IS it just like riding a bike?

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On Friday I rode my bicycle to the grocery store for the first time in the US. In contrast to my previous three-minute flit to Jumbo or Albert Heijn, this ride was 2.5 miles each way–but at rush hour to a busy, cloggy shopping center, I was pretty sure that it was going to be faster and less frustrating than driving.

And also a lot more frightening.

My bicycle makes me happy, and I felt pleased when I tugged it down the back porch steps and sat on it. I clipped on my dorky helmet (never wore one in Holland), stuffed shopping bags and water bottle in the saddlebags, and it was just like old times. Briefly. It was very much not like old times when I had to immediately hop off the bike to push it up the steep part of our street (no gears on the oma fiets). Having reached the end of the street and waited for the pedestrian crosswalk signal, I had a few minutes’ ride through a residential neighborhood. There were no bike lanes here, but the roads weren’t busy.

Unfortunately, I was soon past this area to the middle stretch that I had determined would be the daunting segment of the ride. These were two fairly busy roads with periodically appearing / vanishing “bike lanes.” On a bike, I felt the hugeness of the cars here. You only have to drive around to realize that the roads and parking lots are not designed to accommodate the massive SUVs suburban moms and dads are hauling around in. I felt extremely exposed to the (annoyed, texting, hurried) cars, and on the way to the store I chickened out and rode for a while on the sidewalk.

The cyclists I see in the Cambridge, MA, vicinity are predominantly of the urban-warrior variety: messenger bag, clipped in shoes, all kinds of gear, zig-zagging around cars and through lights like the laws don’t apply to them. (There are also the sensible cyclists who wait at red lights and flinch a little when trucks rumble by.) I have a large-wheeled, heavy-frame, one gear bike with grocery bags on the back. It did, on this ride, feel a bit like the wrong equipment for the task. And although I was overheated and overdressed in my pants and reflective jacket, I felt like I should have been wearing shin guards, a chest protector, and probably some Kevlar.

All of that said, I felt extremely progressive and triumphant when I locked my bike to the small rack outside the Alewife Whole Foods (an urban cyclist girl giving me a very strange look). I looked at all the cars stuck in the rotary and hunting for parking, and I walked into that store and I bought my dinner. And when I passed a cool, tough cycling guy carrying his helmet while he shopped, I gave him the head nod, like we were in a club.

I breathed a little more normally on the ride home. I was sad, too. I was sad to live in a place where maintaining the active lifestyle of cycling requires so much risk. I was sad that “getting groceries” has gone from as short as fifteen minutes door-to-door to what seems like a minimum forty-five minute venture. I wondered if I will have the toughness to keep at cycling around here.

Of course, to the Dutch cycling is still not just “an option,” but the option. We have three Dutch friends currently in Cambridge, and we invited them for dinner on Saturday. Knowing it was a long ride including crossing a major road or two, we offered to pick them up in our car. This offer seemed to be insulting, and they showed up that evening (flying down our hill and passing the house) with their BBQ contributions in their backpacks and one of them a little bit tired (she’s several months pregnant, after all). When it began to get dark, they clipped on their lights and headed up the hill, the couple doing that lovely Dutch thing where the weaker cyclist puts an arm on the stronger cyclist for some added momentum.

For them, having grown up with the cycling culture, wherever you go, it’s just like riding a bike.

 

As I finish this post I’m reminded that though I haven’t “talked” about it here, we and people we love felt very much affected by the crash of flight MH17. It’s been said that the Netherlands is such a small country that everyone knows someone who was on the flight, or knows someone who knew someone. In our case two unrelated friends each lost a colleague, one on holiday and one on the way to the AIDS conference. Friends in Delft and the Hague told us of hearing the long, tolling bells across the country on the day the first victims were flown home. As news stories (of all magnitudes of awful) appear and disappear in our headlines, I hope that people will see this one through: to not forget what happened or to ignore what continues to unfold.

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Festas, fiestas, and a little Italian heat

One effect of Boston’s summer heat is that it makes me feel like I’m on vacation. Delft’s seasons don’t run as hot and cold, and there weren’t many genuine shorts-and-tank-top days (by my reading, not the TU Delft undergrad-girl reading) per summer. I like the hot-hot days, and for the last four summers I’ve associated them with the Mediterranean: Ostuni. Dubrovnik (lord, it was hot in Dubrovnik). Barcelona. Ventimiglia.

The places where everything shuts down in the afternoon because it has to, because the only thing you really can do is swim or siesta after a fresh lunch with a glass of white wine. The places optimized for that thing you always heard about as a kid where you could cook an egg on the pavement.

With our warmest days peaking around 90 F, OK, it hasn’t been Mediterranean hot. And as I look out my front windows to a suburban leafy street where cars and the occasional rogue cyclist rush by, the atmosphere is rather altered as well. But this past Saturday, sick of unpacking boxes and sorting through old photos and files and whatnot, I went online looking for weekend activities and found another Italian echo: the St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester, MA.

I have memories from growing up of the Catholic church in our town having a carnival every summer. (A kermis, we’d say in Holland.) But when we were in Italy it was my thrill to stumble several times upon Italian saint festivals: lights on cobbled streets and men in their suits in the evening heat, somber-faced as they carry a gigantic statue through the town, while women behind them bark prayers into megaphones. The local band follows with a march. Gelato is scooped late into the night and the saint eventually retires to the church for another year.

Polignano a Mare, 2011

Polignano a Mare, 2011

Last summer while in residence at the lovely Palazzo Rinaldi, I was taken by my hosts to a small nearby village for an event known as the Festa della Pita, the identifying feature of which is that men hoist a tall stripped tree trunk, and then try to climb it to earn prizes.

This perfectly primed me for the Pita’s horizontal cousin in Gloucester: the Greasy Pole competition. During the five-day tribute to the patron saint of the seaside town’s fisherfolk, a thick wooden pole is stuck out over the water, slathered with grease, and given an Italian flag at the far end. We made the one-hour drive to Gloucester on Saturday with greasy-pole viewing high on our agenda.

Seine boat race underway, with the greasy pole platform to the left

Seine boat race underway, with the greasy pole platform to the left

We headed to the beach after a quick stroll through the town: quaint and pretty, with some tempting Italian cafes, and gift shops selling over-priced sea-themed trinkets. The pole and platform had been erected a short distance out from the beach, nearby a massive conglomerate of boats: a floating party, of everything from kayaks to speedboats, with swimsuited people moving between. It was a hot day, but the water was still cold.

The opening act for the greasy pole was the Seine Boat Race—three rowboats labeled the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, each manned by about ten guys, racing each other to some point on the horizon and back. The race was fun enough, but heavily negated by the long maneuvering of the boats into position and a ridiculous string of false starts. A cheer went up when a large, pontoon-style boat ferried all the contestants out to the platform for the greasy pole, where I can only presume they took some time to sober up in the hot sun and remember why they had agreed to do this. As the crowd on the beach grew enormous, the first man stepped up onto the pole, promptly fell off, and the action was underway.

A greasy pole contender

A greasy pole contender

The objective for these men–some in bathing trunks, others in everything from superhero costumes to a suit–was to get that flag. As each man’s effort tended to last between zero and four seconds, the line cranked right along. After a half-hour, only one man had made it past the halfway mark, but had tumbled into the water before grasping the flag. We began seeing repeat contestants and wondered how the rules were defined: does the event simply continue until a) everyone quits or b) the flag is won?

Although attempting the greasy pole seemed fairly unsafe (some contenders fell straight to the water, but others smacked various body parts off the pole en route), the local police, fire department, and Coast Guard were all represented on the water–I suppose in case anyone were to become seriously injured. This struck me as an American touch.

Beachside crowd

Beachside crowd

Around the one-hour mark, our interest began to wane, and we were making our way along the beach when a roar from the crowd turned our heads. A man made his way half, then two-thirds the length of the pole–he was within arm’s length of the coveted flag–and though he fell into the water before grasping it, he managed to dislodge the flag, which fluttered down after him. Does that count? I barely had time to ask myself before the entire beach surged. People went wild with cheering; the contestants on the platform all began jumping into the ocean; “Who was it?” a stranger asked me eagerly–“Did you see who it was?”

I confessed that I did not know any of the contenders. The whole group swam toward shore, the champion with the flag held high, and as soon as they reached land, he was pulled up onto others’ shoulders and whisked away into the streets.

Carnival, Gloucester

Carnival, Gloucester

We had intended to drive home and make dinner, but the lure of the seaside atmosphere became too strong; so we wandered the town while the sun sunk and had seafood at a restaurant. Probably two hours after we’d left the beach, through the restaurant windows we saw the champion pass by, still clutching the flag, flush with celebration. The entire place cheered, and to me, it felt like summer.

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Two Halves Make

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I’m in a brewpub called Hopster’s for the second day in a row, during working hours (but I’m working… see?). The banners out front instruct me to “Keep Calm and Watch the World Cup Here”— two pieces of advice that I am completely ready to heed. It’s a slice of Europe in here during a match— because it’s true: the average American is only peripherally interested in the sporting event that large portions of the globe are completely fixated upon. Cynically, I think it’s because America gets disinterested in stuff it’s not predicted to win. If the US gets out of their group, we’re going to see a whole lot of front-runners.

When I wandered in here yesterday, a strong UK contingent were expressing themselves at a center table. I met an Irishman who figures he’ll root for USA, with Ireland out of the mix. One of the cool things about this establishment is that it’s less than 10 minutes (by car, Europeans) from our new apartment—where tonight we are actually going to sleep for the first time.

Wait on that: we have not slept in our own place since April 23. We have stayed with family, friends, and in a sublet, but we have not had a home since that time. I guess it’s gone as well as it could go, and we are incredibly grateful to those who hosted us—in particular to the family who has put up with us in their basement for nearly [GOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!!] four weeks. We love them more than a blog is equipped to express.

Sidenote: I didn’t think there were many NL fans here (aside from the bartender, who’s got his KNVB shirt on) but this place just went NUTS. If they’re not pro-Dutch, they’re at least anti-Spain. 

Last weekend Tim got a U-haul and hauled to Massachusetts the items we stored when we went to Delft in 2010. Most of this had been at my grandmother’s house, and my grandmother was going to give us a dresser (ladekast). “I don’t think the dresser’s going to fit,” Tim said when he called.

“Won’t fit?” I replied. Echt? 

When the truck (sans dresser) rolled up and they opened the back door, I could not believe how many boxes were jammed in that truck. I immediately reprimanded my 2010 self: What’s wrong with you? What can possibly be in those boxes that you haven’t needed in four years, yet currently need? [That part of the reprimand was anachronistic.]

I discovered the answers this week: Wedding albums. Kitchen appliances. An alarming number of CDs. Boxes and boxes of my old journals… notebooks… albums… papers. (Plus all of Tim’s: Lab books. Files. Sheet music.) I’ve tried to plow through these boxes day by day because tomorrow, the second half arrives. At a warehouse in Chelsea, Boston, our Netherlands shipment has been cleared by customs for release. If seeing our stuff from four years ago was weird, seeing the stuff from our Dutch apartment, here, is going to be equally surreal. I remember so clearly how when our American shipment showed up in Delft, the reality hit me: We live here. We’re not going home. 

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When we unpack those verhuisdozen and add them to the garage-worn US boxes, when we put those two halves in one home, what will they equal? I can be very sentimental, but my sentimentality for things has an expiration date. Things that I obviously felt sentimental about in 2010 (framed photos from camping trips, cards from an old birthday) now seem unimportant, in comparison to the photos from our trips to Italy, or the mementos of Delft and our home there. Something in me twinges as I can’t help but wonder: Someday will these things all seem trivial, too? What, then, can really be important?

We moved to Delft during the World Cup finals in 2010, so I know the madness unfolding in Holland right now, as the Dutch just scored for the second time against the team that defeated them that year. I Skyped earlier today with a friend on that side, and she assured me that the country was ready. Every establishment she’d seen was setting up their outdoor screen; everyone was gearing up for the match that began at 9 PM local time.

Somewhere, my friends are cheering, with the possible exception of those from Spain, who may be doing some exhorting. Hup, Holland! And on to the boxes, again.

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This is life.

One of the best days back was when I discovered that my library card still worked.

One of the best days back was when I discovered that my library card still worked.

“What’re you working on over there?” the guy at the Starbucks asks after I’ve taken up space for three hours.

“I’m a writer,” I say (I’m working on not-self-deprecating). “I’m working on a novel.”

“Cool,” he says. “Have you written anything I might know?”

“No,” I say, with my big unpublished smile.

It’s been a month since our move and my daily routine does not exist. For a self-employed writer, this is bad news. It takes time and effort to set up a routine that works—a time and a place where I daily sit down and my brain knows “now we write.” (And often after a few months, the routine wears off and I need a new one.) I was in a good groove the last stretch in Delft, despite the chaos of moving.

Since the move? The inertia is massive. If you have a friend who moved internationally, and you haven’t heard from them, please let them off the hook. Every day I fight the inertia of wasting time or being in a funk or spending an hour in some random place I didn’t even mean to go. Contemplating the strange reality that places I used to be are carrying on right now, as they do every day, except that I’m not there.

Although I get gloomy, the emo arc on a general day is less dramatic than it was at first. I can’t complain, because things are slowly but surely sorting themselves out. We searched for an apartment for about two weeks, while subletting an AirBnB place with very curious cat. We learned that the area in which we’d aspired to live didn’t match our price range. This was a reality that died hard for me. I had been adamant on living in a semi-urban area where I could continue my European routine of walking and cycling to little independent cafes and food shops. That lifestyle is uncommon here, and so it’s desirable, and so it’s expensive.

The US is full of places to shop. I’m not going to lie: when I would come back here to visit, I would suddenly have this itch to buy cookware and dresses and shoes on sale. All at giant big-box stores or online or at discount chains like TJ Maxx (the likes of which the Netherlands does not have). The suburbs are weirdly populated with collections of stores and restaurants on repeat. A Wegman’s (grocery store) recently opened near where we’re staying and after someone told us, “It’s basically a tourist attraction,” I went to check it out. I might not have come out for days (if I actually needed groceries, which I don’t).

So in the end we collected our sanity, stopped trying to raise the amount we could squeak out in rent, and rented an apartment in Watertown. It may not be walkable to chic urban coolness, but it’s walkable to some things, including a bus to Harvard Square. I would tell you how it’s going, but we can’t move in until June 15. Currently we are on our 5th temporary stay (3 relatives, one sublet, and now good friends). People are very generous, and we are very grateful, but living out of a suitcase gets old (or, in our case, out of three suitcases and several Trader Joe’s shopping bags).

I have driven our car almost every day. It’s a little unnerving, zipping around the traffic-y roads and rotaries of the Boston area, and in a small car I’m amazed by how little I can see sometimes. Inevitably I find myself backing out of a parking space between two massive SUVs, unable to see what’s coming.

The reason I don’t need groceries is because we’re perpetual houseguests, but even during the two weeks we had a sublet, eating has been weird since we left. Convenience food is everywhere in the US, and quality groceries aren’t as cheap as they were in Delft. I remember reading a study that ranked the Netherlands #1 in the world for the accessibility of good food (quality and affordability). Dear Dutch-dwelling friends: it’s real. Go buy fruit and eat it for me.

“The detox is coming,” we keep saying, after we pick up a pizza… or bagels… or chocolate-covered gummy bears. This is not vacation, I keep reminding myself. You are not vacation-eating. This is life. And it’s moving along.

 

 

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Yoga Pants

I’d been mulling over a post on cultural differences being back in the US when I realized that some of these lifestyle elements needed posts of their own, beginning with: yoga pants.

After a few days in Delaware, Tim asked me why none of the women were wearing regular clothes. Most of the women we saw in the bagel shop, in the grocery store, crossing the road, were wearing stretchy yoga pants, flip-flops or sneakers, and a t-shirt or sweatshirt. I find the same thing now in Cambridge: when I’m in the Whole Foods, I’m trying to figure out if each individual woman just was exercising, or if she is just dressed like she could exercise.

Our stylish friend Marten commented on this phenomenon after a home-visit to Canada. “Where’s the class?” he lamented. “Why is everyone in their pajamas?” Our American expat friend Ian talked about the sideways glances he got wearing a scarf (as an accessory) to the US office.

It’s true: casual-wear is more of a North American entity. When we first arrived in Delft, it didn’t take me long to notice that I was the only non-tourist wearing pink plastic flip-flops everywhere (in July!). Going to the grocery store in my workout clothes felt a little awkward; going in my pajama pants was straight-out unthinkable. Over the years I ditched the T-shirts, ditched the flip-flops; and as my wardrobe changed, I noticed, people stopped addressing me in English before I’d opened my mouth.

Part of it has to do with anonymity. If I go to the grocery store in Cambridge, it’s unlikely that I’m going to run into someone I know. The town and the store are just too big. In Delft, I was always running into neighbors, friends, and colleagues. The invisible wall that said “I’m in plaid slouchy pants, and it’s OK” disappeared.

Then there are social cues. Europe maintains more social cues than the US does. General niceties must be observed, and this includes how you present. In the US collective consciousness there’s this image of the “girl next door”—she looks good wearing jeans or sweats, but she could dress up if she chose. And on a regular Tuesday, at the grocery store? She does not choose.

I get that. Before becoming a freelancer, I worked in two offices where (thank God) a “professional wardrobe” was not required. Jeans and a shirt were totally OK. So I know this could sound like Europe has some image-law you have to maintain, but it didn’t feel that way. (Though I am having a mental echo of a passage, I think, from David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris where he discusses how in his Paris neighborhood it was completely inappropriate to so much as take out your garbage without being fully coiffed for the day.) I felt very free in Europe to express myself through how I dressed—but the norms encouraged me to care about how I looked. And when I did, I felt good about myself, in a way that was new. I’d never considered myself a fashionable person before.

It was a win-win when Tim took the European fashion book to heart, too. Jeans with a shape; stylish brown shoes; a casual button-down rather than a T-shirt. He even began carrying a bag, which I personally love because then I’m not toting anyone else’s possessions in my (already heavy) shoulder bag. After years of shopping for men’s clothes in the US where even “smaller” sizes seem cut for a tank, shopping for Tim’s clothes in Europe was a breath of fresh air.

We didn’t buy as much clothing, because clothing costs more there. There aren’t discount chains like TJ Maxx. Every store you walk in doesn’t just have a sale rack in the back. I didn’t frequently wind up impulse-buying a sweater just because “It was on a great sale!”. But what we did buy felt more like an investment.

Moving back is a little like fighting the tide. I already bought a hoodie (“Oh, this is so cute!”). I bought blue flip-flops, because we’re going to the beach over Memorial Day weekend. Tim asked me the other day, wearing one of his lovely European shirts and dress shoes: “Do I look dumb?”

(“NO!”)

I’m at a grocery store cafe right now, and I’m wearing my regular European skinny jeans. Will it last? Time will tell.

 

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Delft: A Local’s Guide

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Delft: A Local’s Guide

I had a weird burst of productivity in the month before we moved. Several things that I’d always “meant to do” suddenly seemed urgent, now-or-never; and one of them was writing a short guidebook on Delft. Since getting a Kindle a few years back, I’ve downloaded some by-local e-guides and found them useful—especially in a town or an area that gets maybe a page, or a page and a half, in a mainstream guide. As a tour guide, and as a host to family and friends, I gave a lot of history and plenty of recommendations over the past four years. I can’t stop talking about Delft, and I wrote this book to help others discover it!

Delft: A Local’s Guide is available on Amazon.com ($3.99) for Kindle, and with the free Kindle app for your other devices. If you use it, I’d love to hear what you think!

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A whole bunch of our friends bantered ideas and titles with me for the book—but the biggest thanks go to Tim and Fabai for reading the draft, and to Adi for some good suggestions. Thanks, guys!

P.S. After I clicked “publish” on this post, WordPress informed me that this is my 400th post on this blog. How fitting!

 

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To the Next Expats

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The day before we moved, I got a comment on my blog from a new expat in Delft. As difficult as that day was, there was something that felt right about knowing that even as we were leaving, someone else was beginning the adventure.

Amid the flurry of goodbye festivities in which we lived during April, people repeated to us a few things that helped solidify for me what made our time overseas so great.

“Well, you really took advantage of it!” friends commented. They’d refer to all the vacations we took, all the places we visited. Some expats we know roll this way, too; others talk more about how they “meant to” travel. But we went for it, investing our money and time and ideas, and getting back growth and experiences that will always be with us. Though my list still feels long, we really covered some ground.

“You guys have a lot of friends” was another refrain we heard. We crowded our apartment for a going-away party with Tim’s colleagues. We said goodbye to people from church, from our neighborhood, who we met in a language group. We are incredibly blessed by the people we met in Europe—several of whom, in those final days, packed a truck, carried heavy furniture, and played the endless game of Tetris required to get our couch down the staircase.

Our positive experience could be distilled into three parts:

1. We traveled

2. We had wonderful friends

3. We had meaningful personal and work experiences. (For me, the opportunity to establish my own structure and write was invaluable.)

So, to those just on the ground…

Open your home. The way we got to know people was by initiating things, often at our place. We hosted a Thanksgiving party that grew every year. We hosted BBQs on our tiny deck, and Christmas with people like us who didn’t go home, and potlucks for Easter and random Saturdays. Sharing your home builds friendships.

You have to register with a huisarts (equivalent of US primary care). But ask around and get a recommendation from someone with whom you feel simpatico. We took the first recommendation we heard and went with the International Health Center in den Haag, believing that we would never make it with a “truly Dutch” huisarts. I’ll spare you my total feelings, but this quickly became annoying, given the distance from our home; our experience there was not entirely positive; and plenty of the staff are Dutch, anyway. It did not feel like we had teleported to an American doctor’s office.

So much of the expat life comes down to recommendations: A haircut. A restaurant. A tailor. A tax pro. A doctor. You’ll learn whose recommendations match your preferences and your budget.

[While I’m on it? Haircuts were the bane of my Dutch existence before Rebecca recommended Kinki in Delft. Thank you, thank you, thank you.]

Before we moved overseas, we had every medical checkup in the book, passed with flying colors, and fully intended to not need much doctoring for the next three years. Well, you can’t count on that.

In four years we had way more experience with the Dutch medical system than I ever would have imagined, for issues ranging from cavities to ear infection to unknown pains to an outpatient surgery. Whether you come from the US or from Bolivia, learning to trust a doctor who doesn’t “feel like” the system you’re used to is very, very hard. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I’m not going to say I never got irrationally teary with a secretary or snapped at someone from the insurance company because I just didn’t understand them, or because their bedside manner seemed nonexistent.

Have your taxes done by a pro. In the US, we always did our own taxes. So for a brief amount of time in our very first year abroad, we really believed we were going to martyr our way through the Dutch-language-only Dutch tax forms—when we barely speak conversational Dutch, let alone legal Dutch. We had a great recommendation from a German-American expat couple for a place that really helped us, not only ensuring that we did things “to code,” but alerting us to a benefit we didn’t know we were qualified to receive. The cost was far less than other “expat specialists” we’d found. The website is: http://www.confianza.nl

Question Google Translate. Always ask a person. The more Dutch I learned, the more I realized that Google Translate (a god-send the first month) produces garbled English translations that often have lost something significant. Or read like a nonsense rhyme.

The more botched translation has been a part of your life, the more meaningful you may find this video.

Don’t go home all the time, but go home when it matters. We didn’t use all our vacation time to go home to the US. Why? Because we moved to Europe. We saw our families about once a year, which was not always enough, but overall we all communicated in other ways and stayed close.

Then, in the past six months, both of my grandfathers passed away; and both times we were left sitting at a computer scanning travel websites and asking the tacky-sounding “was it worth it” question—to pay (if we both went) $1000+ to fly home on short notice, to attend a funeral. One of those times, the travel home would necessitate canceling a trip we’d planned with friends. The decisions seemed confusing—and then we would come out of the fog and realize: Duh. We go home.

Travel, travel, travel. Listen to all those people who are telling you what a “wonderful chapter of your life” this is; or (if applicable) how free you are now compared to what may lie ahead (kids, mortgages, repatriation). Go and see.

Keep a record. Make photobooks. Keep a journal. Friends of ours make a little iMovie video whenever they return from a trip. Write a blog! (I’d love to read it.) When we moved overseas, this blog was as many expat blogs initially are: a way to keep family and friends updated, and share some pictures of your new life. But over time I began receiving comments from strangers, and connecting with people I’d never met. The expat experience is an instant link.

Some of my earlier advice to expats can be found on Expats Blog at: http://www.expatsblog.com/contests/24/the-long-way-home

 

 

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