Tag Archives: Americans in the Netherlands

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.

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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…”

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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!

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(Not Just Another) Weekend

It was a busy weekend in Delft. As already mentioned, there was the Taptoe.

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It was Open Monuments, when many historical buildings are open to the public free of charge. It was a gorgeous, perfect day and people were out in force (because, as we all know: winter is coming).

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A crane on a boat working on the bridge near our street (got that?) tipped over! Holy cow! I hope no one was hurt. This massive boat-crane tipped and wound up with its base in the air and the long crane-arm sprawled across the road. When I perceived the chaos, I walked down the street only to be told by a police officer to move along. “No looking.” Ah, sorry, sir, but there are about 200 people here “looking.” And they all have their iPhones out. The process eventually involved so much looking that across the canal, people brought out folding chairs and sat all evening watching as special boats and two more cranes were brought in to right and dismantle the original one.

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Crane on its side

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Crane in the road

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Crane righted eventually

And lastly, I started a new job. Now, before you get confused, this job will only occur occasionally, and will not result in a large or steady income. (In short, it is right up my alley.) Saturday morning I led my first guided tour of Delft with the Delft Rondleidingen tour specialists!

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This venture came out of a Sunday morning when, biking out of Delft on our way to church, I passed two gentlemen looking up at the Waag, the weigh-house on the market. I looked and listened as I rode by them, because I aspire to become Sherlock Holmes. “So it’s the Boterhuis, then the Waag,” one man said, pointing and then making notes on a pad of paper. He had a very distinctive voice. He also wore some very American-looking jeans. When I caught up to Tim, I said: “I swear, that is Rick Steves.”

Tim hadn’t noticed anyone.

I made him cycle back around to confirm my suspicions. He wasn’t convinced. “It’s possible,” he admitted. I cited the note-taking, obvious interest in historical structures, and the voice—we’ve both listened to RS podcasts and TV episodes. We deliberated and made the decision that I had to ask, because otherwise we’d never know. Thus resolved, we realized we’d lost track of them. About twenty minutes of red-herring games followed, during which we 1. stalked the pair into a cafe they were not in, going so far as to order espressos to blend in 2. followed a different man who also seemed to be taking notes, so we thought he was with RS–but we quickly concluded that he was a separate and odd character. Finally, convinced that now I had to know, I hopped on my bike and did a quick loop around the immediate blocks, and spotted the men easily on Oude Delft nearing the Oude Kerk. I cycled up behind them and listened to the American man’s voice until I was positive that I was listening to the author of most of my guide books. There was no break in the dialogue, so I finally interrupted awkwardly and said, “I’m sorry, but I just have to ask: are you Rick Steves?” BINGO! Having confirmed my hunch, I launched into my elevator pitch of how we live here, we love his books, I’m a writer, I’d be happy to talk to him about Delft; and he politely smiled and accepted my card. Well, I never heard from him.

But the other man offered me a job as a tour guide.

And so on a sunny September morning I nervously shepherded nine visiting businesspeople around our town and thoroughly enjoyed talking with them about the history of the city and what it’s like to live here now. I wrote my own 1.5-hour script for the endeavor, after shadowing a tour done by my colleague, and it was a great opportunity to solidify all the jumbled facts and “I-think”s of Delft history that have settled in my brain over the past two years.

Delft Rondleidingen offers historical walks, walks with visits inside some of the city’s important buildings, and walks combined with dinner and drinks. I am their only native-English-speaking guide, and I’m ready to go! Can I say once again that I love my freelance life?

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On Expats

The incident occurred not long after we moved here. I was visiting a new friend’s home, another expat, and she was preparing a meal. My friend poured something—sauce, maybe?—out of a glass jar, and then as I watched

she threw the jar in the regular trash.

This moment might sound tiny and mundane, but for me it was a “there-is-no-Santa”-caliber revelation. I was shocked.

I had just realized that all American expats are not like me.

It takes time to figure out the ideas you have in your own head that aren’t quite right. One of the false assumptions I unconsciously brought overseas with me was that other expats, especially American expats, would resemble me in personality, interests, and spirit.

This idea should have gone out the window quickly. One of the first expats I became friends with was a woman who thought I was bold for walking all around my new town. I’ve visited homes where people hoard American products (soda, Kraft, Betty Crocker mixes, whatever) and are still wary of “international” cuisine. I have been asked more times than I can count if I am homesick and lonely because my husband dragged me here for his work. (ha.) And I know couples who tackled integration much faster than us, devoting spare time to learning Dutch with homemade flashcards and making sure to meet all their neighbors.

Recently I was riding in a car (!!) with three friends, one Dutch and two expat. One of them commented that Tim and I were unusual in our group: Neither of us grew up overseas or had a jet-setting travel lifestyle in our youth. Neither of us married a Dutch person, or even a person from another culture. We’re just American and we’re here. And we like it.

In some ways, expats go through the same things: noticing the same cultural differences; going through the same processes and paperwork and rituals. There are always easy conversation points when you meet new people. But beyond that, every person or couple or family’s situation is unique.

The work or school situation dictates how much paperwork and legal slogging you must do yourself (versus your employer taking care of all that). The employment situation may also dictate if a person’s stay here is a year, a few years, or indefinite. What a person’s interests or character traits are will influence if he interacts with mainly other expats, mainly with coworkers, etc.

These kind of thoughts (plus the fascinating international friends we’ve made) led me to the idea of doing some expat profiles on this blog (sorry, I’m into boldface today), so you can hear other people’s stories besides ours. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised by the diversity.

You know me a bit if you read this, but in a few points, Tim and I are:

  • earthy recycling types (no glass in the trash here)
  • doing 90% of our own paperwork/legal slogging. It can be time-consuming and sometimes so, so frustrating.
  • on a stint initially determined as three years, but subject to future plans
  • eager to explore and travel
  • eager to make friends from other cultures
  • attending an international church in den Haag, which gives us an instant venue beyond work for meeting new people
  • lacking a second fluent language, although our Dutch conversation group is going really well! I actually reached a point this week—in Dutch—with another student where we were discussing how he makes art out of discarded objects. And I started telling him how in my old neighborhood (in Cambridge) I used to pull old window frames from the trash. And then our teacher glanced over, curious as to how we could possibly have reached a conversational point where I was using the words “old windows” and the other student was asking for a translation of “found objects.” But I digress.

Sadly, the international community is a bit transient, and one day we’ll be no exception. We’re saying goodbye this month to two separate families we’ve been close to here, and I’m going to miss both of them. I’ll sign off on that note, and go investigate the Carnival bands passing by our house. I think I am too American to fully appreciate Carnival!

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November One

I posted too soon. Yesterday I wrote about how it was beginning to look a bit like Christmas, and then today I went out and all the Delft canal lights and decorations had appeared in full force.

And the true sign of the times is that behind the Oude Kerk, the Oliebollen man has taken up his seasonal residence. For the next two months, riding past the church is officially a fried-dough-temptation hazard. Oliebollen literally means “oil balls” but don’t be thrown: it’s basically fresh donut or funnel-cake in spherical form with powdered sugar heaped on it. I had my first oliebol of the season in Gouda a week or so ago. Delicious!

It always catches me off-guard to see the numeral 1 on my iCal icon. But this month is especially exciting, because in November we will be traveling to an exotic location known as… the United States of America.

At the station the day we arrived in Delft to live here. Ask me how I really feel about all the luggage....

We moved to the Netherlands sixteen months ago, and in that time I have been in ten countries*. None of them has been the US.

I haven’t been desperate to go back, so I don’t know what I expect. (Don’t take that the wrong way if I am related to you or am your friend—we miss people plenty. But that’s separate from missing the place, specifically.) Maybe it will just feel normal, as driving into New Jersey always did when I’d return home from Boston or Pennsylvania. Maybe I’ll feel like I’m reconnecting with my roots. Maybe I’ll feel out of place. Maybe people will tell me my English has gotten worse. Maybe I’ll spend half the time gaping at strangers because I understand what they’re saying. Maybe I’ll have forgotten how to drive a car.

The duration of our trip (11 days) seemed long enough when we booked it, but divide that by two families and throw in a half-marathon, and you’ve got a busy trip. We have some serious catching up to do. We have card games to play. We have a whole niece we’ve never even met, and I can’t wait to hold her and rub her fuzzy baby head. Besides spending time with loved ones, we intend to—yes—boost the American economy with some Euros. I’m coming for you, completely unimportant household items like large ZipLoc bags and familiar face-wash and baking chocolate and EmergenC. And shoes priced in dollars.

But trivial purchases and meaningful holidays and turkey with stuffing aside, I guess what I’m wondering is: Will it feel any different to go home?

On one hand I think it has to, because I’ve changed in the past year+. I’ve had more new experiences in that time than I’ve probably had since I was learning to walk and eat pasta. New work and new people and new places and new ideas. On the other hand I think, home is home because it always feels the same. Nothing has changed that much.

Either way: We’ll be dragging out the suitcases soon. I love to pack early because it kind of makes the trip-excitement stretch longer.

*Netherlands. Belgium. United Kingdom. France. Austria. Italy. Croatia. Montenegro. Serbia. Spain.

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