Getting settled…

Not quite sure where the last ten days went, but we have been busy here on our straat. I’m happy to say that my dear husband finally arrived, almost one week ago. Since then, he’s unpacked, set up our internet and cable, successfully programmed the Dutch-only thermostat, and started his immigration adventure.

My immigration process was incredibly easy. My employer applied for a “highly skilled knowledge worker” visa, and once that was approved, the rest of the process was completed in about 4 hours. I registered at the ExpatCenter, and got my all-important BSN, or burgerservicenummer, within a few minutes. Without a BSN, you sort of don’t exist here, so getting it quickly is key if you want to set up a bank account or get health care. You know, the little things. Anyway, after that I went directly to the Immigration office and did all the biometric stuff required: fingerprints, photo, retinal scan. Three weeks later I got my residency visa, and that was that.

Unfortunately things are not quite so simple for my “trailing spouse”. (I’m happy to say that the somewhat nicer phrase “accompanying spouse” is becoming more common, since someone must have finally realized how obnoxious and patronizing “trailing spouse” sounds.) But, we’re making progress and I’m confident that things will work out and all the paperwork will be resolved in short order.

It is challenging to watch someone I love go through the same process I did, but with different results. And I’m not just speaking about the immigration process. This move was largely my doing – it was my idea, my initiative. I came here almost two months before my husband and, as a result, I had to go through the early settling in by myself:  setting up a bank account, getting lost every time I went out, navigating the grocery store or the metro or any number of Dutch cultural situations. I met new people, but still had quiet and solitary weekends. I sometimes went a day or two without talking to another person.  I was not completely alone – a few friends and many colleagues helped along the way. But I found my own way, more often than not.

Now it seems that part of me wants to help my husband with every little thing, and make the “settling in” road as smooth and as easy as I can. I certainly don’t want to make things any harder for him. But I also know, first-hand, the value of him finding his own way, and discovering what is great and frustrating and exciting about this adventure that he has started. That we have started.

While this move was my idea, I don’t want to imply that my husband was opposed to it, or that he will be unhappy here. But still, we are different people with different motivations for making this change. I came here predisposed to love it – I already love Amsterdam, and the Dutch, and bicycles, and pretty much everything about the culture and the pace of life here. My husband came here predisposed to love me. And for that I am immensely grateful. And for the rest? Well, we’ll just have to work on that. Together.

Our Selves

It is one of the most potent and intractable travel myths: that of the Vacation Self. The Vacation Self is the adventurous, interesting person you are convinced you will become the moment the plane leaves the tarmac. Gone will be the boring Everyday Self, with her anxieties and timidness and endless shortcomings. In her place will be the person you have always known you could be. Expansive. Daring. Bold.

The Vacation Self, dining at a sea-side restaurant, strikes up a conversation with the couple at the next table, and before you know it, she is invited to go sailing. She will have adventures! And stories! The Vacation Self always has the best stories. If she is young and single, there will be romance! The Vacation Self loves interesting things. Things that the Everyday Self does not. Things that the Everyday Self often feels she should like. Jazz. Modern art. Bohemian cafés where disaffected students read poetry. This is why we try so hard to leave the responsible Everyday Self at home, or at least at the departure gate, with her face pressed up against the plate-glass window as the Vacation Self takes flight. She can be a bit of a buzz kill.

We tell ourselves we travel to see other places, other things, but aren’t we also hoping to see ourselves as “other”? We want to blend in, and find an authentic experience. We love it when we’re asked for directions or mistaken for a local. We want to try new things, get lost, connect with others. We want those great, almost unbelievable, stories of our own adventures.

I don’t want to imply there’s anything wrong with the Myth of the Vacation Self. Like most myths, it has a grain of truth to it. Travel does make us more expansive. It can make us more balanced, more aware of and open to other cultures. We try new foods, new activities, stumble through other languages and sometimes make surprising  connections with remarkable people. So in general, I’m all for leaving that Everyday Self wandering around the Duty Free concourse while Vacation Self takes over.

But what happens when the vacation doesn’t end – at least not the relocation part of it? What happens when you don’t get back on the plane? Well, I can confirm that even if you’re living somewhere exciting and new, there are still the mundane bits of life to attend to: dry cleaning to pick up, groceries to buy, water bills to pay. The Vacation Self protests these activities. “These jobs are for the Everyday Self! And we’re still on vacation, right? Sort of…? I mean, we’re still Someplace Else, aren’t we? Wait, but now we live here? So who the hell is in charge?”

Who is in charge? Some sort of in-between Self? An Expat Self? Some Self who can be responsible enough to get to work and clean the house and make dinner, but who is also creative and adventurous enough to navigate a new city by bike, make friends, and take risks?

And beyond these day-to-day issues, there are larger questions about which Self you share, and when, and with whom. Every interaction is a chance to reinvent yourself, if not completely, at least in part. You can steal a few stories from Vacation Self, claim interests that Everyday Self doesn’t have. Who will new people, new friends, actually meet when they meet you? How do you present yourself in a way that is authentic?

At home this was easy. The gift we take for granted from the people who know us – really know us – is that they remind us who we are. When we are not acting as our True Self, they call us out on it. I think that is why I am so focused on connection (and MAIL, people, MAIL!!) right now. It’s not because I’m homesick or lonely. It’s because when I connect with people I know and love, I’m listening better. More fully, with all of my selves. And underneath the conversation, and in between the lines of an email, what I actually hear is them saying, “This is who you are.”

Geneva dispatch


Greetings from Geneva! I’ve been a bit absent this week as I prepared for my first business trip at my new job. It’s also my first visit to Geneva.

When we were first considering moving abroad, we thought about Geneva, given the number of UN and other humanitarian agencies based here. But Amsterdam always had more of a pull, and I have to admit that we made the right choice. Geneva, you’re nice enough, but you’re no Amsterdam.

Looking forward to getting home tomorrow and checking my mailbox…

Mail call!

OK people, this morning I’m making a shameless request for some mail. Real mail, snail mail, MAIL-mail. I’ve been in Amsterdam for about six weeks and all that has appeared in my mailbox was from the bank or the ExpatCenter. Oh, I also got a form that allows me to vote (!) next Wednesday for something called the “waterschappen”, which even my most politically astute Dutch friend cannot fully explain to me.

Back to my shameless request…I’d really love some mail. Now, I’m not going to just throw my home address up on the interwebs. But most of you reading this were directed here from a recent email I sent, and my address is in that email. If for some reason you don’t archive everything I send you and you’ve lost my address, just contact me directly and I’ll share it.

To sweeten the deal (and cause some needless competition among my friends), I will send a special thank you gift to the first person I hear from. Or maybe the gift will go to the funniest or most creative piece of mail. Or the person with the best handwriting. Or the worst. I have the final say and the judging criteria will be known to me alone.

And while this is Amsterdam, please note that your prize will not be anything illegal or subject to US import laws.

Now, off you go. Make friends with your cheery local postal worker. I’ll be waiting by the mailbox…


“Abundance is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around.”          – Parker J. Palmer

Earlier this week, my former colleagues at Partners In Health marked the birthday of one of the organization’s founders, and its principal funder. Tom passed away in 2011, but the commemoration of his birthday and the celebration of his life are becoming a tradition at PIH. Telling stories about Tom helps to bring him alive for people who did not have the privilege of knowing him personally, as I did.

When I think about Tom – which this week has been often – I think about generosity, in the fullest sense of the word. Tom gave money, yes, and a considerable amount over the course of his long life. But he gave generously of his trust. Tom never needed to witness someone’s suffering first-hand to know that it existed, and to be moved to respond. Tom also gave generously of his time. Some of my favorite memories involve Tom stopping by the office with a sandwich and just hanging out, telling stories about the Kennedys and World War 2. He gave time and attention to the homeless community in Harvard Square and to the individuals and charities he supported. He didn’t just write checks: he showed up, and he spent time.

Having Tom so front-of-mind this week has made me realize how dependent I am on the generosity of others: as a non-native and a stranger to the city; as an untested colleague; as a new friend. It is easy to overlook, as my transition and integration here don’t seem so very difficult on the surface. But with just a bit of reflection, I remember the waiter who saved us from a long night of guessing and Googling, and instead  translated the restaurant’s entire Dutch menu table-side. I think of the colleagues who patiently explain office relationships and politics and cultural differences, and try to prevent me from making any fatal mistakes. And I see the one new friend I’ve made, who (though I don’t think he knows it) is single-handedly responsible for getting me to start biking around Amsterdam. Without these people – and dozens more – my experience here would be more confusing, less welcoming, and decidedly much less fun.

So I owe a debt, now, and need to extend that same generosity in return. To be a curious and respectful foreigner; a thoughtful and motivated colleague; a caring and present friend. And as Tom’s life showed me, such things can be found in abundance, if only we trust that sharing our gifts increases their store.

Finally, there’s a reminder to be generous to myself – to allow myself to make mistakes and get lost and feel alone and reach out for connection. We’re at the very start of a long journey – a little pacing and a little patience will help us on our way.

A little bit of permanence

This morning I moved into our new, “permanent” apartment. Two wonderful friends arrived at my “temporary” apartment with their station wagon and drove me and my four suitcases and one shopping bag a few blocks away. We carried everything in one trip,  and I was moved in. With that done in about 20 minutes, we had plenty of time for a coffee and sweets at my new local bakery. When friends ask you to help them move, THAT’S the kind of move you hope for.

The search for a nice, furnished, 2-bedroom apartment in a good location in expat-flooded Amsterdam was a bit of a challenge. We had a big disappointment when our first apartment fell through – we ended up losing about 2 weeks while we waited for the owner and the agents to sort things out only to have it fall apart. That left me scrambling to find a home, and having to do so without my dear husband here to help.

Happily, I think things worked out pretty perfectly in the end. We have a beautiful place  that looks out on to a quiet canal, opposite the Gassan Diamond Factory. It’s open and light, with a retractable glass wall that makes inside feel like outside. It’s got a nice guest room (hint, hint) and a little terrace.  We are in a great location, close to museums and parks and the city center, but outside of the touristy mess. I’ve unpacked and bought some staples, and I’m learning how to use yet another set of foreign appliances. I found English manuals for the microwave/combi oven and the induction cooktop, but only Dutch for the programmable thermostat. Luckily the weather is warming up.

Having a place that is “ours” makes a big difference to me. Yes, we’re just renters, and this, too, is a temporary apartment. Still, this is a place we chose. It is a place we can make our own, even if it’s just in small ways. The owner’s decorating tastes run to modern furniture and Asian art, a far cry from our Victorian home in Massachusetts. But it’s our wedding photo now on the bookshelf in the living room, and those are our coats by the door.

It’s night here, and the canal is dark and the apartment is very quiet. (While it is “our” apartment, I’m still here on my own for a few more weeks, waiting for my hubby to join me.) I’m sitting in a comfy red chair in the corner of the living room, getting used to the sounds of the neighbors and listening to the apartment settling around me, as I am settling into it. I’m a bit lonely tonight, to be honest – a side effect of moving to a place where I know about four people.

But from this chair in the corner, I’ve got a view of the whole first floor. As I look around, I can see the big glass wall open on a sunny summer afternoon, filing the space with light and a breeze and the soft sounds of the canal. I can see friends gathered around the kitchen table or having a drink on the terrace. I see the front door opening to welcome visitors. I see new friends stopping by. I see reunions and I hear laughter and I know that memories are to be made here.

So maybe it’s temporary, or permanent, or both, or something in-between. And maybe it doesn’t matter. For the time being, it is home. And I can’t wait to share it.

Why now, and why here (Part 1)

No, I did not forget the question mark in the title of this post. (Seriously, people – you should know me better than that.) I’m not asking a question, but attempting to share an answer.

As I mentioned yesterday, the desire to live abroad crystallized during the month I spent in France, in June 2013. I will admit that a month is not a lot of time on which to base such an impulse, especially when it is a month in which I had no real responsibilities other than to speak French. Still, I had gotten a taste of something, and I wanted more of it.

Let’s backtrack a bit, to pre-France days. I had been at the same organization for 15 years. Some days I would drive to work and then have no memory of how I got there. I did not feel alert to what was happening around me. I wasn’t engaged, and I wasn’t enjoying things I used to love. I was stuck. And the thing about being stuck is that the stuck person is the only one who can un-stick themselves. No amount of encouragement or support or brow-beating can get them un-stuck.

My sabbatical was my attempt to un-stick myself, and it worked. In France, I was more aware and more alive than I had been in a long time. I had to be: so much of what was happening around me was confusing and foreign. Simple things like buying stamps became monumental accomplishments. I was more patient with myself and with others. I walked more, I turned down unknown streets, I got on trains and explored.

To be fair, I could have done any of those things in and around Boston. And when I returned from France, I did try to do more exploring in my own backyard. But I was focused on this idea of living abroad. Thankfully, my incredibly patient and tolerant husband was also on board. Knowing I was considering France, he wisely suggested that we go somewhere where we could at least function in English.

Now we come to the part of the story that puzzles most every Dutch person I have met: the part where we pick the Netherlands. The Dutch seem to view themselves as rather ordinary people, a bit direct (bordering on rude), who live in a nice city with the worst weather imaginable. I see them as tolerant, warm, fun people, a bit direct, who live in a beautiful, progressive city that is ruled by bicycles, where the weather can best be described as “mercurial”. For reasons I cannot explain, I have always loved it here. Sometimes you just connect with a place, absent any logic, and you feel it from the moment you arrive. As if you were born on the wrong side of the world, and have been wandering about, and you’ve only just found your way back.

So that’s why we’re here, living among the wonderful, tall, bike-riding, multilingual Dutch. The “why now” part of the story is, well, another story altogether, for another day.