Right and Wrong

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written Thursday 10 June 2004

Right and Wrong

Now that I'm only a few days away from packing and moving and changing my country of residence, it's a good time to look back on things I did that made my life easier as an ex-pat in the Netherlands, and some things that made it harder. Here's what I did right and wrong.

Let's have dessert first. What I did right:

  • Got Internet access immediately on arriving. Ha--you thought I was going to say something about work or the bike, etc. No, these days, this is easily the most important, even for things you might not think of. For one thing, it erases time zones: I can follow my US bank accounts, e-mail, investments, company benefits, all that American stuff. But less obvious is that I made hotel, car, and flight reservations in the US and Netherlands, train reservations in Netherlands and France, looked up train schedules almost every week (including their last-minute changes, kept this blog going of course, researched computer problems, bought books and other things for delivery during my US trips, sent and received tax stuff for the US and NL (again, no time-zone or language problems). I looked up when trash is picked up on my street, when and where ferries crossed rivers for my bike trips, etc etc etc, and no one had to know or to deal with the language thing. Whatever Dutch I couldn't understand, I could translate...on the web (voila.fr). Look, none of this was possible 10 years ago. Internet access and familiarity is just a convenience at your home, but it makes a huge difference overseas. Easily the #1 thing I did right. I estimate that the internet has taken HALF the difficulty out of ex-pat life in the Netherlands.
  • I kept and brought over much less stuff over than people recommended. This was a big plus. I sold the car outright. I left the piano in storage. I sold the house right away. I left 80% of my books, all furniture, and most electronics.
  • Sometime before I came over, I bought a top-of-the-line laptop, one that I knew for certain would last 2-3 years with zero maintenance. Big plus. A full-size computer, monitor, etc. just wouldn't fit here, and I hardly missed it anyway. This would have been expensive in the NL; and if I bought it in the US after I moved here, the duties would have been several hundreds of euros.
  • Just before I came over, I read everything I could find on Dutch life and culture (which in the US is, shamefully, not a lot). So when I got here, I was only surprised by the degree of differences. Very few things were absolutely surprising--I had already had time to get used to how they work and think, how they travel, etc etc. (Though I have to say nothing prepared me for Zwarte Piet, over which I still reel sometimes.) Highly recommended.
  • Just before I left, I set up a mailing address, mail forwarding service, and bank account in Illinois, my eventual (well...three weeks from now!) US residence. The continuity gave considerable piece of mind--I didn't have to worry about tax forms or old bills or anything like that getting lost and my getting sued or whatnot. Certainly it would have been cheaper to have my mail forwarded from my company's address, but there's the whole privacy thing.
  • Brought two filing cabinets with all my tax, financial, etc files. The movers complained, but the tax people were ecstatic. Ex-pat taxes are complicated beyond belief, and I had almost everything I needed. It seemed weird at the time, but it was a Big Plus.
  • I insisted that my parents come to visit. The best single thing I could have done. We'll always have Enkhuizen.
  • Got the bicycle. But you know all about that.
  • Did a blog. But you know about that, too.

OK, OK, you ghouls...here's what I did wrong.

  • I should have learned more Dutch language. Actually, I had made an excellent start on this, first in the US and then here. But some Dutch people persistently talked me out of continuing. And the professional class and travel industry here really do speak English, occasionally French. So it has not been the end of the world...BUT...they would argue with me across a table over lunch at work "No no, it's stupid to learn Dutch," THEN they would turn to each other and speak Dutch. I could tell what was going on but not participate. It cut me out of life here. Maybe it would have happened anyway--Dutch is not a particularly easy language, and I'm not sure the language is really separate from their having grown up with it--and my time here was shorter than I expected. But it guaranteed I was an outcast. I don't mind being alone as much as most people, but Lord, enough is enough. I will probably always wonder about this.
  • I should have socialized more here. This is a problem for every ex-pat on the planet. Either you dive into the local social scene, which is probably not possible on a 1-year assignment in a non-native language, or you cling to ex-pats, which hardly gets you any local flavor. I think I did better just being out on the bike--at least that way I was really (I mean really) in deep Netherlands. It's not like the opportunities were rife--through a whole year I was invited to exactly one Dutch home. As it is, all the Dutch tell me I have seen more of their own country than they have. At least that's something.
  • I should have kept up with my US friends a little better. That was just a mistake. Forgive me, those of you who are reading...I will make up for it!
  • I should have gotten an annual NS discount card. I could have saved hundreds on the trains. If I had had any idea I would use the trains so much...
  • I probably should not have ordered a custom bike with an extra-length frame. It certainly made the bike super-stable and fast on gravel, etc., but it did make it harder to fit on trains.
  • I probably should not have gotten so obssessive about completing my circumnavigation of the Netherlands by bike. Or maybe I'll look back on it as making the most of a special situation. Time will tell.

What turned out differently from what I imagined? Well, #1 is this: I look at at my bookshelves and files, and I realize that I planned to spend a lot more time huddled away in my apartment (esp. for bad weather, winter) than I actually did. I actually got out a lot more than I had planned--mostly on the bike. I didn't get as much reading done as I thought, and I sure didn't finish my novel--though I did finish maybe a third of it here.

Part of this is because Dutch weather has been MUCH better than I had dreamed. While Florida was broiling, we had our windows open. While Chicago was windy and knee-deep in snow for weeks, we maybe had one or two short rainshowers per day. By March, it was possible to sit outside for coffee and appelgebak.

People ask me: are you looking forward to going back? Of course I remind them that Chicago is 2000 km from Florida, so it isn't really going back...but yes and no. I was happy to come here, happy to be here, but I'll be happy there, too. I mean: as long as I don't get shot in the streets, or disappeared by Federal agents just for taking photographs, or have my job outsourced to Mars, or get hit by some idiot's SUV (but I repeat myself), I'll be fine.

posted by eric at 19.13 CET

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Readers' Comments

Have you ever visited the Midwestern United States? You seem so negative about the lifestyle of Americans. I wonder, however, why did you come back at all? If you must stay in your home country, maybe you should experience rural life? I live in middle America, where I live a comfortable and safe lifestyle. I watch beautiful wild flowers bloom in glorious colors. I take relaxing trips down rivers fed by fresh spring water. I look up at night and see nothing but stars. I walk out my back door and find a place where all I can hear are the birds, insects, and breeze blowing through the prairie grass. My American home is peaceful and beautiful, and I love it.

Posted by: Susan on July 22, 2004 06:55 PM

As the blog states plainly, I am now living near Chicago. I also lived 5 years in Columbus, Ohio. Both midwestern, and more than a visit.

Why I came back to the US--that's already in the blog AND in the comments. I need some kind of shorthand for "Please read what's already written before you post."

On the whole, my comments about the US and Midwest are not negative--they are simply neutral. I recognize that neutral is not positive enough for some, but I'm no cheerleader. Better than the silly question "which is the better nation?" might be: "what might the US learn from the Netherlands?" It's not nothing.

Posted by: eric on July 23, 2004 05:20 AM
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