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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One Week Back

The last day in Delft

The last day in Delft

I no longer own a device that keeps time. My watch gave out gradually over the past year, until the jeweler where I took it to replace the battery (with increasing frequency) told me that the battery wasn’t the problem. So I relied on my cell phone—which no longer works, since I moved to America. We’ve been driving around in a 1998 Toyota Corolla—with a nonfunctional display.

But by my best reckoning, a week ago, early in the morning, I shut the door on my empty apartment in Delft. I had a hard time leaving. I went upstairs one last time, dropped something, and was amazed by how loudly it echoed. Our stuff was gone. (Aside from, you know, three monstrous suitcases, 2 backpacks, a small suitcase, and a laptop bag.) I got teary and tried to hide it from the friend who was driving us to Schiphol.

Hours later, I cried like a baby as the plane came down over Philadelphia. Where was the green land? Where were the water and the windmills? All I could think was how overdeveloped and grey the landscape looked. Go ahead and tell me spring is just slow to come here, but it was depressing. I felt like I’d left my heart somewhere else. I’m not saying that to be dramatic, or because this blog has become a weeper, but because this blog has been about our experience as expats and so it’s necessary to say that the reality of leaving has been hard. Sometimes it’s felt impossible. Sometimes I feel angry and certain that we did the wrong thing. Sometimes I feel hopeful. And a lot of times I ride around in a car.

On Saturday we took our laptops to a Barnes & Noble in Delaware. We chose a table in the café and then realized we were dead-on facing the international travel section. I resolutely opened my computer and began to work, trying not to stare too longingly at the maps and books of places I have been, or dreamed of being. As people came and went at the tables around me, I was surrounded by Americans planning their summer vacations.

To my left, a woman asked her (apathetic) husband: “That big wheel, what’s it called? The Ferris wheel with the views over the city?” He shrugged and pointed toward the London guidebook she was already reading. “Look in there.” The London Eye, I almost said out loud. It’s called the London Eye.

A well-dressed lady sat down at my right with a stack of books on Tuscany. Lucky you, I thought. A man picked up a map of Amsterdam and it was so tempting to talk to him, to say: I was there Saturday. Where are you going? When?

But no one likes a stalker. So I kept my head down and tried to work on the Delft guidebook I’m writing.

We drove to Massachusetts yesterday through about six hours of rain ranging from torrential to moderate. We’re “moving” today into a two-week sublet, and the apartment hunt has begun. I used to consider finding apartments on Craigslist one of my primary talents, but now I find it overwhelming and annoying. Why don’t people post photos? Why are things so expensive? Why is there “no real kitchen”? We need a place to live; we need phones; we need insurance; we need new toothbrushes. Our possessions (those not currently filling a 1998 Corolla) are scattered in three American states plus a cargo boat. Make no mistake: moving internationally is a pain.

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And then the truck came.

I suppose I should be writing some of my observations after a week in the US, but instead I will tell you that before we left Delft, another American expat and I were trying to list our “most American” traits. “I like country music,” I suggested. “Do you?” she asked, and I couldn’t tell if she was excited or horrified. I don’t like spending much time in a car these days, but I have reconnected with the part of me that views the automobile as a private, soundproof (or so I pretend), karaoke room.

 

 

 

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A Strange, Small World

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It’s 6 A.M. and I’m grateful for coffee. The apartment and my body feel like carnage of the past week: There has been insufficient sleep. There have been rodeo-like attempts at corralling the objects from our drawers and cupboards. There have been too many and yet not enough drinks with friends.

My “special notebook” in which I scrawl ideas and other things was missing for three days, presumed lost; resurrected just a day late for Easter. There was much rejoicing. Yesterday I turned on my Kindle to get a moment’s sanity by reading over lunch, and discovered that the top half of the screen is broken. I don’t know how this happened, but I’m pretty sure it has to do with the absence of furniture. I’ve been stashing the Kindle on the floor next to the mattress at night. And I am 80% (Kindle likes to give you percents) through a mystery I wanted to finish.

Last night, around midnight, I tried to read on the Kindle anyway, to see if I could make enough sense of the screen to continue with the story. I kept at it for a few minutes, but I was missing too many words to get the real picture.

That’s life this week. I try very hard, but I’m missing part of the screen. It’s the part that comes after Thursday, when we get on the plane and fly back to America.

Last weekend we hosted (I think this qualifies?) a borrel. It’s a Dutch gathering of drinks and small hapjes (snacks), and in Tim’s department it’s tradition to throw one when you’re going away. Ours was at our house. We still had the couch—Tim and one lucky friend hadn’t yet had the experience of Tetris-ing it up/down/up/NO/down/up our narrow, bent Dutch staircase.

We talked and reminisced, and our friends (in another tradition) sang us a song and gave us gifts. At 2 A.M. I excused myself and went to bed while a tiny core of close friends talked science. It was the right ending.

On a small piazza in Sardinia last month we met an artist who tried to guess our home from our accents. To my surprise, he correctly deduced that we were American but had lived outside the US.

“It is a strange world,” he said, “no? When people from the US live in the Netherlands?”

Saturday we went truant on packing to spend the day in Amsterdam. We bought olives at a market and sat with our feet hanging over the Keizersgracht, feeling the sun and spitting the pits. The canals were busy with boaters (but nowhere near as busy as they’ll be on upcoming King’s Day). Amsterdammers were lounging along the canals, sitting outside, taking it all in, like we were. To them it is not strange; and to us, not anymore.

May the world continue to be strange—and small.

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