Brian & Ann's European Experience

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A Philosophical Post on Moving

Ann left two days ago. Guess how long it’s been since I left the apartment. You guessed it. Two days.

Actually, today I went to Utrecht with my bike to go to a pickup game of ultimate. Utrecht is an hour away by train, and I hadn’t been to the new sports park where the team started having its practices, but what the hell. I had a general idea of where it was and no shame about asking multiple pedestrians where the “Kanalstraat” and the “Marco van Basten sportpark” was. I found my way, but there were only eight people there to play ultimate. At least I was around people again.

Now, I’m not a stranger to international living experiences. My family moved to Paris, Seoul, and Hong Kong when I was growing up, and I know how it goes. But the truth is, it’s different each time. The places and the cultures are different each time. Where you are in your life is different each time. That said, there are some general trends that you can count on.

The beginning is always tough. And it’s even tougher when you don’t have an immediate support network you can latch on to (like an expatriate club, which, surprisingly, does not have a Dordrecht chapter), or where the culture is extremely different from your own (like Asia), or where there is a language barrier.

In terms of difficulty, this move has been about a 6. The culture is different in some ways, but shares many of the same fundamental traits that American culture shares. That, plus the fact that Ann at least speaks the language (so we can read all the forms), and that the majority of people you run into will speak English, have helped. On the other hand, we knew no one here, and that is the main reason that I have not showered in two days.

In general, you move someplace, and you spend the first few months just getting oriented. Doing your paperwork to get legal. Dealing with the various bureaucracies. Setting up your utility bills. Buying appliances.

You spend the first year really completing your settling in process. Learning the ins and outs of where you live. Where to shop. What the fastest way from here to there is. How much things cost. The names of the streets. The good places to eat.

Then after about a year you have made the place your own somehow. Now you don’t think twice about calling it home. The boxes are all unpacked. All your stuff is around you. You feel more confident about being there. And you start to look for your people.

Everywhere you go, you look for your people. Or as close to them as you can get. You look for people who share the same world view, who are into the same sports. Who have the same general background and the same general goals. The people who laugh at your jokes. The people whose numbers you memorize. (Well, at least you used to, in the days before cell phones.)

In the five times that I moved with my family before I was fifteen, I found that wherever I was, it usually took between one and two years to really find your friends. That usually gave me about one year of easy living before the movers showed up again with their supply of brown cardboard boxes.

Right now, I haven’t found my people yet. And I think it gets tougher as you get older. People have other commitments. People have priorities. The Dutch especially are fond of planning everything ahead in their little agenda books, which makes it tough to just call someone up and say, “Hey, want to go shoot some pool?” The likely Dutch response is, “Sure, let me see, [sound of small pages being riffled] how about next Thursday.”

So while I have no people, and no real time to dedicate to finding some (in between my six hours a week of Dutch classes and my MBA program), I have to face facts. When Ann goes away my options become very limited.

Here’s what I have done over the past two days.

  • Played on my friend Ian’s Xbox that he thoughtfully left at my place.

  • Finished the new Crichton book (State of Fear, not bad)

  • Watched mindless TV programs

  • Unloaded the dishwasher

  • Slept

  • Read my Economics textbook (in ten page chunks because it is THAT boring and dense)

  • Prepared sustenance for myself (usually in the form of sandwiches of bread, meat, and cheese)

Contributing to this general malaise is the fact that it’s Easter, there’s no one I can call to do anything with, and the weather is crappy, grey and cold all the time. It would be easy to sit on my slightly stiff Ikea couches and pontificate on how lonely and pathetic I am.

But even though I am still wandering around looking for my people, and have to endure the occasional house confinement, the truth is, I know what the deal is. I’ve been here before. I know what the process is, how long it takes, and how much effort it requires. So it’s hard to really sulk, I knew it was all coming. And I can do better things with my time than wallow.

So let me tell you about something that happened to me on the day my wife left me (for her trip to the States, just for ten days). I was coming back from the airport where I had said my goodbyes. I got to Dordrecht and it was just a beautiful day. The sun was shining, it was in the high sixties, the people were all out and about because it was the last day before everything closed for the Easter holiday. It was hard to not take a deep breath and just be happy to be alive.

I went to the grocery store because just before she left Ann admonished me to get some food in the house since there would be nothing open for two days. I shopped, alone, but surrounded by Dutch people who had no idea about the American in their midst. Well, at least until I got to the cash register and spoke Dutch in my American accent.

I walked out onto the street and my first thought was, “This is exactly what I hoped for when I said I wanted to live in a quaint European town.”

Here I am, walking down the market street with throngs of Dutch people just going about their business. And I’m one of them. I’ve got my ridiculously thin plastic bags from the grocery store. I’m on my way to my apartment. The sun is shining. The weather is warm. Spring is coming. Life is good.

How many people get to do this? How many Americans are walking down the street on this sunny Saturday with their little plastic bags full of groceries from the local tiny market? And here I am.

I can understand now about a fifth of what I hear (thanks to my ever-patient Dutch teacher Corrie). I can get by at the grocery store and on the train. I have my bike. I am in that phase. I’m starting to make it my own.

And I know I’ll find my people. Might take a little longer than usual since I have so many constraints on my time. But they are here. They are everywhere you go. And knowing that takes away a lot of the fear and anxiety that is always close by when you completely change your environment.

I miss my life in the states. But I know that my life now is just as rewarding, just in different ways.

I checked on to see when this succession of grey, cold, rainy days will end, but the five week forecast shows nothing but the same.

But I know the sun is coming.


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