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The Long Way Home
By: Meghan Blosser - Also see author's expat blog listingIn February of 2010, my husband and I (then 30 and 28, respectively) went out to dinner with two American couples who were supposed to help us decide if we wanted to move from the United States to Delft, the Netherlands. One member of each couple worked at the university that had offered my husband a post-doctoral position, and we sat down together in a restaurant on Delft’s lightly snow-covered medieval market square.
To our puzzlement, the conversation was a bit grim. Our four companions were all nearing the end of their overseas adventures, and aired to us their cynicism. Yes, they’d camped in the shadows of French castles and stood amid the fireworks on New Year’s Eve… but with complaints ranging from Dutch bureaucracy to the medical system to bank accounts and money transfers, they told us: we can’t wait to get back to the States.
Afterward in our hotel room we gazed over tiled rooftops and wondered: if we come here, in a couple years will we sound like that?
Less than five months later, I sat in a Dutch train station surrounded by a back-breaking load of luggage while Tim fetched the key to our new apartment. “It’s good!” he announced when he returned. “You’re going to like it.”
The circumstances of our move were these: We left Arlington, Massachusetts, in July 2010. We sold two cars. We gave away clothes. To our furniture we said: You are from Craigslist, and to Craigslist you must return. A small shipment of possessions went to the Netherlands by boat, paid for by the university that had hired my husband.
Tim had recently finished his PhD and at a conference, met a Dutch professor who said: “Why don’t you come work for me?” Ha-ha, our friends said. You’re not really thinking about that, are you?
But we were.
We’d been thinking about something like that for about a year. True: we never selected the Netherlands specifically, but we had the Europe bug. A few years’ stint - while we were still relatively young and free - offered the opportunity to see the world. Our friends were buying houses and minivans and filling them with babies and I was simply not there.
I had quit my full-time job a year before and gone into freelance work, which made me very portable (if not overly profitable). Looking back, I think the scarier decision was quitting my “normal” job—moreso than moving overseas.
Among my friends, I’ve become an advocate for pursuing dreams that seem impractical or infeasible. You know, like, moving to Europe. It’s possible, I insist, if you only take steps toward it. And so here are my suggestions on an international move—by no means limited to leaving the United States or going to Holland.
Know the reasons you make your move. Because even if you have a mostly positive experience, as we have, there are going to be days when everything goes wrong: When the paperwork gets denied. When the money is too tight. When you wind up in public tears over some language-based misunderstanding. When seeing a face on Skype isn’t good enough. And you’ll think, for a minute or a day or a week, that the move was a mistake. (From what I’ve observed, if you make the move with a partner - you will go through these feelings at opposite times.) When the low days hit, you need to know why you did it. And you need to go back to those reasons and trust them.
Do the things you went there to do. If you move to another country so that you can travel, live frugally at home and don’t stick around on the weekends. Especially if you consider your move temporary, make a budget and evaluate your priorities. If you move abroad to make friends or improve a language - make sure you’re putting yourself in places where you will meet people and practice speaking. Don’t just join the “American Expats of Wherever”—join a pick-up sport team, or a church, or whatever activity is popular.
Side effect? You’ll do the things you didn’t know you went there to do. I recently met a Swiss girl who lived alone in Ireland for a few years. To make friends, she joined a running club. She was a novice, but the running club was training for a marathon. Result? This girl ran 26.2 miles. And that’s such a characteristic experience of moving abroad: you will find strengths you didn’t know you had. So keep your international plan flexible to allow space for the opportunities you haven’t yet imagined.
Always make an effort to speak the local language. Our move has been drastically simplified by the Dutch population’s good grasp of English. Most people will switch to it when they hear me butchering Nederlands. (Or, they misunderstand and think I’m choking.) Yet it is a sore point here and in many countries if you expect people to know English. Particularly if you start barking it at them without at least the preliminaries of Bonjour, monsieur or Goedemiddag, mevrouw.
I am by no means good at Dutch. But if I hadn’t mastered at least some conventional phrases and basic vocabulary, I’d make my own life harder (never understanding an announcement in a train station) and plant myself on the fringe of the culture. My neighbors may know I’m “the American girl,” but they respect if I greet them in Dutch.
Go easy on yourself. People often said this to us when we were new, but it was a while before I could take the words to heart. I had to acknowledge: You won’t get it right all the time. You won’t be a shining beacon of internationalism every day. Your haircut will be horrifying because you couldn’t explain what you wanted. You will have no food because the grocery stores all closed at six. You will be daunted by such once-simple tasks as visiting the dentist, or buying feminine hygiene products. Your friends back home will not understand why it was such a big deal that you asked for coffee in another language, or successfully completed a simple form without help. Let this be OK - and when you know you got something right, celebrate it.
Consult other expats, but don’t do everything that they did. You will save yourself tedious legwork by asking other expats about their taxes, or their apartment agent, or where they find a certain product. Just balance any advice with your own grain of salt. It was an eye-opener for me to realize that all expats - even all American expats in Holland - were not like me. We have different personalities and tackle problems differently, and that’s OK. Relatedly, have no shame in consulting locals. I send Tim emails titled “Ask a Dutch Person” whenever I want to know what his officemates think about something. This has helped us translate legal documents, alerted us to a healthcare benefit we were entitled to, and explained social etiquette in unfamiliar situations.
Listen. This may go without saying, but people don’t think like you do. It can take a while to realize differences in cultural assumptions that lie beneath the surface. I was recently at a dinner party with Dutch friends I’ve known for two years, and when the conversation turned to politics of immigration, I was surprised by how our views differed. You have to get out of your own culture to realize (for better or worse) how steeped you were in a certain set of values, and how equally steeped others are in theirs.
Bring yourself. In our aim to pack light, I excised most “personal” things as unnecessary. This seemed wise at the time, but what it meant in practice was no family photos on the walls; an IKEA-generic apartment; and a very sad me that first Christmas when I remembered I couldn’t decorate with the ornaments that I love. A photo or two of your friends; a ball or two for the tree - these reminders of home will be worth making space for.
We’ve spent more than two years in our sunny Delft apartment, with its windows that look over a canal. We gained a healthier lifestyle, biking everywhere as the Dutch do and buying produce and fish at local markets. We gained new friends, Dutch and international. We’ve been to nine new countries. We’ve introduced Europe to family members who didn’t have a passport in 2010.
We’ve also had to navigate unexpected medical problems in a foreign healthcare system. We’ve done mountains of slow-moving paperwork. We’ve spent Christmases alone when all we can do is wave to everyone on Skype. I missed a funeral for someone I loved. These have been the hard things - but you sign on for the bad with the good.
I remember our question from that cold night when we first visited Delft. The answer is no, and I think we knew it then. And that’s why we said yes.
Will we be here forever? I don’t know, and I don’t think so. I love European life, but we never intended to be away from our families long-term. In a year, or two or five, I think we’ll be looking for jobs back in the U.S. - but all of that will unfold as it does. In the meantime, I’m concentrating on not taking this chapter for granted.
So make your move.
You will learn who you are. You will know that many things are possible. And you will encourage others:
You can do this, too.
About the author:I am a resident of Delft, the Netherlands, by way of New Jersey, Boston, and marrying a biophysicist. For several years I’ve worked as a freelance writer and editor. Since moving to Delft I’ve been laboring over a novel, traveling as much as I can, and writing about it all on my blog.
Blog address: http://unquiettime.wordpress.com
Contest Comments » There are 26 comments
Rachel Britton wrote 10 years ago:
Meghan, if I only I could have taken such good advice with a clear head when we moved in the opposite direction from Europe to the USA. Perhaps I would have done that when we did plan to make the move - when we too were young and free. But, it didn't come to fruition until we had a six week old baby! However, over the years we've attempted to speak the local language (I nearly cried the first time I asked for nappies instead of diapers and the person just looked at me blankly), listened, done the things we didn't plan to do and seen so much of the United States that I have come to appreciate our experience at expats. Thanks for your post.
Laura wrote 10 years ago:
This is such a great piece. Thank you for sharing about your experience.
Anna wrote 10 years ago:
Wonderful essay! Personal and practical. It's about being an expat but speaks to life's journeys beyond that as well. Love it.
Cathryn wrote 10 years ago:
I've always loved your writing, Megan, you have a special talent. Great essay.
Betsy wrote 10 years ago:
I love this article - practical, honest, and inspirational. Thanks for sharing such a great piece of advice and writing!
Heather Hancock wrote 10 years ago:
Great article! So glad you made your move!
Emily wrote 10 years ago:
Beautifully written. Great advice! I felt like you were speaking directly to me. Will share this piece with others.
Kent Morsch wrote 10 years ago:
I love Meghan's writing, and this essay is no exception Her insights on places she sees are very interesting, and different from mine, even when we have visited the same sites. Many of my memories are a few decades older than hers, and the refreshers she provides are fun, too. Some are poignant - Her Verdun post came out the same weekend I saw War Horse on the stage. The two events so close together really gave me an appreciation for how horrible that war was, beyond just the flat words in history books. Keep up the good work and I hope to continue to live an expat life vicariously through your blog.
Christina wrote 10 years ago:
Great article Meghan! Thanks for sharing - so happy for you guys and the experiences you've been having. You're doing so many unforgettable things! This article gives great advice for others thinking of making such a move. Love to you both!!
Livia wrote 10 years ago:
I read this aloud to Ryan and got self-conscious when my voice cracked from getting a bit choked up a couple times. Thank you for sharing your experience - it is beautifully written.
Jo Ann wrote 10 years ago:
I especially liked the "Listen" segment. It's so easy, particularly here in America, to become ethnocentric, to think we have it all down pat and know the score all the time and in every situation. What this essay points out is that moving abroad can and should be an arms- and mind- and eyes-wide-open experience. Throw out all preconceived notions and embrace the world anew!
Brian wrote 10 years ago:
A great piece with a lot of truth to it. Cautiously inspiring.
Beth Parfitt wrote 10 years ago:
Meghan--I'm so jealous of your world! I loved this piece, for many reasons. My boyfriend is also a recent PhD (computational biology!) and we talk all the time about the many options he has to study and work in other places. Plus, after my first trip to Europe this past summer, I was smitten with all places exotic and new. Can't wait to hear about your future adventures (and mishaps--because that's half the fun--after the fact, of course!)
Bilim wrote 10 years ago:
Great essay! Being through a very similar journey, I recommend people to ship every single item they have to Europe (especially if the shipping is a part of the contract). I made the mistake of thinking - new chapter in my life deserves new furniture - and didn't ship much, then we ended up having a IKEA room as well. Looking forward for your new essays!
Lynn Morrison wrote 10 years ago:
Lovely article and such great advice. I can't wait to check out your blog to see more of your writing.
Miriam wrote 10 years ago:
Great essay - spot on! I was never able to tease out the points so clearly for myself, but I could not agree more! I like the way you structure the essay. Having lived in three foreign countries in the past nine years, I wish I would have read this before, rather than making some of these experiences "the hard way" :) ...could not agree more to the "bring personal items" that remind you of your family and friends, as well as on the "discover your new self" (although I 'only' made it to half marathons and rock climbing to overcome my fear of heights.)
Wiep Klaas Smits wrote 10 years ago:
Very well written! Having made the opposite move (Netherlands-Boston and back) I can say that the advise can be applied pretty universally. Loved to read your story.
Lori wrote 10 years ago:
Meghan, I feel as though I have taken this "Long Way Home" journey along with you, just from reading your blog since you started it! I have had the opportunity to see the various countries from your great photos, experience holidays, foods, the markets the bike trips and yes, even inside your apartment and view outside over the rooftops. Thank you so very much for your continued loyalty to your following fans such as me, as I don't get out much beyond the Boston area! I enjoyed your "Long Way Home" essay and am sure will prove very helpful for folks making a similar decision.
Andrea wrote 10 years ago:
Fantastic essay -- it's great to experience the journey vicariously, and I bet some readers will be inspired to try something similar!
Linda wrote 10 years ago:
I liked this on facebook and you should know that, within hours, a friend who has recently moved to a new country (Mexico, as a missionary) thanked me for the encouragement! That thanks belongs to you, for sharing your honest, sensitively written thoughts with us all.
Devon wrote 10 years ago:
I love this piece. You are a spectacular writer, my dear, and always have been. It could have been improved by some improvised costumes and a re-written song or two, but what couldn't? I wish you were an expat before I was - I would have loved to read this advice. I lived in Italy and learned all the food words, which earned me the respect of waiters. Does that count?
Ginny Woods wrote 10 years ago:
I loved reading your essay Meghan -- it is very inspirational and encouraging for anyone contemplating a move abroad.
Jay wrote 10 years ago:
This is a fantastic article! For those of us that are already abroad and have been for some time, it's a great reminder to appreciate what we're doing!
Laura wrote 10 years ago:
Congratulations! This is a great piece; it resonates with my own experience.
Candice wrote 10 years ago:
This was just wonderful ! I read it aloud to my husband and actually got choked up a few times :) It is all a bit "close to home" and so very true and beautiful worded. We did this, our country of choice was Argentina. And we don't go to work .. other than that and a few other differences in location/language/politics, we went through these things and I can relate to every one of them. The Christmas ornaments ! I brought a small bag but found upon arrival that they don't have Christmas trees here. Not real ones. Our friends are Argentine and I know that whenever we move back to the US ... I will miss them very much. This is such a wonderful Must Read for anyone planning to leave their country of birth and go out into the World :) Thank you, Meaghan, this was wonderful.
Miranda Giles wrote 10 years ago:
Hi Meghan, I have just read your essay. It's wonderful. We also took the plunge, to Mallorca from the UK, about 2.5 years ago. It has been a rollercoaster ride of craziness, but we love it. I can relate to many aspects of your own experience. We had a lot of negativity from friends and family, warning us 'NOT TO DO IT', and yes we moved at a time when the Universe went into recession, but we are still so, so glad we did it. The experience has been fantastic and our only hope is that we can try to sustain it, somehow. All the very best for whatever may come.