Tag Archives: American expats

The World Got Small

If you read this blog, you know that when our expat experience in the Netherlands came to a close in 2014, I felt like the doors of the world had shut in my face. It was worse than the worst breakup of my younger years, and in some ways strangely similar. There was the moping. The tears at the sight of a photo, or a friend’s reference to the Lost. The feeling that nothing mattered due to the Loss. (Maybe you handled your breakups better than I did?) There were too many mornings when I sat on the $40 brown couch we bought used on Craigslist (maybe you buy better couches than I do, too) and stared out the windows at my own definition of suburban bleakness and couldn’t figure out how to get started, or where to go, or why. The world, it seemed, had gotten small.

But it wasn’t stagnant, and in October we found out I was pregnant. There are missing chapters from this blog on our years overseas, that were too personal at the time to write— unsaid posts on Dutch hospitals and healthcare, hopes for a baby in a bakfiets that never quite materialized. And then (I kid you not) six months to the day from our move back to the US, a positive test. We held our breath, and we waited.

IMG_1925

Things were well, and then gradually and quickly they weren’t, and in March I was admitted to the hospital in early labor at just shy of 24 weeks. Delivery was averted and a sleepless night spent and in the morning we realized, I wasn’t going home. I had a host of problems and a high risk pregnancy and no idea that when we’d walked in the doors the afternoon before, I wouldn’t walk out for more than a month. Tim went home and got my things and I was moved to bed rest in the area of the hospital called antenatal— a surreal, numb world I had no idea existed, and I hope you didn’t, either. For more than a month I sat in a hospital bed in a room that was tiny and private, with a window that looked over a construction project. Winter was stuck on play and the scene was always drab. The nurses who came and took my vital signs and listened to the baby every four or five hours or who called transport to wheel me in a bed for an ultrasound two times a week (the only times I left the room) repeatedly informed me that I wasn’t missing any good weather. As far as I could tell, they were correct, but it didn’t really help. You might think that being on bed rest would give a person a lot of time, but my mind didn’t work. I discovered Instagram (we never had smartphones overseas) and followed anything I could find relating to Paris, Amsterdam, cooking (hospital food making traditional Dutch cuisine look innovative, spectacular). My phone would flash the weather from my favorite cities and I would marvel that all of these places were existing, somewhere, right now, while I sat in a bed and watched Boston’s dirty snow melt. I couldn’t help thinking that this was all a very cruel joke. I’d thought the world was small before? Now I knew what a loss of freedom really meant.

IMG_1982

We knew she would come early and she did, at 29 weeks. I had a gut sense that given everything, she would come on April 24—a year to the day since our move. I told Tim, and it should tell you how weird everything had gotten that he admitted he’d thought of this. We were spared whatever strange symbolism this might have had when Lucy was born via “planned emergency” C-section on April 20. (This means they gave us four hours’ warning and time to get some more drugs in my system.)

Our world, in the extremely short span of time a C-section actually takes, zoomed down to 3 lbs, 5 oz. She was whisked away to a little plastic incubator which around her appeared gigantic, and for 10 weeks she stayed, not always in the plastic incubator but always in the NICU at what we had to admit we were glad was a first-rate American hospital. In July (her original due date was July 1) she came home, with an oxygen tank (now gone) and a tiny little cry and the bluest blue eyes in the world.

Though at first it was hard, we leave the house now—going “out in the world,” I always tell her. She looks at me and laughs and I think she understands. The world, I would whisper to her in the hospital, is not a tiny room with beeping and lights and needles and cords. Tell the other babies. 

She isn’t ready yet— for airports and bicycles, unfamiliar bus routes, food on forks at a foreign cafe. And so we learn patience together, and remind ourselves that the world is always both smaller—and bigger—than we expect.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Baby, Moving Back to the US

Finding

I write a lot of things down. In journals, when I feel disciplined; in random notebooks I buy because I like the covers; on loose scraps of paper and receipts and whatever was at hand when a thought struck. The paradox of the note-keeping is that I do it so I won’t forget an idea, an impression, or the fact that we’re out of toilet paper– but despite the distrust of my memory, and an overall lack of organizational system, I rarely forget the pages themselves.

“Have you seen,” I’ll be asking Tim, “a yellow sticky?” 

“There are yellow stickies everywhere.”

“I know, but this one has a note on it of something I saw at Coffee Company. The other day it was by the cucumbers.”

So there was a piece of paper I knew went missing circa nine months ago. It was a sheet of A4 printer paper I’d pulled out of my bag and scrawled some notes on, on the last day we visited Amsterdam. I wanted those notes, to preserve the city as it was to me that day, and so that I could turn them into a blog post. I wanted the notes because—on what seemed like such an important occasion—I’d forgotten our camera; I remember realizing it as we walked to the train. It was a weekend day just before we moved, and structure was somewhat less than normal. By the time I thought to search for my paper, it seemed too late to track in the chaos a plain white sheet. I combed meticulously through stacks created after I gave away my desk to a friend, accompanied by a bottle of wine because anyone who took an object from our house that week also received a bottle we couldn’t take with us. (So did anyone who helped us move an object from our house.) The notes never surfaced, and my last guess (aside from being recycled) was that they’d been mixed into the folder of pages we left for the incoming tenant of our apartment. I could only hope I hadn’t written anything too embarrassing.

This morning, on the doorstep of 2015, I picked a book off the bookshelf that I wanted to give away. I’d started it months ago and lost interest. I thumbed through it and a paper slid out: white, soft, littered with my handwriting. And as I squinted at my own appalling scrawl, scenes sprang up so vividly I thought I could breathe their air.

IMG_0670

It had been tulip season, and from the train we saw the fields ablaze. The sun came out warm, I wrote, and Amsterdam was mobbed: throngs of tourists, tornadoes of pot smoke. We wandered down the Haarlemmerdijk taking in the usual sights: boats, bachelorettes, stylish Amsterdammers and a shirtless man drinking a beer by the canal. We stopped at Two for Joy, my favorite cafe, where I would often write when in Amsterdam. In honor of our last day, I touristed myself and bought one of the cafe’s logo espresso cups. The server couldn’t find one of the matching saucers new and asked if I would be OK with one that had been in use, taken from the drying rack of the cafe itself. I couldn’t have liked it more.

We continued to the Noordermarkt, bustling and sunny, where we sampled pears and bread. We spent fifteen minutes at a vendor of old postcards: places we have been, places we haven’t. I bought one of Delft, intending still to frame it. We lingered near street musicians; I watched a girl pass with Obama stickers on her Dutch bicycle. I want, I wrote, to remember this.

The last night we were in Amsterdam, we ate at a little Italian restaurant we’d visited several times before. Friendly, warm, gezellig, and neighborhood-feeling. The kind of place we always insisted we wouldn’t consume a whole bottle of wine, and then did. That night a man wandered in, one I could recognize right away as hoping to sell something. In cities all across Europe, we’ve been approached at restaurant tables while a man, smiling, wordless, seemingly always in a dark jacket, holds out a rose and waits until we become uncomfortable or say “no, thank you,” enough times. I have a complicated soft spot for these people, always curious what their lives are like and how much money you can really earn selling flowers table to table.

But this man didn’t have flowers. Or Kleenex, or cheap greeting cards, or any of the other variations we’d seen. He had a camera.

It was an old Polaroid, hanging around his neck, and as he approached our table he held it up, asking if we wanted a photo. I almost shook my head by default and then realized–yes. Yes, we want a picture; how perfect is this? I scooted around to the other side of the table, next to Tim, and the man snapped a single shot, waved it a little, and walked away with a few Euros before the image had even appeared.

By many definitions, it’s not the greatest photo. We weren’t dressed up; we look like we’d been out all day. I’m wearing a drab sweater and scarf. My hair is short; I can’t believe how much it’s grown. Tim sports his Euro-goatee, which got the razor shortly after. In front of us on the table are a half-eaten pizza and a wine glass. The image is framed in such a way that we could be anywhere—the main background is a boring white wall—but out the window behind my head you can make out bike wheels in the dark. Amsterdam.

As soon as I saw the photo I remember thinking it already looked old. The vintage style helps, but it was as if even in the moment I could feel that day slipping, belonging to a chapter that would close. Before months had elapsed we’d pick it up and say, “We look young,” or, “Do you remember when…”

IMG_1372

This December we brought a tree home on our car. This was quite the shift from previous years. We decorated with ornaments gathered from our travels, resulting in that wintry mix of joy and nostalgia. Over the holiday a relative told me that she checks my blog, but wondered why I hadn’t been writing. I’ve wondered that, too; all I’ve got is that there hasn’t been a lot to say. Closing a chapter is hard, and there are no notes you can find to help you through.

The best analogy I’ve had for the time since our move is that it has felt like someone has died, or like a relationship has ended. At first it was unbearably heavy; then gradually it lightened, but the loss will catch me off guard on any given day.

I didn’t make many resolutions for the new year, but most of the goals I’ve thought up involve writing. One is to use this space again, to talk about moving or travel or anyplace in between. Happy new year, and thanks for reading!

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

To the Next Expats

IMG_5000

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

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Our Dutch Adventure

Frankfurt, August 2013

I rush through Frankfurt Airport in plenty of time to sit at my overcrowded gate and as I near it, it happens:

I am surrounded by Americans.

My expat ears are tuned to American English in public settings, not because I miss it, but because I know it. I am used to hearing it in small clusters, or in tour groups of 30-40 (sometimes following me around). I am no longer used to being in a group of 100+ members of my own nationality—and here they all are. I have a feeling this flight is going to be noisy.

I can read their book titles (sampling: If God Was a Banker, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Gone Girl). I know the places on their t-shirts. I recognize their signature style of jeans.

And it’s true: they’re loud. On my linking flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, the entire airplane was treated to 40 minutes of clear, precise English at maximum—er, his normal—volume by a man I swear I thought was sitting right behind me until I looked and realized he was quite a ways back. He engaged his European seatmate in topics ranging from Buddhism to Switzerland to the dozen museums he just saw in Amsterdam (no, he never made it beyond Amsterdam). If I had sat next to this guy, it occurs to me, I might have pretended that I didn’t know English.  

The other day I told someone that going to your home country after a long time away (in my current case, fourteen months) is like getting together with an ex. You’re not sure how it’s going to go, exactly. You might really hit it off! and wonder why you ever parted ways. You might reflect on the bittersweet past, but conclude that you made the right choice. Or you might want to run screaming from the restaurant.

Americans, I must point out, are awesome at airport security. The guy in front of me who had two liters of soda in his carry-on? Not American. The woman with a shopping bag full of salad dressing? Not American. For better or worse, Americans who fly even occasionally are standing in security lines with their shoes off, belts in the trays, and laptops out of the case.

The Americans at my gate, passports tucked under their arms (or, yes, strung on lanyards around their necks) are people of every possible skin hue. When I’m on a flight with mostly Dutch people—it’s visually obvious. There’s still, overall, a cohesive genetic heritage.

More than a few of the Americans are large. Did you know that recently someone told me he wouldn’t have guessed I was American, because I’m thin? (He guessed Spanish, so maybe he wasn’t that astute.) Right or wrong, Europe knows Americans as big. Big houses. Big cars. Bigger.

So I board my big old plane to the US. There’s another man (not the man from my first leg—I check) a few rows back, talking up a storm (“I’m married, you know; my wife, she’s a beautiful lady, like you…”). A boy with an American passport but whose mother clearly has an Eastern European first language sits next to me. In perfect, eager American English, he tells me how to operate my seat’s personal TV. I put on my headphones and take out my knitting (once again, knitting needles clear security no problem). The stewardess who comes around tries German, then French with me before guessing at English.

It’s going to be a long flight to Newark.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized