From the USA to Holland: Rachel's Ruminations
Rachel Heller, from the US, living in Holland. (For any Dutch pedants reading this: yes, I know that the part of the Netherlands I live in is not part of either province that has “Holland” in its name, but, really, do you have to make an issue of it?)
1. Why did you move abroad?
Anyone who knows me knows that I have always been a completely unsentimental person. I can only explain it by saying it was an aberration: I just couldn’t imagine myself living anywhere my husband, Albert, wasn’t. He wanted to be back in Holland after four years in Africa and eight years in the US, so I went along. So it’s his fault!
2. How do you make a living?
I’m a teacher with two jobs: one in an international school and one at a teacher-training college. In job #1 I teach English and Theory of Knowledge and I’m also the further education advisor. In job #2 I teach future English teachers: mostly American Studies – I’m the only American in the English department – and pretty much whatever else they want me to teach. Between the two jobs the variety is a good thing for my undiagnosed ADHD.
I was already a teacher in the US (social studies), but had to learn Dutch and retrain before I could find a job here – it was very frustrating! Another example of irritating retraining: Despite 15 years of driving experience, I had to take driving lessons and retake the exam. Apparently Americans can’t be trusted on the roads, whereas Brits, who drive ON THE OTHER SIDE, can just trade their British licenses for Dutch in an office somewhere.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
Facebook is a lifeline! I love keeping up with the day-to-day trials and tribulations of my old friends in the US and various other parts of the world. But as far as “home” goes, it’s not really there anymore. You see, my parents died back in 1995, and after that I didn’t feel so tied to the US. I have more distant family scattered around the US, Canada and Israel, and I see them very occasionally, but the only close family I still have are my two sisters. I’m only close to one of them, so we see each other when we can, and we send our kids to each other sometimes as well.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in the Netherlands?
Holland suits me politically, given that I’ve always been a bleeding-heart liberal. A national health care system that no one thinks should be eliminated. High taxes, and the feeling that those taxes actually pay for something worthwhile. Gay marriage. Sex education in schools. Very few guns. Decriminalized marijuana. And so on.
And bicycles. Bicycles are good.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in the Netherlands ?
I don’t think this is specifically about the Netherlands, but I don’t like that I’m always the foreigner, and particularly the representative of America. I’ve lived here 16 years, I have dual citizenship, I speak Dutch fluently. Yet, as soon as I speak a word or two, my accent immediately identifies me, and then I’m that American lady. I get so tired sometimes of polite and not-so-polite questions about America. Sometimes I just wish it would be about ME and not about WHERE I’M FROM.
6. What do you miss most?
That has changed over time. At first, it was mostly about food and the English language. There were so many food items I couldn’t find here, or at least not easily. Often it was a matter of knowing where to look, while some items simply weren’t here. I went crazy at first trying to bake American sweets like chocolate chip cookies: I couldn’t find chocolate chips, and for some reason they didn’t rise properly anyway. It took a lot of experimenting to figure it out (use less butter and more flour, and use imported baking powder instead of bakpoeder).
I miss going to a restaurant or café and getting a decent-sized glass of soda instead of a glass so small I can drink the whole thing at one gulp. And now that I think about it, I miss that general sense of over-the-top excess in the US: big portions, big stores, big cars, big houses, big roads. It’s also a reason I could never live there again: I’d get huge with all that food, combined with driving a car everywhere!
And at first I desperately missed being surrounded by English speakers! Dutch was so hard to learn, and I felt like I’d never really get the hang of it. Although I can call myself fluent now, I still far prefer communicating in English.
Nowadays I don’t miss much, except perhaps certain people: friends and relatives in California and Connecticut. And the landscape of Connecticut: how lush and green it is in the summer.
And I miss hills. We don’t have them here. The only hills are built ones like exit ramps on the highway leading to an overpass.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
I was fortunate in that my husband is from here, so I met his friends first. But in my search for the sound of English, I joined an expatriate group here, which helped me meet people, though it didn’t particularly help me integrate. I suppose whatever integrating I’ve done has been through my jobs: teaching in Dutch schools makes me part of a community.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
BREAD: The Dutch eat a lot of bread. Every day for breakfast: sandwiches. Every day for lunch: sandwiches. And when I say “sandwiches,” I’m not talking about what Americans eat, which are piled with lots of different meats, veggies, and so on. When Dutch people eat bread, it is extremely thinly smeared with butter and then EXTREMELY THINLY smeared with only ONE additional item. It might be Nutella (yes, Nutella with butter), but it’s spread so sparingly that you can barely taste it between two slices of extremely scrubby brown bread. Or it might be, for example, cheese – which is absolutely scrumptious Gouda – but the cheese is sliced practically transparently thin and NEVER piled up. One layer is all that’s permitted.
TRAVEL: The Dutch are known as people who love to travel. My husband and I take it as a challenge sometimes to find somewhere to travel where there won’t be any other Dutch people. We don’t often succeed. Many Dutch people go to southern France or Spain in their summer vacations in the quest for sun. They are definitely sun-starved here. This creates, on the first day of vacation, traffic jams upward of 100 kilometers long through France.
But the strange part is the ones who don’t go to France or Spain or travel the world. Some percentage of Dutch people NEVER LEAVE HOLLAND. (Keep in mind that you couldn’t drive in a straight line more than about four hours and still be in the country; even less from most parts of the country.) They go to another province in the Netherlands and spend their summer vacation in what Americans would call a mobile home, or Brits would call a self-catering bungalow. And they just hang out there, which they could perfectly well do at home in the next province, and probably in more comfort.
COOKIES: One cookie. Dutch people serve a cup of tea with one single cookie. Who eats just one cookie?
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
Dutch people do NOT sit around all day smoking pot and letting the government take care of them. The Dutch are hard-working people, but have a much healthier work-life balance than the US. This is a good thing! And they don’t euthanize old people to get them out of the way.
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
Taxes are much higher, but our income is also higher, so it’s hard to say. Certainly our standard of living went right up, allowing us to buy a house instead of renting.
11. What advice would you give other expats?
Look at it all as an adventure, not as an obstacle. How many people get the opportunities you get? Savor them, immerse yourself, and try to build a place for yourself where you are.
12. When and why did you start your blog?
I started it back in 2007 when I really needed to vent about rude supermarket shoppers. I only blogged very occasionally over the next years when I needed a good rant.
In the last couple of years, though, I’ve been blogging more often. It’s partly because I’ve developed a love of writing, so it’s become how I procrastinate. And it’s partly because I wrote a book which I’m trying to get published. It seems clear that these days a writer needs a “platform,” so this, along with twitter, is my attempt at building one.
Rachel's blog, Rachel's Ruminations
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