Happy Anniversary- 4 Down, More to Come

It’s once again that time of year- the anniversary of our move to The Netherlands.  Now that we have completed four years (1 more than the original plan included), we have been looking back on those years and assessing what they have meant and where we are now.

The past four years have held a lot of ups and downs.  The initial decision to move and our first months in the country were overwhelming and fraught with doubts about whether it was a good decision or whether we had damaged our children (at least, I worried about that).  As we hit the seventh or eighth month mark, we had found our groove and were starting to enjoy our new surroundings and friends.  We experienced the difficulty of having friends move away at the end of year one which made us once again feel isolated and down, but we rebounded with fun travel and experiences in our second year until everything came to a screeching halt with Covid.  Actually, the first bout of Covid closures really didn’t get us too down.  We maintained contact with some friends through online forums, and we enjoyed some really fabulous nature walks around our area and some great family time while exploring some creative ventures.  The third year was much more difficult as Covid took a harder toll and left us feeling more isolated and disappointed that we were losing time of our short-term experience here.  In addition, that third year left us having to make difficult decisions again about whether to extend our stay or return to the US.  Once again, we felt weighted with the question of whether we were making the right decisions.  It was an emotional time as we let go of our house in the US and opened ourselves to complete and utter uncertainty about what happens after our time in The Netherlands ends (for a planner, having no idea what the future looks like is sheer terror and chaos).  Our fourth year has brought more calm.  Although there have been many of the normal growing pains of a family with teenagers, most of us have been enjoying ourselves again this year.  We have still had some concerns about whether the decision to enroll the children in such a small school was a good one, but we also have a lot of pluses about the small school experience leading us to believe that at some point we just have to accept that the situation is what it is and focus on the positive aspects (easier said than done at times).  This year we were able to socialize a lot more and travel again which has been of huge importance to us (in fact, it was one of the factors in deciding to move in the first place).  We feel like we are once again being able to take advantage of living here.

As to myself personally, this year I have been a little more active in my volunteerism.  I ran two clubs for secondary students at the school which proved to be both rewarding and frustrating at times.  In addition, I have served on several committees at the school which has allowed me to help shape the school’s future direction.  Probably my most entertaining volunteer area this year was overseeing a Dutch conversation group for parents at the school  It has been a lot of fun to get together every week to socialize in Dutch (though we did cheat some and use English a bit). 

Overall, I believe that this year, we all felt good about our decision to be in Europe for longer than originally intended.  The children enjoy the opportunities that they have to know others from all over the world, travel, and have a global perspective.  We all love the chance to explore different areas of the world and experience new things.  In addition, we really enjoy spending time with the friends we have made here. 

But life is life no matter where you are, and there are still struggles and uncertainties.  We are entering new territory this year as our oldest will begin the IB program at school.  We have heard so frequently about how intense and time-consuming it is, that we have some definite fears and concerns, but we are also looking forward to seeing how it will challenge her.  Big life decisions are on the horizon which is already beginning to induce some anxiety.  Not having a clear picture of what happens in two more years is frightening and overwhelming, but being okay with that and living with it is one thing that this whole experience has helped me be able to do.   The unknown aside, we are determined to keep making the most of things here in year five. 

So…that leaves a revisit of last year’s goals.  Drumroll, please…..

  1. Continue to progress with Dutch, Portuguese, and piano.  

Okay, Portuguese had to go by the wayside.  It was becoming too difficult to learn two languages at once.  Considering that the Dutch will help me most in the here and now, I stuck with that one and am happy to report that I have improved considerably.  I can read a lot now and can understand much more in conversation (though it is still a struggle to understand the native Dutch speakers at times as they speak fast).  I try to speak some, but the fear of being wrong holds me back-something I need to work on. Piano is going okay and I have improved, but a recent hiatus has slowed me down so I need to get back to regular practice.

  • Get back to a consistent workout plan to lose some extra weight and get in shape.

I wish I could say that this worked.  I was consistent in a plan for a while, but I would still like to do better. 

  • Read at least 1 book a month.

I did it!  There were a few times that I wasn’t sure I would make it, but I did.  I even got two read during one of the months.  It was actually nice to get back to reading consistently. 

  • Travel and visit a few more places in the Netherlands that we want to see (for goodness sake Covid, give a girl a break!)

I am so happy to report that this finally happened.  We went to several of the places in The Netherlands- at this point, we have almost completed the list of items to see/do here that I made a couple of months after arriving four years ago.  In addition, we got to take the trips that we had to cancel when Covid hit- Italy, Ireland, and Greece.  We even got to add a few others-Poland, Kenya, and Brasil. 

  • Take more bike trips

I am still really hoping to do a bike trip to the beach this summer, but as of right now, nothing more than our normal biking has taken place.  After a recent bike accident, we probably need to get the bikes checked before attempting a long trip so maybe later this summer or in very early fall before the weather turns on us.

So, any goals for this year? 

  1. You should know by now that travel is always on my goal list.  We have 5 proposed trips this year, and I really hope we get to take all of them.  In addition, we are hoping to add in a couple of quick weekend getaways.  Fingers crossed!
  2. Have at least one conversation in Dutch in which I don’t sound like a two-year-old.
  3. I have really got to get back in shape this year.
  4. I would like to complete the list of places to see in The Netherlands that I created when we first moved here (with the help of a guidebook written by a long-time expat). 
  5. I would like to complete 6 bike route trips that I researched a couple of years ago.

So, at the close of year 4, we feel pretty good about this journey and what we have gained. Hope to keep seeing you all here as we move full steam ahead into year 5!

War from Our Vantage Point

As we find ourselves on this side of the pond with war underway in Europe, it is a strange feeling to be this close.  Growing up in the US, while there were wars during my childhood, war heroes and the memory of war, no war had touched American soil in any recent period of time.  War always seemed a long way away.  While this war is not quite at our doorstep, we do feel a bit closer, see a bit more of the effect, I believe, and especially being part of an international community with our school and friends, see many more angles than if we were currently in the US.  So, I thought I might outline a few of our observations from our situation:

  1. As a part of an international school within driving distance of a war zone, our children have war on their minds in a bigger way than if we were in the US.  Yes, I believe that if we were in the US there would be discussions about the war, it would be on the news, and there would be donation and relief efforts.  However, I believe that most kids in the US right now are probably not harboring fears that the war could end up at their door and are not worried about how it is effecting friends and their families.  In addition, I think that our kids may be engaging more in relief efforts and considering how they and their school community can help.  In fact, kids in the US just may not be having discussions about it quite as much as we are.  Kids are discussing it every day at school; we discuss it and the school discussions in our home every day; it is coming up in all our conversations with friends and colleagues and some are really scared: scared that this could involve more countries soon, scared that invasion could spill into other European countries and scared because it is personally affecting them, their family members and friends.
  1. Of course, Ukrainians are experiencing the worst of the war and their situation in unimaginable, but war affects so many. Our Russian friends are hurting too.  There is uncertainty with their families back in Russia and concern for them (the family members often being elderly parents), there is uncertainty with their economic situation because of their assets in Russia, and there is fear over how they will be received simply because they are Russian (one thing that we have seen many times since moving here is how people often get unjustly lumped together in these situations-during WWII not all Germans were at fault (Nazis were) and in this war, average Russians are not at fault (Putin is) and don’t deserve to be treated as such).  War affects the mental state of everyone as we listen to one another’s fears and worries.  And, of course, we all worry as costs begin to rise even further as the ripple effects of the war begin to make their way into our daily lives.
  1. The effects of the war, at times, feel a bit more “in your face” than they would in the US. Every day on our expat group on Facebook, there are requests for people who can house specific Ukrainian women with their children.  The government is making provisions and assistance opportunities for refugees.  There are local people collecting items that they will personally ferry to the Polish border for refugees, not just an opportunity to donate money online that will be handled through an agency.  There are local people driving to the border to transport refugees.  There are local people who are going to Ukraine to help fight.

As just a small example of the way war feels more present here, let me tell you a few snippets from our past week.  We saw demonstrations, large amounts of signage and flags supporting Ukraine, and refugees being transported while in Poland; we packaged up a bunch of outgrown clothes and shoes and took them to a local butcher who is taking them to refugees in Poland; we had many conversations in our home about how several of our friends/classmates are being affected and our concerns for them; we had conversations with some of these friends about how they are doing; we made an assignment in the school newspaper club to write an article about the war and how the students feel and are personally affected as many in our school community are; and finally, every month the sirens that signaled an air raid during WWII are tested on the first Monday at noon.  This past week, there were many reminders in various groups and news outlets that these would be tested (though we all know this to be the case), and that it didn’t mean there was a problem and to especially communicate this to any refugees so that they would not be afraid.  All of that really makes things feel pretty close.

  1. Finally, there is something hard to explain about a war underway in countries that, just 80 years ago, had large scale war on their soil. Already, the sense of WWII is different in Europe than in the US.  The remembrances here, the scars, are not just from soldiers who fought, the families left behind or the economic sacrifices that had to be made.  The scars here belong to almost everyone in a personal way, to the cities and the land that was destroyed or rebuilt, to the physical reminders of an unimaginable horror.  And those scars live in the people in a way that they just don’t in the US.  To now have another war on European soil, to see the similarities to the past: the lands and cultural landmarks that are destroyed, the people trying to be subdued and oppressed, the people who are rising against the invaders, the people who are trying to help even at their own risk is sickening and frightening and opens old scars.

Having shared this, I am by no means trying to say that no one outside of Europe is worried or feeling the effects of the war or doing their part to help and support those being violated.  Of course, we all are and we all will.  I just thought I would take a minute to record a few of our personal observations and encounters with the situation both to record this moment in history and to share a little about different experiences in order to help us all to consider different perspectives and viewpoints, understand one another better and unite in the face of tragedies such as this.

Happy Anniversary-Year 3 In the Books

This year marks the end of our 3rd year in the Netherlands.  This year has been interesting to say the least.  It has probably been our most isolated year since we moved here.  We saw few neighbors, went to basically no stores or restaurants, didn’t travel, my husband didn’t go to the office more than a dozen times during the entire year, I saw very few other parents and only went on to school grounds a dozen or so times and our son spent half of the school year at home with almost no interaction with any kids except during digital classes or meetings.  Our daughter was the only one of us who probably had more social interaction this year than any other due to a special relationship that wasn’t going to be slowed down by Covid.  In a lot of ways, we really felt that we were being cheated out of the experience of living abroad this past year.  We tried to make the most of it-we tried to get out and enjoy the nature areas around us, tried to get together with friends a few times that felt safe, tried to  have fun with special occasions and holidays.  And while I think we did succeed with that for the most part, for about a quarter of the year our efforts were overshadowed by a huge cloud of uncertainty as we tried to determine what the end of this year would bring-would we stay or go.  And if we went, where would we go to and if we stayed, how would that impact the future. A decision like that is hard enough for adults but factor in the impact on your children, and it becomes agonizing. This coupled with worries over how our decisions would impact our families and an enormous amount of stress and time pressure on my husband as he navigated the next chapter for his business made the first part of this year very tough.  And while the decision to stay finally became clear, it brought with it a whole new host of decisions and uncertainties about what happens in the next couple of years and beyond which made this year an emotionally challenging year to say the least.

While closing a very big chapter of our lives by making the decision to stay and to sell our house in the States rather than return last month as originally planned feels strange, we are feeling pretty good about our decision to spend more time living here.  This has been an incredible experience for all of us.  While it isn’t always easy to deal with the uncertainties, the volatility and the complications that come with living in a foreign country and an expat community, it has really opened our eyes to the wider world, to all the possibilities out there (which is sometimes a problem itself) and to the fact that you can feel at home and build a life in many places.  And while the complications and uncertainties are not over, we are looking forward to making the most of our time here, to continuing to learn more about the world and explore new places, to meeting and spending more time with the amazing people in our community and to continuing to grow through this experience.

And now, it’s time to revisit those goals from the start of this third year:

  1. Take some family bike excursions to work up to a several hour biking trip in the spring/summer – while we skimped a little on the bike excursions leading up to it, we did bike to Kinderdijk a couple of months ago as a family.  That is about a 2.5 hour roundtrip excursion.  It was a lot of fun and there were hardly any complaints.  Now that we know we can do it, we have plans to try a few other trips in the future.
  2. Visit more places (I’m not giving up on this one; I just need Covid to cooperate!) – it didn’t cooperate!  This year was almost entirely tripless thanks to lockdowns and closed borders.  However, we tried to make the most of what we could do by taking a short trip to the south of the Netherlands, taking a few driving excursions and most recently taking a day trip to Belgium.
  3. Complete a couple of artistic projects that I have worked up as well as a cross-stitch that I have been doing on and off for about 20 years (mostly off which is probably the problem) – the cross-stitch is nearly done!  I think I need about 2 more days.  As to the other artistic projects, I only worked on one or two.
  4. Walk for an hour at least 3 times a week – I did this with no consistency.  In the fall, I did some walking and biking.  In the winter, we did take several walks in the evening but they were not an hour long.  By spring, I completely gave up on the weather and just took walks here and there.
  5. Play tennis weekly with another couple and with moms at school (again I need Covid to cooperate) – and again, it did not.  Tennis courts were closed most of the year.  We do not have open courts available to play, so if the facility was closed, there was no playing.

All in all, I would say I did alright on last year’s goals but not great.  I did add a few goals in recent months-working on Dutch and Portuguese and learning to play the piano.  I have been doing pretty well with those things and have been pleased with my progress.  I also decided to complete the Everest Challenge offered through my kids’ school.  It involved a lot of flights of stairs in a 1 month period, but I did it.

So, what are my goals for year 4?

  1. Continue to progress with Dutch, Portuguese and piano.
  2. Get back to a consistent workout plan to lose some extra weight and get in shape.
  3. Read at least 1 book a month.
  4. Travel and visit a few more places in the Netherlands that we want to see (for goodness sake Covid, give a girl a break!)
  5. Take more bike trips

There you have it-another year in the books and now on to year four.  To all of you that have come along for the ride through this blog during these past three years, thank you!  I hope you have enjoyed yourself and gotten a small glimpse into life as an expat, and I hope you will continue to tag along as we move forward.  Here’s wishing all of us a fabulous fourth!

Goodbyes Are Hard

Everyone said what an adventure we would have becoming expats and moving to Europe.  And while we have definitely had adventures and amazing experiences, it’s still just the day in and day out business of life most of the time.  And most of the time that is fine-maybe not what you all picture-but it’s good and normal.  However, some days are just hard and sad.  Not knowing what comes next and where “next” might take place is hard, and right now seems to be a time when that is on our mind a lot.  But being in an environment in which you are surrounded by people in this sort of volatile and temporary existence of expats, you find that the worst part, the saddest part, is what happens every year at this time; friends leave and things change.  I am generally not a person who likes change.  I like to make plans for the long term and have stability.  Living as an expat is hard for that type of person, and some days I really am not sure how I am managing it.  But this cycle of watching people that we care about, that have been an important part of our lives, pack up and move on and knowing that it could be the last time we ever see them or that our connection will likely diminish over time is hard and sad and sometimes makes me question what we are even doing in this situation.  I know no one really likes these posts where I don’t talk about the interesting and exciting things we are doing, but this is part of the picture.  Life is hard and choosing to live as expats is hard-it can’t all be adventures and excitement.  And since I started this blog to share this time in our life with you all, I feel like I have to share these parts as well.  So just know that today is a sad day and tomorrow will likely be better.  And to everyone who has been an important part of our lives and experiences,  know that we will always be thankful for our time with you no matter where you are or where we find ourselves.  Because even if we haven’t talked much or seen each other in years, you are still in our thoughts and hearts and you will have a place there forever.

To Learn Dutch or Not To Learn Dutch, That Is The Question

One of the natural results of living in a foreign country with a language different from your native language is that you learn the country’s language because in order to integrate and speak with others, it’s a necessity, right?  Wrong!  That may be the case in many places, but here in The Netherlands, we barely know any Dutch.  Sure, we’ve picked up some basic words, common phrases and words for things we encounter frequently such as foods, but beyond that, we’ve got nothing.  You may wonder why that would be the case and I’ll tell you.

Reason 1-The Dutch are amazing at English.  First of all, a large majority of them know English, and they know if from a young age.  Knowing English is great but it must be hard to understand them because of accents, you say.  No!  The accent is minimal and really does not affect your ability to understand their English at all.  Okay, okay but conversations must be limited because they would not be used to speaking English, wouldn’t have the extensive vocabulary, would have to slow down to think about what they want to say and how it translates, right?  Wrong again!  It never ceases to amaze me that the Dutch know English so well-their vocabulary is quite good and the ease with which they can seamlessly switch from speaking Dutch to English is unbelievable.  As soon as they realize you don’t speak Dutch, they will switch in mere seconds without even missing a beat.

Reason 2-While you do encounter some Dutch people who feel that immigrants and expats should speak Dutch, a large portion feel that it is no problem to only speak English as they can speak that easily as well and Dutch is a hard language to learn.  Therefore, they are more than happy to accommodate your English speaking ways-to the point of detriment to you.  Do you know how hard it is to try to learn a new language when every time you attempt to speak it, the person you are speaking to says “Oh, English” and then proceeds to only speak to you in English?

Reason 3-We chose to send our children to an international school and being such, it is conducted in English.  When the children are in elementary school years, they take a daily Dutch lesson, but once they are in secondary grade levels, they can choose between Dutch and Spanish thus meaning that at school, my children are receiving no Dutch.  In addition, everything for parents in communicated in English and everyone affiliated with the school (with a few exceptions) speaks English.  This means that in the majority of our daily interactions and in our social circle, English is the preferred language.  We just aren’t forced to use Dutch daily or in order to connect with people.

Reason 4-If you don’t speak the language, you can live in a sort of clueless bubble.  When you can’t watch the news or read the paper, it is easy to stay oblivious to negative things happening around you.  Sometimes, this can be a nice feeling-to not have to think about all the bad things out there.  It can also be a way to ignore how far away and foreign you are in this new place.  Of course, there are times when you would like to escape the bubble and that is when it can be frustrating to not know the language, but even then, more likely than not, you can find a site that has translated news, use translator apps or ask someone who can explain it to you in English.

So, there you have it-the English/Dutch language dilemma that we find ourselves in.  Of course, I am in no way trying to excuse our lack of Dutch language skills.  To the contrary, I am disappointed and at times embarrassed by our failure to learn the language.  But, rather than focus on that, I choose to focus on how thankful I am that we moved to a country where English is so readily and willingly used, that we have met a lot of other English speakers who also struggle with this dilemma and that the Dutch are so kind about trying to help and make non-Dutch speakers’ lives a little easier.

The Happiest Kids in the World

Last week we looked at the school system in The Netherlands, so, along those lines, let’s look at the lifestyle of children here.  There have been numerous studies in recent years proclaiming that Dutch children are some of the happiest in the world and there are some factors that might contribute to that.

 1.  Children here are given large amounts of autonomy.  Rather than being driven everywhere, they bike on their own.  Many young children (think early elementary years) are still escorted to school by their parents, but once they are in the later years of primary school and secondary school, they go alone even when it takes 30 minutes or more to get to school.  Likewise, children bike themselves to their after school and weekend sports clubs or music lessons with their gear which they were probably responsible for gathering as well.  Also, many children ride public transportation by themselves. 

Children may run errands alone.  Many kids go to appointments on their own.  For example, when I take my daughter to the orthodontist, many of the kids come alone, go into the appointment alone and get the information needed and schedule their own appointments before leaving.  Kids also take care of shopping on their own when they need to or are asked by parents.  It is very common to see groups of secondary age kids in the grocery store in the morning buying items for their lunch.  I have also seen children sent to buy a few items for the family when the store is close to their home. 

And finally, Dutch children are encouraged to just go out and play without having to stay at their home to do so or to be overly supervised.  They don’t have to check in regularly and they aren’t checked on.  During the distance learning period in the spring, some of the children in our neighborhood spent hours every day building a fort in the wooded area by the houses and no parents ever went to check on them. 

2.  Children here don’t always have much “stuff.” Rather than have large rooms in which they collect copious amounts of toys and other junk, Dutch kids have smaller rooms, less storage and hence less stuff.  And while some people may feel that having stuff leads to happiness, it is, in fact, rather freeing to have less to keep up with.  In addition, when you don’t have “things”, you are more likely to go out to play, spend time with friends or engage in physical activity.

3.  Another theory is that Dutch parents are happy which makes the household and the children happier. The Dutch place a high level of importance on a balance between work and family time.  They do not work excessive hours, and it is culturally accepted that there are times when family obligations will trump work commitments.  In addition, Dutch fathers play an active role in child rearing and care which may also lead to balance and happiness in the household.  I see many fathers in The Netherlands taking their children to school which is something I rarely saw in the US.  In addition, when I see Dutch families doing things together, it seems like the parents are more engaged in the activity and spend more time talking with the family or friends they are with rather than being on a device.  I personally feel that in the US, I saw more parents on devices even when they were participating in family time out of the home. 

4.  There are also reports that Dutch children find their peer groups to be supportive and helpful and do not deal with issues regarding bullying and social identity as much as children in other countries. Also, it seems that social media and its pressures don’t stress Dutch kids much at all (see the link to the study below). 

5.  Dutch children are seen as having a “voice.” Within the family unit, children are listened to and encouraged to have opinions.  Likewise, at school, children are given the freedom to express themselves and do not experience as much authoritativeness from administration.  In return, the students generally trust their teachers.  And, parents may not put as much pressure on children in The Netherlands because they allow them the freedom to be themselves which may lead to more feelings of happiness.

6.  Finally, overall, the Dutch consider themselves to have a good life. They are a wealthy country with a good economy, they have decent healthcare and education, and there is little worry of incidents of mass violence particularly in schools.  These factors mean less stress and more happiness.

Of course, no culture is perfect and the Dutch do receive criticism for an unhealthy diet among kids.  There are also, of course, issues of poverty and racism to deal with.  And, for better or worse, Dutch children do seem to be exposed to sex (in terms of both education, discussion and the actual act) at a much earlier age than in many other cultures. 

All in all, though, I think there are some great things about being a kid in The Netherlands and some interesting aspects of child rearing to consider and potentially adopt in order to encourage children to be happy and well-adjusted.  I hope you have enjoyed this week’s peek at life in another culture.  Until next time, I wish you all, adults and children alike, much happiness! 

**Here are a few other things to note about life for Dutch kids-drinking age is 18 and so is driving age.  Of course, many kids get a license to drive a moped (which are generally driven in bike lanes) much sooner than that.  Tons of kids here play an extracurricular sport whether it is tennis, soccer or field hockey.   There is an idea/saying in The Netherlands that is ingrained in kids early on which is “doe normaal” (be normal) basically meaning that you should not behave in a way to stand out or to be different in a negative way.  It kind of translates to “stop, that’s crazy enough.”

Finally, this is an interesting study regarding the stressors of teens in The Netherlands.



Happy Anniversary-Year 2

It’s that time of year again.  It’s the 2nd anniversary of our move to The Netherlands!  In preparation for celebrating this second anniversary, I had a look back at the one year anniversary post from last year and found that while year one was an up and down rollercoaster of emotions and trying to settle in, year two proved to be a little calmer, although it had its own set of challenges.

We kicked off our second year with an awesome trip to Iceland, and, while that was a lot of fun, we were also a bit apprehensive about how the coming year would go.  As we wound down on year one, almost every single one of my close friends was leaving the area.  I wasn’t really sure how it would feel to “start over” again.  In addition, we were nervous about the teacher that our youngest had as she was pretty tough.  And, our oldest had struggled a lot with letting go of the life we had in The States and accepting the life we currently had in The Netherlands.  On top of that, we were going through the process of buying our house in The Netherlands and making decisions about what to do with our house in The States.  There was a lot to be uncertain about.

As we started back to school, I was a bit down without my friends, though I did still have one close friend that I did several things with.  Having her around really helped a lot, and, as I was now heading up the PTSA group at the school, I tried to really force myself to get to know several other parents, both new and returning.  While most of the friendships were not quite as close this year as the ones the year before, I did find that I enjoyed many of the people, and we were able to do things together.  I also found ways to be in touch with some of my friends from the year before, which was nice as well.  We even began working on planning a trip to London to spend a weekend together which was one of the goals that I had for our second year here (spoiler alert-Covid ruined that). I was also working on the goal of doing a regular biking activity with a few of the moms at the school and had a schedule of excursions planned (spoiler alert-the weather ruined that).  So, as we moved into the Fall, I felt pretty good about our social life.  I was in a Bunco group, weekly tennis lessons, a bookclub, and had coffee and lunches regularly with other moms.  We also had another family or two that we enjoyed doing things with regularly.  We had even socialized with our neighbors a couple of times.  By the start of 2020, I had rejoined a choir and a yoga class.  Those old feelings from year one of being out of place and uncomfortable were there sometimes, but for the most part, we felt like we had found a niche, and we felt more connected to the customs and celebrations here and more prepared in how to handle the ins and outs of our daily lives here.

At school, the kids were facing a few struggles.  Socially, there were some tough situations facing both of them, but nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary for their ages.  Our oldest was also facing struggles with the Student Council that she was heading up and our youngest was having some issues with the classroom environment.  Overall, though, they were doing well.  The oldest seemed to have finally let go of the hangups regarding old life versus new life and was enjoying one of her friendships here in particular.  She was enjoying several of her classes and her music and she even had a weekly dog walking job.  The youngest was enjoying extracurricular activities. learning a new instrument and socializing with friends.  Overall, there seemed to be a more positive outlook on things.

In the first half of the second year, we were able to take several trips which were a lot of fun.  We also did several things around The Netherlands.  We were able to have my mom for a visit at Christmas time.  We were looking forward to several upcoming trips and activities.  And then, the second half of our second year arrived and with it came Covid.  It seemed like everything changed overnight.  The kids were no longer in school and hence their social lives came to a screeching halt.  Our youngest struggled with this tremendously.  Our oldest felt glued to the computer for classes and assignments and missed being able to be in person with her friend.  My social life also came to a halt.  There were no more activities, no more seeing friends and because everyone was spending so much time assisting and monitoring their kids’ distance learning, there was little communication with anyone.  In addition, all of our trips that we had been looking forward to were canceled, the visit from my mom was canceled and several special school activities were canceled.  We were not very happy.

At the same time though, we were getting to spend a little more time together.  We were taking a lot of walks, eating lunch together, our oldest and I were working on a daily music challenge which required spending many hours a week together, and I was able to give some real attention to helping our youngest improve school and organizational skills.  On a personal note, I was working out and meeting some fitness goals and I was exploring a new interest in art and card making.  It was far from an ideal situation, but we were trying to make the best of it.

We finally made it back to school for a few weeks just before the end of the year.  Though we were a little nervous, the kids were glad to be back and got to have a few of the regular end of school activities which was nice.  But life was pretty quiet, and I could feel a small negative aspect to all the staying distant.  That feeling of being a little out of place and uncomfortable was growing.  Now, going to the store or having to interact with Dutch people felt a little worse than it previously did.  Driving, biking or having to take transport somewhere felt a little overwhelming.  It was like a little backslide thanks to all the months of isolating in our English speaking, Americanized home and school environment where we were not forced to be a part of Dutch society at all.  And, it also made very clear that I had failed miserably at one of my goals for year two which was learning more Dutch.  It has been a bit of an unsettling realization.

But, as we finish year two, we are trying to remain positive.  We just got to take our first real trip since Covid began, and it was a lot of fun.  We also have recently been able to get together with the other family that we like to do things with, and it was really nice to be social again.  We are still really enjoying living in The Netherlands, and we like the area that we live in a lot.  There are a lot of nature areas near us, and we really enjoyed walking in and photographing those areas in the spring.  There are also still a lot of things to do in the area and in nearby European locations.  And we still really love the international nature of our life here and getting to know people from so many different places.

But, as with every year it seems, with those positives come the struggles.  Again this year, we had to say goodbye to some friends at the end of this year, we just found out that our closest friends will no longer be at our school next year, Covid is still wreaking havoc making everything for this year (school, socializing, travel, etc. an uncertainty and at times a fear), and we are not sure where we will be at the end of year three and with that uncertainty comes a lot of decisions and potential stress.  It seems the only thing we can do is hang on and try to make the most of year three, whatever that looks like.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to take a look back at the goals we had for year two and set some goals for our third year.  Of course, as we learned from Covid, and at times from the expat life in general, life may just come along and make all of these goals impossible.  In which case, it will be time to make some new goals.

Year Two Goals

  1. Learn more Dutch -oops…socializing, PTSA work and watching TV took precedence.
  2. Visit more places (we’ve got some really great vacations and day trips on the horizon that we are really looking forward to)-we tried, we really did but Covid just messed this one up.
  3. Take some biking excursions and/or work up a biking group with some friends-I did one with friends and we did one as a family.  Dutch weather is hard, you guys!
  4. Take a small ladies trip or do some other exploring locally with friends-I went to some Christmas markets downtown with some friends and to a friend’s store opening in another city, does that count?  Again, Covid reared its ugly head and blocked my ladies’ weekend away plans.

What I learned from these goals this year- reaching goals can be hard especially when things outside of your control interfere or when you just really don’t commit to something.  But you can always adjust your goals and explore goals you didn’t know you really had.  I added some goals this year after setting these original goals-

  1. Complete the Kiliminjaro Climb challenge with my oldest-did it
  2. Push for and join a parent/teacher choir at school-did it (though it was short-lived thanks again to Covid)
  3. Lose weight and get in better shape-did it

And now….Year Three Goals

  1. Take some family bike excursions to work up to a several hour biking trip in the spring/summer.
  2. Visit more places-I’m not giving up on this one; I just need Covid to cooperate!
  3. Complete a couple of artistic projects that I have worked up as well as a cross-stitch that I have been doing on and off for about 20 years (mostly off which is probably the problem).
  4. Walk for an hour at least 3 times a week.
  5. Play tennis weekly with another couple and with moms at school (again I need Covid to cooperate)

And so, with some reflection on this past year, a positive outlook and fresh goals in mind, we are ready to jump into year three of our overseas journey.  Thank you for coming along with me on this journey for another year.  Happy anniversary and away we go!!


My So Called Pandemic Life (Expat Edition)

At this point, we are all at least ankle-deep in our self quarantined, pandemic lifestyle.  I, like most everyone, have experienced difficulties and disappointments.

For one, travel that we have been planning and looking forward to has been disrupted.  First, a mom’s trip to see some very good friends that I have not seen in nearly 9 months came to a halt less than 24 hours before leaving, and then, our upcoming family spring vacation, which I have actually been looking forward to for many years as it was to a country that I have wanted to visit for some time, was decidedly canceled as that country’s borders are closed.  At the moment, we also have some long-awaited trips to 3 other countries that are all in danger of being canceled.  These are disappointing times.

Another issue that we are all experiencing is the fear of what the economic picture will look like when the pandemic dust has settled.  Not one of us is immune to this.  How will we be able to support our existing lifestyles, will we be able to pay bills, what jobs and businesses will still exist and how will their lack of existence affect all of us, will we be able to sell and acquire properties and assets, will we be able to send our kids to school or retire?  These questions weigh heavily on all of us.

Another difficulty that many are experiencing, including myself, is this strange scarcity of resources.  There are no times available for grocery delivery meaning that you have to trek to a store and risk virus spread.  And yet, when you go to the store, you can’t find the things that you need.  It is one more frustration in an already frustrating time.

There is social isolation.  The lack of communication and connection with friends at a time when you need connection and support the most is indeed trying.  It is hard for adults and children alike.

Finally, there is the fear of being sick and needing medical care.  You worry about yourself, your family and your friends.  And there is no definitive, trustworthy source from which you can find reassurance or answers as information varies greatly and changes daily.

Just like all of you, I have faced these difficulties.  But, there are a few added difficulties for Expats that many of you may not realize.  First off, some times that travel that is getting canceled is not just a desired and planned trip that you are disappointed about, but a lifeline to those you care about and rarely get to see.  It may also be a source of getting products and supplies that you can’t find in the country that you are currently living in.  Finally, for us, it’s also a chance to do some medical visits that are outside of the medical services that we utilize in the country we live in.  And now, we have no way of knowing when we might be able to make that trip.

Second, while you may find it difficult to quarantine away from family, for an Expat, we now no longer have a choice.  If your family member gets sick and needs care or hospitalization, you can most likely visit them (even if it has to be in a protected environment); we cannot.  If our family becomes ill, we have to watch that play out from a large distance and we can be of no assistance as we are no longer allowed to travel.  We have to worry about not being there and how we will arrange for the care of a loved one.

Thirdly, there can be added fear and frustration when you do not wholly understand the language of the country that you live in.  Emergency press briefings and warnings are issued in a foreign language, signage informing patrons of safety procedures are in a foreign language, neighborhood chats for assistance and isolation relief are in a foreign language and you have to rely on translator services which are not always accurate or up to the task.  This leads to further feelings of isolation and fear.

Finally, you are isolated from country camaraderie.  What is that?  You know the sentiments that express the belief that all the citizens of a country can overcome a problem together because you are living it together and together you are strong?  That’s country camaraderie.  As an Expat, you are not a part of the camaraderie of the country you live in, because you are an outsider there and won’t stay for long.  You are also not a part of the camaraderie of your native country because you aren’t there.  I can’t tell you how many posts I saw in the past week claiming “we are the greatest country and we will get through this together” or “our great nation has endured things before and we will survive this because we can do this together.”  As an Expat who isn’t present, that kind of support just doesn’t include you.  In fact, it feels like it excludes you; like you don’t deserve support because you are not currently a part of that nation.  It’s a little frustrating and sad to see because, in reality, this is a world problem, not a nation or community-specific problem and for Expats, that point is especially clear.

So, here we are-each with our own set of challenges and each with a similar set of challenges.  I, by no means, am trying to say that it is worse for Expats in this situation.  I’m simply trying to share my perspective and maybe share with everyone some things that you otherwise wouldn’t think of as we all face this reality together.  Safety and health to everyone!


Lessons From the Volcano

Our family recently went on a hiking excursion up to the top of a volcano.  It was an enjoyable hike filled with interesting scenery.  Reaching the top and surveying both the inside of the volcano and everything surrounding us for miles was quite amazing and very rewarding after the effort put into getting there.  But I think the more important part of that hike was the lessons along the way.  You see, if you have never stopped to ponder it before, you can actually learn a lot from a good hike.  And most of the things you learn can be applied to life.  So here’s what the hike to the volcano taught us.

1.  You Can Be Tripped Up by Small and Large Rocks

As we picked our way through lava fields on our way to the volcano, there was an abundance of rocks to step over and around.  It didn’t really matter if they were small rocks or large rocks.  They all hurt your feet, they all created a tripping hazard, they all slowed us down and they all made the hike much more challenging.  There are things in life that do the same thing to us.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a big thing or a small thing-an obstacle is an obstacle.  But the hike to the volcano reminded us that regardless of the size of the rock, the only way to keep going was to pick up our feet and go.  In life when we are faced with obstacles, we can’t just stop.  We have to pick up our feet, maneuver through and go.

2.  Keep Your Eyes on the Path (But Don’t Forget to Look Up Sometimes)

With rocks all over the ground, we really had to keep our eyes on the path to make sure that we didn’t trip or misstep which might have caused us to fall.  We had to keep our eyes on the path.  In life, don’t lose sight of what you are doing.  You are on the path to where you need to go, but keep watching the path to make sure you don’t misstep or get sidelined by an obstacle.  Be that as it may, if we never looked up from the path, we missed the scenery extending for miles and the volcano looming closer.  Even with your eyes on your path in life, you’ve got to look up sometimes and see the bigger picture so that you can make adjustments and appreciate everything around you.

3. Sometimes Your Path Is Empty and Sometimes It’s Crowded

When we hike, we generally enjoy hiking on secluded trails because it allows us to have quiet family time and to enjoy nature more.  As we began hiking the path to the volcano, we were alone-not many hikers had ventured out in the early morning hours.  But as time progressed, more and more people showed up.  Sometimes we wished they weren’t there and sometimes it was nice to encounter a friendly face and exchange a pleasantry.  Sometimes in life, we are more alone and secluded which can allow us to slow down, think about ourselves and take in the world around us.  At other times, we have many people coming in and out of our life.  During those times we can be uplifted and encouraged by others.  And, though you might have a preference, neither time is wrong; they both serve a purpose, so appreciate both the times you are alone and the times you are not.

4. Both Ups and Downs Can Be Tough

Of course, hiking up a volcano means both inclines and declines.  Experience, instinct, and knowledge tell us that going up will be tougher than coming down.  But, I’m here to tell you that they are both a challenge.  Going up there is a physical challenge required to propel oneself up, and coming down there are loose rocks and an equally steep decline requiring great effort to avoid slipping.  In all the hikes we have done, I’m truly not sure if going up or coming down is harder.  In life, we also believe that only the times that we are having to struggle to rise above something or rise up to new heights are hard, but there are also moments in coming back down from something great or an impressive achievement that can also be quite hard.  Anyone who has ever worked incredibly hard to achieve success at work on in school and is then forced to take a step back or begin again or who was celebrated for a while and then forgotten can understand how hard coming down can be.  Anyone who has fought for a relationship or struggled through difficult times just to lose the relationship in the end, can understand how hard coming down can be.  So don’t underestimate or devalue the process of coming down.  Reaching the top and the bottom are both successes.

5. Drop the Rocks

Our son is an avid collector of things on a hike (don’t worry, he almost never removes them completely from the trail).  But when you are hiking in a lava field, filled with lava rocks and your local friends encourage you to take some, you might begin to go a little crazy and fill your pockets with some rather large rocks.  After getting slower and slower and struggling to keep up, we asked our son what the issue was.  He shared that his pants were too heavy and weighted down, and it was making him go slow.  So we gave him the obvious advice-drop the rocks!  How many times in life do we collect things-money, accolades, schedule fillers, possessions, people, obligations that we don’t want?  In life, it is often hard to see the obvious-we’ve got to drop the rocks.  If the things that we are collecting are weighing us down or are unwanted and useless, why not just let them go so that we can move forward more easily?

6. If You Choose the Wrong Path, Try to Find the Positive (But Sometimes You Have to Go Back)

Sometimes our youngest complains incessantly about the path that we are on and how the hike is going, so we recently came up with a game to change the thought process.  We started naming everything that was nice about the trail or the nice things that happened because we chose this trail that wouldn’t have happened if we had chosen another.  And guess what- it worked!  On our hike to the volcano, when we began to regret the incline and length of one of the trails, we all began finding good things about the trail and before long our youngest was the one coming up with the longest list and the complaints stopped.  In life, we make choices and set ourselves on a path.  Sometimes we enjoy the decision and sometimes we regret it.  But there are times that once the choice is made, we have to keep moving down the path.  Those are the times to find the positive and before long we may find that the path wasn’t so bad after all; that it afforded us opportunities and experiences that another path would not have.  Now, having said that, hiking has also taught us that there are times when you just have to admit defeat or a mistake and turn around to find another path.  Turning around isn’t a failure.  You still had some experiences and learned some lessons from the path you were on, it’s just time to accept that you need a new path.

7. Don’t Worry Until You Get There

Sometimes when you are hiking, it is easy to look ahead and begin to worry.  As you hike to a volcano, you can worry about how far away it actually is and how long this will really take, if you will be able to climb up the steep side, if you will feel safe at the top, if you can make it back down, or if you will be too tired or get hurt along the way.  But even though all of those worries were expressed on our hike, none of them happened.  What did happen was time was spent worrying which took away from the time that could have been spent enjoying the scenery and the company of one another.  When you hike, being prepared is great-take water, take food, take first aid, take appropriate clothing for varying conditions, but worrying about what might happen is useless.  If problems arise, you will be able to handle them as they come, make decisions, and adjust.  The same is true in life.  Preparation is always a good idea and can save us a lot of grief and heartache, but worrying before the problem arises just takes away from living our life fully and enjoying it.  If problems come in life, you will be able to adjust and find ways to handle them, so don’t waste time worrying until you get there.

8. Negativity Slows You Down

I don’t know how many times on our hike to the volcano (and many others) our son stopped in the path to complain and have a meltdown over all the things that he felt were difficult or unjust.  But you know what, that just slowed us down.  It didn’t help us get where we were going, it didn’t help us complete the hike, it didn’t remove the things that he was complaining about, and it didn’t help any of us enjoy hiking.  Negativity creeps into all of our lives at times, but is it helping us at all or is it just slowing us down or even preventing us from reaching our goal, experiencing an adventure, appreciating the things around us and living our lives to the fullest?

9. Sometimes You Have to Have People to Encourage You

From time to time on our hikes, one or more of us has begun to feel tired or hungry or like they just can’t continue.  The hike to the volcano was no different.  But we never hike alone, meaning there is always someone to encourage you, to remind you that you can do it, to sit with you when you have to have a break, to help you get going again, to give you a little push or pull to move forward and to stay by your side until you get to the end.  Life is no different.  Everyone gets discouraged along the path sometimes, and if you are alone it is hard to push through.  Having people alongside you on the path can help you know when to pause and when to get going again, and they can encourage and support you.  It’s critical in hiking and in life.

10.  Go Your Own Speed

As I mentioned, our hike to the volcano involved a lot of loose rocks along the path.  Sometimes we could hear someone from behind that was hiking faster than us and the temptation would be to speed up.  But, this posed a risk in that it was much harder to walk safely on the rocks when we were going fast.  Typically, we had to just step aside and let the faster people pass us by.  That meant there were going to be more people at the volcano when we got there, but we could hike more comfortably and not worry about getting hurt.  It’s also tempting in life to try to keep up with others or “get there first,” but that isn’t always what’s best for us.  It’s more important to think about what we need to do and go our own speed.

11. Share the Path

When we are hiking, it is often frustrating to encounter others on the path.  If the path is narrow and they are coming toward us, we have to step to the side or off the path to let them go by or have others stop and wait on us to go by them.  And, sometimes, if people are coming up behind us and we feel pressured because we aren’t fast enough, we have to completely stop and get off the path to let them pass.  But, the trail isn’t just for us, so sharing the path is part of the hike even if it is inconvenient.  Life isn’t just about us either.  We exist with many others, some of who are a part of our life and some who just pass by.  But just like on a trail, we have to share the path.  We can do that by being respectful, considerate and accepting of others, making concessions and compromises, thinking about things from another’s perspective, taking care of the spaces we all share, and being kind.  There are just too many of us on this path of life.  We have to be able to share the path.

12. You Can Do It

Our hike to the volcano was filled with challenges, negativity, complaints, obstacles, frustrations, and uncertainty.  There were many times that we heard the mantra “I can’t, I can’t do it!”  To which we would reply, “You have to.  You have no choice.  You can’t just stop here.  There is nothing to be done but to keep going and get through it.”  And you know what- we did!  We made it to the top and we made it back down.  We have hiked many, many trails over the years- some are short, some are long, some have been in extreme heat, some have been freezing cold, some have been easy, and some have been very challenging, but the one thing they all have in common is that we completed them all.  Because even when you think you can’t, you can.  You can be determined, fix yourself to your goal and push yourself to the end.  Life is just like a hike.  There can be easy times and tough times, there can be obstacles and a million reasons why you think you can’t.  But in the end, you can’t just quit.  You have no choice but to keep going.  You have to decide where you are headed, set a goal, pick a path, commit, work hard, be determined and focused, push yourself or find others to push you, let go of things that slow you down, stop worrying, accept the path for what it is, learn to accept others on the path, enjoy the journey and just go.  You can do it!


What’s It Like Being an Expat Anyway?

The experience of being an expat is somewhat difficult to explain.  Those who are or have ever been expats generally understand things that you are going through very readily (which is why expats often find solace in the company of other expats), while those who have never been in the expat situation find it harder to understand.  Having never been an expat myself, I really had no idea what the experience would be like (even being married to someone who was originally from another country as living in a country temporarily is not the same as making a permanent move to a new country which has its own set of rewards and challenges), and not really knowing any expats before our move, left me unaware of what to expect.  However, even if I had spoken to other expats, I think I still would have found it hard to comprehend what the life is really like as it is a unique situation that is best understood through experience.

So, while I have found it difficult over the past year to explain to non-expat friends and family what our experience and existence right now is truly like, I do find it easier to relate what I think are the two best things about living as an expat (especially operating within an expat community which is what we have with our school) and the two most challenging things.

Best Things

  1.  We get to travel to so many amazing places; places that I never imagined or even planned to visit.  Actually, many of these places are places that I never even heard of before living overseas.  Getting to see places of historical significance, places that existed long before my home country existed, world-famous works of art, breathtaking landscapes and getting to try delicious cultural foods is amazing.  Getting to have these experiences with my family, especially my kids, is priceless.
  2. Meeting people from all over the world and getting to learn about their cultures is wonderful.  Even better is learning firsthand that we are all different but also the same, and that there are always ways that we can relate to one another.  Watching your kids make friends with people that have lived in so many different places and have so many cultures as a part of their existence is awesome and, hopefully, something that will make them more accepting, broad-minded adults.  But the best part is just realizing that you have friends (and sometimes some of the best friends you have ever had) all over the world and that because of this, you are changing and shifting your perspective and becoming a better version of yourself.  A friend that left recently received a gift that was a world map and friends wrote their names on their home country or in the country where they now reside with a note that said, “wherever you are in the world, you can always find your friends.”  Finding friends and knowing you have people that you can count on all over this world is an amazing gift.

Worst Things

  1. While it’s amazing meeting people from all over the world, the expat community is also a very transient community meaning that people are always leaving.  You make friends, you spend a lot of time together (especially because you can relate to one another, you often have a common language and you have no other connections in the country) and then they leave.  This past year, I made some very good friends and then three of my best friends and several others left in one mass exodus.  Now, I have to start over, find people to socialize with and talk to, and it’s not easy.  In fact, there are days where it makes me quite sad.  But, it’s the nature of the expat life, and, so, I will find some new connections and strengthen those with the friends who remained.  But, more than likely, I will find myself (as will my kids) saying goodbye again very soon.
  2. As an expat, you exist within two or more worlds.  You have the country/home that you came from and the country you now reside in (and for some, you also have your country of birth/origin and/or the country of a spouse).  You often left behind friends and family in one country, but have also made or returned to friends (and sometimes family) in a new country.  You have a culture that you were familiar with in your home country and a culture that you are interested to learn in your current country.  There are things that you miss in your home country, but also things that you like in your new country.  In some cases, you have left behind a home or property in a home country, but you also have a home and property in the current country.  There are responsibilities and obligations spanning the globe.  And to make it worse, you are trying to maintain relationships and connections in a home country (and many of these people cannot quite relate to what it is like for you in the current country) while trying to make new connections in the current country (so that you have people to socialize with and relate to in what is, at times, a challenging existence).  Add on the fact that for many expats, there is no idea what the future holds-where you will live next, what the next job or assignment will be, where your kids will go to school or on what time frame any of these things will occur.  It’s all up in the air and there is no sense in planning or trying to figure it out because it is impossible -there are no answers.  To say that you live in two worlds, that you belong in multiple places but also belong nowhere at the same time, might be the best way to describe it.  It is a strange feeling, especially for someone who is new to the lifestyle and has been living in basically one place their whole life.

But having said this, I wouldn’t trade this opportunity, and I am not complaining or failing to see how lucky we are to have the chance to experience this.  I am merely pointing out, that like many things in life, there are multiple facets, good and bad, rewards and challenges, ups and downs.  This is my expat life and I hope that you all can take something away from both the exciting and challenging side of this existence.  That is what we try to do, and, while we may not know what will happen next, we hope that embracing all aspects of this lifestyle will make it a more rewarding experience which will help us to carry the things that we learn with us for the rest of our lives.

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