Ask Allison: Bad Days Abroad


When I first moved to Europe some 28 years ago, I struggled. I was young, hip, and daring and chose this step myself.  Yet I found myself making cultural faux-pas, struggling with the language and being ultimately homesick.

On a great day, I would sit in a café with a friend, sipping my drink, feeling intrepid — I owned the world and was proud of all of my adventures. Then, out of the blue, I would stumble on a silly challenge that would throw me:

  • a postal worker who scolded me
  • a shop owner who asks me, "How can you stand being American with your President?" (As if I have a personal impact on Washington D.C.)
  • a doctor who lectures me on how his health care system is the best, and I should be happy he is not giving me the medicine I am begging him for to relieve my symptoms

Any of these things could and have sent me into a fury. Whenever this happens, all I want to do is go home.

My trick all of these years is... I do just that; I go home. Okay so my home is down the block, but I shut the curtains, call a girlfriend or my Mom and just pretend I am in my bedroom somewhere else. I find a good book and take the day or evening off from my life abroad. It’s my own little virtual reality.

The saying “my home is my castle” has taken on a new meaning. My home is not only my castle — it is my haven.


Ask Allison: I’m Bored.

Dear Allison,

I'm bored. I know I will be going back, so I don't want a full-time job in my career field. I'd like to work part-time or get involved in a project or venture —something new. How can I re-invent myself while I'm here?

—Bored in Amsterdam

Dear Bored in Amsterdam,

I understand what you're going through. After the first excitement, visits to museums and trips, your days might get long. I don't know what you did or what you want to do, but regardless, these pointers apply to everyone:

  • Find something you are passionate about and create your job. That way you can make it part-time and be in power of what you do.
  • If you don't know what your passion is, start a project with someone; it may lead to another project or job.
  • Volunteer. It's a great way to try new things and possibly discover a talent or passion. The AWCA and schools have a lot of opportunities for volunteering.
  • Take a class or workshop in something you've never had time for, such as painting, photography, art history, language (see Learn Dutch, below), cooking, dancing — whatever!
  • Look for a part-time job. There are plenty out there. If you don't know what you want to do, start attending professional workshops and seminars, dabbling in new things.
  • Start talking about it, so people know you are looking. Ask advice and invite others who have re-invented themselves for a coffee. Ask them how they are doing and how they did it.
  • Learn Dutch. Practice everywhere you go and don't give up. Once you speak Dutch, other possibilities will open up and finding a job might be easier. It will always look good on your CV.

When you hear yourself thinking, "Hey, I could do that," you know you're getting warm. Start exploring the possibilities. Remember that failing is part of re-inventing. You might have to try a few things along the way before you find the right fit. Believe me, I know; I have reinvented myself more than once.

Try not to worry about the money. If you've been out of the workforce for awhile, or you are starting in a new field, you'll need to ease back in. If you're thinking, "I'm not getting paid what I'm worth," stop. It's never a waste to try new things. Eventually, you may earn money, but if not, ask yourself if it matters. The real reward during your time here is growth. And that always looks good on your CV.

It's never too late to learn something or start a new career. Just get going.

Good luck, Bored in Amsterdam. You are not alone.

Old and New Friends: Finding Time

by Allison Ochs
New expats often ask, "How can I find the time to keep my old friends back home and also find new friends here?"

Unfortunately, this is part of being an expat. When I went home for the very first time, I remember not having fun with my friends. These were my high school girlfriends; I loved them, but I became bored. As I walked into my parent's house, the door slammed behind me, "Ali, how was it?" I slumped onto the couch. "They've changed!" My mom sighed, "No, they are the same; you've changed."  I follow them on Facebook and every five years or so I take the time to see one of them and realize: we will always have high school.

True friends will love you even after you've taken a leave of absence. They will get your stories, care, laugh and cry with you. I saw one friend after an eight-year break. It was as if we had never separated. I know I can go to her anytime, I am always welcome, and she will love me even if I don't call. Now that is a friend. Ask yourself: how many friends you do have time for?  Let go of thinking you need to hang on to all of your friends. If you have to work to remain friends, they aren't friends. Real friends love you and will let you soar while they wait for you to come back, loving you the entire time. Those are the only friends you should care about losing, and here's the best part: you won't lose them.

Two other pieces of advice:

— Don't spend all your time here playing tour guide or hotel for your friends. If you are in the mood for them to come and it’s convenient, that’s great. If not, just say “no,” or tell them, "Sure, you can come, but this is when I have time." If your free time here is taken up seeing the same sights over and over, you will never have the opportunity to make new friends: to make new friends, you need to experience life where you live.

— Don't spend your entire time Stateside just visiting people. Do whatever you want to do. Don't feel obliged. If they care about you, they will make an effort to come to you. If they don’t, either they don't care or they are just caught up in their professions and kids, and it will sort itself out in due time.

The Complaint Club

by Allison Ochs, Social Worker (M.S.W.), Coach
When I put my kids in the local schools in Europe, there was one thing looming over me that I loved to complain about: lunch! My mom used to joke, "I do dinner and breakfast, but I don't do lunch." I grew up hearing this and took on her mantra. I remember my meals at school, the smell of the overfilled cafeteria, the peanut butter finger desserts, giggling with my friends, running to recess, exchanging food, learning to be social. I was just horrified that my kids would not have this experience.

I spent years whining and complaining to family and with friends about having to pick them up, cook for them and drop them back at school. I stood with other foreign mothers in the parking lot complaining at pick-up and drop-off. We dreamed of a cafeteria. Then one eventually opened in our village. I just about threw a party, but was promptly told, "You can only sign your kids up two days of the week; those are our rules."  I threw another little fit. Oh, how I wanted to have the day to myself.

A few years ago we put our two youngest into an international school. Do you know what I miss most about their old school? The lunches at home! The crazy thing is I spent all this time fighting against the culture, complaining about it I didn't even realize I was loving it. During the lunch break, we talked, cuddled, worked on homework and had downtime. Sometimes the kids invited friends over, and I got to know their friends.

Sometimes you don't realize how good something is until you don't have it. Complaining in a foreign country just becomes second nature — something we do. I hear it all the time and am guilty of hanging out with girlfriends and doing just that. I try not to complain, to embrace the moment and I think I have gotten better over all the years. But I am human, and living in a foreign country has its moments — both the good and the bad. Just think, the thing you hate the most might just become the thing you'll miss when you leave. On a side note, I think the complaint club exists all over the world; it's best to identify it and realize when you are taking part.

Raise Your Kids the Dutch Way?

by Allison Ochs, Social Worker M.S.W. , Coach

Good morning, Amsterdam!

Of all the cities I've lived in, Amsterdam is the most expat-friendly. Therefore, I understand why so many expats want to follow the “Dutch way” of raising kids without thinking about what that means.

I was asked this week as a social worker and parent coach what I noticed and what my advice would be…

1. If you're coming from the U.S., your kids will not be used to the freedom the Dutch teens have. Don't rush into thinking you understand what it involves to be a “Dutch” teen because your kids have not had years of training walking and biking to school, going out, and learning their limits in this culture. Take care to talk to locals and take it step by step, giving freedom slowly; otherwise, your kids might spin out of control, be lost in what is right or wrong or get into trouble.

2. Although this experience might have moments that seem like the most fabulous party for you and your husband — almost as if you were revisiting your youth or on your second honeymoon — your kids need you. Staying in with them on a weekend evening, doing activities together, experiencing it with them is part of it. I know I sound boring but believe me: they do.

3. You and your kids will change through this adventure; it is unavoidable. Talk to them about what you are feeling, how your opinions are changing, what's shocking you and listen to their stories. It’s important to be on this journey with them, not parallel to them. Don't be shocked if they start changing their views on bigger issues such as politics, homosexuality, sexuality, drinking, and drugs.

Every family will have their own variation of norms, and there is a vast spectrum of right. You must find the and rules that fit best for your family. If you're in this together as a family, it will be a fuller expat experience. The stories you'll have, the laughs, the struggles, the friends you'll make will stay with you for life. Your family will become stronger and closer than you can imagine. So wake up every morning and embrace the day with a stretch and a loud, "Good morning, Amsterdam! What surprises and adventures will you bring me today?”