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!