Bad Days Abroad


by Allison Ochs, M.S.W
Edit Change Management

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.

Bored in Amsterdam

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W
Edit Change Management

After the excitement of moving to Amsterdam fades and visits to museums and trips begin to dwindle, boredom may set in and your days here might get long. I know exactly how you feel.

Why not use your time abroad to work part-time in a new field, get involved in a project or venture, learn something new, or even reinvent yourself? Here are a few pointers to get you going:

  • 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 reinventing. 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. You are not alone.

Beyond Germany: Five Must-Visit Christmas Markets 

Kleber Square, Strasbourg, France

by Jennifer van Lent

Everyone knows about the legendary German Christmas markets - glühwein and feuerzangenbowle, the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store, bratwurst and currywurst stalls. For my family, Christmas isn't the same without visiting Bonn, Cologne or one of the many German markets located within driving distance of the Amsterdam area.

However, over the years, we have started to travel further afield during the holiday season, and we have discovered some amazing locations outside of Germany which help us get into the holiday spirit. I hope you find inspiration for a future trip and enjoy the mini-tour of — drumroll, please— my top five places to visit during the Christmas season.

Step back in time in Matera, Italy  

Many of you might be asking, "what and where is Matera"? While Matera in Basilicata (and I'll add Lecce, in Puglia) aren't the first cities that spring to mind for a Christmas location, I have included this UNESCO World Heritage Site as a must-visit due to the incredible Living Nativity Matera Edition presentation in the ancient Sasso district of Matera. Hosted by the city of Matera during December, over 400 volunteers re-enact the Nativity story in a setting which evokes ancient Bethlehem. It is an amazing and surreal experience to walk through the sassi (stone houses) of the ancient city. Christmas markets are located around town and also in towns across the region (ie. Lecce in Puglia). My husband and I stayed at the wonderful Locanda di San Martino in the Sasso Barisano. You need at least four days to visit and explore this hidden treasure of Italy. The easiest way to get there is to fly to either Bari or Brindisi and rent a car to drive an hour to Matera. This is a Christmas experience you will never forget.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus - and he's in Helsinki

Helsinki is an off-the-beaten-path location for traveling at Christmas. With various markets - including a big Christmas market - located throughout the city, it is the only place where I have actually visited an outdoor fur market. Which - if you think about it - is logical in Finland. Add snow and cold, beautiful harbors and majestic buildings which mirror the architecture of classic St Petersburg, Russia and you have a perfect December holiday destination. The bonus when I visited in December: I actually did meet Santa Claus as he and Mrs. Claus arrived at the airport and were greeted by local television crews. My favorite place to stay is the Hilton Helsinki Strand.

Fun for Kids: Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

London is a great city to visit any time of year, but at Christmas, one highlight for children from two to 92 is Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. It has it all in one location: ice skating, an ice bar (adults only!), attractions, beer tents, a Christmas circus....the list goes on. Once you have tired of the Hyde Park crowds (yes, it is crowded!), there are 101 other Christmas markets and holiday activities to keep you busy in the City of Dickens.

It's better in Budapest

Budapest is one of the must-visit cities for millennials right now, and during the holiday season, you can see why it is top of the list. The Christmas Market on Vorosmarty Square (the main square) has its own unique Hungarian feel - fabulous handmade items and local crafts, great holiday delicacies, concerts, light shows, performances and more. The city is decked with holiday charm, dining is amazing (and often surprisingly affordable) and - if you are lucky - you might be able to soak in one of the famous outdoor spas under falling snow. It is an easy weekend destination: my favorite hotel is the Boscolo Budapest, but you can find a host of locations at any price range.

Seasonal serenity in Strasbourg 

Strasbourg at Christmas is high on my "Christmas market x-factor" list for many reasons:

  • the markets continue to Dec 30 (German Christmas markets usually end on the 23rd);
  • It's an easy drive or train ride (via a connection in either Cologne or Paris); and
  • with Strasbourg hosting its first Christmas market in the 12th century, it is one of the oldest, ongoing Christmas market towns in Europe

....and of course, the food and wine are just SO great!

Explore over 300 chalets and 20+ markets across the city. Every year, there is a "guest country" market which highlights its unique holiday traditions: this year, the host country is Iceland. Our family loved staying at the funky, half-timbered Hotel de L'Europe.

Old and New Friends: Finding Time

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W

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.

Thanksgiving Turkeys in The Netherlands

by Jennifer van Lent
Photo by Alison Marras on Unsplash

Haarlem area members have a secret for roasting the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. Instead of the hassle of basting the turkey every hour, worrying whether it's ready to serve or has been roasting too long, ask your butcher (or in Dutch, "slager") to roast it for you! 

Many years ago, I stumbled upon (the hard way!) how to serve the perfect turkey. I was celebrating my first Thanksgiving in the Netherlands with family and friends and ordered a beautiful, free-range turkey from her local slager, Rob. When I arrived home with the bird, I discovered it was too big for my oven! So Slager Rob saved the day: he roasted the turkey, filled with my homemade stuffing, in his roaster at the butcher shop. The result was a beautiful, tasty turkey without any of the fuss. Since then, each year Slagerij Rob has roasted turkeys for my Thanksgiving dinner, and his business has expanded to other area members.

His English is great, and don't forget to mention you are an American celebrating Thanksgiving. After roasting perfect turkeys for so many years, Rob has a soft spot in his heart for our holiday! Slagerij Rob has been roasting Thanksgiving turkeys for Haarlem members for 17 years and has shops in Badhoevedorp and Zwanenburg (plus a large catering business). Ask for Rob when you call: 020 822 2911. 

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.

Should You Raise Your Kids the Dutch Way?

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W. 

Edit Change Management 

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?”

A Postcard from Back Home

by June Vine

Three weeks ago, hard to believe, we marked four years back home after five years in the Netherlands. Expat life, as brilliant and intoxicating as it was, has begun to recede further into the corners of my memory, like when you can no longer remember the name of that college boyfriend who seemed so right for you at the time but just a tad not enough to walk the path of life with. So, I began to wander mentally back through those years a bit tentatively, like Little Red Riding Hood through the woods in search of Grandma's house: what might I rediscover along the way?

Back in those days when we were expats, days that seem farther and farther away with each passing day, on an August evening like tonight I would have been doing one of the following: 1) Sitting alone downstairs back in our dreary Amstelveen rental, wide awake from jet lag at 2 a.m., thinking of what needed to be done before school started and listening to the snoring from above, pouty that my husband could sleep so soundly when I couldn't; 2) at Logan Airport, about to board that 9 p.m. overnight non-stop back that would set us down at Schiphol at 6:30 a.m. in time to pick up some milk and bread from Albert Heijn, make some toast and coffee, and then hit the sack even though we said we wouldn't until night, and missing my parents already; or 3) in some department or grocery store buying the last few American items we believed we couldn't live without for the next year and wondering how many suitcases we'd need.

Those last days of August, years ago, were our routine, but only fun in hindsight: carrying home bags and bags containing every last package of Oreos on the shelf or trying to fit 12 pairs of variously sized extra-wide light-up Sketchers into a suitcase without breaking the 50-pound limit. But there was a feeling of anticipation and eagerness then, because those last hours of August were spent in preparation for the next year of expat life, which, for us, spanned the beginning of school when everyone from everywhere reunited to drop our kids off and then drink coffee, until the next set of goodbyes and departure for home visit, and all the newness that awaited us when we would again return. Every fall, a "new" life coping with the pesky emotion-monopolizing absence of the dear friends who had moved away and around whom routines had formed, meeting new people — some of whom might become even more dear eventually, but not immediately — and the steady unconscious process of metamorphosing into an even more different person from the one who had left home at the beginning of the assignment, as well as the reunions with others who were similarly metamorphosing without realizing it. Those last few days of August seemed to me to feel like what I imagine a locust might feel every time it sheds the current shell and emerges anew. Exhausting, but stimulating at the same time. It was a giddy feeling.

Today, I’m four years into what is a different sort of metamorphosis from expat to ... what? A regular American Joe? (No, just kidding. There is no such thing and, if there were, it would be unattainable for many of us.) Anyway, I haven't figured out that part quite yet as I've yet to break out of my locust shell. As I mentally journey back in time, I now feel, perhaps for the first time, that sense of relief when one can look back and no longer yearn so longingly for the past, but rather look back and enjoy the good memories from the comfort, groundedness, and forward movement of the present. It is kind of like that feeling you get the first time you walk right past the diaper aisle in Target and realize not only do you NOT have to go down that aisle, but you see, for the first time, an aisle you never noticed before. Surprise, at first. Liberating. Exhilarating. Haha! Not only will my red plastic buggy NOT contain a single package of Pampers, it will instead contain a bunch of stuff I never knew I needed but now desperately do because it is so darned cute! Haha! Not only am I NOT buying twelve pairs of Sketchers, I'm not the least bit sad about it. Sounds nuts. Who waxes nostalgic about buying twelve pairs of extra-wide light-up Sketchers? Repats. The first Target-sans-diaper experience. The first re-pat-sans-wistfulness experience. Rites of passage.

We human beings are plastic. I don't mean artificial. I mean we adapt, we change shape. On the outside from too much sneaking of those Oreos that were supposed to be for the kids. On the inside from experiences and relationships. But, not all of us adapt as fast as we might expect. Meanwhile, just like viruses have left behind little bits of their DNA littered among the DNA of all of our ancestors until we ended up with some soup of it all, so do our own experiences leave little bits of their DNA that remain and travel with us. No matter how hard we try, we can't shake that stuff. We can rearrange it. We can try to push it down to the bottom of the drawer under the sweaters like a teenager does her birth control pills Mom doesn't know about, which every now and then annoyingly migrate back up to the surface. Over five years, while this American was an expat in the Netherlands, inside became some amalgamation of bits of experience-DNA from relationships and experiences and impressions. It's all there, hidden somewhere in the sweater drawer.

When I began to write tonight, I wondered. Of course, I miss it. Of course, I'm nostalgic. Of course, I envy you ... you with your fietspads and your lunch concerts at the Concertgebouw and your idyllic afternoons in the Amstelpark. But, it makes me happy to think of you enjoying these things. I hope you enjoy these and much much more as thoroughly as we did.

As for me, this late August evening the sensory receptors in my skin luxuriate in the 100°F soft convection-oven breeze (yes, I know you know it's °F and not °C, but these days I am habituated to this clarification thanks to my huisarts’s assistant who is also responsible for my body of Dutch medical vocabulary), the nearly scalding breeze of the strikingly beautiful American Mojave Desert. The vistas take my breath away the same way the sunlight glinting on the Amstel did years ago. I feel the coldness of an American-style icy Stella slide down my throat, parched from an afternoon of indoor skydiving (where else?), while listening to the sound of my kids splashing in the fountains of the pool. The shiny strip lights up into a carnival rainbow beyond the palm trees. I know that I will be going back from these scrubby Joshua trees silhouetted against the dusky sky and the sculptural rock formations and this gaudy city in my country — where I am not an expat — to the other vastly different end of the very same country that is gradually, at long last, just beginning to feel somewhat like home. To the same house: my own house. To my garden in progress. To our neighborhood shops. To the same townspeople and neighbors and one or two friends. As the same person I was before I got here. Continuity.

What could I say, from this far out, that would be relatable or at the very least mildly interesting to you? But, American women in Amsterdam, we share some of that experience-DNA, something from here, something from the Netherlands, something from the changes, the jet lag, the icy-cold beer or the room-temperature beer, the herring (you have eaten it, haven't you?). If you've never indoor-skydived, I recommend you get some of that experience-DNA, too! Some of you are new to the Netherlands. Some of you are longtimers over there. And, for me, the Netherlands is now part of my history. I'm on this side of that experience, adapting to a new-old home in an old-but-different country.

When we go on vacation, we write postcards about what we see and experience. This is a postcard from the land of repatriation, four years out. I hope whatever experience-DNA we share makes it relatable or at least interesting. Wishing all of you a wonderful year ahead!