It’s hard to believe that this year marks two big anniversaries in my life as an expat here in the Netherlands. The first being the 10 year anniversary of this very blog (that took place in March) and the second being today; the 15 year anniversary of the day I first arrived in The Netherlands… I think it is finally time to admit that I live here now.
It’s also funny to think how much of the life I now have in The Netherlands is down to a single, unintentional fluke. As most of my long term readers will already know, I never intended to move to The Netherlands. I never even intended to move out of London. I came here purely by accident. I’ve already written about that strange story before so I won’t go into too much detail here but the short version is I applied for a job without realizing it was in another country. I didn’t find out what I had done until I was invited for the interview in Amsterdam but I went along with it anyway. I got offered the job, accepted and moved to the Netherlands. It is the best thing that ever happened to me.
It didn’t always feel like that though and as I look back over the last 15 years I think that is an important part of the story to tell, not to bring the mood down but to celebrate how struggling through something difficult can often lead to something great. Maybe this part of my story, which I have never told before, will help other expats who are finding adjusting to a new country difficult. It’s strange to think about it now but there were two very difficult periods in my new Dutch life where I actually hated living in The Netherlands. On both occasions I almost gave up, packed my bags and returned home to England.
The first time I almost gave up was just four days after my arrival, before I’d even started my new job. The nervous excitement of moving to another country had quickly given way to self doubt and loneliness. I was staying in a hotel for the first few days and had rather naively thought it would be easy to extend my stay as needed. I had not realized it was the height of tourist season and everywhere was fully booked. I was going to be hotel-less and homeless by the end of the week. To make matters worse my obvious confusion with the Dutch guilder (yes, I’ve been here that long) had led to me being ripped off in a Chinese restaurant and losing a big part of my budget. I started to wonder; had I really wanted to move to the Netherlands or had I just done it because I thought I should? I suddenly felt like I had made a huge mistake and all I wanted to do was go home. I even got as far as buying a plane ticket.
I was too ashamed to phone my parents and tell them how I felt. I didn’t know what to say to them and I was having a hard time admitting my failure to myself. Luckily I phoned a good friend first and when I told him my plan he gave me what is probably the best advice I have ever received in my life. It is a piece of advice that I have been giving to other newly arrived expats ever since to help them when they are feeling lonely, confused, homesick and vulnerable.
“Don’t be an f***ing idiot! You can leave any time you like. Why give up before you’ve had a chance to find out if you really don’t like it.”
I usually leave the f-ing idiot part out when I’m giving this advice to others.
It might sound strange but for me the idea that I could leave anytime I liked suddenly gave me a safety net. Why did I have to leave straight away if I could leave any time I liked? I still had a few more days at the hotel. My new job started in two days. Why not give it a go for a bit and then decide? I’m very happy I did.
Very quickly things got better. I started the job and they found a place for me to stay (which was lovely even if it did have a few strange Dutch quirks). A few weeks went by and then a few months. I started to enjoy my life in The Netherlands. I made a few friends, started exploring the night life of Amsterdam and got to know the city a little better. Everything turned around because I gave it a chance to and opened myself up to the possibility that it could. I was very happy…
…until three years later when I found myself in a dark place again. The honeymoon was over. I had grown frustrated with living in a country where I didn’t understand anything that was going on around me. I’d tried to learn the language but had failed miserably. It just seemed too damn hard. The problems became blown out of all proportions in my head. It started affecting other things in my life. I was not enjoying my job, I was not going out as much anymore and I was not on the best terms with my flat mate. I was angry and I was frustrated. I hated the Netherlands and I just wanted to go home again… And then the strangest thing happened to turn it all around for me. I broke my ankle.
My anger had led to a night of heavy drinking at the office Christmas party and a fall which I still (to this day) cannot remember. I didn’t realize that I had broken it at the time. In my drunk and confused state I spend the night lost and stumbling around Amsterdam on my freshly broken ankle (trying to find a way home to Haarlem). I still only have flashes of memory from that night. I somehow ended up in parts of the city that I have not been able to find since.
Luckily I eventually made it home in the early morning once the trains started running again. As I’d sobered up I’d started to notice my foot was hurting and when I discovered that my ankle had swollen up like a balloon I quickly went to the hospital. It was while I hobbled around on crutches for the next two months with my ankle in a cast (that left me unable to scratch my foot) that I realized something; if I can survive in The Netherlands like this, everything else is easy. I also realized that I was damn lucky I didn’t get myself killed that night. It’s a very strange epiphany to have but breaking my ankle was the best thing that could have ever happened to me at that point in my life.
I am very happy that I stayed, fought through the home sickness, the cultural confusion and the language misunderstandings. I am very happy that my friend called me an f-ing idiot on the phone and I am over the moon that I broke my ankle because if none of those things had ever happened I might never have stayed in the country. I would never have taken a chance and gone out on a date with a Dutch girl I met online. I would have never fallen in love with her, married her and had two amazing children with her. I owe all of that to a mistake, an accident and someone calling me an f-ing idiot.
I might be extremely accident prone but some of the best things in my life have come out of that. Not just the big, grand, amazing life changing things that have made me very happy but all the funny little situations that have filled my 15 years in the Netherlands with adventure.
I’ve almost been arrested by the Dutch police, I’ve ended up bleeding in a Dutch police station (which are surprisingly two unrelated stories) and I’ve discovered that for the first eight years of my life in the Netherlands I was not actually legally living in the Netherlands (but this anniversary still counts). I’ve spent four hours trapped in an elevator, I got a fake sun tan that made me look like Zwarte Piet and I’ve sent mixed signals during gay pride. I’ve received lessons in manners from a drug dealer, my poor Dutch has led people to believe I was mentally handicapped (but at least they thought I was Dutch) and I’ve been mistaken for a pimp more than once.
London will always be my home and a huge part of my identity but now the Netherlands is too. I grew up in London but I also grew up in the Netherlands and became the person I am today. If you’d stopped the nervous 21 year old me as I boarded that British Airways flight 15 years ago, took me aside and told me that everything was going to be fine and that I’d get married to an amazingly smart, funny and beautiful Dutch woman, have two amazing children, call the Netherlands home and be extremely happy I would have thought you were mad. Plus you would have probably caused a major time paradox so it’s probably best to just let things run their natural course.
I sometimes wonder; if I had accidently moved to any other country than the Netherlands 15 years ago would I still be there today? It’s a hard question to answer because I now can’t imagine myself living in any other country than The Netherlands (especially a country without Stroopwafels). Thank you to all my Dutch readers for letting me call your country home.
This story ended up being a lot longer than I originally planned but it was important for me to share it. I hope that it might one day help someone else who is finding it hard living in another country from the one they were born in. It can be difficult but it can get better.
At the moment I can’t ever imagine myself leaving the Netherlands. I think I am here to stay. I am happy here.
And maybe in another 15 years I will have finally mastered the Dutch language…or not.