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Swatting at Seagulls with Hemingway

Swatting at Seagulls with Hemingway

Experts tell us that there are four stages to culture shock. The Honeymoon, Frustration, Adjustment and Acceptance. Most of this post smacks of the honeymoon stage, though there are some signs of the frustration stage creeping in…

 

My wife and I moved to The Netherlands one month ago and as far as we can tell, everything is going better than we’d hoped. Sure, we’ve had the occasional hiccup and headache, but day in and day out we can honestly say that life is good and getting better every day. It’s been so good that we’ve decided to slow down and soak it all in, the fun and the foibles, without the constant pull of social media. So this will be our first true update in a few weeks. The bad news is, it’s a rather long post. The good news is, we have a LOT to share!

When we arrived we had a couple of weeks to cool our heels in an Air BnB in The Hague, a city a few miles from our rental in Leiden, because our new home was not quite ready for us to move in. At first this seemed like a pain in the patoot, but we quickly came to appreciate the opportunity to explore a city that we would not otherwise see if we had moved right in to Leiden. Beyond the near constant sensation of utter astonishment that we were starting a new life in The Netherlands (I may or may not have wept with joy every few minutes that first week), we were struck deeply by how right everything felt. From the kindness of the people to a mind-bogglingly beautiful environment and the perfect pace of life, it is becoming clear to us both that we are home.

Are are a few highlights from the past month:

 

Honeymoon!

 

The kindness of strangers that seems to know no end is wonderful. It was so startling at the beginning that it felt like we were suffering from a bit of PTSD coming from the cray cray of the current American landscape. From day one we have been embraced by so many locals!I am falling in love with the Dutch – from friends we met before we ever got here to our Air BnB hosts (they are coming to our house for dinner this weekend!) to passers by in a train station who gently asked “how can I help” upon hearing Betsy say “I don’t know where…” Now don’t get me wrong, they are not all warm and fuzzy, some folks experience the Dutch as abrupt. But this gal rather likes their directness far more than the superficial shenanigans masquerading as southern manners.

Our house in Leiden is practically perfect in every way. We are very fortunate to have snapped up a home listed on B’s school’s intranet. Owned by a former teacher, this three story, 19th century house is quite possibly the most charming house I’ve ever lived in. The spiral staircase was a challenge at first, but now we are all bopping up and down the stairs as if we’ve done so our whole lives. The rooms are small, but cozy. The refrigerator is about the size of a dorm-room fridge and there is only one brick (and no insulation to speak of) separating us from our neighbors. But – we are totally in love with the space and location. Located on quite street just on the edge of the historic center of Leiden and mere steps away from any and everything we could want, well, this is where we belong!

Rather than posturing and hollering about freedom, people here just are free in so many ways. Have you ever been to a dinner party and sat next to someone who told you over and over how cool or smart or sexy they are? Correct me if I am wrong, but if you have to say it (to convince others or yourself) it quite possible ain’t so. Furthermore, I got to thinking about the tired old American slogan “freedom is not free” and to be perfectly frank, I’d rather pay more money in the form of taxes for our shared freedom than with the lives of other people’s children turned soldiers. Oops, sorry for the tangent, this is supposed to be a post about all the crazy cool we are experiencing over here!

The canals that wind through the city where we live are a constant delight. Whether walking across a bridge, sitting at a canal-side cafe or floating along the canals of Leiden with our landlord, I just cannot get enough of these silverly slips of heaven.

The parks, especially the expansive Plantsoen that is just one block from our house. Not only is it a treat for us, but with no yard and two big dogs, it is our lifeline to sanity and sanitation! Having to walk the beasts every time nature calls has been a big adjustment from our big yard in Florida, but we all love the strolls (for now, in the summer) and they certainly love all the new smells to explore. We also really dig cool off-leash dog park we found just a few blocks away that is a tiny island where the pups can run like the wild beasts they are in their hearts.

And of course, bicycles! We are loving our car-free life and truly adore the cycling culture here. Bikes outnumber cars and there are trails everywhere – and we mean everywhere – to make riding a preferred and safe mode of transportation in the city. We are learning the rules slowly (no international incidents…yet) and are thoroughly enjoying getting around, running errands and commuting to work on two wheels.

 

Frustration…

 

I was told that there is a favorite phrase of the Dutch – “It is not possible” – and I have found this to be true in dealing with banking, cell phone service and the post office. At first, the number of confounding steps required to accomplish seemingly simple administrative tasks was quite frustrating. But when I took a step back and thought about it from different perspectives, I was able to relax and go with the Dutch flow. If dealing with the headache of bureaucracy is the small price I have to pay for this amazing new life, well I think I can afford that. More importantly, I found myself imagining exponentially harder it is refugees from war-torn countries to settle into a new land. Devastated by violence, forced to flee from their homes, many with little to no possessions, many more injured or ill or dying…how on earth do they ever make it? So yeah, a little hassle over paperwork is certainly nothing to get my privileged white knickers in a knot about.

Being a dumb American who only knows one language is not exactly my favorite persona. Communication is so very important to me and being currently unable to conduct conversations, or even ask simple questions like “where are the toothpicks” in the grocery store is incredibly frustrating. Most of the Dutch speak English, but not all, so there is that. So I am working hard and fast to learn the language, emphasis on hard, no so much the fast. I have some essential words and phrases down such as ja, nee, alsjeblieft and dank je wel. And just this weekend I was able to ask for kaas met zwarte truffles at the grocery store. Okay, I was almost able to ask for it, but chickened out because I could not remember how to say “do you have”. One day at a time eh? Duo Lingo is my friend and rumor has it there are some bas ass Dutch nuns running a program where after two weeks of intense immersion, students come out fluent! Side note: this has also opened my eyes and heart even more to immigrants who are treated reprehensibly when they struggle with the language of the land (I’m looking at you, America). Ahem.

 

Acceptance?

 

An after dinner candy that was offered as a caramel and tasted distinctly like vomit still has us puzzling over who on earth would find that flavor appealing!?!

Seagulls! One of our first days here we witnessed a seagull deftly pluck a whole baguette sandwich from a lady’s hand! The feathered fiends are a plague I tell you, from eviscerating trash bags filled with stroopwaffel wrappers and bitterballen crumbs, to their ungodly screams outside our window (yes screams – I swear they sound like slasher film victims) every morning in giant flocks starting just before the sun rises.

Last week I was sipping a tasty brew and enjoying a generous helping of frites and mayonnaise at a canal cafe when a massive seagull (and a few of her friends) swooped in to try and steal my meal. With only A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway as my defense, I finished my snack by swatting at the persistent pests without much grace or shame.

Who’s the cable guy? I am! When we subscribed to our new internet and cable provider, we had no idea that a box would arrive in the mail with a “good luck with that” sticky note on top! For real y’all, they shipped us all the equipment and instructions (in Dutch) for how to install and activate our own internet, wifi and cable. I’m thoroughly impressed with what this says about the intelligence and competence of Dutch citizens. Not only do most folks know two or more languages, but apparently everyone has an IT degree to boot! After a few hours of Google translate, a couple of helpful videos and following wires around this old house, maaaaybe a Kwak or two, we are happily surfing the web and watching TV in Dutch!

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now. We’ll try to post a little more frequently so future posts are not so dang long!

 

A lot of moving parts

A lot of moving parts

Content warning: Be careful what you ask for, this post is a doozie!

About 12 years before I met Betsy, she stepped off a plane in Florida, jet lagged and hungry after a 12 hour flight from Budapest. She had just returned to the states after teaching abroad for ‘round about 7 years. For the first five, she taught IB and GCSE English in Singapore, the two after that she taught IB English in Hungary. In these years she worked, coached, played and developed life-long bonds with some extraordinarily lovely people who would go on to serve and lead international schools around the world. (I’m sure it’ll come as little surprise to y’all that this period of her life formed her into the beautiful human that swept me off my feet a couple of years ago).

Fast forward to Nov. 8, 2016, just 4 months after the proposal and 4 months before the wedding, we sat stunned and sobbing in our old Florida home. After the sickening reality of who and what had just happened sank in, Betsy began reaching out to everyone she knew abroad to find out if there might be any openings anywhere but here. There were, in fact, positions at a few schools and a few positions at one school in particular that happened to be located in the first nation to legalize same sex marriage – The Netherlands. Throughout the fall and winter she submitted her resume, letters of recommendation and participated in a flurry of Skype interviews (final interview was early in the morning on January 21, inauguration day). A few weeks later, after about a dozen sleepless nights she got the call – “you’re hired!”

In the months between Nov. 8 and Jan. 21, we’d talked to a lot of folks – each other, friends, family, acquaintances and complete strangers – and we kept coming up with the same conclusion; we want this.

Some of y’all have been following this journey and have asked for more insight about the logistics of what we are doing. Lordy be, there are so many moving parts!

Betsy’s Job

The engine driving this hover craft is Betsy’s job. Without this, I have no idea how we’d have the privilege of making this leap. Betsy’s connections, commitment and skills as a devoted high school literature teacher is how we got this ball rolling.

Because of her job and sponsorship, I, her wife, will also have a live/work permit for our life in Leiden. I do not yet know what I will be doing – that search will be infinitely easier once I am there and have my work permit in hand. I am hoping for something new, something that draws on my seminary education while still utilizing my decades of website design and social media marketing experience.

Paperwork

Thank goodness for our sponsor, Betsy’s school, and the folks there who are handling most of the puzzle pieces that would otherwise baffle us in this transition. The paperwork is significant, though not ridiculous. We had to provide serious, double plus, pinky swear proof that we are who we say we are. That meant we needed to both provide birth certificates with an Apostille seal procured from our states of birth. Then, once in hand, for me to be able to live and work there, we had to provide our marriage certificate (thanks Obama) with the Apostille seal. Bets had to submit an FBI background check (thankfully the Panamanian noodle incident was stricken from her record). Our fur kids would require their own reams of paperwork, but we will get to that in a second.

Housing

Here, too, we got all flavors of lucky. We were told that a lot of incoming faculty wait until they arrive to spend a couple of weeks searching for an apartment. Everyone we asked advised us to rent for the first year or two and then if we decided if this was our forever nation we might look to buy. I was intensely comfortable to nail down our rental as quickly as possible so we watched the school’s intranet closely for posts about rentals, while also spending countless hours on sites like Funda and Pararius. Pretty early on we saw a posting on the intranet for a place owned by a former teacher that was exactly where we wanted to live (near a park in Leiden) and after a couple of weeks of emails we had signed a one year lease on a perfect place on Rijnstraat just a block from Plantsoen Park.

Stateside, we decided pretty early on that we wanted to keep Betsy’s house that is just a five minute walk from Manasota beach. So we had months of work to get it ready and within a few day of posting it on Craigslist, we hit the tenant jackpot! We moved out of our home on July 1st and have been living on the goodwill of family and Air BnB hosts for the last two weeks. When we get to Holland, we will be staying in a groovy Air BnB in the Hague before we get to move into our for-real home in Leiden.

Dogs

Quarantine is not required to ship our fur babies to The Netherlands. However, there have been five bazillion hours of paperwork, two extra-large, airline approved crates, 15 digit European chips (in addition to their already installed, 9 digit US chips), a whole new round of shots, a USDA certified health certificate (which had to be government approved within 10 days of the dogs arriving in The Netherlands – thanks FedEx for the paper routing to and from Tallahassee), an embarrassing pile of Benjamins to ship two, 60+ pound boxer-bulldogs the 4,624 miles from Miami to Amsterdam, not to mention a flurry of frantic phones calls to check and double check just about everything. Because our fur babies are of the snub-nose variety, there are only a couple of airlines equipped to ship them safely. With the (required) help of an official (and wildly helpful) pet carrier, we’ve made all the arrangements for Sookie and Louie to be dropped off at their pet terminal on Friday morning, after which we will head over to our own terminal and each take our day-long journey to Holland. We will arrive at Schiphol about an hour before they land.

Stuff

We have too much stuff….no, really, we have way too much stuff. We still have too much stuff even after jettisoning and storing lots and lots of stuff. After a big old yard sale, about 13 trips to our local thrift shop (NOT Goodwill), selling our camper and cars and recycling what was left of the product from our business, we STILL have too much stuff. About six weeks before our scheduled flight, movers arranged by the school where B will work arrived to pack up our allowed 8 cubic meters of stuff. We are also hauling four huge suitcases, two small suitcases and an unauthorized amount of “personal items” through the airports and city streets of The Hague.

Us

We are still Americans. We will still be Americans when we get there. We will always be Americans. We are not, nor are we required to renounce our citizenship. We will carry our American passports everywhere we go. One day, if all goes as my heart of heart hopes, I hope to apply for dual citizen ship. But that is years off and for another post further down the road.

Whew, that’s all I’ve got for now, y’all. We still have a few more days State-side and about 12 days of errands yet to run!

Feel free to ask about anything we’ve left out..like all the insurance papers (especially those in Dutch), sim cards for our iPhones, shutting off utilities and picking them back up over there, consolidating bank accounts and opening accounts abroad. Bets and I will both do our best to respond. Your call is important to us…please stay on the line.

 

 

But who’s counting?

But who’s counting?

So here’s how the next 31 or so days are supposed to play out…

In three days we will move out of our home so the lovely couple who is renting our nest can move in and start their own new adventure.

For the next couple of weeks we’ll be living on the love and goodwill of our family staying in family-owned rentals and crashing in guest rooms – 140 pounds of pups in tow.

In about 11 days we’re hoping to say our “until we meet agains” to Kateand Michael who both happen to be visiting Florida for the same weekend in July.

In 14 days we’ll hug some necks, laugh through some happy and sad tears and otherwise say our farewells to family and friends who we know will be holding us in the light as we take our leave.

In 15 days we’ll drive to Miami (stopping for one last picnic in a state park) and spend our last night in America (stuffed into a pet-friendly hotel room and eating our picnic leftovers).

On July 14 we’ll all board planes (beasties on one, we on another) and soar through the night skies to the next chapter in our lives.

On July 15 we’ll set foot in Amsterdam, be greeted by the folks at B’s school and driven to our temporary home where we’ll stay until our new home-away-from-home is ready to receive us.

My Zoë, fresh from woofing in the south of France, will join us at our Air BnB in The Hague somewhere around the 23rd. Our dear friend (and Z’s “host sister” from her high school study abroad days) Sarah will join us a few days later and exploring we will go!

Then, on July 29 we will be handed the keys to our sweet home away from home on Rijnstraat (just one block from Plantsoen) in Leiden.

Y’all, I don’t know how or why I get to live this life, but right now, on the cusp of it all, I’m so grateful for what ever this is – blessing, luck, insanity…and my family – wife Betsy and my daughter Zoë – for being the radiant beings they are – the sun and moon in this crazy world of mine – by which the compass of my heart finds its true north.

And y’all for being out there for me to share this cray cray with. For real – thank you.

Behind the busy and the bluster of leaving

Behind the busy and the bluster of leaving

The movers come in less than a week to pack and ship about half of our remaining earthly possessions to our home away from home in The Netherlands. What we are not shipping, we are either leaving in the house for our tenant or stuffing in our luggage and hauling all over kingdom come. We make lists every morning and every evening and still we’re sure we’re forgetting to do or pack something absolutely essential. I check my countdown app incessantly and post some version of “ugh, I can’t wait to get out of here” on Facebook every day.

Before the sun had set on my last day of working in the US, I sold my car for just enough to make the final payment. Instead of selling most of our things, we are carefully boxing hundreds of items and taking them to the local thrift store that benefits SunCoast Humane Society.

Though such a move is easier than a lot of folks may think, I am fully aware that a lot of lucky stars have aligned to make this happen for us. I am lucky to have a partner who is a highly skilled teacher who’s been invited to teach abroad again, lucky to have found such a wonderful partner in the first place, lucky to have friends and family who will love us no matter how far away we go, lucky to have a daughter at just the right age to celebrate a mom with a home in Europe…this list of luck goes on and on.

But percolating beneath the surface of all this busy and bluster is a growing sense of the enormity of what we are doing – and not doing.

Contrary to the optics, weighing quite heavily on my mind are the tasks we are leaving at loose ends. I’m not talking about forgetting to wipe clean the cabinets or fold the load of laundry languishing in the dryer. A large part of what’s knitting my brow is the fact that we are abandoning ship at a time when America needs every voice, no matter how small and trembling, in the chorus of the resistance.

With every faith-based Facebook group I leave and each political email list from which I unsubscribe, I feel the creeping vines of guilt inching up from the ground which I will soon no longer claim as my own. I’m sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is the right move for us, but I worry about the difference we might have been able to make if we stayed.

We actually speak daily about the little and large things we would do to resist the overall culture of fear, greed and loathing that has been carefully engineered all around us. Gardening not mowing, increasing our chicken flock, working only for non-profits, attending every local and national rally against the regime and even fostering children in need, all top our “if we stayed” list. Because we have the capacity and will to make a difference in our community and country, but choose instead to leave, I worry.

But for now, I keep packing, knowing that some of my baggage will travel with me unseen, hoping that the weight will not be lifted from my shoulders, but rather remind me to keep watch from abroad, stay connected to the conflict at home while making the most of this amazing gift.

Among my most ardent hopes, is that my voice that has grown hoarse with hollering at the machine will have time to heal and, with time and distance, I’ll rediscover what called me to the keyboard in the first place – hope.

Are we there yet? 10 ways to be here now…

Are we there yet? 10 ways to be here now…

“Life is available only in the present moment” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Taming the Tiger


Liminal space; it’s one of my favorite phrases, a notion I find rather fetching, but as it turns out, it’s a space I do a miserable job of inhabiting.

In less than 60 days Betsy and I will hop on the plane that will be taking us to our new life in Leiden. We have so much yet to do – paperwork for us and our two rambunctious dogs, check-ups for us and the aforementioned fur babies, sorting and selling and packing all the things and saying a host of “until we meet agains.”

And we are SO stinking’ excited. And yes, also freaking out a little bit.

Nearly every evening, we watch YouTube videos filled with windmills, tulips and boats puttering along quaint canals. Sometimes we unfold the rumpled photos of the house we’ll live in over there and talk about what of ours we’re taking and where it might sit in the scene. We take turns reading aloud from a handful of books about our soon-to-be home while one of us cooks or does the dishes or tries to sneak just one more decades old t-shirt into the Goodwill bag.

I have a countdown app on my phone that I peek at every day, as if I’m not keeping track in my distracted head. When we are with friends and family, nearly every discussion turns to our expat plans. More than a few invitations to hang out have been declined in favor of getting ready to go. With all the planning and packing, googling and gawking, we have little time to walk the 1800 steps to beautiful Manasota Beach.

Yeah, we are having a blast fiddling with the future, but I’m keenly aware that I’m not giving myself fully to the present moment of the rapidly waning days in America. Some days I want to crawl out of my own skin to hurry up and get there. I wasn’t sure how to settle my spirit, so I sat down to make this list:

1. When I wake up, sit still with a cup of coffee and look, listen and languish in the fleeting darkness.

2. Drive to work in quiet, notice the landscape of Florida, especially the bougainvillea, the Spanish moss, sand everywhere all dotted with lizards, spindly legged birds and post-card palm trees.

3. While at work, give my full attention to each task, even to the things everyone knows I won’t care a whit about in just a few days.

4. Go out to lunch and eat at my favorite pizza joint, taco stand or greasy spoon.

5. Stop at the grocery store on the way home and pick up a disgustingly, deliciously American snack.

6. While making or eating dinner with Betsy, share what did happen during our individual days, not what is going to happen over there.

7. Spend an hour or two a night mindfully going through stuff – linger over old photos, flip through a book or two slotted to give away and take time remember to why I loved that thread bare t-shirt in the first place.

8. Go on a few dates with my amazing wife – dine out, goof off at the pool hall, dance like fools at a concert by our favorite band or catch a blazing sunset with our toes in the sand.

9. Spend as much time as possible – in person, on the phone, via Skype or even in private messages online – with every single person I love. Be fully present to their lives and listen deeply to their stories.

10. Hug everyone who is a hugger.

Trading in our hood ornament for a bicycle bell

Trading in our hood ornament for a bicycle bell

The travel books are piling up. Early on, while Betsy was still interviewing, I bought a picture-filled, tourist facing book of The Netherlands. I was afraid to read it in depth before we knew if our dream was a merely a puff of smoke or a beautiful flower blooming at our feet. So, I carried the book around, a rather cumbersome four leaf clover, taking it out to touch the cover, glance at the super saturated photos of tulips and windmills and peek between the covers at a life that might be ours, but not yet.

Then, as the interviews continued, the call finally came offering Betsy the opportunity to do what she loves – teach literature – in Holland! So the book took the top spot on my night stand, the cover covered in images of our future.

Not too long after Betsy said yes to our new address, and I said yes to the dress, we walked down a sandy aisle and promised before God, Buddha, family and friends to love and hold one another – in sunshine or rain. And for what we are learning, there’s gonna be a lot of rain! But I am getting ahead of myself.

A colleague and friend gave us as a wedding gift the first book to begin truly opening my eyes to the world that we will soon call home. Why the Dutch Are Different by Ben Coates is a pleasant, entertaining read that’s also jam packed with facts about the history and current culture of Holland. On more than one occasion Betsy and I have been heard reciting newly learned fact after another (such as: “Hey, do you know what the windmills are for? Like, what was their original purpose? No? We do! See, much of The Netherlands is below sea level and the windmills – get this – pumped the water away and made it possible for the Dutch to CREATE Holland!). Many a party guest were both thrilled, and soon tired of, our little game of Did You Know? But, fear not, we’ve also heard our fair share of “just what the Netherlands needs, a couple more dykes!”

Then more books arrived as more or less assigned reading for folks preparing to expatriate to The Netherlands. Books such as Holland Handbook and At Home in Holland, are full of history and helpful hints on current cultural norms (such as – it’s highly recommended to be prepared to offer a guest coffee the moment they step across your threshold). The books also take a generous a look at Dutch society at large.

And the more we read, the more excited we get. And a little sad to realize America is just not what we have long thought she was.

See, it seems that everything we have long fooled ourselves into thinking that America is, the Dutch are doing a WAY better job of actually realizing. I know we are in the beginning stages of our new nation crush and we both fully realize that the social and political landscape is far more complex than can be captured in a handful of tourist and expat books. We are painfully aware of our own broken hearts over the current state of cray-cray in our homeland. And yes, we know that NO place is perfect, not this side of paradise, but damn, y’all. The Dutch do seem to be a whole lot closer to getting it right.

To be fair, the Dutch have gotten some things VERY wrong  – from brutal colonialism to their despicable role in the transatlantic slave trade. And the recent, disturbing rise of Geert Wilders is something to watch closely. But overall what they have become seems to be what America has long pretended to be. A nation for the people.

From all that we are reading (yeeeesss, we know this is just what the books are telling/selling us), the wind that powers the windmills, is permeated with living, breathing sense self determination, a genuine concern for the well being of their neighbors and a clear commitment to consensus all with an underpinning of equality that may indeed be too good to be true. The result appears to be a pattern of life, politically and privately, that privileges the good of the community over the prosperity of the person. And guess what? They actually eschew legislating mortality. What the what? You mean if you don’t create a perplexing and contradictory codex of morality laws, civilization will not crumble?

So, Betsy and I are rapidly preparing to trade in our cars for bicycles, leave the sunshine state for a country soaked by over 200 days a year of rain in search of another, possibly better way of life, where teachers are highly valued professionals, the common good outweighs personal profit and gay marriage is just plain old marriage.

Coming up next: 10 things I will miss about America.