Would I be making more of an effort with my online connections?
And cultural holidays also raised questions. We celebrated Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) alone this past September. In normal times would people in the Amsterdam Jewish community be inviting us to celebrate holidays with them?
One of the harder Covid rules has been not being allowed to walk our kids into their classrooms, as is the normal custom here. I watched on the first day of school as my 10-year-old walked into the building, to make his own way to his classroom and his peers, without being able to speak a word of Dutch. Fortunately he had been given a tour of the school a few days before starting so he knew which classroom to go to. However, it tore me apart not being able to see him off properly, and I had a good cry once I’d said goodbye and watched him walk through the gate. (Note to self: always wear waterproof mascara at the start of every school year!).
It was a similar situation with my toddler, though for her grade, parents are able to drop their kids off at a side door, where they’re greeted by a teacher, who then directs them down the corridor to the classroom. Only one parent is allowed to drop off, and it’s a heartbreaking scene watching a little child with a too-big-for-her-backpack walk down a long corridor, to meet her new teacher and setup for the next year.
We always knew that emigrating would have hurdles and some tough moments, and that Covid would add some challenging elements. However, it hasn’t changed how happy we are to be here, nor what a great quality of life we have.
Photo Credits: In text Image from Tanya Kovarsky