Tag Archives: expat life

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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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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Still Cycling

I often see Dutch culture and the city of Amsterdam misrepresented in American media. (“Amsterdam?” someone asked me once. “Is it OK to bring kids there?”) I can only believe I missed the NYTimes article on Amsterdam drowning in a sea of bikes because I was so ridiculously busy in June of this year—but this week I saw the video response to it, and I loved it. The curious thing to me about the original article is that it doesn’t propose that there’s anything better than a city of cyclists. It just laments that there is a parking problem for 880,000 bikes. It also ignores the eco-friendliness (and the personal fitness!) of the bike by quoting a guy who says the Dutch like bikes because the country is flat. They like it for a lot of reasons.

If you like stats, as the European Cyclists’ Federation points out: “Data is often mind-boggling, especially when it involves the Dutch and cycling.” There is a fietscounter in our town that electronically displays how many bikes have passed to that point each day. It’s often in the 6-700s when I pass it.

I am usually the last person to want to talk politics, but I feel like even in relatively smart American media, there’s this kind of idea that goes something like: “Watch out that you don’t become like Europe, America… because, you know, they’re crazy and liberal.” Well, I’m a convert to the bike culture, and when we talk about returning to the US, one of my stipulations is that I don’t want to be car-bound again. I know that owning a car will most likely be necessary, but I don’t want to live somewhere where I need it for every errand. I’m intimidated by biking in a US city (I had a brief try in Cambridge around 2005 and feared for my life, then gave the bike away), but I hope the skills from here would pay off.

So happy the day we bought my bike! (2010)

So happy the day we bought my bike! (2010)

I was daunted by biking when we moved here. It only makes sense; where I grew up, riding bikes was a kids’ activity, practiced in your suburban neighborhood and then abandoned when you learned how to drive.  The roads weren’t safe for cycling, and when I’m home now, if I see a guy on a bike near my parents’ house—1. It’s often someone unable to afford a car // 2. I am very worried that the guy is going to get hit by a truck.

Here, I get passed too close from time to time, and I don’t like it, but I’d like to think I’m now a pretty average cyclist for Delft—which is to say, a good one. I transport my groceries, the cake I bring to a friend’s house, a BBQ grill, and small furniture from IKEA on my bike. I do this in bad weather, and in skirts, but usually in practical footwear.

Bike parking in Delft, summertime

Bike parking in Delft, summertime

The Dutch bike culture is real. It’s not just a cute image that works well on a postcard. It is still the preferred method of city transportation, by your grandmother and your father and your teenage friend. It rains? You bike. It’s cold? You bike. Put your kid’s hat on, and stick him in that bike seat.

Yes, the problem of abandoned bikes (mentioned in the video) is real, too. A lot of people own multiple bikes, and students usually have a “beater bike” (or two)– a barely-functional collection of metal that gets them from a to b on campus. Occasionally the bike rack on our street will have a bunch of notices put on the bikes (like parking tickets) warning that on a coming date, any bikes left will be taken away by the Gemeente (the city). This usually happens when there’s a bunch looking like they haven’t moved in months. Rusting into the pavement. Plants growing around them, etc.

Amsterdam, near the main train station

Amsterdam, near the main train station

Delft’s train station could use expanded bike parking. I’ve parked my bike there, only to be unable to extricate it later on because of how many bikes have parked it in. With a car, sometimes you get double-parked. With a bike… I think I’ve been about thirty-seven parked. Recently a very nice guy helped me by lifting my bike over his head to get it out of its log jam.

I used to be paranoid about bike theft, but knock on wood, we haven’t had a bike stolen in three years. Of course, we try to park them securely, locking them to objects and the like, and we mostly park in safe places. Tim’s work has an underground bike-parking garage that’s accessed with a swipe-card. He hangs his bike in our stairwell overnight, from a hook we installed. It’s a nicer bike than mine, bought with a specifically-designated stipend when he started his employment here.

My only regret about my bike after three years is that it sits in bad weather a lot, which means that over time it will go the way of all bikes. I wish our apartment building offered a sheltered space. I don’t regret not having handbrakes. I don’t regret getting a bike without gears.

Covered bakfiets, for your kids in the rain

Covered bakfiets, for your kids in the rain

I can understand that Amsterdam’s cycling culture is older than that of a city like New York. Each city has its own personality, which is why I love travel. I can see a lot of New Yorkers looking down their noses at the idea of cycling. But as one of the speakers in the video points out, in the 1950s even Dutch politicians were predicting that the bike would fall to the automobile. Delft’s Beestenmarkt, I always say on my tour, was used as a car park for a couple decades, before they made the city center car-free (except for taxis and some other business vehicles). (The Beestenmarkt is now a leafy-green bier garden in the summer, and an ice rink in the winter.) And as a Jersey girl who absolutely did not grow up with a bike culture, I’m proof that it can catch on if you give it a chance. And I’m willing to bet you’d like Amsterdam, too.

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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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