Going Dutch: One Year In
Today marks one year since our family moved to The Netherlands. Time has flown by. And time has slowed down. It’s interesting stuff, this major mid-life change.
Seriously—how cool is it that it’s possible to pick up, immerse yourself in a new environment, and completely change your life? Your perspective, your tastes, your routines, your ruts, your ways of thinking, your ways of being—they’re all up for grabs when you start over. In many ways, this has been the greatest gift of our move.
Because I am who I am, I’m feeling the need to reflect and categorize and analyze. This is how my brain processes change and growth, so it seems appropriate to do so now. The milestone feels significant.
Here are some of the things our family has discovered about ourselves in the past twelve months. Things we got wrong and things we nailed. Ways we’ve stepped into our new reality.
Lifestyle. We love that this move has enabled us to create new routines. We started with a blank slate, with no obligations (other than Derin’s job) to schedule around. So we do what works for us. We have pajama days. We have late lunches at the neighborhood cafe on Saturdays. We explore parks on sunny days and snuggle under blankets on our chaise lounge on the cold, rainy ones. We make it up as we go along. We haven’t fallen into any ruts of feeling like we have to or should do, well, anything. What our family does and doesn’t do is totally on our terms. And that feels right. Plus, Derin and I are much more chill. Our life is slower. We don’t feel pulled in a billion different directions. We’re not feeling pressure to sign Asher up for this and that, and consequently, we’re not continually being reminded of the fact that many opportunities parents have for their kids aren’t necessarily an option for us and our neurologically atypical boy. Instead, we’re following the feel-good and figuring out what works for our family. One has to wonder why it took moving to another country to figure that one out?
The language. At first, not knowing a single Dutch word was intimidating, until you discover that pretty much everyone speaks flawless English. Still, I noticed that during my first six months here, I lost my voice. I dodged situations where I would have to engage with anyone by myself because I didn’t want to be the obnoxious American who expects everyone to speak English. In fact, I avoided engagement at all costs. Which felt like shit. I hated watching my confident forty-four-year-old self turn into an insecure, timid puddle of goop who was afraid to speak up. But being in a place of “not knowing” felt too vulnerable.
When we first moved here, we decided to put in some effort to learn Dutch, and loaded up the Rosetta Stone DVD in Derin’s computer. There we’d all take our turns, learning how to say (un) helpful phrases like “The boy doesn’t drive the car” and “The woman sleeps.” Because this particular program requires you speak into a microphone and essentially “grades” you on your pronunciation, Dutch started becoming stressful for a certain little boy. No sooner would he start a lesson than we’d hear him yelling back at the monitor, “That’s what I SAID you stupid computer!!” By late fall, we decided Rosetta Stone was resulting in too many tantrums, so we stopped cold. That’s when I declared I wasn’t going to learn Dutch. I’d decided that since we weren’t staying here forever, coupled with the fact that everyone speaks English and learning Dutch wouldn’t be useful anywhere else in the world, there was no point. But that decision didn’t feel great. In fact, it felt disrespectful. It felt like giving up. So earlier this summer, I decided I was going to master the hell out of this language. I downloaded the Pimsleur program, and thus began our family’s efforts in earnest to learn Dutch. I practice for about an hour a day now, and Derin and Asher aren’t far behind. Today I can honestly say, Ik spreek een beetje Nederlands.
Biking. Until recently, I got lost at least once each time I biked to a new destination, a hazard of living in a city that’s not built on a grid but rather curved rings and featuring hundreds of canals. But I’m starting to know how to get from here to there with confidence, have learned the areas to avoid during tourist season (educating out-of-towners on the difference between a bike path and a sidewalk is like playing a massively multiplayer video game, but live), and feel confident navigating a busy bike intersection without coming to a panicked stop. I’ve also discovered that biking through this city at night, along gorgeously lit canals or through peaceful parks, is one of my most favorite things. In the world.
Public transport. I love me some public transport. Especially the kind that people actually use. Having lived in New York City for eight years without a car, Derin and I were accustomed to getting everywhere via subway or bus. But in LA, where we spent four-and-a-half years, public transport wasn’t practical or convenient. In Seattle, we managed to get by with one car, but there were serious limitations as to just where and when you could get around via bus. Here? We’ve been carless for a year and we love it. Like much of the city, we bike most places, but on rainy days or for really long hauls, we can jump on a bus, tram, or subway and easily end up where we were headed. Getting around this city, and around Holland and Europe in general, is simple and civilized. And in our book, that’s a quality of life thing you’ve got to appreciate.
Energy. There is something about the energy of Amsterdam that just works for us. It’s creative, it’s urban, it’s alive. We love that this city is absolutely teeming with people, that art is everywhere, that each day we participate in an unchoreographed dance where the performers are trams and buses and trains and subways and boats and bikes and pedestrians. We love the beautiful green spaces and the sound of dozens of languages being spoken all around. We love that traveling is easy, fashion is more than an afterthought, and you can’t walk a block without running into a café spilling out onto the sidewalk. Simply put, Amsterdam is a vibrant, beautiful, inspired place. And in living here, one can’t help but feel the same way.
Asher. It’s been fascinating to watch Asher’s evolution here. He was so damn pissed at us for moving away from the only home he’s ever known. Up until about mid-winter, he took any opportunity to remind us that we’d “ruined his life” and spew his hatred of all things Dutch. Finding a few solid friends for him helped. So did homeschooling. Plus discovering Bapoa Kip, a packaged chicken dumpling from the local market that has become his daily bread. By February, Asher had eased up a bit with his anti-Amsterdam stand, but a visit from his NYC-based Auntie AM in early March sparked one last cycle of outrage and sadness. And then, as we eased into summer, something changed. The proclamations comparing the negatives of the Netherlands with the positives of the Pacific Northwest petered out. When we’d get back to our apartment after a vacation, Asher would declare how great it was to be home. And during a tram ride through Centrum earlier this month, when I grabbed Asher’s knee, gave it a squeeze, and learned over to whisper “I really love this city, you know?” he answered back: “Yeah…me too.” Does Asher still want to move back to Seattle (to the very same house in the very same neighborhood even though we’ve sold said house) in another year? Absolutely. But he seems to be willing to enjoy our time here in the meantime.
Friendship. It’s been interesting making connections with people and starting over with friendships. We’ve been lucky to connect with some beautiful people, people who respect our choices and our child, people who have helped us feel anchored and safe. I’ve also noticed that I’ve quite consciously tried not to “recreate” my close circle of girlfriends that I have in Seattle. It’s not just that I love my girls back home and they’re irreplaceable (which they are). It’s that, I like that my social life is different here. It’s quieter, stiller. Perhaps because I’m a homeschooling mama now and my alone time during the day has pretty much vanished, I’m needing more solo, quiet time in the evenings and weekends. So a thin social calendar feels like exactly what we need, not like we’re missing out on something.
Dogs. Dogs are my church. They’re tethered to my spiritual life. A good dog fills a part of my heart that has been vacant since we lost Baxter a little over a year ago. Derin feels the same way, but my symptoms are a little more extreme. Here in Amsterdam, I’m prone to copping feels from puppies who run by, I stalk the occasional White German Shepherd owner, and I continue to treat my cat Alex like a dog. The sadness from losing Baxter still feels fresh, like I’m expecting him to reappear at any moment, probably because we moved here so soon after his death and in my mind he’s still back in Seattle waiting for us. But for now, a dog’s not in the cards. We live on the top two floors and the stairs are steep, not the kind of stairs for a big dog. And if you know me, you know a small dog just ain’t gonna cut it. If we stay more than another year, we’ll have to move to new apartment and remedy this situation.
Comforts of home. Because Derin is a tech god (IMHO), we’ve been able to have access to our “shows” through various means. That means staying up-to-date on favorites like Game of Thrones and Scandal, while simultaneously watching more than 125 episodes of The West Wing (we’re halfway through the last season—up next is Breaking Bad). When it’s late and we’re too tired for an hour-long drama, we watch Cheers, which feels like comfort and home and afghan blankets. On my rough days, I’ve learned that a glass of rosé, some microwave popcorn, and an episode of The Bachelor on HULU is all this mama needs to make everything right in the world.
School. Holy personal growth spurt. Homeschooling has been simultaneously hard as hell and incredibly positive. I have pages upon pages of Skype chats with Derin that tell the story of the really bad days, and brilliant memories and photographs for the amazing ones. We’re starting up again in a week (4th grade!) and I’m excited for what’s in store, though I have no illusions that there will be many more tears (mine) and protests (Asher’s) to come. But at least now I know what to expect. And more than that, this past year has cemented our belief that homeschooling is the best path for Asher right now. Because he is absolutely thriving in every way. Still, sometimes it feels scary, this forging our own educational path—there’s no shortage of what ifs and pressures from other parents who don’t get what we’re doing or who Asher is. Sometimes I find myself second-guessing, doubting, feeling guilty. But then I look at the evidence—a much more regulated, engaged, inspired, aware ten-year-old boy—and the doubt dissolves. Onward and upward.
Food. It took us a while to figure out our menus (lots of salads, soups, burgers, and pasta), where to shop (Jumbo, Albert Heijn, and Markt), and how to get it up the stairs (one word: delivery). We’ve figured out who sells the right kind of baguette, who always has Diet Coke in stock (I know I threatened to quit the juice when we moved—I’m working on it), and where to get things like Baking Soda and cake mix (at Eicholtz Expat Deli, for about $7 euros each). We’ve adjusted to there being fewer options on the shelves—something which I actually love—and the fact that some things we’re just going to have to live without (Swedish Fish and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese). At least for now.
Simplifying. Having much less “stuff” in our home has been a gift. I think of our filled-to-the-brim storage space in Seattle and I imagine that we could torch the thing and I’d be totally cool with that. It’s amazing how little you need and how good it feels to living more “lightly.” Less clutter feels calm.
Travel. Our plan in moving here was to travel our asses off. Suffice it to say that we’ve stuck with the plan. Since last August, we’ve made it to Texel (an island off the north coast of Holland), Barcelona, Paris, London, Portugal, Denmark, Scotland, northern England, Milano, Cologne, Belgium, Mastricht (a town in southern Holland), Lille (northern France), and Belfast. Of course, with traveling comes challenges, especially regarding our routine-loving boy, but we’re figuring it out. Our last holiday—a 2-week road trip in the UK—was our best family vacation yet. Up next: Greece, Brussels, Morocco, and Italy. There is just SO MUCH to see.
The future. When we moved here, Derin and I talked about staying for two or three years. We didn’t know what it would feel like to be here, but we knew we wanted to give it a real shot…truly be here before deciding what was next. Of course, what many expats know is that deliberating “what’s next” can be an all-consuming pastime. It was no different for us. Probably because Derin and I were both feeling very unsettled, for the first six months we lived here, weekly date night conversations somehow always devolved into a how long will we stay, where will we go next dialogue. We knew it was way too early to even speculate, but we were obviously looking to feel in control of something…anything. Our future seemed like a good place to start. Now? We don’t have those conversations anymore. Instead, we talk about what we love about our life here and how this is a great place for our family to be in this moment. We trust that we’ll know when it’s time to start talking about what’s next in earnest and we’ll do what we always do—make the best choice for our family at that time. But for now, our future is here. And that feels pretty great.
A few last reflections:
- The chocolate here is really good and cheap.
- So is the wine.
- Cats apparently adjust to transcontinental moves quite easily.
- I still get a spark of joy when I hear the tram bell outside our living room window.
- I don’t miss having a garden.
- Or a shared driveway.
- Or sitting in traffic on I-5.
- Running has once again been a source of connection and community for us — signing up with House of Running has been one of our best moves.
- Biking home together from a dinner date is romantic, even in the rain.
- Most days I am knocked over by gratitude that we get to live this life.
- I couldn’t be homeschooling with confidence without my kick-ass curriculum guru / “faculty” advisory, Alison Bower. It takes a village, people.
- The weather sucks here too, but that’s okay.
- Biking everywhere and navigating lots of stairs does not equal the ability to eat unlimited amounts of bread, cheese, and chocolate (lesson learned the hard way).
- I’ve personally experienced more anger, sadness, and joy in the past year than I probably have in the past ten years. Turns out being outside your comfort zone brings up all kinds of stuff. And for that I’m incredibly grateful.
Last September, when we were still feeling emotionally bruised from the giant leap we’d taken with our lives, we questioned why we had willingly chosen to disrupt our world, our security, our comfort for something so unknown. Now as we enter the second year of our life abroad, we can say without a doubt that we would do it all over again.
Let the adventure continue!