Ticket to Ride

 

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I wouldn’t trade this roller coaster ride for anything, except maybe another one. I’m at the end of my third expat life. The first was twenty some years ago when my husband and I moved to The Hague for work. We signed an expat contract for two years, which turned into three. I remember not wanting to buy that ticket and hop on that ride. I quit a dream job I loved, packed up our possessions for storage, sold my beloved Saab 900 and said teary goodbyes to loved ones. Back then snail mail was the norm, there was no Skype, FaceTime or iPhones and international travel plans were made through a travel agent with paper tickets. THAT move was a BIG deal.

I remember the eight hour overnight flight in February, 1996, landing at Schipol at 9 am on a Sunday. As the plane touched Dutch ground we were greeted by total darkness and rain. I looked at my husband and said. “I’m not sure this was a good idea.” The shock of moving and assimilating to a country this far north in winter took some getting used to. I’ll admit it, I cried a lot. On the flip side, at least everyone spoke English and we could be in Paris by fast train in less than four hours. We worked really long hours, made amazing new friends, tried to learn Dutch and traveled a lot. The US dollar was worth twice the Dutch guilder. Life was pretty good, so we had a baby to add even more excitement to the ride. When our son was 6 months old we moved to Copenhagen for our second expat life in Denmark that lasted a few more years before repatriating back to the US.

Fast forward 16 years later to Boston, enjoying another set of amazing friends and fully ingrained in American life, we jumped at the chance to hop back on that rollercoaster again. We left our Dutch baby, then 19 years old, at college in the States and embarked on our third expat life in Amsterdam, this time with a teenage daughter and two dogs in tow.

Our latest ride has been much less bumpy knowing what to expect. Armed with a little Dutch and smartphones enabling us to frequently keep in touch with family and friends, we eagerly bought that ticket for another stint in The Netherlands. Amsterdam is one of the easiest cities to live in for Americans. Almost everyone speaks fluent English, there’s a large international expat community and organizations to join to make friends, integrate and have a social life.

Perhaps one of the greatest things about this ride is the friends you make while riding. Expats seem to attract other expats because no one understands better what you’re going through. They empathize. They eagerly offer advice, point you in the right direction and include you. Every expat needs friends in the here and now and it’s easier to widen that friendship circle. Expat friendships seem to evolve much quicker.

But (and I never like to start a sentence with but), here is the downside. The roller coaster, at times, starts twisting and jolting you around and you feel the need to get off. You’ll feel a pain of separation in ways you didn’t see coming, whether it be from this expat life, or the life you left back in your home country. After getting through the initial mix of excitement and culture shock, bureaucratic red tape of the Expat Center or Gemeente registration, obtaining your international driver’s license, or getting your kids (luckily) into the international school of your choice, you think you can relax. But (again with the but), something will go wrong. Perhaps it’s your cable, heating system, an infestation of mice, or your basement floods. Or you’re told by a Dutchie what you’re seeking which seems very reasonable is “not possible.” Or maybe it’s something back in your home country – your renters are breaking their lease or you’re missing a reunion.

And, then, just when you finally have a group of friends and feel settled, spoiler alert…..if you haven’t been through this already, you should be aware, chances are, as an expat, you will experience saying goodbye to an expat friend or two or three. It will crush you, sadden you and leave you feeling lonely.

It’s a true emotional roller coaster ride, this expat life. You’ve eagerly bought that ticket, ran to get a seat and suddenly the car you’re in is dipping too fast. It’s a struggle to stay on. You need to grab on to someone or something to get through it. Eventually, though, after those tough dips, the ride will start to climb back up allowing you to let go, raise your hands in the air and enjoy the ride.

 

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This time around, in our middle age, we’ve played host to so many family and friends now quite able to afford the ticket across the pond. We’ve enjoyed the benefits of Apple TV (no more choosing between ancient reruns of Baywatch, Cheers and the Bold and the Beautiful). Eating healthier grown, tastier and more affordable foods has been a serious plus. And let’s not forget the flowers. There is nothing like Dutch flowers. Another notable perk has been the ease of booking flights in minutes for travel throughout Europe for less than what it would cost to fill a gas tank (3.80 euros per gallon) to destinations far and wide. How cool it is to be in a different country in just a couple hours? And most notably, for us, has been having our older kids experience all this too.

So many folks (from the US) have asked me if I was afraid while living here because of terrorist attacks. The reality is Amsterdam is one of the safest countries in Europe, and the world. And certainly it’s much safer than the US. There are no guns here. I feel much more comfortable letting my teenage daughter take public transport and walk the city here than I ever would back in the US. And that is something we will all miss greatly. While my anxiety and stress levels are at an all time high, preparing to repatriate back to what used to be a highly respected first world country, wondering and fretting that my loved ones could be shot with an assault rifle anywhere, with an unstable, ignorant passible dictator at the helm, I try to focus on the positive.

We’re going back to where our closest friends and family are. I will no longer have to pack my own groceries at the store, and my dryer will dry all my towels and clothes on the first go around. I will be able to understand conversations going on around me and announcements in public places easily without waiting for my brain to translate and there will be a lot less rain where we’re headed. I need more time to find more positives.

For expats, no matter how long your ticket to ride, you’ll no doubt look back at this life in Amsterdam and realize you’re not the same person as when you arrived. Your eyes will have been opened to what it means to feel different. You will have experienced a liberal, tolerant and accepting culture, fresher and healthier food, be introduced to or tackled a new language, embraced different customs (give me three kisses please) and holidays (Kings Day, Sinterklaas and St. Martin’s Day) and made friends from different walks of life you might never have had the chance to know if not for this ride. Perhaps you had a stay in a hospital with universal health care and left without having to pay a bill. Or gave birth with a midwife and were treated like a person instead of a patient. You will undoubtedly have traveled – near or far throughout Europe, where life is about living and not working. Whatever your unique and personal experience here in Amsterdam, when it’s time to go, you will no doubt appreciate the sun more (unless you are moving to Syracuse, NY) and leave a little bit wiser to the world.

 

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Our ride is slowing down and coming to an end. I know before we get off we have to say goodbye to wonderful friends we’ve made and all that living in Amsterdam and Europe has given us. It won’t be easy, because truthfully we all want to stay. In the back of my mind somewhere is the hope that there could be a fourth expat life for me so I will save the used ticket from this ride. I will treasure it. I will bring it out now and then and remember. And most of all, I will be grateful.

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