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