This Must Be The Place

 

IMG_2169.JPGAs expats living in Europe, it’s not unusual to find ourselves feeling torn at times. We’re living this exciting and different life in one country filled with new friends, new lifestyles, new languages, culture and outstanding affordable travel opportunities. And living another life, albeit some of it in the past, or planning repatriation, or trying to settle permanently, in the near or distant future. At times, the psychological and emotional management of these realities separate or intertwined can be tough to manage, especially with kids.

When you feel your brain ticking off the to do lists from abroad, if they get to be too much, lasso those thoughts and bring yourself back to the here and now and start planning to do things on this current side of reality. At times like these, when I’m feeling torn, which is a lot lately, I like to snap myself into a more conscious state of mind. I may be showing my age here, but really, age is just a state of mind…. I turn up Spotify and sing out loud the lyrics from one of my favorite bands, Talking Heads’ This Must Be the Place.

“Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me around
Home is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there”

I used to think home was a particular place. Now my understanding of home is where I am “now.” I’m guessing that expats who have another life somewhere they left behind which included a treasured set of peeps, feel lonely and wanting at times. It happens to me. That’s when I turn up another old favorite song from Simple Minds, ‘Don’t You Forget About Me

“Don’t you forget about me
Don’t Don’t Don’t Don’t
Rain keeps falling
Rain keeps falling
Down down”

Preparation can ease the mind too. Expats become really good at organizing out of pure necessity. The more prepared an expat is, the higher the survival rate. By survival, I mean staying in a host country till the end of the contract. While living in Holland is almost perfect in regards to lifestyle, safety, culture, health, cost of living and travel accessibility, it also comes with something that permeates into your experience. The weather. It leaves a lot to be desired. It rains. A lot. It can rain for weeks on end. And in the winter especially, it’s grey. And dark. And chilly.

Make the concerted effort to FaceTime special friends and family members. Make plans with them, convince them to make the trek over the pond or just keep in touch. My son, studying back in the US, is at the top of my FaceTime call list and just a couple minutes looking at his face and hearing his voice brings a relief and joy that can carry me through a really low day.

 

 

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When you have down time, which is when the mind tends to wander, organize your calendar and dot it with travel, lunches, dinners, excursions, museum visits, historic walks and visits from loved ones. Get out of the house even in the pouring rain. Buy some tulips. Take pictures of the canals. Don your closet with rainproof jackets, shoes, boots and a few umbrellas. Remember, it’s never bad weather, just bad clothing. And since this is home for awhile, better be prepared for what that entails.

 

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When the ping pong match inside your head starts bopping back and forth and Team Home Country vs. Team Host Country is too much to bear, you know it’s time to engage with a friend or two on Team Host Country. Go for a walk in the Vondelpark, go to the Rijks and appreciate Vermeer’s masterpieces, gaze at Van Gogh’s sunflowers or just sit with a cappuccino at an outdoor cafe (when it’s not raining). Life in Amsterdam is quite extraordinary. And as David Byrne wrote, “This Must Be The Place” so we should do our best to enjoy it.

 

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Go to Rome in Winter

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There’s still so much of Europe to see (again) before we’re told to repatriate, so we took advantage of a long weekend in January to show our teenage daughter Rome. Surprisingly warm, bright and sunny, the Eternal City welcomed us northern expats with statuesque open arms. For my husband and I, this was our third pilgrimage here and this magical city proved worthy of more attention.

 

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Staying in the eclectic neighborhood of Monti near the Colosseum this time brought us different views and surprising sights on our daily treks down into the main heart of the city. It seemed to us that Rome is still in ruins, ancient and protected, amid playgrounds, apartment buildings, metro stops and walkways. Everywhere you turn there’s a landmark begging for your eye and a quick snapshot. In just one afternoon you can easily see ten awe-inspiring sites. Aside from one of the biggest in this hood, the Colosseum, and the adjacent Roman Forum, there is an astounding amount of sites to explore.

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IMG_3824.JPGYou can map your way precisely or go off the beaten path through winding skinny streets, up and down (Rome is very hilly). Either way there is much to see walking through this beautiful welcoming ancient place. Look up and through and don’t forget to turn around as you might miss the view from behind. There are literally hundreds of ruins throughout Monti hidden behind homes and fences.

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Climbing down stairs on our way towards Trevi, we stumbled on to the Altar of the Fatherland, built to honor the first King of Italy, Emmanuel. He is forever honored, caste in bronze on his horse with two winged chariots above him on either side affixed to this magnificent white marble monument, the largest in Rome. An eternal flame at the top highlights the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Walk straight past the slew of hagglers hawking selfie sticks and the Italian men dressed as gladiators (do not engage) to take some photos.

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Continue wandering and remember, when in Rome, you should do as the Romans do. Take time to chill. Italians love to sit, eat, have a cappuccino, relax and enjoy the piazzas, even more special on a sunny day. And food in Rome, or anywhere in Italy, for that matter, is more than half the reason to go. It’s easy to find a reasonable and delicious place to eat lunch or dinner without reservations in the low season. Using Google, Yelp or Tripadvisor, there are plenty of good eats to be found.

If you’re there on a Saturday, stroll through the Market at Campo Dei Fiori to see the most beautiful vegetables stands and Italian delicacies to take home. All around this square are delicious restaurants and cafes where locals wait in long cues for a slice of pizza or a small table in the sun.

 

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If you’re in the mood to be surrounded by loads of tourists, even in the low season, pen in the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, both very near each other. Warning! It’s crowded, so mind the uncomfortable bombardment of men coming straight for you to sell all kinds of wares or just trying to engage a conversation as you walk by to ask for money.

Piazza Navona, in central Rome is easy to wander through, or sit with some gelato among the many who come to enjoy the large square with two impressive fountains. At one end you can walk into the Pantheon, also the Basilica of Santa Mary and the Martyrs, for free (until May). Once inside this comparatively small church, look up to see what looks like the moon door from Game of Thrones in the center ceiling.

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Take the metro to Piazza del Popolo, a beautiful square set inside the giant walls of Rome, or northern gate. Cast your eyes on the roads ahead to the Tridente with the twin churches of Santa Maria de Montesanto and Santa Maria Debi Miracoli. This view begs the question, to which one should a Roman attend mass? Head up one street or another to find a fancier part of Rome – and the shops that go with them. At the end of one of these long streets sits the Altar of the Fatherland.

 

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No visit to Rome is complete without going to Vatican City, an easy metro, Uber ride or walk away. You can tour inside this very impressive and enormous church as well, or try and be in the square when Pope Francis is scheduled to say mass from a perch off the papal apartments (although Pope Francis lives in a more modest apartment nearby). The Vatican Museums and can take up a half-day walking through the enormous rooms of gold decorated with incredible works of art and ancient artifacts. At the end of the Museum lies Michaelangelo’s masterpieces inside the Sistine Chapel.

 

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Expats, pack your most comfortable walking shoes and go to Rome. Take advantage of the low season for less crowds, decent weather, cheap direct flights and hotel offerings. If your family is paid in US dollars (still struggling against the Euro) book your hotel through a US travel site and save even more. Also consider purchasing Skip the Line tickets for St. Peter’s Basilica and the Colosseum, both available online. Even in the low season, these sites are crowded.