Hard to believe that exactly a year ago I was fresh off the plane, living out of 2 suitcases including a self blown up camping mattress and unable to even figure out how to do a load of laundry with my new dutch labeled appliances. Fast forward 368 days… what an incredible transformation I’ve personally been through, and we as a couple have been through together.
3 bikes, 11 countries, and 7 rounds of visitors later, we are truly settled- loving the European lifestyle, more culturally accepting, enjoying simplicity (no cars!) and adept at both planning AND enjoying new adventures. When you move to a new country that speaks its own language, is very culturally different from what you are used to, and have minimal support, coupled with the pressure of high expectations from the start, the seemingly mundane things become the most unbelievable blessings. So what are some of those god sends that helped us survive? As I look back, so many things were critical to our story ultimately becoming a positive one so far. Here are my top 7:
1. Mail from friends and family at home
Good ol’, traditional snail mail that made me feel like I still belonged to some universe and gave me a positive, fulfilling ending to many frustrating, stressful, seemingly purposeless days at the office. To all of you that sent cards for birthdays, holidays, thank you’s, anniversaries or even the thinking of you/just because notes, you will never know how much those meant! I will say, most arrived at such an emotionally insane time I realize I was not always good about sending return “just because” letters. You have my word that yours will arrive this year, now that we are a bit more stabilized. Our home entertainment center unit literally went from bare bones to overflowing with cards in months, if not weeks. Whenever we start to have doubts about whether we really want to return to the States within our original timeline, we look at our library of cards and feel the love that we are missing out on, (a BIG influencer BTW)!
2. Translation Apps (Camlingual!)
Unfortunately, I discovered this WAY too late. Only after hours of literally typing mail letter after recipe into Google translate, and Sean spending an average of 2 hours per weekend deciphering bills and other random mail did I find out that an app exists which can literally translate a photo of any text into your native language in seconds (still amazing to me!). It’s funny when people talk about the Netherlands… in general, it is an easy country to get around – people are mostly nice and helpful and most people SPEAK english. However, when you are actually living there, you find lots of things that are NOT in english. Bills, official documents (like tax documents!), appliances, etc. to name a few. To anyone traveling in a foreign country or moving to a foreign country in which your native language is not the primary language, I strongly recommend getting this app. It is worth the $2.99 or something for like 200 images and will save you hours, if not years of your life.
3. Skype & Visitors
Most days I’m a bit bi-polar about technology and the digital revolution we are all living in. In some ways it helps make life more convenient amidst an ever increasing amount of responsibilities and expectations (I also rely on it heavily in my profession). In other ways I feel it is contributing to our social downfall as nations, as communities and as families, not to mention the affect it is having on raising decent, well-rounded children. That being said, I could not be more supportive and grateful for the role technology has played in maintaining relationships while living abroad. An email, a text, or even a regular phone call simply doesn’t have the same emotional closeness as seeing the other person live whether on the screen on the couch or literally sitting on the couch. I am forever grateful for those who made the investment and time to come hang with us in person this year, but just as thankful for those who made the time differences work to Skype frequently. How cool that my sister and I were able to have cocktail hour together over Skype about once a week, family and friends could tell us big news as if we were in their living room, and we were able to see nieces and nephews grow up as if we were home. Video technology – you have my heart!
4. The Kindness of Strangers (and a FEW nice colleagues)
As much as we are loving this life opportunity, the professional experience has unfortunately been less than stellar. Even though a bigger title, I’ve more often felt like I’ve taken 2 steps back in my career, felt like an outcast having the office culture conversations around me take place in 3 different languages (none of which are english), and longed for any of the regions to get on board with what we were trying to achieve as a global team. I’ve struggled to be allocated work in areas that are both in line with my job description and appealing to my skills and interests. There were days that I felt like a raging monster and certainly days that I just wanted to be a ghost in the rafter. On those days, a simple smile from a stranger, invite to lunch from a colleague, or the simple act of an unknown colleague not letting the elevator shut on my face while going to lunch, was enough to save me from a downward spiral. A little sidebar lesson to everyone (including a reminder pep talk to myself)….
I’ve visited nearly 20 countries before the age of 30 and one thing has become very clear. No matter where in the world you go, there will always be an abundance of ignorant, selfish people and afew that brighten the lives of others with random acts of kindness or pleasantness. While we can’t pretend to know what happened to every person each morning before they stepped out the door orwhat has happened in their lives to shape their values and character up to that point, one thing is simply fact… every day, each person has the choice to either be the young man blocking the inner seaton the tram so that the elderly woman can’t take a seat, or to be the random stranger who smiles and asks if you need directions because you look lost. That moment of ACTION defines what type of person you are in this world. So make a good choice.
As problematic as it sounds, its the truth. There are some days, that the transition was just overwhelming. Especially at the beginning when almost nothing was familiar, the to-do list just to feel like a normal human being again was overwhelming and the everyday conveniences being absent (like air conditioning, or a grocery bagger) just put me over the top. The universal antidote of a glass of wine or a cocktail, in addition to getting a good night sleep, was usually a welcome savior to take the edge off. Luckily we have a great wine shop down the street and due to the heavy influence of Belgian beers, the average beer runs about 9% ABV.
Okay, so we’re getting a little healthier here. ….. I’ve noticed a few things are universal no matter where you go (post to come on this!) and one of those things is exercise. It is a normal part of people’s lives and for me the effects feel the same no matter which country I am in. Yes, the weights are all in kilograms and the workout classes in Dutch here, but I was still able to release some endorphins and felt a bit more in control of my life and my health at the end of each workout session to combat any laziness or negativity that was trying to creep in. To be honest, joining a local gym also provided a little dose of humble pie in addition to the fitness benefits. Throughout my life I have grown accustomed to being in the upper quartile of performers when it comes to fitness activities (hard work and training fueled by slightly crazy genes). Here I had to resign myself to the fact that all I could do to participate in a workout class or fitness session was to watch the instructor intently and accept the fact that I was going to be the last one in the class to do whatever move he was doing. In most cases it worked out just fine, and I was happy enough to just burn some calories even if I was the one going right while everyone else was going left. It wasn’t until the live boxing class that this dynamic got me into a slightly dicey situation. Having missed the instruction to find a partner to engage in a full on sparring match with, I ended up being paired with the semi-pro boxing instructor. Needless to say I was more focused on my survival than my form, and a couple bruises later I learned which classes to attend, and which I should probably hold off on until I return to the States.
7. Quiet time
The space and freedom this opportunity has provided to reflect, write, read and transform has been instrumental. I know I can still count on one hand the amount of books I’ve finished cover to cover and this blog doesn’t show that I’ve been writing all that much throughout the year. Perhaps it is the perfectionist in me that can’t seem to bring myself to post a half-baked entry. But there were days, nights, weekends, that I grabbed 10-15 minutes and just wrote through or read through something that was challenging me. As I sit here writing this entry in MAC notes, I am looking at 13 unfinished posts on my side nav and know I have another 5 or so in my PC Office suite. Eventually I will try to close out my thoughts and post them around the date when those feelings were real, but for now I’ll just be grateful that I had the time to take a break from life and capture those thoughts. I know many people, like my brother for example, that barely have 3 minutes of quiet time at the end of working a 16 hour day at 2 different jobs to even take a drink of water, not to mention sort through their thoughts and use whatever feelings or emotions are happening as a transformational moment in their lives. I’m sure I speak on behalf of Sean too when I say that we dearly miss friends and family most days, but we are grateful for the benefit of space and time… space to deepen the relationships with ourselves and each other, and time to just feel something instead of be somewhere.
With all that said, what I haven’t mentioned yet are the things we are grateful did NOT happen to derail our adventure. We have been blessed with a relatively stable year back home in terms of unforeseen tragedies or devastating losses. Certainly we’ve had some family members going through some trying times, either health related or emotional situations and they’ve been constantly in our thoughts and prayers. However, we haven’t had any situations that have required us to bail early or fly home in a crisis. We realize how lucky we are and are keeping our fingers crossed and prayers strong that we have the same luck in year 2!