We all know “those people” who are talking about going on an adventure, travelling, living abroad. Most people talk about it, dream about it and some people eventually take that leap of faith and end up doing it.
We were one of those people. When my husband and I met, back in 1998, it was one of the first things we talked about. My husband had actually just given up on those dreams on moving abroad, or in his case back to the US. Where in my case moving abroad was synonym for moving somewhere to pursueing better conditions for my health.
After we first met a lot happened. When we met we were both students. We graduated, started living together, continued studying, got a dog, I became an exchange student for half a year and lived in Italy and than I became pregnant and we bought a house. It seemed like we were never going to move abroad ever, although we both really wanted to. But now we had two dogs, we had jobs, a house and a baby on the way. In the meantime, our dream was still calling and we went to the emigration fairs. While visiting one of these emigration fairs, we decided. We are doing this! We are going! And we told everyone straight away.
Initially we wanted to go to Australia but after doing some research it proved vairly difficult and long term process. We wanted to go for a skilled worker visa and we had to wait for the new list of professions. To our disappointment my husbands job did not make the new list, mine did, but with my health challenges we didn’t want to rely on me to get that visa. So we went for plan B: USA. For most people going to the USA is as hard as going to Australia for us, but in our case it meant going home for my husband and now he would take his family with him. More on that process you can find here.
Ten things I have learned through this whole process
1. One of the things during that whole process I always said was: “There is always a reason NOT to do it.” You can always wait for the right circumstances. But what if those circumstances never happen, than you’ll end up waiting forever.
2. Take personal keepsakes with you. Photos, letters, memorabilia. The things that are special to you and you can’t buy. The things that make your house your home. For me those things were my photos, wooden ducks that my late grandpa gave me and cutlery that my grandma gave me. Some clothes that my friends gave me, so they are close when I wear those. Those kind of things.
3. Take time to prepare. Not only for yourself but also your children. We played games. Moving games, packing games. We looked at the world map. We drew the world and tried to find where we were and where we were going to. We had a countdown calendar. We looked online at the new area, planned field trips. Between all the stress from really moving, take some time to decompress, laugh and relax. Take time to say goodbye to everything and everyone you are leaving behind. It is a process. We visited the places in and around the Netherlands we really wanted to see and we really wanted our children to see. We went to visit our family and friends because we didn’t know when we would see them again and before our flight we organized a potluck picnic on the beach so we could see everyone, and they could see us.
4. With the new technology it is easy to stay in touch. Don’t be a stranger to your friends and family back home and invite them to not be a stranger in return. We use whatsapp and have different groups for different uses, which is wonderfull.
What I realized is that it’s hard for both sides, both sides are saying goodbye. Allow eachother to grief! The ones that are staying behind will have to continue their everyday life and routine but now without you and you on the other hand will have to start completely over and both is hard.
What I also experienced is that relationship that do continue become deeper. When you talk to eachother or see eachother you don’t waste time with nonsense. You don’t waste time with drama, you just are. There is love and connection.
5. It is hard work to start over. Where we were we had a lovely life, a nice home, family and good friends nearby and we left everything behind. To create that life again, it takes effort. So get out there. Meet new people, become a member of local Facebook groups, local Meetup groups. I didn’t know the latter existed and wished I had known that sooner. It feels like mommy dating. You meet someone at the park or the library, you exchange phone numbers, you do or do not see each other again and you might hit it off straight away. That process of getting out there, being vulnerable. It asks a lot of effort, energy and patience. But until you find your tribe, it is just something you do. It took me some time and endless “mommy dates” before I finally found a couple of women I felt a true connection with and I am so happy I didn’t give up.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know something! Being new in a new country with habits that might be totally different from what you are used to, just ask what you don’t know. Play the “I don’t know, I am foreign”-card if you feel like it. I ask tons of questions on our local mama Facebook group. For example: We were invited for dinner. In the Netherlands you bring flowers. What would you bring here? Another example: A baby is born: In the Netherlands you would stop by for an hour with a present for the baby and you will sit there getting served tea or coffee with a “beschuit met muisjes“. There are so many cultural differences. I am happy I was not afraid to ask.
7. Embrace your routine on those special days. Especially on the birthdays of the children we do the same every year. The night before we decorate the house and we decorate the table with the birthday ring, the birthday crown, the birthday plate and the birthday book. On the birthday itself we tell the birthday boy his birth story and sing him our special birthday song. We all sit around the decorated table and we have breakfast. Then we Skype the grandparents and my brother and his family so we can all sing “Happy Birthday” again and it is time for the birthday boy to open his presents. Although they are not physically present, they are present!
8. We started Friday Night Dinner to create a sense of community. Why wait for others to take initiative when we could do something like this. Every Friday night we open up our home to whomever would like to join us. We serve up pasta, laughter, love, and community! It is a lot of fun to do and although we are busy and tired after a long week, after the people have left we are full of energy and we are already looking forward to the next Friday.
9. Keep your mother tongue alive. At home we speak Dutch and English (and a little bit of Indonesian and Italian), we do Dutch Sign Language and we are in the process of learning Spanish. During our stay here we have met other Dutch people and they wished that they had learned the language or that their children would learn it. Most of the time only one of the parents speaks Dutch and English seems easier to speak and therefore Dutch is hardly practiced in their homes. While we were still living in the Netherlands we had it the other way around. Everybody spoke Dutch, so we spoke English at home and when we were among people from our lovely international community. All our read aloud books were in English too. Now, living in the USA, we speak Dutch at home and our books are mixed. When I read a book to the children it could be the case that I am reading a book in English but that during our story I use multiple languages. Totally normal in our household. In our area there is also a Dutch school available, which is nice for those families where only one of the parents is Dutch.
10. One of my friends who moved to and from Aruba mentioned that it takes three years to get used to a new country. During my first few weeks in college I learned about culture shock and I think that what she meant is similar to the stages of culture shock. At first you are in the Honeymoon Phase, where everything seems wonderful, like being on vacation. After a few weeks you enter the Culture Shock Phase, where you experience homesickness, the honeymoon is over, everything goes back to normal everyday life, but your life is not “normal” anymore. You are living somewhere else! The people might be different, the language might be different, habits might be different, food might be different. Knowing that this phase is normal can help with dealing with it. When I went abroad for half a year to Italy I experienced homesickness because I was away from my partner and all of the above. The option of talking to him helped me a lot. At the same time it was also a great adventure and a wonderful experience. It took guts to go and live in a country where I didn’t speak the language all by myself.
Sometimes I am overwhelmed by a feeling of homesickness, I miss my friends and during those moments I reach out to them and try to fulfill that need for connection. Again, I am so happy with technology nowadays. I also miss food from back home. I miss my tea, I haven’t found a great substitute yet and as far as chocolate goes… I used to be a chocoholic but now? I don’t like American chocolate. Luckily my parents send us the items we sometimes crave and haven’t found a good substitute for yet. I also had to get used to the culture here. People here are so friendly and helpful, I couldn’t believe it was real and genuine. Can you imagine feeling like that? It was also such a breeze to be in a culture where children are valued as little people. Now I experience reverse culture shock whenever I am back in the Netherlands or in Europe for that matter.
How you are able to deal with the culture shock phase is up to your personality, but what I have noticed is that keeping a positive mind attracts positive people. After six months to a year you will enter the Gradual Adjustment Phase, where everything seems more normal and you start to get into a routine again.
After year two you enter the Feeling at Home Phase. I think that just only since a couple of months we feel like we are truly getting into a routine. The new culture doesn’t feel so new anymore and it really feels like our home.
Overall, what I have learned is be kind to yourself. It is an adventure and it is also okay to be sad. A lot is happening, changing. It is a roller coaster and you are on it.