Out of the rush

Most people living in Amsterdam probably can’t imagine themselves not living in a city. For Noelle Amrani (23) that isn’t the case. At the age of fifteen, she moved to a village in the south of Holland.

Text by Astrid Vlaeminck and Samen Rehman
Pictures by Astrid Vlaeminck 

When Noelle started studying law three years ago she had to get a student apartment in Amsterdam-Zuidoost (southeast of Amsterdam). But whenever she gets the chance, she jumps on the first train back to Valkenburg and her family. Her attachment to her town is strong. She doesn’t see the three hours of travel time as a big deal. “I live for my family, so wherever my family is; my home is. When we lived in Amsterdam, none of my uncles or aunts lived close by, now I live way closer to my favorite cousins. I only come to Amsterdam for class and exam. After that, I’m done”, she says. 

“In Valkenburg, I live right across a farm. We have a big, beautiful house that calms you down immediately. In Amsterdam, we used to live in an apartment. I really missed some private space, but I have plenty of that now.” 

Adjusting in Valkenburg

After Noelle and her family moved out of the big city, there were some things she needed to get used to. “I’m a Muslim, so I only eat halal meat. In Amsterdam, there were close by shops that sell halal meat, but now we need to travel 15 minutes by car to get it.’’ 

I still see a lot of people breaking their necks to look back at me…

About a year ago, Noelle started wearing a headscarf and had to adjust to the small town all over again. People in Valkenburg know everyone’s face and every one by name. However, when Noelle started wearing a headscarf, some people didn’t recognize her. ‘’I still see a lot of people breaking their necks to look back at me. Headscarves are something you see almost everywhere in Amsterdam. I could just blend in more easily in the city.” 

However, the ‘community feeling’ in Valkenburg is exactly the reason Noelle likes the ‘small-town life’ so much. The charm of Valkenburg lays way closer to her heart than Amsterdam does. “Amsterdam isn’t such a warm city. People aren’t close to each other unless you are from a neighborhood where people grew up together. It just doesn’t give me the warm feeling that a small town does”, she adds. 

While living in Amsterdam- Zuidoost, Noelle couldn’t go outside at 1 am and feel safe. In Valkenburg, on the other hand, she always feels secure. ‘’Everybody knows each other. For instance, when you go to Albert Heijn, everybody knows you. Especially since we are the only Moroccan people: we stand out!”, Noelle says with a laugh.

Social state of the countryside

According to Lotte Vermije, a researcher at The Netherlands Institute of Social Research, this attachment to the community life of a small town is unique for a newcomer. For over a decade, Vermije has researched the social state of the countryside. “Since this phenomenon of people moving from city to countryside became more mainstream, villagers feared the social cohesion of the place they live would change or disappear.”

And what used to be a village life has indeed disappeared, states Vermije. “It’s being replaced by other ways of interacting with each other and being committed. Now, inhabitants are for example more divided but still come together.” According to Vermije, the top one motive to move to the countryside is housing. Not community life. “A lot of people who live in the cities, especially with children, have very little space to live. Often it’s too expensive to have a larger house and that’s way better in villages. This is one of the things people who move to the countryside appreciate more than the people who have lived in the villages.“

According to Vermije, culture in Valkenburg is indeed different in many ways. “The new inhabitants attach less value to the local shops, the local school or social clubs”. Vermije explains that the new inhabitants choose the countryside for its nature, the quality of the living environment and the practical aspect of living in rural life. “The people who move to a less dense city don’t want to become a big part of the community they mostly want to find peace”, she concludes. This statement is contradictory to how Noelle feels about community life in the village. She loves being part of the community. 

Change in many ways

People in Valkenburg are different from Amsterdam residents, Noelle thinks. They are laid back, calm and at peace with themselves. “In Amsterdam, everybody is trying to socialize and interact. Everybody has to strive for their best and wants to be seen. I’m not the person who has that kind of need. In Valkenburg, there is less competition”, says Noelle, who feels like she has found peace of mind after moving away from the big city.   

In Amsterdam, everybody is trying to socialize and interact. Everybody has to strive for their best and wants to be seen.

‘’In Amsterdam, it is like I need to fight with people while stepping into a tram, metro or train. People in Amsterdam could learn from the chill country-siders’, says Noelle. 

But she misses the multicultural element from Amsterdam in her hometown, and Noelle would like that people in Valkenburg accepted foreigners more. ‘’They should bring more culture in town because we still don’t have any halal butchers, no halal restaurants, nothing. So, I think it’s time Valkenburg needs to learn this aspect from bigger cities”, she says. Halal or not, Noelle still couldn’t think of a better place to live in the Netherlands than Valkenburg.